“Round Robinson”: The Stras that Broke the Camel’s Back

With Memorial Day in the rear view mirror, I guess I’ll take my crack at the time honored tradition of looking at the best and worst in the fantasy world, specifically my NL East beat. But instead of just pointing out the over- and underperformers (because let’s face it, you probably don’t need me to tell you who is sherking their preseason expectations), we’ll work some actionable consequences in here as well. It doesn’t matter what a player has done to land on this list; it only matters why he’s doing it and, more importantly, if it will continue and how you should appropriately react.

I prefer to stray on the positive side of things, so it only makes sense to start with the division contributors that have put the biggest smiles on our faces. The guys who’ve given us the biggest bang for our collective buck. Unfortunately for those looking for value, when we look at the best contributors in 2015, the names at the top are all too familiar.

CGD9TFvWMAEDtvXThe best pitcher and best hitter in the NL East both call the nation’s capital home, and both were top 35 picks in April. Max Scherzer has (quietly?) been everything I expected when I picked him to win the NL Cy Young. He leads all of MLB in strikeouts and has made the biggest and best contribution to ERA and WHIP (according to ESPN’s Player Rater). Needless to say, I’m all in for the magic carpet ride to continue. Scherzer’s still posting his typical 10+ K/9 rate (10.67), but it’s the improved control that has him entering a new stratosphere.

He’s cut his already good BB/9 rate in half this season to a miniscule 1.26, meaning he’s striking out eight batters for every walk he’s allowing (fourth in MLB). He’s also cut his HR/9 to a measly 0.38, by far the lowest of his career. If you’re looking for any chinks in the armor, the strand rate is a career high 82.2%. But with these superb peripherals, there’s no reason to think Scherzer can’t keep that up. Combined with the fall from grace of Clayton Kershaw, it’s safe to say there’s a changing of the guard atop the NL pitching ranks. I’m not selling Scherzer unless I’m desperate for offense and get blown away by a deal. He’s that good.

On the hitting side, it’s no surprise that Bryce Harper is lapping the field. I’m not surprised to see him dominating opposing pitching like this. It was bound to happen at some point. I am, however, surprised it’s come this early in his career. Entering 2015 injury free probably has something to do with it, but everything’s going right for Harper in his age-22 season. If you need proof, check out the pop up he hit Tuesday night against the Cubs. The right gust of wind at the right time took what should’ve been a lazy fly ball and turned it into Harper’s 17th home run of the young season.

bryce-harper-chocolateI’m not sure if Harper’s big numbers are a result of him learning to take a walk or vice versa, but I’m happy to see that big fat 21% BB-rate after a couple seasons of single digits. His power totals make sense considering he’s got a hard contact rate of 42.0% (+9.1% vs. career rate) and a pull rate of 47.3% (+10.6% vs. career rate). He’s driving the ball with more regularity and it shows.

But I’m not sold. Rather, I am selling. I won’t insult you with any “he can’t keep this pace up” obviousness. I can’t say too many believe he’ll make it to 50 HR. In fact, ZiPS and Steamer both agree he’s only hitting 20 more the rest of the year. Now, that’s still a 38-HR season and nothing to sneeze at, but I don’t trust that massively unsustainable 36.7% HR/FB rate, nearly double his career average. It should be noted that both of those projections have Harper playing in a total of less than 140 games. He has yet to reach the 140-game plateau, so the hesitancy is valid. If I can move Harper for equitable value in categories I need help in, this is the time to do it.

Certainly, if you need Harper’s power, you keep him. But if you’re flush with mashers, swapping him for speed or pitching could net you a hefty return. In a 1-for-1 deal, no starting pitcher should be off limits, although it might be a tough sell to get the Scherzer or Felix Hernandex owner to bite. If you need speed, a Harper-for-Altuve deal looks promising provided the Altuve owner covets your excess pop. Odds are though, a package of players in return for Bryce could be your best option. A solid example could be Harper for Dee Gordon and Jake Arrieta or something in that neighborhood.

Speaking of Dee Gordon, his outstanding start might be the most pleasant surprise in the division from a hitting standpoint. On the pitching side, as much fun as the Mets’ rotation has been to own, the single best story has to be that of Shelby Miller. If you’re looking for a deep breakdown of their future outlook, you’re in luck as they are two of the players I’ve spotlighted in recent weeks. Rather than rehash the arguments, I recommend you check out my expose of Dee Gordon here, and Shelby Miller here. Nothing they’ve done as of late has changed my mind on just how promising the rest of their 2015 campaigns should be.

Sadly, for every good story, there is a tale of turmoil waiting to be unearthed. In the NL East, there have been a few players who have disappointed mightily. Some are due to injury (Anthony Rendon, David Wright). Some are due to ignorance (Jenrry Mejia). But one takes the cake. Far and away the most disappointing name in the division, and possibly in all of fantasy.

In my preseason pitcher ranks, I had Stephen Strasburg at #7. Ahead of Bumgarner. Ahead of Greinke. Ahead of Gray, Shields, Cole, etc. As of today, Strasburg and his 6.50 ERA don’t even rank inside the top 1200 in the Yahoo! game. To put that in perspective, there’s only 750 active players in all of Major League Baseball at a given time. Saying the former #1 pick has been lousy would be an understatement. He needs to toss a gem in his next start just to approach lousy.

628x471Based on early returns, the odds of that happening are somewhere south of “slim” and hovering barely over “none”. But people have been screaming buy low on Strasburg for over a month now with still no signs of that coming to fruition. In nine turns this year, he’s only had one quality start and that came against the Phillies at home, as much of a gimme as you can have. Of course, that same Philly squad lit him up for six runs in 3.2 IP on May 23rd, so even that’s not a guaranteed matchup.

The numbers all say that Strasburg has been wildly unlucky. His .390 BABIP is the highest in baseball. Conversely, His 57.8% strand rate is the lowest in baseball. He’s still striking out over a batter per inning and the BB-rate is lower than it was in 2012 and 2013. Strasburg’s allowing a little over one home run per nine innings, but even that is only a small jump. Even the velocity is right in line with last year’s numbers. Sure sounds like a buy low opportunity.

(Time to drop another Lee Corso on you) Not so fast my friend. Yes, I do think Strasburg will improve as the season goes on, but my guess is that buying low on him now, even when his value is this low, won’t end up turning you much of a profit, if one at all. I’d guess that, at minimum, you’re going to have to give up a top-100 asset for him and probably closer to top-75. His track record and upside have earned him that much staying power.

Mark my words, Strasburg won’t recoup that value in 2015.

Opposing batters have a contact rate of 84.4% this season, over 8% higher than his career average. This is in part because Strasburg is throwing more pitches in the strike zone than he ever has before (51.4% vs. 45.2% career average). The other side is that when Strasburg misses the zone, he’s not missing bats. Hitters have a contact rate outside the strike zone of 74.6%, nearly a 15% increase over his career rate.

What all those numbers add up to is the most damning statistic of all. Strasburg is known for missing bats, plain and simple. From 2012-2014, his 11.0% swinging strike percentage was good enough for 10th among all qualified starters. It’s been another story this season. Strasburg is missing bats only 7.2% of the time batters take a rip. That’s right down there with such luminaries as Eric Stults and Brett Anderson. Yikes.

yankees-nationals-baseballNaturally, with more frequent contact usually comes better contact. Strasburg’s line drive percentage is jacked up over 26% this year, and he’s not helped by some shoddy defense behind him (looking at you, Ian Desmond).

With all this information, you could lean either way. My advice: Steer clear unless you’re absolutely desperate. The upside of adding Strasburg to a struggling staff is appealing, but I’m not a believer that this turnaround is as simple as some might suggest. As I mentioned earlier, the entry price into the Strasburg sweepstakes is too rich for my blood. While you may go searching for an ace in the pile, my cards have already gone into the muck.

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