In fantasy baseball, owners can often spends weeks or months preparing for the draft. Many will pore over websites and lists and spreadsheets and forums and magazines for hours upon hours to ensure they make the right choices. But once draft day comes and goes, what’s next?
As the saying goes, you can’t win your league during the draft. The moves owners make during the season are the ones that will determine who wins. The art to winning at fantasy baseball is being able to determine who should be added to a roster and should be bypassed. In order to do that, an owner needs to be able to tell if someone is for real or not.
This weekly column will focus on some pitchers who have recently thrown their hats into the ring for consideration. These pitchers will be available in many leagues, and we’ll dig a little deeper to determine whether you should be picking these guys up or leaving them be.Editor's note: Get 50% off any MLB Premium Pass. Draft guide, cheat sheets, 200 days of DFS access, and over 20 premium tools. Dominate your leagues all year long! Sign Up Now!
The Starting Pitching Jury Is Out
James Shields, Chicago White Sox
2016 Stats: 181.2 IP, 5.85 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 135 K (6.69 K/9), 82 BB (4.06 BB/9)
April 16, 2017 at Minnesota: 6.0 IP, 1.50 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 5 K (7.50 K/9), 3 BB (4.50 BB/9)
It's the resurgence of James Shields! Er, not so fast. Shields is a former ace whose fall from grace has been swift and total. His atrocious 2016 season followed a mixed 2015 season that featured the best strikeout rate of his career, a 13-7 record, and a horrendous 1.33 WHIP that acted as a precursor to the trouble ahead. In 2017, Shields' surface stats seem pretty solid. A 1.62 ERA and 1.14 WHIP are drawing fantasy owners like the siren's song, but as many a sailor has learned, one should be suspicious of things that seem too good to be true.
On the 16th of April, Shields faced off against the surprisingly improved Twins. Again, on the surface, it seemed like a fine outing. The Twins had a lefty-heavy lineup, and Shields did a good job of staying outside throughout the outing, especially against the lefties. On the day, Shields only threw two pitches inside to lefties, and he only gave up one hit to a lefty on a pitch in the strike zone. That level of control is impressive and invaluable against such a lineup. It certainly helped that one of those lefties was the perennially struggling Byron Buxton, who was nice enough to strike out with the bases loaded in the 4th inning. The only extra-base hit Shields surrendered was of the rarest variety, an inside-the-park home run. Brian Dozier provided the swing, and as with most inside-the-parkers, this one came about through a fluke. The ball was well hit, but it caromed off the glove of Jacob May and the wall in such a fashion as to let Dozier keep running. Overall, it was just fine.
Underneath, there were some points of concern. While Shields did a fine job of keeping the ball away from hitters, he also went a little above and beyond and struggled to keep the ball in the zone when it mattered, only putting 40.2% of his pitches in the strike zone. Also, while he's clearly on the decline in his career, his velocity was down even more than usual on the 16th. After averaging 91.1 MPH on his fastball in his first two starts, Shields averaged just 89.2 MPH on it in this outing. As a single data point, it's not a cause for too much concern, but it's not ideal to see a velocity decrease in April. For comparison, Shields averaged 91.9 MPH on it in April 2015 and 90.1 MPH in April 2016. If owners are hoping for a repeat of 2015, this isn't a good sign.
When one expands the analysis to all of April 2017, the slightly worrying signs become flashing danger beacons. When looking at his peripherals, it becomes obvious that Shields isn't just due for a correction. He's due for the mother of all corrections. His BABIP is .150, way below average. Only 27.9% of the balls put in play against him are hit on the ground. He's walking 5.4 guys per nine innings. All of those things point to bad times ahead, but the crème de la crème is that he has stranded every single runner that has been on base against him. His LOB% is 100%. That is actually astounding.
James Shields' success is absolutely not for real. Through some of the luckiest breaks imaginable, Shields has strung three pretty good starts together and lured owners in, but his 1.62 ERA is a mirage. His FIP is 5.15, and it is much more indicative of the type of pitcher Shields should be expected to be moving forward. Running him out there, even in a streaming situation, is a death-defying move.
Luis Severino, New York Yankees
2016 Stats: 71.0 IP, 5.83 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 66 K (8.37 K/9), 25 BB (3.17 BB/9)
April 13, 2017 vs. Tampa: 7.0 IP, 2.57 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 11 K (14.14 K/9), 1 BB (1.29 BB/9)
Luis Severino is another post-hype sleeper, but he's only 23 years-old. Severino sparkled in 2015 in Triple-A as a 21 year-old, so he got his first taste of major league action that year as well. He looked excellent as he posted a 2.89 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. He had a strong strikeout rate, but he mostly lived off an elite ground-ball rate of 50.3%, a number that would have put him in the top-20 in the league if he had pitched enough innings. 2016 was expected to be his coming-out party, but instead, he flopped. His ERA skyrocketed to 5.83, his WHIP ballooned to 1.45, and it was mostly due to hitters teeing off on his fastball. The pitch went from being worth 1.2 runs above average in 62.1 innings in 2015 to being worth -7.0 runs above average in 71.0 innings in 2016. His slider and change-up showed small growth, but with a fastball that easy to hit, he wasn't going to see much success unless something else came along in a big way. So far in 2017, something has, and he showcased it against the Rays.
When facing Tampa on the 13th, Severino's game-plan was almost identical to the one he used for the majority of last season. In 2016, 58.0% of his pitches were fastballs, 34.2% were sliders, and 7.8% were change-ups. Against the Rays in this start, 57.7% were fastballs, 31.7% were sliders, and 10.6% were change-ups. However, the key wasn't how often he threw the pitches, but how effective they were. And his slider was devastating. While Severino only got a swinging strike 10.6% of the time in this start overall, 18.2% of the time that he threw his slider, it drew a whiff. His fastball still hasn't been playing well as it's already at -2.8 runs above average after just two outings, but his slider is picking up the slack by sitting at 2.9 runs above average in 2017. In fact, six of his strikeouts against Tampa came from sliders that were buried low and outside against right-handed hitters. Severino's slider has become a true out pitch.
Luis Severino is for real, but he comes with caveats. He pitches in the AL East, he's prone to giving up homers, he pitches in one of the most homer-friendly stadiums in the league, and he's completely dependent on one pitch, his slider. There's no real cure for the first three issues, and the fourth one can make for a lot of problems from outing to outing. If his slider's on, he can be absolutely dominant, but that can be a huge if. There will be days where he gets a tight strike zone and has to put it in a more hittable location, there will be days where it's just not working, and there are hitters who can simply hit sliders well. Short relievers can get away with depending on a combination of a mediocre fastball and killer slider because they don't have to see guys multiple times, but it remains to be seen if Severino's can be good enough to get him through lineups regularly. However, even with all those caveats, Severino's improvement is undeniable. He should be owned in most leagues, but his owners should prepare for some growing pains.