Champ or Chump: Sonny Gray & Yu Darvish

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The Trade Deadline dust has finally settled, leaving a brand new fantasy landscape in its wake. Jonathan Lucroy will try to rebuild his fantasy value at altitude, so he should be a Champ over the rest of the season despite his struggles. Alex Avila becomes a Chump with the Cubs, as he remains in the backup role that limited his usefulness in Detroit.

Justin Wilson and Addison Reed both become Chumps by virtue of losing saves, and one of Sean Doolittle and Brandon Kintzler will join them now that they share a bullpen. Reed's departure boosts A.J. Ramos to Champ status, and Brad Hand staying put makes him a clear Champ as San Diego's closer.

Of course, two starting pitchers have commanded more headlines than anybody above. Sonny Gray departs the Oakland A's for the Bronx, with many anointing him a borderline fantasy ace at his new address. The Dodgers completed a last minute deal for Yu Darvish, enticing fantasy owners with what the Japanese ace can do in the NL. What can fantasy owners expect from these studs for the rest of the year?

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Sonny Gray (SP, NYY) 87% Owned

Gray has been roughly league average this season, compiling a 6-5 record with a 3.43 ERA (3.29 xFIP) in Oakland. The Yankees have a much better offense, defense, and bullpen than the Athletics do, so many have been quick to proclaim that Gray will be outstanding for his new team. That result is far from a foregone conclusion, however.

Part of Gray's fantasy viability this season is a K% spike, from 18.2% last year to 23.5% this season. His career K% is 20.9%, so something would need to change for Gray to sustain this new level. He hasn't made any massive repertoire changes, with the largest being an increase in sinker usage (27% to 32.5%). The pitch's SwStr% is 13.2%, significantly higher than its 6.8% career mark. Its Zone% is down slightly (49% vs. 51.1% career), but not enough to support a huge SwStr% change. The pitch has also lost velocity relative to last season (93.5 mph vs. 92.3 mph), so hitters are unlikely to continue to struggle against it.

The one K pitch Gray has always had is his slider. It has a 22.1% SwStr% and 46.4% chase rate this season, numbers in keeping with its career marks of 19.9% and 44.9% respectively. Its Zone% has plummeted to 20.8% from a career mark of 34.3%, however, suggesting that Gray is burying it more than he used to. If he keeps doing this, it may become an automatic take for any batter who can recognize it out of Gray's hand.

Gray throws a few other pitches, but none of them are that good. His 4-seamer's Zone% is down to 50.4% (career 52%), hurting its ability to set up the slider. His change is effectively a slower fastball, as its 52.5% Zone% is solid while its 8.9% SwStr% and 25% chase rate are incredibly poor for a secondary offering. Finally, his curve serves no practical purpose (11.1% SwStr%, 28.2% Zone%, 36.3% Zone%). Overall, Gray's K% will probably decline by at least a couple of points with his new team.

Gray's 64.6% strand rate is a little unlucky, but his .285 BABIP against cancels it out. There are reasons for BABIP suppression beyond luck, but Gray doesn't have the benefit of any of them. Fly balls have lower BABIPs than grounders, so an effective fly ball specialist can sustain lower than average BABIPs. Gray is an extreme ground ball guy (56.7% GB%), so flies do not suppress his BABIP. His IFFB% is also a career low 3.3%, suggesting that there is no knack for BABIP-friendly pop-ups here.

A pitcher can also limit his BABIP by controlling the contact quality he allows, and Gray is doing this to a degree with an average exit velocity on the ground of 81.7 mph. That mark is more good than great though, and Gray does not have an established history of maintaining it (87.8 mph last year, 86.7 when he was last healthy in 2015.) Furthermore, his 93.3 average airborne exit velocity is higher than average. This is supported by Gray's history (94.2 mph last year, 92.7 in 2015), so Gray has never been a contact wizard.

An elite defense can keep an arm's BABIP low, but Oakland has been anything but. Gray's strong ground ball tendency means that we can focus primarily on the infield defense behind him. Gray himself has -3 DRS, a terrible total considering his limited defensive innings. Oakland third baseman Matt Chapman has compiled 10 DRS, and 2B Jed Lowrie has almost been scratch at -1. Yonder Alonso has compiled an atrocious -9 at first base, however, and three shortstops (Adam Rosales, Marcus Semien, and Franklin Barreto) have combined for an even worse -11.

The subpar glovework above helps Oakland rank dead last in DRS at -49, while the Yankees rank 16th with -3. Surely the defensive upgrade will negate some of the BABIP regression, right? Wrong! All of New York's best defenders are outfielders, with the tandem of Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Brett Gardner combining for 19 DRS. This gives them a big defensive advantage over Oakland, where Khris Davis has compiled -10 OF DRS by himself.

Gray primarily needs infield defense behind him, and the Yanks are meh in that regard. Third baseman Chase Headley has been a liability (-7 DRS), causing the team to acquire Todd Frazier (five DRS at third) and move Headley to first base. He's been scratch there so far, but his limited experience at the position (148 innings career) suggest that miscues could be forthcoming. Second sacker Starlin Castro has -5 DRS, while shortstop Didi Gregorius has compiled one DRS.

Overall, infield defense favors the Yankees -11 to two if you assume that Headley can figure out first base and that Frazier hits enough to stay at third. Those are big ifs, and even if they work out the difference is less significant than looking at team-wide DRS would suggest. Gray's .226 BABIP on fly balls and .643 mark on line drives are likely to improve with the stronger outfield, but his .170 mark on grounders is likely to regress enough to nullify the impact of a few favorable flies.

The last thing predictably impacting a pitcher's BABIP is home park. Oakland's Coliseum has a ton of foul territory, helping Gray post a career BABIP of .274 at home against .286 on the road. Yankee Stadium does not suppress BABIP at all, removing the one constant that has helped Gray's BABIP in the past. Oakland's stadium also helps keep the ball in the park, while Yankee Stadium is notorious for doing the exact opposite. Considering his average airborne exit velocity, Gray's 13.1% HR/FB is going up at his new address.

If you can trade Gray for a near-ace return, do it without a second thought. Yankee Stadium is a terrible place to pitch, and Gray's ERA is already on the high side for a high-end fantasy hurler. Nothing in his peripherals supports his current K% or BABIP suppression, and the Yankees infield defense will not be as big of an upgrade as some believe. Add in Gray's shoddy health history, and you have an asset clearly in decline.

Verdict: Chump
Yu Darvish (SP, LAD) 98% Owned

Darvish has failed to live up to preseason expectations, posting a 6-9 record with a 4.01 ERA (3.82 xFIP) so far. His 15% HR/FB is the highest mark of his career, while his 26.2% K% is a disappointment considering last year's 31.7% rate. Unlike Gray, there is every reason to believe that moving to LA will cure what ails him.

Let's start with Darvish's newfound homer problem. Darvish's quality of contact against is virtually unchanged from last year, as his average airborne exit velocity has increased from 90.5 mph to 91.1 mph. He is also allowing slightly more Barrels, producing a 6% rate of Brls/BBE last year and a 6.6% rate this season. Neither measure is trending in the right direction, but neither is trending badly quickly enough to warrant concern in fantasy.

Much of Darvish's gopheritis has occurred at home, where he has allowed 13 of his 20 homers allowed this year. Arlington has historically given up more than its fair share of dingers, so a large part of Darvish's homer problem is the park he called home. Dodger Stadium is not as pitcher-friendly as some people believe it is, but it is still much better than Texas. This should be enough to bring his HR/FB back in line with his career norms (11.8%). Darvish has cut his FB% from 40% last year to 36.6% this, mitigating the impact a slightly higher HR/FB will have as well.

Becoming a Dodger should also improve Darvish's defensive support. The Rangers are 13th in baseball with 13 DRS. Only RF Shin-soo Choo stands out as a poor defender on the club (-5), while outfielder Delino Deshields is the team's best glove (six). Adrian Beltre has been worth four DRS despite his advanced age, ranking as the second best defender Darvish is used to having behind him.

The Dodgers are better at nearly every position, ranking fourth in the league with 30 total DRS. Catcher Yasmani Grandal, 3B Justin Turner, and outfielder Yasiel Puig have six DRS each, with Grandal also having a sterling reputation as a pitch framer capable of stealing strikes for his pitchers. Cody Bellinger has been a strong defender at multiple positions, compiling four DRS in LF and one more in limited time at RF and 1B. Logan Forsythe has five DRS between 2B and 3B, while SS Corey Seager and LF Chris Taylor have four DRS each. Joc Pederson has been a disaster in CF (-10 DRS), but it shouldn't hurt too much when every other defender is excellent.

Darvish also retains the stuff to deliver the strikeouts fantasy owners crave. His heater offers a 10% SwStr% and 53.6% Zone%, making it one of the better fastballs in the game. Hitters are chasing Darvish's slider less frequently than they used to (43.1% career chase rate, 37.8% this year), reducing its SwStr% from 17.7% career to 13% this season. Darvish has leaned on a cutter (9.4% usage last year, 14.9% this) to make up the difference, benefiting from its 17.5% SwStr%, 39.5% chase rate, and 51.8% Zone%. Its SwStr% is exceptionally high for a pitch in the zone more than half the time, suggesting that it could be a great weapon moving forward.

Darvish throws a sinker, but it isn't immediately apparent why. Its 7.2% SwStr% is the lowest in Darvish's repertoire, its 38.7% Zone% isn't setting anything else up, and batters have hit it hard (.307/.402/.440). Fantasy owners should hope that it gets replaced by his curve, which has a 19.3% SwStr%, 44.6% chase rate, and 36.3% Zone% in limited use (4%). He used to throw the curve more often (9.5% last year), so its success isn't just a small sample fluke. He'll also mix in a change, slow curve, and splitter to catch batters off guard, though he doesn't use any of them in a meaningful sample size.

Darvish's numbers may not look ace-like, but the move to the Dodgers should net him additional Ws while fixing his HR issues. Buy if there is any discount at all.

Verdict: Champ

 

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