Pain Can Lead to Gain

Eno Sarris

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It's a sad, sad day. Matt Harvey won't be pitching any more this season, and there's a good chance he won't pitch next season. Only Adam Wainwright has really pitched with a partial tear of that ligament in recent memory, and even he underwent the knife eventually. Chad Billingsley tried, and succumbed to the surgeon as well. Most just go willingly.

Of course, it's no help to anyone now, but we fantasy owners are always looking to predict these sorts of things, so it was helpful to go back in and check our injury predictors on Matt Harvey. Jeff Zimmerman took that approach yesterday, using everything at his disposal -- zone percentages, release points, velocity loss, max velocity, and breaking ball usage -- and couldn't find anything to suggest we could have known it was coming for Harvey.  Sometimes the bear eats you.

On the other hand, we do have these tools. Debuted by Josh Kalk before he was hired by a major league team, the 'injury zone' is a place where a pitcher's mechanics are breaking down. You can see it in his release points late in the game, his velocity trends, and his ability to place the ball in the zone. Zimmerman took that research and ran with it, creating a newer version last year. 

The latest full PAIN leaderboard is on his MASH writeup, but let's use some select players from the list to name our tiers. That way we can highlight some players that might be dropping in the final month. At the very least, you'll be prepared to pick up their handcuff if something happens.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Brandon McCarthy" Tier.)

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

Brandon McCarthy and Ryan Vogelsong head up the list, and they are particularly interesting because they've been hurt this year. Future DL stints are best predicted by past DL stints, and so the fact that they've both lost multiple ticks on the gun and are showing much lower zone percentages late this season is an even bigger warning sign.

Aroldis Chapman is extra healthy. More on that later. It looks like he got a Kimbrel in his last save -- three strikeouts, no baserunners -- but if you look closely at the box score, it looks like he faced four batters. He actually hit Khris Davis. That's okay, he only has four Kimbrels on the season now. Greg Holland has four Kimbrels of his own, which is impressive considering his walk rate last season. He also has 31 strikeouts against TWO WALKS since the beginning of June. That's hot fire.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Jason Vargas" Tier.)

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals

Bartolo Colon was really next on the list, so kudos to PAIN for nailing that one. Next on the list was Chad Gaudin. Whoops, nailed that one too, he's on the DL for carpal tunnel. So we move on to Jason Vargas, who was one of the last clear 'worries' on the leaderboard. He's lost a mile per hour on the fastball and more than three percentage points in the strike zone. Well, you could say he's just still hurt from his shoulder surgery this year, but that's also meaningful -- he's not quite right. Yoervis Medina showed up in this part of the list, too, and he's listed as our second chair closer in Seattle. Maybe Danny Farquhar can really hold on.

We saw the extra walks for Joe Nathan recently, and suddenly he has the second-worst walk rate of his career as a reliever. It probably means nothing (and he's avoided the free pass the last two times out), but he is 38 years old, and the third-worst walk rate of his relieving career came right before surgery. Nah, only really relevant for his keeper status, probably. Well, we'll use it as an excuse to swap him out with Greg Holland. Mariano Rivera has half Nathan's walk rate, since we're talking about old men. Sure, he also strikes out fewer guys, but his ERA and WHIP are pristine, and 38 saves will do. Ageless wonder.

Here's something interesting about Sergio Romo. We've been talking about how his arsenal -- the sinker and slider -- aren't well-suited to getting lefties out. Well, Romo saw two lefties in a row last night. He threw eight pitches to them. Four of them were changeups. So far this season, Romo has actually been using the changeup almost half as much against lefties as he did last year. Maybe this is a sign that he's seen the good swings lefties have been putting on him recently and is ready to work in the change up more often. It's probably important that he does so.

Edward Mujica makes me nervous with all those split fingers and that problem with the shoulder three appearances ago. And you can see the appearance where he complained of shoulder soreness loud and clear on his velocity chart. (See that low dot? Yikes). But Mujica shrugged it off with a few days on the bench, it seems. And Trevor Rosenthal is just so sexy. Oh well.

Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Hisashi Iwakuma" Tier.)

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox

Everything seems fine with Hisashi Iwakuma's peripherals. He's got great control of his fastball and a great split-finger for swinging strikes. Add in a helpful home park and all is well. Except he's lost a half-tick of gas, and his zone percentage is down a full five ticks. You could waive your hand at this, but there's an under-reported facet to Iwakuma's game: frailty. Last year, his low innings total got a pass because he didn't start in the rotation. But look at his last six years in Japan, going backwards from 2011: 119 IP, 201 IP, 169 IP, 201 2/3 IP, 90 IP, 38 2/3 IP. Not a paragon of health. (Oliver Perez comes in just below him, so that Seattle pen might be going young soon.)

Glad we didn't drop Jim Johnson too far because Tommy Hunter got that one save. The problem with Hunter is not velocity, he humps it up there pretty well. It's that his curve ball doesn't get great whiffs, so he doesn't have the strikeouts of a closer, and he doesn't really add Johnson-like ground-balls either. You might blame it on the 'big hump' in his curve -- maybe hitters can spot it coming earlier -- but as good as Hunter has been in the bullpen, he's not necessarily a shoo-in to take the role from Johnson. The incumbent closer put two innings between him and his three consecutive blown saves, and then he got the next save chance. He'll probably hold the job the rest of the year, provide top of the table saves totals, and be blah everywhere else.

Addison Reed had a bad day Monday. He came on in a tie game and gave up back-to-back jacks. That's concerning. On the other hand, those were just his fourth and fifth homers of the year, which isn't bad. And he hadn't blown a save in August. And he got back on the horse Tuesday night. Generally, though, his overall stats aren't quite where they seemed they might be when he destroyed the minor leagues. He strikes out one per inning, has a good walk rate, doesn't give up homers, but he isn't really elite anywhere. He's fine though. Totally "okay."

Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.

Tier 4: Question marks (8) (AKA: The "Kelvin Herrera" Tier.)

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates

Just because we like to be salacious with our tiers, the top tiers are more likely to get hurt, and these tiers boast guys that are looking healthier. Herrera always had gas, and he's put more on recently. But the most important thing for him was to command the ball, and now his zone percentage is up almost five ticks. His recent performances fall in line with the idea that he's healthier, too. Greg Holland is great, but Herrera could help you on ratios and strikeouts alone. Among starting pitchers, it was nice to see David Price show up here as showing healthier peripherals. Looks like he's ready to go.

We're actually going to move Rafael Soriano up a bit here because it looks like his health concerns are abating. I primarily docked Soriano for his declining velocity and whiffs, but at least he's trending in the right direction now. His velocity is up recently and now his zone percentage is up a full five percentage points. And lo and behold, his slider usage and whiff percentage is up over the last six weeks too. Maybe he's overcome whatever he was struggling with.

The Rockies always wanted to go with Rex Brothers as their closer, and now they get to. I mean, Matt Belisle is a very good pitcher, but he doesn't have the velocity or strikeouts of a closer, and it's almost irrelevant. We've danced this dance before, and Brothers gets the lead. If he can show good control, he'll even move up the list fairly quickly.

Fernando Rodney blew a save but he's liable to, from time to time. He survived a worse stretch twice this season, so it's hard to advocate for Jake McGee and Jesse Crain isn't here yet. Mark Melancon is on borrowed time as Jason Grilli approaches. H2Hers in the playoffs with M&M on the roster are just hoping against hope (and grilled cheeses) now.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "Aroldis Chapman" Tier.)

Ernesto Frieri (first chair), Dane De La Rosa (second chair), Anaheim Angels
LaTroy Hawkins (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Brad Ziegler (first chair), J.J. Putz (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks
Kevin Gregg (first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Blake Parker (third chair), Chicago Cubs
Chia-Jen Lo (first chair), Josh Fields (second chair), Kevin Chapman (third chair), Houston Astros

You know, Aroldis Chapman has had some injury concerns before. But this year, he's on fire. He's even added velocity and command in the recent months, and that can only be bad news for the league.

Blake Parker has also put on gas and command and that is relevant -- right here. He still has a chance to take over when Kevin Gregg goes splat, which might be right now. Or it might not. All of Kevin Gregg's peripherals slowly returned to career levels, and now he looks like a pumpkin with goggles on. But he's been terrible for a month now and hasn't been removed from the role. He even got the shot again after blowing his last save opportunity. So maybe Blake Parker and Pedro Strop don't matter.

Ernesto Frieri got a save and I thought back to all the beats in the press box talking about how he'd get his job back. So I moved him ahead of Dane De La Rosa based on usage. Then Tuesday night, Frieri pitched the eighth in a close game, and De La Rosa got the save. Here's what makes it even harder to figure out: Frieri got the middle of the order (Evan Longoria, Wil Myers and David DeJesus), and De La Rosa got the bottom of the order (Yunel Escobar, James Loney, and Matt Joyce). Is this a true committee, where the manager is using the pitchers to their strengths no matter what inning it is? That's a great real-life idea, but it's really tough on fantasy owners. Since the two have split the last two saves, and Frieri got the tougher hitters Tuesday night, I'll leave him ahead of De La Rosa by a nose. Both should be owned in most saves leagues.

Chia-Jen Lo looks like the closer in Houston, but his peripherals are some kind of terrible. He's walking more than he's striking out, and even if that's a small sample thing, his swinging strike rate is really really bad. He gets some ground balls and he still throws 94, and his arm hasn't fallen off, so I guess so far Lo good. But it's hard to count on him, especially with the Astros shuffling the deck chairs every few weeks.

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Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow), Chicago Cubs
Rafael Betancourt (elbow), Colorado Rockies
Jason Grilli (forearm), Pittsburgh Pirates
Bobby Parnell (neck), New York Mets

Rafael Betancourt says he doesn't want to get surgery on his elbow, which pretty much means his career is over. Let's just take a minute here to recognize that he probably should have been a lifetime closer, what with a career 3.19 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.5 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9. Weird that the Indians didn't try him there much, and good on the Rockies to give him a shot. Jason Grilli looks like he'll be back for at least a week or two this season. Bobby Parnell is going to wait two weeks to decide about surgery. You have to think he'd be at least a week away if he decided against surgery, so he's probably not worth holding on to if you need the DL slot.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Jose Veras, Detroit Tigers
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks

We could put Betancourt here, but it's better to be honest about why he lost his job. Hard to tell who's on his way here. Could be Brad Ziegler, probably will be Kevin Gregg.

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The Steals Department

Last week's mention Emilio Bonifacio is kicking ass in Kansas City. Chris Getz has been playing better than he normally does, but that means he's hitting about .230 over the last two weeks. It's tempting to give Getz the job when everyone's healthy on that infield, but Bonifacio is actually under the Royals' control next year. If he continues to play well, he might actually take the starting job next year. The Good Face strikes out too much, doesn't walk enough, isn't a great defender, and probably won't put up better than a .260 batting average most years. But he steals bases and he might be better than the disasterpiece theater that has been playing nightly at second base in Kansas City this year. Will Venable in San Diego also deserves a shout out. He always had problems against lefties, but he's been hitting them this year. And as a lefty, his home park used to suppress his homer output by 50%, but they moved the walls in. He's useable, against righties at least, in all leagues now.

Marlon Byrd won't steal any bases in Pittsburgh, but he might create opportunity behind him in New York. That team in Queens needs to see what they have in the outfield next year, and the only outfielder that could be called 'ready' is Matt Den Dekker. The 26-year-old has done all he can in the minor leagues, and at the very least, he'll be a decent defensive replacement. He struck out too often and walked too little for most of his career, but at least this year he has both sitting around average. He has good power and some speed, so he could eke out a passable batting average. And it looks like he'll start against most right-handers, as the team tries out a low-cost platoon of Andrew Brown and Den Dekker. 2/3 of the playing time, not a great batting average, but with power and speed upside -- yeah that's still a decent deep leaguer.