Last night was a lot of fun for me. I got to watch Washington Nationals top prospect Lucas Giolito take on the Cleveland Indians Double-A affiliate, the Akron Rubber Ducks. It’s fun to watch the stars of tomorrow like Giolito and Bradley Zimmer, and then other players with high ceilings like Yandy Diaz and Wilmer Difo. It’s a nice break from the high-stakes world of MLB where every game matters. Just a random anecdote for y’all. Oh, and it was $1 10 oz. beer or $2 20 oz. beer night. Minor league baseball is awesome.
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An easy winner with yesterday’s suggestion on the under gives way to a tough game to pick. Madison Bumgarner returns to where his incredible 2014 MLB playoff run began when his Giants play at PNC Park against the Pirates. Bumgarner will be opposed by Jeff Locke. MadBum is elite and he’s getting better, which is scary. The 10th overall pick out of South Caldwell HS in North Carolina is only in his fifth full season as a starter, which is hard to believe. But, his strikeout and walk rates are both the best of his career. He’s also posting the best xFIP of his career. His batted ball data has shown a decrease in fly balls in each of the last three seasons, but he has great command, so it hasn’t been an issue.
With Jeff Locke, you really don’t know what to expect. He owns a 4.31/3.97/3.98 slash line on the season with a 69 percent strand rate, so he has had some unfortunate sequencing luck. He’s mostly an innings eater and a replacement-level starter that gets some help from Pittsburgh’s defensive ideology. Not surprisingly, Locke is a lot better at pitcher-friendly PNC than on the road. He owns a 3.16 ERA with a .238/.310/.333 slash at home and a 6.02 ERA with a .290/.372/.431 on the road.
Surprisingly, Locke shows some big reverse splits with a .284/.371/.439 slash against with lefties and a .254/.327/.357 slash against with righties. Once again, I look to the under in this game. The Giants offense continued to suffer without Hunter Pence and Madison Bumgarner is a terrific pitcher.
Colby Lewis and Justin Verlander are the listed pitchers for this one. If you’re still a proponent of win-loss record, I direct you to Colby Lewis, who is 13-5 with a 4.49 ERA, 4.41 xFIP, and 4.14 SIERA even though he has the seventh-best BB% in the league. As a strike-thrower, he doesn’t issue a lot of free passes, but he does give up his fair share of home runs. Having a home park that is a good run environment doesn’t help either, but Lewis actually has a higher SLG against on the road at .447. Lewis has been on a decent run of late, allowed three earned or less in six of his last seven starts. With a guy like him, the workload is always a concern because of the injuries that he has endured. He’s over 150 innings this season for the second straight season after not doing it in either 2012 or 2013. He got better as the season went on last year. But, here, he takes on a Tigers lineup that is doing a lot of damage of late. This is a dangerous start for him because of the home run issues. He does have a 6.2 K/BB ratio against right-handed hitters, so maybe he can bob and weave his way to a quality start.
Justin Verlander has to reinvent himself as a pitcher. The strain of eight straight seasons of at least 200 innings has taken a toll and he has spent extensive time on the DL this season for the first time in his career. Over the last two years, the strikeout rate has really bottomed out. Has he started to figure it out? Over his last five starts, Verlander has allowed two runs or less in four of them and owns a 29/5 K/BB ratio over 28 innings. A strikeout per inning is a great sign for him and he was excellent against Houston last time out. It’s encouraging, but is it sustainable?
For at least this start, I think it is. The Tigers are starting to get some good feelings back and may be a wild card contender after all. There aren’t any big arsenal changes, but his fastball command has been better of late, which is probably a direct result of some side sessions and bullpens. I like the Tigers in this one.
I like to look at games with unknown starters like this to help you guys out with learning about some of these pitchers. Jerad Eickhoff goes for the Phillies in this one, one of the players acquired in the Cole Hamels deal with the Rangers. Eickhoff has posted decent numbers throughout his MiLB career. Nothing that jumps off the page, but everything seems to fall into range. Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs projected him to be a 4th/5th starter with a 90-94, top 97 fastball, a decent curveball, and no third pitch. Some think he’ll be more of a middle reliever since he’s missing that third pitch, but it may not matter against a Marlins offense that is awful against right-handed pitching.
Eickhoff is a strike-thrower, which is good for a guy that can reach back when he needs to. One thing to watch is that he had some low strand rates from 2012-14 at various stops in the minor leagues. That could be some pitchability concerns. Guys have to have a feel for how to get out of jams. Perhaps it was just a matter of trusting his stuff since he is right within the 72-73 percent range this season. He’ll be an interesting arm to watch for a team that desperately needs pitching.
Kendry Flores is way ahead of schedule for the Marlins. The thin right-hander has worked six games in relief at the big league level, but was a starter throughout his minor league career. Flores was acquired in the Casey McGehee deal with the Giants and, like Eickhoff, lacks a third pitch. The Marlins really fast-tracked his development, which they seem to do with pitchers from time to time. He went from High-A in 2014 to Double-A to Triple-A to the big leagues in 2015. The strikeout rate dropped significantly, but the command profile still looks good.
This is a tough game to pick with two unknown pitchers, but given how the Marlins have played of late compared to the Phillies, I have to think the Phillies are the value side here. Eickhoff will be in a good pitcher’s park if he makes a few mistakes and there’s some more ability to scout Flores since he has faced 33 Major League hitters already.
This is a very interesting line. The Dodgers have gotten steamed in a lot of their games against right-handed pitchers, but the early money has been trickling in on Houston. Brett Anderson will take the ball for the road team against Mike Fiers. The Dodgers will have an extra bat in the lineup in an American League park here and they have some pretty good offensive depth, which is an upgrade to most NL teams in AL parks.
Is Brett Anderson falling apart? That’s the question that needs to be answered over his next couple of starts. Since the Break, Anderson has a 4.73 ERA with a .439 SLG against. In the first half, he posted a 3.17 ERA with a .371 SLG against. Did you get caught looking at the small sample sizes? Yes you did. The post-All Star Break splits include one awful start with seven runs allowed on 10 hits over five innings. Anderson has allowed three runs or less in four of his five starts. Overall, Anderson has held the opposition to three runs or less in 19 of his 23 starts. He’s sequencing well and has one of MLB’s most extreme ground ball rates. This is why you have to be wary of small sample sizes. People will look at Anderson’s 4.73 ERA since the Break and assume that the oft-injured hurler is breaking down. One bad start skewed the numbers.
Mike Fiers has maintained his performance over his first 17 innings for the Astros, with a big spike small sample size spike in ground ball rate. Perhaps the Astros made some minor changes when they acquired him or perhaps it’s just noise. What I’m looking at is how the strikeout rate has dropped without facing the pitcher. Fiers doesn’t blow you away with an upper 80s fastball that generates an unlikely percentage of swings and misses.
Normally, we expect to see about a 10 percent drop in production from a pitcher that goes from the NL to the AL. There are some concerning trends about Fiers that may just be small sample size noise, but we’ll see. His chase rate is down four percent and when hitters do chase, they’re making contact. But, hitters are also swinging through more pitches in the zone. This makes sense, since it’s an adjustment period for the hitters as well. Fiers traded in one bad pitcher’s park for another, but Minute Maid Park may be worse because the pitcher doesn’t hit there.
I like the Dodgers in this one. Brett Anderson works down in the zone with a lot of effectiveness and the Astros need the long ball to be successful. Anderson doesn’t have a ton of swing and miss, which is detrimental in this one, but I still think he has some upside. Fiers has upside as well, but the Dodgers are one of the best offenses in baseball against righties and add an extra bat that they normally wouldn’t have.
This is a strange line. Drew Smyly struggled in his return to the Tampa rotation, but Oakland has been brutal against lefties all season and oddsmakers have shaded lines with the expectation of money on the other team. Oakland’s Chris Bassitt has been fantastic and is perfectly tailored to his home park. The A’s are a small favorite here and have gotten the first wave of money on the overnights.
The big issue for Smyly in that first start was command. O.co Coliseum is pretty forgiving when it comes to making mistakes because it’s a huge, cavernous ballpark where the ball doesn’t carry. That could certainly work to Smyly’s advantage as he looks to get a feel for all of his pitches. The Rays offense has gone into a slumber again lately after really coming on strong out of the All-Star Break, so Smyly may have a thin margin to work with.
Chris Bassitt has surprised me because of the strikeout rate he has. As a starter, he has 42 K in 51.2 innings of work and a 21.4 percent K%, which is definitely good enough. He didn’t do well out of the bullpen, but he’s been really good as a starter. Of course he’s pitched well at home, which goes without saying for a fly ball pitcher that doesn’t issue walks. The fact that Bassitt has sequenced so well while only throwing 54.3 percent first-pitch strikes may catch up with him at some point, but I like him in this start. The Rays don’t have as much of a reliance on walks to score runs, which is good since Bassitt doesn’t walk many guys, but he’s mixed his pitches really well this season and his fastball command is worth buying into. Give me the A’s in this one.
We’re getting to a point where Felix Hernandez will be a home underdog. After Eno Sarris’s evaluation of King Felix and his problems, the betting market has already driven this number down towards a money line pick ‘em and it may not stop there. A lot of people think that Felix is broken. Chris Sale is his adversary in this start and everybody knows how good he is.
I’m not ready to write Felix off entirely, so I’m more inclined to look at the under and hope that he can find a way to get it back against a bad lineup. I don’t have a whole lot of worries with Sale against the Mariners. We have seen a lessening of the slider from Hernandez over the last three seasons, which can be an injury indicator because sliders put a lot of strain on the arm, so there may be fire to go along with the smoke. I’ll see what happens with Felix here against a really bad lineup and then reevaluate him.