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Fantasy Hold or Fold: Pitcher Edition

The return of the Hold or Fold column last week was pretty well received, so I’ve decided to bring it back today for a strictly pitching edition! We’ll take a look at pitchers performing on the extreme ends of the spectrum and determine whether or not their successes or struggles are real or if there’s a significant change on the horizon. Shane Bieber, Ryan Borucki, and Luis Castillo all come with different pedigrees and their performances have been all over the map. All that matters now, though, is what we can expect going forward.

We’re reaching the twilight of the season with about a third of the regular season left to play. And now that the trade deadline has come and gone, for the most part, teams that are in it will be pushing their players harder than ever, while teams that have already thrown in the towel will probably ease up on their starters in hopes of having them lead them to the playoffs next season. It’s a long year for us fantasy baseball fans, and let’s face it… this is where the fun begins!

It’s time to multi-task! Keep up with all of our baseball coverage, but kick off your football prep and dig into our 2018 Fantasy Football Draft Kit. Then head on over to Fantrax and join a Fantasy Football league.

Shane Bieber – SP, Cleveland Indians

A trendy call-up a few months ago, Shane Bieber has had a pretty rough go of it over his last 27 innings, having racked up a 7.00 ERA to go along with a still solid 8.00 K/9 and 2.00 BB/9. His record in that time sits at 2-2, and with a .365 BABIP allowed, 1.33 HR/9 and 12.1% HR/FB, it’s kind of easy to see why the ERA is so high. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, and I’ll tell you exactly why.

Throughout Bieber’s minor league career it is safe to say that he managed to limit home runs really well. His worst mark in one season of the minors is 0.55 HR/9, and we can contrast that with the average MLB mark of 1.21. Obviously, this makes Bieber far better than the average this season, and based on his track record I’m inclined to believe it. Bieber’s 1.05 HR/9 mark this season is nearly double his highest number in the minors, and though we can reasonably expect more home runs to be hit in the Majors compared to the minors, a jump that significant is at least semi-questionable. Of course, as mentioned earlier, that season mark is boosted by the 1.33 HR/9 mark he has posted since the first of July, so looking at his numbers outside of this recent sample of games shows a much friendlier mark of 0.74 HR/9.

As a stat, xFIP is generally identified as one of the ERA metrics best associated with predicted home run rates. I have plenty of arguments that I could make against the stat, but for all intents and purposes when combined with the other estimators it’s OK to use and take to heart as to true talent level. Bieber’s xFIP sits at a much better 3.60 record on the season, and over this bad stretch, it sits just a tick over four with a 4.06 mark. SIERA likes Bieber’s work to about the same degree with a 3.61 mark and good ol’ regular FIP loves the kid with a 3.39 season line. It’s easy to see then that the inflated ERA that he is currently sporting is largely questionable, and if all three predictors believe he’s a 3.40 – 3.60 ERA pitcher, then I’m inclined to believe them.

The Cleveland Indians themselves have largely scuffled a bit over the last 30 days with a 10-8 record, and although the young Bieber has a bit to do with that, ace Corey Kluber has also struggled a bit as well. All signs point to Bieber getting much better as we go along, and sure enough, his last time out he nabbed a quality start. I expect more of the 3.50 ERA going forward and if you can put out feelers for the Bieber owner in your league there’s a chance they might be distraught looking at the 7.00 ERA over the last month. If the price is good, buy away.

Verdict: Hold

Ryan Borucki – SP, Toronto Blue Jays

You might be asking yourself “who the hell is Ryan Borucki?” and my friend, you are not the only person asking this question.

Borucki was drafted 475th overall in the 2012 June Amateur draft going as pick 17 in the 15th round. He made his Gulf Coast league debut that season and threw only six innings in four games allowing just one run and racking up a 15.00 K/9. He was quickly beset with an injury and ended up undergoing Tommy John Surgery, losing the entire 2013 season to recovery. His return in 2014 saw him throw 57 innings over two levels and  post an ERA below 2.50. His walks were immediately under control once returning from the surgery (usually command is the last thing to return), and although he wasn’t striking out an elite amount of batters, he was generating about a strikeout an inning.

After starting the 2017 season in High-A, Borucki found himself pitching in Double-A and then even Triple-A before the season was over. He reported to Triple-A to start the 2018 season where he threw 77 innings and allowed a 3.27 ERA with a 6.78 K/9 and 3.27 BB/9. Once being called up to the show to start his first Major League game on June 26, Borucki hasn’t looked back.

His Triple-A numbers have largely continued in the Majors this year, as he has posted a 2.83 ERA to go along with a 7.20 K/9 and 2.83 BB/9 for the big league club. Owners who took a chance on the hurler have to love what they have received from him, but of course, the big question is “will it continue?”

There are pretty significant red flags here, so I’m inclined to say no.

Obviously, we have seen pitchers succeed without striking out a ton of batters (see Marco Gonzales), so Borucki’s low K/9 rate isn’t enough on its own to portend doom for his owners. But if you couple that with the fact that he is also generating ground balls at only a 45.5-percent rate in a stadium that allows home runs by the basketful, we’re starting to see some cracks in the foundation. Pitchers also don’t tend to carry sub-3.00 ERAs when they have a WHIP of 1.41, and only induce soft contact 11.4% of the time. This generally means that some of those hard hit balls are going to start finding green or the seats.

On the other hand, we can see that his BABIP sits at a pretty high .342 mark, so a lot of people might be using that to point towards a brighter future. I’ll poke a few holes in that logic, because for pitchers who don’t strike out a lot of batters, we need to remember that there are more balls being put in play, and balls in play have a significantly higher tendency of becoming a hit than a strikeout would, obviously. While the lack of strikeouts doesn’t directly affect his BABIP. It does lead to more runners on base.

All of this adds up to some pretty heavy regression in my opinion. Although FIP really likes his work with a 2.50 mark, xFIP and SIERA are much more skeptical, painting him as a 4.25-4.50 ERA pitcher. I think that’s probably a bit pessimistic, as he has at least shown the ability to limit Major League runs for a decent period of time. I think I go in hoping he has a 4.25 ERA but if he put s up a mark below 4.00 I’ll be very happy with the results.

All that said if you can find a buyer willing to give you a piece you can use I would jump on the opportunity. I highly doubt Borucki’s value gets much higher than this.

Verdict: Fold

Luis Castillo – SP, Cincinnati Reds

I remember back to the beginning of the season. My cohorts with the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts, Nathan Dokken and Ron Rigney, were talking about how Luis Castillo was basically an ace but coming at a much lower cost, and that building up a team around him would be a sure-fire way to win this year. I had never been all that excited about Luis Castillo – he was a fastball/slider pitcher who gave up too many home runs and whose strikeout rate had been all over the map. I pegged him as a solid number three, and calling him an ace, or even a top flight number two starter was questionable to me, but I trust my boys and I let their opinions influence me.

(Side note, I absolutely do still trust those guys. They are right more than they are wrong and I don’t bring up this story to shame them, but rather to say sometimes it’s best to stick with your gut and believe in yourself)

After taking Castillo in a handful of redraft leagues I’m absolutely kicking myself after the atrocious year that he has been having. On the season, he’s thrown 115.2 innings with a 4.98 ERA, 8.56 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, and a 1.48 HR/9. He has been flat out awful more often than not, and it isn’t a pretty site to look at some of my fantasy team ERAs thanks to this guy. I should loathe this guy, but I don’t, and I actually expect much better things going forward (though I’m still skeptical of his ceiling).

Flash forward to July 2, where Castillo managed to put up 6.2 innings against the White Sox, allowing only one run and striking out 6. Since that game he has put up a 2.25 ERA in 28 innings pitched, notching an 8.04 K/9, 1.29 BB/9, and only a 0.32 HR/9. This last month has been an excellent five starts, and although there are still some things to be wary of, hopefully, this is a sign of things to come.

Over this period of time, we have seen Luis Castillo change up his pitch usage ever so slightly, and that could be a big reason why he’s found some prolonged success. He’s throwing his fastball 55 percent of the time, which is about 5 percent less than usual, and now his changeup and slider are both getting thrown about 23-25 percent of the time each, and that has been a major change at least as far as slider usage is concerned. He used to only throw it about 15 percent of the time, and doing so has made his fastball go from a negatively valued pitch to a positively valued one. Sometimes something as simple as that is all it takes for performance to click and we see improvements.

Those pitching changes have made a huge improvement to his home run rate and an overall increase in command has caused his walk rate to drop as well. It’s definitely a good sign to see and I’m cautiously optimistic that Luis Castillo can provide positive value going forward this year. I still think long-term his outlook is as a good number three starting pitcher with a few number two years thrown in, but compared to what he’s been doing, that is one performance increase I think owners will happily take.

Verdict: Hold

Keep up with all the latest Fantasy Baseball happenings with Van Lee, Jeff Zimmerman and Rob Silver on the Launch Angle Podcast.

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