NL Quick Pitch: The Rockies and Pirates split a double-header on Wednesday and once again no team topped 5 runs in a game played by the Pirates. Charlie Morton and Juan Nicasio had good results pitching in each end of the double-header, but Jhoulys Chacin was victimized by consecutive balls lost in the sun in the OF. We'll touch on all three this morning within the notes. Andrew McCutchen went 2-8 in the doubleheader with 3 more K's and 0 BB's. In the prime of his career McCutchen shouldn't be the kind of player we're worrying about this early into the season, but in the notes this morning I'll touch on some reasons for very legitimate concerns. The Astros continued their hot-hitting ways behind Jose Altuve and JD Martinez as they stopped the Brewers with a 7-5 victory. Altuve is a personal favorite of mine due to his size and immense bat-skills. His upside has been a bit undersold because of the lineup he plays in and plate discipline issues, but he barrels balls consistently. Refer to Schuyler's notes on Altuve earlier in the week for a good look at my opinion as well. Instead of examining Altuve's hot start, I focused in on JD Martinez this morning. Martinez already has 18 RBI's with a .939 OPS. The pace will slow, certainly, but he's legitimate starter in almost all formats. Lance Lynn shut down the Cubs offense, surrendering just a solo HR to Bryan LaHair. We'll dig in on both players hot starts to the season and I'll give some reasons why I'm tempering expectations for each. Cole Hamels breezed through the Diamondbacks lineup on Wednesday as he looks to have jumped another level with the use of the cutter. Trevor Cahill was knocked around in the start, but I'm actually seeing reasons for optimism with Cahill, who I'll cover further this morning. Jordan Zimmermann and the Nationals continued to do their thing (limit the long ball) on Wednesday in a 7-2 win over the Padres. The news on Ryan Zimmerman was even mildly optimistic as he'll try to avoid the DL by taking some swings today. Cincinnati rallied late off of the Giants beleaguered bullpen after Barry Zito tossed 6+ strong innings again. Zito's hot start is almost pure mirage. I'll explain why in the notes. The Aroldis Chapman-Sean Marshall combination at the end of the game might be challenging Venters-Kimbrel for the best in all of baseball. The Mets continued their winning ways behind a strong outing from R.A. Dickey. His only blemish was a solo HR to Omar Infante, who miraculously has 5 already on the season. Put his hot power start in the AJ Pierzynski camp. The Braves rallied late off Dodgers closer Javy Guerra to secure a 4-2 win. It was the 2nd time in as many nights Guerra took the loss and this one nearly came with significant injury as he was struck in the face with a line drive off the bat of Brian McCann (fortunately concussion tests were negative and he remained in the game). The murmurs for Kenley Jansen are gaining momentum but Guerra's peripherals early in the season suggest he deserves more rope. Ted Lilly was fantastic for the Dodgers and continues to show he has back end of the rotation/spot-start value for all leagues. Matt Kemp provided the offense (surprise!) for the Dodgers knocking out his 10th HR of the season. Remarkably it was the first HR all year he had hit to LF (his pull-side). He might be part cyborg.
Andrew McCutchen (OF - PIT): On last week's Sirius Show we discussed one of the indicators that tends to show stability and predictability before many of the others was swing %. This is simply the % of pitches a batter swings at. We took a look at players early in the season that had seen a significant change in their swing rate from previous years and at the top of the list was Andrew McCutchen. As I look at the peripherals today, the gap has only widened. For his career McCutchen has swung at just 40% of the pitches he sees. His strong pitch selection is one of the reasons he's shown good BB Rate, adequate K Rates, and above average power despite a wiry frame. This year McCutchen is swinging at 53% of the pitches he sees and not surprisingly the core indicators have all dipped as a result. McCutchen's ISO (career .177) is at a paltry .065 and his K and BB Rates have each nearly cut in half. McCutchen's production hasn't suffered quite as much thanks to a .382 BABIP, but the new approach has impacted how many hard-hit balls he's been able to rack up. McCutchen's LD Rate is down two percentage points (18.2%) and his GB Rate is up 9 percentage points over his career average to a startling 50%. Many of the first-line indicators we focus on with players (BB Rate, K Rate, ISO, heck even GB Rate) take much longer to stabilize and normalize but given those indicators are directly tied to this drastic increase in swing rate, I'm concerned. It's not enough to make me sell McCutchen at a deep discount, but it's enough that I'd be inclined to try to find a similar asset that's struggling early on and make a move. This overly aggressive approach for McCutchen is not a positive change for his fantasy value and while there is plenty of time to correct it, there's also some data that suggests it's no longer a small sample.
Trevor Cahill (SP - ARZ): I know the stat-line doesn't reflect it, but yesterday's outing for Trevor Cahill was a step in the right direction. Cahill's velocity has been down to start the season (87.7 mph, averaged 89.1 mph last year) and along with that dip in velocity Cahill was struggling with command - walking more batters and allowing more line drives. Although Cahill finished allowing 4 ER's on 6 hits and 2 BB's in 5 1/3 innings, the underlying peripherals were improved. Cahill's avg fb velocity was back at 89.3 mph and he limited the Phillies to a more modest 17% LD Rate and he walked just 2 of the 22 batters faced (9%, entered game at 12.7%, last year was 9.1%). Cahill's line was exaggerated by some ugly bullpen work behind him that failed to strand any of his runners. Pessimists will point to the fact that Cahill struck out just 3 in the outing, continuing a K Rate decline that has been present early in the year, but the Pitch F/X data simply doesn't agree. Cahill generated 12 swinging strikes on his 98 pitches (12.2%), continuing to build on the career high 9.1% swinging strike rate he entered the game with. Given the fact that Cahill is generating way more swings and misses and he's getting ahead of batters more often, it's extremely likely the K Rate rises over the course of the season - perhaps more in line with a 0.5 K/9 growth we typically see from SP's switching to the NL. Some of Cahill's other indicators are mildly off (higher LD Rate, lower chase rate), but the fact that his velocity returned on Wednesday, he's generating more GB's than ever, and more swinging strikes than ever; I'm inclined to believe this is a nice buy-low opportunity for Cahill.
Barry Zito (SP - SFG): Ok I admit it. I had been completely and utterly dismissive of the hot start to the season Barry Zito has put together. In fact I laughed out loud when I heard another show talking about it on Sirius the other day. This is Barry Zito, he's been awful for 6 years. What the heck can 3 starts tell us to erase the last 6 years? Well after seeing the Giants up 2-0 in the 7th in Cincinnati, another tough hitters' park against a team notorious for crushing LHP... I finally gave in. I opened up a fangraphs page and started writing this blurb. So let's see what we have with Zito's strong start that left him with a 1.67 ERA and 0.93 WHIP through Wednesday. The first thing that jumps out on the stat-page is Zito's improved BB Rate early on. After posting BB Rates around 3.80 or worse each of the last five years Zito has walked just 6 in his first 27 innings (2.0 BB/9). The swing data doesn't really bear out the results though. Yes Zito is generating more chases (31% vs. 27% last yr), but his first strike % is at a career low (47%) and he's throwing the lowest % of pitches inside the strike zone of his career (just 38%). While Zito's overall strike % dipped to 59% last year, the previous 2 years it held steady at 63%. This year Zito's strike % is right at 63%. Put all those numbers together and it's hard to believe in the BB Rate staying down. The next most noticeable change with Zito is his arsenal. Zito has basically scrapped his FB, throwing it just 31% of the time in favor of his slider, which he's now throwing 37% of the time. Zito's slider/curveball combination has always been his strength so this should be a net positive. Early on it hasn't resulted in any more swinging strikes or K's but perhaps it's responsible for the weaker contact he's seen (13% LD Rate). In total it's hard to see the type of significant improvements in Zito's indicators that suggest this is legitimate. A .175 BABIP and 85.7% LOB% that he entered Wednesday night with are more responsible for Zito's success early on than any change in his arsenal. Eventually those command #'s will revert and the regression will come in bunches. Stay away.
Lance Lynn (SP - STL): Lance Lynn continued his red-hot start to the season with 8 tremendous innings against the Cubs on Wednesday. Lynn allowed just 1 ER (for the 4th consecutive start) on 6 hits and 2 BB's, while striking out 7. Through 4 starts Lynn now sits with a tidy 1.33 ERA, 0.81 WHIP with a stellar 8.0 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 combination. Those who hopped aboard the Lance Lynn bandwagon that our own Joseph Hettler was preaching late in the preseason have to feel pretty good about themselves. While many on our staff are HUGE supporters of Lynn, I'm a bit more cautious. When I broached the topic with our own Mike Leone I ended up jumping on the side of Lynn finishing the season with an ERA higher than 3.50, which resulted in our 5th WhoYaGot of the season (Follow us on twitter as these develop all season). Given the head start Lynn has with 27 IP and a 1.33 ERA, it may not have been the wisest bet in the world as Lynn would need to post a 3.84 ERA in his next 173 IP in order to finish at the 3.51 mark. Interestingly enough that 3.84 would match the ERA he posted in 2011 as a starter in the PCL. While Lynn's peripherals this season have been stellar and certainly suggest an ERA below 3.50, I struggle to let go of the minor league track record which was very average. In 414 minor league innings, mostly as a starter (77 games, 72 GS), Lynn posted a 3.69 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, supported by peripherals that were again just OK (7.8 K/9, 3.3 BB/9). Lynn's flashed elite peripherals as a reliever in his one year at the major league level, but in 2 spot starts last year Lynn posted again good, but not great, peripherals (6.97 K/9, 2.61 BB/9 - 3.85 xFIP). So I'm left with the question of which Lynn is the real one? The elite peripherals in the pen last year suggest maybe he's turned a corner and is legitimately a reliable mid-rotation fantasy starter, but the extended minor league track record as a starter suggests he might be little more than a back-end option. When forced to choose I'll take the larger sample sizes and the extended track record. Prior to being called up just last year Lynn was a middling starter in the PCL. After four starts against MIL, CHC (2), and PIT; three against some of the worst offenses in baseball, I'm supposed to believe he's suddenly made the leap? With the Pirates, once again, on deck I'll continue to ride the red-hot starter, but if I can sell Lynn for a player I know is a mid-rotation starter, I'd happily make the move. For now I'm viewing Lynn as a back-end matchups play who happens to keep drawing favorable ones. Pitching in the NL Central (HOU, PIT, CHC) may help hold that value most of the year, but I'd label myself more of a net seller on Lynn than buyer. The extended minor league track record is simply too much for me to overlook.
Jhoulys Chacin (SP - COL): Chacin's strong start came unraveled in the 5th inning after Carlos Gonzalez lost consecutive fly balls in the sun. Chacin then served up back-to-back HR's to LHB's (issue throughout his career 13.6% HR/FB Rate vs. LHB, 4.65 FIP). The final line: 5 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 5 K's was troubling for owners taking advantage of an ideal matchup on the road. While it's easy to write off the poor start due to some unusual conditions (was cruising before the 2 lost balls), one significant part of Chacin's arsenal continues to be missing this year: the ground-balls. What has driven us to Chacin throughout his career has been the combination of at times an elite K Rate (9.04 K/9 in '10, 8+ in '12) with a great GB Rate (56% in '11, career -52.1%). That combination allows us to overlook the shaky command (4.23 BB/9 career) and the struggles vs. LHBs. This year while the K Rate has been solid, Chacin has generated just a 44% GB Rate and that was prior to yesterday's start when Chacin rolled ground balls on just 29.4% of the batted balls. If Chacin is racking up GB's, I can deal with his control issues, but when two of three are out of whack, it's time to get picky. Chacin's next outing will come against the Dodgers at home which given Chacin's career 2.39 ERA, 1.25 WHIP against LAD I might be inclined to roll the dice, but to be very honest I'll probably be selective. Chacin has immense upside, but if the GB Rate doesn't come along soon, he'll offer far more downside than upside. Pick your spots accordingly until we see the GB's start coming.
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