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Fantasy Baseball Gold or Pyrite?

Hello fantasy baseball fans and amateur geologists! Today, we dig in for another round of "Fantasy Baseball Gold or Pyrite? For all the newbies who missed out on the fun we had last time around, this game is pretty simple. I look at players that are at the top of the ESPN 15-day player rater (that aren't already household names like Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig , Ryan Lavarnway (gotch ya!), etc.) and attempt to determine if what they are doing is sustainable long term. Long term at this point in the season, really just means, "for the playoffs." I hope you all are in the playoffs this year (thanks to my excellent advice, of course). If the player looks like he can keep up his performance for the rest of the year, he's gold, if it is flukey and will likely regress, it's pyrite (a.k.a. "fool's gold"). Got it? Ok, let's start digging for some gold.

While we are riding down that long elevator to the bottom of the mine listening to a Kenny G cover of "Rock You Like a Hurricane", I will just finish up my introduction. I will focus on players that are on a short term hot streak that are popular waiver wire pick-ups and try to advise you whether they are here to stay and the peripheral stats back up their performance (gold) or if they are a flash in the pan and will slump their way back to irrelevance (pyrite). Now, if you don't care about why I think each of these players is gold or pyrite, you can scroll to the bottom of your screen and take a look at the handy table I have made to see the verdict for each player. But, I suggest you read on so you can understand why I think the way I do and make a more nuanced decision with your roster.

So, here are the surprising guests at (or near) the top of the ESPN standard 5x5 15-day player rater: Chris Carter, Adam LaRoche, Norichika Aoki, Danny Santana, Phil Hughes, Caleb Joseph, Mike Fiers, Chris Tillman, and Dustin Ackley.  The previous list was in order from the top guy (Carter at #1 in all of baseball! to Ackley at 33rd).  I skipped all the guys you already know because you don't need me to tell you Robinson Cano is good at baseball.  

Chris Carter

As Arnold the Governator once said: we need more powah!  Carter has lots of power to spare.  He is our Adam Dunn replacement, since the Big Donkey is probably going to retire soon and we need another three-true-outcome guy in baseball to fill his shoes.  Carter will not give you any help in batting average (career .225 hitter, hitting .236 this year), strikes out a ton (30.8% this year, 33.5% for his career), walks a lot (11% career, only 8.1% this year), and has hit more than 27 dingers each of the last three seasons, with 29 already this year.  He is hot and cold and his hots are center of the sun hot and his colds are Siberia cold.  When he slumps, he hits .150 for four weeks, with maybe a couple homers, a couple doubles, and not much else (see April this year).  When he's on fire (post-All-Star Break this year), he can hit over .300 and hit 10-12 HRs in a month.  

So, what do we do with a guy like this?  As I advised a fellow redditor last week, don't expect Carter to be something he is not.  This is who he is.  He is actually extremely predictable.  He gives you the same poor average, excellent power, passable OBP, and crazy strikeout totals every single year and he matches his projections very well over the course of a season.  But, for the purposes of this digital writing, Carter is pyrite if you are expecting him to keep this up for the rest of the year.  He will come back to earth and end up hitting just a couple more homers and the average and OBP will fall off.  His BABIP is .389 in August, when his career average is .286, so he is due for some bad luck.  He is the type of player that you own all year for the 6-8 weeks that he is on fire and you have to put up with the cold streaks.  If you are looking for a waiver guy that is breaking out and will keep up his performance, this cleanup-hitting, 27-year-old DH is not your guy.  If you can sell high on him, DO IT NOW!

Disclaimer: I am a Chris Carter owner in a very deep league where his power is too valuable to ever drop him, despite the long droughts and slumps.  I drafted him because he is the cheapest source of homers you can find.

Adam LaRoche

Here's another first baseman power hitter.  This one is a better all-around hitter, though.  If LaRoche is unowned in your league and you need a first baseman, go get him, he should not be available.  His recent surge does not appear to be fluky.  He has cut his strikeout rate and upped his walk rate this year by 2-4% over last year.  This appears to be a genuine improvement that boosts his average and OBP.  His BABIP for the year is almost exactly equal to his career value.  His power has him on pace for 23 homers, which would have him almost matching his totals from 2013, 2010, 2009, and 2008.  Sure, he has gone nuts in August, with a .371 BABIP and an insane .370 ISO (isolated slugging percentage) --his career ISO is .208.  However, I still believe that the improvements he has made this year compared to last year are real and while he won't keep this pace up the rest of the year, his talent is legit and he won't completely collapse (except for injury, which is an issue for a 34-year-old).  LaRoche is fantasy gold.  Steamer projects 6 more homers with a .260/.350/.453 line for the rest of the year and I think that sounds about right except I would expect a little more power and a slugging of .475 or so.

Norichika Aoki

This diminutive Japanese ballplayer is always good for some batting average help.  Now, he's really a .280 kind of hitter that will steal 15-20 bases a year, not the guy we've seen in August hitting .340 with a .480 slugging and a .364 BABIP, a homerun, and five steals.  Looking at his projections, they are almost identical to his season total line of .272/.340/.346 and he is projected for four more steals, one more homer, 18 more runs and 10 more RBI.  Those are the types of numbers I would expect from him the rest of the year, so I would not get carried away by these last few weeks.  The power he has been showing is not going to stick around and the BABIP will probably fall closer to this .300 career average.  Basically, he will return to what he was before August: a guy that will give you a good average, a few steals (one per week or so), no power, and some runs.  If you are buying Aoki's recent performance as though he has figured something out, I've got some swampland in Jersey to sell you.  He is pyrite and you should be looking to sell.

Danny Santana

A waiver darling this season for his dual OF/SS eligibility and good speed, Santana has provided a lot more than you expected so far.  Sure, his .316/.353/.468 line is boosted by a .385 BABIP, but there is good evidence to support that high BABIP.  His AA BABIP was .353 and his AAA BABIP was .377 (in a very short 24 game sample), which aren't too far off his current value.  Furthermore, his line drive rate is an excellent 24.9% and line drives boost BABIP more than any other hit type.  On the flip side, the projection systems don't think much of him and predict a .264/.299/.365 line for the rest of the year. I am more optimistic than that and predict something like .290/.320/.400 for the rest of the year with 1-2 steals per week and 2-3 runs per week.  He isn't going to hit homers, but the speed is above average and he should get lots of run scoring opportunities batting first in the re-invigorated Twins lineup.  He is fantasy gold.  For OBP leagues, keep in mind he doesn't walk much (about 50% less than league average), so don't expect a huge contribution there.  He is really like a younger Aoki, some steals, some runs, good line drives and contact, not very many walks.

Phil Hughes

Maybe you missed out on Philip when he broke out earlier this season, but you probably have a second chance, since he has struggled in recent months and may be floating back on your waiver wire again.  From late June to the end of July, he had an ERA of 6.08 and a 1.53 WHIP.  That stretch may have scared off an owner that picked him up early in the year, giving you a second chance to pick him up.  "Is he worth it?" is what you might be asking.  The answer is "absolutely!"  Look at his three starts since then: a 1.33 ERA, 9.74 K/9, a WHIP of 1.0, a FIP of 2.20, and an xFIP of 2.98, showing that this is no fluke.  Going back to that rough stretch, his FIP was a measly 2.59 with a 3.06 xFIP, so he was really just unlucky.  Like breaking a mirror in front of a black cat underneath a ladder while holding an umbrella unlucky.  He only stranded 59% of batters and allowed a .408!!!! BABIP.  Once positive regression occurred, he was back to his dominant self from earlier.  He combines an above-average strikeout rate with a stellar walk rate (2.3%!).  That is a recipe for success.  His cutter and four-seam fastball produce above average swinging strikesThis is a guy you should be buying.  He is gold.  In fact, sit tight for a second, I need to go pick him up in my Yahoo! league right now.  Ok, we're good, let's move on.

Caleb Joseph

Who?  That is the question you should be asking, because this backup catcher turned starter came out of nowhere.  Matt Wieters is done for the season and Nick Hundley is not much of an offensive threat, so Joseph is getting plenty of surprising playing time.  He has been on fire lately, with 5 homers in the last three weeks with a .305/.328/.644 line.  Unfortunately, this is a guy that is 28 years old and has bounced around AA and AAA since 2010 only reaching the majors this season.  He never really had much success in all that minors time, even though he was often old for those levels.  He topped out at 22 HRs in 2013 in AA at the tender age of 27.

He has a .342 BABIP during his hot streak and those five homers came during 5 straight games in early August.  He is clearly playing over his head, as his .252 season BABIP, .226 average and .285 OBP show.  Once this flukey power streak goes away (it kind of has already), he will return to being a low-average, low OBP, slow catcher with average power.  That is not someone I want on my team.  He is pyrite material.

Mike Fiers

Now, here we have a very recent waiver wire guy.  Fiers put on a show last time out against the Cubs with 14 Ks in only 6 innings.  Is this legit?  Fiers fared well in his last extended time with the Brewers in 2012, getting 9.52 K/9, with a 3.74 ERA, 3.09 FIP and a 3.47 xFIP.  This was supported by a good walk rate, too.  He was hurt and struggled in 2013, but now he's back up with big league club with Matt Garza's recent injury.  Garza could come back in a week or two, as he has been healing from his oblique injury since August 4, but those injuries have a tendency to linger, so maybe not.  Also, the Brew Crew does not need 5 starters again until September 4, but they claim that they will use all five anyway.  That could change, so Fiers could miss some starts in the next two weeks.

Fiers has obviously looked really good in his 21 innings this year (1.29 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 2.76 xFIP) with a ridiculous 10.3 K/9 and minuscule 2.14 BB/9.  But, not everything is as it seems.  He has left 99% of baserunners stranded, which is way above average and is due to regress.  Furthermore, his amazing AAA numbers this year (11.3 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 2.55 ERA) have come as a 29-year-old against much younger competition.  His fastball is a whopping 89 MPH, making it prone to homers and hard hits if he isn't getting the swings and misses that he relies on.  We just don't have enough data right now to know if he can keep limiting the damage to this degree.  I would expect him to strand fewer runners going forward and give up more homers (only 2 in 21 innings so far).  Think of him like Marco Estrada from last year.

The projection systems ZiPS and Steamer have two very different outlooks for him for the rest of the season: ZiPS: 4.59 ERA, 8.27 K/9, Steamer: 3.37 ERA, 9.16 K/9.  I think the Steamer projection is most accurate.  Keep in mind that this means serious regression from his 1.29 current ERA, but is still a good line.  The strikeouts will probably come down because he only has two pitches that get swings and misses: the "fast"ball and the changeup.  The fastball is somehow getting 12.8% whiffs despite being slow (average fastball whiff rate is about 7%).   The changeup is legit, but once the fastball regresses to a more normal whiff rate, he will only have one out pitch, which is not good enough to dominate like he has.

The game I've created forces me to choose a side here, but Fiers is a tough one.  He isn't completely gold, because he will not keep this up, but he isn't like Joseph, playing way over his underlying skills, so he can't be called pyrite.  Let's cheat and call him copper.  Buy him if you need a slightly risky upside pitcher with good strikeout rates and hang onto him if you have him and see how the next few starts go.

 Chris Tillman

This post is getting long, and I don't want to waste too much time on these last two, so I'll keep it short and sweet: Pyrite.  Ok, I'll give a little more: his K rate is meh, his walk rate is above average, his xFIP is 4.42, his K%-BB% is a poor 7.8%, his SIERA is 4.49, and his overall whiff rate is a measly 6.5%.  Don't buy his recent string of good fortune (.200 BABIP in July), he is not someone you want.

Dustin Ackley

Pyrite.  That one was even shorter.  Basically, Ackley is still the same old Ackley, with a season line that is close to his career line: season: .247/.293/.375, career: .246/.310/.359.  His July BABIP of .435 is the source of his "resurgence", not any increase in skills.  This is not a breakout, you should be selling.  

The Gold or Pyrite? Table At the End of the Post for Quick Reading!

Chris Carter = Pyrite
Adam LaRoche = Gold
Norichika Aoki = Pyrite
Danny Santana = Gold
Phil Hughes = Gold
Caleb Joseph = Pyrite
Mike Fiers = Copper
Chris Tillman = Pyrite
Dustin Ackley = Pyrite

There you have it! Hopefully, this will help your playoff push and help you win those playoff matchups coming in two or three weeks. We'll check back in a few weeks to see what new players are topping the ESPN 15-day player rater and play America's new favorite game: Gold or Pyrite? Tschuss!

I'm still just dipping my toes into the Twitter waters, so I'm not yet active there, but you can find me on the fantasy baseball subreddit as WisconsinsWestCoast.  Feel free to DM me your fantasy questions.