I got a sick sort of satisfaction watching Graham Ashcraft implode for eight earned runs in less than two innings Sunday. In the week leading up to it, I had called him a sell-high candidate more than once on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast, and well, I hope people listened.
But then it occurred to me that while I had illuminated the listening audience, I had neglected the reading audience. So here's my attempt to rectify that.
There may still be an opportunity to trade Ashcraft, whose combination of high walks and low strikeouts generally makes for a bad outcome. But he has his merits, too, and you have to figure that the return for a pitcher with a 3.82 ERA will be far less than for a pitcher with a 2.00 ERA. It might be better just to stick with him at this point.
Presuming, then, that you've missed your window to realize his gains with a sell-high trade, who else fits the bill? What other pitchers might you consider trading in the hopes of a big score?
I have some suggestions, but first, I have some warnings.
- Consider what it means to sell high. It's less about the selling than the high. You're not looking to dump a potential headache on someone else. You're looking to lock in the gains of an asset that has peaked. The beauty is that if you're doing it right, it's almost irrelevant what the asset does thereafter. You got out at the high point, so you're enjoying the rewards either way. It's just that you're leaving someone else to manage the risk. So aim high. You're the one with the asset, after all. If the return isn't there, then perhaps it's best just to hold on.
- Part of the reason it makes sense to shop pitchers now is that it's a pitching-starved landscape. Between the shift ban, the skyrocketing stolen base rates, and the way the ball is carrying this year (much better than last year), pitching is taking it on the chin right now, resulting in crooked stat lines even for some of the best. Reliability is in short supply, and so anyone with a sparkling ERA is likely to attract bidders even if the warning signs are fairly obvious.
- If more hits are resulting both on balls in play (because of the shift ban) and balls out of play (because of the way the ball is carrying), then what hope is there for a pitcher other than strikeouts? Perhaps more than ever before, I'm extremely skeptical of those finding success without them, and you'll notice that a lack of strikeouts is something all of these sell-high picks have in common.
OK, then. Nothing left to do but get to the pitchers.
Much as it pains me to say it, the Bieber who was in the running for best pitcher in baseball from 2019 through 2021, capturing a Cy Young in 2020, is long gone. The velocity dip came last year, fresh off a bad shoulder strain, but he managed to get away with it because his slider and curveball were both absolute world-beaters. The metrics on them this year aren't nearly as strong. He's averaging 5.9 K/9. His swinging-strike rate is a Martin Perez-like 9.4 percent.
What he's doing now seems like all smoke and mirrors, whether you gauge it by his 4.46 xFIP or his 4.88 xERA, but because he's Shane Bieber, most will look at his 2.96 and 1.07 WHIP and presume he's right as rain. And look, I can't discount the possibility he figures it like he did last year -- which is why, I'll remind you, the reason to sell is because you can sell high. It doesn't mean you should ignore a potential house of cards if you're able to cash in, though.
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Beginning with his 2019 debut and through all the injuries that have come since, May has maintained a standing of being the next big thing, complete with a GIF-worthy arsenal of high-octane pitches. But you probably don't need me to tell you he hasn't made good on it yet, least of all this year.
True, he's always managed to deliver a low ERA, the product of suppressing hard contact and putting the ball on the ground. That's a skill, but it doesn't make for an ace on its own. He has just 6.5 K/9. His 6.2 percent swinging-strike rate is about half what we've seen in the past and second-worst among qualifiers. He's lasted six innings in less than half of his seven starts. The Dodgers have to treat him with kid gloves because he hasn't thrown even 60 innings in a season since 2019, which says something about his durability, apart from everything else. May remains better in theory than in practice, but because of the low ERA, you have an opportunity to cash in on his name value, preferably while he's still healthy.
This pick is sure to raise the ire of some given that Steele is this year's ultimate example of a sleeper made good, but what that means is his strong start carries more authority and will fetch an even bigger return. No matter how good you believe him to be, you have to admit he's not actually a top-five starting pitcher in Fantasy. He's not getting better than a 5-0 record and 1.45 ERA, and I have reason to believe he may be no more than decent the rest of the way.
Part of what we liked so much about him coming in is that he averaged 11.5 K/9 in his final seven starts last year. His K/9 rate this year is only 7.5. His swinging-strike rate suggests maybe it can improve, but if it doesn't, you're relying on him being a total outlier for hard contact suppression (96th and 98th percentile in average and max exit velocity, respectively), which is difficult to sustain and not as rewarding in the current pitching environment anyway.
I know the feeling of scoring a player like this off the waiver wire. You just want to bask in your genius forever. Acknowledging that Elder may not be able to sustain what he's doing would undermine your accomplishment to some degree, and so your natural inclination is to resist it. But what would be even more ingenious than simply picking him up is picking him up, enjoying the immediate benefits of it, and then spinning it into something more stable.
Because make no mistake: Elder is unstable. The gap between his 1.74 ERA and his 4.36 xERA is the biggest among all starting pitchers. His game is pitching to contact, as his 7.8 K/9 would suggest, and yet the quality of that contact is awfully high. He ranks in only the 9th percentile for both average and max exit velocity.
This run of success didn't just begin this year but dates back to last September, which I guess lends it more credence. But it's still too small of a sample for you to buy into Elder as a Statcast-wrecking unicorn. His perceived stability could fetch a nice return in this environment, but as with Graham Ashcraft, it could all change in an instant.
It's one thing to say Rodriguez is better than he's shown the past two years, which were marred by injuries and bad luck. It's quite another to say he's, well, this. His best ERA previously was 3.81. His best WHIP was 1.27. It's true he's doing some things differently this time around, namely leaning on his cutter more, which seems to be pairing with his fastball nicely to keep hitters off balance. But it's cost him greatly in strikeouts, which means Rodriguez, like Steele, has relied on outlier contact suppression to achieve the results that he has -- and all for a bad team to boot.
Part of what made him a Fantasy asset in the past is that he pitched for a Red Sox team that would reward his solid work with wins, but that likely isn't true for this Tigers team. Meanwhile, his BB/9 rate is only half what it normally is, so that's like unsustainable as well. If nobody's biting, Rodriguez will likely remain a serviceable option for you at least, but it's hard to imagine his value ever being higher than it is right now.
I was prepared to delete this DeSclafani entry when I saw him allow five first-inning runs to the Nationals on Monday, but he managed to stop the bleeding and came out of the start with a still-more-than-respectable 2.80 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. So while shopping him right this second may not be the wisest move, once the dust settles, the overall numbers still make for a compelling case.
Helping that case is that he went 13-7 with a 3.17 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 2021, and it's possible he's just returning to form after an injury-ravaged 2022. I buy that myself, to some degree. But he has only 6.6 K/9 now compared to 8.2 then. Meanwhile, he has somehow managed to give up just four home runs despite poor exit velocity readings, and his walk rate is also too good to be true. Basically, his 3.93 xERA tells the story. He'll likely remain useful, but you can potentially market him as much more than that.
Cobb has been a sleeper for nigh on a decade for one reason and one reason alone: his splitter. It slaps. Or at least it did, but its whiff rate is down to 23.4 percent this year compared to 30.3 percent last year and 35.1 percent the year before. It doesn't seem to have the same bite, and this may have a cascading effect on his other stats, his overall swinging-strike rate being in the bottom 25 percent of all qualifiers and at its lowest point since 2018. And yet he has a 2.01 ERA, amazingly.
It isn't entirely divorced from reason. His career-high 63.1 percent ground-ball rate is second only to Framber Valdez, who always leads the league in that category. Cobb's 1.3 BB/9 rate is also a career best. But can we trust him to remain an outlier in those two areas? As it is, the gap between his 2.01 ERA and 3.79 xERA is about as high as you'll find, and he of course has an extensive injury history as well. It just seems like Cobb's strong start in this pitching-starved environment makes for a golden opportunity to turn him into more than he actually is.