Now we take to the mound with the Hail Mary Team. As I mentioned in the introduction piece, fixing rate stats (ERA & WHIP most commonly) is harder than piling up counting stats. The more the innings pile up, the harder it is to make a significant move in ERA or WHIP without Justin Verlander-in-June-type numbers from a pitcher or three (0.92 ERA, 0.71 WHIP in 49 IP). OK maybe you don’t need guys to throw that well, but you need some heavy innings of quality work to move the needle.
Of course that also depends on how stratified your league’s ERA & WHIP standings are to begin with and given how plentiful pitching has been this year, they might be pretty tight top to the bottom. All that said, the guys on this list have the kind of skills to lower their ERA and WHIP totals by a decent margin over the second half, but the results haven’t been up to expectations so they can likely be had at a discount. This group will contain a lot of strikeout upside and hopefully their continued display of strong skills will start to net the results they deserve leading in turn to wins along with several innings of quality ERA and WHIP.
Zach Greinke (MIL) – The ultimate Hail Mary Teamer, Greinke should be your first target for pitching to see if that ugly 5.66 ERA can bring in a heavy discount. For a lot of owners it won’t (as they realize he has been better than a 5.66), but even if he comes with a small discount he is worth it. His skills have been amazing (11.7 K/9, 1.8 BB/9 and 6.4 K/BB), but he has been brutalized by absurd LOB% (55%) and HR/FB (15%) rates that just can’t continue or at least I certainly wouldn’t bet on them continuing. His .341 BABIP is a career high, too. That could be equal parts his 24% line drive rate (highest since 2006) and a poor infield defense. Adding it all together, there just seems to be no way that he can continue to post the base skills he is and yet carry an ERA that high. Perhaps you can turn your best hitter or pitcher into Greinke plus something else to start your Hail Mary Team.
Matt Garza (CHC) – I was worried about Garza heading into Wrigley especially with an escalating flyball rate the last few years. Without a skills change, I thought he would get knocked around for plenty of home runs, especially on afternoons when the wind was blowing out. Alas, he made a major skills change. His flyball rate has gone from 45% down to 28%(!) with his groundball rate rising in concert from 36% to 50%.
However his work with men on base has ailed him this year thus what should have been the makings of a career year (2.87 xFIP, 2.98 FIP) has resulted in modest improvements from a 3.91 ERA last year to 3.77 this year. There is room for more and Garza is one to target. His current ERA won’t earn you a clearance price via trade, but a 3.77 doesn’t quite get his current manager what it used to either so don’t buckle into your trade partner’s demands without some push & pull.
Chris Carpenter (STL) – Too bad I didn’t think of this strategy a few weeks ago because Carpenter would have been a perfect selection back in mid-June. However he has started to turn a corner with back-to-back one run outings in seven and nine innings, respectively, lowering his ERA from 4.47 to an even 4.00. Of course that is still a decent bit below average as he has just a 90 ERA+ for the season.
His hit rate has leapt from 8.2 to 9.8 H/9 this year. He allowed 8+ hits nine times all of last year and has already matched that total in 2011. He has doubled his outings of 10+ hits allowed from two to four. While part of it may be the downgrade from Brendan Ryan to Ryan Theriot at shortstop, a bigger part is a massive surge in line drive rate to 24%, a three year high. His groundball rate has dipped 5% as a result, too. His skills suggest an ERA of about three and a quarter so there’s still room to go even in the midst of his current mini-hot streak.
Ricky Nolasco (FLO) – Is there a more maddening pitcher in fantasy baseball? After slightly outperforming his skills in 2008 (3.52 ERA/3.69 xFIP), he has massively underperformed against his skills the last two and a half years. ERAs of 5.06, 4.51 and this year’s 4.08 have left us scratching our heads standing next to xFIP totals of 3.23, 3.37 and 3.50. Like Carpenter, Nolasco has seen a dramatic rise in his line drive percentage up to a career high of 25% after sitting 19-22% for his career.
The dip in strikeouts from 8.4 to 6.5 is a bit alarming, too, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio remains very strong at 3.1 so he should still be better than a 4.08 ERA. I am still willing to bet on a guy who had three straight years of 4.4 K/BB spanning 555 innings coming into this year, especially if I’m going all-in on a season that hasn’t panned out as initially planned. The Hail Mary Team is obviously about embracing risk, it is really the only way for the strategy to succeed. Well the risk panning out is the only for it to succeed, but the first step is not being afraid of risk.
Edwin Jackson (CWS) – I have put him in my spot starter picks several times this year. His talent is starting to shine through more often than in years past, but the results haven’t yet caught up as his ERA (4.24) is nearly a run higher than his xFIP (3.28). He is yet another guy suffering from an outlier line drive rate as his is also at a career high of 25% after just once topping 19% since he became a full-time starter back in 2007 (21%, 2008). So if that evens out this year, his hit rate will come down from 10.1 and with it the WHIP will drop and his results will start to resemble his true skill level. I find that a lot of fantasy managers don’t really like Jackson so if you present them with an opportunity to remove him from their team, they may happily oblige at less than full value.
Mat Latos (SD) – We saw the kind of heights that Latos can reach last year and there aren’t any glaring issues in his profile that suggest he can’t get back there again this year. The flyball rate has ticked up from 40% to 46% while the groundball rate is down from 45% to 40%, but that hurts a lot less in his home ballpark and a few others within his division where it is reasonable to assume he will find himself pitching throughout the second half. He isn’t pitching like the sub-3.00 ERA guy from 2010, but you don’t need him to in order for him to be worth your while in a trade. Test the waters on him in your league and if the Latos manager in your league is in a tight ERA battle, maybe you have someone with a shiny ERA he would be more interested in.
Chad Billingsley (LAD) – Billingsley appears to be coming out of his funk a bit having lowered his ERA from 4.65 on June 15th to 4.15 after Sunday night’s start. Of course that is still below average with an 87 ERA+ and a buying opportunity is there even if the price hasn’t dropped significantly. His skills remain rock solid with very little movement in his strikeout and walk rates since 2007. If he can just avoid those full-on implosion starts (6+ ER), he should be able to chisel his ERA down to 3.50ish by season’s end if not better.
Max Scherzer (DET) – Even if he isn’t on your team this year, you probably have an idea of how maddening his season has been. And now 18 starts in, I can’t imagine a fantasy manager sticking to his guns and making someone pay full price for a 4.90 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. Now he might just say “I have come this far and I’m going to stick it out,” and if so you just move on. But more likely you can find something even on your down-trodden team that will entice his manager to make a move at something well under preseason costs.
For your end, you are getting a guy who is still posting very strong skills (8.1 K/9, 2.5 K/BB), but one who has been bitten hard by gopheritis (1.4 HR/9, 12% HR/FB). Not only have his home run and home run per flyball rates hit career highs, but he is also allowing a career high 44% flyballs making it that much worse. The Tigers fired their pitching coach on Sunday and perhaps newly promoted bullpen coach Jeff Jones can figure out what Rick Knapp couldn’t and get Scherzer back on his 2010 second half track.
Brandon Morrow (TOR) – In what was supposed to be another step forward if not a full on breakout season, Morrow has actually regressed in 2011 despite maintaining his 11.0 K/9 and lowering his walk rate from 4.1 to 3.6 BB/9. Alas his efforts with men on base have continued to plague him as his LOB% has dropped from 69% in 2010 to 65% this year. The talent is in there and we saw last August what it can deliver as he went 30 innings with a 2.97 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 14.7 K/9 en route to a 3-0 record in five starts. Roll the dice on that potential without question, especially in a redraft league where you are taking a shot.
Edinson Volquez (CIN) – Another live arm (9.3 K/9) with an ERA that seems to belie his true skill (5.65 ERA, 3.97 xFIP). A lot of his problems have been tied to home runs. His insane 18% HR/FB has done a number on his ERA and even if that just evens out to his career mark of 12% (as opposed to league average around 9-10%), his ERA will feel it in a big way. His ownership rates are way down so he is guy you might be able to get without a trade. Hell, he may be a big reason you are in this place to begin with in which case just hold on. The talent is there. Let’s see if it comes to fore in the second half.
Brett Anderson (OAK) – Originally we were worried he would need Tommy John Surgery, but that appears to be out of the question now. His return this year is still a question, but we’re throwing a Hail Mary here, so if a contender in your league has him, he might opt to get out from under that risk and get someone into his rotation who is actually pitching every fifth day.