The hardest part of my writing each week is the lede to The Ticker. Across baseball and football, I've now written some ... 40 versions of this column? Maybe 45? Whatever, that's a lot of "here's what stocks mean."
Sometimes, I can tell this area gets a bit dry, and anyway, we're all here for the juicy information that comes later, yeah? So this week, I'm just going to tell a story and move on to the stock-market stuff.
My first "fantasy league" was silly. Each year, at the start of the season, my dad, brother and I would pick rosters. Dad would pick the first catcher, Heath would pick the first first baseman, I would take the first second baseman, that sort of thing. I would tally our stats each week in the Baseball Weekly — which was a pointless exercise, as we didn't do any add/drops or anything. The only thing that mattered was end-of-season totals in batting average, home runs and RBI, because we didn't know much of anything.
We each put in five dollars — which, looking back, I'd bet meant dad put in five for him and five for me — and winner took all.
I honestly can't remember who won any of the "leagues" ever. I remember we kept doing such leagues until we got home internet and I could start joining online leagues on my own. They were fun as a father-and-sons bonding experience; they were pretty sad as baseball education.
Other than "aww, family," though, my main takeaway from my years of sad little fantasy leagues is those trips through the Baseball Weekly. You don't have to know a lot of about statistics and their application to find things interesting.
These days, I'm no uber-expert at numbers. I understand them and can mess with them a little bit, but there's a reason I write here and not Beyond the Box Score. What I do like to do, though, is exactly what I did all those years ago. I troll through box scores, Baseball-Reference pages, standings lists and notice the interesting thing. It helps me find tidbits that I then tweet about, even if they aren't necessarily meaningful.
These days, I do my random searching around on Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs and ESPN.com, but the point remains the same. If you're just cruising around the internet with some time to kill, there's not much better than bringing up random pages and just looking. Bold numbers, or three digits instead of two, or a negative where you might expect a positive. You can learn a lot, and have fun doing it! (That was the dorkiest sentence I've ever written.)
Anyway, that's all, quick little storytelling intro before The Ticker. We're looking at guys whose values are on the movie. Ownership percentages are as of Tuesday evening; stats are through Monday unless specified otherwise.
(The values of players are at or near their low points, and you might be able to get them for cheap)
Charlie Morton, SP, PIT (34 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues)
When Morton woke up Sunday morning, he was 5-0 with a 1.62 ERA. He had an admittedly underwhelming 15 strikeouts in 33.1 innings, but was otherwise performing very strongly in 2015. When he went to bed Sunday, his ERA had more than doubled, sitting at 3.97 after allowing nine runs in two-thirds of an inning against Washington. Two-thirds of an inning took Morton from an obvious streamer candidate to a more subtle one. But a subtle streamer candidate is still a streamer candidate, and with two of Morton's next three starts coming against Atlanta and San Diego (with Cleveland sandwiched in between), this is a good streaming time.
Vidal Nuno, SP/RP, ARI (0 percent)
It's not that Nuno is ever going to be a strong starting pitcher. In his three big-league seasons, he's riding a 4.08 ERA in 203 innings, and that's accompanied by a 4.38 FIP. He's 27 years old, 28 in a month, and he's never going to grow into, I don't know, Ryan Vogelsong. But he does have a 2.11 ERA in 2015 (admittedly in only 21.1 innings), and is now pitching for a Seattle team with Felix Hernandez as its only starter with a sub-3.50 ERA. The seven guys who have started games for the Mariners have a combined 3.87 ERA — that's unacceptable for a 2015 rotation in Seattle. Nuno will get a shot at starting some games. He might fall flat on his face, and he isn't really a candidate in standard leagues, but in the deeper ones, this is a guy who is more or less unowned, and I would bet he does enter the rotation soon enough.
(Just because a guy is at or near peak value doesn't mean he has to regress. These are guys who are exceeding the expectations for them, but I can see it continuing)
Jason Heyward, OF, SLC (88 percent)
Quietly, Heyward has turned his season around. He bottomed out at .205/.227/.356 in late April, but has hit .313/.360/.463 since, and his June numbers are even better. Even at that, Heyward's 104 OPS+ is the second-worst number of his career, besting only his supremely disappointing 2011. But the signs are pointing up. He ended April with a 66.7 ground-ball rate, hitting line drives in only 13.6 percent of his plate appearances. Those numbers are still not quite where you want them to be, but they sit at 57.4 and 18.4 percent, respectively, and those numbers include the April nosedive. Heyward is figuring things out. This is more real than not.
Brett Anderson, SP, LAD (11 percent)
I really hadn't given Anderson much thought. He was the third-best Dodgers starter, worse than Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, better than Carlos Frias and (probably) Mike Bolsinger. That was about it. It wasn't like he was striking people out — 52 in 82 innings — so it didn't look like something I'd care about for fantasy. It wasn't until this tweet that I actually looked at Anderson:
Ridiculous number alert: Dodgers SP Brett Anderson's groundball rate this season is 67.3%. Higher than Derek Lowe or Brandon Webb ever had.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 22, 2015
Anderson's never been a big strikeout guy, sitting at 6.8 K/9 for his career. And he's typically been a ground-ball guy, but that number has just been climbing and climbing. He's unlikely to keep that rate above two-thirds, as it is now, but guys at the extremes like Anderson don't necessarily need great strikeout rates to be successful. These numbers could easily continue.
(Sure, these guys have been great, but this is the time to cash in your chips)
Max Scherzer, SP, WAS (99 percent)
This makes sense, right? Scherzer has been more than incredible — he's a bloop, a walk and a hit by pitch away from consecutive perfect games. Johnny Vander Meer wishes he could pitch like Max Scherzer. The general conversation the last few days has been that Scherzer is in a close battle with Chris Sale for best pitcher in baseball, supplanting Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, what-have-you. And at this point, it's hard to argue. But this is Stock Market 101, really — any time something peaks in value beyond any previous belief, cash out. Value doesn't just climb forever. Scherzer is bound for a fall. But everyone is in on Scherzer right now. If you have him, solicit every offer. Your return will be insane.
Kyle Schwarber, C/OF, CHC (13 percent)
Sure, Schwarber is now back in the minors, and you'd expect that to hurt his stock a bit. But most everybody assumes he'll be back up before long (he makes all the sense in the world as a semi-regular left fielder and occasional catcher, if the Cubs are insistent he can field the position), especially considering the .364/.391/.591 line he put up in six games last week. Like all the other prospects that have come up already this year, Schwarber is a ridiculously attractive fantasy option. But I keep coming back to what I said in my Jed Lowrie piece a couple weeks ago: Baseball is so damn hard. It's fun as hell to watch Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, those guys hit like it's their birthright. But these guys fail just as much as they succeed. Whenever Schwarber comes back up, he's as likely to spend a few weeks hitting .180 as he is to hit .280. His biggest fantasy value right now is as a trade chip.
(Yeah, their current values might not be at peak, but frankly, I think lower is more likely than higher; don't get cute)
Nelson Cruz, OF, SEA (98 percent)
Cruz is still a viable fantasy option. But over the past month-plus (since May 15, and yes I'm arbitrary-ing the hell out of my endpoint there), he's hit .262/.345/.381 with four homers, a far cry from the .361/.414/.744 with 15 he had up to that point. This is who Cruz has been in recent years — he hit 25 home runs with a .281 average in the first half last year, then 15 and .261 in the second. Cruz is very good, and he's likely to have at least a small hot streak again. But that MVP-caliber player he was a few weeks ago is just a memory now, and if you can get trade return from someone who thinks that guy will return, take it. (This was all without considering his injury-or-not-injury from Monday, but he played Tuesday, so I'm ignoring it.)
Eric Hosmer, 1B, KAN (89 percent)
Dude, this makes me so sad. Hosmer is my little honeypot. But a few weeks ago, there were murmurs of him as an early MVP candidate. He was hitting .333/.410/.574 with seven home runs, leading a potent offense to one of the best records in baseball. Since, he's hit .243/.298/.315 with only one more home run. That's lower than what the real Hosmer is, but of course that early season surge was higher. I still think we're in for Hosmer's best season to date, and he's definitely fantasy relevant, but combine his early season production, his relevance in the All-Star balloting and the residual memories of his strong October, I wager there will be some willing to pay for Hosmer. He's worth dealing now. And now I'll go cry for a while.
(The values here are at the extremes, either really high or really low, but it's to the point where any sale wouldn't be a fair one)
Victor Martinez, 1B, DET (83 percent)
Since coming off the DL, through Monday, Martinez has five hits in 17 at bats and one home run. That's fine, if not special, though that one homer does double his season total. It's also just enough that it makes a reasonable valuation of Martinez impossible. If he came off the DL hitting .600, you'd deal him to whoever thought he was fixed. If he went hitless in five straight games, you'd assume it was a buy-low opportunity and invest. But .294? I don't know if Martinez is healthy again, if he's just run into a few fastballs, if he's on his last legs. All you can do right now, if you have him, is hope for the best. And if you don't have him? I wouldn't have the first idea what to suggest you offer as a trade return.
Kennys Vargas, 1B, MIN (8 percent)
When Vargas was sent to the minors, he was hitting .248/.295/.362 with three home runs. For a DH-only slowfoot, it was nothing special, disappointing even. But it wasn't the level of production you'd generally expect would get a 24-year-old prospect sent down. Since he's returned, in 12 games, he's hitting .250/.250/.425. For all intents and purposes, Vargas' three weeks in the minors changed nothing about his production. He's back now, though, and playing basically every day. If you're in a league where he had relevance before, he has exactly the same relevance today. What's his trade value? In a league like that, it's nebulous. His prospect pedigree is still there, but the 2015 value is negligible.
(low-owned guys who have a starter in front of them or another reason to hold off, but there are things that could change)
Will Venable, OF, SDP (3 percent)
This is kind of cheating; Venable got a starting gig basically as soon as Wil Myers hit the DL. But heck, he's still owned in only three percent of leagues, and he has a 20-20 season on his record in 2013. Venable cratered in 2014, which is part of the reason why the Padres felt the need to go trade for every outfielder with a pulse in the offseason, but otherwise he's been relevant throughout his career — double-digit steals, maybe double-digit homers. The San Diego offense should be on the upswing (god, you'd think it would have to eventually), and Venable should have basically a full-time job at least until Myers is healthy. He's worth a longer look.
Jon Gray, SP, COL (2 percent)
In this, the year of the prospect, we might be seeing another one before too long. After a disastrous start to the season, Gray has pitched much better of late, plying his trade in Albuquerque, the AAA version of his future Denver home. His season numbers still underwhelm, with a 4.50 ERA, but the number is only 2.63 over his last eight starts. Meanwhile, the Rockies' rotation — stop me if you've heard this before — has been abysmal this year, with Chad Bettis the only healthy starter with an ERA below 5.03 (heck, Bettis and John Axford are the only healthy pitchers on the entire staff with more than 11 innings pitched and an ERA under 4.45). Gray will make his debut this summer. Book it.
(handcuffs; low-owned guys who have someone in front of them, but they are strong backups or replacements to stash)
Wade Davis, RP, KAN (77 percent)
I didn't think I'd have to point this out. But Greg Holland is 95-percent owned, and Davis is sitting down there at 77. Fantasy football and baseball don't always have perfect analogues, particularly when it comes to handcuffs, but this one works: Just like every Jamaal Charles owner should have Knile Davis stashed, every Greg Holland owner should have Wade Davis stashed. More likely than not, Holland gets his issues this season worked out. But as it stands, his walk rate is double the last two years, his strikeout rate is cut down by about a third, and his FIP has climbed by two runs. Davis, meanwhile, is pitching like Davis pitches. He's someone to hold onto.
Miguel Sano, 3B/SS, MIN (7 percent)
Trevor Plouffe has a 103 OPS+ on the year, but that's on the back of a strong early season; this month, he's hitting .167/.205/.321. As the Twins' offense has come back to reality, they are losing their tenuous grp on a playoff spot. They've already called up Byron Buxton; Sano would be the next in line. Now, he's further from a call-up than the other big names of this season, having missed 2014 with injury, but he has 13 home runs already in AA this year. And did you see the header here? In Yahoo!, Sano has shortstop eligibility. If he does get the call-up, that's a nice little perk.