Imagine being athletic enough to make a living in professional football and baseball.
Tyler Gaffney isn’t making a big check in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor-league system, but he quietly shifted sports over the football offseason. Gaffney was an interesting running back coming out of Stanford, a sixth-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2014, and his NFL career never really took off because of injuries. Still, he owns two Super Bowl rings from his time with the New England Patriots.
Now he’s chasing a World Series ring, though he has a long way to go. Gaffney gave up football to join the Pirates’ organization as a right-handed hitting outfielder. Presumably, he brings some speed to the position.
MLB.com’s Adam Berry wrote at the beginning of the minor-league season about Gaffney’s athletic odyssey. He was selected in the 24th round of the Major League Baseball draft in 2012. That year, he played 38 games with the State College Spikes in short-season Single A. He hit .297 with a strong .925 OPS, but he went back to Stanford and ended up getting on NFL teams’ radars with 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns running for the Cardinal in 2013. So football it was, for a while.
Gaffney suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2014 with Carolina. He was claimed (controversially) by the Patriots after he was waived. Then came another season-ending knee injury in 2015. In 2016, it was a toe injury that knocked him out at the end of a solid preseason. Gaffney was with the Jaguars for a little more than a week last August before he was cut. He never appeared in an NFL regular-season game, but got his Super Bowl rings for being on New England’s injured reserve in 2014 and on the practice squad for much of the 2016 season.
Even when Gaffney was trying to make his NFL dream happen, he had baseball on his mind.
“My dream has been the big leagues my whole life,” Gaffney told MLB.com. “I think I’ve been tasting that every time I was hurt. You have time to think about things like that. So now I’m here, putting in my work.
“Now I’m here, five years later. I think the last couple years took their toll on my body. The heart wanted it. The body didn’t. I’m finally able to come back to baseball, the sport I love.”
It can’t be easy after five baseball seasons off, especially when plenty of those years were spent dealing with serious injuries and the mental hurdles on coming back. Playing at PNC Park in Pittsburgh must seem like a long way away, but it’s a pretty fun story to track.
“I’m a fighter. I’ve always been told, ‘You’re not going to make it,’” Gaffney told MLB.com.
Chicago (AFP) – Having dropped 15 of their first 18 games this season, the Cincinnati Reds will try to salvage their Major League Baseball campaign with a new manager and sense of urgency.
After losing 10 of their past 11 games for their worst start since 1931, the Reds fired manager Bryan Price and installed bench coach Jim Riggleman as interim manager starting with Friday’s game in St. Louis.
“I think we’re going to hit the ground running,” Reds general manager Dick Williams said. “We’re very focused on creating a sense of urgency for these guys to perform now.
“When guys show up for work every day, they need to have a sense of urgency to win that day. They need to take care of the details on the field. They need to play hard. They need to play the game smart. They need to play it right. That, we can control.”
With the worst record in the major leagues, the Reds are already 8 1/2 games behind pace-setting Pittsburgh in the National League Central division.
“This is an organizational disappointment and nobody here feels that Bryan… is a scapegoat for what happened,” Williams said. “It’s just that’s the first step in the process of making this right and trying our best to fix things.”
Price, 55, joined the Reds as pitching coach before the 2010 season and was promoted to manager in 2014 to replace Dusty Baker, going 279-387 as manager.
The Reds have not made the playoffs since 2013 and have not won a playoff series since 1995. They escaped the first round for their only series win since sweeping Oakland in the 1990 World Series.
“Just try to see if we can win some ball games, it’s as simple as that,” Riggleman said. “I will just try to stress the details of the game. Maybe some things we stress pregame will hopefully carry into the game and help us win a few.”
The Reds, whose minus-46 run differential was the worst in the major leagues, had a starting pitcher rotation with the fewest innings pitched and the highest earned-run average in the National League last season.
“We felt like we had to act now and we couldn’t afford to wait,” Williams said.
“It is early in the regular season. But we’ve been thinking about the 2018 season since the day the 2017 season ended and we had all off-season to prepare. We’ve had a lot of chances to observe this group together and to see them get off to the kind of start we had hoped and it’s not there.”
We’re three weeks into the season. Are you worried yet?
Whether your team is in first place or in the cellar, you surely have at least a player or two who hasn’t been performing. Over the last two weeks, we’ve looked at early velocity trends. Now several turns into MLB rotations, we have enough data to verify if early pitcher velocity issues were just a fluke or something more.
According to Fangraphs, the average fastball velocities in his first four starts were 92.7, 93.5, 92.3, and 93.4. That adds up to 92.9 mph for the season, down more than two mph from the worst average velocity of his career (last season). Granted, the overall results have gotten better since his first start, allowing three runs or fewer in three consecutive starts, but Gausman still has a 5.57 ERA and has allowed six home runs in only 21 innings.
Why am I so concerned about the impact of his velocity loss? Look at last year. There were only 13 starting pitchers who saw velocity decreases of at least one mph from 2016 to 2017. Collectively, that group was a complete disaster last season. The average ERA increase was 1.16 and average WHIP increase was 0.13. Just one pitcher among the group had improvement in both ERA and WHIP (James Paxton). Among the other 12 pitchers, there were several injuries (Danny Duffy, Rich Hill, Joe Ross, Chris Tillman), demotions (Adam Conley, Junior Guerra), and retirements (Matt Cain, Mike Pelfrey).
The early trend for Gausman isn’t good, and this is already a pitcher whose trends were going in the wrong direction before this season, with an ugly 4.68 ERA and 1.50 WHIP last year. At this point, I’m taking whatever I can get for Gausman in a 12-plus team league or just cutting bait in a shallower league.
-It’s always fun to look at gaudy stats at this point in the year. Two pitchers who have positive signs and upcoming two-start weeks are Rick Porcello and Jose Berrios. The pair lead MLB in K/BB ratio, and also have sub-2.00 ERAs to start the season. Berrios has 29/1 K/BB in 27.2 innings, which is very promising after posting a 3.0 BB/9 last season. He did have a career 2.5 BB/9 in the minors, including 2.4 BB/9 at Triple-A. Meanwhile, the inconsistent Porcello is back in Cy Young form after struggling last season. The biggest culprit for Porcello’s struggles in recent seasons has been his inability to keep the ball in the park, but he has yet to allow a long ball in 25.2 innings. Also, remember that Porcello led the AL in K/BB ratio during his 2016 Cy Young campaign.
-Trevor Cahill’s season debut was extremely encouraging, tossing seven scoreless innings against the White Sox. His move back to the rotation last season was overshadowed by a poor finish and shoulder issues with the Royals, so it’s easy to forget how effective he was early in the year with the Padres. Before getting traded, Cahill had a 3.69 ERA, 10.6 K/BB, and 3.00 K/BB ratio in 11 starts, along with a 3.44 FIP. Those were worthy numbers in mixed leagues, especially with his 56 percent groundball rate. He could be worth a flier if he’s still available in your league.
-Going along with Gausman, I’m still concerned about Robbie Ray’s loss of velocity. However, it is starting to trend in the right direction. He had his best velocity of the season vs. San Francisco on Wednesday, averaging 93.4 mph, still about one mph below last year’s average velocity. That increase was clear, with Ray throwing his fastball more often in that start. That’s a good sign, but I wouldn’t hesitate if you can get good value for him in a trade.
-Vince Velasquez has been very good over four starts, with a K/9 back above 10.0 and a 2.1 BB/9 that’s easily the best of his career and less than half of what it was last season. But this is also a pitcher who has never thrown more than 131 innings in a season, so let’s not jinx it, okay?
-The Reds fired pitching coach turned manager Bryan Price and current pitching coach Mack Jenkins after a 3-15 start. It’s no coincidence with the league’s worst rotation ERA (5.59) through 18 games. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, though. The team’s xFIP is 4.49, and Tyler Mahle, in particular, has had some bad luck. Mahle has a .356 BABIP despite a K/BB ratio of nearly 3.00. The long balls are a concern, but this is a pitcher who posted a 2.06 ERA between Double- and Triple-A last season with a 1.9 BB/9. I’m not ready to give up just yet.
Note: Probable pitchers as of Friday, April 20, and are subject to change.
The following pitchers are generally available in over 50 percent of fantasy leagues and have favorable match-ups this week:
Thursday, April 26: Jake Junis vs. CHW
The White Sox have the 13th best OPS in baseball, but please excuse me for being a non-believer after they had the seventh worst OPS last season and made almost no offseason moves. Junis was pounded in his last outing after consecutive scoreless starts, but this is a matchup to use him.
Friday, April 27: Jake Odorizzi vs. CIN
The aforementioned Reds have the third worst OPS in baseball so far. That probably won’t continue when Joey Votto breaks out of his early slump, but there are huge holes in this lineup, especially without Eugenio Suarez. Odorizzi’s early peripherals are just as mediocre as last season despite a good beginning to his season, but this is another opportunity to use him.
Saturday, April 28: Jaime Garcia vs. TEX
Garcia has been a popular name in this spot, as he’s had some favorable early matchups. He has another coming next week against a Rangers lineup without Rougned Odor, Elvis Andrus, and Delino DeShields that has a .629 OPS vs. lefties, eighth worst in baseball. Garcia already beat Texas two weeks ago when they were healthier.
Monday, April 23: Zach Davies @ KC
Davies has been very inconsistent early this season, as usual, but is coming off a 6.1 innings scoreless performance vs. Cincinnati. He gets another very favorable matchup on Monday against a Royals lineup that has the worst OPS in the AL vs. right-handers.
Saturday, April 28: Zack Wheeler @ SD
It’s much too early to say that Wheeler is back after two decent starts, especially when one was against the Marlins, but Matt Harvey’s struggles might have bought him more time in the rotation. If he can survive Sunday’s start at Atlanta, he has a weak Padres lineup waiting for him next weekend.
Sunday, April 29: Chad Bettis @ MIA
Bettis has been one of the best stories of the early season, with a 3-0 record and 1.44 ERA in four starts after returning from testicular cancer last year. His 1.50 K/BB ratio doesn’t support the great start, but he’s had three starts away from Coors Field and gets one more at Miami late next week. Not surprisingly, the Marlins have the third lowest OPS in baseball vs. right-handers.
Jed Lowrie has delivered some productive seasons throughout his 11-year Major League Baseball career, but nothing quite like this.
Through 19 games, the A’s second baseman leads all of baseball with 28 hits and 21 runs batted in. His six home runs are tied for the American League lead, while his 49 total bases rank second and his .346 batting average is fifth.
In an extremely small sample size, the former Stanford star is on pace to hit 51 home runs and drive in 179 runs, at the age of 34. To put that in perspective, Lowrie’s career highs in those categories are 16 and 75, respectively.
“It’s all about the work for me, the routine,” he explained. “I think the results speak for themselves. But I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on my work in the cage and what I do to prepare for the games.”
“He’s playing the best baseball of his entire career,” A’s manager Bob Melvin marveled. “He’s as professional a hitter as anybody in the league. He has been absolutely terrific.”
Lowrie has been on an absolute tear the last two weeks. Over his last 11 games, he is batting .367, with six home runs and 16 RBI.
“He’s got a great awareness what his strengths and weaknesses are,” Melvin said. “Through experience, he knows what pitchers are going to try to do to him. Throughout the course of the game, he understands the adjustments that are going to be made. He has a focus now probably better than any point in his career, and the numbers would suggest that as well.”
Lowrie believes the turning point of his career came two offseasons ago, and ironically, it had nothing to do with baseball. For years, he couldn’t figure out why he would wake up still feeling tired, despite sleeping more than eight hours a night.
It turned out Lowrie had a deviated septum, suffered several years earlier when he was hit in the nose by a baseball. After consulting with an ear, nose, and throat specialist, he had surgery to repair the septum.
“I think it helped a lot,” Lowrie said. “I just assumed I wasn’t waking up refreshed because of the season. Come to find out my airway was very restricted and my sleep quality was not very good. So while I was sleeping eight or nine hours a night, I was still waking up not feeling refreshed, like I hadn’t even gone to sleep. After nine years of having a deviated septum, that’s going to be something that takes time, but I can already see the results from it.”
“From that point on, he seemed like a different guy,” added Melvin. “He’s allowed to work a little bit harder because he’s getting some rest.”
Last season following the surgery, Lowrie set an Oakland A’s record with 49 doubles, while leading the team with a .277 batting average. The A’s picked up his $6 million option for this year, which has turned out to be quite a bargain.
If Lowrie continues at his current pace, or even anywhere near it, he’ll soon be able to add another achievement to his baseball resume: MLB All-Star.
Where have all the home runs gone? (Chris Carlson/AP)
Within the existential crisis confronting Major League Baseball over the way the modern game is played, there was always one saving grace. If the games were going to feature more pitches, more strikeouts, more walks, more pitching changes, and more all-or-nothing swings but fewer balls in play than at any time in the game’s history — all of that could be tolerated, from a fan-experience perspective, as long as there were also tons of home runs.
You could take away bits of action from the margins of the game, as long as the ultimate action — the ball flying over the fence at ever-increasing rates — was the payoff. And for the past few years, that has been the case. It doesn’t mean this version of baseball was better than the old one, but it means, even for fans who might otherwise be turned off, it was tolerable.
“I actually really like the game,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said last year. “But it’s not what I like — the issue is what do the fans want to see. [And] our research suggests the home run is actually a popular play in baseball.”
But what if all the other time- and action-sucking trends held true, but home runs started to decline? That’s where baseball is in April 2018. And just as with a slumping slugger or a struggling pitcher, while it may be too early to panic, it isn’t too early to worry and wonder whether there’s a problem.
Through the first 3 ½ weeks of the season, strikeout and walk rates have increased over March/April 2017 — with strikeouts accounting for 21.6 percent of all plate appearances last year and 23.0 percent this year (through Thursday), and walks increasing from 8.7 percent to 9.2. That puts the game on a pace to set a record for strikeouts for a 12th straight year and produce an 18-year high for walks. No surprises there.
But the home run rate, which has been on a precipitous climb since the middle of 2015, is down, from 3.1 percent of all plate appearances in March/April 2017 to 2.8 percent in 2018. Three-tenths of a percentage point drop may not seem like much, but over a full season, that comes out to nearly 600 fewer homers than last year’s all-time-high total of 6,105.
This was not an expected outcome in 2018, especially after home run rates were up again across the sport this year in spring training. In the regular season, batters are still hitting fly balls at the same rate as a year ago – 35.6 percent of all batted balls – but the percentage of those fly balls turning into home runs has dropped by a full point, from 12.8 percent to 11.8.
There are, of course, extenuating circumstances, namely the unusually inclement weather across the eastern half of the country this month, which has led to a near-record total of postponements and may have also contributed to the lower home run rates. Fly balls typically leave the park more frequently as the weather heats up.
But various scientific and journalistic studies last year — as well as the anecdotal evidence provided by Justin Verlander and others — found that changes to the composition of the baseball itself were responsible, at least in part, for the surge in home runs. And given this season’s drop, speculation has already begun that another change to the ball has swung the pendulum back in the other direction.
This season, MLB mandated that all teams store their baseballs in air-conditioned rooms, while the Arizona Diamondbacks for the first time are using a humidor at Chase Field to store theirs. Both measures were intended to standardize the baseballs’ “coefficient of restitution” — or, their liveliness. The Diamondbacks’ humidor has served its purpose, as the home run rate at Chase Field has dropped acutely, from 3.5 percent of all plate appearances in 2017 to 2.7 so far this season. Perhaps the air-conditioned storage across the game is having a similar, if smaller, effect.
Alan M. Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois and a leading expert on the physics of baseball, is among those who caution against jumping to any conclusions, about either home run rates or the composition of the baseball, at this early date.
This year’s decline in homers “might be due to the unusually cold weather,” Nathan in an email. He added, “I am generally skeptical of claims that the ball has changed, whether ‘juiced’ or ‘unjuiced.’”
Today’s version of baseball is different than any version that came before: increasingly, an all-or-nothing proposition in which, in 2017, more than a third of plate appearances (33.5 percent) resulted in either a walk, a strikeout or a homer. That’s the highest rate of “three true outcomes” and the lowest rate of balls in play in history.
We all seem to have decided we can sacrifice a certain number of dazzling defensive plays for the sheer spectacle of a lineup full of 20-homer hitters. (In 2017, in fact, 89 of the 144 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title hit at least 20 homers, the highest percentage in history.) We have learned to embrace the 200-strikeout slugger, as long he also produces 50-plus home runs, as Aaron Judge did last year.
The problem for the sport comes when the recipe for all-or-nothing baseball becomes too heavy on the nothing, and too light on the all.
As we enter the last full week of April, perhaps there’s a chance that there are only a handful of postponements for the week, instead of a handful each day.
Samples at the plate and on the mound are getting larger, but still far too little to put too much emphasis on them. But let’s take a look at the week ahead for the best hitter matchups, two-start pitchers and batters you should consider picking up and getting into your lineups.
BEST HITTING MATCHUPS: Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado
Teoscar Hernandez, OF, Toronto – In 97 plate appearances last year, Hernandez had eight home runs and a .261 batting average. He’s going to strike out a lot (37.9 strikeout percentage last season), but he’s a power-speed outfielder with tremendous upside. He needs to be stashed in all category and roto leagues with five outfield spots, as he only has the struggling Randall Grichuk (.088 average, 33.8 strikeout percentage) in his way of regular playing time.
Jed Lowrie, 2B, Oakland – Lowrie is rewarding owners who picked him up with his good start to the season, as he’s been a top 5 option at the position so far. Health has held Lowrie back over his career, as he’s only played more than 100 games three times in 10 seasons. Lowrie should be owned in all 12-team leagues at this point.
Ryan Zimmerman, 1B, Washington – Yes, we’re going back to the well with Zimmerman, who helped fantasy owners in a big way in 2017. He had a two-homer game on Wednesday but has struggled besides that. However, he leads all of baseball in average exit velocity (96.5), according to StatCast. In that lineup, we’ve seen what a red-hot Zimmerman looks like.
Amir Garrett, SP, Cincinnati – With Bryan Price out as manager, Garrett might finally get the chance to enter the starting rotation. It’s not like there’s a lot of competition for him to overcome. Aside from Luis Castillo, Garrett is easily the most talented pitcher in Cincinnati.
Josh Hader, RP, Milwaukee – Whether it’s closing, starting or an Andrew Miller-type role, Hader needs to be owned in every league. He’s the best reliever in baseball right now.
Mac Williamson, OF, San Francisco – Hunter Pence just doesn’t have it anymore, and the 27-year-old nearly broke camp with the team and is hitting .487 in Triple-A with a 1.626 OPS. He needs to be stashed.
TWO-START PITCHERS TO STREAM
Vince Velasquez, SP, Philadelphia (Arizona, Atlanta) – Velasquez would be more attractive if he was on the road in his first start, but alas, he’s showing more flashes of his 2016 self when he broke out than his 2017 season where he was injured. Velasquez’s peripherals show he’s better than his 3.80 ERA may indicate. This may be your last chance to pick him up.
HITTERS TO STREAM
Matt Davidson, 3B, Chicago White Sox – With eight games on the schedule, you’ll want some exposure to the White Sox. Play the power upside with Davidson.
Preston Tucker, OF, Atlanta – With excellent matchups for the week ahead, and with Ronald Acuna yet to get hot enough to call up to the big leagues, Tucker is a sneaky play in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Texas – Choo has always been an underrated fantasy option throughout his career, and this season is no different. With four of six pitchers that Toronto and Oakland will be running out to face Texas next week looking very hittable, Choo – who is leading off for the Rangers and hitting for power – is a must-play option.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the Fantasy Sports Network, http://FNTSY.com