Well, that was different.
Two starts after turning in his worst of the season, a six-run disaster in which he allowed three home runs and didn’t make it out of the first inning, Taijuan Walker delivered his best of the season, a three-hit shutout in which he struck out 11 and walked none.
Of course, it wasn’t his first dominant start. The former top prospect has long teased us with his potential, putting up an identical line, only over eight innings, against the Cleveland Indians on June 8 and also delivering an 11-strikeout effort in April. His ability was never in question, but after so many fakeouts, many of us had come to think of him as too untrustworthy for Fantasy purposes.
So why would that change? Because he has, according to MLB.com. After that disastrous start Sept. 3, he was so embarrassed that he went to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. and basically said “whatever it takes.”
What it took was a mechanical change — a twist in his delivery to keep his shoulder from flying open and make better use of his lower body — and he said after a side session earlier in the week that he began to feel right at home with it. You can see the change in this clip from Walker’s in-between start Sept. 8 via MLB.com:
The result was improved command and, perhaps most revelatory, a couple extra miles per hour on his fastball.
Like I said, changed pitcher.
“It took that outing he had 10-11 days ago when he hit bottom to realize that and be open,” manager Scott Servais said. “It’s one thing as coaches when you want to help kids or players out, but it’s another when they have that kind of talent and they totally buy in and it comes together. I hope it continues.”
Yes, Walker could hit some bumps in the road as he looks to cement the overhaul, but as more and more starting pitchers bow out with the season winding down, he could be a potentially lucrative pickup — a gutsy one, but as promising as you’ll find on the waiver wire this time of year.
1. Super Nova
Because Ivan Nova is already gone, right? Seeing as he was lined up for two starts this week, his ownership percentage has risen to 81, and given the number of Fantasy owners who have stopped paying attention this time of year, it doesn’t have much room to grow from there.
But Nova’s legend does.
|IP: 6||H: 5||ER: 1||BB: 1||K: 11|
Horror of horrors, he walked a man. That’s only the third time in eight starts since joining the Pittsburgh Pirates . If you want an example of what a small mechanical change can do for a pitcher, look no further. Ray Searage’s latest reclamation project began aligning his chin with his target at the pitching coach’s suggestion, keeping his shoulder from flying open and making a world of difference with his command. It shows up not only with his walk rate but also his efficiency. He has averaged more than six innings in his eight starts with the Pirates.
Tuesday’s start was a step in the wrong direction as far as that goes, but then again, Nova had 11 strikeouts. And that particular number may be less a fluke than the continued refinement of a pitcher only beginning to find himself.
“All my pitches were working,” Nova said. “Getting ahead in the count, and the curveball was sharp. … Be able to throw it for a strike and bounce it when you need to, that’s one of the things that I’ve focused on.”
We’ll just see about that:
Yup, I count five strikeouts on bounced curveballs, which account for five of his 18 swinging strikes overall. He averaged only 6.7 in his first seven starts with the Pirates.
Maybe he was just exploiting a bad Philadelphia Phillies lineup and won’t find so many hitters willing to chase that pitch across the majors, but at this point, the strikeouts would only be a nice bonus. Nova is someone worth keeping around for the one-start weeks as well.
2. Know when to hold ’em
I mentioned the starting pitchers bowing out at this late stage of the season, but unfortunately, they aren’t always so easy to identify. Any injury this time of year has the potential to be a season-ender, and so with every injury you’re left to wonder, “Will I see this guy again?”
And the offshoot: “Should I continue to roster him?”
Some of the most notable examples in recent days include Danny Salazar , Steven Wright , Dallas Keuchel, Stephen Strasburg and Jacob de Grom, and for the most part, I’d be comfortable dropping any of them. For the few that seem to be on the verge of returning, though, you might want to slink over the waiver wire to see if somebody else already did.
DeGrom and and earlier injury case, Steven Matz , actually have a timeline. They’re hoping to return Sunday, piggybacking each other since neither is equipped to handle a starter’s workload, which may seem like a deal-breaker as far as Fantasy utility goes.
|ERA: 3.04||WHIP: 1.20||IP: 148||BB: 36||K: 143|
But you’ve already missed your chance to start them this week, so we’re only talking about future weeks. If either goes even four innings Sunday, then he should be equipped to throw the minimum for a quality start next time. And particularly in deGrom’s case, him being the ace-caliber pitcher he is, that’s reason enough to take the plunge.
|ERA: 3.49||WHIP: 1.26||IP: 95 1/3||BB: 26||K: 79|
Joe Ross also has a clear timetable, scheduled to rejoin the Washington Nationals rotation at some point this week, and is even more widely available considering he hasn’t pitched since early July. Of course, that’s even more reason to think he’s not equipped to handle a starter’s workload, a point manager Dusty Baker has stressed, so you may not be able to start him for a couple weeks. Still, the upside may be worth it depending when exactly your league ends.
The last pitcher I’d feel comfortable uncomfortable dropping is Dallas Keuchel , who doesn’t have a clear timetable but got a clean MRI on his shoulder Friday and should begin throwing here in short order. He hasn’t had the most consistent season, but he is the reigning AL Cy Young winner and a better bet to win a game than some of the no-name spot starters you can expect to see in the season’s final week.
3. Drama in the ninth
After several weeks of closer stability, chaos has returned to the most volatile position at the most inopportune time. The Cardinals’, Miami Marlins ‘ and San Francisco Giants ‘ roles are all suddenly in question after feeling pretty secure just a couple weeks ago.
Long term, we still know who’s closing in St. Louis: Seung Hwan Oh , who has given the St. Louis Cardinals the lockdown option Trevor Rosenthal never was.
|SV: 17||ERA: 1.87||WHIP: 0.90||BB/9: 2.2||K/9: 12.1|
But he’s sidelined by a strained groin for now, and again, every injury has the potential to be a season-ender this time of year. The Cardinals have mostly downplayed this one, but they haven’t offered a timetable either. And seeing as Kevin Siegrist filled in with a save Tuesday, he would seem like a player to add in leagues where saves are scarce.
|SV: 2||ERA: 2.91||WHIP: 1.11||BB/9: 4.0||K/9: 9.5|
The Marlins may have actually done us all a favor by going back to A.J. Ramos for their last three save opportunities. The first wasn’t by design — he was bailing out Fernando Rodney — but then he got a one-out save Sunday and a full one-inning save Tuesday.
|SV: 35||ERA: 3.07||WHIP: 1.33||BB/9: 5.0||K/9: 10.7|
He was the closer, remember, before fracturing his middle finger in early August, and so his presence in the eighth inning ensured we never got too comfortable with Rodney in the ninth. Of course, we can’t get too comfortable with Ramos either. His finger isn’t completely healed, and he says it impacts his grip on the baseball. Still, apart from Oh, he’s the one reliever in between these three bullpens who qualifies as must-own.
The Giants’ situation is completely up in the air. We know Santiago Castilla is out after allowing at least one earned run in four of his last six appearances, blowing his seventh and eight saves in the process, but the first man up, Hunter Strickland , followed up a four-out save Sunday with a four-run meltdown Tuesday. Derek Law is expected back from a strained elbow Wednesday and was already endorsed as a viable ninth-inning option by manager Bruce Bochy, so he’s probably the pitcher to own. Then again, you can never count out Sergio Romo , who was the Giants’ primary ninth-inning option in 2013 and 2014.
|SV: 3||ERA: 3.24||WHIP: 1.13||BB/9: 2.8||K/9: 8.2|
|SV: 1||ERA: 1.94||WHIP: 0.96||BB/9: 1.6||K/9: 8.3|
|SV: 0||ERA: 2.96||WHIP: 1.15||BB/9: 2.6||K/9: 9.6|
Going by merit, none of these pitchers is a runaway favorite, but Law’s numbers are the best. He’s probably the one to own if Ramos and other widely available types like Cody Allen , Tony Watson and Adam Ottavino are already taken.
4. Long at shortstop
After returning to the active roster Sunday, Aledmys Diaz finally returned to the active lineup Tuesday and did everything to ensure he’ll remain there, reaching in all three of his plate appearances and hitting a home run.
|BA: .315||HR: 15||OPS: .908||AB: 356||K: 54|
In other words, he picked up where he left off before fracturing his thumb. He still ranks sixth among shortstops in ISO (which is slugging percentage minus batting average, thereby removing the influence of singles from slugging percentage — looking forward to that becoming common knowledge) and third among shortstops in Head-to-Head points per game (which is … self-explanatory).
So if you’ve stashed him all this time, you no longer need to trust in unreliables like Brad Miller or Eugenio Suarez . He’s your shortstop again — and one good enough to start at utility for most Fantasy owners.
In fact, if you more recently picked up Jung Ho Kang as your replacement, you may need to start Diaz at utility. Kang has also impressed with his power this season, performing at a 37-homer pace (assuming 550 at-bats) but only recently returned from a DL stint for a sore shoulder.
|BA: .269||HR: 18||OPS: .885||AB: 264||K: 63|
That’s not the reason he’s as available as he is, though. After his 2015 season ended with a gruesome leg injury, the Pirates were reluctant to play him every day before the shoulder injury, but since returning, he has started eight straight games. You’re actually getting the full effect of his production now, and it’s too valuable to pass up.
But then again, Jose Reyes has also gone from fill-in to fixture at the shortstop position. He hasn’t dominated at any one position, but his across-the-board production has made him the eighth-best shortstop in Head-to-Head points per game. And since steals are part of that equation, he’s exceptionally valuable in Rotisserie leagues as well.
|BA: .275||HR: 6||SB: 8||OPS: .785||AB: 189|
Kang and Reyes both give you the option of starting them at third base instead of shortstop, so between that, the utility spot and the corner and middle infield spots in leagues that provide them, you don’t necessarily need an opening at shortstop to play them, much like Diaz. It speaks to the growing depth at the position. It’s not that these players are good “for a shortstop.” They’re just good and, provided their playing time holds, would be must-start options at pretty much any position.
5. They killed Kennys!
I like Kennys Vargas , and I don’t care who knows it.
Maybe I wouldn’t like him if everybody liked him. He strikes out every third at-bat, which is obviously a dangerous trend, but what he also does is mash. In fact, every time he’s in the lineup, he seems to make a monster contribution.
And then he’s out the next day like no one even noticed.
I wonder sometimes if I’ve imagined the whole thing, but then I go look at his numbers and, yup, monstrous:
|BA: .273||HR: 7||OPS: .972||AB: 99||K: 34|
The latest example was Tuesday at Detroit, when he went 3 for 5 with a home run. Quite a contribution for a player making only his fourth start this month, but the team’s official website had nary a mention of it. See?
Jorge Polanco , with a .790 OPS gets his own headline, but Vargas, with his .972 OPS, is quietly dismissed and will probably be back to sitting Wednesday because, well … who cares?
Edit: Vargas is actually in the Twins lineup Wednesday. Huzzah!
I care, OK? Look, he can’t homer every game, but even when he takes an 0-fer, it’s usually with a walk or two. In fact, his 17.4 percent walk rate would rank second among qualifying hitters, behind only Bryce Harper . Maybe his strikeout rate would expose him as another Jon Singleton over time, but maybe he’d overcome it to be another Chris Davis . We’ll never know if he doesn’t get the chance.
Come on, Minnesota Twins . What do you have to lose? You’ve already ruined Jose Berrios . At least give us a trendy sleeper pick for next year.
Source: CBS Sports / Fantasy Baseball Observations: Taijuan Walker figures things out