KEEPERS: Post Mortem: 2016 takeaways—Part 2

Last week we submitted the first of a two-part summarization of trends and general observations from the recently concluded season for consideration as part of your off-season planning in Keeper / Dynasty leagues. This is our second installment.

 

Record MLB strikeouts.  Even with home runs nearing all-time MLB highs and overall scoring rising for the second consecutive season, strikeouts are soaring. In fact, 2016 was the 11th consecutive year that strikeouts have gone up, from 6.3 per game (per team) in 2005 to an astonishing 8.01 this season, a new MLB high and nothing short of remarkable.

Some of this dichotomy can be observed anecdotally in the performances of SPs like Michael Pineda (176 IP, 10.6 Dom, 1.4 hr/9, 4.82 ERA) and Robbie Ray (174 IP, 11.3 Dom, 1.2 hr/9, 4.90 ERA). Both Pineda and Ray were among seven SPs who whiffed more than 10 batters per nine innings—and despite their troublesome bottom lines, were able to pile up enough IP to finish among MLB's top ten in whiffs.

Obviously no single reason can be pointed to for the rise in HR. Among likely and most discussed factors including certain pitching venues, the hottest summer on record in most parts of the country, and conjecture over whether the baseball was suddenly "juiced." Another factor might be the relative shortage (compared to recent years) of healthy / quality starting pitching, accompanied by a natural inclination to allow more leeway to those who can generate swings-and-misses, in hopes of fixing their gopheritis.

One huge factor that can't be ignored is a growing reliance on bullpens and particularly multi-inning RPs, many of whom are beginning to post significant K totals in addition to their favorable non-counting stats. Seven relievers finished with more than 100 Ks, as usual suspects Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Kenley Jansen were joined by the likes of import Seung-Hwan Oh—as well as completely unheralded names like Brad Hand, Kyle Barraclough and Hector Neris. These latter three were not only likely unrostered in most leagues on Opening Day, but all of them managed to accomplish this feat while posting sub-3 ERAs and keeping their WHIPs in check. Both Barraclough and Neris were logging their first full MLB seasons.

There were plenty of first-time near-misses of the strikeout century mark. Inexperienced and/or unproven names like Mychal Givens, Michael Feliz, Brad Brach, Felipe Rivero, and Tyler Thornburg all finished with 90 or more Ks. But it wasn't just the names that racked up big IP counts. In total, almost a hundred relievers whiffed more than a batter an inning while posting 50 IP or more this past season. And the recent SP performance and health downticks suggest that that this trend has room to grow. 

Strategic Response:​  Owners using strikeout formats now must maintain a year-long focus on growing strikeouts—particularly in-season—because the bar is being raised as we play. Obviously many of the aforementioned names suggest that some speculation and nimbleness is required, all of which depends on your league's depth and free agent / roster move frequency. Once again, keep an eye out for names that are suddenly in new roles and new organizations, particularly experienced-but-struggling SPs who suddenly find themselves with bullpen jobs (see Blanton, Joe). And if you see a rising Dom concurrent with an SwK spike (such as with the previously K-challenged Brad Hand), do your due diligence in finding out what's changed. These days it doesn't take much effort and it could be well worth your time. 

 

​​The closer wheel spins faster...  Given the trend, this almost isn't news per se, but some year-end reflection is in order. Last year at this time we noted that over half of the MLB clubs made closer changes at some point during the 2015 season. In 2016, the upheaval accelerated, as some teams (e.g., CIN, MIN) were never able to establish any stability at the back of the bullpen. In addition, with little if any starting pitching available to contenders, many playoff hopefuls turned their attention to quality relief help, creating plenty of closer dislocation and adding to seemingly all-time-high fantasy closer frustration.

To put numbers on the aforementioned uncertainty, every NL club with the exceptions of MIA, LA and NYM made ninth inning changes in 2016. AL volatility was more in line with previous seasons, as seven of the 15 AL teams made similar moves. Six closers finished with 40 or more saves, up from five in 2015. But a whopping 44 MLB relievers finished with double-digit saves, again pointing to the need for speculation and even leaps of faith (seriously, Jeanmar Gomez?) when chasing this category.

Strategic Response:​​  The accelerating bullpen upheaval and closer churn rate has some side benefits for owners paying attention. For example, some experienced-if-not-elite closers who lost their jobs before the trade deadline are pending free-agents-to-be, e.g., Brad Ziegler, ex-ARI closer who finished the season with BOS. At least a few MLB clubs will enter the off-season with their late inning bullpen assignments up in the air, and the SP immediate free agent outlook is bleak. The chance of Ziegler and/or others landing on rebuilders or even contenders with ninth inning needs looks like a decent speculation. Particularly in active winter leagues, the time to review the pending free agent RP list is now, if you haven't done it already. And don't forget to check out the DL, where ex-KC closer and free agent Greg Holland spent all of 2016 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He'll be 18 months off of surgery by Opening Day—and if healthy, a good bet to be closing for someone.

The off-season is an even better time to determine which closers will be free agents next winter, and potentially which are likely to be dealt during the 2017 season. For example, a prime candidate is soon-to-be-35-year-old Francisco Rodriguez in DET, where both Bruce Rondon and prospect Joe Jimenez could be capable of stepping in by mid-year.

 

The future is still now.  Following the unusual number of outstanding 2015 MLB debuts, we spent part of our spring First Pitch Forums seminar warning against expecting a repeat—and assigning too many short-term over-valuations to prospects that wouldn't live up to the immediate hype. In retrospect, outstanding performances from the likes of Corey Seager, Trea Turner, Gary Sanchez, Michael Fulmer and Edwin Diaz matched up well with those of Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Miguel Sano, Noah Syndergaard and Roberto Osuna from 2015. Though there may have been a few less stellar efforts, and our First Pitch cautions over the likes Tyler Glasnow, Steven Matz and Joey Gallo were justified, 2016 was another good season for rookies.

And our keeper/dynasty format on this point is instructive. Even if you're trying to win now, the critical issue isn't whether prospects develop this year or next, but rather assessing their skills correctly. Your objective is to give yourself the best chance of retaining your very best talent, while getting good value for the rest. Or as we noted last year, "Flags fly forever, but you're in it for the long haul." 

Regardless of how quickly your prospects hit the ground running, they are being introduced to MLB play at increasingly younger ages. And just a cursory glance at this year's top players (and the early 2017 projected ADPs) says that many are succeeding quickly. Arguably five of the top seven or eight early ADP favorites—including Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, and Manny Machado—will be 25 or younger as of Opening Day. Of the projected top 15, Josh Donaldson might be the elder statesman at age 30. In short, particularly in formats with deep reserve contingents, being young and inexperienced isn't always a bad thing, not by a long shot.

Strategic Response:​​ Obviously most of your minor league talent won't reach the performance level of the aforementioned ADP names. But this doesn't mean they won't be productive at an early age. And it's critical that you understand their ceilings, again, in an effort to draft, add and retain your very best shots at star status. In addition to offensive skills, look for athleticism, defensive excellence and infield/outfield positional versatility that can provide opportunity and a faster track than otherwise. For example, note the quick rise of Mookie Betts in BOS, made partly possible by his ability to move seamless from 2B to the OF. Note the versatility of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras with CHC, as well as this year's transition of Trea Turner from SS to CF.

Don't expect your prospects to grow straight to the moon, Byron Buxton being the best current example of this axiom. Buxton's youth and obvious talent continues to try the patience of his long-term holders, but most of them can find still find plenty of willing buyers. And even if you find yourself short of starting pitching following the 2016 downturn, remember that it still pays to prioritize offensive talent—even earlier in the development cycle than SPs. Resurfacing names like James Paxton that are often cut too early by your fellow owners will always give you a shot at filling your rotation in-season. And the uncertainty surrounding pitching in general assures you of having plenty of offers for your excess offense.​


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.