Strikeouts have become a massive part of today’s game both on the field and in fantasy baseball. The ability to consistently miss bats is a key driver in success and can be a building block for a breakout. Let’s take a look at the top 10 gainers in SwStr% (min. 100 IP) and see what drove their gains.
Gerrit Cole, Astros | +4.6% to 15%
We’d been waiting for this Cole breakout since he debuted! He had the big 2015 season with 2.60 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 208 IP, but even the 24% K rate that season felt short of what Cole’s arsenal could do at peak. There was a valid concern that Cole wouldn’t ever reach those heights, though. The Pirates preach heavy fastball usage which can undercut the potential of a secondary arsenal as strong as Cole’s. During Cole’s 2013-17 tenure in Pittsburgh, they led baseball in starter fastballs at 62%.
Unsurprisingly, Cole reached Houston and threw a career-low 56% fastballs shifting to his two breaking balls with the slider at 20% and curveball at 19%. Those pitches saw a rise in SwStr% of +3% to 16%. It also seemed less was more with the fastball as his SwStr% on heaters soared from 8% to 15%, good for 4th in baseball. A sharp approach change was behind that as he discovered the high heat, raising his fastballs in the upper third of the zone 24 (!) points to 52%. There is a lot of believability in Cole’s breakout and the market agrees as he’s a top 10 starter in early drafts.
Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks (now Nationals) | 4.5% to 16%
There’s not much mystery to this one. Corbin was 2nd to only Max Scherzer in SwStr% thanks to a devastating slider that carried him all year. That pitch netted an MLB-best 30% SwStr% on a whopping 1282 thrown. Only Jhoulys Chacin’s slider was thrown more among secondary pitches (1349). Corbin also mixed in a slow curve 9% of the time, meaning he threw more breakers (50%) than fastballs (49%).
Blake Snell, Rays | 4.3% to 15%
Snell pushed away from his slider (-5 pts to 9%) and shaved a bit off his fastball and changeup in order to double his curve usage to 20%. That added volume plus a 5-point jump in SwStr% to 25% along with a 4-point jump to 10% SwStr% from the fastball fueled his overall gains. Strikeouts have been a part of his game from day one and it definitely felt like he had a 200+ strikeout season in his game. His Cy Young-winning 2018 might’ve been the first of many such seasons.
Trevor Bauer, Indians | 4.1% to 13%
Bauer re-embraced his slider after a couple years off – threw it 4% in ’17, only threw a cutter in ’16 – and it was key in his breakout season that could’ve netted the Cy Young had he not gotten hurt. He had a 15% SwStr% with the slider in those 53 thrown last year, but surged to 23% on 400 thrown in 2018. He had just 9% SwStr% from 2012-17 despite displaying the ability for much more. He still maintained a 23% K rate during that time, but it always seemed like he was falling shy of his true upside… until 2018. His jump in swinging strikes fostered a tremendous 31% K rate and aided his massive breakout.
Justin Verlander, Astros | 3.8% to 15%
JV didn’t undergo any major pitch mix transformations, but the 35-year old just got better. By the way, remember when people were ready to bury Verlander or at the very least suggest that his decline was in full effect? I understand that his 4.54 ERA in 2014 was worrisome, but a core surgery in the spring before that season hung over him all year and then a triceps injury at the beginning of 2015 cut into that season. But about seven starts into his 2015 return, he rediscovered his high heat and returned to his previous heights.
Houston has no doubt helped him get to another level, but he was fully back on track with Detroit even before the trade. He had a Cy Young-worthy 2016 and definitely should’ve won it. A couple brutal starts in the first half of 2017 against Cleveland and one against what would be his future team, Houston, kept his ERA high (4.96 through 17 starts, outings of 9, 7, and 6 v. CLE & HOU), but he ended his Detroit tenure with a 2.31 ERA in 11 starts with 84 Ks in 74 IP. With Houston, he now has a 2.32 ERA and 0.87 WHIP combo in 248 IP with a disgusting 35% K rate and it’s hard not to take him as top 5 SP in 2019 even heading into his age-36 season.
The Next 5…
Jon Gray, Rockies | 3.6% to 12%: This is actually a return to previous heights after dipping in 2017 and it was thanks to his slider. His 20% SwStr% with the slider was 10th in the league and he threw his a career-high 34% of the time. Unfortunately that was all that went right in his 2018, but an 18% HR/FB is unlikely to repeat and if he keeps the ball in the yard more, there’s reason to believe he’ll be much closer to his 4.08 FIP in 2019, if not even better than that.
German Marquez, Rockies | 3.5% to 13%: He dabbled with a slider in 2017 (4% thrown) and he saw it take off in 2018, especially in the second half. The 22% SwStr% rate on his slider was 9th in the league and he paired that with his already great curveball (22% SwStr%, 4th in MLB) en route to the 11th SwStr% in the league. He was 4th at 16% over the second half, too.
Nick Pivetta, Phillies | 3.3% to 12%: His 24% K rate in 2017 came with just a 9% SwStr% which left some skeptical of his punchouts, but he backed it up in 2018 by boosting the whiffs, netting a 27% K rate in the process. His curveball did jump four points to a 16% SwStr% rate, but it was more the volume jump that fueled his gains as he threw it 22% of the time (up from 15% in ’17).
Derek Holland, Giants | 3.1% to 10%: Holland came out of nowhere with a big season, his first since 2013, thanks in large part to a slider that was just behind Marquez, Gray, and Verlander in SwStr% at 20% (19.5 to be exact), up from just 13% in 2017. If he could get back to his 2013-15 slider whiff rates up at 22-25%, he could possibly sustain or even exceed his ’18 gains.
Jameson Taillon, Pirates | 2.5% to 11%: A new slider not only aided a career-best 23% K rate, but also has me excited for a potentially elite season from the 27-year old righty. From late-May on, he threw it 25% of the time and had a 5.6 pitch value with it. The slider really became a go-to pitch for him and finally gives him a pair of reliable secondary offerings to go with his mid-90s heat.