It’s that time of year again, American League starting pitcher tier update time! You are no doubt well aware by now that ERA means literally nothing to me this early in the season. Player movement between tiers will only occur when there’s a change in underlying skill, pitch mix, or velocity.
Tiers are named for the best characters on the brilliant FXX show, Man Seeking Woman.
Tanaka (The P*nis Monster)
I’m not sure why one of the best pitchers in the world, who owned a career ERA of 2.91 heading into the season, supposedly decided that “pitching to contact” would make him a more valuable contributor. It’s a myth that strikeouts increase pitch counts. Rather, it’s walks and balls in play that do. You know what will never result in a walk or a hit? A strikeout. Sale’s apparent strategy shift looks like it’s working so far, but that’s thanks to a ridiculous .207 BABIP. I don’t care how much you want to convince yourself the White Sox defense is much improved. No one has BABIP suppression skills that strong. We’ll see how long Sale 2.0 lasts, and if his strikeouts and velocity remain down through May as well, his lead over the rest of the American League starter crop is going to shrink.
Chip (The Robot)
Corey Kluber’s velocity decline isn’t a non-issue, but he has managed to post a career high SwStk% for the time being, so he clearly has the secondary pitches to remain dominant.
David Price is one of the early season examples of why ERA is a joke to use as any sort of evaluation tool. His 6.14 ERA hides his elite underlying skills and 2.68 SIERA. His SwStk% is up to a crazy 15.5%! It is worth noting that his fastball velocity is down two miles per hour, which is pretty significant. Like Kluber though, it clearly hasn’t affected him, unless of course you want to point to his ERA and claim a bad fastball is driving that 29.5% LD% and .362 BABIP. I’m not going to make that argument.
I’m giving Keuchel one more month to right the ship. His velocity is down, yes, but the more serious concern is his inability to throw strikes. His strike percentage has dipped below 60% (64% lg avg) for the first time, versus a nearly 63% career mark. Even though he’s getting even more swings and misses, by simply not throwing strikes as often, his strikeout has dropped back to his pre-2015 levels. Batters are simply not swinging at his pitches outside the zone anymore. We’ll see if he adjusts. He still has the elite ground ball and slider/changeup foundation.
I’m never sure how to handle pitchers on the DL. Sometimes I have decided to just remove them all from the tiers and throw them into a DL tier, other times just remove them completely and add them back when healthy. This time I’ll just leave them in the tier they’d be in if healthy, with the understanding they are only worth this upon return. Carlos Carrasco is not expected to be back until late May to early June with a hamstring strain, so he hasn’t pitched enough to justify any sort of move in the tiers.
I discussed Chris Archer two weeks ago and his control remains an issue. However, his luck has turned as expected, and his ERA has declined since the post. He’s still not completely back though until he starts throwing more strikes. And an inability to throw strikes is sometimes associated with an elbow issue, which could be related to high slider usage. So there are definitely risks here, but with a SIERA right where we’d expect it, he’s going to remain here.
Felix Hernandez drops a tier and remains a serious concern. I’m not bold enough to drop him further just yet, because after all, he is the King. But his velocity is still down, his control has been unFelix-like, and his SwStk% is at its worst level since 2011. I’m just as nervous as I was a couple of weeks ago.
Though he appeared on my strikeout rate surgers list, I am concerned about Cole Hamels. His strike percentage is way down, which is very unlike the typically consistent Hamels. If this was a straight ranking list, rather than tiers, he would fall in the rankings, but still remain in this tier.
WHAT?!?!? Sonny Gray’s BABIP is above .300! What happened to those fine BABIP suppression skills everyone was so sure he owned after posting nothing higher than a .277 mark since his 2013 debut? BABIP regression was already built into my projection and it’s why I forecasted a career high ERA. BABIP is pretty meaningless after just 35.1 innings, so I wouldn’t take this as a validation that he lost his BABIP suppression skills overnight…if he did indeed possess any to begin with.
I don’t know what happened to Danny Salazar’s control, but everything else looks good. As usual, you always have to wonder with young pitchers…are they really, truly healthy?
Owners who acquire Michael Pineda in the coming weeks should be very happy the rest of the way.
I still cannot comprehend how Marcus Stroman’s wide array of pitchers hasn’t led to more strikeouts. But with excellent control and an elite ground ball rate, he could still remain valuable with just a pedestrian strikeout rate. If he does eventually figure it all out, there’s a 2015 Keuchelesque breakout in his future.
Justin Verlander’s walk rate is up a pinch and he’s allowing a career high rate of fly balls. Oh, and his velocity is down a bit. But with his batted ball profile, his BABIP should be well below the league average, not above it. Expect a rebound, especially with a healthy strikeout rate.
RICH HILL! I hope you smartly ignored his poor spring training and bought him on the cheap at your draft or auction. If you were a Pod Projections buyer, his ERA projection would have almost surely driven you to roster him! He sits third in baseball in called strike rate and 19th in swinging strike rate. That’s how you rank eighth in baseball in strikeout rate. Unfortunately, the improved control he displayed during his magnificent four start run with the Red Sox last year looked to be short-lived, as he’s back to battling control issues as usual. But with an elite ground ball rate and a good home ball park, he’s going to be one of this season’s best profits.
How Drew Smyly could avoid shoulder surgery and return with a velocity, SwStk%, and K% spike is beyond me. But he has, and his skills are elite. Only innings and injury concerns keep him from jumping two tiers in this update.
Patti (Josh’s Mom)
If you haven’t sold high on Jordan Zimmermann yet, what are you waiting for?! He owns a microscopic 0.55 ERA, but a much less impressive 4.06 SIERA. You know the move to the American League wasn’t going to be so kind and his strikeout rate has unsurprisingly taken a hit. But thanks to a tiny 2.7% HR/FB rate and an insane 92.3% LOB%, it appears as if he’s thriving in his new digs. Don’t be fooled.
Why Taijuan Walker is here and not up there — his strike percentage is identical to last year, so his minuscule walk rate is a fluke, his SwStk% is down at a career low, but offset by a league leading foul strike rate, which is unsustainable. Someone will pay a lot for his hot start. Take advantage. I still like him, of course, but you should be able to get back much more in value than I expect him to earn the rest of the way.
I was worried Kevin Gausman’s shoulder injury would hurt his velocity, but that hasn’t been the case. While we keep waiting for more strikeouts given that high octane fastball, he could still remain at this level and be mighty fine.
With better velocity and acceptable enough control, Matt Moore jumps a tier despite a 4.95 ERA. He makes for a good acquisition target.
All Aaron Sanchez had to do was throw more strikes and this was going to be the result. He has gotten his strike percentage to about league average, which is quite the achievement. With his elite ground ball rate, he’s got Keuchel potential.
Hisashi Iwakuma falls a tier as his age, velocity loss, and drops in strike rate, ground ball rate, and swinging strike rate, all point to a pitcher in decline.
Collin McHugh’s 2014 strikeout rate surge is getting further and further away. With less and less chance of that coming back, he’s now just a fly ball pitcher with above average control and a mediocre strikeout rate. It’s fine, but that’s about it.
Luis Severino’s pitch mix has remained constant and he’s still generating tons of grounders. But, his changeup went from excellent to poor, with respect to the SwStk% it has induced. Without that pitch, nothing else has been plus in generating swinging strikes. Given his lack of history, I’m hedging on his ability to push that strikeout up, so I dropped him a tier.
I am mighty concerned about Yordano Ventura, so he drops a tier. I discussed my issues here, essentially being scared away by his walk rate and history of elbow issues. I would be surprised if he didn’t land on the DL with an elbow problem at some point.
WOAH. Jesse Hahn’s velocity is up nearly three miles per hour?! We’ll see how long that lasts for. I might get excited if he could maintain the spike.
Sure, Rick Porcello was a strikeout rate decline candidate, but that xK% mark still represents a career high. Make him do it one more month before pushing him up a tier. My concern is it has all come from a jump in called strike rate, a mark he had been consistently slightly above average historically. I would be more optimistic by a velocity bump or surge in swinging strike rate.
Nathan Eovaldi is getting more swings and misses and more grounders thanks to the increased usage of his splitter. But as usual, he can’t contain the BABIP. And suddenly he’s having HR/FB rate issues as well. I want him in a deep league.
I don’t know what’s going on with Kris Medlen, but he suddenly can’t throw strikes…at all. And last year returning from TJ surgery, he was so very solid. Interestingly, his swinging strike rate (B-Ref.com version) is at a career high, and velocity fine too. So it’s not a matter of stuff, just an inability to throw strikes. He drops a tier though with questions about the health of his elbow and the possibility he loses his spot in the rotation.
Mat Latos has ridden a .228 BABIP and crazy 93.8% LOB% onto mixed league rosters. You’re playing with fire! His velocity sits below 90 mph for the first time, his SwStk% has been cut in half, and did you even realize he has struck out just 12.6% of the batters he has faced?! I was almost tempted to actually drop him a tier. Yes, drop a guy with a 1.84 ERA!
Kendall Graveman actually moves up a tier, despite a 4.40 ERA. He has boosted his strikeout rate on the heels of an improved cutter and slider, and still has that high ground ball rate. The HR/FB rate will come back to Earth.
Don’t be happy about Happ — he owns a poor 4.61 SIERA, but an 88.2% LOB% has suppressed that ERA. Don’t be fooled.
Steven Wright would likely be higher if he was a lock to remain in the rotation all year. He isn’t, plus his SIERA is two and a half runs above his actual ERA. Sure, knuckleballers don’t follow the rules, but they also allow a higher than 3.6% HR/FB rate and don’t strand 80% of runners.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.