2019 Early Pitcher Z-Contact% Improvers

I covered the hitter Z-Contact% surgers and decliners earlier in the week. Today, I’ll switch it up to pitchers, but only discuss the improvers. These are the guys who have seen their Z-Contact% decline the most. Preventing contact on pitches thrown inside the strike zone is the ultimate validation of a pitcher’s stuff in my mind. So let’s find out who has improved most in the metric over this still small sample size.

Pitcher Z-Contact% Improvers
Name 2018 Z-Contact% 2019 Z-Contact% Diff
Chris Archer 84.1% 66.7% -17.4%
Mike Clevinger 82.4% 69.4% -13.0%
Noah Syndergaard 85.8% 74.6% -11.2%
Julio Teheran 83.9% 74.3% -9.6%
Trevor Williams 90.6% 81.8% -8.8%
Homer Bailey 90.8% 83.9% -6.9%
Jakob Junis 90.3% 83.6% -6.7%
Jon Lester 87.9% 81.2% -6.7%
Lucas Giolito 88.3% 81.7% -6.6%
Caleb Smith 82.0% 75.4% -6.6%

Chris Archer’s career best mark in the metric was set in 2017 when he posted an 81.6% mark. I was a big fan of his heading into this season, as it would be the first in which he spends all year in the National League. He’s also coming off three 4.00+ ERAs, so his price continued to get cheaper. While his velocity is down a somewhat worrying amount and his pitch mix hasn’t fluctuated all that match, his SwStk% has spiked to a career best near 15%, driving that Z-Contact% down. So these metrics points to elite stuff, which is surprising given the velocity decline. There are definitely some red flags here, but I remain a fan unless the red flags persist over a larger sample.

It’s too bad that Mike Clevinger got hurt, as his velocity was up a mile and a half and drove some insane results over his first 12 innings.

Though Noah Syndergaard has swapped out his sinker for his four-seamer, everything else is the same, including his SwStk%. So perhaps he’s generating a whole lot more called strikes (Baseball-Reference confirms a jump from last season, but only barely above his career average). Obviously, the question has never been about his stuff or strikeout ability, but whether he could stay healthy enough to throw the innings required of a fantasy ace.

A career high rate of sliders is the easy explanation for Julio Teheran improvement. It’s been just three starts, so we’ll see how long that lasts.

In his attempts to fight off the luck monsters for a second straight season, Trevor Williams has altered his pitch mix to a minor degree, but his fastball velocity is up a bit versus last year. None of that really explains the drop in Z-Contact%, but it has come along with a jump in SwStk%. So he’s just performing better with similar stuff, though the strikeout rate still remains below average. Even with a tiny 2.2% walk rate, his SIERA is still approaching 4.00. If I somehow ended up drafting him, I would be looking to sell, as this isn’t a skill set I ever want to ride, even if he proves to be one of the rare outliers.

Man, Homer Bailey truly is a conundrum. I actually strongly considered adding him in my AL-Only leagues after his first start. Good thing I didn’t! His SwStk% has spiked to a career best, his Z-Contact% has dropped to a career best, his fastball velocity is at its highest since 2014, and he’s upped the usage of his splitter (his best swing and miss pitch historically) and curve to career high levels. Sounds great, right?! Nope, his ERA stands at 9.00 after 10 innings, he has allowed three homers already, and he has allowed a ridiculous 28% line drive rate, almost fully supporting that bloated .435 BABIP. Oh, and his Hard% stands at 46.2%, ranking 15th highest among 76 qualifiers. I’m not sure what to make of him. Is this a command thing where his stuff is good, but he’s locating terribly and hitters are making him pay? I’ll be watching him closely to determine whether he’s even worth an AL-Only add.

Jakob Junis‘ fastball velocity is up a bit, but not as much as I expected given the spring training chatter. Aside from that, the pitch mix is basically the same, as he continues to test the arm’s limits by throwing his slider 40% of the time. His SwStk% is way up, but it’s actually more in line with his minor league days. I think there’s a better chance than his projections would have you believe that he’s a shallow mixed league asset, and not just an every-once-in-a-while streaming option.

Jon Lester’s SwStk% remains stuck in the 8% range, which is bad, and yet his Z-Contact% sits at a career best. His skills have been in severe decline and his velocity has taken another step down, but he’s trying to fight it by throwing his cutter more than ever. He’s going to miss some starts with a hamstring strain, but even when he returns, I don’t want anything to do with him.

I liked Lucas Giolito, at least in AL-Only leagues, after the spring training velocity increase, and that was sustained into the regular season, though it dropped in his second start. The good news is his Z-Contact% was excellent and nearly identical over his first two starts, but he generated a much lower SwStk% in that second start. I think he’ll be significantly better than last year, of course, and handily beat all his projections, but the bar isn’t set very high. But whether he’ll be good enough to actually help my AL-Only teams is something I cannot answer confidently yet.

Man I love that Marlins rotation, or at least most of it. Caleb Smith was my favorite heading into the season and he hasn’t disappointed with his strikeout ability. He has thrown both his secondary pitches at the expense of his fastball so far, which his how you strike out over 30% of batters with a crazy 16.2% SwStk%. Who knows about the run support, but I want him in all leagues.

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.

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Smith is only owned in 7.5% of espn leagues which is stupid low. That’s a lot of strikeout upside to be hanging out on the waiver wire.