2019 Spring Starting Pitcher K% Surgers

Almost exactly seven years ago, I shared a study on the predictive value of pitcher strikeout and walk rates posted during spring training. Though most know that most spring training stats mean nothing (somehow, there are still those who think spring stats like ERA actually have predictive value), spring strikeout and walk rates do improve projections when incorporated. That said, we still have the same size issue to deal with, various levels of competition, and pitchers working on things that makes them not the actual pitcher we know them as. With those caveats out of the way, it’s at least worth being aware of pitchers striking out significantly more than projected to.

I limited my pitcher population to those who have faced at least 60 batters (random) and compared their spring strikeout rate to my Pod Projection. Below are 12 of the biggest surgers.

2019 Spring K% Surgers
Player 2019 Pod Projected K% 2019 Spring K% Diff
Robbie Ray 29.7% 45.7% 16.1%
Tanner Roark 18.9% 32.0% 13.1%
Jordan Zimmermann 18.5% 30.4% 11.9%
Shane Bieber 23.4% 34.3% 10.9%
Domingo German 24.5% 34.9% 10.4%
Luis Cessa 19.7% 30.0% 10.3%
Jon Gray 24.4% 33.8% 9.5%
Masahiro Tanaka 24.9% 34.3% 9.4%
Julio Teheran 21.6% 30.4% 8.8%
Justin Verlander 28.3% 36.2% 7.9%
Jeremy Hellickson 17.8% 25.3% 7.5%
Trevor Richards 22.9% 29.0% 6.1%

Thanks to an elite slider/curve ball combo, Robbie Ray has been a strikeout rate star the past three seasons. While a mark over 40% in spring is fun to look at, it’s hard to imagine much more upside versus previous marks during the regular season. We all know that the key to Ray’s success is his control, as he has posted double digit walk rates in each of the past two seasons. He has also allowed an inflated rate of balls hit at 95+ MPH, so unless he learns how to suppress extremely hard contact, he’s going to continue to be at risk of skyhigh BABIP marks and HR/FB rates.

Tanner Roark with a strikeout rate above 30%?! Though there’s no word of a new pitch, his fastball velocity was apparently up about a mile per hour a couple of weeks ago. Since velocity generally trends up as the season progresses, to already be throwing harder than averaging last year is a good sign. If Roark has continued to show increased velocity, that could be behind the strikeout rate spike. Of course, I wouldn’t expect it to reach 30% during the regular season, but a surge back above 20%, and perhaps to a new career high, could happen if the velocity is indeed up.

Jordan Zimmermann has not enjoyed his three seasons in the American League, as he has battled injuries and declining fastball velocity. Now, the typical Spring optimism has shined on him, as he apparently has full health and has been tweaking his pitches. Perhaps those tweaks will result in his best season in years, with a strikeout rate that jumps closer to his career best mark in 2014 of 22.8%.

Armed with what was an elite slider and strong curve ball last year, Shane Bieber has been a popular sleeper-that-isn’t, as most fantasy owners have been smart enough to look past his BABIP-inflated 4.55 ERA. There’s no word on his velocity or any change in pitch mix, but I’d bet a lot that at the very least, he crushed Steamer’s 21.4% strikeout rate projection.

I labeled Domingo German as one of my “Picks” in this year’s Fantasy Baseball Guide, but it looked like he would open the season in the minors until injuries struck. Now he should get a chance in the rotation, but who knows how long he’ll remain there when everyone is back to full health. With a mid-90s fastball, to go along with a superb curveball/changeup combo, he was another obvious sleeper if you could look past ERA.

I have no idea what might be behind Luis Cessa’s strikeout rate surge, as he has never really shown much better than a low 20% mark, even in the minors. It was just announced that he would open the season in the bullpen as a long reliever, so those drafting him cheaply expecting to hit on their dart throw might have to wait until he gets starts to capture much value.

Jon Gray’s fastball velocity is back above 95 mph, which is a good sign, but it wasn’t the velocity that led to last season’s disappointing performance. Instead, it was an absurd 18.1% HR/FB rate that took his ERA above 5.00. Of course, pitching half his games at Coors exposes him to such risk. I would certainly be happy to buy him depending on the price, as 2017 shows us the upside.

Why oh why does Masahiro Tanaka continue getting no respect? Actually, thank you for not respecting him, as I’ve bought him on several teams for far less than guys I valued around him went for.

I’m still not sure if Julio Teheran’s velocity is up or down this spring, but given the strikeout rate, it would make sense that it was up. His velocity dipped below 90 mph for the first time last season, and yet, his strikeout rate reached a new career high! It doesn’t usually work out that way. I’d actually like him if I knew he was really throwing 92-93 already, but with SIERA marks over 4.50 the last two seasons, I wouldn’t touch him without confirmation.

Apparently Jeremy Hellickson is working on adding a slider and maybe that’s behind his strikeout rate surge (if it’s not just a random small sample, of course). He has never posted a strikeout rate above 20% over a full season, but a new slider, if effective, could change that.

Last year, Trevor Richards debuted featuring an insanely wicked changeup, and nothing else. He has been working on adding a real third pitch, and while this article claims it’s a curveball, our pitch type rates tell us he was already throwing a curve. So perhaps it was a misclassification. Another strikeout rate could take some pressure off his changeup and offset some of the ineffectiveness of his fastball. The Marlins offense is brutal, but in a pitcher’s park and strikeout potential, Richards represents the classic definition of a sleeper.

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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Two guesses I have about Roark. I got him in an NFBC based on this speculation.

1. His pitch value last year for his slider was really good-it is possible that his slider is an out pitch, but I’ve never heard that he has a really good slider. Maybe someone who watched him regularly can comment.

2. Derek Johnson is now the pitching coach (came from Mil). He had Chacin throw his slider a ton and maybe he’s doing the same with Roark. Also, Johnson emphasizes the high fastball-maybe he has Roark throwing this fb higher to be more effective.

Lots of sliders with a high fb? That is my guess.