A Few Starters To Buy

The leaderboards at FanGraphs is a fun place to poke around. Behold this list of pitchers:

What Am I Looking At?
Name Yahoo! Ownership
Clayton Kershaw 99%
Jon Lester 99%
Madison Bumgarner 97%
Gerrit Cole 97%
Carlos Martinez 97%
Michael Fulmer 95%
Michael Pineda 91%
Raisel Iglesias 87%
Alex Wood 76%
Taijuan Walker 72%
Sean Manaea 57%
Corey Knebel 55%
Charlie Morton 49%
Nathan Karns 30%
Felipe Rivero 16%
Brad Hand 7%
Adam Warren 6%
Chris Rusin 1%

What do they all have in common? Aside from having thrown at least 20 innings, these are the only hurlers in baseball who rank in the upper half of the stats I first look to when evaluating pitchers. Namely, they all boast better than average K-BB%, GB%, Z-Contact%, and swinging strike rates. There are some obviously great pitchers on this list but I’m not interested in talking about Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, or Carlos Martinez. Though if you’re a little frustrated with Lester or CarMar, I both empathize and suggest exercising a little patience. Rather, I’d like to dive deeper into some of the list’s lesser-owned and lesser-known players who won’t cost nearly as much to acquire. 

Charlie Morton

Morton is interesting for a couple reasons. Aside from pitching well enough to keep some flattering company, he also owns an ERA two-thirds of a run higher than his FIP, the second highest differential on this list. That makes him a good buy-low opportunity in standard mixed leagues.

Travis Sawchik just wrote him up yesterday, drawing our attention yet again to his surging velocity and to the maturation of his arsenal. His curveball is now a legitimate out pitch that he can throw to southpaws. In the past, lefties punished Morton to the tune of a .375 wOBA. In eight starts for Houston, that’s down to a stingy .251.

It’s worth taking a closer look at just how great Morton’s curve has been this year. Meander on over to Baseball Prospectus’ Pitchf/x leaderboards and you’ll find that Morton’s yacker is almost as beautiful to analyze as it is to watch.

Morton’s Curve
Velocity H-Mov V-Mov Whiffs per Swing Put Away%
Morton 81.69 mph 8.37 -6.38 52.38% 33.77%%
Percentile 78th 91st 60th 98th 93rd
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

His curve is above average to elite across the board. Then consider that Morton is not only throwing the pitch more frequently than he has in his career but that hitters are also chasing it off the plate nearly 40% of the time. Given the above average movement and velocity, it’s a tough pitch to read and to square up and therefore it’s no surprise that hitters have such difficulty making contact.

I’d caution against assuming significant regression in terms of BABIP, which currently sits 23 points higher than his career average. Despite the dip in ground ball rate, which should lend itself to a lower BABIP, Morton is giving up harder contact, particularly on those grounders. And as for the dip in ground ball rate itself, I’m not too worried about it. Owners will gladly stomach a few more balls in the air for all the whiffs Morton is inducing.

Healthy pitchers I’d drop for Morton include: Adam Wainwright (55%), Derek Holland (58%), A.J. Griffin (58%), Kevin Gausman (59%), Antonio Senzatela (61%)

Sean Manaea

I saw Manaea pitch Monday at Safeco Field in his return from the disabled list. It was a variety pack of results to be sure. Loved the whiffs, particularly at pitches in the zone, however, he walked five batters in five innings. This is despite throwing more balls over the plate than he typically does, something I hope continues in his next turn. Manaea’s velocity was up from his last abbreviated start but a tick below where he sat at the beginning of the season.

There’s a lot to like about Manaea this year. After all, he certainly came with his share of fanfare. He’s inducing grounders at a near league-leading rate while racking up the strikeouts. In fact, Manaea joins former Oakland great, Trevor Cahill, as the only other starter in baseball to rank within the top 10 in both ground ball rate and swinging strike rate (min. 20 innings pitched).

This season, Manaea has leaned more heavily on his slider and the decision appears to be a good one. The pitch has been devastating, ranking in the 99th percentile in whiffs per swing and 93rd percentile in ground balls per ball-in-play. While always a plus pitch (90th and 71st percentiles, respectively in 2016), the slider appears to be an even more formidable offering this year.

As with Morton, both health and control concerns plague Manaea. The tall lefty has already hit the DL once with a shoulder issue and the walks are up so he represents a particularly high risk-high reward target. Contextually, he plays in a great ballpark so given his surging ground ball rate, Manaea seems a good bet to close the gap between his ERA and FIP. Then again, the A’s defense ranks 28th in baseball so he’ll likely have to endure some elevated BABIPs. As far as the walks are concerned, that he’s maintaining a better than average K-BB% while also posting the league’s 6th highest walk rate is really a testament to how many batters he’s striking out. Enjoy the whiffs with the expectation that while the command won’t be elite, he’ll find the zone soon.

Healthy pitchers I’d drop for Manaea include: Derek Holland (58%), A.J. Griffin (58%), Kevin Gausman (59%), Alex Cobb (59%), Jeremy Hellickson (62%), Andrew Triggs (80%)

Nate Karns

Nate Karns is doing everything well this season. Well, almost everything. He’s inducing grounders at by far the highest rate of his career. He’s also striking out more batters than ever while, by Karns’ standards, handing out the free pass with miserly discretion. All this has resulted in a – wait for it – 4.34 FIP. The reason the results have yet to catch up with his gains is Karns has had some incredibly bad luck with homers as his xFIP, more than a full run lower, would indicate.

Despite owning both a lower than league average fly ball rate and an average home run distance 16 feet shorter than league average in one of the most difficult parks to go yard in, Karns ranks 17th worst among 99 qualified starters with a 1.76 HR/9. He’s given up eight homers, six of which have come on the road.

Now, this isn’t to say Karns hasn’t been getting hit hard. As far as limiting quality contact goes, Karns has disappointed.

Nate Karns Statcast Data
Avg. EV Avg. FB-LD EV Avg. Dist. Avg. HR Dist. 95-mph % Brls per BBE
League Average 86.8 mph 92.3 mph 176.5 ft 400.1 ft 33.20% 6.40%
Karns 87.1 mph 94.9 mph 179 ft 384ft 36.80% 11.30%
Percentile 45th 14th 46th 81st 30th 8th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Aside from giving up shorter home runs, Karns has been worse than the league in every other batted ball data point we have. But while the data tells us whether a series of outcomes may be deserved or not, it’s still unclear how sticky it actually is, particularly in relatively small samples. So, while you should factor the reasonable possibility that Karns continues to struggle with homers and balls-in-play, I’d buy based on his 28.4% strikeout and 55.2% ground ball rates.

And if Morton’s curveball deserves some love, so does Karns’.

Karns’ Curve
Velocity H-Mov V-Mov Whiffs per Swing Put Away%
Karns 84.41 mph 3 -4.22 50.00% 35.87%
Percentile 93rd 28th 69th 96th 96th
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Considering the rest of his arsenal, Karns is throwing his changeup more this year, which has induced the 14th best grounder per ball-in-play ratio in baseball. Looking at the rise on his four-seamer, it doesn’t look like he ever regained that elite spin, leaving him with just a couple average or slightly below average pitches to go along with the elite curve. The lack of a great secondary pitch limits Karns’ upside but he should be a great source of strikeouts going forward.

Healthy pitchers I’d drop for Karns include: Chase Anderson (34%), Hector Santiago (35%), Matt Moore (yes, really, 38%), Chris Tillman (43%)

Next time, we’ll take a look at some of the lesser-owned and lesser-known relievers on this list.

We hoped you liked reading A Few Starters To Buy by Rylan Edwards!

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Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.

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stretchfest

thanks for the good stuff rylan. i just want to add that i love the “healthy pitchers i’d drop” suggestion. this is so useful it should be in every fantasy article featuring player write-ups.