Last week, Eno Sarris posted what he called a starting pitching omnibus. He chronicled some thoughts on a handful of pitchers with more volatile stocks in the early goings. It covered a couple of the pitchers I’ll discuss today, sort of by coincidence, sort of by not-coincidence because Eno has hyped these guys since who knows when.
The reason why it is, indeed, sort of by coincidence is because two of the pitchers to follow twirled serious gems last week. And, amazingly, the trio of them all pitch in the same seemingly desolate, perceived-to-be-hopeless part of town. And by “part of town,” I mean Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
Vincent Velasquez, Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff comprise three-fifths of a pitching staff that leads the MLB in WAR, with 2.7. Sure, there was some sleeper hype in the rotation (that happens to be fronted, in name only, by Jeremy Hellickson, by the way), but to expect it to lead all of baseball in anything at any time would have been asking a lot. Yet, here we are, watching the Phillies’ dividends on rebuilding occur in real time. It warrants a dig deeper.
I’m just going to leave this quote from Eno here:
One start isn’t going to move Velasquez from 83 into the top 50, but if there was one start that would do it, it would have been that one.
Well, if it wasn’t that one start, it had to be the next start. It’s actually incredible: 16 strikeouts, no walks, pumping 97 mph well into the 8th inning. Velasquez toyed with hitters and completely dominated all afternoon.
My original concern with Velasquez was his control. At almost 3.5 walks per nine (BB/9) at the big-league level in mostly relief appearances last year, and with an even worse walk rate in the lower levels of the minor leagues in previous seasons, Velasquez simply looked like a guy who, despite very promising “stuff,” was promoted way too soon.
It seems like a complete paradigm shift for Velasquez: he’s pounding the zone (to the tune of 60.9%, up from 47.4% last year) and beginning plate appearances with first-pitch strikes almost 80% of the time. Those are hallmarks of a dude who does not have control issues whatsoever. Here’s to hoping he keeps it up.
My new concern is I don’t know if Velasquez can rely on his heater alone. It’s elite, but we can’t reasonably expect him to generate contact in the zone (Z-Contact%) less than 60% of the time. He has only generated swings on 20.5% of pitches outside the zone in his first two starts, making the reliance on his plus fastball all the more critical.
However, it may not matter when Velasquez is spotting his secondary pitches as well as he has been. His curve induced five whiffs on Thursday, two in the zone, enough to keep hitters more than honest.
Velasquez is no longer available in your league, I imagine. If he is, add him. As a Velasquez owner (which I’m not, but I can dream), I’m watching his zone rate (Zone%), first-pitch strike frequency (F-Strike%), and chase rate (O-Swing%) to see how he’s trending. I would also like to see the ground ball rate (GB%) improve a bit, as home runs could undo a lot of the great work he accomplishes. It is still early in the season, so these underlying metrics have yet to stabilize. Still, the likelihood that this is all a mirage is slim to none.
Nola’s small-sample 2015 outcomes depicted a pitcher who could reliably fill out the middle of both a fantasy and real-life rotation. He was almost a spitting image — a “poor man’s” version, so to speak — of the very underrated Kyle Hendricks. Their repertoires differ — one relies on a change-up, the other a curve — but the outcomes aligned in regard to the pedestrian strikeout rate (K%), sharp command and solid ground-ball rate.
Unlike Velasquez, Nola’s outcomes in 2016 thus far have not treated fantasy owners kindly despite the peripherals. Twenty-three strikeouts to three walks in 19 innings is excellent, but home runs have plagued Nola, and they will likely to continue to do so given his mediocre ground ball rate.
The primary issue: he’s living up in the zone more in these first three starts than he did last year. It’s not entirely surprising. Nola needs to limit his mistakes — solid advice for not only baseball but also the rest of our bleak, miserable lives.
Fortunately, Nola has demonstrated a propensity to induce ground balls, so there’s reason to believe his ball-in-play distribution will regress toward a more favorable mean. The underlying plate discipline metrics don’t dazzle the way Velasquez’s do, and maybe Nola’s Saturday is more of what we should expect than his first two starts. But more than a K per inning and the occasional command hiccup will work even in the shallowest leagues. He still looks like a poor man’s Hendricks to me with plenty of upside — which, at only 22 years old, I consider a fine comparison (and compliment) for Nola.
Eickhoff is the only young Phillie who Eno didn’t discuss. He has essentially split the difference between Velasquez and Nola in terms of stuff and outcomes, but he likely has the lowest ceiling of the three. Eickhoff does a good job of seducing hitters into swinging on junk pitches, but he’s fairly hittable on pitches in the zone.
Except on Wednesday, when he was anything but. I guess that’s the warning, though: in all but one of Eickhoff’s previous starts, Eickhoff allowed contact in the zone at least 83% of the time. Then, on Wednesday, that rate dropped to roughly 76%. It’s the kind of statistical ebbing and flowing that happens from start to start, and history shows that performances of that caliber are more anomalous than they are indicative of an underlying change.
But maybe there is an underlying change: Eickhoff has traded sliders for curves, shifting about 7% of his pitches from the former to the latter. And it’s the curve that induced four whiffs in Eickhoff’s most recent start. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s the third-best mark of his short career.
In other words, Eickhoff seems to have honed in on the pitch that seems to work for him. Once rated as a merely average pitch, it is now a decent-enough third offering to get by. Eickhoff always had decent command in the minors, but his average velocity and sub-par secondary offerings limited his ceiling. The development of a solid third pitch could do wonders for him.
Until then, he may be resigned to something a little less flashy than what Velasquez and Nola might achieve. As an Eickhoff owner, I would watch his zone rate, which has improved considerably since last year (small sample caveats apply). It’s the ground balls and suppression of walks that will make up for Eickhoff’s lack of put-away stuff. His true self lies somewhere between his first and second starts — an easy answer, I know — but it’s worth knowing he’s not the same caliber of potential wunderkind that Velasquez and Nola might be. He’s worth a look in shallow leagues, at the very least.
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I think if I had to rank the three, it’d be Velasquez > Nola > Eickhoff, pretty resolutely. And if I had to slap numbers on them, I’d do something like top-40, top-50, top-60, respectively. It’s still too early for me to go all-in bonkers on Velasquez, but when you repeat history alongside the likes of Max Scherzer and other distinguished aces, you have to consider it.