It’s not easy to get strikeouts when you don’t get batters to swing much. It’s even more difficult when you avoid the strike zone.
Over the previous three years, a qualified starting pitcher has induced swings at a rate lower than 44.0 percent over the course of a season only 23 times. Of those, only Trevor Bauer, Jose Quintana and Tyson Ross have had a single season with a strikeout rate of at least 24.0 percent, and none has had more than one season with a rate that high. By contrast, there were only seven occurrences of a strikeout rate below 24.0 percent among the 23 pitcher-seasons with the highest swing rates over the same period. Bauer and Quintana both elevated their K-rates last season, and they were able to do that partly because they located their pitches in the strike zone at near-normal rates of 44.4 and 44.8 percent rates, respectively. Ross registered a 25.8 percent K-rate in 2015, even though he induced swings infrequently and displayed subpar control. However, no qualified starter was better than Ross at getting whiffs on pitches outside the strike zone that season.
Though he did not have the innings to qualify the make the aforementioned list, Andrew Triggs is part of that select group of starting pitchers who didn’t crack the 44.0 percent swing rate threshold. In parts of three seasons (including 2018), Triggs has a 43.0 percent swing rate, and his highest rate for a season is 43.2 percent. That alone would seem to preclude him from being much of a source of strikeouts for fantasy owners. A career strikeout rate of 20.6 percent looks like confirmation of that assumption.
Much of April is spent reminding ourselves to ignore small samples, much less the stats generated from a single start. On Monday, Triggs turned in a better-than-solid start against the Rangers, giving up one run on four singles and two walks. Despite getting only 36 swings on 88 pitches (40.9 percent rate) and tallying only 52 strikes (59.1 percent rate), he notched seven strikeouts. Then again, it’s one start, and not a particularly long one. You could even argue he was outpitched by nearly-45-year-old Bartolo Colon, who also gave up one run while pitching a full six innings.
Yet we should pay attention to Triggs, who could be a surprisingly useful pitcher for strikeouts. The Rangers connected on only one-third of his pitches outside of the strike zone, and while Triggs can’t be expected to maintain that extreme degree of deception, for most of his major league career, he has been toddling down the same path that Ross traveled in his strong 2015 campaign. Like Ross, Triggs doesn’t pitch in the zone much, doesn’t get many swings, but he gets whiffs on bad pitches. When Ross took this path three seasons ago, the terminal point was Strikeoutville (population 212).
Triggs’ first extended stay in the A’s rotation came late in 2016, when he made five starts in August and September. He not only posted a 2.78 ERA over those starts, but he struck out 21 batters in 22.2 innings. True to form, Triggs got swings on only 43.3 percent of his pitches, which contributed to a robust 20.5 percent called strike rate. He got hitters to swing-and-miss at a 10.8 percent rate, and he did it the Tyson Ross Way, allowing contact on only 56.7 percent of his pitches outside of the strike zone. (Triggs actually fell just a little short of Ross’ 2015 standard, when he finished with a 49.1 percent O-Contact%.)
He maintained a similar profile early in 2017, compiling O-Contact rates of 60.5 percent and 54.4 percent in April and May, respectively. That helped Triggs to amass an 11.3 swinging strike rate. Though he was still freezing batters at an above-average pace, he wound up with only 45 strikeouts in 58 innings. Despite the Ross-like profile, he was a far cry from being a strikeout-per-inning pitcher. Triggs’ first two starts in June were horrific, as he allowed 14 runs in 7.1 innings. He induced only nine whiffs in 169 pitches and his O-Contact% shot up to 81.5 percent. It seems like more than coincidence that Triggs was experiencing hip pain and subsequently had surgery to repair a labrum.
Those two pre-surgery starts were bad enough to put a damper on Triggs’ 2017 stat line, and they made what would have been a disappointing strikeout rate look even worse. If we put that in its proper context, we can see that Triggs has a chance to be a viable fantasy option, even if he doesn’t step up his strikeout game. He has been above-average at getting grounders with a 49.9 percent career rate, and he pitches his home games at roomy Oakland Coliseum. Yet Triggs’ similarities to the peak version of Ross hints at some untapped strikeout potential.
The Ross comparison only holds up when looking at the pitchers on a per-inning or per-start basis. In 2015, Ross tossed 196 innings, and since Triggs was used almost exclusively a reliever in the minors, he has never thrown as many as 75 innings in a season. He won’t finish as a top-30 starter like Ross did three seasons ago, but he could be worth starting, even in 12-team mixed leagues, when he is making starts. Triggs’ curveball and slider are both effective pitches for freezing batters in the zone and fooling them outside of the zone, while his sinker has been a reliable ground ball pitch. That combination could make him more helpful for strikeouts and ERA than his past numbers would suggest.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.