Bridwell, Blackburn, & Pruitt, Oh My — New AL SP Faces

As we march toward the final month of the season, we will continue to see many new faces in starting pitching rotations. Let’s discuss a trip of such in the American League.

Parker Bridwell | LAA

The Angels starting staff simply cannot stay healthy. Of the current five members of the rotation, just two of them opened the season there. Bridwell is one of the several new faces and the 25-year-old has performed admirably, posting a sparkling 3.00 ERA over 66 innings and 10 starts (plus one relief appearance). Though he’s not exactly at an advanced age, Bridwell has endured a long minor league career, first debuting back in 2010 at the tender age of 18. He was never a big strikeout pitcher (though has posted strong SwStk% marks) and struggled at times with his control that led to some inflated walk rates. He also has never been a ground ball pitcher.

So from a purely statistical standpoint, this doesn’t appear the type of pitcher worth getting excited about. And he was merely mentioned in the same article with, not ranked among, the top 18 Orioles prospects (when he was with the team at the time), with the assertion that he “looks like a bullpen piece“.

So what’s going on? Magic. Seriously. His strikeout rate sits at just 15.8%, significantly below the league average, and he has allowed a high line drive rate and fly balls. The one piece of positive news is a walk rate of just 6%. His BABIP has someone managed to sit below the average at .270 despite all those line drives, but the real key to this mirage of success lies in that crazy high LOB% at 86.6%. That would rank second behind Clayton Kershaw in baseball if he qualified for the leaderboard.

His slider has been fantastic at inducing whiffs, but he doesn’t throw it a ton, and all his other pitches stink. His SIERA is an awful 4.87, so starting him regardless of his opponent is playing with fire.

Paul Blackburn | OAK

The Athletics have been looking toward the future, which means trying out a variety of starting arms. Blackburn has been a pleasant surprise so far, posting a sterling 2.60 ERA over seven games started, carrying over his minor league success where his ERA has never risen above 3.54.

But if you think Bridwell’s underlying skills are scary, Blackburn’s have been even more so. The soft-tosser is redefining what it means to “pitch to contact” and currently looks like the perfect poster boy for the tired “induces weak contact and gets quick outs” so-called strategy.

That said, he does have some Dallas Keuchel in him. He has always been an extreme ground baller, and his secondary pitch of choice is his slider (though it hasn’t actually been any good, whether at inducing whiffs or grounders). And while I routinely poo-poo the weak contact argument, he has been a master at avoiding hard contact, as his Hard% would easily lead baseball if he qualified for the leaderboard. Whether that’s sustainable is anyone’s guess (I’d say no), but at least that becomes a perceived partial explanation for his low .236 BABIP. I say “perceived” because we’ve found in the past very little correlation between Soft%/Hard% and BABIP.

So even though Blackburn’s SIERA stands at a ghastly 5.26 and he has allowed a ton of balls in play, not a whole lot of those balls in play have been falling for hits, while a below average percentage of his flies are sailing over the wall. It’s a recipe for dramatically outperforming your SIERA, but not exactly the best plan for sustained success. He’ll probably be dropped in droves over the next couple of weeks as no one could post such strong results while striking out fewer than 10% of batters faced.

Austin Pruitt | TB

So Pruitt began in the bullpen, but injuries, as usual, vaulted him into the Rays rotation, and he has performed well in three starts. What’s most interesting about Pruitt is his pitch mix. He has thrown his fastball just 41% of the time, which would be fourth lowest in baseball if he qualified for the leaderboard. Complementing the fastball, he throws a cutter, curve, and changeup. That sounds like it has the potential to yield serious strikeout upside, but the problem is none of the pitches are all that great. The slider is saddled with about a league average SwStk%, while the rest of his pitches have been below average. Not surprisingly, it has all led to a below average strikeout rate.

What he does have going for him is fantastic control as he has pumped in first pitch strikes 66.2% of the time, which would rank in the top 10. Control was his calling card in the minors as well, so this is no fluke. Right now, he’s suffering through the opposite of what both Bridwell and Blackburn have enjoyed — bad BABIP fortune! While some of his .363 mark could be blamed on his line drive rate, that rate is actually just a tick below Bridwell’s, but BABIP far higher. All those hits falling in have made it near impossible to strand his baserunners.

While Pruitt’s skills have been best so far, he faces the most playing time questions. With Alex Cobb expected back after a minimum DL stay and Matt Andriese set to return soon, there may not be any room unless another injury strikes. Since he doesn’t have any exciting long-term potential, he’s only worth a look for his next start or two before he likely return to the bullpen.

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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baltic wolf
baltic wolf

Want to hear a funny story Mike?
I wanted Brandon Woodruff for my 16 team pts. league on Tuesday. (He looked good in his start on Friday; I saw a couple of innings on I wanted him b/c Shoemaker elected to have surgery and J. Montgomery apparently was heading for AAA, with one week to go before the playoffs.
Anyway, on Tues.—one of our three auction days—I was in a rush to make my neurologist’s appointment, b/c I was under the mistaken impression that I had an appt. with my audiologist (who is much closer to my home). So I didn’t have time to log in and place a bid on him.
I get to the neurologist’s office and I try logging on to my ESPN app, but after failing I remember I changed my password for ESPN.
In the exam room, the clock is behind my new neurologist. I’m keeping a nervous eye on it, as he goes through a routine exam. It’s getting close to 11 AM, the deadline for placing bids.
I get out of the office and there’s still time to place a bid—five minutes. So I try calling my mother—who is hard of hearing, but the phone is close to her head—and I’m shouting into the phone my mother’s name (we call her by her first name since we didn’t see between 1961 and ’70). “Hey, help me out here!” No response.
I get home figuring Woodruff is gone, but he’s not.
I watched his start last night and was completely unimpressed. No control of his pitches.
And now Montgomery might be restored to the rotation after all because of Sabathia’s injury. And after reading this write up, I’ve decided to go with Pruitt. I only need him until another starter is dropped. That always happens when the playoffs start. Because we have a consolation bracket—where the winner gets first pick in both the prospect and regular draft—a lot of guys get dropped and picked up by others.
Sorry for the long story. I thought maybe you’d get a chuckle out of it.