Don’t Let FOMO Sink Your Ratios Early

We can be dumb about pitching. Rather, we tend to be not as smart in April as we are later in the season. As the year goes on and we get more information about the skills that pitchers (and their opponents) have, we naturally get more choosy with who we’re willing to start.

In April, however, we’re still all high off of draft prep and are more willing to believe whatever narrative sold us on them in the first place. We put aside obvious questions like, “What if Chris Paddack still has a terrible fastball?” and¬† “But isn’t he still Andrew Heaney?”, instead going full bore with, “Good enough to draft, good enough to start!”. At least until the wheels come off.

The simple reason to raise your bar for starting early in the season is that this is when we know the least about the pitchers themselves, as well as their opponents’ general offensive prowess, strikeout rate, win likelihood, etc. Compared to what we’ll know later in the year, we’re often flying blind in April, at least in terms of the pitchers outside of the top tiers. And yet at the time when we’re the least informed, our bar for starting is often the lowest.

Obviously, you want to avoid bad starts all the time but I aim to be even more risk-averse early in the season because I want maximum flexibility later in the year. Acquiring good ratios (whether via FAAB, the wire, or trade) is expensive (or impossible) later in the season while scrounging for wins and strikeouts can be cheap. That is, at least they are if you don’t need to stress about ratios when doing said scrounging.

August and September may seem far away but focus on keeping your ratios shiny early and you’ll give yourself more avenues for doing business later.

Let’s go deeper on a few of the shakier options you may be tempted to roll with early, but just remember to choose wisely.

Frankie Montas (165 ADP)
Next two starts: at Houston, vs. Detroit

Paired with high-90’s heat and a nasty slidepiece, when the splitty is working, Montas presents hitters with a tunneling nightmare that’s hard to hard to handle. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of the good version since¬† August of 2020, with Montas starting off 2021 by getting blown out of the water:

Frankie Montas Game Log
Date IP ER SO K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA
4/5/2021 2.2 7 4 13.5 10.1 3.4 23.63
9/27/2020 6.0 0 13 19.5 3.0 0.0 0.00
9/22/2020 4.0 5 3 6.8 2.3 6.8 11.25
9/13/2020 5.1 4 7 11.8 1.7 3.4 6.75
9/8/2020 5.0 2 4 7.2 1.8 1.8 3.60
8/29/2020 3.1 5 5 13.5 5.4 2.7 13.50
8/23/2020 4.2 4 5 9.6 5.8 1.9 7.71
8/18/2020 1.2 9 1 5.4 21.6 10.8 48.60
8/8/2020 7.0 0 5 6.4 0.0 0.0 0.00
8/3/2020 7.0 1 9 11.6 5.1 0.0 1.29
7/29/2020 5.0 2 3 5.4 3.6 0.0 3.60
7/24/2020 4.0 1 5 11.3 6.8 0.0 2.25

In his first four starts of 2020, Montas allowed just four earned runs, with 23 strikeouts in 23 innings. In his eight starts since (including the seven-run disaster in 2021’s season debut), Montas has a 9.92 ERA (6.66 FIP) over 32.2 IP, with 4.7 BB/9 and 3.0 HR/9.

Most sane people aren’t running him out against the Astros this weekend but many might eye his following start against Detroit as the start of a comeback trail. Resist! Given that six of his last eights starts have been ratio-blowing disasters (and we may still be in the throes of Akil Baddoo-mania by that time) Montas simply can’t be started against the Tigers, or virtually anyone else, until he shows us proof of life. And an old DVD of a bad Russell Crowe movie doesn’t count.

Corey Kluber (180 ADP)
Next Two Starts: at Tampa Bay, at Toronto

You want to believe that the Klu-Bot is back after striking out five in four innings against Toronto and just let him ride against Tampa Bay, followed by a rematch with the Blue Jays? Go ahead but I’d be taking that four innings of 2.25 ERA (7.01 FIP) to the bank and leaving Kluber locked in the vault until he proves he’s not going to spend all season serving up the 90 mph cheese that he did against Toronto.

Kluber has never had a prime fastball but going slower probably won’t likely make it better. And this velocity dip isn’t new, just a continuation of what actually started three years ago. Going back to his last fully healthy season in 2018, you may notice a slight dip in the second half:

It was easy to blame the bad numbers of his abbreviated 2019 (5.80 ERA, 1.65 WHIP) on the 35 inning sample size, and “Hey, a 4.06 FIP is better!”. However, the velocity decrease from the previous season had stuck around and has only gotten worse since:

 

Now a nearly 35-year-old Kluber finally shows up again in 2021 and immediately gives up a 50% hard-contact rate (a career-high since Statcast came online in 2015) while barely averaging 90 mph on his fastball. And we’re supposed to just keep rolling him out because he only gave up two earned runs and has name-brand shine? No thanks.

Kluber is the type of starter that will be great if I need to hunt wins and strikeouts later in the season because I’m sure he’ll settle into a perfectly fine role as a high-budget version of Adam Wainwright.

However, until we confirm he’s still good, I’m happy to risk missing out on another four-inning, five-strikeout gem if it means not stressing about the five-run blowups that tend to be on the table when you throw so slow.

Yusei Kikuchi (272 ADP)
Next Two Starts: at Minnesota, vs. Houston

It pains me to recommend keeping Kikuchi on your bench because the former NPB star was one of my favorite picks to break out in 2021. And he still is! But Minnesota and Houston (followed by likely matchups at Boston and again at Houston) is tough sledding, particularly for someone like Kikuchi who has the occasional home run problems pop up.

He was about what we wanted and more in his 2021 debut, allowing three earned runs (with two home runs) over six innings against San Francisco, striking out 10, while only walking one. Perhaps more importantly, his fastball still averaged the same 95 mph that it did in 2020, after averaging only 92.5 mph in his 2019 debut season.

In addition to the velocity increase, Kikuchi also still featured the cutter he introduced in 2020, at the same 40% usage. It is worth noting, however, that it was thrown differently, at least in this one start.

The average velocity of 90.4 mph was down from 92.1 mph in 2020, while its spin of 2531 rpm was up from 2256 rpm. The result was triple the movement on the horizontal plane, with the cutter breaking 3.3 inches (129% more than average), compared to 1.1 inches (-46% vs average) in 2020.

The cutter wasn’t the only pitch thrown slightly different than the 2020 version, as Kikuchi’s slider also dropped in velocity while gaining spin. It averaged 80.5 mph against the Giants, after averaging 83.3 mph in 2020 (and 86 mph in 2019), and spun at 2683 rpm, up from 2347 rpm in 2020.

Just as with the cutter, the differences in movement were stark, with his vertical drop increasing from 40.7 inches to 49.6 inches, while his horizontal break increased from 1.6 inches to 6.1 inches.

Here’s the slider in 2020, fast and tight:

via GIPHY

And here he is slowing it down to strike out Mike Yastrzemski, this time with bite. That strut you get for free.

Long a curious mind, emulator of Trevor Bauer, and known pitch tinkerer, Kikuchi has kept his velocity increase from 2020 and may have jumpstarted his whiffery even further with an improved cutter and slider, after posting a 24.2% K% in 2020 that was up from 16.1% the year prior. But the Twins and Astros are really good and might light him up so you should probably still sit-…

Ok, let’s start this relationship off on an honest foot. I’m going to totally ignore the aforementioned¬†advice about early risk avoidance and run him out even if the Astros and Twins are averaging 10 runs a game. Because I’m named Stan for Yusei Kikuchi and sometimes you just have to say YOLO. Am I right, fellow kids?





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nickfox45
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Great premise for an article, with fun slang + gifs + charts? Keep it coming, new Fangraphs scribe!