The early season is the trickiest part of the year for fantasy players. How much do you react to any given start for a pitcher? Is Vincent Velasquez really awesome? Is Adam Wainwright all of a sudden trash? While we can’t know definitively on any of it this early, we can start looking for signs that will help us make our decisions going forward. Today, we’re going to look at two really intriguing arms off to solid starts and see how they’re attacking their biggest flaw: walks.
Moore entered 2016 with an 11% career walk rate, just too many walks to find consistent success. As is often the case when someone is struggling with walks, it is fastball command for Moore. He has never had lower than a 10% walk rate with the pitch. So when I see the 4% walk rate for Moore through three starts, it instantly jumps off the page for me. Once you see a stark difference in a skill like that, you want to investigate it further and not just accept it at face value.
Before diving into the numbers, I thought (assumed) that he was relying on the fastball less and helping the walk rate that way. He’s actually using the fastball a lot more and commanding it better than ever. For this particular exercise, I want to see how he’s using the fastball against righties in large part because he has 46 plate appearances that have ended on the pitch and 42 of them are against righties. He hasn’t walked a lefty with a fastball, but it’s not particularly useful information on four plate appearances.
Looking at those 42 plate appearances with the fastball, his walk rate is just 7%, down from 16% on 709 plate appearances from 2011-2015. That’s great, but are there any differences in approach? He hasn’t taken any strides forward with his first-pitch strike rate, either with the fastball vs. righties or at large. It’s static at 56% for the latter, but down nine percentage points at large from 2015 to 51%. Maybe the pitch has just been more effective at getting outs overall.
That is definitely happening. The pitch allowed an .805 OPS to righties prior to 2016 and it’s down at .479 so far this year. It’s generating more swings (46% to 49%) and misses (23% to 26%). The 28% strikeout rate is highest since that 2011 cameo when it logged a 30% on 30 plate appearances. Pitch location is where I looked next and found that he was working the fastball on the inner third to righties at a 52% clip, up from 42% in 2011-15 and easily the highest of any year.
I don’t think we’ve seen enough to totally buy this renaissance with Moore’s walk rate just yet, but there are some encouraging signs. The new approach (working it in to righties) has been very successful and has functioned as a key driver in the decreased walk rate. He still hasn’t hit the road just yet and his walk rate is actually a good bit worse away from Tropicana at 12%, compared to 9% at home. I’d feel a lot better about this walk rate improvement if we saw more first-pitch strikes because his 51% mark is in line with what he had when he was walking 11-12% of his batters.
Sanchez is almost a younger, righty version of Moore at this point: a lot of promise, electric stuff, but too many walks to find consistent success. He hasn’t been around as long with just 145.3 major league innings – 59.3 of which have been in relief – but his walk issues were prominent throughout his minor league career, too. He walked 13% of the batters he faced in the minors and he’s at 11% in the majors, even with a 7% in the pen.
His 9% walk rate so far this season is still below average, but it’s still a big improvement from the 12% he logged as a starter in his first two seasons. He opened with a sparkling 0 BB effort in Tampa Bay, but a lot of that might’ve been due to the opponent as they’ve come out swinging so far this year. He’s back up at 14% in his last two starts vs. NYY and at BOS – two teams known for patience. He still only allowed three runs (two earned) against them, but he’s running a bit hot with his BABIP and LOB rates at .170 and 92%, respectively (but it’s not just luck, either, he’s been filthy and aided the insane rates).
Honestly, the exercise with Sanchez won’t be that much different than it was with Moore in terms of what factors we look at with his fastball. Unlike Moore, Sanchez is working his fastball frequently enough to both righties and lefties so we can look at the full sample. He uses his heater 76% of the time this year and 81% for his career so it’s all about the fastball. He had 200 plate appearances ending on a fastball to both righties and lefties prior to 2016. Righties had a 10% walk rate; lefties were at 15%.
So far this year, he has just a 4% walk rate vs. righties in 26 PA, but lefties are up at 19% in 32 PA. First, let’s see what’s working against righties. A sharp jump in called strikes seems to be the driving force here. He has a 47% called-strike rate so far, compared to 35% against righties prior to 2016. There haven’t been any stark changes in location approach, though he is working it on the outside a bit more.
Maybe Russell Martin deserves some credit? Only 82% of these called strikes against righties have been in the zone, compared to 94% in 2014-15. He’s also working ahead more often. His overall first-pitch strike rate has jumped to a career-best 59% (all pitches, righties & lefties) while his fastball vs. righty rate has jumped from 58% to 66%. He is decimating righties so I buy the improved walk rate against them. What about lefties?
While his walk rate is markedly worse against lefties, he has still been successful against them overall save a couple home runs (Corey Dickerson and Brian McCann) with a .158/.273/.342 triple slash line. He’s actually throwing the fastball in the zone a lot more to lefties at 56%, up from 47% in 2014-15. He’s also getting more strikes, more first-pitch strikes, and they’re making less contact. They’re chasing about the same and he’s getting a lot more called strikes. These are all positive factors and while they don’t all relate directly walk rate, he’s trending in a way that should yield fewer walks going forward.
Though he is still walking lefties at an elevated clip, he doesn’t have any of the markers that suggest it should stay that high. Additionally, he has doubled his changeup usage against them to 10%, giving three pitches to use consistently. There’s a chance that the credit just goes to New York and Boston lefties, but even if that’s the case, then he needs to figure out a refined approach because they still reside in his division.
I’m more encouraged Sanchez’s early season development than I am worried about the continued walk “issue” against lefties. Sure, he’s unlikely to maintain that obscene .170 BABIP, but it speaks to how difficult he is to square up consistently. And with filthy stuff like that, he can live with a worse-than-average walk rate. There’s a cutoff point of course, but I think the 9% range is livable for Sanchez.