Game of Groans: Slow Starting Pitchers — A Review

Today, let’s review how 10 slow-starting pitchers I first discussed in mid-April performed the rest of the way. Was it a profitable move to acquire any of these pitchers from a panicked owner? Let’s find out.

Slow Starters
Name SIERA – Through Apr 14 SIERA – RoS ERA – Through Apr 14 ERA – RoS Diff
Carlos Carrasco 3.65 3.51 12.60 4.24 -8.36
Walker Buehler 5.30 3.37 8.25 2.91 -5.34
Chris Sale 5.47 2.78 9.00 3.95 -5.05
Zack Wheeler 5.37 4.11 7.47 3.66 -3.81
Zack Greinke 3.51 4.01 5.79 2.57 -3.22
Aaron Nola 5.27 4.05 6.46 3.66 -2.80
James Paxton 4.09 3.92 6.00 3.58 -2.42
Stephen Strasburg 4.16 3.42 5.40 3.14 -2.26
Miles Mikolas 5.50 4.25 6.00 3.92 -2.08
Corey Kluber 4.99 4.29 6.16 5.40 -0.76

Seven of the 10 starters had only made three starts through April 14, while three had made four. Obviously, these are tiny sample sizes. So we should know that ERA holds limited predictive value. That said, even this group’s SIERA was majorly inflated versus expectations, so the weak early season results weren’t just a result of poor fortune. Reduced skills also hampered their performance.

That said, every single one of them improved their ERA marks dramatically over the rest of the season. But duh, of course, as the lowest ERA in this group through April 14 was 5.40, so obviously they all improved. How many of them delivered the value we expected the rest of the season though? I count seven of the 10, as injuries hampered the other three.

Unfortunately, Carlos Carrasco’s season was interrupted after being diagnosed with leukemia. He eventually returned in relief, but we could probably give him a mulligan. His health is more important than his baseball career, so there’s no telling what 2020 will bring for Carrasco.

You’re forgiven if you had totally forgotten that Walker Buehler allowed five runs in two of his first three starts, for a total of 11 runs in his first three starts spanning 12 innings. That obviously didn’t affect the rest of his season, as he was one of just two in this group to post a sub-3.00 the rest of the way. Amazingly, for the second straight season, he threw four pitches that generated double digit SwStk% marks.

We all know the Chris Sale store early on, and while his velocity rebounded soon after, his ERA jumped up and down and he never enjoyed an extended run of elite results like we have been used to. And then, we learn that his elbow had become problematic and resulted in him being shut down in mid-August. Might his elbow have been bothering him all season long to explain the down year? He’ll be an interesting target in drafts next year, as a discounted price could potentially lead to a massive profit. Don’t ignore that 2.78 RoS SIERA, which suggests his skills were actually as elite as ever, but it was just perhaps some bad fortune leading to an ERA more than a run above.

Zack Wheeler was a favorite of many drafters heading into the season, but his first three starts weren’t what drafters were hoping for. With some aid from Lady Luck, he turned it around quickly and was back to the Wheeler everyone paid for after those first three starts.

Zack Greinke’s season was weird. Over his first four starts, his results were terrible, but skills (SIERA) excellent, then his skills went South, pushing his SIERA just over 4.00, but his ERA improved sharply, dipping well below 3.00. I’m still waiting for the Greinke implosion given scary velocity trends, so I’ll be staying far away from his bidding given likely cost.

Yes, you may have been expecting just a bit better from Aaron Nola, but his skills deteriorated all season, even after his poor first three starts. And a 3.66 ERA was perfectly reasonable and pretty close to his computer projections. I get nervous about pitchers with high strikeout rates, but mediocre SwStk% marks. How much longer could he rely on called and/or foul strikes to get those punchouts?

While the media was no doubt excited to name another pitcher who couldn’t pitch in New York, James Paxton quickly turned things around and was his normal Paxtony self the rest of the way. Now if only he could exceed that 160.1 innings that stands as his season high, he might finally move into the upper tier of pitcher values.

After a bumpy couple of starts to begin the season, Stephen Strasburg was back the rest of the way. I still worry about his short term outlook, as his fastball velocity averaged less than 95 mph for the first time in his career.

Given the paltry strikeout rate, Miles Mikolas is certainly a more valuable real life pitcher than fantasy one. So I don’t blame you if you jettisoned him after his first four starts with a 6.00 ERA. But he turned things around and pretty much did what should have been expected the rest of the way. His best skill right now is pinpoint control that leads to low walk rates. Buyers better hope he doesn’t stop throwing strikes, since he has little else to fall back on.

What happened to Corey Kluber? Before his arm injury in early May that wiped out the rest of his season, Kluber had posted weak skills and weak results, both over his first four starts and the rest of his starts before his injury. His strikeout rate was well down, while his walk rate had mysteriously shot up to a career high rate. His velocity trends are scary, as his sinker velocity has now dropped for five straight seasons, while his cutter declined for a third straight year. That’s over half of his pitches are multi-year velocity lows. At age 34 next year, we have to make an educated guess as to whether age has taken its toll and he’s no longer anywhere near the top of the pack, or this was just a small sample slump and he’ll mostly rebound next season. I don’t know that answer.

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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Kluber’s strikeout rate wasn’t down; it was actually up. His 9.59 K/9 was the second highest of his career. The walks were up, which is probably a result of his diminishing speed causing him to nibble, but the .370 BABIP didn’t help. I’m expecting a slightly worse version of 2016’s numbers, assuming no more major injuries.