Game of Groans: Slow Starting Pitchers

Yesterday, I discussed a bunch of preseason top 100 hitters who are off to slow starts. Today, let’s go over the starting pitchers with ERAs in the stratosphere. The analysis is primarily going to to focus on velocity and pitch mix, and perhaps SwStk% and maybe strike percentage, though the latter two are heavily affected by the tiny sample size and opponent. I’m going to stick with starters generally projected for sub-4.00 ERAs.

Carlos Carrasco

Two six-run implosions in three starts?! That’s not what Carrasco owners paid for. His strikeout and walk rates are as strong as ever, but his velocity is down again, marking four straight seasons of declines since starting full-time in 2015. Of course, velocity typically declines as pitchers age, and the current drop versus last year is minor. Oddly, he is throwing his sinker more frequently at the expense of his curve, which is rarely good for whiffs. His SwStk% has plummeted, while he has allowed a high rate of both line drives and fly balls.

The sample size here is even smaller than most of the rest of these guys and since his fastball velocity doesn’t set off any alarm bells, I’m inclined to not be concerned yet.

Chris Sale

His fastball velocity was better than his second outing, but still well down from what we’re used to. I have nothing new to add here. He’s either pitching hurt, or the Sox and himself made the silly decision to hold back on his velocity and save himself for the playoffs…which won’t come if he continues on this path.

Walker Buehler

Although I liked his overall skill set, I was a little nervous about his strikeout rate given the mediocre SwStk% mark. So far, his SwStk% is only down marginally, but his strikeout rate has tumbled, but it’s only been 12 innings, so it’s kind of meaningless. More meaningful is that his velocity is actually higher than last year, he has traded sinker for four-seamers, and increased his slider usage, which was his best swing and miss pitch last year. He has thrown fewer strikes (63% this season vs 67% last year), so that’s something to watch, but control struggles could come and go. A lower strike rate in April doesn’t mean he won’t get back to the high 60% range the rest of the way. Given his velocity and pitch mix change more focused on the slider, I’m buying.

Zack Wheeler

I couldn’t understand the hype around Wheeler heading into the season as he outperformed his SIERA and his SwStk% was exactly league average. This year, the biggest issue has been throwing strikes, as his strike rate has fallen below 60%, which is awful. Of course, most of the damage was likely done during his second outing when he walked seven of the 24 batters he faced. Before last season, Wheeler had never posted a single digit walk rate, so that outing is just a reminder that maybe he hasn’t mastered the art of control just yet, despite his improvement last season. The good news is his velocity is up a mile an hour versus last season to a career high, making him one of the hardest throwing starters in baseball.

I’m right with the Steamer RoS ERA projection of 3.75, which is close to where my own projection had him. That’s nowhere near good enough to earn his price tag, so I think expectations need to be tempered.

Aaron Nola

Nola and Buehler are similar, boasting a strong overall skills package, but making nerds like me nervous due to the pedestrian SwStk% marks (that was improved last year, but still not nearly high enough to justify a 27% strikeout rate). His velocity is fine, but he has traded changeups for curves, which makes sense for whiffs. Unfortunately, all of his pitches are generating weaker SwStk% marks than normal. The biggest issue, however, has been throwing strikes, and he has endured a similar decline in strike rate as Buehler. Like Buehler, I’m going to chalk this up to a small sample, as it really just comes down to throwing strikes. Assuming he’s healthy, Nola will be fine.

Corey Kluber

One of the most consistently excellent pitchers in baseball, Kluber has not had the start I expected when I made him my first starting pitcher in my NFBC league. His pitch mix is nearly identical, but velocities are all down a bit, which is concerning for a guy not known for a good fastball, even when he was averaging over 93 mph. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, strike throwing has been the biggest problem, driven by his last outing when he walked five of 18 Royals hitters. The SwStk% suggests his strikeout rate will be fine, so it’s just a matter of recapturing that pinpoint control that brought walk rates no higher than 6.6% every season he has been in the league.

James Paxton

I look forward to the “he can’t pitch in a Yankees uniform” stories. Paxton’s velocity is fine and he’s traded some curves for cutters, which is perfectly fine given that his cutter has generated the highest SwStk% over his career. I honestly don’t know what happened to his previous ground ball tilt, and fly balls are dangerous in his new home park. But really, everything looks relatively normal here, it’s just the hilarious .436 BABIP. Buy from a nervous nelly who is wondering whether he can handle the Big Apple.

Miles Mikolas

For a guy who sported a sub-20% strikeout rate and a SIERA a full run higher than his actual ERA, Mikolas was overvalued heading into the season. His velocity is down a bit from last year and pitch mix similar, but he’s not fooling hitters at all given the pathetic 6.2% SwStk%. Since he relies on pinpoint control that could easily be less pinpoint this season, I just don’t see the upside. Depending on who’s available on your free agency, it wouldn’t be a terrible decision to drop him for a potentially more intriguing starter.

Zack Greinke

Greinke has been fairly normal since his first outing in which he allowed seven runs over just 3.2 innings, but it was bad enough to leave his ERA nearing 6.00. While his velocity is near his mark last year, that means it’s still just 90, which is bordering on dangerous territory. His SwStk% is now at its lowest mark since 2012, which makes you wonder how he has managed such a high strikeout rate so far. At age 35 to boot, I’m not buying here.

Stephen Strasburg

From 2013 to 2018, Strasburg’s average fastball velocity has remained in a one mile per hour range, which is actually pretty impressive considering he was starting at 96.2 mph. But this year, his velocity has taken its biggest hit, dropping from 95.2 last year to just 93.6. The drop hasn’t affected his SwStk% or strikeout rate, and he has barely allowed any line drives (but has also failed to induce a pop-up). Really, the only reason his ERA remains above 5.00 is because of a lowly LOB%. He has never posted a mark below 70%, so this is almost surely an artifact of a small sample size. The velocity decline is a concern, absolutely, and owners are definitely wondering when he’ll hit the IL, but everything else looks normal. He’s a cautious buy.

We hoped you liked reading Game of Groans: Slow Starting Pitchers by Mike Podhorzer!

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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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Matt Wallach
Member
Matt Wallach

Anything for JA Happ?

dl80
Member
dl80

His groundballs are down and his flyballs are way up, which is part of what is causing the home run spike. His velocity is down 1 mph from last year’s fringey 92. I’ve never been a big believer, but he’s proven me wrong since 2015, but I’m not a fan.

Dan_F_30
Member
Dan_F_30

I had the same question. I have him in 2 leagues and he’s taking valuable roster space. 12-team, H2H mixed, league with QS. In League 1 my staff is: Cole, Bauer, Castillo, Taillon, Stripling, Matz, and Happ. League 2: Greinke, Tanaka, Musgrove, German, Morton, Eflin, Stripling, with Cahill and Margevicious in streaming spots.

Ok to move on from Happ in both leagues you think?