*Bad in this case is a 4.50 ERA or higher^ in 2019
^Except for one guy, who had a 4.49
We all know that ERA isn’t an end-all, be-all on skill, but those of us in the fantasy realm don’t roster guys with ERAs at 4.50 or higher so using that as a cutoff for this exercise felt right. The purpose here is to find some useful pitches these guys could build upon to get them on the right side of a 4.50 ERA going forward.
As for what determines a good pitch, I took a look at the average OPS, K%, SwStr%, and Chase% among starters with at least 700 fastballs thrown and 200 thrown of all the other pitches (slider, curveball, changeup, cutter, and splitter) and then found the strongest offerings of each pitch from those who struggled in 2019. The pitches didn’t have to be better than average in all four categories, but at least two of the four and in most cases, it’s better than three of the four.
I’m going to make this a two-parter with four-seamers, sliders, and cutters today and curves, changeups, and splitters later this week (probably tomorrow).
Lg. average: .802 OPS, 22% K, 10% SwStr, 25% Chase
Spencer Turnbull, DET | .728 OPS, 20% K, 12% SwStr, 30% Chase
Looking at Turnbull’s full season 4.61 ERA you might be surprised to learn that he had a 2.78 mark through his first 14 starts, while fanning nearly a batter-per-inning (73 in 77.7 IP). Shoulder fatigue and a back strain marred his second half and played a role in his 6.62 ERA and 1.63 WHIP over his final 16 starts, though he did fan another 73 batters and did so in 70.7 IP. His solid mid-90s heater gives him a nice foundation while his slider was essentially average and showed flashes of brilliance, particularly in those first 14 starts. Tigers pitchers not named Matthew Boyd will more or less be free in drafts, but don’t sleep on Turnbull in your deeper leagues.
Vince Velasquez, PHI | .767 OPS, 28% K, 13% SwStr, 29% Chase
The most frustrating thing about Velasquez has been how great he can look at times led by his fastball (2.73 ERA in April) only to then fall apart for an equally long stretch and just look completely lost (6.28 ERA in his final 9 starts across Aug/Sept.). The biggest issue seems to be that he doesn’t consistently have anything to go with the fastball, putting a lot of pressure on a single pitch to carry him 5-6 innings at a time. When he was a prospect, multiple outlets saw him eventually matriculating into the bullpen and that now seems like the best path to maximizing his abilities or else he may just continue to be a 4th/5th starter type.
Lg. average: .659 OPS, 31% K, 17% SwStr, 35% Chase
Jakob Junis, KC | .450 OPS, 44% K, 18% SwStr, 36% Chase
Junis has regularly had a sharp slider at his disposal but little else at this point has saddled him with a 4.69 career ERA and FIP that says he deserved every bit of it at an identical 4.69, too. Interestingly, his slider was at its best in 2019 while Junis was at his worst overall with a 5.24 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. His devastatingly bad fastball impedes his path to improvement, and it’s been so bad that you have to wonder if he maybe he looks to change his primary offering.
Whether it’s further amplification of his slider (up 5 pts to 44% in ’19), changing his fastball offering from a four-seamer to a two-seamer, sinker, or cutter, or finding a third pitch – he’s unsuccessfully dabbled with a curve and changeup in the past – he can rely on enough to bring his fastball usage down below 50% (it’s been 55%, 53%, and 50% in his three seasons). A plus pitch he uses 40%+ of the time and a great walk rate is something build on, but Junis needs a major change to escape the 4th-5th starter realm.
Dylan Bundy, LAA | .496 OPS, 41% K, 23% SwStr, 38% Chase
I’ve discussed Bundy a bit already this offseason and how his premium slider gives him something to work with as he changes scenery and heads out west. Like Junis, a brutal fastball has capped his ability to maximize the slider. Unlike Junis, he has other, usable offerings. I could’ve included him in the changeup list (spoiler alert: I don’t) as his met two of the four thresholds with a good swinging strike rate (19%) and elite chase rate (43%) while his curveball had a sharp .587 OPS-against, though it fell short in K%, SwStr%, and Chase%.
Whether it’s the deployment of his fastball – he showed some flashes with high heat and that might be an avenue – changing it entirely (reintroducing the cutter?) or just using it a lot less, something has to change to curb his excessive HR rate (1.7 career; 1.6 in ’19) or he’ll continue to be an inconsistent arm with an ERA in high-4.00s/low-5.00s.
Kyle Gibson, TEX | .507 OPS, 48% K, 28% SwStr, 45% Chase
Gibson couldn’t build on a big 2018 season (3.62 ERA in 196.7 IP) as his ERA shot back up to 4.84 despite his bread and butter slider remaining excellent. It even fueled a career-best 13% SwStr rate. I’m not going to write him up in the changeup pool, too, but it’s worthy of inclusion by hitting three of the four thresholds. But the popular refrain in this section applies to Gibson as well: the fastball holds him back. Maybe getting to Texas and linking back up with fastball king Lance Lynn can help Gibson get on track with the pitch. It was at its best in 2018 when Lynn was in Minnesota with Gibson and while I can’t say that Lynn influenced him, it’d be great if he could help him out a bit.
Dylan Cease, CWS | .578 OPS, 39% K, 15% SwStr, 30% Chase
Cease has been a favorite of mine as an up-and-comer for 2020, but there’s work to be done. The slider is his money pitch at present and was instrumental in his strong finish. He had a 3.00 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in his final four starts with 28 strikeouts in 21 innings, thanks in large part to his slider carrying a filthy 54% K rate in that time. On the season (and in the September run), his changeup was pretty solid, too, netting a .433 OPS against in 122 thrown.
Like the other three in this slider pool, Cease’s fastball was brutal and held him back regularly. Where he separates himself from the others is that his averages 96.5 mph which certainly expands his margin for error, but the command and control of the pitch is a mess. He allowed a 1.080 OPS on the pitch thanks to a 14% BB rate and 6% HR rate (Junis & Bundy both allowed 6% HR rates on their heaters, too, and the league average was 4%). The addition of Yasmani Grandal should help Cease and if he adds in some personal development, we could see a big season from the 24-year flamethrower.
Justus Sheffield, SEA | .863 OPS, 49% K, 24% SwStr, 34% Chase
This is just a reminder to not completely forget the 24-year old southpaw. He wasn’t great in his 36 innings of work with Seattle last year and even the slider itself had a high OPS, but as you can see from the other three metrics, there’s plenty of potential there. Can he bring his fastball and changeup on board and have a big season? We’ll see.
Lg. average: .767 OPS, 20% K, 11% SwStr, 30% Chase
Steven Brault, PIT | .493 OPS, 44% K, 26% SwStr, 43% Chase
Brault might be the last player I expected to list for one of these pitches. He spent the bulk of his season in the rotation and posted a 5.16 ERA/1.50 WHIP combo with underwhelming metrics across the board but his cutter stood out as a premium pitch. He didn’t really have anything else of note so I’m not sure there’s a path to major success here, but the cutter was just so good that I had to include him.
Martín Pérez, BOS | .629 OPS, 23% K, 12% SwStr, 36% Chase
The cutter was new to Perez in 2019 and when paired with a fastball velo spike, it fostered some early season interest after a big spring. He started slowly out of the bullpen, allowing seven runs in 8.3 innings of work, but then reeled off an eight-start run of a 2.17 ERA and 1.15 WHIP with 44 strikeouts in 49.7 innings. Unfortunately, the success was short-lived as he managed just a 6.29 ERA/1.62 WHIP combo the rest of the way (107.3 IP) as both his fastball and curveball undermined the cutter’s success.
I used to be a Perez believer so the new cutter and jump in velocity brought me back into the fold for 2019 only to find more disappointment. Eight seasons without a strikeout rate reaching even 20%, a budding HR issue, and WHIP totals that haven’t been below 1.40 since 2014 and have never seen the right side of a 1.30 mark make it difficult to buy into the 29-year old despite the nice new pitch. At this point, he’s a total wait-and-see guy as I can’t envision drafting him in any format.