Given his top prospect pedigree and strong minor league results pre-2013, Tyler Skaggs was already a trendy sleeper heading into spring training with his new American League ball club. Then reports hit that Skaggs’ fastball velocity was way up and suddenly he was no longer just a potential undervalued asset, but a legit breakout candidate. And so far with a 3.21 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, his performance has been everything us owners could have hoped for. Except that the way he has achieved such performance is nothing like we expected. Meet the new Tyler Skaggs.
As we heard in spring training, Skaggs’ velocity is indeed higher, settling in at 92.1 mph, compared to just 89.2 mph last year. We know that all else being equal, higher velocity leads to more strikeouts. Unfortunately for Skaggs owners, the southpaw has laughed at that notion, as not only has his strikeout rate not improved, but it has actually plunged. Both his swinging and foul strike rates have collapsed, meaning hitters are putting a high percentage of strikes into play. In fact, batters have put Skaggs’ strikes in play at the fifth highest rate among all Major League starters. That’s quite a surprise.
Both of his fastballs, even at higher velocities, are getting fewer swings and misses. He has also thrown his changeup less frequently, which is a pitch that has been excellent for him in the past. It’s all just head scratching.
To compensate for the lack of whiffs, Skaggs has done two things — improved his walk rate and suddenly become an extreme ground ball pitcher. Notice that I said he has improved his walk rate, rather than say he has improved his control. Although his walk rate has declined, both his F-Strike% and overall strike rate has dropped. How does one throw fewer strikes, yet also walk fewer batters? Because every strike he throws is put into play of course! This is a strange situation indeed.
Luckily for Skaggs, all those balls in play have yet to be a real problem thanks to a suppressed .250 BABIP. Some of that is actually earned as he sports a low 15.5% LD% and a well above average 13.6% IFFB%. But that brings us back to the ground ball thing. In the minors and pre-2014 Majors, Skaggs posted a rather neutral batted ball type distribution. But now he has suddenly gained a penchant for the worm killer, as his ground ball rate has sky rocketed to 58%. That’s fourth highest in baseball! Ground ball pitchers usually have lower than average IFFB% rates so it’s rare to see a pitcher induce both lots of grounders and lots of pop-ups. Can that continue? I’m not so sure.
Is that ground ball rate a fluke? Probably not. We know that ground ball and fly ball rates stabilize pretty quickly, and according to our research, only requires 70 balls in play. He’s already above that just four starts in. The primary driver of the increased ground ball rate comes from his two fastballs — the four-seamer and two-seamer. The four-seam version had been a fly ball pitch previously, but has now induced grounders nearly 53% of the time.
The two-seamer was neutral last season and a fly ball pitch in 2012, but it has now generated worm killers a whopping 71% of the time. After looking at the heat maps for the fastball locations, it doesn’t appear obvious that he’s making a conscience effort to throw lower in the zone. So I’m at a loss in trying to explain what’s behind the huge jump in ground ball rate.
The good news for the Angels is that, as per SIERA, this new ground ball slinging, pitch to contact version of Skaggs is just about as effective as the previous strikeout one. The bad news for fantasy owners is that his fantasy value is going to be limited if those strikeouts fail to return.
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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.