Millennials & Elders of the Blue Jays Rotation

This post continues our Depth Chart Discussions. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, rotation, and bullpen) and will continue to break them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find the Depth Chart Discussion posts gathered here.

As fantasy baseball players, we often find discrepancies between a player’s value “in real life” and his value in fantasy leagues. Or even between his actual value and his role on the team. The best relief pitcher isn’t always the closer, for example, or a nominal ace is really the third best starter on his team. This latter example might very well apply to the 2015 Blue Jays.

Most depth charts are going to show you that R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are the Jays’ number one and two starters, respectively. They are the grizzled veterans, they have fairly lucrative contracts, and they have some track record of success. They have thrown a lot of league-average-or-slightly-better innings over the last few years, and that has real life value.

But the Blue Jays have an exciting crop of younger starters, two of whom were probably more valuable than their elders last year, and certainly project to be more valuable going forward—both for their actual teams and for their fake teams.

For the 2015 Blue Jays rotation, the gap between nominal real life role and fantasy value coincides with a vast gap in age: those 36 and older, whose value in real life doesn’t cross over very well to fantasy leagues, and those 26 and younger, whose fantasy upside for 2015 and beyond is considerable.

The Elders

Here is a table featuring R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle’s standard 5×5 stats (and then some) from the 2014 season, and what Steamer projects them to do in 2015 in those same categories:

Player Season Age GS IP W K ERA WHIP K/BB K% BB% BABIP
R.A. Dickey 2014 39 34 215.2 14 173 3.71 1.23 2.34 18.9% 8.1% 0.263
Mark Buehrle 2014 35 32 202 13 139 3.39 1.36 2.59 13.9% 5.4% 0.316
R.A. Dickey Steamer ’15 40 30 192 12 146 4.27 1.32 2.41 17.8% 7.4% 0.285
Mark Buehrle Steamer ’15 36 32 189 12 119 4.45 1.34 2.47 14.2% 5.7% 0.294

And now here is a table with some of my favorite peripheral stat categories, displaying Dickey and Buehrle’s 2014 achievements in said:

Player Season SwStr% F-Strike% HR/FB GB% IFFB% FIP xFIP SIERA
R.A. Dickey 2014 10.4% 62.6% 10.7% 42.0% 13.6% 4.32 4.14 4.08
Mark Buehrle 2014 6.3% 59.0% 6.6% 43.7% 12.7% 3.66 4.09 4.32

Now that you have looked upon these tables, searching for something that stands out and finding little to nothing, you might be inclined to ask, Baumann, what is the point of these tables?

The point, mostly, is just that: nothing really stands out. If anything stands out to me, it’s Dickey’s first-strike rate. It’s amazing how he’s been able to limit walks and throw strikes at a rate above league average while throwing over 80% knuckleballs. That’s kind of cool, but it’s not that exciting.

Dickey’s results overall are average across the board. Because he has more strikeout upside than Buerhle, he’ll be more relevant in fantasy leagues. He’s going about 200 spots higher than Buehrle in mock drafts, which seems like an unduly huge gap, but I guess that’s the difference between contributing in one category and contributing in none.

Buehrle has logged over 200 innings every season dating back to 2001; with the exception of 2006, all of them have been respectable. His success hinges mostly on whether he can induce a lot of weak contact—limiting line drives and home runs—and limiting free passes. He still gives up a lot of hits, so his WHIP is poor, and he doesn’t strike many guys out. In 2014, he threw fewer four-seamers in favor of more two-seamers, but it was a lateral move as both pitches were below average. 2014 was proof that Buehrle can continue to eat innings while being roughly league average (or a bit better if some things break right). For fantasy purposes, however, he’s more like my Netflix account: streaming only.

I’m in a long-running league head-to-head league that awards a point for every inning pitched without assigning negative points in any category. Wins are ten points. In a league like that, I might consider rostering one of these guys to play during two-start weeks. Barring such nuanced scoring rules, forget Buehrle and Dickey and instead consider the shiny new millennials that are the future of the Blue Jays rotation…

The #YOLOs

By ERA, Drew Hutchison was worse than his elders in 2014. ERA indicators, however, liked his work much better (3.82 xFIP; 3.59 SIERA). That’s encouraging, but here’s something that’s more encouraging:

Sometime in mid-August last year, something with Hutchison’s slider changed, and it started dropping a lot more dramatically. Before his August 14th start, opposing hitters slugged .325 against his slider. That’s not very good, but after this change in vertical movement (which was accompanied by a drop in velocity), batters slugged .138 against the pitch. It became a wipeout pitch, especially against left-handed hitters. This is especially good news since lefties were destroying every other kind of pitch Hutchison threw at them. I could go on about this, but a few days ago, Jeff Sullivan did that better than I ever could.

The gist of it is, Hutchison finished strong, in his last seven starts. While seven starts is a very small sample, it looks like his improvement was based in something tangible: not only the change in movement and velocity of the slider, but also the fact that Hutchison threw it more often. Steamer sees Hutchison improving his ERA while holding steady in WHIP and K/9. For me, I’m bullish: I like him to best his line from last year. His mock draft ADP is in the 250s right now. He should be a huge a value there.

A few weeks before Hutchison discovered the new version of his slider that improved his results, Marcus Stroman discovered a sinker (discussed insightfully here by—you guessed it—Jeff Sullivan) that improved his own. Once again, I don’t have any insights to offer here that you wouldn’t get from reading Jeff’s piece.

Stroman struck out batters at a slightly above average rate last year, and there could be room for growth considering that his strikeout rate in the minor (where he was never old for his level) is 28.7%. His new-found sinker helps to limit home runs. He doesn’t walk a lot of batters, so his WHIP should continue to be above average. Steamer projects him to have more strikeouts than Hutchison while posting better rate stats. On paper or in pixels, you might see him listed as the Jays’ number four starter. By ability and results, he’s probably their ace right now. He might not be at a point where he can lead your fantasy staff, but he’s a nice second or third starter.

Depending on where you look, Aaron Sanchez could be the Blue Jays’ fifth starter or set-up man heading into 2015. He logged 33 excellent relief innings with the parent club on the strength of a 65.9% ground ball rate that ranked fourth amongst all pitchers who threw at least 30 innings. I was surprised to see Sanchez listed as the fifth starter in so many places considering the success he had in the bullpen and the lack of back end options the Jays seem to have. Still, Sanchez is young and of top prospect pedigree, so the team might want to give him a chance to prove himself as a starter.

What stands out to me is the difference in his walk rates between the minor (where he was primarily a starter) and his half season in the majors last year (where he was used exclusively as a reliever). He hadn’t posted a walk rate lower than 10% since a 42-innings stint in short season ball in 2011, and even then he walked 9.5% of the batters he faced. His 7.2% walk rate in the majors was by far his lowest at any stop ever, regardless of length. That probably has to do with the fact that, as a reliever, he was able to rely more and more on his sinker, a pitch that he could throw for strikes more often than he could with his other pitches.

As a starter, Sanchez probably couldn’t get away with throwing one pitch that often. His minor league numbers as a starter don’t include high strikeout rates, and they don’t include walk rates indicative of a successful member of a major league rotation. His major league numbers as a starter are non-existent. It’s a lot easier to see him having value as a Zach Britton-type reliever right now. As a starter, however, I’ll probably pass on him.

Liam Hendriks, Marco Estrada, and Daniel Norris could all get a chance to win the final spot in the rotation, and they’ll do so from very different outlooks.

Hendriks is out of options, so it’s probably either win the rotation spot out of spring training or say good bye to the Blue Jays for good. Despite some success in his early minor league stints in the Twins organization, he’s never managed to figure out the majors. If he does happen to win the Jays’ fifth spot, he’ll be of no consequence in fantasy leagues.

Estrada has spent the last four years as a serviceable swingman for the Brewers. His solid strike out and walk rates have lead to expectations of a breakout that has yet to come, mostly due to an inability to prevent gopher balls. Maybe the Blue Jays teach him a sinker a la Stroman and Sanchez, he finally keeps the ball in the park, and becomes a solid #3. At this point, it seems more likely that he’ll remain a swingman and have little fantasy value.

From the opposite end of the spectrum, Daniel Norris was a second-round draft pick in 2012 that breezed through three minor league levels in 2014 in route to a cup of coffee in the majors. He posted excellent strikeout numbers and above average ground ball rates along the way. This, from Baseball America, upon his 2014 call-up:

Norris missed much of June 2013 with forearm tightness, but mechanical alterations he made to his delivery took hold upon his return and the results were stark. His release point became more consistent, he doubled his strikeout/walk ratio and his velocity became a steady 91-95. … The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Norris has good downhill plane and late life to his fastball and a great finish, so that his 92 mph seems more like 96. His slider rates average to plus and his changeup flashes plus.

Three good pitches and the [minor league] results to match.

Given a possible innings cap for 2015 and the fact that he hasn’t thrown even 60 innings above High-A ball, there are reasons to start Norris off in the minors as he builds up endurance and hones his control. At the same time, he might be the Jays’ best rotation option right now.

Plus, if you happen to be in a super weird league that awards points for mandolin playing or handsome ax-wielding, Norris is your guy.

Hire Robert J. Baumann to live-blog your next birthday party, family reunion, or corporate event. You will not want to forget it soon.

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Good tip with Hutchison. My worry with him is that he was an big fly ball pitcher last year, and that’s usually not a good course of action with where he plays half his games. Still, he could be a really great value if he’s able to develop his change up at all.

Super excited for a full season out of Stroman, though. He seems light-years ahead of his peers in his development. Would it really surprise anybody if he had a 9 K/9 this year?

One last thing to note about Blue Jays’ pitchers is that they’re swapping out Navarro for Martin, which is a very substantial upgrade in pitch framing. Buehrle has made a living soft-tossing at the corners for 200+ IP per year. The catcher-swap can only help.