New Starting Pitchers — Sep 15, 2022

I’ve published a ton of posts highlighting new everyday players on the hitting side, but have ignored pitchers. So let’s now shift to rookie starting pitchers who have recently made their MLB debuts.

Ken Waldichuk | OAK

Waldichuk was last ranked as the Athletics best prospect and 35th overall prospect, with pitch grades suggesting a killer fastball/changeup combination. That’s a nice bump from when he was ranked just 15th amongst Yankees prospects heading into the year, before being traded to the Athletics at the trade deadline.

Waldichuk has posted some scintillating strikeout rates in the minors, getting as high as an insane 48.7%, posted last year over 30.2 High-A innings. Amazingly, he has posted a strikeout rate above 40% during three separate minor league stints. I’m usually skeptical of pitchers posting high strikeout rates without a high SwStk% too. That typically suggests getting by on lots of called strikes, and that’s not something I want to bet will carry over to the Majors. Waldichuk, however, has consistently posted mid-teen SwStk% marks in the minors. Perhaps they aren’t as high as you might hope for given the absurd strikeout rates, but it’s clear he could miss bats and do it pretty darn well.

Over 15 MLB innings, the strikeout pitch hasn’t come as easy for him. His strikeout rate has slid down to just 20.9% and his SwStk% sits at an ordinary 10.5%. So far, it’s been his slider generating the highest SwStk%, and it’s the only one of his four pitches with a SwStk% in double digits. The four-seamer has been average, while the changeup’s SwStk% is a disappointing 8.9%. The sample size is tiny though, so it’s nothing to get too concerned over just yet.

He has struggled at times with his control and has posted double digit walk rates three times. That’s totally find when you’re striking out over 30% of opposing batters, but less so when you’re only striking out 20% of them. He’ll obviously need to get more whiffs on his changeup to give us confidence he’ll be able to work through any future control issues.

Finally, he’s in a pretty good ballpark as a fly ball pitcher and gets out of a home run paradise, so the park switch provides a big projected ratio boost. In deeper leagues, I would speculate given the strikeout potential, but wins might be hard to come by, and his WHIP doesn’t figure to be very helpful.

Hunter Brown | HOU

Brown is another top-ranked prospect, sitting atop the Astros heap and also ranked 86th overall. His pitch grade profile is similar to Waldichuk’s, but with a killer curveball instead of changeup.

Brown hasn’t quite posted the strikeout rates as Waldichuk, but has also dealt with control issues. Remember when I mentioned above how I’m skeptical of pitchers with high strikeout rates and SwStk% marks that don’t match? Brown fits that bill. In Double-A and Triple-A since last year, he has posted a strikeout rate above 30% twice and a mid-20% mark once. However, his SwStk% was thoroughly mediocre, sitting between 10.8% and 11.7%. That doesn’t scream dominance. So that gives me pause, at least in the short-term.

However, there’s another big difference here between him and Waldichuk. While the latter is a fly ball pitcher and has come to a better environment for his kind, Brown is a ground ball pitcher. He has posted 50%+ GB% marks in three of four stints, and sub-30% FB% marks everywhere he has pitched. You know who he reminds me of? His rotation-mate Lance McCullers Jr. In fact, the similarities are striking, as they both rely on a curveball as their primary secondary pitch, lean on a slider as their third pitch, and own a similar skill set of strikeout ability, SwStk%, walk rate, and GB%. The only real difference is that Brown actually throws harder, averaging 96.6 MPH with his fastball so far, while McCullers only peaked at 94.5 MPH.

I don’t typically get too concerned about a pitcher’s control since that’s more fixable than most other skills, while his big velocity offers hope he’ll eventually bump up his SwStk% and the strikeout rate will come along for the ride. The current version is perfectly good though, but he might lose his rotation spot as soon as Justin Verlander returns.

Ryne Nelson | ARI

The Diamondbacks sixth ranked prospect, Nelson’s pitch grades suggest a complete pitcher, with a killer fastball to go along with a strong slider and curveball pairing. Through 2021, he had posted strong strikeout rates in the minors, with marks over 30%, and backed up by mid-to-high teen SwStk% marks. Encouragingly, his walk rate improved at each level as well.

Unfortunately, his strikeout rate and ability to generate swings and misses collapsed during his first tour of Triple-A this year. His strikeout rate fell to just 21.6% and SwStk% to a mediocre 10.9%. That’s worrisome, and not what you want to see from a prospect as he climbs the minor league ladder.

In two starts over 13 innings, he has averaged 94.8 MPH with his fastball, and complemented it with a curveball, slider, and single digit used changeup. He has thrown his fastball often though, so there’s definitely room to reduce it, which could boost his SwStk%. So far, his four-seamer has been solid at generating swings and misses, but his curveball has been awful, with just a 3.8% SwStk%. On the other hand, his 17 sliders have been amazing, posting a 29.4% SwStk%. The sample size remains tiny though, so it’s hard to make any real judgements about his results so far.

At the moment, Nelson looks like any other minor league starting pitcher prospect, which isn’t appealing to me. Perhaps his Triple-A results were a fluke and his strikeout rate will better align with his lower level marks and pitch grades. But I’m not going to risk my team ratios hoping that happens overnight.

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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20 days ago

Have been holding Brown just in case he sticks… hope we find out today!