It would be very easy for me to be a fan of Tyler Skaggs. He’s more than a sparkling 2.88 ERA or 25% strikeout rate, he’s someone who boosted his groundball clip comfortably over 50%, buffed his swinging-strike rate 2.5 points to 10.7%b and not even DIPS metrics such as his 3.34 FIP or 3.58 SIERA suggest a mask hiding an ugly truth. It shouts a popular sentiment in the fantasy world:
Tyler Skaggs has figured it out.
I’m here today to tell you that this is a myth.
Those numbers, they’re all great. Simple, elegant descriptions of a player to help us quickly grasp their performance. But you know me. With these articles, I like to answer how a pitcher is getting their results, showcasing their recipe for success. Thing is, even though Skaggs has “figured it out,” I’m not exactly sure what he has figured out.
So let’s explore the popular solutions. Detailing the myths and legends, seeking the true catalyst that has turned Skaggs from his poor 4.55 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 21% K rate from last season to this year’s bliss.
Theory #1: His new changeup is the final piece of the puzzle
This is easily the most popular response when questioning Skaggs’ success and at quick glance, it makes a lot of sense. Here’s a quick comparison of the slow ball from 2017 to 2018:
|Year||Usage %||Strikeout %||LD %||BAA||BABIP||O-Swing %||Zone %||Whiff %||zMov||pVal|
Aha! His whiff rate has gone up! And it’s fueled by a few extra inches of vertical drop! Clearly, there’s your source of strikeouts and boom! We’re done here. (Note: I adjusted for a consistent drop in zMov across all of Skaggs’ pitches – this usually dictates a consistent data recording tweak, not an actual change in mechanics or performance)
…not so fast. Look at the usage rates. Skaggs barely throws this changeup with just 92 thrown this season. Entering Thursday’s start, he had only featured the pitch 80 times, resulting in just 11 total whiffs (13.2% whiff rate). He earned four whiffs on 12 thrown on Thursday and let’s break them down.
These two changeups were as mediocre as you’ll find:
And here are two well-executed ones that came from the same at-bat:
There’s no denying that those final two were effective, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that these four changeups were the difference maker across the entire start.
Along with the whiffs, Skaggs is getting a pedestrian amount of chases off the plate – near 30% – while he’s dramatically reduced its zone rate by 15 points. Meanwhile, he’s allowed worse contact with a staggering 47% line drive rate, yet the pitch’s .188 BABIP fuels its lovely 1.5 pVal.
While Skaggs is getting more whiffs with his changeup this year, he’s getting awfully lucky on batted balls and his combination of chase + zone rates dictate little sustainability. This isn’t it.
Theory #2: His Curveball’s zone rate fixed everything
The book on Skaggs has been consistent through his career – good curveball, mediocre arsenal. And there’s nothing incorrect about this theory:
|Year||Usage %||Strikeout %||GB %||BAA||BABIP||O-Swing %||Zone %||Whiff %||pVal|
Skaggs is throwing plenty more curveballs for strikes and there is a chance that despite its low whiff rate, he’s striking batters out looking and not swinging…
…except that Skaggs is currently 102nd out of 129 qualified starters in the majors with a low 17.0% called strikeout rate.
The actual outcomes of his hooks have also been plenty worse as well, with a 50 point jump in batting average allowed. We’re searching for how Skaggs is performing better and his curveball has actually returned worse results overall thus far, while recording a lower strikeout rate across the same usage.
The argument could be that even though his curveball itself isn’t as effective, being able to get strikes consistently is having a greater positive effect on his other pitches. That would imply that Skaggs has a pitch that is wildly better than his curveball, a pitch that he get the spotlight and do all the dirty work for him. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t and this theory doesn’t hold water.
Theory #3: His Four-Seamer has taken a leap forward
Ignore that spoiler and let’s actually dive into it. I just talked about Skaggs’ curveball possibly setting the table for another pitch in his arsenal and maybe, just maybe, that is his four-seamer – it sure isn’t his changeup that he throws just 10% of the time. Let’s compare the numbers from last season:
|Year||Usage %||Strikeout %||ISO||BAA||BABIP||O-Swing %||Zone %||Whiff %||pVal|
Skaggs has thrown fewer four-seamers, and throwing them more in the zone, getting a few extra whiffs and saving his heat for deeper counts. It looks like a good idea considering the .300+ BABIP in both seasons suggests plenty of mediocrity. Furthermore, its low 20.5% O-Swing dictates an offering that is far from a weapon.
To his credit, Skaggs is doing a better job of locating heaters to right-handed batters, spotting four-seamers closer to the outer edge in 2018 than he was in 2017, and it’s possible this is the cause for his boosted whiff rate (still below average) and fewer extra-base hits. And at the end of the day, a .259 BAA with a four-seamer works. It’s not great. It doesn’t detail a pitch that makes batters shake in the box, and it’s not the bullet in the chamber Skaggs is hoping to set up during at-bats. It’s just…fine. But to say that this pitch equates to Skaggs figuring it out is to say that getting your driver’s license equates to starring in Fast and the Furious. You’ve done something that most others have achieved, that doesn’t mean you’re a superstar now.
Theory #4: Sinkers & Grounders
I’ve saved the most apparent one for last, with Skaggs featuring a sizeable boost in sinkers as he pulled back on his four-seamer usage:
|Year||Usage %||Strikeout %||G B%||BAA||BABIP||O-Swing %||Zone %||Whiff %||pVal|
It’s a pretty clear effect. Skaggs has gotten better at throwing sinkers for strikes, which have raised his groundball rates. What is odd, though, is its .200 BABIP. Groundballs innately have higher BABIPs than flyballs and seeing this low of a number is a bit startling, especially when it propels an unsustainable .167 BAA. This is a small sample of just 133 total pitches, and you have to think this number rises through the year.
Would you say that this increased groundball rate and low BAA is the secret ingredient to Skaggs’ success? It’s a bit far-fetched given that it’s had little effect on strikeouts, holds a low usage rate, and is overperforming in the short term. There’s no denying it’s a benefit, but we’re far from saying this defines a new pitcher ready to dominate. If anything, it’s an indication of how regressions is sure to come. And least we’ve figured that out.
There is one commonality in all of these theories: honing in on one element of Skaggs’ repertoire to suggest it alone is fueling all of his success. As you can tell, I don’t believe that is the case and here’s what I think is actaully happening. His curveball and four-seamer are finding the zone more often, while not punishing him mightily – something he has struggled with in the past (1.38 Hr/9 in 2017) – while his sinker and changeup have overperformed vastly in their small samples. His success is relying on 25% of his arsenal (changeup and sinker) returning BABIPs at or below the .200 mark in about 230 total pitches thrown. I know it sounds basic, but that’s the point. Skaggs isn’t much more than a basic pitcher, one without a strikeout rate above 30% on any of his pitches, and does an overall poor job of inducing weak contact.
Oh right! I knew I was forgetting something. Here’s one last table for the road:
|Year||Soft Contact %||Hard Contact %||GB %||BAA||Whiff %||Strikeout %|
Not only has Skaggs allowed more hard contact in 2018 by a sizeable amount, he’s also cut his soft-contact induced in half. That’s not a good sign of a pitcher taking a step forward, and remember, Skaggs has figured it out. This is the absolute opposite.
After going through each pitch in his repertoire, are you convinced that Skaggs deserves that 25% strikeout rate with his average whiff rate and below average called strikeouts? Do you think he should be inducing that low .240 average given his poor batted ball and increased grounders that dictate a higher BABIP floor?
I went through this article detailing the four myths of Tyler Skaggs’ 2018 success, but the headline suggests there is just one. Let me lay it out for you, despite being incredibly cheesy and terribly predictable:
Tyler Skagg’s 2018 success is a myth.