Randy Dobnak, Probable Great American Hero

It’s easy to dismiss Randy Dobnak, to turn him into a punchline. When 99.99% of baseball fans were introduced to Dobby last fall, they learned two things:

  1. When he wasn’t pitching, he worked part-time as a ride-share driver to help pay the bills (an altogether separate indictment of MLB and its broad moral shortcomings), and
  2. He has a handlebar mustache.

That’s just enough, but also plenty, to undercut a grown man’s legitimacy. It’s this very illegitimizing, I hypothesize, that has allowed Dobnak to fly under fantasy radars, even as he demonstrates nonzero aptitude on the mound.

To wit: the Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational (TGFBI), a competition that pits nearly 400 fantasy baseball analysts and hardcore enthusiasts against one another in 26 individual leagues as well as in an overall contest. Dobnak is owned in only 62% of TGFBI leagues. That means, theoretically, there are at least 150 fantasy baseball analysts who think Dobnak isn’t worth rostering in a 15-team league. That’s a fair amount of disinterest, even among those who consider themselves extremely knowledgeable.

That’s fair, to an extent, because Dobnak presently looks like your classic ticking time bomb. He sports an extremely paltry 14.3% strikeout rate (K%) and an absurd 0.60 ERA through three starts (15 innings). His ERA estimators, while pretty impressive in their own right (3.55 xFIP, 3.70 SIERA, 2.21 DRA!), scream of course correction.

Which is exactly why we need to have this conversation, you and I. Not all course correction is made equal. I’m here to argue that, while obviously Dobby will not sustain a 0.60 ERA or maybe even a sub-3.00 ERA (although anything can happen in a 60-game sprint), he also deserves every bit of his ERA estimators — maybe even more.

First, let the record show: the legends foretold of Dobnak’s arrival. Last August, I anointed Dobnak a peripheral prospect. If you were to ask me, generally, what traits I (or probably anyone) would look for in a successful pitcher, it would include some combination of the following:

  • Whiffs (strikeouts),
  • Command (few walks), and
  • Ground balls (contact management).

Here’s the list of qualified minor league pitchers who threw at least 110 innings across the high minors last year with a 55%+ ground ball rate (GB%), a 12%+ swinging strike rate, and a walk rate (BB%) south of 6%:

  1. Randy Dobnak

That’s it! And that excludes his time in Single-A (he started 2019 in High-A and finished it in the MLB playoffs!), where he posted a 0.40 ERA in four starts before being promoted.

Even if we relax the thresholds to, say, a 50%+ ground ball rate (GB%), a 10%+ swinging strike rate, and a walk rate (BB%) south of 6%…

  1. Still just Randy Dobnak, y’all

He crushed these thresholds, by the way, his ground ball rate clocked in at 59.7%, his whiff rate at 13.3%. What I’m getting at with all this stupid threshold stuff is Dobby was a ground ball-inducing, strike-throwing machine — but also a whiff-inducing machine, too.

That’s an exceedingly rare combination of traits. In referring to the traits of a successful pitcher, we typically are fortunate to witness two of the traits synthesize effectively and robustly, maybe with glimpses of the third shining through, but rarely. Since the start of 2014, only four qualified pitchers (out of 496) have achieved a ground ball rate north of 55% and a whiff rate north of 12%:

Dominating Double-A and Triple-A hitters it nothing like dominating Major League hitters, though, so let us not assume Dobnak will meet those expectations right off the bat. Still, 39 qualified pitcher-seasons recorded a ground ball rate north of 50% and a whiff rate north of 10%, and it’s a veritable Who’s Who of pitchers from the last half-decade, including Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Carrasco, Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Carlos Martinez, Patrick Corbin, Aaron Nola, Dallas Keuchel, Yordano Ventura (RIP), peak Jake Arrieta, peak Jimmy Nelson, peak Francisco Liriano, peak Alex Cobb — all combining for a 3.09 ERA, all without accounting for their walk rates, of which Dobnak’s has been at least above-average.

Which begs the biggest question of all: can Dobnak make his minor-league success translate to the majors? Early signs point to yes. Through eight career starts, Dobnak boasts a 58.0% ground ball rate, 11.9% whiff rate, and a 5.2% walk rate. For all intents and purposes, he has picked up right where he left off.

That’s because Dobnak possesses two distinct weapons in his four-pitch arsenal: a true bowling ball sinker and a lethal curve.

His sinker, to date, has induced ground balls at a 68.2% clip. Out of 66 batted balls, that’s four outfield fly balls — and zero home runs. Sixty-six batted ball events is not a whole heck of a lot to go off of, but it does fit what I (and, I hope, you) would expect from Dobnak at this point based on what we know about him.

I have a pitch comp tool that takes the physical characteristics (such as velocity, acceleration, and movement) of whichever pitch you want to compare and calculates how similar it is to all other pitches. You can then sort the table and review the performance of the most-similar pitches to develop an idea, a range of outcomes, regarding how the pitch in question might possibly perform in the long-run. I find it quite helpful for small samples, where movement and velocity likely stabilize much more quickly than performance.

As far as fastballs go, Dobnak’s sinker is most similar to Jared Hughes‘ sinker, Kevin McCarthy’s sinker, and Carlos Martinez’s two-seamer. They aren’t big whiff pitches, which can be reasonably expected, but they do a mighty impressive job limiting contact quality (all stats since the start of 2018):

  • Jared Hughes’ sinker: 69.0% GB, .288 wOBA on contact (wOBAcon), .319 expected wOBAcon (xwOBAcon)
  • Kevin McCarthy’s sinker: 68.9% GB, .352 wOBAcon, .347 xwOBAcon
  • Carlos Martinez’s two-seamer: 67.8% GB, .340 wOBAcon, .314 xwOBAcon

Alas, as far as fastballs go, these are elite pitches — or, at least, as elite as they can be without being massive whiff pitches, like Jacob deGrom‘s or Gerrit Cole‘s or Justin Verlander’s four-seam fastballs. They induce a metric ton of ground balls, which results in weak contact and above-average wOBAcon allowed. (The league-average wOBAcon for sinkers and two-seamers is roughly .370.) Moreover, and more importantly, if you believe those comps, then it’s satisfying to see how tightly clustered those three ground ball rates are in the high-60s — and how Dobnak’s own sinker is nearly a dead ringer.

His curve, meanwhile, has generated a massive 22.4% swinging strike rate. Interestingly, when I run Dobnak’s curveball through my pitch comp ringer, an extremely long list of sliders appears. (So maybe we should actually call Dobnak’s curve a slider! This kind of taxonomical argument does not bother me, but I know to some pitching experts, it might.)

Some of those sliders most similar to Dobby’s curve, as you can see, include Carrasco’s (24.5% SwStr), Shane Bieber‘s (23.9% SwStr), Castillo’s (18.1% SwStr), and Dylan Bundy’s (24.0% SwStr). Once more, this is elite company, at least in terms of the purpose Dobnak intends his curve to serve: generate swings and misses.

Out of the long list of sliders, I picked out the three most-similar curves:

  • Domingo Germán’s curve: 19.3% SwStr, .433 wOBAcon, .408 xwOBAcon
  • Keona Kela’s curve: 18.4% SwStr, .277 wOBAcon, .328 xwOBAcon
  • Germán Márquez’s knuckle curve: 23.1% SwStr, .277 wOBAcon, .360 xwOBAcon

The contact quality is all over the place, but the whiffs, most importantly, are there, and they’re there in bulk. Looking at sliders didn’t help much, either, in terms of nailing down an idea of what we should expect as far as contact management is concerned. For the most part, they generally converged upon the league average wOBAcon allowed, which I think is a fair assumption generally. Could be higher, could be lower — hard to say — but when it comes with such an intense magnitude of whiffs, it doesn’t matter all too much how good or bad the contact quality is (although obviously as a pitcher you want it to be as bad as possible — no denying that).

If his sinker begets grounders and his curve begets whiffs, it’s Dobnak’s four-seamer that he uses to throw strikes, keeping that walk rate at a respectable, if not impressive, single-digit mark. It’s all enough, when synthesized, to validate Dobnak’s minor league (and early major league) success.

Dobnak’s 10.1% whiff rate through his first three starts likely undersells his ability to induce swings and misses. (His last start featured just four swinging strikes, a departure from his successful first two starts during which he compiled 20 whiffs in 167 pitches — a 12.0% clip.) And his 14.3% strikeout rate undersells that 10.1% whiff rate! Course correction and all that. The ERA will revert to something more normal, but so should the strikeouts. Not to mention he’s rocking a 68.0% ground ball rate. As his xFIP and SIERA show you, you don’t need whiffs when you only allow one or two outfield fly ballS per game. Hard to allow home runs that way!

I hope this is enough to excite you about Dobby, my little king. From where I’m sitting, the groundwork for a successful pitcher is already laid, and I barely touched upon the fact he appears to possess at least above-average command. It’s just a matter of giving Dobnak the time and opportunity to accumulate some more innings so we can see whether or not I’m chasing shadows. Fortunately, manager Rocco Baldelli seems impressed with Dobnak and will keep him in the rotation until he proves he deserves otherwise. It’s Randy Dobnak “SZN,” baby!

As an aside, though, before I let you go for the day: I wanted to identify pitchers during the Statcast era who possessed a similar combination of (1) grounder-heavy primary pitch and (2) whiff-heavy secondary pitch, like Dobnak appears to. My first instinct was peak Keuchel or peak Marcus Stroman, and man, my instinct was spot-on. Keuchel (2017) notched a 79.8% ground ball rate on his two-seamer and a 21.8% whiff rate on his change-up en route to a 2.90 ERA. Stroman (2017) supplemented his two-seamer (73.2% GB) with a filthy slider (20.1% SwStr) en route to a 3.09 ERA.

Additionally, in Jimmy Nelson’s lone successful year, when he recorded a 3.49 ERA, his heavy sinker (63.9%) was bolstered by a strong slider (18.6% SwStr). Kyle Hendricks, known for his exceptional command (something Dobnak may possess, albeit to a lesser degree), supplements his sinker with a very effective change-up, and that dude has a career 3.15 ERA.

I’m not saying Dobnak will be any of these guys — optimistic as I am, I’d be wise to consider those outcomes closer to his ceiling. But is it not at least the tiniest bit exciting to find a pitcher who shares rarefied air with such excellent comps — one largely ignored by the fantasy baseball community?

Like I said, I know just as well as you do that Dobnak’s current 0.60 ERA can go nowhere but up; that’s reason enough to fade him in the short term. (Heck, he could get lit up today, making this whole post seem foolhardy.) Be that as it may, I suspect Dobnak is more than just a product of this messed-up 2020 we’re living. I think Dobnak’s unique arsenal and distinct comps makes him more predisposed to success than we’ve trained ourselves to expect as the league strikeout rate continues to climb. I implore you not to disregard him for too much longer.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Previously featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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I didn’t know how much I needed a Randy Dobnak deep dive