Reviewing 2016 Spring Starting Pitcher K% Surgers & Breakout Candidates

I have a total of 28 preseason prediction type articles I need to review, so let’s get rolling! Fingers are crossed that these recaps don’t make me look like a fool. Let’s begin by reviewing my spring training starting pitchers strikeout rate surgers and breakout candidates. The idea here was that underlying skills posted during spring training do carry em>some predictive value, so perhaps those starting pitchers that enjoyed a strikeout rate spike would see a jump in rate during the regular season as well.

2016 Spring SP K% Surgers
Name 2015 K% Spring K% 2016 K% Diff 2015 to 2016
Juan Nicasio 25.0% 40.7% 26.9% 1.9%
Mike Leake 15.3% 29.2% 16.5% 1.2%
Patrick Corbin 21.9% 28.2% 18.7% -3.2%
Hector Santiago 20.9% 26.5% 18.3% -2.6%
Kyle Hendricks 22.6% 26.4% 22.8% 0.2%
Kyle Gibson 17.7% 25.7% 15.9% -1.8%

Juan Nicasio’s outrageously good spring performance won him a rotation spot and a place in the hearts of fantasy owners worldwide. And while he did indeed raise his strikeout rate marginally, he only lasted in the rotation for 12 starts thanks to a bloated 5.05 ERA. So he didn’t actually deliver any sort of profit to those tabbing him as a sleeper and rostering him. Once again, Nicasio suffered from an inflated BABIP despite a batted ball profile that sat close to league average and a Hard% that was much better than average. At age 30, I’m not sure how many more chances he’ll get as a starter.

Mike Leake’s strikeout rate was so low to begin with, it didn’t take much to increase it. The strikeout rate did rise, but his spring spike offered hope for more. It seems fairly obvious how Leake could increase his strikeout rate further — throw his slider more frequently. All his other pitches stink from the perspective of inducing swings and misses, as they all generate SwStk% marks well below 10%. His slider, on the other hand, has been elite, consistently generating a SwStk% in the high teen to low-to-mid 20% range. He didn’t even throw the pitch even 10% of the time this season, despite the pitch yielding just a .223 wOBA, by far the best of any of his pitches. Obviously, there’s risk that throwing the pitch more would hurt its effectiveness, but I think it would be worth experimenting. If you read anything next spring about him wanting to throw the pitch more, pay attention.

I was real optimistic about Patrick Corbin after a successful return from Tommy John surgery last year, and his spring performance made me even more confident that he would return a tidy profit to his future fantasy owners. Instead, he finished the season in disastrous fashion, as he actually got moved to the bullpen in mid-August due to poor performance. His fastball velocity fell and strikeout rate dropped to a career low. He also couldn’t throw strikes. That’s the risk with pitchers coming off the procedure. It’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do next year and he’ll be a tough guy to project.

It was about time that Hector Santiago’s weak skills were reflected in his ERA. Despite posting another suppressed BABIP, his ERA jumped by more than a full run as his LOB% regressed and strikeout rate fell to a career low. Oddly, his fastball velocity jumped to its highest mark since 2013, but it didn’t matter. While his sinker’s SwStk% increased, the rest of his repertoire remained weak, with nothing generating a SwStk% in the double digits. As an extreme fly ball pitcher with below average control, he relies on his defense and stranding runners to post respectable ERA marks. That’s not the type of pitcher that will ever find himself on my fantasy teams.

So Kyle Hendricks essentially posted the same skills as 2015, with a couple of ground balls turning into flies, and yet his ERA plummeted from 3.95 to 2.13, thanks to an amazing Cubs defense and a mysterious ability to induce easily fieldable batted balls. His strikeout rate barely budged, despite the jump in his spring strikeout rate, which is interesting considering he threw his changeup — by far his best pitch — much more often. I was curious enough, so I calculated his xK% in both 2015 and 2016 and got my answer, which wasn’t too surprising — he was a bit lucky with his 2015 mark and unlucky with his 2016 mark! His true talent probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two xK% marks, which is where his actual K% marks actually stood the past two years. This all means that we should expect a fairly similar mark in 2017, but of course his ERA is going to rise.

So Kyle Gibson was an intriguing sleeper heading into the season as he possessed the elite ground ball skills and not one, but two, strikeout pitches in his slider and changeup. He missed about a month and a half to a shoulder injury, which no doubt hurt his fastball. The pitch lost velocity and was pathetic at generating swings and misses. It’s too bad, because both his slider and changeup generating SwStk% marks that set new career highs. If his fastball was even just average, this could have been a breakout year. He’ll be a good deep league gamble in 2017.

So this year’s spring strikeout rate surgers list didn’t exactly result in regular season gems. Of the six pitchers, only two increased their strikeout rates by a meaningful amount, three suffered declines, and one was essentially flat. While I’ll continue to write about the spring surgers every year, just remember that the sample size is tiny and competition at varying levels.

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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.

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It might be more interesting to compare Steamer to actual for these players. I.e., test whether ST perf. add any info. to Steamer projections.