Reviewing The 2016 Starting Pitcher Strikeout Rate Downsiders

Let’s finish up my preseason starting pitcher strikeout rate articles by looking at those I identified as possessing significant downside, as hinted at by my xK% equation. It’s a very different list than the one generated by the upsiders, as these tend to be the pitchers with high strikeout rates with seemingly the only direction to go moving forward is down.

2016 Starting Pitcher K% Downsiders
Player 2015 K% 2015 xK% 2015 K%-xK% 2016 K% 2016 K%-2015 K%
Clayton Kershaw 33.8% 30.5% 3.3% 31.6% -2.2%
Matt Shoemaker 20.4% 17.5% 2.9% 21.4% 1.0%
Patrick Corbin 21.9% 19.1% 2.8% 18.7% -3.2%
Stephen Strasburg 29.6% 26.8% 2.8% 30.6% 1.0%
Jon Lester 25.0% 22.4% 2.6% 24.8% -0.2%
Jerad Eickhoff 24.1% 21.5% 2.6% 20.6% -3.5%
Trevor Bauer 22.9% 20.4% 2.5% 20.7% -2.2%
Jake Arrieta 27.1% 24.7% 2.4% 23.9% -3.2%
James Paxton 18.9% 16.6% 2.3% 22.9% 4.0%
Derek Holland 16.7% 14.4% 2.3% 14.5% -2.2%
Aaron Nola 21.4% 19.3% 2.1% 25.1% 3.7%
Dallas Keuchel 23.7% 21.7% 2.0% 20.5% -3.2%
Carlos Carrasco 29.6% 27.6% 2.0% 25.0% -4.6%

With or without the xK% equation informing you, it would have been pretty silly to expect Clayton Kershaw to sustain a near 34% strikeout rate. His 2015 mark represented a career high for him by nearly two percentage points. Sure enough, Kershaw’s strikeout rate did drop back down, even to below his 2014 mark. Of course, he remained elite and reduced his walk rate even further, resulting in an impossibly high 29.6% K-BB%, which did set a new career high.

Through his first six starts, Matt Shoemaker’s strikeout rate had collapses, as xK% predicted it would. But then he decided to go splitter crazy, and suddenly his strikeouts surged. They eventually settled back down again, but his May and June strikeout rate were high enough to ensure his season mark actually increased from last year, ever so slightly. Since those marks were so out of line with everything else he has done (and he continued to throw a high rate of splitters after those months, which did not result in a ton of strikeouts), I’m bearish on his strikeout rate next season.

Patrick Corbin’s season was a disaster, but xK% called his strikeout rate decline. Of course, it didn’t know his control would also desert him and render him a complete bust.

For a time, it looked like Stephen Strasburg was finally going to have that major breakout where he becomes a top five pitcher in baseball. But then elbow issues crept up and he limped to the finish, allowing a ridiculous 20 earned runs in just 17.2 August innings. But hey, his strikeout rate actually increased from last year!

Jon Lester’s strikeout rate did decline…barely. He threw his fastball a bit more and his cutter and curve a little less, which normally would signal a more dramatic drop in strikeout rate, but that didn’t happen. It’s unlikely the Cubs defense is going to offer as much support again and Lester just posted an ERA more than a full run below his SIERA, so heading into his age 33 season, he’s likely to be overvalued in 2017.

Jerad Eickhoff was a popular sleeper heading into the season thanks to his 2.65 ERA over eight starts and a 24.1% strikeout rate. But that strikeout rate wasn’t real, which combined with some luck regression, led to an ERA that increased by exactly a run. He was still useful though, just a bit less intriguing than perhaps some expected.

Is Trevor Bauer maddening or what?! With such a wide assortment of pitches, pretty good velocity, a minor league track record that includes loads of strikeouts, you would just expect more at this point. He did improve his walk rate, but his strikeout rate dropped to almost exactly where his 2015 xK% sat. He may very well nudge that ERA below 4.00 at some point, but without a standout pitch and still questionable control at times, I’m losing faith that a big breakout is on the horizon.

While I can’t tell you if Jake Arrieta actually failed to earn his draft position or auction salary, he’s a good example of xK% really earning its value. After two straight seasons with a strikeout rate just above 27%, xK% wasn’t buying it and sure enough, Arrieta’s strikeout rate fell. His control also regressed in dramatic fashion and suddenly his SIERA approached 4.00. I’m curious how much cheaper he is in 2017 drafts, but for someone who is so reliant on a low BABIP to stand among the elite, he’s not someone that’s likely to make his way onto my roster.

I was sad to see one of my perennial sleeper candidates in James Paxton make this list, but he then went an upped his fastball velocity by 2.5 MPH and rendered his 2015 xK% useless. The added velocity made all the difference in the world, as his SwStk% spiked and strikeout rate jumped to a career high. Obviously, we must remain skeptical that this velocity boost is a new level for him, but I still like his overall skill set and will continue to be a fan, even if he’s throwing 94-95 again, rather than averaging nearly 97.

Aaron Nola surprised all season with his strikeout prowess, but it was primarily achieved with called strikes, rather than swinging. Inducing looking strikes is certainly a skill, but not as sustainable as generating swinging strikes. Unfortunately, an elbow injury ended his season and may very well be to blame for his awful June and July that saw him allow a ridiculous 36 runs over 39 innings. If we comes into spring training fully healthy next year, he’ll be an excellent target for serious profit potential. Even if his ability to induce called strikes deteriorates, this is a strong skill set.

Welp, that was not what you expected, poor Dallas Keuchel owner. While his entire skill set declined marginally, it was mostly a BABIP spike and continued issues holding fly balls in the park. Hopefully finding Keuchel on the downsider list was enough to persuade you to pass on his inflated 2016 draft price. Keuchel’s season ended prematurely due to shoulder inflammation and combined with a drop in velocity, you wonder how much it affected him all year. If he’s seemingly healthy, he could also represent a good value at drafts.

It shouldn’t have been that surprising to see that Carlos Carrasco, owner of a near 30% strikeout rate, was probably unable to sustain such an elite mark. Sure enough, his strikeout rate did fall, even further than his 2015 xK%. I’m still a big fan, but his fastball velocity dropped for a second straight season and his fly ball rate jumped above 30% for the first time since 2011.

Of the 13 pitchers I identified as possessing strikeout rate downside, eight of them did suffer from a decline, four raised their rates (one due to a big jump in velocity, while the other was thanks to a dramatic change in pitch selection), and the last was essentially flat.

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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