Sporer Report Issue #4 – #GetChurved

We’re heading out to San Diego to check out a pair of waiver gems who are turning heads all across the league. I think both are showing a level of statistical significance such that they can’t just be sloughed off as small sample miracles. Of course neither will keep this absurd pace they’ve opened up, but if you’re ever judging April waiver pickups on that standard, then you’re probably not making many moves.

In This Issue:

Christian Villanueva has had an interesting journey to get here. Back in the summer of 2012, he was the key piece in the Ryan Dempster deal as Texas looked to reinforce their rotation. The other prospect in that deal? Kyle Hendricks. Of course, we know that Hendricks has blossomed into a steady rotation arm with some of the best results in baseball the last few years while Villanueva languished in the Cubs system for a few years and then lost all of 2016 to a broken leg. That winter he was let go and signed by the Padres as a minor league free agent.

It was an all upside gamble for the Padres. A former prospect of note with some punch in his bat who could maybe blossom into an everyday bat for them in this transition period as they wait for their super-deep system to start paying big dividends. If he flops, it was a low investment move anyway. He raked in Triple-A El Paso (20 HR, 129 wRC+) and yet still only got a call up in the latter half of September (and he continued to smash the ball with 4 HR and a 184 wRC+ in his 12 games). He broke camp with the team in a backup role but seems to have already wrested the 3B job away from Chase Headley.

He clubbed three homers in his second start (SD’s 5th game of the year). He has started 11 of their 13 games since and has homers in his last three games with his sixth on Monday night. Villanueva is completely selling out for the power and a reckoning is likely on the way. His 54% flyball rate is 9th in the league (min. 50 PA) while his 68% pull rate is 1st. His insane 40% HR/FB (tied with Bryce Harper for 4th-highest) obviously won’t hold up, but something north of 20% is definitely on the table. You will be completely unsurprised to learn that this approach has come with a boatload of strikeouts so far.

He has struck out in a third of his plate appearances thus far with a 17% swinging strike rate and 39% chase rate. The swing-and-miss serves as a counterweight to his league-high 238 wRC+ and between the two factors, the former is more believable. That is especially so if the league changes the approach to Villanueva. Currently, he’s seeing 62% fastballs (18th in MLB) and he has a .357/.471/.893 line against them with four of the six homers and a 27% K rate.

Look for him to get more breaking stuff as the book on him gets thicker. He has a 50% K rate in 12 PA ending on a curveball or slider. Curveballs specifically could be his kryptonite as he’s 0-for-5 with four strikeouts so far. It’s a tiny sample to go off, but the 27-year old is crushing heaters and his penchant for chasing pitches means curveballs might be the best chance at slowing him down.

Kiley McDaniel slotted Villanueva 24th on the Cubs prospect list back in 2015, highlighting his raw power and giving him a chance to be a full-timer down the line:

There’s now above average raw power but the bat speed was down this year with a bigger swing and the same plate discipline problems from before, with one scout suggesting that being a teammate with Javier Baez was contributing to the longer swing. There’s a chance Villanueva could end up as an everyday guy, but it’s looking more like a corner utility guy now.

So it looks like the pop is legit. I’d put him in the upper-20s, low-30s with a full season of playing time, but if he doesn’t curb the strikeouts then he really looks like the NL version of Matt Davidson. Well, maybe not this year’s Davidson who is drawing some walks, but you get the idea. Villanueva did manage a 19% strikeout rate in the minors (3331 PA) so maybe we can see him tighten up the approach a bit without sacrifice pop. For now, I’d view him as a .240 hitter the rest of the way with 22-25 homers left unless he starts to cut down the strikeouts and get closer to the mid-20%s with his K rate.

Lucchesi has been the talk of the fantasy world lately, emerging out of nowhere to post a 1.66 ERA and 0.97 WHIP through four starts with a 30% K rate, 5% BB rate, and 14% Swinging Strike rate in 21.7 innings. His trip to Coors really put him on the map as he allowed just two unearned runs over six innings with eight punchouts. Knowing little about him, I thought he was throwing 61% smoke, 39% mirrors, but I’ve learned that’s not entirely fair to him. Let’s rewind for a moment. In the 2017 Padres list, Eric Longenhagen had Lucchesi as a Prospect of Note:

Deception, low- to mid-90s fastball, but very little in the way of playable secondaries and no margin for error at the upper levels. Potential reliever.

Then this year, he made the Honorable Mentions in the top 100 list. Once he was called up by the Padres, Longenhagen did a “What To Expect” piece on him and upped him to a #4 starter after the reliever outlook in 2017:

We considered him a No. 4 starter who was pretty likely to realize that outcome relatively soon. His stuff is generic. He sits 89-92, will touch 94, both of his breaking balls are average, and his changeup is slightly above.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lucchesi thus far is that he identifies one of his pitches as a “churve”. Ryan Spilborghs discussed it on the Rockies broadcast during that start in Coors and said it’s “a four-seam changeup that he doesn’t pronate so it doesn’t have its typical fade” adding some comments from players about how it was difficult to pick up the first time around . Lucchesi dropped five one-hit, scoreless innings on the Rockies the start before in San Diego so this was the second time in five days that they were seeing him and the churve.

The churve has led to some classification quirks, too. Our Pitch Type tab on him has 61% fastballs, 35% changeups, and 4% curves, but the just below that you can see the PitchF/X data going 61%/39% fastball/curve. Let’s take a look at a couple churves. You’ll also get a look at the deception Longenhagen mentioned in the 2017 piece and then highlighted further in the deeper look a few weeks ago:

What makes Lucchesi unique are his cartoonish on-mound mannerisms, many of which aid his effectiveness. He has a drop-and-drive delivery and extreme overhand arm slot, two opposing forces which create an odd initial look for hitters and cause Lucchesi’s fastball plane to be very flat, which is especially effective when he works up in the zone.

Lucchesi is obviously pitching at his peak right now. I don’t think anyone would deny that, but the question is more about what we can expect going forward now that he’s landing on rosters in more and more leagues. Eric suggested there’s a lot of “average” across the profile with his deceptive delivery giving him a boost across the board and that rang true as I reviewed his work.

In a vacuum, he’s a 45 fastball, 50 curve, 50 slider, 50 changeup guy with potential plus command. With the mechanical funk thrown in, though, everything plays up a half-grade or so. Fold into that Lucchesi’s ability to control the run game with a great pick-off move and timing variations from the stretch, and you’ve got a big-league ready, 24-year-old arm despite relatively little upper-level experience. I think he can compete at the big-league level right now.

What I saw in the start I watched was a guy who has two pitches by classification, but manipulates both in ways that essentially gives him four pitches: sinker, four-seamer, changeup, and curveball. I think a good deal of his success going forward will hinge on how much the fastball keeps hitters off balance. There’s enough here to roster him in all formats and keep him beyond the first blowup. It’s not a traditional profile, which breeds instant skepticism. Throw in a 90 mph average fastball and you can hear the dismissive eye rolls, but I think he’s better than 2017 Jason Vargas.

The 35-year old lefty had a 1.40 ERA and 0.90 WHIP through his first four starts. He wound up with a 4.16 by season’s end, but if you were disciplined, you might’ve extracted 15 starts of a mid-3.00s ERA. Let’s say you picked him up after his seven shutout innings and nine strikeouts v. SF. His first blowup was a 4 IP/6 ER v. NYY (which you could’ve reasonably skipped because of opponent, but let’s just leave it in) and then he ran off another eight starts of 3 or fewer earned runs.

Then came back-to-back 6 ER Shellackings thanks in large part to five HR. He finished with a 1.8 HR/9 in his last 14 starts yielding a 5.86 ERA. This is just one example, but I used it specifically because of the soft-tossing lefty similarities. Manage pitchers like Lucchesi on your roster and there’s value to be gained. Not everyone is a set-it-and-forget-it pitcher.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and Content Director for OOTP Perfect Team. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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6 years ago

Lucchesi makes me think of Dontrelle Willis