Starting Pitcher Debuts — Aug 5, 2021

Over the last week, I’ve discussed a number of hitters who have recently earned regular playing time. Now let’s shift our focus over to starting pitchers. Let’s dive into four starters who have just recently made their first MLB starts.

Luis Gil | NYY

Another COVID-19 wave has hit the Yankees and now they are hurting for starting pitching. So they recalled the 23-year-old Gil who is ranked as the team’s 12th best prospect. From his scouting grades, he throws an elite fastball and complements that with an average slider. Fastball grades generally correlate with velocity, and a high grade here is important because velocity is tough to increase, whereas the use of your fastball could raise the effectiveness of your secondary pitches.

Gil has always posted solid to strong strikeout rates in the minors, though his SwStk% trend was bizarre, acting like a yo-yo bouncing up and down. It never slid into single digits though, but it still makes it tough to get a true idea of his strikeout potential. The issue here is with his control. He has walked batters at a double digit clip at every single stop during his minor league career, which seems pretty hard to do when it has come during eight different stints.

In addition to the control issues, he has also become an extreme fly ball pitcher, allowing FB% marks of at least 50% from High-A through Triple-A. Lots of walks and fly balls in Yankee Stadium don’t mix well.

His debut, of course, was strong, but it was actually that fastball that carried him and generated the vast majority of whiffs. His slider was actually quite poor, generating just a 3.4% SwStk%, while his changeup was better, but still well below average in the whiff department. He allowed a high fly ball rate again, so this seems like who he’ll be. Since he does have good strikeout ability, he’ll certainly have strong games when he walks a batter or two at most and all the flies stay in the park. But when he can’t find the plate and those fly balls start jumping over the wall, you get those two innings, seven run implosions we all fear the most.

I would be petrified of starting him this season and he’s got enough flaws to be cautious about him long-term as well.

Chris Rodriguez | LAA

Rodriguez was up earlier in the season as a reliever, but the Angels demoted him back to the minors to get him stretched out as a starter as that’s their long-term plan for him. He came into the season ranked as the team’s 10th best prospect, featuring a strong fastball/slider combo and an above average curveball.

The excitement here stems from his strikeout ability combined with his ground ball tendency. While his minor league career is filled with small sample stints, it’s clear he’s going to be an extreme ground ball guy and has the ability to miss bats, with his control more of a question mark.

So far, his mid-90s sinker and curveball have been average to above average whiff pitches, while his rarely thrown changeup and slider haven’t generated much swing and miss. Perhaps as a starter, he’ll start throwing that slider more often. He already upped his usage in his first start, but it still was thrown just less than 10% of the time.

With the potential for three quality pitches, a mid-90s sinker, and extreme ground ball tendencies, this is an intriguing skill set. He makes for a nice under the radar keeper acquisition as well.

Daulton Jefferies | OAK

A strong Spring training earned Jefferies some hype and speculation he’d grab a rotation spot to open the season. He failed to do so and opened the year at Triple-A instead, where he posted an ugly 5.19 ERA. Usually, that kind of performance doesn’t get you promoted to the Majors. But the Athletics are clearly smarter than to judge a minor leaguer, or heck, any pitcher, by ERA alone.

With an 18% K%-BB% at Triple-A, Jefferies was nowhere near as bad as his ERA would indicate, as he was done in by an inflated 19% HR/FB rate and high .322 BABIP. However, that doesn’t mean it’s all good. I would be majorly concerned about two related trends — a significant drop in strikeout rate versus his 2019 Double-A performance, which was driven by a massive drop in SwStk%. It’s a surprise given how dominant he was in the Spring, as you don’t typically see such dramatic drops in strikeout and whiff ability going from Double-A to Triple-A.

This was technically Jefferies’ second MLB start, as the first one came last year, but he lasted just two innings after allowing five runs. This performance was better, as he lasted five innings this time, but still not good. He did throw a wide variety of pitches, including three different fastballs (a four-seamer, cutter, and sinker), plus a changeup and slider. The kitchen sink approach is fun to see, but there aren’t a whole lot of super successful pitchers that feature that many pitches. Usually, it’s best to consolidate and throw your best, as it’s hard to imagine all are equally good.

In that start, the sinker was excellent at inducing whiffs, but oddly didn’t generate a high ground ball rate. Amazingly, he didn’t get one whiff in 12 four-seamers. The sample size here is tiny, but he did only earn a 45 grade on his fastball, so this might not be so flukey.

Through Spring training, Jefferies looked like a strong prospect and he was ranked third best in the Athletics system. But I don’t know what caused the big strikeout rate drop in Triple-A, and his first start in the Majors didn’t immediately make us forget it. He’s a wait and see right now.

Reid Detmers | LAA

It’s not often a starting pitcher gets drafted and then immediately makes his MLB debut the following year. I’m sure it’s been done many times, but it’s still rare in the grand scheme of baseball. As the 10th overall pick in last year’s draft, he was ranked as the second best Angels prospect and graded with an average fastball and changeup, below average slider, but killed curveball. That curveball was clearly baffling Double-A hitters, the level he opened his professional career at, as he struck out 43.1% of them, backed by a 19.5% SwStk%. Those are insane rates.

He only pitched six innings at Triple-A before the Angels had enough watching him dominate in the minors and wanted some of that domination for themselves. In that one game, he struck out nine batters over six innings and didn’t walk anyone. His SwStk% was a more human 13.2%, which could have been a warning sign, except it was just one start.

I don’t know if his MLB debut could have gone any worse. He allowed six runs in just 4.1 innings, only struck out two and generated just a 9.8% SwStk%. If there was anything we thought we could count on from Detmers, it was strikeouts. Those rarely came during his debut.

He featured a nice mix of pitches, focusing on that curveball as his favorite secondary. The pitch generated a 14.3% SwStk%, which is fine, but it definitely wasn’t the elite rate we had been looking forward to. His four-seamer was also fine from a whiff perspective, while his slider was well below average.

The sample size is tiny, tiny, and we only have 60 professional innings from which to judge Detmers before his debut. Plus, his debut also only lasted 4.1 innings and 22 batters. However, I do wonder if curveballers have more trouble replicating their minor league success than those who are more reliant on a strong fastball, slider, or changeup. Just throwing it out there as something worth researching, as I would bet certain pitch mixes do have a better chance at success. I’m guessing it’s difficult to research as pitchers change so quickly, so even if a guy got to the Majors because of his curveball, he could easily learn a new pitch and make that his primary non-fastball to remain successful.

That said, I did pick him up in my shallow 12-team mixed league, but he’ll stay on my bench until we get a better Reid (haha) on him.

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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