The Change: Six Deserving Veteran Pitchers

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Head to the pitching waiver wire, and you might remember this classic line from Coleridge’s tale of the albatross and the sailor. Yes, there are many pitchers you can choose from. They all have their flaws.

One of the most common mistakes when facing this situation in a single-season league is to reach for the young guy. Yes, prospects have that fresh feeling, and their upside reaches to the top of any rotation. To dream upon a golden arm and maybe, just maybe, be rewarded with an Asgardian hero like Noah Syndergaard!

Of course, reality is much more sober. More than half of all prospect pitchers — and even half of the very best — don’t provide their teams with more value than a middle reliever. Baseball will chew up the biggest of arms.

So consider instead the veterans that have improved their performance this year, in the order in which I would rank them.

Rich Hill
This one is easy. You enjoy Rich Hill as long as he’s healthy. A move on the rubber, a change to his arm slot, and a dedication to throwing his curveball in the zone more than just about anybody in the league, and you get this year’s version of Hill.

He doesn’t have great fastball command, but once he throws a curve, batters are screwed: swing, and they whiff 10% of the time and create a ground ball another 58% of the time. Along with pop-ups, that means close to 70% of swings turn into outs or strikes. If you don’t swing, he’s throwing that curve in the zone a league-leading 55% of the time, so there are more strikes. That’s how you get strikes without great command.

He’s been oft injured, but there’s little reason to doubt Rich Hill otherwise.

John Lackey
Given how great Lackey has been this year, he’s probably not on your wire. But he might be worth buying high. He’s currently showing the best swinging strike and strikeout rates of his career. At 37! Speaking of ancient mariners, wrote the 36-year-old author.

Here’s the thing. He’s doing so by, maybe, by throwing the second-most changeups of his career. There’s little else that has changed in terms of movement, velocity, or location. Here’s why it’s weird: the changeup, for his career, has not been good. It gets below average grounders and whiffs on the back of below average drop and fade compared to his fastballs.

Age has made Lackey better! His falling arm slot has led to the best horizontal movement on his sinker and change of his career, and so he’s been going to the sinker and change more often recently. Now his change gets above-average whiffs, as that rate has nearly doubled this year. He’s maintained control of his four-seam, and the movement on his curve and slider, so this effectively adds another weapon to his repertoire.

Sure, Lackey’s been a little lucky on balls in play. He’ll still be a great number two in any fantasy rotation going forward.

Justin Verlander
Over the last three games, the Tigers ace has been the varsity version of JV, with 27 strikeouts against seven walks in 22+ innings. Over that time, he’s also seen his velocity increase, to about his 2015 levels. The years of averaging 94+ are done, though, so getting back to 93 is good enough.

More important than the velocity, though, is the movement and usage of that fastball. So far this year, Verlander is getting the most ‘rise’ on his four-seamer of his career. That means the pitch drops less than batters expect it to. That leads to whiffs (his fastball is getting the most whiffs of his career currently) and pop-ups. Especially when thrown high in the zone, and Verlander is throwing his fastball at a higher vertical location than he has since 2010.

93 high in the zone is a good way to get these whiffs, but might also lead to more home runs. Right now, he’s got the worst home run rate of his career and it might be deserved. So, despite the nice strikeout rate, Verlander is more of a 3.75+ ERA guy going forward. Still, with the strikeouts, and some strategic avoidance of home run havens like Texas, you’ll find mixed league value here. He’s actually on waiver wires!

Rick Porcello
In Rick Porcello, we have a veteran that is seeing one of the biggest disparities between strikeout and swinging strike rates in the big leagues this year. He has the worst swinging strike rate among the top forty in strikeout percentage at least.

He’s famously had trouble since adding the four-seamer to his arsenal in Boston, and this year, he’s figured out how to use that four-seamer up in the zone for whiffs late in the count.

Still, all of those sinkers replaced by four-seamers means fewer grounders and more home runs. At this point, he’s still a lower-rent version of his old teammate in Detroit — a high-threes ERA guy with home run risk unmitigated by the floor that a nice ground-ball rate provides. Even if he’ll strike more guys out this way.

Tanner Roark
Second on that list of starters overperforming their swinging strike rate is Tanner Roark! Unfortunately, there’s little in terms of movement or velocity that gives us hope that it’s sustainable. There was that great game, in which Roark struck out 15 Twins in seven scoreless innings with a sinker that had the best sink of his career.

Since then, though, he hasn’t shown the same sink on his sinker, and he’s struck out a much more pedestrian 29 in 32 innings. Well… that’s better than his career numbers, and it’s actually kind of decent.

What’s going on here is perhaps a change in when he throws certain pitches. He once told me that his slider was for righties and his change was for lefties. This year, he’s throwing a career-high in changeups to righties and sliders to lefties. That element of surprise — even if there are more righty-on-righty changeups this year in the league as a whole — should lead to the best strikeout rate of his career, and… usability. Consider him a good back-end add in any league.

Jeremy Hellickson
Part of the Phillies early surge has been a 29 year old righty that’s currently showing the best swinging strike and strikeout numbers of his career. Hellboy, as he was once called when he had such a great debut with the Tampa Bay Rays, had spent the last three years battling home run problems as he struggled to fit the rest of his pitches around an excellent changeup.

The weird thing about Hellickson’s line is that there are so few changes. No movement or velocity changes. Very little pitching mix change. He’s throwing a cutter more often this year, but the cutter is slow (85 mph), doesn’t drop like a slider (four inches less drop than average), and gets half the whiffs of a normal cutter, and no ground balls. Perhaps it’s useful against lefties (righties haven’t missed a single one they’ve swung at), but he’s already got that good change.

Instead, what we are seeing is a career high whiff rate on that changeup despite little change in movement or usage. I think it could just be novelty, as he’s facing some teams that haven’t seen him much. I don’t see enough difference here to believe in this new version, and would pass on him in most leagues.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

How is Bartolo Colon not on this list?

6 years ago
Reply to  Pjsnyc

“So consider instead the veterans that have improved their performance this year”

Colon is pretty much the same pitcher he’s always been, his numbers this year are very close to his numbers in 2015

Jackie T.
6 years ago
Reply to  CJ03

Yep. His K/9 (6.87 in 2016, 6.29 in 2015), xFIP (3.93, 3.94), SIERA (4.02, 4.02) are all the same. In fact, his LD% is up (20.8%, 24.6%), his BB% is up (2.9%, 4.9%), and his his hard contact rate is up (29%, 37%). And his pitch mix looks nearly identical as well.

We shouldn’t by any means be expecting improved results over last season’s performance going forward.