The Leap Year – NL Edition

On Wednesday we began our two-part deconstruction of the 2010 film… OK, OK, sorry. Gosh. Actually, I identified four AL starters I could see making the leap for 2017. Fans of the Senior Circuit needn’t fret, I’ve got some names for you today! By the way, sorry I pushed this a day, but the schedule was loaded plus we had a podcast so I decided to hold it.

Jon Gray | Rockies

A recommendation for a pitcher in Colorado?! Yes. Gray is a stud-in-the-making. The obvious path to success for a Rockies arm is “survive at home, dominate on the road”. Gray was actually worse on the road this past thanks to some meltdown starts and of course, he had a couple in Coors, too, yielding a paltry 4.61 ERA when it was all said and done. Despite the lofty ERA, he still had a 1.26 WHIP and best of all, a 26% strikeout rate.

His strikeout rate is actually the fourth-best from a rookie since 2000 (min. 162 IP). Only Jose Fernandez (28%), Yu Darvish (27%), and Rick Ankiel (26%… 26.4% to be precise) were better. Gray’s ERA was the worst of anyone in the top-15, but his WHIP was 7th-best of that confined group. The shortcut here would be to just point out that the FIP was 3.60 and his SIERA was 3.72. His skills were better than the ERA suggests.

I think his depth of arsenal offers a path to success, even in Coors. At home, he focuses more on the fastball and slider, while on the road he can bring more curveballs and changeups into the mix. The difference was only about 3% in 2016 (83% FB/SL at home; 80% on the road), but I think it could be more stark in 2017. The four pitches also allows him to have distinct approaches versus righties and lefties. Righties only get about 12% curves and changeups, while lefties see 24%.

Gray was quality-plus in more than half of his starts. Quality-plus is just 6+ IP and 2 or fewer ER. Gray had 15 such starts (in 29 total), putting on par with two of my AL leapers (leapists?): Kevin Gausman and Carlos Rodon, as well as Jake Arrieta, Rick Porcello, Jake Odorizzi, Julio Teheran, Jeff Samardzija, and… James Shields?! It’s also more than luminaries like Stephen Strasburg (14), Zack Greinke (13), Jacob deGrom (13), and AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer (13).

Gray had the 5th-fastest heater, 9th-best swinging strike rate, 11th-best strikeout rate, and 15th-best K-BB% rate among 73 qualified starters. That’s not a 4.61 ERA starter. I realize that Coors adds volatility, but Gray is the first Rockies pitcher that I will be actively seeking out in drafts at a real cost (10th-12th round area) ever.

Taijuan Walker | Diamondbacks

Listen, I like park factors as much as the next person, but I don’t think that Walker is definitely going to fail simply because he plays half of his games in Arizona now. He does need to figure out how to keep the damn ball in the park and moving to Arizona will add a degree of difficulty to that challenge, but he was going to have to fix that even if he stayed in Seattle.

Despite the gopheritis that has pushed him toward a 4.41 ERA, the 24-year old righty still has an above average 16% K-BB% over 304 IP the last two seasons, 27th among 76 SPs with at least 300 IP. Only Michael Pineda’s 4.60 ERA is worse among the top 27 and new teammate Robbie Ray (4.32) is the only other guy to join the pair with an ERA north of 4.00. By the way, I’m starting to change my tune a little bit on Ray (still not getting back on the Pineda bandwagon, though), but that’s for another piece.

We learned after the season that Walker had 10 bone spurs in his right foot, which no doubt played a role in his 5.21 ERA over the second half. He had surgery in October to fix the matter. Do you want to see the bone spurs? Of course you do, you weirdo!!

A 24-year old who looks that part* (6’4, 230), gets swings and misses with four pitches, doesn’t walk guys, and has had sustained runs of success (20 starts of 3.62 ERA to close ’15, 15 starts of 3.29 ERA to open ’16) is someone I’ll invest in. If he starts to develop his control into more command, it’s game over for the opposition.

*I realize “looking the part” isn’t everything, but he’s a remarkably athletic player and so even if the height and weight leaves you unmoved, he has other physical gifts to go with it that can play in role in his potential success.

Aaron Nola | Phillies

Nola was basically mid-leap when an ulnar collateral ligament sprain cut him down, but not before an epic collapse that spoiled his bottom line. Nola had a 2.65 ERA through his first 12 starts with the skills to back it up: 27% K, 5% BB, 54% GB, and 0.99 WHIP, yielding a 2.75 FIP. In his final eight starts, he posted a vomit-inducing 9.82 ERA in 33 IP as a .464 BABIP gave way to a .367 AVG. He still had a passable 21% K rate, but his walk rate nearly doubled to 8% and he stranded a comically low 49% of his batters.

His season was over after his July 28th start and he spent the remainder of the season resting and rehabbing the elbow, eventually platelet-rich plasma (PRP) treatment in September. The latest news in early-November is that he feels 100% healthy, though that’s easy to say from the couch in the postseason as opposed to on the mound in game competition, but I’m willing to gamble here.

The 7th overall pick from 2014 was billed as someone who would arrive quickly with polish and pitchability and he was doing just that before the elbow interrupted. His fastball doesn’t light up the radar at 90-92, but he seems to have distinct four-seam and sinker offerings, with good command of both. He backs up the fastballs with two secondaries, one a plus to plus-plus pitch and the other being more than a show-me, but not quite an above average pitch yet.

His curveball is a devastating out pitch, generating a 42% K rate in 272 PA over the last two seasons. He has an emerging changeup, too. In fact, Eno thinks he should be using it more (we discussed in this ep, but it’s not time-tagged because it wasn’t a specific topic – it comes around the time we discuss the SF rotation). Nola is regularly going after pick 200 in early drafts, a price that mitigates a decent bit of the risk you’ll incur. He has 188.7 IP of a 3.48 FIP in the majors, a decent proxy for what his full-season upside looks like.

Brandon Finnegan | Reds

My fourth pick for the AL was a Hail Mary of sorts, but Finnegan is thathere in the NL, but not necessarily to the same extent. Whereas Yordano Ventura is digging out of a hole after showing glimpses a few years ago, Finnegan is building a promising 2016 like the other six guys on the two lists. This is an eye test kind of guy. When you look at the 3.98 ERA/1.36 WHIP combo, one of them looks off and adding in an 11% BB and 5.19 FIP points to the ERA as the culprit.

The flashes of brilliance he showed helps understand how his ERA was so low relative to his supporting skills, but his off days are often horrible. He had seven blowups, six of which saw him allow multiple homers and elevated him to a 1.5 HR/9 by season’s end. Obviously, you can’t just wave off that large a chunk of his gamelog. He struggles with start-to-start consistency, but those flashes we’ve seen on the positive side are enough to stay invested.

He has a plus-plus changeup, but it hasn’t yielded the platoon neutralizing results usually associated with such a pitch. Of course he only uses it 13% of the time so even though it had an MLB-best .362 OPS against (min. 300 thrown), it was only 91 of his 569 PA against righties. Finnegan didn’t always get to the change because the fastball was so regularly tattooed. Righties popped a .923 OPS off of it, with 22 of the 29 homers he allowed all year.

I think he needs to work inside more often. It’s not overpowering at 91-93 MPH on average so he needs to challenge in on the hands. He works the outer third with 49% of his heaters to righties and it’s not working. I’m sure he’s afraid of it leaking back over the heart of the plate if and when he misses, but the same thing is happening with the outside-heavy approach anyway.

I realize it’s easy to just tell a guy with command issues to throw righties high and inside, but I do think he’d find more success there (as many pitchers would). Finnegan’s .136 AVG on high and tight fastballs (this sampling includes v. lefties, too) was 14th-best out of the 61 qualified SPs (min. 150 thrown). He doesn’t induce enough chases on that outside fastball because of his general lack of control so I think it’s time to refine the approach.

I didn’t talk much about it, but the slider is pretty good. So he’s got a great change and solid slider which give him strikeout upside that isn’t readily evident in the numbers because he doesn’t get to use them enough in his off outings. Just looking at his finish (1.93 ERA in final seven starts) shows 47 Ks in 37.3 IP with just a 57% fastball usage, compared to 66% on the season. The fastball needs to get better so he can actually use it less often.

Improving a fastball isn’t just something you decide to do and then it’s done, but given the importance of the pitch, it’s something most pitchers are consistently working on, especially young pitchers because so many of them are fastball improvements away from really breaking through. Finnegan is one of those for sure. It cane be bumpy at times, but I think he’s a “hang with ‘em” even if he gets off to an uneven start. He has the stuff to avoid stair-step improvement and instead just take off if it all clicks.

Ranking the Eight Leapers:

  1. Kevin Gausman
  2. Jon Gray
  3. Carlos Rodon
  4. James Paxton
  5. Aaron Nola
  6. Taijuan Walker
  7. Brandon Finnegan
  8. Yordano Ventura
  • Gray, Rodon, and Paxton are basically interchangeable
  • Nola was tough to slot because we just don’t know about the UCL
  • Walker is closer to Nola than Finnegan


Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

is Gray worth a $15 keeper price in NL only $260 auction? Kershaw and Max are kept in the 34-40 range, and I already have value on Lester and Cueto, Tony Disco, Eickoff, and Oh.