Today, I start the process examining who the industry, owners, and myself missed on with their preseason evaluations. Did a smoking gun exist and everyone missed it or was there no way to guess the outcome? I’m going to start with two pitchers who had smoking guns, I wrote about the smoking guns, and then I totally ignored them.
The two starters are Gerrit Cole and Anibal Sanchez. Back in February, I highlighted both in a pitch mix change article. Looking back, I made a convincing case for taking a chance on either one. I spent a few hours doing the research and when it came to draft day, I never picked up a share. I failed as both overperformed.
First, I’ll look at why they outperformed their standard expectations and how I (and others) can make sure it doesn’t happen next season.
Gerrit Cole (NFBC ADP Pitcher Rank: 26th, End of Season Rank: 10th)
Cole didn’t go unnoticed during draft season but there were some reservations on how much he could improve after two seasons with a near 4.00 ERA and strikeout rate around 8.0 K/9. His high ERA’s weren’t out of place since ERA estimators hovered around 4.00.
After going over his pitches, I came to the following analysis:
I’d not be surprised one bit if the Astros try to take away his sinker. It doesn’t generate elite groundballs and is almost always put into play. If he needs a fastball, he should just use his four-seamer.
The slider is a keeper with a near-elite swing-and-miss rate. The curve and change get basically the same results. I think he could keep them and utilize them against hitters who are more susceptible to one or the other.
Possible Outcome: Dropping the sinker could help. It didn’t do anything useful compared to his other pitches so why not make the minor change.
And drop the sinker he did going from 18% usage to 3% on the season. His above-average four-seam and curve were thrown more often.
Dropping the sinker along with some other changes, he raised his strikeout rate to 12.4 K/9 which dropped his ERA to 2.70 in 200 IP. Without the sinker, his groundball rate dropped from 46% to 36%. With the high flyball rate, his BABIP dropped to .286 which is a way below his .307 career BABIP. It was improvements accross the board.
There is no reason to think Cole can’t continue the success going into 2019.
Anibal Sanchez (NFBC ADP Pitcher Rank: 683th, End of Season Rank: 43th)
Sanchez was on no one’s radar to start the season and why should he have been.
Season: ERA, HR/9, FBv
2015: 4.99, 1.7, 91.9
2016: 6.41, 1.8. 91.1
2017: 5.33, 2.2, 90.8
I am sure everyone was signing up for a pitcher with an ERA consistently over 5.00, a climbing home run rate with a declining velocity fastball.
Even so, I wrote the following on him:
Yep, he throws six pitches. He’s got two obvious keepers (four-seamer and changeup) and two to drop (curve and sinker). It’s not a good sign when the four-seamer generates as many groundballs as your curveball. The slider and cutter (which may be the same pitch) could both be kept and then see how this mix works as he would need to replace 27% of the pitches he threw last season.
Possible Outcome: Even with the changes, he’s likely to project to be a 4.00 ERA pitcher at best. He’s not desirable in most leagues but in deeper leagues, he may be someone to keep an eye, especially if his strikeout rate ticks up.
There were several routes Sanchez could have taken and he went the route of dropping the sinker and slider and replacing them with his cutter.
I nailed this best-case scenario. While he kept all his pitches, he basically became a Fastball/Change/Cutter pitcher who posted 2.83 ERA with his ERA estimators near 4.00.
He wasn’t elite but with a rank of 43rd overall, he was a team’s 3rd or 4th starter depending on league size. Most of the time these breakouts are Wins driven, but Sanchez had only seven on the season.
Even with the high production, owners didn’t by in. At CBS Sportsline, it took until week 16 until his owner got to 50%. Even at the end, his ownership was only 75% with a 50% start rate.
Owners never did buy into the changes and hopefully, he’ll be a cheap late rounder in 2019.
What could we and I do differently?
First, I need to track my analysis better. There is no way I should have not owned Sanchez in my 50-round draft-and-hold league. After each bit of actionable research I complete from now on, I’ll note the information in a database I can link to my final projections (Note: I just added Sanchez as a sleeper next season).
As for all owners, we should track free agent or traded pitchers to see if dropping one or two subpar pitches could improve the pitcher’s outlook. Smart teams are grabbing these pitchers who just need a small change or two. These two were both major misses which shouldn’t have happened and now we know. And knowing is half the battle.
Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.