Three AL Starting Pitchers to Sell Low On

It’s easy to advise fantasy owners to buy low and sell high, but unless you’re in a league filled with newbies, it’s much more difficult to actually put into practice. It’s far easier to execute a sell low or buy high trade, because we’re all trained to do the buy low, sell high thing. When you’ll selling low, your trade partner may very well think he’s buying low. But you know better. Or at least believe so.

Today, I’ll recommend three American League starting pitchers to sell low on. It’s not typically a strategy that I’m a fan of, especially early in the season when it’s still mostly small sample size zone. But there are certainly changes that can occur in various aspects of a pitcher’s underlying skill set that is driven by various forces that should alter our evaluations and projections moving forward. I think these three are examples of such happenings.

Hisashi Iwakuma | 4.38 ERA | 4.30 SIERA

In three full seasons in the starting rotation, the now 35-year-old Iwakuma has seen his innings total decline in each successive year. However, he has always enjoyed strong skills. While being essentially a soft-tosser, he managed an above average strikeout rate thanks to an excellent splitter, and has been a strike throwing machine, which has kept his walk rate down below 5%. Combine those skills with a 50% ground ball rate and you’re left with a valuable pitcher, but without the glitz and glamour of a hard thrower.

Unfortunately, aging effects are real, and at some point, all starting pitchers decline. It looks like this is the year for Iwakuma. His fastball velocity has been in free fall, dropping every year since his 2012 debut. His fastball is now down about a mile per hour versus last year, and he has averaged at least 88 mph just once all year. Last year, he averaged 88.4 mph. While the velocity dip hasn’t hurt his four-seamer’s SwStk%, his sinker, slider, and splitter are all sporting SwStk% marks below last year and his career averages.

Furthermore, his always elite control has deteriorated some, as his strike percentage is down to its lowest mark since his 2012 debut. If that’s not enough, that ground ball safety net has disappeared. His ground ball rate now suddenly sits below the league average! All this has combined for a SIERA that has jumped nearly a full run. For a 35-year-old to see such skills deterioration is normal, but it makes it less likely that this is a slow start and is simply just the aging and decline process at work. Since Iwakuma never had elite strikeout rates to begin with, he needs the pinpoint control and high ground ball rate to maintain his fantasy value. Those are gone at the moment and may not return.

Collin McHugh | 5.58 ERA | 4.47 SIERA

Remember back in 2014 when McHugh seemingly came out of nowhere to post a 2.73 ERA over 25 starts for the Astros, while striking out 25.4% of the batters he faced? Now that his strikeout rate sits all the way down at 16.2%, it seems rather obvious looking back that the performance was a complete fluke. A one year wonder, if you will.

McHugh actually hasn’t changed much this year. The majority of his advanced metrics are right in line with his history. Except for one thing — those strikeouts. They are missing. Back in 2014, McHugh used an excellent curve ball and mixed in a respectable slider to punch out batters at such a high clip. The curve was there last year too, but the slider’s effectiveness evaporated.

This year, both BIS and PITCHf/x are in agreement that McHugh has ditched the slider for a cutter. Either this is actually the case, or his slider has just stunk enough to seem like a cutter. Either way, it’s his most frequently thrown pitch by PITCHf/x, but its generating precious few swings and misses. And that curve? It went from elite at inducing swings and misses to barely above average. And it’s now his only pitch generating a SwStk% in the double digits, and only minimally at 12.3%.

His strike rate is up, but that’s really his only redeeming quality so far. Given his meh velocity and league average batted ball profile, there just isn’t a whole lot of upside here. It all hinges on his curve ball, but batters may have very well simply adjusted. It’s not worth finding out if he could adjust back.

Yordano Ventura | 4.85 ERA | 5.67 SIERA

I have been very negative on Ventura in my posts over the last couple of weeks and he’s done absolutely nothing to convince me I should change my stance. First order of business — he owns the highest SIERA among qualified starters. That’s a full two runs higher than last year and nearly so compared to 2014. Pitchers don’t typically lose everything from one year to the next like this, especially not at the age of 24.

But here’s Ventura, with 31 strikeouts and 29 walks. That walk total has led to the highest walk rate among qualified starters. Not surprisingly, he’s also tied for the worst K%-BB%, with a microscopic 1% mark. His strike percentage is second lowest in baseball. He’s never possessed elite control, of course, but this is the first time his strike rate has fallen into the real danger zone below 60%.

His fastball velocity is down 1.7 mph. However, his last game saw him average 96.5 mph with his fastball, easily the highest of the season. We’ll see if he can repeat anything close to that in his next start. Since it coincided with him throwing more strikes and walking just one batter, I reserve the right to completely remove his name from this list if his velocity remains high!

Aside from the control issues, his ability to generate swings and misses has declined, which is not surprising given his velocity troubles. The SwStk% on his four-seamer is down considerably, and it might be the explanation behind the plunge in his curve ball’s SwStk% as well.

Given his history of elbow issues coupled with the control problems, my knee-jerk reaction is that he’s hurt. It would be quite the upset if he is truly healthy and has plainly stunk.

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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Or maybe Ventura just is terrible this year, it happens.