Using Pitch Type Whiff Rates to Find Waiver Pickups

It’s very sad. The man that threw the most curveballs in baseball (with the highest whiff rate among curveballs) is now hurt. It’s almost like there’s been work on the subject.

But Jose Fernandez is gone. You can’t have him back, not this year. So it’s time to hit the wire. And let’s use some whiff rates to see what we can find. I’ll just look for surprising league-leading pitches in each category. One standout pitch might be enough for you right now, especially if it comes with some other surprises once we jump in.

Roenis Elias (14.2%)
Elias has garnered the ninth-most whiffs on curves this year (minimum 50 thrown), and he’s thrown 176 of them according to PITCHf/x, so it’s a strong pitch that he uses often. His change also gets a 11.4% whiff rate (62.5% ground ball rate) by PITCHf/x, so he’s got other weapons. Why haven’t we heard of him before this year? Because the Cuban had multiple arm slots and couldn’t command his fastball in the minor leagues at times. The team asked him to pick one, and now he’s got decent control stats and has been a decent pitcher — with upside in certain matchups given his home park. It remains to be seen what his strikeout rate will be, but at least he has an out pitch and an above-average swinging strike rate for a starter.

Yusmeiro Petit (26.3%)
Petit had one of the whiffiest curves in baseball last year, so to find him in the top three again this year is not that surprising. His change-up (17% swSTR) and cutter (13% swSTR) are also standout offerings. The problem is that his four-seam is terrible. It gets whiffs less than six percent of the time, turns into homers, and doesn’t get ground balls. Voila Petit’s homer problem most of his career. But not in San Francisco! Call him more of a matchup play than Elias, but useful in all leagues. And his batting average on balls in play should normalize — there’s no correlation between fastball velocity and BABIP.

Wandy Rodriguez (15.8%)
Yeah, he’s not Jose Fernandez, this much we know. He’s not even his red-headed stepchild. His change isn’t good, never has been, his sinker is getting worse, and his fastball is about as bad as Petit’s. But he’s still got his curveball! And he’s pitching. In Double-A, but he’s pitching.

Danny Salazar (25.5%)
In some leagues, he’s on the wire. He’s got the tenth-best swinging strike rate on change-ups in baseball this year. At 12%, his slider whiff rate is down below average this year, which isn’t great. But his fastball still gets tons of whiffs (9%, average is 7%), mostly because it’s still fast (93.7, good for top-15 among starters). Strikeouts minus walks are still the best in-season predictor, and his 16.4% is much better than the 11.5% American League starter average. You’re lucky if you can pick up Salazar for Fernandez.

Robbie Erlin (23.7%)
Hole up. Erlin’s all about that yakker, right? Huh. The curve is getting 8.2% whiffs this year (down from 10.8%, or about average). The curve is getting 64.7% ground balls, and that’s great, but it’s funny how optics screw with us. The curve is big, bold and beautiful, but it’s the change that makes Erlin a viable pickup in most leagues. Other than Salazar, he probably represents the best pickup so far on this page. He adds a decent breaker and his fastball is average, and other than perhaps Coors Field, he might be useful in more of his starts than people realize. There’s no obvious reason to say he won’t strike a few more out going forward and suppress his BABIP a bit, unless the defense behind him is costing him runs.

Josh Collmenter (23.6%)
The Bugs Bunny change gets the 14th-highest whiff rate in the bigs this year, and he’s in the Arizona rotation for now. It’s just that his curveball is no good. It gets three percent whiffs and doesn’t get grounders either. If he had a better breaker, he’d be better than a deep leaguer.

Tom Koehler (24.5%)
Among starters, Koehler’s slider gets the fifth-best whiff rate in baseball this year. The caveat seems obvious at first — he’s got nothing else. Not by whiff rate at least. The change gets 8% whiffs and the curve 5%. But! The change-up gets 80% grounders and his four-seam looks average! He could be our next Dallas Keuchel, except that he’s in the NL and in a pitcher’s park. In deeper mixed leagues, he’s already ownable. But with that strikeout minus walk rate, you can’t drop an established guy for him, even if he’s struggling (say, a Matt Garza).

Aaron Harang (21.2%)
The thirteenth-best slider by swinging strike rate among starters belongs to the Harangutan. It’s always been his best pitch, but it, like the rest of his pitches, is seeing a resurgence this year. It’s strange though. None of his pitches are really moving much differently, nor has he gained velocity, nor has he really changed his usage much. Maybe it’s just been some cake matchups for him.

All Pitches
Homer Bailey (Curve 13.1%, Change 23.1%, Slider 15.1%)
Okay, it’s more of a buy-low, but take a look at that arsenal. Combined with the fact that Bailey is still averaging around 94 on the fastball, and you have to like what he’s up to. You have to, I’m not giving you a choice.

Corey Kluber (Curve 14.3%, Change 17.8%, Slider 22.7%)
It may be a cutter or a slider or a whatever, but your membership in the Corey Kluber Society is also a must. Maybe his hittable fastball has led to a slightly higher BABIP, but will it stay in the .360s? I doubt it. Is this a buy low guy too?

Francisco Liriano (Slider 18.9%, Change 22.7%)
Did you know that Liriano and Kluber are tied for third-most slider-induced swinging strikes in baseball? Liriano’s third in change-up-induced swinging strikes though. The best news is that his groin is good again, and his velocity is trending back up. He’s not as slam-dunky a buy-low as the guys above — you have to cap his innings pitched this year around 150 and he’s always a command risk — but he might also be on your wire, maybe.

Dallas Keuchel (Change 18.8%, Slider 21%)
Only 13 pitchers have gotten more swinging strikes on their curve than Keuchel. His four-seam is terrible (Brooks has it with a 0.94 whiff rate!), but he’s been throwing his better two-seamer more often. Don’t look at the projections. Ever since he turfed the curve for a slider, he’s been a good pitcher. And now he’s definitively a mixed leaguer.

Jorge de La Rosa
(Curve 13.8%, Splitter 18.7%)
His numbers are perilously close to his career numbers (which aren’t good), and his second-best pitch doesn’t work in his home park. But his velocity is back up to early 2011 numbers, and his combination of swinging strikes and ground balls is one of the better he’s put up in his career. The fact is, once you add in his cutter, he’s got three decent pitches and his fastball isn’t embarrassing, nor his command terrible. At least consider him away from home when he can use his curve.

We hoped you liked reading Using Pitch Type Whiff Rates to Find Waiver Pickups by Eno Sarris!

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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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Sgt. Hulka
Sgt. Hulka

You made me a Keuchel believer. Thanks.