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Earlier this week, I looked at eight hitters who entered the season as enigmas to see where they stand after two weeks of play. It's not just batters who puzzled us on Draft Day; several pitchers were also coming off confounding seasons. Now it's time to turn our attention to them.
The following eight starters finished their 2015 campaigns looking like substantially different pitchers than they did earlier in the year. In all but one case, the changes were for the better, and the improvements likely boosted their stock on Draft Day.
Have these pitchers justified whatever faith owners have placed in them? The same caveats I issued for the hitters applies here as well: this season's small samples are too small to be conclusive. However, when used in concert with their stats from a sizable chunk of last season, they can provide more insight than either sample would allow individually. Pooling these samples together, we can get a better sense of what these pitchers can do for Fantasy owners this season, and how we should value them going forward.
Note: Stats are for games played through Wednesday, April 20. PitchFX data are from BrooksBaseball.net, except where noted.
Staying the Course
Just when it looked like Strasburg's 2015 season would be ravaged by injuries and ineffectiveness, he hit a new gear. Through the end of May -- and just before a trip to the disabled list for a neck injury -- Strasburg got swings and misses on 10 percent of his four-seamers, contributing to a shockingly-low 7 percent rate overall. Once he returned from the DL, he more than doubled his rate on his four-seamer, and that trend continued even after getting shelved with a strained oblique. Over his final 13 starts, Strasburg posted a 1.76 ERA with a 12.1 K/9 ratio and a 26 percent four-seamer whiff rate.
He was able to get more swings-and-misses by locating more frequently in the upper portion of the strike zone, where he has historically had more success in getting whiffs. Strasburg has continued that pattern into his first three starts of 2016, and accordingly, he has been getting whiffs on 25 percent of his four-seam fastballs. While he hasn't had quite the same success in getting strikeouts, Strasburg is doing exactly what enabled him to pitch like one of the uber-elite late last season. As long as he can stay healthy, he should easily be one of the top eight starters in Fantasy.
These are generally feel-good stories, but Archer and his tough start to the 2016 season are the exceptions in this group. He was drafted among the top 20 starters this year, but hasn't performed even close to that level so far. The signs of a downfall were there over the final month of last season, when Archer suddenly stopped throwing his slider with control. He also wasn't getting whiffs on that pitch at his customary levels.
After throwing his slider for a ball 35 percent of the time over his final six starts, Archer has rebounded with a 30 percent rate so far this year. However, his current 18 percent slider whiff rate (per TexasLeaguers.com) is only three points higher than that from last year's final six starts, and still three points lower than his rate from the rest of 2015. Strangely, it's not strikeouts that have been a problem for Archer, as he has compensated with a higher four-seamer whiff rate. Meanwhile, he has also been wilder with his four-seamer.
So while Archer appears to have fixed some of what was wrong with his slider, his control issues persist. He clearly has the skill set to be a Fantasy ace, but it could take him a while to get back to that level.
Moore had always been a pitcher who had struggled with control, but in his initial return from Tommy John surgery, he wasn't offering much of anything that was useful to Fantasy owners. He was fairly prone to contact as well as wild. After a month-long stint in Triple-A, Moore returned to the majors better than ever, coupling an 11 percent whiff rate with a 67 percent strikes-thrown rate. Moore increased the strikes-thrown rate on both his curve and changeup by more than 9 percentage points.
This season, Moore has continued to throw both pitches for strikes at higher rates than he had previously, and a strong K/BB ratio has been the result. While this version of Moore has been around for all of nine starts, it's encouraging to see that he hasn't reverted to the wilder version of himself.
Ventura finished 2015 on a high note, and he did it without cleaning up his control. Throwing just 61 percent of his pitches for strikes and averaging 3.7 walks per nine innings, he still managed to post a 2.38 ERA over his final 11 starts. The key to Ventura's success was increased horizontal movement on his four-seamer and the 8 percent whiff rate he compiled (as compared to the 5 percent rate from his first 17 starts). That raised his overall whiff rate to 12 percent during that stretch, and he notched 81 strikeouts in 68 innings.
Control has been an even bigger problem for Ventura so far this year, but he has not given back his gains in fastball movement or whiff rate. In fact, his four-seamer whiff rate over his first three starts has jumped to 10 percent. If Ventura can get back to his established level of strike-throwing, he has enough strikeout appeal to have similar value to Tyson Ross or Francisco Liriano.
Still Need More Data!
Rick Porcello, Red Sox: On the surface, it looks like Porcello is doing more of what made him a tough pitcher to face late last season. He became a strikeout pitcher by inducing called strikes at a high rate, and he's doing it again so far this year (22 percent rate). During last season's surge, Porcello threw his sinker more often and lowered the swing rate on it. This season, he is throwing the pitch even more often and inducing even fewer swings. However, he isn't getting as much movement on his sinker or inducing as many grounders with it. With less movement, it's not clear why Porcello is having similar success, at least on a peripheral level (24 K, 3 BB in 19 1/3 innings). It may be premature to expect Porcello to substantially lower his 4.66 ERA or maintain his high K-rate.
Justin Verlander, Tigers: After struggling through his first six starts in 2015, Verlander finished strong, posting a 2.27 ERA over his last 14 starts. He regained his form as a strikeout pitcher who routinely went deep into games. He revived his swing-and-miss rate by increasing his four-seam spin rate from 2464 rpm during his slump to 2623 rpm over the course of his hot streak. So far this year, Verlander has 15 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings, but he is throwing strikes at just a 63 percent rate and averaging 2484 rpm on his four-seam fastball. He is also throwing it with less velocity, so the early returns don't look good for a sustained renaissance.
Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees: Midway through 2015, Eovaldi started getting grounders at a dramatically higher rate on his slider. His ground ball rate on the pitch from July 1 forward was 58 percent, as compared to 46 percent during the season's first three months. There is no clear cause that can be tied to the change, but whatever the reason was, the grounders have disappeared. This is not an exaggeration; Eovaldi has not induced a single grounder on his slider in three 2016 starts. With a 70 percent strikes thrown rate, he seems to be morphing into Phil Hughes 2.0. We've seen what Hughes looks like in Yankee Stadium, and there is no reason to chance a repeat of that performance on our Fantasy rosters.
J.A. Happ, Blue Jays: Happ became a better pitcher almost instantly upon joining the Pirates at the trade deadline, and by September, he was getting swinging strikes with much greater regularity. His four-seam whiff rate increased along with its horizontal movement, and from Sept. 4 forward, he compiled a 1.75 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 36 innings. Happ left Pittsburgh for a second stint in Toronto, but he didn't leave the whiffs or increased movement behind him. A sparkling 1.89 ERA, along with the whiff and movement trends, may look like a sign that all is well with Happ, but a miniscule 14 percent called strike rate has left him with 12 strikeouts in 19 innings. Perhaps over time, Happ can increase his K-rate, but for now, he appears to be losing his status as a strikeout pitcher.