Fantasy Baseball: Can you trust these six starting pitchers?
Sometimes good pitchers get so far off track that you're just not sure you can trust them anymore. But it doesn't have to change their long-term value, according to Scott White.
It's a reference to a movie that came out 18 years ago, which means I'm old, you're old, Robert De Niro is closing in on ancient, and Mr. Jinx is long since gone.
But only now do I realize how describing players in terms of a "Circle of Trust" can be useful in Fantasy Baseball, helping reconcile the gap between rest-of-season value and short-term utility.
If player rankings have a limitation, that's it. So often, I'm so committed to the long term that it makes for some inefficiencies in the here and now. But, there's a difference between "Yes, you can use him right now," and "Not so much, but you'll be glad you held on to him." And that's where the circle of trust comes in.
These six pitchers are in the latter category. I like them all. I think they're exceptionally talented and couldn't imagine forfeiting that upside to someone else. But I'm not especially motivated to use them right now. Their recent performance has them out of the circle of trust.
Which I guess makes them buy-lows, to some degree. If we can agree these pitchers aren't especially usable right now, then surely we can agree they still have value and can regain their place in the circle of trust.
Apart from an unfortunate win-loss record, Dallas Keuchel appeared to be just fine as recently as two turns ago. But seeing him give up 12 earned runs on 20 hits in just 11 innings since then is enough to make you worry he could single-handedly wreck your ERA and WHIP in any given week.
Dismissing it as just a rough patch would be overly simplistic. Some underlying issues hinted of worse days ahead. His swinging-strike rate is the lowest since his rookie season, before we knew all that he could be. His ground-ball rate, while still excellent, isn't the out-of-this-world number we're used to seeing from him (which is part of the reason he's only three homers away from last year's total). He's doing everything just a little worse, and it's beginning to show up in the results.
But, it doesn't mean this is who he is now. His velocity is the same as always, so it's not like he has suddenly gotten old. Any number of small changes could be enough to get him back on track. Maybe the grip on his sinker isn't quite right, or his arm slot is a little off. He himself has brought up the issue of tipping pitches. Or it might be as simple as shaky command. FanGraphs shows a higher percentage of Keuchel's pitches have missed both low, well out of the strike zone, and high, in the heart of the zone, than last year, making it easier for hitters to differentiate between a ball and a strike. That's correctable, right?
We know at his best, Keuchel is Cy Young material, and his best still seems within reach. His terrific supporting cast makes waiting all the easier.
With the highest ERA of any of these six, Luis Castillo is the one my Twitter followers are most eager to drop anytime he falls short of a quality start, convinced he's just another young arm who hasn't panned out. And technically speaking, he is. It's just that his potential screams louder than most.
Primarily, it's the changeup, which generates swings-and-misses aplenty and may already be the most dominant in the game. Paired with a fastball that pushes triple digits, you can see why he has the fourth-best swinging strike rate among qualifying pitchers, according to Baseball-Reference, ranking behind only Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Jacob deGrom.
I like the way manager Jim Riggleman put it after Castillo's most recent start:
"The other side of that is you saw the last three innings Castillo threw were outstanding." Riggleman told reporters. "It's exciting to know that this guy has a chance to be around for a long time. He's going to get better and better once he gets past these growing pains."
Castillo struck out 10 but also allowed five earned runs in the outing, all in the first three innings. He retired 10 of the final 11 batters he faced in the contest.
A five-start stretch at the start of May in which he put together a 2.83 ERA, not to mention his 15-start showing last year, gives me hope it could still happen this year.
Things started well enough for Zack Godley, who allowed just four hits over seven innings in each of his first two starts. But then came a six-walk disaster in his third start, and it was downhill from there. He was still getting all the ground balls a good sinkerballer should, but the key to his breakout last year was emphasizing his best swing-and-miss pitch, the curveball, and watching the strikeouts pile up.
His approach didn't change this year, but the results did. For whatever reason, that pitch wasn't getting the swinging strikes it always had, and complete with a rising walk rate, the struggles snowballed.
Why am I using the past tense here? Because in Godley's latest start Sunday at Colorado (of all places), everything suddenly went right again. His 19 swinging strikes were his most since his second start of the season, and 10 of them came on the curveball, his make-or-break pitch.
According to The Arizona Republic, Godley has had issues repeating his delivery — letting go of the ball either too early or too late — but he made some adjustments that worked in Sunday's start.
"We're not looking for a polished delivery out of him," pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "But we're looking for a repeatable delivery. He did a really nice job of repeating pitches [Sunday]."
Godley isn't back in the circle of trust yet. He'll need a couple more starts like Sunday's to get there. But, his sudden about-face is a reminder of how so much in this game can change with so little.
Splitter usage was presumed to be the key for Kevin Gausman coming into the season. Once he upped it to 25 percent about a third of the way through 2017, he had a 3.39 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings from that point on.
So when he came into spring training saying he was prepared to feature all of his pitches from the get-go, it had the potential to be a game-changer. And sure enough, he has thrown his splitter about 25 percent of the time.
So why aren't the results any different from last year's final line?
Some of the underlying numbers are. Gausman's splitter itself still shines, and as a result, he has a career high swinging-strike rate — the 19th-highest swinging among qualifying pitchers, in fact. His main problem is a bottom-feeder hit rate, the result of a .338 BABIP despite middle-of-the-road line-drive and hard-contact rates. He hasn't had the best of luck on balls in play, in other words.
Gausman's on the right track. Throwing his best pitch more from the start of the year should yield a much better line than a year ago. And because the Orioles have no issue letting him pitch deep into games, I'm willing to stay on this ride a little longer.
If you want reason to be optimistic about Jon Gray, you needn't look any further than his 3.12 FIP, which is actually lower than last year's despite an ERA that's about two runs higher. The discrepancy owes a little something to Coors Field, land of the mile-high BABIPs, but Gray has been nearly as awful on the road ... at least in totality.
Like most of the pitchers on this list, the 26-year-old has had an inconsistent season. It averages out to something awful, but who can forget that three-start stretch beginning at the end of April in which he allowed a combined one earned run with 25 strikeouts in 20 innings? Two of those starts, you may recall, came at home.
Fastball location has been a sticking point for Gray this year, and the effectiveness of his slider has suffered with it. But he's still among the hardest-throwing starting pitchers in the league, and is developing a curveball that is quickly becoming a swing-and-miss pitch. There's still a lot to like here, even if his home venue will always make his path a little harder.
Of these six pitchers, Luke Weaver is the one I've come the closest to dropping, but that was back when Alex Reyes was gearing up to return, putting Weaver's job in jeopardy. Now that we have complete assurance he's sticking around, Weaver deserves some leash if only for his incredible minor-league track record.
Of course, he had a strong showing as a rookie last year, too. And stuff-wise, he looks largely the same, throwing the fastball a little harder, actually, but with more or less the same pitch selection. He hasn't gotten a ton of swinging strikes, but he didn't last year either and still wound up with 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
His shortcoming this year is the number of strikes, his ability to get ahead in the count so he can put hitters away with ease instead of having to battle his way back. After getting an 0-2 count 27.6 percent of the time last year, well above league average, he's at 20.3 percent this year, well below.
Maybe it's not a simple correction at this point, but for a guy who averaged 1.8 walks per nine innings over his minor-league career, throwing stirkes shouldn't be a big ask.
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