Recently I had my buddy Matt Modica on Fantasy Baseball Today, and a phrase he's always echoed to me in regards to pitchers is "addition by subtraction." Evaluating pitchers can be arduous, but that's why we have all offseason to do it. Everybody has their own process and believe me, mine is still evolving. Of course, step one involves looking at the surface stats like ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and walks, but what's even more useful is knowing how pitchers got there.
That's where you dive into step two of the process, which involves the deeper stats. Do the xFIP, SIERA and xERA line up with the surface stats? Why or why not? I'm also very big on swinging strike rate (SwStr%), chase rate (O-Swing%), and first-pitch strikes (F-Strike%). It seems rudimentary but if a pitcher can attack the strike zone early in the count, generate swings and misses and get batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone, chances are that pitcher is pretty good.
Part three brings us back to addition by subtraction and diving deeper into a pitcher's pitch mix and repertoire. If a pitcher has a bad pitch, chances are they should use that pitch less and lean further into their strengths. Did this pitcher ditch his four-seam fastball? If so, why? What other pitches did they use instead? Were those pitches actually good? Did this pitcher develop a new pitch? These are all questions I'm asking myself when painting the picture that is the offseason evaluation process.
As you likely guessed by now, I've singled out six pitchers below that changed their pitch mix in 2020. For each of them, they benefited from said changes. Let's just hope these adjustments carry over into next season.
In case you needed a reminder, Shane Bieber finished first in ERA (1.63), first in xFIP (2.04), first in K/9 (14.2), fourth in swinging strike rate (17.1%), and fourth in WHIP (0.87) among qualified starting pitchers in 2020. He's quite good. He just won the AL Cy Young… unanimously.
You're here to find out why he's so good. Most will point to a favorable schedule in a shortened season that featured the Tigers, Brewers, Royals and Pirates. While that's true, he also made significant changes to his pitch mix. Bieber lowered his four-seam fastball usage from 45.6% in 2019 to 37.5% this past season. We know Bieber has fantastic command of his fastball, but it is very straight and hittable at times. In lowering his fastball, he threw his ridiculous curveball 6% more in 2020. In addition to cutting the fastball usage, he severely cut his slider usage from 2019 and added a brand new cutter, which he threw 16% of the time.
According to FanGraphs' pitch value metric, Bieber's new cutter graded out as the third best cutter among qualified starting pitchers in 2020. You may question his strength of schedule, but Bieber is truly an evolving ace who deserves to be a first-round pick in Fantasy.
We get into early 2021 rankings debates with Brian Entrekin on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast. Follow all of our podcasts and subscribe here.
What's old is new again. Yu Darvish will be 34 years old at the start of the 2021 season, but he has found the fountain of youth. Over his last 32 starts (typically a full season), Darvish has a 2.84 ERA with a 0.90 WHIP, striking out 255 over 199.2 innings. A major part of Darvish's dramatic turnaround has been his pitch mix.
Over the past three seasons, he's lowered his four-seam fastball usage from 37.3% to 26.7% and all the way down to 14.8% in 2020. It's been this new slider/cutter that has revitalized his game (I say slider/cutter because some sites categorize it differently). According to Baseball Savant, Darvish used the cutter 36.7% of the time in 2019 and upped it to 43.7% in 2020. It's basically taken over his four-seam as his main pitch. This change has actually helped all of Darvish's other pitches play up, which is how he has become the best version of himself today.
There will always be durability concerns in the back of my mind, but based on talent, he deserves to be drafted as a top five starting pitcher in Fantasy.
Based on my early takeaways, Scott White and I seem to be higher on Aaron Nola than others in the industry. I don't completely understand it myself. Nola pitched a to a 3.28 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP and all of the underlying metrics seem to support him.
Nola also posted a career-best 12.11 K/9 thanks to career-highs in both swinging strike rate (13.4%) and chase rate (38.1%). Unlike the others on this list, Nola did not decrease his fastball usage. Strangely enough, he chose to use his best pitch – the curveball – less than ever before. He dropped the curve usage about 9% and all of that went towards the changeup.
While the changeup has been a solid pitch for Nola, it was better in 2020 than ever before. Nola's 17.8% swinging strike rate and 44% chase rate on the changeup this season were both career-bests. As a result, this helped his fastball play up and get back on track. This is real progress for Nola because he has a legitimate three-pitch mix he can rely on. The ADP is a bit high in the second round, but I absolutely trust his stuff.
Like Bieber, Kenta Maeda was blessed with a fantastic schedule in 2020, which featured the Tigers, Indians, Brewers and Pirates. It's no wonder he had a career year! Not so fast. Maeda has had a respectable fastball in his career, posting a negative pitch value just once back in 2018, according to FanGraphs.
His fastball is not especially fast or exciting. It's just fine. Well for three seasons now Maeda has dropped his fastball usage. In 2020, it was all the way down to just 25.9%. Maeda opted to use the slider 9% more this season while increasing the changeup 5%, the two best pitches in his arsenal. It's really not rocket science. We saw this with Patrick Corbin and his slider and Lucas Giolito and his changeup in recent years. Throw. Your. Best. Pitches. It's that simple.
The tough part on Maeda is you have a decision to make. How much was his breakout 2020 season the schedule and how much was the pitch-mix change? I think both played a part and we're due for regression in 2021. That doesn't mean I think he'll be bad. I would just project Maeda for a mid-3s ERA and a WHIP around 1.10 with over a strikeout per inning. That's a still a damn fine pitcher worth taking in the middle rounds.
Dylan Bundy… you finally did it! You relied less on your crappy fastball and subsequently raised the usage of your curveball, changeup and slider. When Bundy first got called up, he had a live fastball which sat 93-94, routinely hitting the mid-90s. I would assume it's a sad realization for most pitchers, but Bundy's fastball is not that anymore. It's not even close. His fastball velocity was down to a career-low 90.2 MPH in 2020. The change in pitch mix coupled with the move out to Anaheim helped Bundy reach new heights. His 16.5 Fantasy points per game ranked 15th among starting pitchers and were tied with Lucas Giolito.
All is good, right? We're excited about Bundy in 2021. Eh, not entirely. You see, Bundy was really good for his first four starts in 2020, posting a 1.57 ERA. Over his final eight starts, however, that number rose to 4.62. As the season went on, Bundy increased his fastball usage again! I have noticed there are starts where Bundy just doesn't have his slider. Either it's not breaking right or he can't locate it. Those are the starts where Bundy turns back to the fastball and bad things happen. His early ADP is 100.9 as the SP34 off the board. I've cooled quite a bit on Bundy myself.
Fun fact: did you know that Kyle Hendricks finished as a top 12 starting pitcher in both Roto and H2H points in 2020? He was awesome. Perhaps having his former catcher David Ross as his new manager had something to do with it. Or maybe it was his curveball. By now you know that Kyle Hendricks is a unique pitcher who relies on finesse and control over flash.
His fastball has averaged 87.3 MPH in his career. It's not the most exciting. Well he lowered that fastball usage 8%, opting to throw his curveball a career-high 16.6% this past season. I would actually argue Hendricks was unlucky with strikeouts this season. His 11.6% swinging strike rate was by-far a career-high yet his 7.1 K/9 was a career-low. If Hendricks carries over this improved curveball with his great changeup, we should see more strikeouts in 2021.
You're always walking a fine line with Hendricks because his stuff is not overpowering, but as long as he keeps the walks down, he'll be useful for Fantasy. Hendricks is worth targeting as your SP3 or SP4 in Fantasy, especially if you need WHIP in Roto leagues.