I am now taking a focused look at two pitchers each week. One feature will go under the hood and examine a commonly owned pitcher who is either struggling or exceeding expectations, while the other will look at an arm that falls under the 40% owned threshold. All of the analysis in this piece will be based on numbers through 6/21. If one of the featured pitchers makes a Sunday start, I will post an update on how they pitched, but data from that start will not be reflected in this piece.
If you are looking at streaming options, be sure to check out Rob Adams’ Stream Team piece. His streamer article is the best I have seen, pretty much anywhere.
Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Much has been written about Verlander’s struggles, but given the ugly ratios that continue to trend in the wrong direction, owners need to seriously consider what to do with the Tiger’s “ace”. Is Verlander a buy low target who is a mechanical tweak away from domination, or is he Tim Lincecum 2.0?
When Verlander was the best pitcher in the game, his fastball was the most dominant pitch in all of baseball. He was able to get it up over 95 consistently. Now, his average velocity is only 93.4. While that may not seem like a huge difference, his fastball has gone from being baseball’s best pitch to being a negative offering. Opposing hitters are batting .306 against it and he is throwing it less frequently than ever before.
Verlander’s lost fastball dominance has caused a ripple effect on his secondary offerings too. His changeup, which he throws over 27% of the time, has not lost any velocity. The result is an average velocity gap of just 7 MPH and another pitch that has transitioned from being dominant to having a negative value.
Verlander is also throwing both his curve and slider more often. The curve has always graded out positively, until this year, but it just has not had the same effect on hitters that it did during his best seasons. Only Verlander’s slider still has a positive pitch value.
Where Verlander used to have 4 plus pitches, he now only has 1. Until he is able to consistently get hitters out with the heater, he will continue to be an average pitcher.
Last week, Brad Ausmus stated that they found a couple mechanical issues in Verlander’s delivery. According to Ausmus, these mechanical tweaks are fixable and are the cause of Verlander’s struggles, not the velocity drop. Keep in mind that Verlander had similar issues that he discovered late last season before going on a really nice September run.
Since he did have arguably his best start of the season on Saturday (7 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, 8 Ks) maybe there is some hope for Verlander owners. Why it would take this long for these guys to figure out that something was wrong is beyond me, but a 93 MPH heater with good movement should be good enough to get hitters out if the pitcher can command it.
Ks and BBs
During Verlander’s best seasons, his K/BB rate was right around 4. This year, it is a very pedestrian 1.83. Verlander has not walked more, or struck out fewer hitters since his rookie season. The 9.1% walk rate is concerning, but his rapidly declining K rate is the bigger problem.
In 2011 and 2012, Verlander struck out a batter an inning and managed to K over 25% of batters he faced. This year, his K/9 is down to 6.62 and he is only fanning 16.6%. His swinging strike rate has regressed to 9%. Verlander has not seen not seen a rate this low since 2008, before he became one of baseball’s most dominant aces.
Not only is Verlander getting behind in the count more often these days (first pitch strike % of 59.7 is his lowest since 2008), but he is not getting hitters to chase outside the zone either. Batters are only swinging at 29.1% of pitches outside the zone, compared to rates over 33% from the last 3 seasons.
When Justin Verlander was at his best, he was a strikeout pitcher who rarely issued free passes. Now, he is a pitch to contact guy with control issues. While I think the K rate will rebound a little, his days of being a strikeout an inning guy may be in the past. Based on his current swinging strike numbers, I project a K/9 near 7.5 for the rest of the season.
Batted Ball Profile
Verlander’s batted ball data is right in line with his career numbers. His HR/FB rate is actually a touch below his numbers from the past 3 seasons, despite the fact that his last homerless outing occurred over a month ago (5/20).
If anything, Verlander has been somewhat unlucky with his BABIP. His BABIP sits at .318 despite a line drive rate of just 17.1%. While neither number is unprecedented for Verlander, I am a little surprised to see them happening at the same time. In the seasons where Verlander’s BABIP has been above .300, his line drive rate has also been well over 20%.
Verlander’s strand rate should go up and his BABIP should come down a little. Even if he is not able to generate more Ks (I think he will) his ERA and WHIP should be more playable than they have been up until now. The issue is that even if Verlander improves across the board and gets his ERA down near 4.00 and his WHIP to a more manageable 1.30, he is still a replacement level fantasy pitcher due to his now lower K rate. While I think Verlander is a better pitcher than Tim Lincecum, he lacks the K upside that Lincecum has.
If you believe that all of Verlander’s issues are due to correctable mechanical issues, then you can acquire him for pennies on the dollar and now is the time to do so. If you are more skeptical, like me, Verlander’s Saturday start may open up a nice selling opportunity.
Whichever side of the Verlander argument you sit on currently, the one move that I cannot condone at this point is the straight drop. If Verlander’s ratios don’t improve meaningfully by mid-July, then I will fully endorse a Verlander dump. For now though, Ausmus’ comments along with Saturday’s glimmer of hope buy him another few weeks before I would consider any type of rash move.
Understand that Verlander will never return to his Cy Young award-winning form. If you can sell his name for anything close to mid round value, you should do it and not look back. With his current skill set, he is capable of getting a few more Ks, allowing fewer walks and fewer hits. All of those things can make him a mixed league fantasy asset again, but his upside is now closer to Andrew Cashner than it is to Adam Wainwright.
Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
My expectations for Jake Arrieta were pretty low heading into 2014. The former top prospect has never been able to generate elite strikeout rates in the majors and his control issues combined with a propensity for allowing hard contact have led to high ERA and WHIP numbers. Although he has only pitched 50 innings in 2014, the results have nonetheless been highly impressive. Arrieta currently boasts an ERA of 1.98 and a WHIP of 1.20 along with 55 Ks in 50 innings. We will take a look at a few changes in Arrieta’s game and try to determine whether or not he is capable of keeping this up.
The Scouting Report
Arrieta throws 5 pitches. He has a 4-seam fastball and a sinker that both average between 93 and 94 on the radar gun. Arrieta also uses a slider/cutter and a curveball along with a changeup that he mixes in occasionally. Over the course of his big league career, he has struggled both with control and allowing too many home runs. He also has a reputation for not pitching well with men on base. His career strand rate sits at 68.8%. Some scouts attribute this low rate to an altered, less effective approach with runners on.
Arrieta has clearly fallen short of lofty expectations that the Orioles once had for him, and coming into 2014, many people were thinking that Arrieta might be best suited for bullpen use.
Pitch Mix Changes
Whether you want to call it a cutter or a slider, it is clearly Arrieta’s most effective pitch and he has been using it much more frequently in his last 4 starts. Eno Sarris suggests that Arrieta’s increased use of the cutter in fastball counts is both helping him limit walks and get more strikeouts. While there are some long-term risks associated with increased reliance on this pitch, the short-term results have been awesome so far. If you want to read more of Eno’s analysis, click here.
Ks and BBs
This section really hits the most prominent issues with regards to Arrieta’s fantasy value. The spike in K rate along with improved control have been the driving forces behind Arrieta’s 2014 success.
Arrieta is walking 7.3% of the batters he has faced and just 2.7 batters per 9 innings. Prior to this year, 2012 was his best MLB season is terms of peripheral stats. That year, his ERA was above 6, but he had a BB/9 of just 2.75 and a BB% of 7.1% and an xFIP of 3.67. Aside from 2012 and this season, Arrieta only had 1 professional stint with a BB/9 under 3.10. In fact, in most stops his BB/9 has been above 4. Even when Arrieta was completely dominating opposing hitters in the low minors, he was never able to post a great WHIP because of his high BB rates.
So far this year, Arrieta has been able to limit his walks. His first strike percentage sits at 57.8%, which is not a career best, but is above his career average. He is also getting hitters to swing at more pitches outside the zone (career best 31%). The increased use of the cutter appears to be helping both of these percentages.
Arrieta has often flashed big strikeout ability on the farm, but he has not been able to consistently dial it up in the majors. His career K/9 is 7.22 and his K/BB is just 1.86. In contrast, those same numbers this season sit at 9.90 and 3.67 respectively. Any pitcher who doubles their K/BB rate is in line for better numbers across the board.
Jake Arrieta is striking out 26.7% of the batters he is facing this year. Since he is using his best pitch more often, this spike could be real. Arrieta is generating a swinging strike rate of 9.3%, which is more than 2 percent above his career average. Hitters are both chasing more pitches outside the zone and whiffing on more pitches inside the zone.
If Arrieta can keep the BBs in check and continue striking out better than a batter an inning, he can continue to be mixed league relevant. There is good reason to think that he might be able to maintain a K/BB near 3.0 if he keeps using the slider as much as he has been.
Batted Ball Profile
The other wart that Arrieta has consistently shown throughout his career has been his propensity to allowing hard contact. He has always struggled with both HRs and line drives, but this season both rates have been kept in check to date. Arrieta has allowed only 2 HRs in 9 starts this year for a HR/9 of .36 and a HR/FB rate of just 5.9%. Since Arrieta’s career HR/FB rate is closer to 12%, we should expect some regression here. Jake Arrieta is not the second coming of Matt Cain.
One interesting development is Arrieta’s spike in ground ball percentage. He has had a very average career ground ball rate hovering near 44%. This season, batters are hitting grounders at a 53% clip. The ground ball spike has led to a corresponding decrease in both his fly ball and line drive rates.
Arrieta began his 2014 campaign with two outings against the Cardinals and a road start against the White Sox. Since then, he has enjoyed the following run:
@SD, @SF, vs. NYM, vs. MIA, @PHI, @MIA
That is not exactly murderers row. His next two starts against the Reds and Nats will be stiffer tests.
Arrieta has been fantastic and his ERA indicators are all well under 3. If you are buying into Arrieta now, however, it should not be as an ERA/WHIP savior. Arrieta can provide value with his Ks, but the ERA and WHIP will rise when he starts giving up more long balls. I am thinking that given the tweaks he has made in his approach, a mid 3’s ERA along with a WHIP near 1.30 is attainable. If you are expecting him to be the NL version of Dallas Keuchel though, you might be disappointed.
I am buying Arrieta as a mixed league hold in K/9 leagues, but he is still more of a streamer play in weekly leagues.