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 6/28. 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.
Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Throughout Matt Cain’s career, he has had the reputation of a pitcher who outperforms his peripheral stats. During his best seasons, his ERA was nearly a full run lower than his xFIP on average, primarily due to a lower than normal HR/FB rate. Over the last two seasons, this has not been the case. Can owners expect Matt Cain to regain ace form over the second half, or has his “luck” finally run out?
Batted Ball Profile
One thing that has remained consistent in Matt Cain’s profile is his ability to suppress BABIP. Cain’s BABIP this season sits at .261, which is right in line with his numbers over the past 5 seasons. Interestingly though, he is allowing fewer fly balls and inducing more grounders than ever before. He has always had the reputation of a fly ball pitcher, but this year he has been much closer to league average in terms of ground ball/fly ball rates.
The primary issue here has been the spike in Cain’s HR/FB rate. From 2005 to 2012, Cain’s worst HR/FB was 8.4%. Last season it was 10.8% and in the early going this year, it sits at a Marco Estrada like 13.1%. Cain has allowed 11 HRs in his first 13 starts. To put that number in perspective, in 2011 he only allowed 9 HRs in 30 starts. Cain had a similar stretch last season. He gave up 16 long flies in his first 16 starts, but then settled down and only allowed 7 over his last 14. Since Cain has now gone 2 consecutive starts without a longball, there is reason to hop better times are ahead.
The prospects of Cain improving his HR/FB rate down the stretch fall somewhere between likely and definite, but I would not count on a single digit rate going forward. Expecting closer to a league average rate of 10% would be reasonable, but remember that HR/FB rates are among the most difficult stats to predict.
Ks and BBs
Matt Cain has always been a WHIP asset because of his low BABIP and superlative control. This season, his BB% is higher than it has been since 2008. His 8.4% rate is still pretty good, but not quite elite.
A slight rise in BB% by itself is not cause to ring the alarm, but when you also consider that his K rate (18.6%) is at its lowest point since his rookie year in 2005, there is cause for concern. Cain’s velocity is fine, but his swinging strike rate (8.7%) is slightly below his career average. He is also getting fewer hitters to chase pitches outside the zone.
While Cain has never been a strikeout artist, his K/BB rate was always near 3 during his best seasons. With a K/BB closer to 2 this year, Cain does not seem like the same pitcher he was in 2012.
Matt Cain has already had 2 short DL stints this year. He sliced his finger open during a highly dangerous sandwich making activity and then strained his hamstring shortly after making his return. While neither injury should impact Cain’s second half, one has to wonder to what extent his timing and rhythm have been thrown off.
I do have two serious questions though:
- If you were a pitcher, would you have your pitching hand anywhere near a knife blade while cutting?
- Do you really need to cut the sandwich? It tastes just the same in one piece.
Last season, Cain really struggled with the long ball early on and posted a first half ERA of 5.06. In the second half, he made a stunning turnaround with a 2.36 ERA. While there is little in Cain’s history to suggest that this is a trend owners can count on, current owners are certainly hopefully that a second half rebound is on the horizon.
I do believe that Matt Cain will pitch better in the second half then he has up until now. That being said, however, he does not have the peripheral stats of a fantasy ace. Owners can expect a low WHIP along with neutral ERA and K numbers going forward. He makes for a decent buy low target as long as owners know what they are getting. Cain is somewhere between an SP4 and a matchup play. Do not give up anything more than a redundant player to acquire Cain’s services.
Vance Worley, Pittsburgh Pirates
Worley is owned in 6% of Y! leagues and 7% of ESPN leagues
Before we talk about Vance Worley, you need to know why we are talking about Vance Worley. Earlier in the season, at least 3 solid weeks before the real breakout, a friend of mine was asking me about Dallas Keuchel. I was dismissive at first, but he was very persistent and would ask further questions each time we talked. Finally, I broke down and closely analyzed Keuchel’s game. I came away very impressed.
A week and a half ago, after his first start, this same friend started asking about Vance Worley. After glancing at his 2013 numbers with the Twins, I quickly shot him down. 2 quality starts later, it is time to take a close look and see if Worley could be for real.
When Vance Worley first came up with the Phillies, he finished 3rd in NL ROY voting (2011). His deceptive delivery was able to generate over 8 Ks per nine due to an extremely high called strike rate. As a result, he was a very effective pitcher. He was decent in 2012, but after a minor surgical procedure and a move to Minnesota, Worley’s 2013 was an unmitigated disaster. Just last year, he posted an ERA over 7. The main reason was a precipitous drop in K rate as hitters stopped taking called strikes.
Ks and BBs
Worley’s walk rate has always been very good, but so far this year it is impeccable. In 66 innings between AAA and the majors, his BB% is under 3. He has only made 3 starts at the major league level, but if he can keep up the Ueharian walk rate, it bodes well for his chances of future success.
The Ks paint a completely different picture. As mentioned before, when Worley’s K/9 rate was over 8 in 2011, he did it with a swinging strike rate of just 5.5%. That season, hitters only swung at 59.8% of his offerings in the strike zone. While they were not swinging and missing, they took enough called strikes to make up for it. In 2013 hitters took a much more aggressive approach against Worley and swung at 68.5% of pitches in the zone. With a miniscule swinging strike rate of 3.9%, Worley’s K/9 fell to an unusable 4.62.
In AAA this year, Worley was again freezing hitters and getting them to take more called strikes. The result was a K/9 of 8.41. So far in his 3 major league starts, however, hitters are swinging at 66% of pitches in the zone and Worley’s swinging strike rate is 4.9%. The result is a K/9 of just 5.23.
Worley simply cannot be more than a fantasy matchup play unless he is able to K more batters. While he has shown that he is capable in the past, potential owners need to keep an eye on the K line. If he can start getting more punchouts and is able to keep the walk rate down, he can be a useful fantasy option. Only striking out 15% of the hitters he faces however, just won’t cut it.
Batted Ball Profile
I am not putting any stock in Worley’s small sample size from this season. For his career, he has a pretty average batted ball profile. He induces a league average number of ground balls and a slightly below average number of fly balls. His line drive rate and BABIP are usually slightly higher than average (career .320 BABIP). Worley’s career HR/FB is right in line with the MLB average at 9.5%.
If you think Vance Worley’s 1.97 ERA and .97 WHIP are indicators of a strong season to come, think again. His BABIP sits at .242 which is a full 80 points below his career average and his xFIP is 4.14.
As Rob Adams touched on in his Stream Team article, Worley is using a slightly different pitch mix this season. In addition to introducing a seldom used knuckle curve, he is using both his two seam fastball and his slider more frequently. It is too early to make any definitive call on whether or not these adjustments will have a positive impact on his strikeout rate, but there is reason to hope that the AAA K rate was aided by these tweaks.
I really want to like Vance Worley. I want him to be the next out of nowhere breakout. Fact is though, the numbers just don’t support it. Pitchers who only strike out 15% of the batters they face and yield a BABIP over .300 don’t tend to wind up on many fantasy rosters. The BB rate is awesome, but I need more evidence of improvement in other areas before I can recommend Worley in good faith.
If he can get his K/9 back over 7, then he has a chance. Until then, however, he is nothing more than a dicey matchup play. Keep an eye on him from a distance for now.