The Ace Analysis series takes an in-depth look at pitchers of interest throughout the course of the season. This week, we will take a look at two struggling pitchers and also touch base on three more prominent DL returnees. By going under the hood and looking at the underlying data, the goal is to establish realistic expectations for these pitchers moving forward.
I do take requests, so if there are any pitchers you would like for me to take a look at in future articles, please feel free to ask in the comments section.
All stats and ownership numbers are current as of 6/27/15.
Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres
Andrew Cashner has been among the biggest pitching disappointments this season. Even though his draft day price tag was not as high as some, his owners were hoping for a low 3s ERA along with a playable WHIP and a healthy win total for the revamped Padres. Instead, they have a 3-9 record with a 4.22 ERA and an abysmal 1.42 WHIP. The last couple weeks have been so bad that some have even considering dropping Cashner. What is the next step for his owners?
Changes in Approach
Cashner’s velocity is fine, in fact it is even up a few tenths from last season. His pitch mix has not really changed in terms of his off-speed stuff. His slider and curveball usage have each fluctuated within a 5-6% range over the past four seasons. This year, he is slightly above his career usage right for the slider (19.2%) and slightly below for the curveball (13.1%). Cashner also typically throws a fastball about 66% of the time. Since he first introduced his two seam fastball three years ago, he has been toying with the right mix between four seamers and two seamers. This year, he is throwing the four seamer 42.3% of the time and the two seamer 24.5%. Last season, he used the two seamer 36.5% of the time, so this represents a significant shift. Overall though, Cashner is not doing a whole lot differently.
Ks and BBs
Cashner’s K rate has not quite been what fantasy analysts had hoped for when he first burst onto the scene, but it has always been playable. This year, thanks to a mild increase in slider usage and corresponding increase in swinging strike rate, his K% is up to 21.3%. This represents his highest mark since 2012.
His 8.34 K/9 will likely come down over the course of the second half, but only because he will probably not face as many batters per inning as he has so far. Inefficiency tends to pad K/9 numbers. That being said, however, the current K rate is supported by the underlying stats. I am expecting a K/9 around 7.50 moving forward.
Limiting walks has been a challenge for Cashner in the past, but over the last few seasons he has posted near elite BB rates. This year, he has been working outside the zone more than he has in seasons past, and as a result his BB rate has risen to 6.9%. Interestingly, since 2011, Cashner’s K/BB has always hovered near 3.0. As his K totals have fluctuated, his BB numbers have tended to follow. If his K/9 numbers do indeed fall in the second half, owners are almost sure to see a corresponding drop in BB/9.
Aside from his 2010 rookie campaign, Cashner has always done an excellent job limiting HRs. For his career, his HR/9 is .82 and his HR/FB rate is 10.2%. Over the past two seasons, those numbers have been even better (HR/FB rate of 8.1% in 2013 and 6.0 in 2014). So far this year, Cashner’s HR/9 sits at 1.22 and his HR/FB rate is 13.8%.
Now, it is fair to say that Cashner has gotten lucky the last two seasons. While suppressing HRs is certainly a skill, a 6% HR/FB rate is very difficult to duplicate. That being said, however, his 13.8% HR/FB rate from this year looks extremely unlucky.
Looking at PitchFx data, I found a very interesting tidbit that illustrates just how unlucky Cashner has been. His two seam fastball is an extreme ground ball pitch, generating a FB rate of only 12.5% so far this season. He has thrown the pitch 389 times, yet only 10 batters have managed to hit fly balls. What has happened to those 10 fly balls you ask? 3 have been harmless infield pop-ups. Of the other 7, however, 5 have resulted in HRs.
Let that sink in for a second. 5 out of 7 fly balls hit into the outfield have left the yard. 5 out of 7. That is 71.4%.
To put that insanity into proper perspective, over the past two seasons, Cashner has allowed a total of 2 HRs off of his two seam fastball. Considering that the two seamer was his most used pitch last year, these stats are really quite remarkable.
Now, to be fair, when a ground ball pitch like the two seamer gets left up in the zone, hitters have a tendency to tee off on it. You might expect to see a higher than average HR/FB rate than normal on an extreme ground ball pitch, but this is still utterly ridiculous. If 3 of the 5 ill fated two seam fastballs had fallen in outfielder’s gloves, Cashner’s entire stat line would look totally different right now.
Cashner’s batted ball data is more or less in line with his career averages. His GB rate of 47.9% is slightly below the 50.3% career average and his FB% is slightly above at 32.4%. His hard hit percentage is also right in line with his career numbers.
One could make a strong case that based on the batted ball data Cashner has been relatively lucky with his BABIP data over the course of his career. Typically, pitchers with this type of profile tend to have a BABIP near or slightly above .300. Cashner’s career BABIP is just .286. This season, however, his BABIP sits at a whopping .331 and his strand rate is just 62.1%.
Now, the Padres defense is significantly worse this season than it was last year, so some of this should be expected. That being said, a .331 BABIP still looks awfully high. So far this year, his xFIP sits at 3.62, which is exactly the same mark that he posted in 2013. It is only slightly higher than his 3.53 mark from last season, when his ERA was more than a run and a half lower. When you add it all up, it looks like a seriously unlucky start to the season for a pretty good pitcher.
Lefties have always been tough outs for Cashner, but this year they are mashing to the tune of a .394 wOBA. Some of this can be attributed to batted ball luck, some can be attributed to an unlucky HR/FB rate, but Cashner owners do need to be aware of these numbers. You may want to consider benching him against strong lefty filled lineups.
Outlook and Recommendations
Andrew Cashner is the same pitcher today that he was the last two years. The defense behind him has been downgraded significantly and he is no longer overachieving, but he is still much better than what the current numbers show. Here is my rest of the season forecast:
90 Innings, 3.35 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.50 K/9, 6 Wins
If you own Cashner, you need to hold tight. Now is not the time to trade him, and you really should not even be considering a drop. He is a solid mid-rotation pitcher good enough to contribute in all formats once his luck turns around a little bit. Now is as good a time as any to throw some buy low offers out there, but I would be careful about using him next week in St. Louis. They tend to be pretty tough on right-handed starters.
Jeff Samardzija, Chicago White Sox
Jeff Samardzija (I almost never spell that right on the first try) was drafted as an SP2 in most drafts last spring after a career season in 2014. The durable righty seemed like a pretty safe bet even if his ceiling was not as high as some others being drafted in the same neighborhood. Despite high expectations from his owners, Sharky has largely struggled this season with a 4.53 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Heading into Sunday’s start, however, he was on a bit if a hot streak with 3 quality starts in a row. Is Sharky beginning to right the ship, or is this the optimal time for his owners to sell not too low?
Changes From Last Season
First and foremost, Samardzija’s move to Cellular Field in Chicago can not be viewed as a positive one. Sharky has had trouble with HRs in the past, and Cellular Field plays as one of the more hitter friendly parks in the majors in terms of allowing HRs. Since the O.co Coliseum plays about the opposite of that, his owners should have been mildy worried. Prior success at Wrigley, however, made many drafters overlook the move as a relatively minor issue.
Samardzija’s fastball velocity is down a few tenths from last season, but with a 94.0 average velocity, he is still bringing the heat. When comparing to his 2014 pitch usage, nothing really has changed in terms of his four seam fastball (31.1%) his splitter (11.2%), or his slider (up slightly to 23.6%). Interestingly though, he has greatly reduced the number of two seam fastballs (9.1% down from 24.1%) and made a corresponding increase in his cutter usage (24.8% up from 13.4%).
The reason why this change is so interesting is because Samardzija’s two seam fastball is his best ground ball pitch and one of his most effective pitches overall. While Sharky has certainly struggled some with the two seamer this season (.381 wOBA in 2015, .328 career), he is not exactly lighting the world on fire with the cutter either (.341 wOBA in 2015, .360 career). Since the cutter tends to generate more fly balls than grounders and has never been a premier pitch for him, I do not understand why he felt this move was necessary, especially considering that he is now pitching in a more hitter friendly environment.
Ks and BBs
Samardzija has always been known as a flamethrower with a high strikeout rate. Perhaps it is time to reevaluate that perception. His K% is down to 19.4% this year and has fallen for four consecutive seasons. His swinging strike rate remains high (10%), but it is no longer the elite rate he displayed when first joining the Cubs’ rotation in 2012.
A couple of things jump out when looking at the data. First, he is throwing more pitches in the zone than ever before. He is throwing 48.9% of his pitches inside the strike zone this season, compared to a 45.6% career rate. Hitters are still chasing a high percentage of the pitches that don’t wind up in the zone, but they are also making contact on 67.4% of them, which is well above his career average.
The second thing is that his sinker has always been an elite strikeout pitch. Over the course of Sharky’s career, his splitter has maintained a swinging strike rate of 22%. This season, his swinging strike rate on the splitter has been just 12%. There is nothing in the data that can explain this large of a change, but I can’t help but wonder if this is not tied to his reduced usage of the two seam fastball. Although the splitter travels much slower than the two seamer, the pitches both have a lot of vertical drop. The fact that he is using the two seamer less often, could make it easier for hitters to diagnose the splitter, thereby rendering it less effective.
As for the walks, Samardzija continues to improve his command and his ability to limit the free pass. His walk rate this season is an elite 3.9% and his K/BB ratio is a career best 4.94, despite the declining K rate.
I have to predict that Sharky’s K rate will improve a little as the season moves on, but I doubt that he will be able to post a K/9 higher than 8.00 with his current approach. I would expect the BB rate to rise a little also, only because BB rates under 4% are very rare. Owners can continue to expect elite walk rates along with a healthy dose of K’s, but I can’t help but wonder if Sharky would be better off pitching outside the zone a little more often.
A quick glance at Samardzija’s .338 BABIP and corresponding 69.2% strand rate makes it look as if much of his poor performance is due to bad luck. Bad luck does not tell the entire story though. Fewer Ks means more balls in play and a 24.5% LD rate means that many of those balls in play are going to fall for hits.
Samardzija had increased his GB rate four consecutive years heading into 2015. This was one reason many experts were not worried about the move to Cellular Field. This season, his ground ball rate sits at just 39.6, which is down from 50.2% in 2014. A career high LD rate is always bad, but when you combine that with a four-year high in fly ball rate for a HR prone pitcher in a hitter’s park, you have a recipe for disaster.
Again, the change in batted ball profile appears to be linked directly to the decline in two seam fastball usage. Samardzija has a 57.5% career ground ball rate on his two seam fastball, and just a 33.1% GB rate on the cutter. The line drive spike may also be partially tied to cutter usage. Although Sharky has had abnormally high LD rates on most of his pitches this year, the 36.8% LD rate on the cutter is by far the highest. For his career, he has a 29.1% LD rate on his cutter and the 36.8% rate would not be a career high.
In case you can’t tell, I am completely at a loss as to why Samardzija would make the changes that he has, but I am fairly certain that they are not helping him.
As for the HRs, Sharky is averaging 1.07 HR/9, but his HR/FB rate is actually slightly below his career average (10.5% in 2015). Given the new digs and the increased FB rate, owners probably should not expect the HR/9 to come down much. If anything, I think it may rise. Steamer tends to agree.
Sharky’s .338 BABIP may be a career high, but it does not look all that unlucky. His ERA will almost surely come down some between now and October, but the final stat line will probably be somewhere between 2012 and 2013 production levels, just with fewer Ks.
Interestingly, Samardzija has pitched much better at home than he has on the road. He has allowed 9 of his 12 HRs away from home and his road ERA is almost a full two runs higher. As one might expect from a pitcher who throws cutters and sliders in heavy volume, lefties have also fared quite well against him. Although this has been an issue throughout his career, the .360 wOBA for lefties in 2015 is far worse than normal.
Outlook and Recommendations
Samardzija has been pretty awesome over the last couple weeks, so owners might want to take this opportunity to shop him around. I think his numbers would improve if he went back to the pitch mix that worked so well for him in 2014, but he has shown no signs of doing that. Here is my rest of season projection:
110 IP, 4.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.85 K/9, 5 Wins
These numbers will play for a low-end starter, but Sharky’s name value is still worth more than what his production is likely to be. I would not recommend dropping him, but trading for a less established arm or an injury risk lottery ticket like Tanaka might be a good move.
Drew Smyly, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Smyly is owned in 32% of Y! leagues and 11% of ESPN leagues
Smyly is currently rehabbing a torn labrum, but has recently begun throwing off a mound. His return is still at least a month away and barring any setbacks, he figures to be back in a Devil Ray uniform sometime in August.
A month is a long time to wait, especially considering that pitchers coming back from these types of injuries often have setbacks and also run the risk of not being effective upon their eventual return. That being said, Smyly is a highly skilled pitcher. If you have a free DL spot or if you are using a DL spot on a marginal player, consider adding Drew Smyly. He could be a difference maker down the stretch.
Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Moore is owned in 24% of Y! leagues and 31% of ESPN leagues
Moore is on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery and figures to return to the rotation this week. Moore has a lot of talent and a high ceiling. He is worth a look in deeper formats, but expectations need to be held in check. Pitchers coming back from TJ often struggle with command more so than usual, and Moore had a history of command issues before his injury. He will rack up strikeouts, but if he is able to post an ERA below 4.00 and a WHIP under 1.30, I will eat this article. Moore will be severely overvalued by some this season.
Jake Peavy, San Francisco Giants
Peavy is owned in 4% of Y! leagues and 4% of ESPN leagues
Jake Peavy is rehabbing a back injury and appears ready to make his return to the Giants’ rotation in early July. He has struggled somewhat during his rehab (4.85 ERA), but that has been mostly due to high BABIP and a low strand rate. While I cannot recommend a roster stash in standard mixers, Peavy is a must own in NL only leagues and will make a decent streamer option in standard formats once he makes his comeback.
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