Pitchers who are just a tweak away from excellence

Every year we hear about that one adjustment a pitcher makes that turned himself from an average, run of the mill starter or bullpen arm, into a dominant, lights out ace who is filthier than a sewer drain in 1800’s Chicago. You see, pitching is such a fragile art, even with the insane torque and violent rotations that occur visually to us. Moving the ring finger an eighth of an inch down the far seam on a sinker can take your pitch into the next level, the differences are just that small with rewards truly that big.

To find the pitchers reaching at the cusp of that next level of superiority, we look for more underlying numbers. Instead of results like ERA, which tell us what did happen, we look at thinks like strikeout percentage, whiff numbers, or pitch movement to tell us what could be happening. It’s an exercise of patience in some ways, because certain players just don’t quite get to the level we expect (any year now Yovani Gallardo is going to put it all together for a consistent Cy Young season!!!!), and then the most random players show pure domination (Corey Kluber…).

Rick Porcello

For such an average pitcher, Porcello really knows how to get his name talked about a bunch. He’s good at getting ground balls, he doesn’t strike out many, and his run suppression just doesn’t match up with his FIP and other ERA-estimators. And yes, he was putrid in Boston last season, but there’s a lot to like about him going forward (although he’s slowly creeping towards that Gallardo territory).

He’s starting to throw less sliders and more curveballs, which is a good thing because that pitch is legit. It gets the fifth most horizontal movement; the only players with more are Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Sonny Gray and Collin McHugh. That’s not just good company, that’s elite company. He also started trending towards more drop with it as well. At the end of the season he was getting two extra inches of vertical drop that he wasn’t in the beginning. And remember that part about him not getting strikeouts? Last year he started to find a groove, getting over 20% for the first time in his career and a sharp jump from his career average of 15.3%.

For Porcello to get to his next level, that curveball needs to become a major fixture in his repertoire and not just a background dancer like he sometimes uses it. He’s finding the strikeout knack, so now with the out pitch to back it up he can fit the bill for a top pitcher.

Kyle Hendricks

Despite an ERA creeping towards 4.00, Hendricks showed filthy strikeout stuff with surgical command of the strike zone. He found himself top 20 in K%-BB%, which is often talked about as maybe even a better talent indicator than FIP. Last year we saw him improve eight percentage points on outside of the strike zone contact, meaning that when he entices hitters to chase, he can get the swinging strike he deserves. And for someone who throws over 60% sinkers like him, he needs the extra whiffs since the sinker is a high contact pitch.

What might be most optimistic about Hendricks’ ability to tie all of this together is implied ability to suppress runs well in a ballpark that doesn’t always agree with the pitchers. His fly ball rates for his career are well under 30% thanks to his heavy sinker, and keeping the ball on the ground in a park that likes to swirl wind around at harsh speeds is integral to sustained success.

Ian Kennedy

After a strong 2014 season, where it looked like he might be figuring out his 2011 form again, Kennedy had another down season in 2015, at least on the surface. A 4.23 ERA is not good, and a 4.51 FIP is even worse, and as a free agent that is definitely not the “contract year” that he was hoping for.

But for teams looking for a bargain (and since baseball is a business that should be every team), Kennedy surely looks like one when we dig deeper. His home run to fly ball ratio of 17.2% screams bad luck, since every pitcher gravitates towards, and stays around, 10% in his career (with very few exceptions). His number is remarkably bad when you consider he played in one of the most cavernous stadiums, Petco Park, where HR/FB ratios skew downwards if anything. He, like Kendricks, was also top 20 in K%-BB%, showing he still has his strikeouts with strong control as well. In fact, his 24.4% strikeout rate in 2015 was the second best mark of his career, from 24.5% in 2014. The whiffs are legit here, and so is a bounce back. Expect Ian Kennedy to bring back more value than anyone gives up for him.

Erasmo Ramirez

It might just be cheating at this point to pick Rays pitchers to do well, since pitching coach Jim Hickey has turned countless journeymen into bullpen aces, as well as more than serviceable starters. E-Raz is looking like the next stud, and even though he put up decent numbers in 2015, what’s lying underneath says he could be a legit ace in the making.

Erasmo throws five pitches consistently, something that few do well, and those who do are in their own tier. Only his curveball last year was a pitch decidedly below average by weighted values, and even without that he has four strong pitches. He boasts top 20 strike zone contact rates, meaning he’s great at getting swing throughs in the zone. Hitters have a hard time picking up what his pitches are and struggle to get solid contact even when he lays it up. Similarly, he has one of the best swinging strike percentages in the game, ahead of such aces as Jake Arrieta, Felix Hernandez and Dallas Keuchel. On top of that, he gets almost 50% grounders, which is good because those are less harmful than fly balls, and is also great because the Rays are one of the smartest teams with infield shifts to turn those grounders to outs.

If all of that doesn’t appease you, after a rough first month he didn’t have a single month with an ERA over 4.00 for the rest of the year. The tough start hurts his overall 2015 numbers and doesn’t show how much he can take over a game when he’s on, but 2016 will give him the platform he deserves.

All of these guys show the characteristics of breakout studs, whether it’s by strikeouts or by allowing weak contact, their trends are in the right direction and they have the talent to back it up. Don’t be caught off guard when they begin to tear the league up.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.