The goal of the Ace Analysis Series will be to analyze pitchers whose most recent performance has not met expectations and try to determine whether the results are due to skill change, or simply a run of good/bad luck. I will analyze both struggling aces and unheralded players showing signs of a breakout. As always, I do take requests, so if there is a specific player you would like me to take a look at, please let me know in the comment section.
Over the past two weeks, I have analyzed surging pitchers like Velasquez, Pomeranz and Latos whose ownership percentages have been shooting up as they continue to pitch extremely well. This week, the focus will be on two struggling stars. Trading an underachieving player at a low point is always a risky proposition. When the pitchers struggles are tied to legitimate skill decline, it is possible that the name brand value can exceed expected future performance. That is what owners of these two aces must try to determine.
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
Chris Archer’s ascension kicked into hyperdrive in 2015 when his strikeout rate shot up to 29%. As a result, he was a consensus top 20 SP this draft season and was drafted between rounds 4 and 6 in most leagues. Needless to say, his 2016 start has been horrifying to his owners. Let’s take a look under the hood to try to determine what has caused these horrific numbers so owner can make the best possible decision.
Archer throws a four-seam fastball that generally sits in the mid 90’s. In the early going, his average velocity is 93.7, which is down a little from his 95 MPH average in 2015. Most pitchers gain velocity over the first couple months of the season, so this is not a huge deal. His fastball has generally graded out as a positive pitch, but it is not his best. Interestingly, Archer used to throw a two-seam fastball quite often. The two-seamer did not have the same swinging strike rates as the four-seamer, but it was at least as effective, if not more so. In 2015, Archer only used the two-seamer 10.6% of the time, and he has not used it at all in 2016. So far this year, he is throwing his four-seam fastball 54.5% of the time.
Archer’s best pitch is his slider and he throws a ton of them. Last season he went to the slider 39.1% of the time, and this year he is throwing them 37.4%. His slider generates a swinging strike rate close to 20% and is the primary driver for Archer’s elite K rate. Last year, it was virtually unhittable, but so far this year hitters are lighting it up to the tune of a .424 wOBA with 3 home runs allowed. Rounding out Archer’s arsenal is a changeup that he throws occasionally (6.5% career usage rate, 8.7% in 2016). His changeup does not generate a ton of swings and misses, but it does force batters to hit a lot of ground balls. Over the years, it has been a pretty effective pitch.
Ks and BBs
Much of Chris Archer’s allure is tied to his strikeout rate. So far in 2016, that rate remains high and almost identical to what it was last year (29.6% in 2016 vs. 29.0% in 2015) thanks to his high volume slider usage. Keep in mind, however, that Archer’s fastball and changeup both have swinging strike rates of around 7%. Archer began throwing his slider more frequently in 2015, which was the main cause of the K spike. If he backs off his near 40% slider usage rate, his K rate will also come crashing down.
Owners should also keep in mind that Archer’s 13.27 K/9 so far this season is a little misleading. The reason that the K/9 is so high is because Archer has been unable to get anybody out this year. He is striking out roughly the same percentage of batters faced, but his K/9 is much higher than last year because he has faced so many more batters per inning pitched.
Archer’s early struggles with command are a huge cause for concern. So far in 2016, he is walking 11.2% of the batters he has faced. While his walk rates have been much lower than that over the past 3 seasons with Tampa Bay, walks were a big problem for Archer throughout his minor league career. He regularly posted walk rates over 10% during his time on the farm. While his 2015 strikeout spike drove his breakout season, a 7.6% BB rate was equally important.
His 2016 control struggles are likely linked to mechanical issues which we will discuss later on. The numbers suggest that Archer is not getting ahead of batters as often as he did last season (2015 F-strike rate of 64.1%, 2016 F-strike rate of 51.0%). Hitters have also been chasing his slider outside the zone less frequently. Regardless of the cause, Archer will need to fix his walk issues moving forward. It is very difficult to sustain a WHIP below 1.20 with a BB rate above 8%. Archer’s current K/BB ratio of 2.64 is not good enough for him to be the fantasy ace his owners were hoping to land.
Batted Ball Data
Traditionally, Archer’s is fairly ordinary when it comes to his batted ball statistics. His career line drive and ground ball rates are slightly above average (20.8% LD and 46.6% GB). His fly ball percentage is a slightly low 33.8%, his HR/FB rate is an average 10.4%, and his career BABIP is .291.
Through four 2016 starts, Archer’s batted ball data looks more like something you might see in a slow pitch softball league than from a major league ace. His BABIP is a ludicrous .462 and his HR/FB rate is an even more ridiculous 40%. While no pitcher will ever maintain a BABIP and HR/FB rate anywhere near this high, it is important to note that these numbers are not simply a result of bad luck. Archer has allowed a ton of line drives (27.6%), a hard contact rate of 46.6%, and a soft contact rate of just 10.3%. We are not talking about a bunch of bloop singles falling in here; Archer is getting absolutely shelled when batters are not swinging and missing.
Perhaps what is even more interesting is that hitters have had tremendous success against Archer’s slider in the early going. His slider was one of the most effective pitches in all of baseball last year, but so far, opposing hitters have a .424 wOBA and have hit 3 home runs off of it. In addition to the homers, he has allowed a 33.1% line drive rate and a BABIP of .524. For such a lethal strikeout pitch, those are some ridiculous numbers. While I would not expect this much hard contact moving forward on such a quality pitch, there is definite cause for concern here.
Despite all these gaudy numbers, Archer’s xFIP is just 2.91. Of course, xFIP assumes an average HR/FB rate and an average BABIP, so take that for what it is worth. It is possible that Archer has just undergone a string of bad starts. It is also possible that this could be indicative of a larger problem.
Jeff Sullivan may have found a couple minor mechanical issues while analyzing still pictures of Archer’s delivery. For more detail, check out his fangraphs article. In addition, Mike Podhorzer presents his theories on what these mechanical abnormalities could mean. If you don’t have time to read the full detail, the possible results range from bad luck to an indication that Archer may be pitching hurt. With such an astronomical slider rate, it is only a matter of time before Archer’s elbow gives out. These mechanical issues could be the result of Archer pitching through injury, making it nearly impossible to project his value moving forward.
Your guess is as good as mine here. My Archer projection is as follows:
- IP: 140
- ERA: 3.50
- WHIP: 1.25
- Ks: 150
- Wins: 9
The tricky thing is that the range of possibilities is huge here. Archer could fix his mechanical issues and come out of this bad stretch looking like the 2015 version of himself. He could also end up on the DL with a season ending injury by the end of May. Because of his terrible start combined with the injury risk, he is a very difficult and risky player to value. I think he is almost untradeable for that reason.
A well-informed owner is not likely to pay more than top 120 value to acquire Archer given his early season performance combined with the injury risk. Since his upside is much higher than that, I cannot advise moving him at such a reduced price. I would consider dealing him for 6th or 7th round value, but that could be difficult to find a trade partner willing to pay, unless you can deal him for another SP undergoing similar struggles (like Matt Harvey).
Realistically though, I think that Archer owners simply have to sit back and hope that he rights the ship and rebounds to have a healthy season. Owners considering a buy low offer would need a steep discount to compensate them for the risk. I doubt most Archer owners would be willing to give him up for a price low enough that I would want to acquire him.
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
Adam Wainwright was off to a blistering start during his last full season before fading down the stretch. He pitched well in April of 2015 before tearing his Achilles, but the tell-tale signs of regression were present as his K rate continued to fall. Heading into 2016 drafts, Waino was a consensus top 25 SP, but given his injury history, his 34-year-old arm and his most recent performance; he was not exactly the safest pick on the board. Now he is struggling mightily, so let’s see what the prognosis is for the rest of the season.
Wainwright has two fastballs, a four-seamer and a sinker. He typically throws the sinker about 2-3 times more often than the four-seamer, but this year it has been about an even split. He throws fastballs about 40% of the time. Neither pitch has been remotely effective in the early going, but the sinker has been especially awful. Batters have a wOBA of .762 against the pitch and are hitting line drives over 40% of the time. Those are batting practice numbers. Considering that Waino’s sinker produced a wOBA of .390 in 2013 and .419 last year, he may need to consider scuffling the pitch. Wainwright has not been able to get swings and misses on either pitch this season. He has a total of two swinging strikes on the sinker this season, and zero on the four-seamer. For those counting at home, that is less than 2%.
Wainwright’s most frequently used pitch over the last few seasons has been his cutter. This year, he is throwing it just over 30% of the time, generating a swinging strike rate of 13.2%, which is actually higher than normal. When batters have hit it, they have squared it up pretty well with a line drive rate approaching 30%. Normally, Waino’s cutter is a reliable pitch, and I think it still can be. He gets a decent amount of swinging strikes with it and it also produces a high ground ball rate.
The curveball is what Wainwright has always been famous for. This year, the curve is his only positive pitch. Although he has not been getting nearly as many whiffs as he has in the past, it is still his go to pitch with two strikes. Waino has been throwing the curveball almost as often as he has thrown the cutter. Although it may not be among the best pitches in baseball any longer, it is still plenty effective. Batters have a .196 wOBA against Waino’s curve in 2016 and a .186 wOBA against the curve for his career.
Rounding out the arsenal is a seldom used changeup that has not been very effective. He throws the pitch less than 2% of the time, so it is not really worth overanalyzing.
Ks and BBs
Although Wainwright’s K rate has been trending down, he has always been able to maintain outstanding K/BB ratios because of his elite walk rate. So far this season, Waino is striking out just 8.7% of the batters he has faced, and walking 9.6% for a putrid K/BB ratio of .90.
Wainwright’s 7.3% swinging strike rate is something that we might expect to see from Mike Leake. The velocity is down; hitters simply are not missing the fastballs, and he has not been able to generate as many swings and misses on the curveball as he usually does. With all that said, Waino’s 8.7% K rate will improve. He is not that bad. Owners should expect a below average K/9 somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 per 9 innings, but it should not be as bad as it has been thus far.
The walk rate simply has to come down. He has been getting ahead of batters and pitching in the zone at fairly typical rates for Wainwright. Perhaps the single greatest reason for the elevated walk rate thus far is that he is unable to strike anybody out. Wainwright has gone to a full count 11 times so far this season. Of those 11, he has walked six, allowed three hits and only struck out one batter. If he is unable to get the curveball going in those 2-strike counts, owners should continue to expect a higher than normal BB rate from Waino moving forward.
While the numbers here will surely improve from where they are, fantasy owners will be lucky to get a 3.0 K/BB ratio from here on out. I think the most likely case is a K/BB between 2.5 and 3.0.
Batted Ball Data
Anytime you see an ERA over 7.0, you assume that there has been some pretty terrible batted ball luck in play. That really is not the case here. Waino is allowing a BABIP of .329, but he has also given up a hard hit rate of 38.1%. Interestingly, he has also given up many more fly balls than normal (39% in 2016, 30.6% career) and correspondingly, many fewer ground balls. Despite the high FB rate and astronomical hard hit rate, he has only allowed two home runs (6.3% HR/FB). As crazy as it sounds, Waino’s current numbers could actually be a lot worse.
Now, Waino’s strand rate has been quite low (59.1%), but when you have walked more batters than you have struck out and are allowing so much hard contact, these things tend to happen. Wainwright’s xFIP is 5.91, and may not be fully indicative of just how poorly he has pitched.
Wainwright has been a horse when fully healthy, but has also suffered from two major season ending injuries in the last 5 years. I have not seen any news to indicate that he is pitching through any type of injury this season, but the hope is that he is simply experiencing some rust after the long layoff.
Wainwright will get better, because he has nowhere to go but up. My concern is that Waino’s skills may have declined to the point where he is merely a league average pitcher in terms of fantasy. 2016 may look a lot like 2012 and I fear Waino may never get back to being a reliable fantasy ace. Here is my projection for the rest of the season:
- IP: 175
- ERA: 4.00
- WHIP: 1.30
- Ks: 115
- Wins: 10
Wainwright has too much talent and knowledge for anyone to consider dropping him right now. That being said, I think he is equally likely to be on fantasy waiver wires by season’s end as he is to be a top 40 SP. The upside is not what it once was. If I owned Waino, I would absolutely be interested in selling right now. If I could get top 150 value for Waino’s name brand, I would take it and run. I think Waino is more likely to frustrate owners than help them in 2016.
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