The goal of the Ace Analysis Series is to analyze pitchers whose most recent performance has either not met or has exceeded 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.
Sometimes life gets in the way of fantasy baseball. That has been the case for me the last couple weeks. I am a teacher by day and I needed a couple of weeks away from writing to get past the end of year crunch. Now that summer is a little nearer for me, I am again ready to look at some pitchers!
Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals
|Owned in 81% of Y! Leagues|
Michael Wacha burst onto the scene in 2013 with strikeout an inning quality stuff along with strong peripheral stats that seemed to indicate future stardom. The fact that he pitches for the always competitive Cardinals has only improved Wacha’s fantasy value. While he has not quite been able to replicate his rookie success, Wacha has pitched well enough to remain in the SP2-3 discussion. This year, however, he has really struggled.
Wacha throws a four-seam fastball that averages about 93 MPH on the radar gun. Before this season, it had always graded out as a positive pitch, but Wacha has not had much success with it in 2016. Opposing batters have a .385 wOBA against Wacha’s fastball, thanks mostly to an extremely high line drive rate. His velocity is almost identical to 2013 numbers, so that is not the issue. Since Wacha uses the fastball over 50% of the time, his recent struggles with the pitch are a major issue.
Wacha’s best pitch has always been the changeup; he throws it about 15% of the time. It is by far Wacha’s best strikeout pitch (22% swinging strike rate in ‘16, 19% career) and has also been his most effective in terms of wOBA every season.
Interestingly, Wacha has gone to the cutter as his second most frequently used pitch in 2016 (23.8%). His cutter is a solid major league pitch, but nothing special, and nowhere near as dynamic as the changeup. Wacha does not get a ton of swings and misses on the cutter, but it is his best ground ball pitch. His results with the cutter have been fairly neutral over the past two seasons.
Rounding out the arsenal is a slow curve that remains Wacha’s second best strikeout pitch and also his second most effective in terms of wOBA. Wacha uses the curve about 10% of the time.
The numbers indicate that Wacha’s 2016 struggles are linked almost exclusively to the fastball. I will offer a couple of thoughts on why this might be happening as we move along.
Ks and BBs
When looking at Wacha’s overall numbers, the most disturbing trend is the declining K rate. His K rate (25% in 2013, 20.1% in 2014, 19.8% in 2016) has dipped four consecutive seasons. Although the rate itself is only down slightly from where it was last season, Wacha’s swinging strike rate is down a lot more (11.4% in 2013, 9.5% in 2015, 7.9% in 2016). That is an alarming decline. Wacha really does not get swings and misses on either of his two most frequently used pitches (4.8% swinging K rate on the fastball, 5.7% on the cutter). For this reason, it is difficult to project him as a high strikeout pitcher moving forward.
A quick analysis on Wacha might not reveal the extent of his strikeout issues either, because his 7.87 K/9 is actually a bit higher than last year and right in line with 2014. As I have mentioned in past articles, however, K/9 can be misleading in that it does not account for number of batters faced per inning. If two pitchers have identical K rates, the pitcher who allows more base runners will have the higher K/9. Wacha’s 2016 inefficiency has somewhat masked his decline in strikeouts when looking at K/9.
Wacha has never been elite when it comes to limiting those pesky walks, but his walk rate (8.5%) is up a bit from past seasons. A falling K rate and a rising walk rate has led to a rather pedestrian K/BB ratio of 2.32. Again, Wacha has never posted great K/BB ratios, but it is awfully difficult to be mixed league fantasy relevant with such a low one.
Wacha’s plate discipline stats tell an interesting story also. He has really struggled to get ahead of hitters this year relative to what he has done in the past. His F-strike% of 56.7% is easily a career low. Interestingly though, he is actually throwing more pitches in the strike zone than ever before (50% zone percentage), and getting fewer batters to chase outside the zone (26.7%). Perhaps some of Wacha’s fastball issues relate to him being too predictable. If hitters are sitting dead red after they get ahead in the count, they will be better equipped to do some damage.
Batted Ball Data
Wacha has always enjoyed better than average batted ball luck. His career BABIP against is just .288, but this season it is .343. Wacha allows a roughly league average ground ball rate (44% career, 42.5% in ‘16) and a below average fly ball rate (33.7% career, 30.0% in ‘16). He has always allowed more line drives than league average, but this season his line drive rate is up to 27.5%.
Since line drives typically lead to high BABIP, I am not sure that I can say that his 2016 numbers are the byproduct of bad luck. In fact, I am tempted to go the other way and say that prior to this year, Wacha had a run of un-explicable good fortune on batted balls. His hard contact rates have always been fairly ordinary, but the combination of a higher than average LD% and a lower than average FB% usually leads to an inflated BABIP. A .343 may be a tad high, but not by as much as you would think by looking at career rates.
Wacha has always done a pretty good job limiting home runs, and this year is no different. His career HR/FB rate is just 8.6%. Since he also does a good job limiting fly balls, it is no surprise that Wacha’s HR/9 is, and always has been well below league average.
The last point of discussion here is Wacha’s performance with runners on base. Prior to this season, he has always been equally effective with bases empty or with runners on. This season, opposing hitters are batting .345 with a .402 wOBA with men on base. This has led to a ridiculously low 59.6% strand rate and could be indicative of mechanical flaws when pitching out of the stretch.
Michael Wacha just does not seem to have it all together this season. Whatever is causing his struggles with the fastball may or may not be easily fixable. In the meantime, Wacha is probably best left on benches until he can show some real signs of turning things around. Here are my Wacha projections moving forward:
- IP: 120
- ERA: 4.00
- WHIP: 1.35
- Ks: 100
- Wins: 8
Wacha is still too valuable for owners to consider dropping, but I can’t recommend buying low either. I just don’t think his skill set is all that appealing to 5×5 owners. The combination of an average walk rate and a batted ball profile that will lead to high a BABIP is very troublesome. Wacha is more of an SP5 or SP6 at this point.
Matt Shoemaker, Los Angeles Angels
|Owned in 24% of Y! Leagues|
Matt Shoemaker had a breakout year in 2014, but failed to repeat last season and was not a must own player during 2016 drafts. However, he is quickly gaining momentum as a free agent pick up after his last three starts. Over those three starts, he has pitched 22.2 innings and has totaled 31 strikeouts to zero walks. Those type of numbers can really only be duplicated by Clayton Kershaw, so I understand if you want to stop reading right now and go make the add. For those that want a little more analysis, here you go.
Shoemaker has two fastballs, a four-seamer and a two-seamer that he uses in roughly equal volume. He throws each pitch just under 25% of the time and they top out in the low 90’s. Shoemaker’s fastball velocity is actually up a bit from the last two seasons, so keep that in mind for later. Both fastballs have been hit pretty hard this season, but when Shoemaker is on he uses them effectively in combination with his splitter/changeup, which is by far his best pitch.
On the season, Showmaker has thrown the splitter 36.5% of the time and opposing batters have a .198 wOBA against it this season. He is able to generate a ton of swings and misses on the pitch (20.2% career swinging K rate), and when hitters do make contact, it yields a ground ball more often than not. It is important to note that over his last few starts, Shoemaker has been using the splitter even more than he had been before. It has become his primary pitch that he works everything else off of. For more detail on Shoemaker’s transformation, check out this Fangraphs article from Jeff Sullivan.
Shoemaker’s last two off speed pitches are the slider and a seldom used knuckle curve. His slider is a solid pitch that generates a pretty high swinging strike rate (16.7% career), but can also be hit hard when he makes a mistake with it.
The interesting take away here is that Shoemaker has made a deliberate effort to feature his best pitch at the expense of his worst (fastball) over the course of his hot streak. I don’t think his success is a coincidence and it just might be somewhat sustainable.
Ks and BBs
On the season, Shoemaker has a K/9 of 9.11 and is striking out 22.8% of the batters he has faced. His overall swinging strike rate is an amazing 13.8%, and since he has been using the splitter much more often than he has in the past, he should be able to continue racking up Ks in high volume. Keep in mind, these season long numbers include the early season stretch prior to his AAA demotion where Shoemaker was throwing batting practice. In April, Shoemaker’s K/9 was just 6.97 and his ERA was 9.15.
If Shoemaker continues throwing the splitter with such great frequency, I see absolutely no reason why he can’t keep striking out better than a batter per inning. Opposing hitters will adjust, but the splitter/slider combo is effective enough for Shoemaker to be among the top K/9 starters in baseball.
As for the walks, Shoemaker has always been pretty good at limiting those. Over the last three seasons, his walk rate has never been higher than 6.2%. This year it is 5.6%, and 10 of his 13 walks allowed occurred before his demotion. Shoemaker’s K/BB ratio in 2014 was 5.17 and he has actually done significantly better than that since the beginning of May. Obviously, his 31K to 0BB has made a significant impact on the numbers, but Shoemaker is rolling with a 12.33 K/BB ratio since being reinserted in the Angels rotation.
Shoemaker is getting ahead of batters better than ever before (70.4% F-strike) and he is getting more swings and misses than ever before, so the new approach is working extremely well. He has the ability to maintain an elite K/BB ratio for the rest of the season if he continues to feature the splitter. Shoemaker is capable of repeating or even improving upon his 2014 K/BB numbers.
Batted Ball Data
The last two years, Shoemaker has had a better than average BABIP (.285 and .286), which makes sense because he had a slight fly ball tilt to his batted ball profile. This season, however, he is allowing a whopping .344 BABIP due primarily to a sky-high 29.3% line drive rate. The good news is that since Shoemaker has begun using the splitter more often, his ground ball rate has spiked considerably and has been slightly higher than his career average (41.1%). His line drive rate is not quite as astronomically high as it was before, but has been 25.5% since his recall. Shoemaker’s BABIP remains elevated, and I am not sure it is all bad luck.
Home runs have always been an issue for Shoemaker, even during his minor league career. Last year, he allowed 1.6 HR/9, and this year he is at 1.2. Like all of his other issues, the HR trouble has been much less significant over the past month. He allowed six of his seven homers in April. Since he is focusing more on the splitter, which yields fewer fly balls, there is some genuine reason for optimism here too.
Shoemaker will certainly have some games where he gets hit hard, but the strikeouts should be well worth it. I think he may have found a pitch mix that could dramatically improve his value in short order. This is what I expect from Shoemaker moving forward:
- IP: 110
- ERA: 3.30
- WHIP: 1.20
- Ks: 125
- Wins: 7
If Shoemaker is still available in your league, you need to fix that. He has legitimate reasons for his recent mini surge, and his skills seem to back up the results. Shoemaker could be the SP waiver pick up of the year.
Potential Roster Stash
Zach Wheeler, New York Mets
- Owned in 19% of Y! Leagues
Wheeler is making his way back from Tommy John surgery and is looking to rejoin the Mets rotation shortly after the all-star break. He was generating a lot of hype before getting hurt due to his high strikeout potential. Fantasy owners beware though, Wheeler also has dealt with significant control issues in the past. In 2014, Wheeler struck out a batter an inning, but only posted a K/BB ratio of 2.37.
Given that Tommy John returnees tend to struggle with control when first coming back, I don’t want Wheeler anywhere near my active roster this year. I think he is likely to post Matt Moore type numbers. The strikeouts will be there, but he may destroy your ERA/WHIP in the process.
Since Wheeler is a hyped player, however, there may still be a chance for savvy owners to benefit here. Stashing Wheeler today is a smart move for anybody with roster space. A month from now, as Wheeler is nearing his return, the hype train will start moving again and you may be able to flip him for a pitcher that can actually help you this season. If you have the roster space, or an empty DL spot, I would make this add now with the intention of flipping later.
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