A couple of weeks ago I went over a few hitters who had started tearing the cover off the ball in the later months of the year, where there changes are more likely to go unnoticed. It’s players like this where sleeper picks are made, if we can properly evaluate that there are real improvements behind the second half performance.
For pitchers, the situations are often a little different. Running into a lucky stretch of a few cold lineups can artificially improve performance, like with ERA and strikeout rate, and vice versa with strong lineups. Instead, focusing more on arm slots changes, movement on pitches, and batted ball profiles against. All are things pitchers have more control over independent of opponent. So, let’s get to it.
After having a miserable first half, along with the rest of the Rays’ pitching, Archer has been putting together an impressive second half campaign. He’s had his ERA drop from 4.66 to 3.20 between halves, as well as his FIP dropping from 3.62 to 2.99 – even more impressive because FIP is better at ruling out luck. Driving his resurgence back to 2015 levels is a much more improved control, cutting his walk percentage in half since the mid-point from 9.9% to 4.8%, going from slightly above average to elite control.
Looking deeper, Archer is also getting better movement on his pitches, similar to last year when he was dominating:
His fastball is starting to get more rise again, and even though his changeup hasn’t quite been an integral part of the arsenal for his career, he’s finally started to throw it more and it’s been effective this season. With is getting more controlled movement he’s been locating it better and getting more results.
Something else of note is his vertical release point, shown below:
Archer’s performance last season declined later in the second half, and that carried into the early part of this year until about halfway through. This correlates heavily with his release point – when he’s been releasing the ball higher he’s just plain been a better pitcher. It’s something to keep an eye on if you have concerns about Archer, but knowing his organization’s attentiveness to detail, especially with mechanics, we should see that release point staying high through 2017.
Moving on to a former teammate of Archer’s, Jeremy Hellickson has had trouble meeting high expectations after lofty prospect status and then winning the American League Rookie of the Year. Things have been especially poor for the 29-year-old over the previous three seasons, with an average ERA just a few ticks short of 5.00. split between the Rays and Diamondbacks.
But with a move to Philly, Hellickson has slowly started to make people remember just what made him such a great talent with the Rays early on. His first half ERA of 3.92 and FIP of 4.22 had people wondering if Hellickson was on his last chance in the majors, and in fact if he was blowing it right then, until he was able to flip a switch going into the later part of the year. He’s actually getting less strikeouts, but is also walking less (side note: Helli has a 6.66 K/9 in the second half. Coincidence? Or did he sell his soul down to his partial namesake?). And he’s also getting less movement on his pitches as shown below:
While this might be concerning at first, remember that Hellickson has one of the highest average horizontal movement on his pitches in the entire league. Also, this allows him to pitch to contact better, controlling his pitches more often (hence the lower walk rate) and getting hitters out earlier in the count (less strikeouts) which allows him to go deeper in games. He has good grounder rates on his pitches which is helping him get the results he needs when pitching this way, and it’s something he has experience with; back with the Rays – he often chose to allow grounders instead of working for whiffs because of the stellar defense behind him.
With Hellickson getting back into the groove that had him as one of the brighter young pitchers a few years back, he’s looked like he’s established himself as a dominant starter once again.
The former fourth overall pick took plenty of time to get to the majors, and then finally establish himself as a legitimate starter. Early on there was growing concern that he would join other highly coveted young arms to underwhelm in the Orioles’ organizations, like Brian Matusz, Zach Britton (before his shift to the bullpen), Jake Arrieta (before his trade) and David Hernandez. He bounced up and down from the majors to minors for a couple of years, even being tried a few times out of the pen as well, before starting to find his stride in 2016. He started the first half with a 4.15 ERA having some wonder if he was destined to be another reclamation project like Britton in the pen or Arrieta with a different club.
But the second half has had him looking like one of the best starters in the league, dropping his ERA down to just 2.58 thanks in part to a new approach. Instead of focusing so much on trying to hit the strike zone, as most pitchers are intuitively taught, Gausman has now been going to it less. The result has been increased strikeouts (26.3%, career high), although he has started to walk more (8.0%, still about league average). The walk rate isn’t too concerning, and won’t be so long as he stays under about 11.0%.
Let’s look into the mechanics a little bit:
Gausman has tried staying with the high release point but has had limited success with it, and the first part of this year he was trying to lower it but looks like he overcorrected. He’s now at a middle ground that has him throwing with a little less velocity, but he’s still getting good movement and his approach is getting hitters missing at career best rates.
It’s important to watch how hitters react to Gausman the rest of the way, if the chase rates hold steady or go down. His success will live and die with getting hitters to follow him as he goes out of the zone more often. It’s been the best approach with the best results so far, and as long as it’s still working Gausman will be an elite pitcher.
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