Location, location, location.
Probably the three most important parts of being a solid pitcher in any era. Being able to work hitters eye levels is just as, if not more important, than hosting an assortment of off-speed and breaking pitches, and painting the corners is a much prettier picture in the eyes of Cy Young voters than a Jackson Pollock. The ability, and skill, to avoid giving hitters a free pass to first base is without a doubt one of the most important parts of a pitcher, and all-encompassing advanced stats advocate so.
In addition, walk rates are some of the most predictive of future success even for minor leaguers, and it goes down as far as these numbers are kept. If you want to be a good pitcher at any level, you have just got to control your stuff.
And of course, there’s always the wild ones. For a myriad of reasons, every year there is a stud or two who seems to not be able to find the zone, but hitters can’t find his pitches either, leaving him with a great year. Here, we’ll dig into a trio of guys fitting the bill, and whether or not we can expect the results to continue, or if their lack of control should bring up some concern.
Jacob deGrom: Mets
One of the posterboys for “there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect”, deGrom is having a poor ERA year by his standards, although his xFIP has been pretty close to years past. Immediately when looking at his stat line, deGrom is striking out way more batters than we’re used to seeing from him, a 28.1% rate compared to 23.7% last year and a 26.0% career rate. Of course, it has come at the cost of his control – while his career 6.7% is excellent, his current 9.6% is one of the league leaders, in a bad way.
He’s doing both of these not by missing the zone more, but missing it early. His first strike rate has gone from a career 64.5% to just 61.5% this year, and it hasn’t trended down as much as just fallen off (suggesting a mentality change). He’s also throwing a lot more sliders, up 6 percentage points to 24.2%.
While deGrom’s swing percentages have remained stable, his whiff rates have risen, both on strikes and balls. Essentially, he has been trying to get hitters to chase more early on, and they haven’t really followed him out of the zone. What’s encouraging, though, is that he has still found a good amount of success despite putting himself in bad counts often.
If he can start pounding the zone earlier in the count, deGrom is ready to shine in the second half.
Carlos Martinez: Cardinals
The starter, reliever, then starter again has found consistent success for the Cardinals, although some fans may wish his knowledge of the strike zone was as consistent. Martinez has followed the archetype for his countrymen. While exceptionally talented, he has limited to no regard for the bounds of the strike zone. But his exceptional stuff and talent has helped him maintain success even if he has been giving up free passes like he’s trying to bring them back.
Still, Martinez is having his best season by ERA and FIP so far, driven by a strikeout rate that he has been pumping up. A career 23.4% strikeout thrower, this year he is sitting at 28.5% without increasing his walks (to be fair, it would be pretty impressive to walk more hitters). His curveball has gone to the wayside for a pitch more resembling a slider according to PITCHf/x, and while the curve got 16.0% whiffs, the slider gets 19.1%.
Like deGrom, he’s not getting hitters to chase more often to reach his strikeouts, he’s just getting more whiffs. But in a different vein, Martinez is getting the extra whiffs only outside the zone. He’s still throwing the same amount of strikes, but Martinez has been able to get hitter simply to miss when they chase, and it’s allowed fewer balls to be put in play and more strikeouts.
He has taken an already good skillset and turned it into one bordering on great. Martinez is a hot buy.
Gio Gonzalez: Nationals
To say Gio has had a turbulent career trajectory with the Nats might be unfair, but it would certainly reflect his arc to some degree. He has had some serious ups and downs, and coming off his worst down it’s looking like he’s back on the upswing. His 2.96 ERA is his best since his Washington debut after his trade, his strikeouts are in line with career averages, and he has been worth 1.2 fWAR already.
However, his 10.2% walk rate is a pretty morbid site when last year he had it at just 7.7%, and it doesn’t come with any real added benefit. He’s still hitting the zone at rates in line with his career marks, but he’s not getting the chase rates that have allowed him in previous campaigns to make up for the lack of consistency there. He has no new pitches, a third consecutive season of declining velocity, and his ERA predictors like FIP and SIERA are not fans of the comeback. And truthfully, it’s not hard to see why advanced metrics aren’t believers.
Gio has had some bright moments in the nation’s capitol, but it looks like they are going to be fewer and farther in between moving forward. Sell any and all shares before he comes back down to earth.
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