In this series, I will be taking a tour around the diamond for in-depth looks at players who I value differently than the market consensus. Expert ranking lists are not worth the paper they are printed on without analysis as to why players are ranked where they are. Since the featured players in this column will be guys who I value much differently than the mainstream, you may not agree with where I rank them, but it is still important to understand why I have them where they are. Sometimes alternative viewpoints can be more illuminating than group think, even if you do not agree with the opinion.
Love – Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
Jake Arrieta will turn 29 in March and prior to his 2014 breakout, he was a maddeningly inconsistent pitcher impossible to rely upon for fantasy purposes. At one time, Arrieta was a top prospect in the Baltimore Orioles organization, but command issues, struggles against lefties and gopheritis caused most fantasy owners to ignore him even after he was traded to the NL.
Arrieta produced a top 20 SP season in 2014 with a 2.53 ERA, .99 WHIP and a K/9 of 9.59. Many owners think his success was more fluke than improvement, so his price tag on draft should still be relatively cheap, given that gaudy stat line from 2014. This feature will highlight why I love Arrieta as a value pick in 2015 drafts.
Changes in Approach
Since joining the Cubs midway through 2013, Arrieta has made a few noticeable changes in the way that he pitches. The biggest difference is his slider usage. He has gone from throwing the slider about 13% of the time all the way up to 29% in 2014. Since his slider is by far his best pitch, Arrieta’s willingness to throw it in any count has been a game changer for him. When you also factor in improved mechanics, a different release point and that he pitches from a new spot on the rubber, the net effect is a totally different pitcher. Hitters say that the ball is much more difficult to pick up out of Arrieta’s hand now than it used to be.
Click on this link from Jeff Sullivan for more on Arrieta’s new approach
Ks and BBs
In 2014, Arrieta boasted a career best K/BB ratio of 4.07. Given that his career K/BB ratio is just 2.15, that is quite a jump. Arrieta’s MLB K rate always hovered between 18% and 22%, and aside from his stints in the low minors he was never appreciably better on the farm either. In 2014, he struck out 27.2% of the batters he faced over 156.2 innings. Backed by a swinging strike rate of 10.2% (up from 7.8% career rate) this K jump looks to be skill based.
Walks have been an issue in past seasons, but his 2.36 BB/9 in 2014 represents another career best. He only walked 6.7% of the batters he faced in 2014, at least in part because of improved deception in his delivery that has caused more hitters to chase outside the zone (33.4% O-swing). Arrieta was able to limit his walks effectively in 2012 (7.1 % BB rate), but in every other season he has struggled with walk rates over 10%.
Arrieta’s velocity did not spike last season, in fact it actually dropped a couple of ticks from 2013 but he had a K/9 of 9.59. As long as he can keep throwing sliders, I am expecting Arrieta to be around a strikeout an inning in 2015. The strikeouts should be there, but his overall success may link directly to his walk rate. I am betting he can keep it below 7.5%.
Batted Ball Profile
Arrieta has always given up too many line drives, and 2014 was no different. What has changed is that in 2014, Arrieta enjoyed a surge in his ground ball rate (49.2%) along with a corresponding drop in fly ball rate (28.4%). Since all four of his most used pitches yielded above average GB rates in 2014, I see no reason this can’t continue.
With a ground ball and line drive heavy batted ball profile, Arrieta will likely see a BABIP higher than last season’s .274. His career BABIP is just .281 despite high line drive rates in the past. I would cautiously expect a BABIP closer to .300 in 2015, but hope for continued luck on batted balls.
For his career, Jake Arrieta has a slightly higher than average HR/FB rate of 10.6% and a HR/9 of .95. Last season, his HR/FB ratio was just 4.5% with a .29 HR/9. That is unlikely to continue. Considering his ability to limit fly balls last season, however, a return to a league average HR/FB rate would still make him relatively stingy with the long ball. A 30% fly ball rate with a league average HR/FB (10%) would leave him with an above average HR/9 near .65.
Even without looking at Arrieta’s injury history, the simple fact that he throws so many sliders makes him more prone to an extended DL trip than the average pitcher would be. Since Arrieta has missed extensive time in the past with shoulder tightness and a fibrous mass in his pitching elbow. While I would stop short of calling Arrieta injury prone, he is not a model of durability either. Injury risk definitely needs to be factored in when considering where to draft Arrieta.
Much of Arrieta’s breakout appears to be a result of skill improvement. Higher BABIP and HR/FB ratios may raise the ERA and WHIP a little, but he should continue to be useful in both categories as long as he keeps striking batters out, avoiding those walks and keeping the ball on the ground.
While there will always be risk surrounding any pitcher with a limited track record of success, I believe the current price tag for Arrieta offers plenty of potential upside to compensate owners for that risk. Despite only pitching 156.2 innings last season, Arrieta was the 15th most valuable SP in 5×5 formats. Since most expert ranks have him outside the top 36 SPs for 2015, he provides a ton of potential value. Landing a pitcher with Arrieta’s upside as your SP4 may allow you to dominate your league’s pitching categories.
Although some regression is likely in order from Arrieta’s 2.53 ERA, note that his FIP and xFIP (2.26 and 2.73 respectively) fully back his success. Also keep in mind that with Joe Maddon now at the helm and a bevy of young prospects nearing MLB debuts, the Cubs could quickly become an NL power. Increased win totals are likely. I am projecting the following line for Jake Arrieta:
175 IP, ERA: 3.10, WHIP: 1.10, K/9: 9.20, W: 13
Would you be okay with a line like that from your SP4? If so, consider taking Arrieta in the middle rounds of your draft.
Hate – Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics
Sonny Gray is a good pitcher, but many people have him ranked as an SP2. In our early SP rankings, Gray was listed as the 19th best SP. That means, that in order to acquire him you would need to draft him somewhere near the 7th round. Is he really worth that much?
Sonny Gray was much hyped as a breakout star heading into the 2014 draft season after his outstanding 64 inning MLB debut in 2013. All the hype was well-earned as he had a 2.67 ERA 1.11 WHIP and a K/9 of 9.42 in 2013. While he pitched well in 2014, his numbers look more like a low-end SP3 to me than they do an upside SP2. Gray pitched 219 innings last season and finished as the 30th most valuable SP according to Y!’s 5×5 player rater. He had a 3.09 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP and a K/9 of 7.52.
Strikeouts are the difference between a good pitcher and a fantasy ace. It was the awesome K/9 ratio in 2013 that had owners buzzing about Sonny Gray. What happened to cause his K/9 to drop from 9.42 all the way down to 7.52 (strikeout rate fell from 25.7% to 20.4%)?
Gray did not really lose much velocity in 2014. He went from 93.2 to 93. His swinging strike rate fell from 9.5% down to 8.7% which explains a lot of the decline. Looking at his minor league stats, however, one can’t help but wonder if we should be expecting anything more than average K numbers from Gray. In 2013, the year of his debut, Gray struck out 23.9% of the AAA batters he faced for a K/9 of 8.97. In 2012, Gray’s AA K/9 was just 5.90 over 148 innings. It is extremely rare to see a prospect go from being a pitch to contact guy in AA to being a strikeout an inning guy in the majors.
Part of the reason Gray was so successful in the K column in 2013 was because he got a lot of called 3rd strikes. 23 of Gray’s 67 Ks (34.3%) in 2013 were on called 3rd strikes. By comparison, just 44 of 183 (24%) of Gray’s 2014 strikeouts were on called strikes. Interestingly, in 2013 Gray only got hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone 22% of the time, while in 2014 they chased 29% of the time. Similarly, batters swung at 58.9% of pitches in the zone in 2013 and that number increased to 61.8% in 2014.
What these numbers tell me is that hitters have adjusted to Gray. They are taking fewer marginal pitches and they are also successfully able to make contact when they swing at them. Unless Gray develops a legitimate swing and miss strikeout pitch, I will be shocked to see his K/9 rise above 8, but I would not be surprised at all to see it fall even more in the future.
Gray has good command, but he is no Cliff Lee. His walk rate has always hovered around 8% at every level he has pitched. With a BB/9 of 3.04 and a K rate of 7.52, his 2.47 K/BB is playable, but hardly stellar.
Batted Ball Profile
One thing Gray does extremely well is keep the ball on the ground. His 2014 ground ball rate of 55.9% is elite. He does not give up a ton of line drives and his fly ball rate of 25.4% is also extremely impressive. As you might expect, Gray does a great job keeping the ball in the yard and his BABIP has been better than league average also. Expect these trends to continue.
Another thing that helps Gray’s value is the fact that he has been pretty durable thus far. Gray has gradually ramped up from 152 innings in his first full professional season to 219 innings in 2014. All pitchers carry some injury risk, but Sonny Gray appears safer than most.
Sonny Gray is a very good, relatively safe pitcher. He does not give up a lot of hard contact and he keeps the ball on the ground. He is likely to provide ratio stats that won’t hurt you along with a solid, but not great strikeout total. The trouble is that as a fantasy asset, there are plenty of comparably skilled players who will be available at a much lower cost than Sonny Gray is. Elite SPs should offer positive contributions in ERA and WHIP along with a high strikeout rate. Gray may be safe, but I think that his stat line last season is not too far off from his ceiling. The strikeout rate from 2013 looks like the outlier.
Steamer projects Sonny Gray to have a 3.82 ERA with a 1.31 WHIP and a 7.41 K/9 in 2015. I think that is a little too bearish, but he is more likely to deliver a line like that than he is to duplicate his 2013 ratios over a full season. There simply is not enough upside here to justify the cost. Here is my projection:
200 IP, ERA: 3.40, WHIP: 1.20, K/9: 7.35, W: 12
Instead of using your 7th round pick on Sonny Gray, do yourself a favor. Grab a closer with a high K rate, or draft a promising outfielder. If you wait 10 rounds or so, you can always get a guy like Dallas Keuchel who will produce a very similar overall line to Gray.