The Fantasy Assembly brain trust is considering adding some football content to the site for your reading pleasure! Although no final decisions have been made regarding the rollout of football content, when and if that does happen, I will be shifting gears to cover football draft prep. In other words, the Ace Analysis column’s days may be numbered. I have really enjoyed breaking down starting pitchers this season, and hopefully this analysis has been helpful to all of you!
While luck is always a big part of pitching performance in fantasy baseball, skill always wins out in the long-term. The focus of today’s article will be on when it is time to pull the plug on that struggling pitcher that you invested an early to mid round pick in. As always, we will do some in-depth analysis on a couple specific pitchers (in this case, Justin Verlander and Alex Wood), but we will also discuss some general rules when analyzing a struggling pitcher.
All stats and ownership numbers are current as of 7/25/15.
General Things to Look for
The key when assessing your struggling ace is to determine whether his troubles can be attributed more to luck, or to a skill decline. If luck is the primary driving force, then the percentage play would be to stay the course. Sometimes the pitcher’s skills have deteriorated to the point that what once made him a viable fantasy option is no longer there. When that happens, it is time to pull the plug. It is easy to get caught up in the past and hold on to your fallen ace for too long, but there is no decision that can hurt your team more than continuing to use that WHIP whale who is destroying your ratio stats.
The obvious starting point is to look at strikeouts and walks. Simply looking at rate trends, however, may not be enough. It is important to determine why the pitcher’s K rate has dipped or why the walk rate has risen. Velocity, swinging strike rate and pitch usage all need to be closely analyzed to figure that out. Also, keep in mind that K/9 and BB/9 numbers tend to be somewhat exaggerated for pitchers struggling with efficiency. If hits are falling at an unsustainably high rate, then the pitcher will face more batters per inning and therefore will end up earning more Ks and allowing more walks on a per inning basis.
Batted ball data is another very important piece of the analysis. Just looking at raw BABIP and HR/9 data is not enough to determine whether or not the pitcher has been unlucky. After all, a .350 BABIP might not be that unlucky for a guy who gives up a ton of line drives and hard contact. On the flip side, a soft contact artist like Johnny Cueto would be unlucky with a .270 BABIP. Again, you need to look at career trend data with these numbers, and if there is a difference, look at those hard contact rates and try to determine whether or not the pitcher’s inflated numbers are a result of bad luck.
Remember, any Schmo can identify whether or not the surface numbers have improved or declined. The key to success in this game is being able to determine why. If little has changed in terms of the pitcher’s skill indicators, then there are two possible explanations. Either he has lucky before, or he is getting unlucky now. If you are able to find tangible, skill related reasons to explain why your guy is struggling, then it might be time to pull the plug and let him kill somebody else’s ERA and WHIP numbers. While dropping a pitcher too soon can be a costly mistake, holding him too long can actually be more harmful sometimes.
Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Heading into the 2013 season, Justin Verlander was the most coveted pitcher in fantasy baseball. He was coming off of consecutive Cy Young caliber seasons even though he actually finished second in the 2012 vote. Since then, he has been on steady decline as injuries have mounted, his velocity has dropped and his fastball has gone from being the best pitch in baseball to being batting practice fodder. Heading into each of the past two seasons, fantasy owners have been holding out hope that Verlander would regain that former Cy Young magic. Now the question is not whether or not he will be an ace again, but it is whether or not he should still be on fantasy rosters. While he failed to get his first win on Friday against the Red Sox, he only allowed 7 hits and one run over 8 innings. Was this outing the beginning of a turnaround, or is it fool’s gold?
Changes in Approach
Verlander really has not made any major changes in his approach since his Cy Young season in 2011. In fact, in terms of pitch usage, his four-seam fastball fastball, changeup and curveball are all with a percentage point of where they were in 2011. The only real difference is that he has eliminated his two-seam fastball and is throwing more sliders instead. Verlander’s changeup usage has fluctuated over the past couple seasons, but he really has not made any effort to reinvent himself, and perhaps that is Verlander’s greatest mistake.
What made him great in the past was an other-wordly mid-high 90s fastball and a repertoire of off speed pitches that complemented his best pitch. Now that his fastball has slowed down a couple of ticks and has become very hittable, the rest of the offerings simply don’t have the same out-making capabilities either. In his prime, he had an 8-10 MPH differential between his fastball and changeup. Now, that is down to just over 6 MPH. 2-3 MPH may not seem like a lot, but it gives those hitters just a split second longer to diagnose what pitch is coming and to make a decision.
Ks and BBs
Verlander’s abysmal 13.8% K rate is more in line with what we might expect from Kyle Lohse. 13.8% is hard to stomach in any format, unless the pitcher producing it has exceptional ERA/WHIP numbers. Verlander is not doing that.
His swinging strike rate has been on sharp decline since 2012 so there is definite skill decline at work, but 8.6% is still pretty close to where he was last year. There really is no discernible difference in Verlander’s plate discipline stats between this season and last. The Pitchf/x data tells a much different story, however.
Verlander’s curveball has always been his favorite strikeout pitch, but the slider is his best swing and miss pitch. While he is still getting a very healthy 17.4% swinging strike rate on the slider, the curve is down to 7.2% and the fastball is an anemic 5%. While he has never posted elite whiff rates on his curveball (many of the Ks come as called 3rd strikes), 7.2% marks substantial dip from last year (9.5% in 2014, 9.1% career). As for the fastball, he posted a 7.8% swinging K rate in 2014 and 8.4% for his career. When hitters are only swinging and missing on 5% of his fastball offerings, that translates to a 90% contact rate. It is awfully tough to get hitters into two strike counts when they don’t ever swing and miss on the fastball.
Overall, I would expect his K rate to rise some simply because it can’t get any lower, but it is time to face the fact that Justin Verlander is not a strikeout pitcher any more.
As for the walks, his BB rate of 6.6% is his best mark since 2012. He has thrown the ball in the strike zone a little more this year than he has in the recent past, and perhaps that partially explains the drastic fall in K% also. When Verlander throws his fastball in the zone, hitters put it in play. I would expect the walk rate to remain relatively constant moving forward and his K/BB ratio should be between 2.25 and 2.50 with a K/9 around 6.50.. While those numbers aren’t terrible, the only way they will play in most fantasy formats is if Verlander becomes a master at generating weak contact.
Batted Ball Data
Over the course of his career, Justin Verlander has never been a super low BABIP guy. His career average is .291. In 2011, he posted a remarkable .236 BABIP and then followed that up with a .273 mark in 2012. Every other year, he has been between .279 and .319. In other words, he has been roughly league average aside from his two career best seasons.
He has always had a slight fly ball tilt to his batted ball profile with a career fly rate of 39.8% and a LD rate of 20.3%. Since 2012, however, his fly ball rate has been trending higher as fewer and fewer batted balls are staying in the infield. Although we are dealing with a very small sample size, his 42.9% fly ball rate so far would represent a career high. His line drive percentage is also up to 23.6% and batters are making hard contact 28.2% of the time which are both significantly above career averages.
Right now, his current .284 BABIP actually seems a little on the low side if anything. Yes, his fly ball rate is rising, but with such high line drive and hard contact rates, he is lucky to have a BABIP under .300.
The main issue for Verlander so far this season has been the home run. He has allowed 8 HRs over his first 42 innings, which is a staggering number for a guy with a career HR/9 of .81. While we should expect a few more HRs than vintage Verlander would have allowed with the increasing fly ball rates and hard contact, his current 13.3% HR/FB ratio is almost double his career average. I would expect Verlander to improve in this area moving forward.
Overall though, we are looking at a pitcher who does not get many strikeouts and is likely to struggle in the ERA and WHIP departments. Unless an ERA over 4.00 and a WHIP over 1.30 is good in your league, Verlander probably is not going to help your team.
Most Recent Start
Optimistic owners are going to be encouraged by Verlander’s most recent outing. While anybody would take an 8 inning, 1 run performance with 7 hits and 0 walks from their starter, we need to see the big picture here. The Red Sox offense is really struggling right now and Verlander only managed 3 Ks. His xFIP for the outing was 4.23, so it is not like he was blowing anybody away. He merely got lucky with his batted balls against a struggling offensive lineup.
Outlook and Recommendations
Here is my Verlander projection for the rest of the way:
80 Innings, 4.25 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 6.50 K/9 and 3 Wins
If you can use his latest start as a sell high moment, then by all means go for it. Realistically though, Justin Verlander has gone the way of Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez. If you hold on too tight to his past glory, you run the risk of destroying your team’s pitching stats. There are much better ways to use a roster spot than holding on to JV in the hopes that he turns things around. If you can’t complete a trade over the next couple days, go ahead and make the drop before he starts again.
Alex Wood, Atlanta Braves
Alex Wood performed extremely well during his first two seasons in the big leagues. The way he was racking up strikeouts with efficient ratio stats, he had the look of a fantasy stalwart for years to come. This season, however, the strikeouts seem to have disappeared and his other numbers have headed south with them. With a 3.78 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP, his trade value is minimal and his owners are left facing some tough decisions. Is it time to consider dropping Alex Wood, or are better times ahead?
Changes in Approach
Wood has three pitches; a four seam fastball, a knuckle curve and a changeup. The two offspeed pitches are where he generates most of his swings and misses, especially the knuckle curve. Compared to last season, his pitches are performing about the same, but he is using the fastball significantly more often (65.3% in 2015, 57.7% in 2014). Since he only has three pitches, this has led to fewer offspeed pitches (about 4 percent less for each). It is difficult to say for sure if the fastball spike is a conscious choice by Wood or if it is related to him facing more 3 ball counts than he did last season, but it is clear that the change has had a negative impact on his numbers.
Ks and BBs
Throughout his minor league career and his first two stints in the majors, Wood’s K rate fluctuated between 23.5% and 25.3%. This year, it is all the way down to 17.3%. It is very easy to see why. His knuckle curve and changeup are each generating plenty of swings and misses (14.3% swinging K rate for the KC, and 14.1% for the CH). The issue is that he is throwing his fastball (5.5% swinging strike rate) more frequently than he did last year.
While I would love to be able to predict improvement in this area, Wood’s K rate is directly tied to his usage of the offspeed pitches. If he is able to get ahead of batters and use that knuckle curve to put them away, then his K rates will rise. If he continues to put himself in fastball counts, then he will struggle to get his K/9 above 7.0.
Wood’s walk rate (7.1%) is right in line with his career numbers, so his owners should expect similar numbers moving forward. He is certainly capable of getting his K/BB ratio back over 3.0, but again, it all depends on his pitch usage.
Batted Ball Data
Alex Wood does a good job limiting fly balls and his 31% FB rate is right in line with his career numbers. This year, he has given up a lot more line drives than he did last (23%). While his .341 BABIP is certainly on the high side, I can’t really say that he has been all that unlucky given the distribution. Wood’s career BABIP is .319.
Typically, Wood has had higher line drive rates off his fastball than on his other deliveries, so again, his pitch usage could help to explain the high line drive rate. This season, however, he has given up even more line drives off of his offspeed stuff than he has off the fastball. So far, hitters have crushed the fastball and change (.352 wOBA and .365 wOBA respectively), but Wood continues to fare pretty well overall with the knuckle curve (.227 wOBA).
Keeping the ball in the yard has always been a strength for Wood. His .64 HR/9 is right in line with his career average. His 7.4% HR/FB rate is significantly below league average, so there is some chance that he will see a small HR spike in the second half, but given his low fly ball rates, I would not worry too much about that.
Wood’s BABIP could easily come down in the second half, but given the high line drive rate and low K rate, his current ERA and WHIP numbers appear to be indicative of his current skill set. Wood’s 3.89 xFIP appears to support that notion.
Wood has never really had spilt troubles in the past, but this season righties are absolutely killing him. His wOBA against lefties is .263, while righties are torching him to the tune of .349. I am not sure what the cause of these struggles are, but it is worth mentioning. Wood owners may want to consider sitting him against lineups full of big right-handed bats for the time being.
Outlook and Recommendations
Alex Wood has not met the expectations of fantasy owners and he will continue to fall short unless he starts throwing more off speed pitches, especially the knuckle curve. My Wood projection is based on his current pitch usage:
85 Innings, 3.65 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 7.00 K/9, 4 Wins
It is difficult to recommend dropping Wood because his upside is significantly higher than this and seemingly attainable with a small tweak. That being said, if you play in a shallow league, going with an elite set up guy like Carter Capps instead of Wood will do wonders for your ratios. In leagues with more than 12 teams or SP heavy formats, you need to keep him and hope for better results. They are still within reach!
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