After a lengthy football related hiatus, the ace analysis feature is back by popular demand! Each week, this post will take an in depth look at 2 or 3 pitchers of interest. The goal of these features will be to analyze pitchers whose most recent performance has not met 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.
This week’s feature will focus on two top shelf aces who underachieved in 2015: Felix Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg. Sit back and enjoy!
Felix Hernandez – Seattle Mariners
|SP Year end Rank: Y! – 18th, ESPN – 16th
King Felix did not have a bad season in 2015, but the end results were certainly not up to our normal lofty expectations for him. Interestingly, his roto rank was buoyed by 18 wins, which was the second highest total of his career. Hernandez will turn 30 shortly after opening day, so he is still relatively young. Despite his age, he has pitched 2,262.1 regular season MLB innings. Potential investors should be nervous about his workload over the years. The question we need to answer is whether 2015 begun the inevitable decline of King Felix, or if his deflated draft day price has created a buying opportunity for savvy drafters.
Hernandez has two fastballs that both sit around 92 MPH. His 4 seamer (15.2% usage rate in 2015) used to be one of his best pitches, but hitters had quite a bit of success against the offering in 2015. The sinker was Felix’s most used pitch last season at 28.4%. While the two fastballs are not quite as sharp as they used to be, they still set the table for King Felix’s two best pitches: his changeup (27.4% usage) and curveball (20.7%). Hernandez has been throwing these two pitches more and more frequently over the past two seasons as his fastball effectiveness has waned.
Felix’s change is such a great offering because it has just a 4 MPH velocity gap with his fastball and generates a lot of sinking action as it approaches the zone. Hernandez’s best pitch over the past two seasons has actually been the curveball. Hitters have often been left walking back to the dugout in frustration after a King Felix curveball the last two seasons (36.6% K rate in 2015). As he has struggled with the fastball and found more success with the curve, his curveball usage rate has increased from 13% in 2013, to 20.7% in 2015. Expect that trend to continue.
Rounding out King Felix’s arsenal is the now seldom used slider (8.3% usage). Early in his career, the slider was Felix’s best strikeout pitch. Lately, however, batters have been able to make more and better contact on the pitch. In 2015, the slider only generated a K rate of 17.3% produced a wOBA of .355. He will continue to use it on occasion against righties, but the slider is not a primary weapon any more.
Ks and BBs
When looking at the overall numbers, Felix’s stark drop in K/9 (9.46 in 2014 to 8.52 in 2015) along with an increase in BB/9 (1.75 in 2014 to 2.59 in 2015) immediately jump out as the drivers of his inflated ERA and WHIP. His K/BB ratio went from 4.70 in 2013, to 5.39 in 2014 and then plummeted to a rather pedestrian 3.29 last year. Interestingly, most of Felix’s plate discipline peripherals were right in line with his 4 year averages. His 2015 swinging strike rate of 10.7% was actually greater than his career average (10.3%). Similarly, his zone%, first strike%, and chase rates are all right in line with the recent past.
King Felix’s K rate really is not declining. Between 2009 and 2012, Felix’s K% sat in the 22% – 23.8% range. He enjoyed a nice two-year spike (26.3% in 2013 and 27.2% in 2014) before falling back to his career norm of 23.1% last season. In other words, while I would not expect King Felix’s K/9 to rise back above 9, I would not worry much about it either. He has been extremely successful over his career with a K/9 around 8.50, which is what I expect to see in 2016.
The walks are another concern. Hernandez regularly posted BB rates right around his 7% 2015 rate during the early years of his career. 2012 marked the start of a 3 year stretch with a BB rate of 6% or lower. Even though the peripheral stats don’t indicate any skill decline with respect to Felix’s command, his struggles with the fastball could lead to further reliance on off speed pitches. In 2015, hitters posted a wOBA of .375 against the sinker and a wOBA of .311 against the 4 seamer. If he is unable to confidently attack the zone with the heaters in 2016, his walk rate is unlikely to come back down.
Batted Ball Data
Felix Hernandez is a worm killing phenom. He has induced ground balls on exactly 56.2% of balls in play in each of the last two seasons. His elite ground ball rate is driven by his three most commonly used pitches, the sinker, changeup and curveball. Of the three, only the sinker (55.6% GB rate) had a ground ball rate under 60% in 2015. Due to the high volume of ground balls, Hernandez also boasts relatively low line drive and fly ball rates (16.9% LD rate, 26.9 FB rate in 2015). His BABIP usually hovers around the league average of .300. Last season’s .288 mark was actually slightly better than his career average.
Throughout his career, King Felix has generally been pretty good at avoiding hard contact. Although ground balls tend to have a higher BABIP than fly balls, Felix has been able to keep his BABIP relatively low because of his uncanny ability to avoid the barrel of the bat.
Due to his ground ball ways, Felix has also developed a reputation for being fairly stingy with the long ball. In 2015, however, Felix allowed a whopping 23 HRs, which constituted his highest total since his first full season in 2006. It is easy to look at his inflated 15.3% HR/FB rate and call fluke. Aside from last season, Felix’s highest HR/FB rate since 2008 was just 10.1%. I am a little nervous here though.
16 of his 23 HRs allowed came against fastballs. For a pitcher that only throws his fastball about 43% of the time, that is a lot of HRs to give up on fastballs. I am concerned that Felix might not be able to get back to his usually HR stingy ways if the league has caught up to his fastball.
Felix was just as good in April and May of last season as he was in 2014. In those months, he posted ERAs of 1.82 and 2.00 along with WHIPs of .81 and .97 and a K/9 right around 9.00. The rest of the season was not nearly as kind to Felix. Interestingly though, he had two epicly terrible outings last season that left huge blemishes on his season long totals.
On 6/12 against the Astros, Felix allowed 8 earned runs while recording just 1 out. Two months later, on 8/15 against the Red Sox, he gave up 10 earned runs in 2.1 innings. While every pitcher has bad outings from time to time, these two may have been the two worst of Felix’s career. If we simply remove the start against Houston from the final line, Felix’s ERA would go all the way down to 3.17.
King Felix has been among the most durable pitchers in major league baseball over the course of his career. Still, there is always concern with any pitcher who has amassed as many innings as Hernandez has. He also left his penultimate start of 2015 with elbow stiffness. While no major issues were diagnosed at the time, Hernandez is not quite the lock for 200+ innings that he always has been.
Felix Hernandez is still a really good pitcher, but I do not think he is an elite fantasy ace anymore. If you are looking to draft him in 2016, these are the numbers you should be paying for:
- Projected IP: 200
- Projected ERA: 3.30
- Projected WHIP: 1.15
- Projected K/9: 8.50
Based on his success early in the season, there is a chance that Felix’s fastball struggles could have been caused by a tired arm or a minor injury. If he is able to get back to past levels of success with the heater, he could end up exceeding these projections, but probably not by a lot. If I am drafting King Felix in 2016, I am paying for the above numbers. This makes him an average SP2. While there is some upside here, there is also a fair amount of risk due to the number of innings Felix has logged over the years.
King Felix makes for a nice value pick toward the end of round 4, or the beginning of round 5 as a mid range SP2. Paying any more will essentially eliminate any profit potential and expose owners to unnecessary risk.
Stephen Strasburg – Washington Nationals
|SP Year end Rank: Y! – 29th, ESPN – 32nd
Strasburg battled injuries and an awful start to the season during his 2015 campaign. While he has often disappointed his fantasy owners who paid top dollar on draft day, the price has dropped a little so he should come at a mild discount this season. Should owners forgive Strasburg’s past sins and give him another shot, or is he a perennial underachiever to avoid on draft day?
Strasburg has a well deserved reputation as a flame thrower thanks to his 95+ MPH fastball. Last year he threw the four-seamer 54.1% of the time and had a 9.4% usage rate on his two-seamer. Strasburg compliments the fastballs with a power curve and a changeup. Neither pitch makes for an elite offering on its own, but they are both plus pitches. When combined with the fastball, they have quite the devastating impact on opposing hitters. Over the course of Strasburg’s career, he has enjoyed K rates of over 44.9% on both the changeup and the curveball. His usage of the two off-speed pitches tends to fluctuate between 13 and 22%, but both are extremely important and valuable parts of Strasburg’s arsenal.
Ks and BBs
Strasburg struck out 29.6% of the batters he faced in 2015, and only walked 5%. For the second consecutive season, he has posted a K/9 above 10, and a BB/9 below 2.0. His 2015 K/BB ratio of 5.96 would have ranked 5th among all starters if he had logged enough innings to qualify.
Strasburg’s overall K rate is supported by an above average swinging K rate and two elite strikeout pitches (curve and changeup). He does a good job getting ahead of hitters with a 65.6% F-strike rate and he can find the zone when he needs to.
The bottom line is that Stephen Strasburg can be counted on to post an elite K rate with a near elite BB rate to match.
Batted Ball Data
When he has been on the field, Strasburg’s achilles heel has been that he has allowed too much hard contact. In fact, his 2015 hard contact% of 28.9% is an exact match to his career average. While that is not a terrible number, it is higher than what we would expect to see from a fantasy ace. Strasburg has really struggled with line drive rates over the years (23.4% in 2015, 21.5% career) and his HR/FB rate has been above league average every year since 2012. The line drive issues cannot really be traced to one or two pitches either. Every single one of Strasburg’s offerings has yielded a career LD rate above 20%. Similarly, every pitch but the curveball has a career HR/FB rate above 10%
Strasburg’s .311 BABIP from last season does not appear to be at all unlucky when viewed in context with his batted ball profile. In addition to the line drives, he also had a ground ball rate of just 42.2% and a fly ball rate of 34.3%.
While Strasburg does not typically let many hitters reach base, his strand rate was well below league average last season (70.7%). Part of this was due to bad luck, but part was due to excessive hard contact. When 36 of 115 hits allowed go for extra bases (14 for HRs), hitters are more likely to come around to score or to knock someone in on those XBHs.
As awesome as Strasburg has been in terms of racking up Ks and limiting walks, hard contact will always be an issue for him. He will be prone to some bad outings from time to time, but when he gets things rolling, he is just as dominant as anybody.
Much was made over Strasburg’s early season struggles. He was not sharp at all over his first 10 starts prior to visiting the disabled list. Over that span, he posted a 6.55 ERA. He was only able to make it through the 6th inning twice, and he failed to make it through the 4th inning 4 times. All this resulted in a gnarly 5.16 ERA and 1.49 WHIP at the all-star break.
The early season struggles make Strasburg’s final line that much more impressive. According to Mike Podhorzer, Strasburg was able to dial-up a 1.90 ERA with a 37% K rate over his last 10 starts. Those are vintage Kershaw numbers right there. There are also many owners in your league who will overlook the finish because the start was so terrible.
Strasburg has a reputation for being injury prone, and that will work to bring down his draft day cost. He missed a full calendar year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. He also missed time in 2015 with a neck issue, and then a couple more weeks with an oblique strain shortly after returning from the neck. His innings were limited upon his return from TJ, making his full season totals look pretty discouraging. Between TJ surgery and 2015, however, Strasburg only had one minimal DL stint in 2013 for a strained lat muscle. He might not be quite as injury prone as some make him out to be. The problem is that the injuries have been extremely memorable.
Stephen Strasburg is far from perfect and he does not come without a healthy dose of risk. For the first time in years, however, his draft day price might actually fairly compensate owners for the risk they take in drafting him. Here are my projections for 2016:
- Projected IP: 190
- Projected ERA: 3.00
- Projected WHIP: 1.09
- Projected K/9: 10.50
Strasburg has as much upside as anybody. I would happily draft him in the 4th round this season. I think at that price, the potential upside outweighs the downside risk. Just make sure you prepare for a DL stint and a stretch where Strasburg can’t seem to get anybody out. The time in between will be well worth it!
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