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Ace Analysis: McCullers and Rodon

AceAnalysis Logo1The goal of the Ace Analysis feature 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.

Since the games don’t count for another week and many owners still have drafts upcoming, I wanted to flip the script this week. There were two promising young arms that I was notably very low on when the Fantasy Assembly team put together 2016 SP ranks: Lance McCullers and Carlos Rodon. This week, I will take an in-depth look at these two pitchers and re-visit my own personal conclusions from the rankings.

Lance McCullers – Houston Astros

IP Wins K’s ERA WHIP
125.2 6 127 3.22 1.19
SP Year end Rank: Y! – 47th, ESPN – 59th

McCullers played very well after making his big league debut in 2015. He posted top 50 SP value despite only pitching 125.2 innings and flashed K per inning stuff along the way. His outstanding rookie contributions have led to a lot of hype and an inflated ADP on some sites. According to fantasypros.com, his NFBC ADP is 137 and Y! Is 135. Is McCullers worth reaching for at those lofty ADPs, or is he being overvalued?

The Arsenal

McCullers is primarily a two pitch guy. He boasts an impressive mid 90’s fastball with some good movement. Last season he went to the heater about 55% of the time. His hard curveball is hands down his best pitch. McCullers threw the curve on about 36% of his offerings last year. He can command the pitch well, and he often gets batters to chase outside the zone as it drops late. In addition to generating a ton of swings and misses, McCullers’ curveball also yielded a ground ball rate over 62%.

McCullers has a changeup that he uses from time to time, but scouts have never been particularly impressed by the pitch. He has also been working to develop a slider as he continues to search for another effective off speed offering. As of yet, he has not really found it. The lack of a third pitch is the reason that some scouts previously questioned whether or not McCullers would stick as a starting pitcher over the long-term. The early returns look good, but anytime a pitcher relies almost entirely on two offerings, the second and third time through a batting order can be problematic. As hitters become more familiar with McCullers, he will need to make some adjustments.

Ks and BBs

The reason why the fantasy community is so excited about McCullers is because of his high strikeout upside. Last season he managed to K slightly more than a batter an inning with a strikeout rate of 24.8%. Minor league data generally tends to support the notion that McCullers is good for about a strikeout per inning. His K rate from the low minors hovered around 26% before a massive spike in 2015 where he pitched 32 spectacular AA innings.

While all this data looks good, I am concerned that McCullers’ K rate may dip a little as big league hitters start to figure him out. His swinging strike rate in 2015 was just 9.8%, which is only slightly above league average. As good as McCullers’ fastball is, he is not going to overpower big league hitters with it. He had a swinging strike rate of 6.6% on the pitch last season.

I am not suggesting that Lance McCullers is going to turn into Doug Fister anytime soon, but I do worry that his K rate could slip a couple of ticks and be merely good instead of great. Don’t be shocked if McCullers has a K/9 closer to 8.5 in 2016.

The other major concern for Lance McCullers is his command. Last season he seemed to figure some things out as he was able to get his walk rate down to 8.3%. Since his minor league BB rates were all well above 10%, this was a huge step for Lance. I am just not sure how sustainable it is. McCullers was able to get ahead of hitters at a decent clip last season (57.1 F-Strike%), but his fastball command was still lacking at times.

The best case scenario for McCullers in terms of Ks and BBs (3.00 K/BB) is probably pretty close to what he accomplished last season. Personally, I am nervous that McCullers K/BB ratio could regress as far as the low two’s. In 2014 while pitching in high A, he managed a K/BB ratio of 2.05 over 97 innings. If there is any regression in either strikeouts or walks, we could see significant increases in ERA and WHIP also.

Batted Ball Data

I don’t want to get too carried away analyzing batted ball data for a 125 inning sample size, but there are some pretty good things going on here. First, McCullers has a slight ground ball tilt to his batted ball profile, thanks to his worm killing curveball. McCullers’ overall GB rate was 46.5% last season. He also gave up line drives at a 21.8% clip and fly balls 31.8% of the time with a hard contact rate of 28.9%.

McCullers allowed a BABIP of .288 in 2015, which appears to be a little lucky. We would normally expect to see a slightly above average BABIP for a pitcher that has above average LD and GB rates. Prior to 2015, McCullers tended to struggle with BABIP numbers well above .300 in the low minors. Owners need to plan for a little regression here.

On the bright side, McCullers has always done a nice job limiting home runs, and last season was no different. McCullers’ fly ball rate of 31.8% is well below league average and he also posted below average HR/FB rates. Since home runs were not a problem for McCullers in the minors either (aside from 2014), I see no reason to forecast a significant jump here.

McCullers will almost surely give up a few more hits in 2016, but a relatively high ground ball and strikeout rate along with a low HR rate should allow him to post a solid ERA. Owners should expect to see a rise in WHIP, however.

Shoulder Injury + Innings Limit

McCullers will start the season on the DL with inflammation in his right shoulder. The MRI came back clean, so there is very little concern for a long-term injury here. McCullers will likely join the Astros rotation in mid to late April.

Since he was going to be on an innings limit anyway (probably about 170 IP), this might be the best possible news for potential investors. The injury news will make drafters think twice before reaching to grab McCullers, but the reality is that a delayed start to the season is not likely to have any impact on his innings total. McCullers is already throwing bullpen sessions and will simply need to get stretched out and build strength before making his 2016 debut.

Final Conclusions

I think Lance McCullers is a fine pitcher. I do take issue with his draft day price tag however. The fantasy community tends to assume that all young pitchers who have immediate success are destined to improve in year 2. This is not always true. In fact, pitchers with limited arsenals like McCullers often go the other way as hitters start to figure them out. Here are my 2016 projections for McCullers:

  • IP: 160
  • ERA: 3.60
  • WHIP: 1.30
  • Wins: 10
  • Ks: 150

I do not think that McCullers will be terrible in 2016, but I also don’t think he has nearly as much upside as many analysts would want you to believe. Until McCullers is able to cultivate a useful 3rd pitch, 2015 is the absolute best case, and there is substantial risk for regression. I believe that McCullers’ ADP is essentially forcing drafters to pay for the ceiling without factoring in the downside. I would be willing to consider McCullers around pick 180 overall, but he will likely be long gone by then in most leagues. Don’t be the person to overreach in your league.

Carlos Rodon. Chicago White Sox

IP Wins K’s ERA WHIP
139.1 9 139 3.75 1.44
Year end Rank: Y! – 103rd – ESPN – 92nd

Carlos Rodon was not nearly as successful in 2015 as McCullers was, but his elite pedigree and strikeout ability have owners reaching to acquire his services. Although the overall numbers were not so pretty, Rodon pitched extremely well over the last 2 months of 2015 (2.48 August ERA, 2.03 ERA in September), so his stock is soaring. His current ADP is very similar to McCullers (129 in NFBC, 138 in Y!). Again, we must ask if Rodon is worth this type of investment in 2016?

The Arsenal

Rodon is an immensely talented left-handed pitcher. He has 2 fastballs, a 4 seamer and a 2 seamer, and he throws them each around 93 MPH with about equal volume. The two fastballs account for about 60% of Rodon’s pitch mix, and neither are terribly impressive pitches. He is best known for a lethal slider, which he uses about 30% of the time. His slider makes him nearly unhittable for left-handed batters and it is among the best pitches in baseball. Rodon also occasionally mixes in a changeup, but the pitch is still very much a work in progress.

Ks and BBs

Carlos Rodon had a K rate of at least 30% at every stop in the minors, so his strikeout ability is legit. Last season, he managed a K/9 of 8.98 and a K% of 22.9%. Keep in mind, however, that when Rodon was at his best in August and September last season, his K/9 was 8.82 and 6.75 respectively.

Rodon posted a pretty good swinging strike rate of 10.1% last season, but he will probably not live up to his elite minor league numbers until he develops his changeup. His two fastballs are fairly hittable (5.5% swinging strike rate and .317 wOBA for the 4 seamer, 4.3% swinging strike rate and .455 wOBA for the 2 seamer). Rodon’s changeup has some strikeout potential with a 16% swinging K rate last year, but he gave up a lot of hard contact on the pitch (.395 wOBA). Right now, Rodon’s slider (18.7% swinging strike rate) is essentially carrying his K rate. As good as that pitch is, Rodon needs to develop another to be an elite strikeout artist.

We have established that Rodon’s K rate is good, but not yet great. The main concern is with Rodon’s command. Despite colossal minor league K rates he struggled to post K/BB ratios greater than 3. Last season with the White Sox, Rodon’s K/BB ratio was just 1.96, thanks to a whopping 11.7% BB rate. There really was not anything flukey about the walk rate either. Rodon earned it with a 52.9% F-Strike % and a 41.9 Zone%. Quite simply, Rodon is still a work in progress and he is not consistently able to find the strike zone when he needs to.

Interestingly, when Rodon was most successful during the season’s last two months, he was able to limit his walk totals. Still, over that stretch he only posted K/BB ratios of 2.46 and 2.00. Those are not the numbers of the fantasy elite. While his command improved over that stretch, the dominant ERA numbers were mostly a result of sustained BABIP luck over a small sample size.

The bottom line is that Rodon’s strikeout upside is limited until he further develops his changeup, and his WHIP will continue to be terrible until he can get his walk rate under control. I don’t see either of those things happening to the degree that they need to in 2016.

Batted Ball Data

Limiting home runs and hard contact has always been somewhat of a strength for Rodon. Although he was not there long, he did not yield a single HR during his 34.2 minor league innings. He allowed just .71 HR/9 in the bigs last year, thanks to a low fly ball rate (29.8%). Owners should expect Rodon to continue to be stingy with the long ball.

Rodon also has a strong ground ball rate (46.8%). Most of his pitches tend to induce a high percentage of grounders. On the not so bright side, Rodon gives up a ton of line drives. Last season, he yielded a 23.4% LD rate which was driven by sky high liner rates on his two fastballs. He has given up high BABIPs at every stop, so his .315 mark from last season appears to be representative of his skill set.

This is also why I am extremely leery of the end of season numbers Rodon posted. In August and September, Rodon’s BABIP was .238 and .260 respectively. In those months, his xFIP was 3.50 and 4.81. Don’t automatically assume that he figured everything out last fall!

Split Stats

We already discussed Rodon’s end of season numbers. Perhaps more distressing is the righty/lefty splits. Rodon was absolutely filthy against lefties, where he could take best advantage of his wipeout slider. Lefites posted a .247 wOBA against Rodon with 0 home runs over the course of the season. Righties, on the other hand had a .350 wOBA with 11 homers.

There are a few high-end pitchers that have split issues, but not like this. Rodon needs to find a way to get right-handed batters out. His fastball and changeup both grade out as mediocre pitches, so essentially Rodon is a mediocre pitcher against righties.

Spring Training

Rodon’s spring was going fairly well prior to an epic shelling on Saturday. Over his first 3 spring starts, he managed a 3.48 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. More importantly, he had yielded on 2 walks against 8 strikeouts in 10.1 innings. On Saturday against the Reds, Rodon gave up 10 hits and 2 walks while striking out 3 batters.

Now, his spring line looks like this:

  • ERA: 7.98
  • WHIP: 1.64
  • K/9: 6.75
  • BB/9: 2.45

I am not one to overstate spring numbers, especially since Rodon has not been relying on his slider as heavily as normal, but I want to see better numbers from an unproven young player who is still developing his craft.

Final Conclusions

Carlos Rodon may one day be a fantasy ace, but not until he develops a plus pitch to get righties out and he can consistently command his fastball. In the meantime, here are my projections for 2016:

  • IP: 175
  • ERA: 3.75
  • WHIP: 1.35
  • Wins: 10
  • Ks: 165

Rodon is learning on the fly at the major league level. This takes time, even for the most talented young arms. I think he very well might be a fantasy ace in time, but I am not willing to bet on it this season. If Rodon cost me a pick after 200, it would be well worth the risk. In round 11 or 12 though? No thanks!

 

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Tommy Landseadel
Tommy is also known as tlance on the CBS and Sports Hoopla message boards. He has been playing fantasy baseball for 16 years in many different format types and looks forward to helping you with your fantasy baseball questions! You can now follow me on Twitter @tlandseadel
Tommy Landseadel

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5 comments on “Ace Analysis: McCullers and Rodon

  1. Hi Tommy,

    I could not disagree about McCullers more. I am especially surprised with your contention that he is a two pitch pitcher and your reliance on his 2014 stats in your analysis. McCullers added a DEVASTATING changeup to his repetoire last year and it completely changed him as a pitcher.

    The great Jonah Keri wrote a complete article about his changeup on Grantland last year (http://grantland.com/the-triangle/mlb-lance-mccullers-houston-astros-changeup/). There was also a Reddit thread on the pitch: https://www.reddit.com/r/baseball/comments/396a4n/gif_lance_mccullers_nasty_changeup_from_last/

    McCullers spent all of 2014 working on the pitch and he said he didn’t focus on results that year in the minors, only on developing the changeup. I would take his middling 2014 results with a grain of salt.

    Anyway, aside from the fact that McCullers is having some shoulder soreness this year and will start the year on the DL, I am definitely bullish on him. Just wanted to present the opposite point of view.

  2. I am definitely lower on McCullers than most, so my entire piece is really the opposing point of view.

    As for McCullers’ changeup, he threw the pitch less than 10% of the time and it graded out with a slight negative value. He does generate a decent swinging strike rate with it (11.9%), but I would hardly classify the change as devastating. That seems to be a rather large overstatement. If McCullers throws the changeup more frequently and more efficiently in 2016, then he could prove to be a decent draft value. I am not banking on that, however.

    Anyhow, this is why they play the games. One of us will be right, and one will be wrong. Time will tell which one!

  3. I wanted to post a follow up comment here regarding McCullers.

    I did not think this had any chance of happening, but I actually landed him in a recent draft. He was my 6th SP and I drafted him in the 15th round where he fits nicely on my staff with: Felix Hernandez, Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman, Kenta Maeda, and Michael Pineda.

    Starting the year on the DL is a blessing in disguise for his drafters. I have seen him slipping 40-50 spots in recent drafts, despite the fact that his 2-3 week DL stint will have absolutely no impact on his season long inning total.

  4. 12 team h2h points. How am I looking? I know I got caught in a 2nd/3rd rd ace pitching explosion, but think I caught up nicely at the end of my rotation compared to my league mates. Only one closer, but figure I’d role with the extra SP in an RP spot, vizcaino, Zych, gregerson on the wire if need be:

    1b Abreu
    2b panik
    Ss k Marte
    3b moustakis
    C Vogt
    Of betts
    Of Marte
    Of puig
    Utility Sano
    Utility trumbo
    Bench peralta
    Bench. Bour
    Bench AJ reed
    Sp Arrieta
    Sp g Richards
    Sp verlander
    Sp Rodon
    Sp maeda
    Rp Robertson
    Rp Velasquez

    Thanks!

    • Thanks for reading John! Points leagues are tough. They can play a lot different than 5×5 leagues. SPs, in particular generally get scooped very quickly. Also, closer value completely depends on scoring. If saves are worth a significant chunk of points, closers can be great to have. Be careful though! My buddy plays in a points league where saves are only worth 1 point and even the elite closers are a total waste of a roster spot there.

      I think your pitching staff is okay, but I do have a couple suggestions. First, pitching depth is everything in points leagues. Really the only time you want a hitter on your bench is if you have an injured stud. Any hitter worse than Betts/Marte is droppable if they are out longer than 2-3 weeks.

      I would immediately insert Peralta into your Util spot,and drop Reed, Bour and Trumbo to grab 3 more pitchers. It isn’t that those hitters aren’t good, they are. Because you only start 10 hitters, there will always be high quality replacement options on the free agent list, so there is literally no need to store hitters on your bench. Use those roster spots for pitchers so you can play matchups, and don’t be afraid to be aggressive on the free agent list!

      Lastly, this suggestion is more for next year’s draft. I used to play in a points league with only 3 OF starters. I always found it best to avoid elite OF options and focus on pitching/IF early on in the draft. The reason again is the quality of the players available at the end of the draft and in free agency. When guys like David Peralta are available in the late rounds, it really diminishes the importance of owning those top OFs. If you have a league mate that values your OF studs, don’t be afraid to deal them for pitching upgrades.

      Good luck, and thanks again for reading!

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