The 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
|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?
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.
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
|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?
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!
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.
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.
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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