The goal of the Ace Analysis Series 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 examine one struggling ace and an up and coming young pitcher. Enjoy!
Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
I have been procrastinating on this one because I did not want to know the truth. I managed to snag Dallas Keuchel toward the end of the 4th round in my most competitive league, and although he was not a pitcher I had targeted pre-draft, I was pleased with the value. Like many Keuchel owners, his first two starts made me very nervous. I tried shopping him at that point, but did not get anyone to bite. Well, now that his ERA and WHIP numbers have inflated to ridiculous levels, I can’t put this one off any longer.
Keuchel has used five pitches over the last three seasons. He has a four-seam fastball and a sinker. The sinker has been Keuchel’s most talked about pitch, offering an elite ground ball rate and a lot of soft contact. In the early going this year, Keuchel’s ground ball rate on the sinker is down to 60.7% from 76.2% in 2015. He is also allowing a wOBA of .445. In other words, what had arguably been Keuchel’s best pitch is now all of a sudden getting mashed. Much has been made of his diminished fastball velocity. He averaged 89.5 MPH last season and is down to 88.2 in the early going, but he has been trending up over the past two starts.
Keuchel has opted for fewer four-seam fastballs (11.4%) this year and has been throwing his cutter more regularly (20.1%). His cutter has never been a large part of the arsenal before this season, but it has actually been one of his most effective pitches in 2016.
Keuchel generally pitches to contact with his fastball/cutter combo, and relies on his two off speed pitches to generate swings and misses. Both the slider (22.8% usage) and the change (12% usage) have swinging strike rates over 18%. The slider has actually graded out as Keuchel’s best pitch over the last two seasons. Hitters have a very difficult time putting it in play, and when they do, like all of Keuchel’s pitches, the result is a ground ball more often than not.
I am mildly concerned with the velocity dip, but by and large Keuchel’s stuff seems just about as good as it was last season.
Ks and BBs
Much of Dallas Keuchel’s 2015 breakout was due to a spike in strikeouts. He was able to strikeout 23.7% of the batters he faced. This season, that number is all the way down to 19%. Interestingly though, his swinging strike rate is almost identical (10.3% in 2015, 10.4% in 2016). The difference this season is that opposing batters are swinging at more pitches in the zone, chasing fewer pitches out of it, and Keuchel is getting fewer called strikes on marginal pitches. Hitters appear to be adjusting to the fact that Keuchel throws so many pitches outside the zone (37.6 zone% in 2015, 40.9% in 2016), and umpires may be adjusting also.
Keuchel’s inability to get called third strikes has certainly hurt the K rate, but it has had an even greater impact on his walk rate. He has posted BB rates under 6% each of the last two seasons. This year, he is walking 10% of the batters he has faced and his K/BB ratio is all the way down to 1.91 from 4.24 in 2015.
Keuchel will surely adjust to what the hitters are doing, but he simply must get his K/BB ratio back over 3.0. He is not the type of pitcher who can survive by walking more than 3 batters per 9 innings.
Batted Ball Data
Dallas Keuchel is a ground ball inducing machine. His ground ball rates on the sinker are well documented, but literally every one of his pitches generates above average ground ball rates. This year, his GB rate is down a little (57.8%), but still among the best in the league. His line drive rate is 20.8% and his FB rate is a minuscule 21.4%.
In addition to the ground balls, one of Keuchel’s calling cards has been his ability to induce soft contact. His soft contact rate thus far is 23.6%, which is right in range with what he has done the last two seasons. The part that does not jive is the hard contact rate. In 2014 and 2015, Keuchel allowed hard contact rates of 19.7% and 21.3%. So far in 2016, he has allowed a hard contact rate of 31.2%.
Keuchel is not pitching as well as he has the last two years, but a .349 BABIP is still really high for a guy with Keuchel’s ability. That number will come down closer to .300. His HR/FB rate is high as well (15.2%), but that is actually not too far above Keuchel’s career average. Given that he does not allow many fly balls, this is not a huge problem.
As mentioned before, Keuchel’s normally stellar sinker is the one pitch that has been driving the high BABIP and the hard contact rate. Perhaps that is linked to the lack of called strikes from the umpires. Keuchel is throwing his sinker in the strike zone more regularly than he did last year, but not by enough to draw any definitive conclusions. Yes, the sinker has not had quite the same zip that it had the last two years, but we are talking about a pitch that generated wOBAs of .265 and .259. This year that number is all the way up to .445. I simply cannot see that continuing.
I just wanted to offer a couple of tidbits here in case owners were considering benching him for some of his upcoming turns. As you might expect, the left-handed Keuchel has been significantly better against lefties than righties for his career (about .40 wOBA points), What you might not expect is that lefties have been quite successful so far this season against Keuchel (.201 wOBA vs lefties in 2015, .323 in 2016). This is not cause for concern, but something to keep an eye on.
The other tidbit is that Keuchel has always pitched much better at home than on the road. This season, his home ERA is 3.26 and his road ERA is 7.04. Last year, his home ERA was 1.46 and his road ERA was a more pedestrian 3.77. I don’t think it would hurt to at least consider benching Keuchel for those tough road starts – like this past Thursday at Fenway.
Keuchel needs to get his K/BB rate back over 3.0. Assuming he can do that, some of the poor batted ball luck will get corrected and he will start posting usable numbers again. Here is my projection moving forward:
- IP: 160
- ERA: 3.50
- WHIP: 1.20
- Ks: 140
I think the biggest issue with Keuchel is that he was never really as good as last season’s performance indicated. Don’t get me wrong, he is a solid pitcher and a legit mixed league fantasy starter, but he is more of a high quality SP4 than a fantasy ace. It is probably a bad idea to trade him now unless you can get a quality player (top 150 overall value) in return. I think owners looking to buy low might just be able to get him for even cheaper than that. His owners are likely freaking out right now. Just remember though, the ceiling probably isn’t quite as high as you think it is.
Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies
|Owned in 10% of Y! Leagues|
Jon Gray is an extremely talented pitcher who would be nearly universally owned if he did not pitch half of his games in Coors Field. Unfortunately for all of us, he is a Rockie. Despite the difficulties associated with pitching in Colorado, Gray has displayed some impressive skills over the last couple weeks and deserves consideration in most formats.
Gray has a mid 90’s four-seam fastball that he uses just over 60% of the time. It has the potential to be an outstanding pitch with quality late movement. So far, hitters have been moderately successful against the heater, in large part because Gray is forced to use it so often.
Gray’s bread and butter pitch is a nearly unhittable slider. This year, he has been throwing the slider just over 30% of the time and he is generating a swinging strike rate over 24% on it. If you want to know the reason for Gray’s 2016 K spike, increased slider usage is it.
At the moment, Gray is primarily a 2 pitch guy, but he has two additional weapons in his arsenal that he is working to develop. He has thrown a few changeups this year (he used it over 17% of the time in 2015), but frankly it is a pretty poor pitch. Opposing batters dialed up a .450 wOBA against it last season, and while it has some potential, scouts were not very impressed with it. Gray has also been working on a curveball that may eventually replace the changeup, but he does not feel comfortable enough with it yet to use it consistently in game action.
As nasty as Gray’s slider is, he will eventually need to develop a third pitch if he is going to find long-term success.
Ks and BBs
Gray’s 30.5% K rate looks really high when compared to his minor league numbers, but if he continues to throw his slider over 30% of the time, he is capable of maintaining a double-digit K/9 until his elbow gives out. His current K/9 of 11.30 will likely regress a little bit, but if he continues using the same pitch mix, Gray will continue to accumulate strikeouts in bunches.
Jon Gray has never had significant command issues, but his walk rates have always been hovering around 8%. So far this season, he is walking 5.9% of the batters he has faced. Fewer walks and more strikeouts has led to an amazing 5.14 K/BB ratio. That is a number that can play in any ball park.
Gray is pitching in the zone a little more often this year than he was last, but there is really nothing in the data to suggest that he will be able to sustain the current walk rate. Pitchers tend to improve in this area with experience. If he is somehow able to maintain that amazing K/BB ratio, he will be a mixed league relevant arm all season long. My best guess is that the K rate regresses a little to the upper 20’s and the BB rate gets closer to 7%. That would still leave fantasy owners with a very useable K/BB ratio near 4.0.
Batted Ball Data
Before we get started here, keep in mind that the majority of this analysis is based on just over 68 innings of major league action. We can’t really draw any definitive conclusions based on such a small sample size.
Historically, Jon Gray’s biggest issue has been that he gives up too much hard contact. Granted it is a small sample size, but he has a career major league BABIP of .365 and his numbers were not that much better in the minors. This year, his BABIP is down to .333. Gray does an excellent job limiting fly balls (19.2% FB rate in 2016, 27.8% career). He also tends to give up a ton of line drives (30.1% LD rate in 2016, 26.8% career). This batted ball profile suggests that owners should expect a BABIP somewhere in the neighborhood of .340. A pitcher with a line drive rate that high is going to give up a lot of hits. Also, while a low fly ball rate is generally considered to be a desirable trait for pitchers, players with low FB rates also tend to have a higher BABIP.
Gray has never really had home run problems at any level. Based on how low his major league fly ball rates are, I would not expect home runs to be a major issue for him moving forward.
Where Gray has been fairly unlucky this season is in his strand rate (60.9%). He has allowed 33 base runners over his 5 starts and 15 of them have scored. Now, pitchers who give up a lot of hits tend to have relatively low strand rates, but the hope is that Gray’s strikeouts can help him get out of more jams in the future. Projecting a more neutral strand rate of 70% moving forward would make sense.
All of the ERA indicators love Jon Gray (2.32 FIP, 2.17 xFIP, 2.56 SIERA). Keep in mind, these numbers assume average batted ball luck. Gray has always posted an ERA significantly higher than his FIP mostly because his batted ball profile will tend to lead to inflated BABIP numbers. Pitching in Coors Field won’t help with that either. While the indicators look impressive, fantasy owners probably need to tack on at least a full run to arrive at a good ERA projection.
You always worry about splits with fastball/slider pitchers. They tend to struggle against opposite handed batters, but that has really not been the case for Gray. In fact, righties were actually more successful than lefties last season.
The other spilt we need to look at here is home/away. Keep in mind, this is an extremely small sample, but given his home environment I do not think it is much of a fluke. Gray has a home ERA of 7.93 in 36.1 career innings and a road ERA of 2.18 with a .97 WHIP and a 11.18 K/9 in 33 innings. In other words, he has pitched like Clayton Kershaw on the road. Coors tends to over-inflate a pitchers BABIP because of their spacious outfield. Given Gray’s batted ball profile, I think he may be a poor fit for their home ballpark.
Jon Gray should be owned in more leagues, even if it is just so owners can use the road starts. Here is my projection moving forward:
- IP: 130
- ERA: 4.00
- WHIP: 1.25
- Ks: 150
- Wins: 7
I would be all over Gray in K/9 leagues, but I do not think he has quite as much value in standard formats. Still, I think he is worth grabbing in case he eventually figures out how to pitch in Colorado.
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