Spring Training Storylines to Watch: Pitchers (Fantasy Baseball)
It’s hard not to get excited about player performance in the spring, but as I mentioned in my Spring Training post on hitters, you have to keep your expectations in check. You shouldn’t move McCullers up 20 spots because of a dominant spring performance.
He’s still a risk for injury, he’s never thrown more than 125 innings in the Major Leagues, and while the changeup and fastball looked great on this day, he still only has one great pitch (that nasty curve). Alright, this isn’t a post about McCullers, it’s about what we should be looking for from pitchers during March as we finalize our prep and start doing real fantasy baseball drafts.
Velocity and Pitch Mix
One of the first things I look for during spring training from pitchers is how their velocity looks. This is relative to the player, not to the rest of the league as a whole. If Kyle Hendricks is throwing 90 MPH instead of his normal 87 MPH, I’m intrigued. If Noah Syndergaard is throwing 95 MPH instead of 98-100 MPH, then I’m worried.
Take Charlie Morton for example; coming into 2017 no one would have batted an eye at him if it weren’t for his uptick in velocity during Spring Training. He was an over-the-hill veteran who never was more than a back end of the rotation starter. All of a sudden he’s hitting 96-97 mph and striking out batters at a clip of more than 10 times per nine innings! It’s not just performance either, a large dip in velocity could mean there’s a lingering injury that explains the decrease in a pitcher’s velocity.
You want to really know that your players are healthy before you invest in them for your fantasy team. This is all great, but when I’m watching Spring Training games, there are no velocity readings on the telecast. Where should you go to find them? BrooksBaseball posts them, but it takes a lot of work to navigate, so luckily Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs updates pitcher velocities as data rolls in (keep in mind the data is limited), summarizing it nicely in a spreadsheet including 2017 velocities for comparison. Make sure you give this link a look before taking the plunge on your pitcher selection.
Keep in mind that pitchers will ramp up towards the end of Spring Training, so a lower velocity by one MPH or so isn’t cause for concern in early March. At the same time, a pitcher throwing a couple MPH harder than 2017 could mean a big breakout.
When a pitcher tinkers with his pitches attempting to add a third or fourth pitch, that isn’t necessarily a positive but it’s definitely something to monitor. If a pitcher has two very good pitches and adds a third, this means you may see less of his best pitches thrown especially if the third pitch ends up yielding negative results. Then again, if that third pitch is used effectively, even at a low rate, it can help balance the pitcher’s plus pitches making them even more valuable.
Take Dinelson Lamet, the 25-year-old pitcher with the Padres who had a 10.9 K/9 rate and an elite slider in 2017. His ERA was 4.57 and gave up nearly 1.5 HR/9. The problem is that he only has two pitches (fastball and slider), and hitters sat on the fastball and crushed it.
To keep hitters off balance, Lamet is trying out a curveball this spring and if effective, could vault him into the elite in 2018. Jason Collette on FanGraphs updates the Pitch Tracker every couple days. Make sure you follow up on how effective the new pitches are in Spring Training and if they will be used during the regular season.
In my previous Spring Training article on hitters, I mention injuries, but there’s a big difference between hitter and pitcher injuries in Spring Training. Discomfort in a pitcher’s shoulder or elbow soreness could lead to significant time missed and possibly surgery.
FantasyPros’ latest injury news provides up to date injury information and is a go-to source for in-depth updates for all players. Pitchers are much more fragile in terms of the ability to play through an injury; not because they are weak, but because of the enormous strain that’s put on the shoulder and arm on every pitch. A position player can play at 80% and at least be moderately effective, a pitcher cannot effectively pitch at 80% with an injury to the arm, legs (for drive), or midsection injuries.
What’s funny about Spring Training is that you’ll always hear things like “Player X is in the best shape of his life,” and a huge deal is made about this. Then, a player will leave a game early, and the team downplays it by saying, “he just tweaked something, we just wanted to be cautious.” The next thing you know, he’s scheduled for surgery and placed on the 60-day DL.
One high-end fantasy ace I’m worried about is Jacob deGrom. He entered camp with a stiff lower back and had a setback early this month when he was supposed to face live hitters; instead, he just threw a bullpen session. The further his first spring start gets pushed, the more likely deGrom starts the season on the DL.
Now, I already own a deGrom share in one of my early February drafts, so I’m watching closely. Be sure to follow up anytime a pitcher is removed early from a start/appearance for any reason, it could be a bigger deal than initially reported.
The closer carousel throughout the season can be a major headache for fantasy owners. If you don’t lock down closers with job security, you’ll likely be all over the wire attempting to grab the next guy in line.
How about those dreaded closer-by-committee situations? Angels’ Manager Mike Scioscia is notorious for this and looks to be going in that direction again this year. Texas is another team that has a very shaky closer situation.
Personally, I try to stay away from these situations, but if you’re in a deep league, there are two things you can do; check out the links above and figure out who the top two candidates are and draft both late in your draft. Then, continue to monitor how each pitcher is utilized as March rolls on. The pitcher who gets the most ninth-inning work should have the first shot at closing.
The manager isn’t going to try out a pitcher in the ninth at the end of Spring Training then flip it when the regular season start, not even the Scioscio-path is that crazy. Some other closers coming off injuries that need to be monitored include Mark Melancon and Jeurys Familia. It can’t hurt to grab the closer-in-waiting for these guys at the end of your draft.