3 Burning Questions (Fantasy Baseball)
Welcome back! This week, I’m focusing on only three burning questions instead of my standard five. The questions will be focused on three intriguing pitchers. Next week I’ll focus more on hitters because let’s face it, a certain minor league stud(s) should be called up by week’s end.
Typically I don’t move players in my rankings this early, but I’ve seen some changes in the pitchers I discuss below that justify a move. I’ll dive deep into these pitcher’s profiles to answer the burning questions.
Will Gerrit Cole finally live up to expectations as an ace?
In his Astros debut, Cole punched-out 11 batters in seven innings. Cole allowed just one earned run while inducing a career-high 21 swinging strikes. The 11 strikeouts are the most he’s had in a single start since 2014! How does he follow up his debut? Well, in his second start last Saturday, Cole continued his dominance with yet another seven-inning, 11-strikeout performance. He did give up a solo homer and walked three, but a 19.6% swinging strike rate through two starts is about as good as it gets.
Let’s keep in mind that Cole is still only 27 years old, so it’s possible he has room to grow. Being unable to meet sky-high expectations has been a common theme with Cole ever since he was drafted number one overall in 2011 and made his MLB debut in 2013. He finished 2015 with a Cy Young caliber 19-8 record and a 2.60 ERA. That’s where the disappointment began. The next two seasons, Cole’s numbers took a dip to the tune of a 4.16 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. His strikeout numbers dropped as well. Unfortunately for Cole, the expectations were ace or bust after the 2015 season.
Cole’s fastball has always been near the top of the list in terms of velocity. Speed has proven to be less effective in today’s age of triple-digit bullpen arms. The Pirates and pitching coach Ray Searage employ a fastball-heavy approach for their pitching staff. It started with Jameson Taillon drafted in 2010, followed by Cole, then Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, etc. All of these early draft picks by the Pirates can sling it upwards of 95 mph. That’s great, but outside of Cole, all have had moderate to minimal success thus far. As Cole departed Pittsburgh for Houston to join the World Champs, there’s been a change. If Cole’s fastball/sinker are no longer elite pitches, what is he to do? The Astros appear to have a solution. Throw the slider.
Through two starts with Houston, Cole has thrown sliders 25% of the time compared to only 17% with Pittsburgh last year. This is great news for Cole because his fastball/sinker previously generated only a nine percent whiff rate and a slugging percentage of .478. Meanwhile, his slider previously generated a whiff rate of 17.4% and a slugging percentage of .396. This small change could improve the results on his fastball as well if hitters aren’t able to sit on the fastball as he features the slider more frequently. Could this be the difference between Cole being a solid fantasy number two or three and a chance to reach the top 15 in terms of starting pitchers? I won’t jump to that conclusion, but I’ve already moved him up my SP ranks and will be intrigued to watch Cole the rest of the season.
Is Patrick Corbin finally breaking out?
I was a big fan of Corbin coming into 2018. He’s three years removed from Tommy John Surgery and was extremely unlucky in 2017. The most important thing to remember is that he was healthy all season throwing 191 innings last year. The installation of the humidor didn’t hurt either. I’ve been hearing a lot of pushback on Corbin because he’s largely a two-pitch pitcher: fastball/slider. That’s true but he is mixing the curve in just under 10% of the time, and he throws a four-seamer with a sinker variation. Take a look at his pitch mix and results courtesy of BrooksBaseball below.
It’s clear that his slow slider and curveball are by far his best pitches. He’s throwing them nearly 50% of the time, which is fantastic and the high whiff rates justify his strikeout bump. Check out the fastball. He’s only throwing it 21% of the time and for good reason, as it yields the most balls in play. In 2017 per FanGraphs, Corbin’s fastball graded out as the third-worst fastball based on pitch value at -19.1. In 2016, if it had qualified, it would have ranked in the bottom 10. Corbin’s fastball usage has been cut in half since 2016 from 40% to 21%. These are tangible changes that are clearly having a positive impact on Corbin’s performance. It seems simple, throw your best pitch more and your worst pitch less.
Of course, he still needs to execute. While I love the changes in Corbin’s repertoire, I remain a little bit skeptical as the season progresses. I do believe he can continue to improve, but his 17.8% swinging strike rate won’t last, and he still needs to improve on his sinker/fastball and changeup. Corbin’s third start was last night against the Giants. I got a glimpse in the first few innings and he looks filthy with that slider. He’s still throwing it a very high percentage, so it doesn’t look like it’s going to change.
What should we do with Chris Archer?
Over the course of Archer’s career, he’s been one of the most durable starting pitchers averaging over 200 innings since 2014. He’s also an incredible source of strikeouts as he ranks fifth in the league since 2014 with 929 strikeouts. The pitchers ahead of Archer are the big four Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and Clayton Kershaw. I understand the value of a guy you can count on to go out there every fifth day for your fantasy team that can rack up the strikeouts. His peripherals are great, the strikeouts are great, but I think he’s been overrated based on his potential.
First, let’s take a look at a few GIFs of Archer’s fastball and slider courtesy of PitcherList. Archer is mainly a two-pitch pitcher, throwing both the fastball and slider between 44 and 47 percent of the time. The slider is filthy, it’s amazing, it’s his put away pitch. The fastball, on the other hand, is not great, or even good. It’s 95-96 mph but it’s straight and very hittable. So far this year, batters are hitting .400 with one home run and five doubles against Archer’s fastball with only five strikeouts. The slider, on the other hand, has opponents hitting only .147 with 16 strikeouts. That’s fantastic, but he’s also given up two early homers off his dominant slider as well.
This isn’t a fluke either. In 2017, 13 of his 27 home runs given up were off the slider. As impressive as the slider can be for Archer, it has its drawbacks, one being the long ball. Archer is a prime candidate for a third pitch. However, I don’t expect that to happen for the fact that it’s difficult to add a pitch in midseason. Plus he’s already 29 with nearly 1,000 innings in the bigs to his name.
There are a few other discerning trends with Archer including hard contact, the aforementioned home run rate, walk rate, and his ineffectiveness late in games. Archer was the American League’s version of Robbie Ray in terms of hard contact last year settling in at 39.4%! That was good for second highest in the league just behind Mr. Ray. The hard contact and home run rate go hand in hand and it’s not like it’s going to get better. As fly ball rates continue to increase league-wide, pitchers like Ray and Archer are going to feel it.
The icing on the cake for me in regards to Archer is the inability to be successful three times through the order. In 2018, Archer’s ERA is 6.23 with a wOBA of 0.413. It’s a small sample, yes. In 2017, his ERA was 4.97 with a wOBA of 0.364. That’s over his last 37 starts and is no longer small sample. Again, the lack of a third pitch is likely part of the issue. I’ve dropped Archer to around 25th overall for starting pitchers and would be selling if I was an owner. There are too many questions in Archer’s game that will cap his success. The best he can hope for is a trade to a winning National League team, but even then, not all of his issues will be resolved.