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Pitch Selection Changes: June Update (2019 Fantasy Baseball)

by Carmen Maiorano | @cmaiorano3 | Featured Writer
Jun 7, 2019

A new splitter has fueled Frankie Montas’ breakout.

We continue our dive into the myriad of data at FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Brooks Baseball to determine if a pitcher’s success or failure is hinging on pitch-selection changes. I will go over a few breakouts you’ve definitely heard about as well as dive into some lesser-known guys you can scoop off the wire. This research from a tangible change, such as pitch mix, can help identify under-the-radar pitchers who will help you in the weekly grind to get to the playoffs.

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Fastballs

Lucas Giolito (SP – CWS)
Everyone knows that Giolito’s success is coming from better command and cutting down on the walks, but part of the breakout is from a hefty change in pitch mix. Both Baseball Savant and FanGraphs show that he has dropped his sinker and countered with a 15% increase in his four-seamer usage. This change may have been a questionable decision heading into 2019, given that the pVal on his four-seamer was -13.5 last year, but the 2019 pVal is a fantastic 6.1. He’s also seen a .170-point drop in his expected slugging percentage on the pitch. Both his velocity and spin rate are up, likely attributing to this pitch faring well.

Giolito has also tempered down his breaking balls for a nearly 10-percent increase in his changeup, which has been dominant (10.7 pVal). With a .127 batting average and .180 slugging percentage (and peripherals to match) on the pitch, Giolito is growing as a pitcher right before our eyes.

Frankie Montas (SP – OAK)
Montas has had a well-documented breakout, and a large chunk of that is due to pitch mix. He nixed his changeup this year, decreased his sinker usage, and added a splitter. The splitter is thrown slightly slower than the change and has more drop. It’s inducing whiffs at a 42.7% rate and is a ground-ball pitch through and through. How does a -2-degree launch angle sound? His ground-ball percentage is up 7.8 points, leading to a 2.83 ERA and 3.09 FIP. The best part? He’s owned in just 71% of ESPN leagues.

Shane Bieber (SP – CLE)
Bieber has been the best pitcher on the Indians thus far (as Dan Harris will tell you on his podcast, Leading Off), which is shocking considering all the assets on their staff. Bieber was in the zone with his fastball way too much last year, and it seems that he has dropped his fastball usage for a variety of offspeed and breaking balls.

He has seen a nearly 22% drop in his zone percentage, which has helped him be more effective at getting whiffs. While these changes have helped him so far, you should expect some negative regression. Consider the table below.

Type Batting Average xBA Slugging % xSLG
Fastball .240 .285 .535 .626
Changeup .188 .237 .281 .340
Curve .235 .264 .462 .571
Slider .195 .220 .310 .334

 
With all of his expected stats worse than his actual stats, we need to bake regression in with Bieber. In fact, his slide piece has been his only fantastic pitch based on pVal. I would shop Bieber around to see if you can get out while the going is good.

Mike Foltynewicz (SP – ATL)
Much was made of Folty getting incredibly lucky in 2018, and the early stats in 2019 (5.89 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 19.5% K rate) back up that stance considerably. Like Bieber, Foltynewicz has dropped his fastball usage in exchange for an assortment of breakers and slow balls. Unlike Bieber, all of his expected stats are better than what has actually happened. But, what’s been happening is bad news bears. While his changeup remains a nasty pitch (31.1% whiff rate, .150 xBA, .305 xSLG), his curve has seen a 9.6% drop in whiffs. His slider is also getting mashed this year; the exit velocity on the pitch has jumped over four miles per hour. All in all, it doesn’t seem like Folty mixing his pitch selection is tilting in his favor. He was due for negative regression, and a massive overcorrection has arrived.

Other Notable Changes:

Jordan Lyles (SP – PIT): Lyles has dropped his sinker usage, which is a good idea in today’s launch angle revolution. He replaced it with his four-seamer, which is performing significantly better than last year (7.6 pVal in 2019, 2.6 in 2018). I’m buying.

Jeff Samardzija (SP – SF): Samardzija has severely dropped his sinker usage by 20% in exchange for other variations of fastballs and his curve. His sinker is doing slightly worse, but it’s his curve (seven percent decrease) that is getting destroyed. There are guys with more upside on your wire.

Brandon Woodruff (SP – MIL): Woodruff traded his four-seamer for a sinker. His sinker was dominant in limited use in 2018, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019. Some pitches are more effective the less you throw them, and that appears to be the case here. I’d expect his sinker usage to drop going forward.

Martin Perez (SP – MIN): It’s pretty well documented that Perez has developed a cutter to replace his sinker. He’s gotten roughed up in his past two outings, and we knew he couldn’t keep up his elite pace. Minnesota beat writer Dan Hayes notes the following:

If you believe in the cutter being elite, now will be your best time to buy low.

Breaking Balls

Stephen Strasburg (SP – WAS)
Strasburg is pitching like the guy we all envisioned, posting 104 Ks in 84 innings with a 1.02 WHIP. One of those reasons is a decreased fastball usage, which he has offset with his phenomenal curveball. The curve is getting swings and misses at an insane 44.7% clip, holding batters to a .131 batting average and just plain silly .183 slugging percentage. These numbers are an improvement over last year (but not as much as you may think), and the expected stats back these rates up. To top it off, it gets grounders at a 62% clip. If he can stay healthy, he will be a top-five starting pitcher.

Tyler Mahle (SP – CIN)
Mahle has inched his way toward a breakout due to increasing his curveball usage over 20 percent. And boy, is it working. He has earned a .234 batting average against, as well as a .404 slugging percentage that should regress to the mean. More impressively, he has garnered a 30% whiff rate on the pitch.

He has essentially exchanged the curveball for his slider, which had a .304 batting average and .557 slugging percentage against. Good choice, Mahle. Likely on the wire in your league, he’s worth a pick-up in 12-teamers and deeper, especially if you’ve been recently dealt an injury blow to Luke Weaver or Carlos Carrasco.

Hyun-Jin Ryu (SP – LAD)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention everyone’s favorite breakout pitcher. Ryu has five types of pitches, the definition of unpredictability. He’s actually throwing his curve less this year, a smart choice considering that it is getting hammered (.467 average, .867 slug). It’s not like he is barely throwing it — he still uses it ten percent of the time. The key to Ryu’s incredible season has been the unpredictability of all five of his pitches, as well as throwing different types of pitches in typical fastball counts, as noted by Eno Sarris of The Athletic.

Other Notable Changes:

Robbie Ray (SP – ARI): Ray has increased his slider usage in exchange for his slider. Both generate about the same amount of whiffs, but he throws the slider for a strike more often. Plus it generates a lower exit velocity. If only Ray could throw his fastballs for strikes more often.

Brad Peacock (SP/RP – HOU): Peacock has dramatically dropped his slider usage from 42% to 30%, likely due to starting. He has been more effective throwing the slider, holding batters to an expected average of .165.

Jordan Hicks (RP – STL): Hicks has diversified his portfolio this year, increasing his changeup and slider usage to seven percent and 33%, respectively, while dropping his sinker from 76% in 2018 to 60% in 2019. Considering that his 101 mph sinker is his worst pitch, this is the sign of an evolution. Expect more goodness.

Blake Treinen (RP – OAK): Treinen’s four-seamer usage (17% in 2018, 27% in 2019) is up, and it’s getting destroyed. His slider usage is down, but it’s still the same great pitch it was last year. I trust that Treinen will figure it out.

Offspeed

Jalen Beeks (SP/RP – TB)
It is so much fun rostering Jalen Beeks. He typically comes in the second or third inning, which minimizes the risk of a loss (if you play in a points league), and enhances his chances of a win. Additionally, his changeup usage has increased from 18% in 2018 to 31% in 2019 with fantastic results. He is owning hitters with a 32.6% whiff rate, .200 batting average against and a .267 slugging percentage. There will be some regression, but his maturation and ability to hide the ball during his delivery makes him extremely deceptive. If you need wins and strong ratios, he can easily be scooped up. He won’t keep up his 2.5% HR/FB rate, but clearly the Rays know how to develop and sustain pitching.

Andrew Heaney (SP – LAA)
Heaney had a dominant performance in his second start off the IL, striking out 10 Mariners over six innings. Considering the small sample, it’s tough to take away anything definitive from his pitch mix. However, his changeup usage is down from 15% to 5%. It’s been getting lit up, but again, not enough data to take away. This is something we should continue to monitor over his next couple starts to see if it is a real change.

Andrew Cashner (SP – BAL)
We finish with the guy who suggested he may retire if he gets traded from the worst team in the game. Cashner has been an extremely average pitcher the past couple of years, but a change in pitch mix has him surprising. He now throws his four-seamers and changeups twice as much this year. The slow ball has generated solid results — 31% whiff rate, .190 average, and a .291 slugging percentage. Those numbers will regress, given that he pitches in the AL East and in Camden Yards. Even more convincing is his terrible four-seamer. Hitters are slugging .532 off the pitch, and they’ve earned every single bit of it. Avoid Cashner, even with his changeup going well.

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Carmen Maiorano is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Carmen, check out his archive and follow him @cmaiorano3.

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