Pitch Selection Changes: July Update (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Welcome to the second half, friends! June didn’t have too many breakout pitchers in the way that Lucas Giolito blew our fantasy baseball minds in May, but there are some interesting trends to capture and create actionable items from. Many fantasy players pick up the “next big thing” or the pitcher on a hot streak, but it’s important to consider if there is a tangible reason as to why he is breaking out, has better ratios, or is striking out more guys. This exercise brings us along on that journey.
Sonny Gray (SP – CIN)
Gray traded in his four-seamer for his sinker in June, which (like the next guy on this list) did not prove to go swell. Hitters slugged .815 on the pitch, which he threw about 26% of the time. Yes, he was unlucky, but a .604 xSLG, per Statcast, is still not ideal. Naturally, Gray struggled in June, posting a 4.78 ERA and 30-point increase in slugging percentage.
He had tremendous success with the sinker earlier in the season, so the decision to use it more was not foolish. But going back to throwing it less would be a good thing, as the pitch has been poor throughout the past couple of years. Meanwhile, he threw his four-seamer roughly 23% of the time, resulting in a .255 xBA and .431 xSLG in June (and .259/.423 in 2019, respectively). Overall, Gray is pitching much more effectively across the board, so last month’s change in pitch mix should not scare anyone away. Despite the poor results against the sinker in June, he still has a 2.2 pVAL with the pitch in 2019 and is dominating in July.
Jon Lester (SP – CHC)
Lester used his fastball 35 percent of the time between March and May, posting a 3.60 ERA. In June, he dropped that four-seam usage to 25 percent, splitting the difference between his cutter and curve. His -4.9 pVAL and .957 slugging (and .757 xSLG) allowed on the fastball last month says that this was a bad, bad idea.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why hitters smacked his four-seamer in June. He wasn’t throwing it in hitter counts more often. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, he threw his fastball 28% of the time in hitter counts in June and 29.5% of the time the batter was ahead between March and May. Was it command? Maybe, but it seems anecdotal. He left a fastball upper-middle for Marcell Ozuna to crush and allowed a homer off the pitch to Cody Bellinger. Why would you throw Bellinger a four-seamer in the zone to begin with? His strike rate went up and ball rate went down in June compared to prior months, so this is not a certainty.
A more likely story is that his fastball simply was not moving as much as it typically does. Brooks Baseball shows that his fastball moved six percent less horizontally in June that it did in March through May. Sure, he threw it slightly harder, but there’s not much of a difference between a 91,0 mph and a 91.6 mph “heater.” Lester is known as a crafty pitcher who relies on horizontal movement on his fastballs, so having less of this movement resulted in bad news.
His curveball has been a great pitch this year, generating a 40% whiff rate, .226 xBA, and .283 xSLG. His changeup has been worse, but nowhere near as poor as his four-seamer. The general consensus on Lester is that he is a crafty pitcher who outpitches his peripherals, but time might be running out on the veteran.
Chris Archer (SP – PIT): Archer is ditching his sinker for increased usage on his fastball (kudos to Scott White for posting), and he cruised through six innings against the Cubs on Friday — tallying 10 strikeouts — before running into some trouble in the seventh. Given the upside Archer possesses now that he’s going back to his roots, you should scoop him up off of waivers if he was dropped.
Trevor Bauer (SP – CLE): Bauer seems to be back to his normal self, establishing his filthy slider (.130 xBA/.193 xSLG) and reducing his four-seamer usage in the process. Given his inconsistency, you should make an inquiry to the Bauer owner in your league to see what it would take to acquire him.
German Marquez (SP – COL): Yes, Marquez mixed up his pitch selection in June, increasing the four-seamer usage while reducing his sinker and slider. But we know that his main problem in pitching at Coors half the time.
Brandon Woodruff (SP – MIL)
Woodruff has been on fire this year, posting a 2.91 FIP (and 3.32 xFIP) with an insane 28.8% strikeout rate. Now he’s reaching into his bag of tricks to confuse hitters even more. In June, Woodruff dropped his four-seamer usage eight percent, increased his sinker usage 13.6%, and decreased his slider usage nearly nine percent.
How did that work out? The slider got pummeled (.302 xBA, .532 xSLG) while the sinker shined (.185, .221). He threw his slider over a mile per hour slower with less movement in June, likely leading to the poor results. The sinker had been ridiculous in May (one hit, a single, on 92 pitches), so why not keep throwing it more? His fastballs have been his best pitches — a 14.2 pVAL on his four-seamer is absolutely ridiculous, as is the 7.2 pVAL on the sinker. But his slider’s 1.6 pVAL (and .281 xwOBA) makes for a solid secondary pitch. Ranked as the 19th-best starting pitcher, you aren’t buying Woodruff low anywhere, but buying high is not out of the question either. Just watch out for left-handed heavy teams at Miller Park, as he has allowed a .354 wOBA to opposite-handed hitters.
Jake Odorizzi (SP – MIN)
Many a fantasy player have been riding the feats of Odorizzi since May. He appears to have fallen off the hot streak, allowing 16 earned runs over his last four starts leading up to the All-Star Break. In June, he dropped his four-seamer usage nearly 15% and his curve 10 percent, increasing his sinker usage 23 percent. His 3.95 ERA from last month is fine, but it was disappointing after getting used to the 0.94 ERA in May.
Odorizzi had been getting lucky with his cutter; his expected slugging is over 100 percentage points higher than his actual slugging. That corrected in May, when his .541 xSLG nearly matched the actual .524 slugging on the pitch. In fact, he’s been getting lucky on most of his pitches. His expected slugging minus actual slugging percentage on his curve and fastball is 70 and 80 percentage points, respectively.
His season seems to be smoke and mirrors. I would wait for one more good start from Odorizzi before selling so you can get decent value for him. He’s been a top-30 starting pitcher in 2019, and I’m betting you can find another potential top-30 guy who has way more upside. I’m thinking Zack Wheeler.
Steven Matz (SP – NYM)
If you listen to Leading Off, the daily fantasy baseball podcast presented by our own Dan Harris, you know that Matz needs to throw his slider more to be effective since his fastball and curve stink. Well, he threw the slider nearly 16% in June, as compared to just five percent in earlier stages of the season. He was pretty unlucky with the pitch, given that his xBA and xSLG were both over 120 percentage points below the actual statistics. But with a 12.4% whiff rate, the slider isn’t as effective as it has been in years’ prior. Matz is a temporary reliever, and I’m not looking to watch him, stash him, or go near him with a 10-foot pole the rest of the way.
Matt Strahm (SP – SD): Much like Matz, Strahm struggled mightily in June, posting a 10.13 ERA. The increased curveball usage worked out for him, but literally nothing else did. Strahm makes for an intriguing buy-low candidate in dynasty leagues and in 2020 redrafts if he can correct whatever is ailing him in the second half. But, also like Matz, the Padres moved the lefty to the bullpen.
Pablo Lopez (SP – MIA)
Yes, Lopez is injured, but he started a throwing program at the end of June. He had been steadily increasing his changeup usage, according to Statcast, from 17.5% in April to 31.1% in June. The offsetting pitch has been his sinker, which he threw nearly 22% of the time in April but only three percent in June. His dynamite changeup has yielded a .209 batting average (.220 xBA) and .349 SLG (.330 xSLG) with a 32% whiff rate. A 5.2 pVAL on the pitch speaks to greatness. His sinker, on the other hand, has gotten crushed to a .290 xBA, .472 xSLG, and .367 xwOBA. The pitch has a minuscule 12.7% whiff rate. No thanks.
Lopez is young and will no doubt experience ups and downs, but he is rostered in less than eight percent of ESPN leagues. He has clearly recognized his most successful pitch and is continuing to use it to his advantage. Leave Lopez on the waiver wire for now, but he could be a playoff-winner in head-to-head leagues.
Tommy Milone (SP – SEA): An intriguing name in the right matchup, Millone swapped his slider for his changeup in June (up 12% from March-May). The pitch has been solid (.238 xBA, .360 xSLG) all year, but very good last month. He’s worth a flier in a two-start week or against the AL’s bottom feeders.