Pitch Selection Changes: August Update (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Much like my exit velocity update, we need to identify lesser owned players (or superb guys who fell short of expectations in July) who we can trade for or pick up. At this time of year, a good strategy is to find good matchups (Tigers, Orioles, etc.) and target those starting pitchers going against them during that week. If you can find guys with improving skills and positive trends, all the better. These lightly-owned guys below have flashed upside and have tangible pitching changes to credit to their success.
Reynaldo Lopez (SP – CHW)
Another guy owned in just 20 percent of ESPN leagues, Lopez had an incredible July, posting a 3.41 ERA and .228/.286/.350 slash line. Part of the reason why he rocked July was his change in pitch mix, increasing his curveball usage by five percent and dropping his change by seven percent. His year-to-date xwOBA on the change is .351, compared to .269 on the curve. Contrary to what we would expect, the curveball took a nosedive in July, with both the K-rate and whiff rate dropping nearly 20 percentage points. While the curveball got hit harder in July than in previous months, hitters produced just a .154 average and .308 slugging percentage against the changeup.
Those outcomes on his changeup can be attributed to the decreased vertical movement on the pitch. This decreased movement helped him generate a 37 percent whiff rate and xwOBA of .173 in July. In an interview with The Athletic, Lopez admitted to his mechanics being wonky in the first half, which resulted in poor command of all of his pitches. Safe to say that despite the decreased movement, it helped him locate the changeup more. The stats back this up, as he tripled his strike percentage on the change from May to July. Pitching in the AL Central and not conceding more than three earned runs since July 14, Lopez’s ownership percentage should at least triple down the stretch.
Sandy Alcantara (SP – MIA)
The young fireballer pivoted from his sinker to his four-seamer in July, which resulted in a very poor month. Alcantara compiled a 6.91 ERA with a sad .390 wOBA and .559 slugging percentage. These results were not quite supported, given his .241 expected batting average, .362 xwOBA, and .491 slugging percentage…but they still are not pretty.
That change to his four-seamer led the charge, generating a .611 slugging percentage and a .370 wOBA. There is good news, however. In two starts in August, Alcantara dropped his four-seamer usage from 42 percent in July to 34 percent in August. He has had much better results, generating a .143 batting average and slugging percentage. These matchups were against the Mets (third in wRC+ in August) and Braves (eighth), so not exactly poor offenses. Back when Alcantara sported a sub-4 ERA in May and June, his four-seamer usage was under 40 percent. Given his August results, he should stay there for the foreseeable future. Alcantara can be found on waivers in 95 percent of ESPN leagues.
Zac Gallen (SP – ARI)
Alcantara’s former teammate, Gallen has had a fantastic start to his career. Gallen is tough to analyze given his small sample (41 and 1/3 total innings pitched), but he has varied his pitches each month with great effectiveness. In July, Gallen increased his four-seam usage by eight percentage points, generating a .079 batting average and slugging percentage. A bit lucky, to be sure, but the 34 percent K-rate is nice. He also saw a 20 percentage point drop in his cutter usage, which is his worst pitch by xWOBA. Gallen needs to build confidence to throw all of his secondary offerings, but knowing to decrease usage on one of his worst pitches shows that Gallen is playing to his strengths.
Given the limited sample, it makes more sense to look at Gallen’s 2019 in aggregate. I am looking forward to him throwing his filthy changeup more, which has produced a 43 percent K-rate and 45.5 percent swinging-strike rate. The gap between Gallen’s fastball velocity and changeup velocity is nearly eight miles per hour, which makes it easy for Gallen to keep hitters off balance. Gallen is still available in over 70 percent of ESPN leagues.
Miles Mikolas (SP – STL)
These are Mikolas’ monthly ERAs: 5.29, 3.57, 4.15, and 2.93 — certainly a rough and tumble season. In July, Mikolas upped the four seamer in exchange for his curveball. The results were night-and-day from June, as the fastball had a .234 xBA and .366 xSLG in July, and the curve sat at .120 and .133, respectively. While not nearly as good, the full-season expected stats for these two pitches also show that Mikolas has been a bit unlucky (especially on the four-seamer), as a .308 xwOBA between these two pitches is nothing to sneeze at.
Mikolas has never been a strikeout pitcher, and this is evidenced from his 17 percent K-rate on the four-seamer and 26.7 percent on the curve. Given that Mikolas has negative pVALs on all of his pitches except his sinker, it may not matter that Mikolas is switching up his pitch mix. At this point, we know who Mikolas is, and there’s a reason that he’s still available in 25 percent of leagues. Given his limited strikeout upside, he’s worth starting in favorable matchups, but that’s about it.
Everything’s Changin’ In Texas
Lance Lynn (SP – TEX)
Mike Minor (SP – TEX)
The two aces in the Rangers’ rotation decidedly changed up their pitch mix over the last month, with both of them upping their four-seamer usage in July. Lynn increased his primary pitch over 11 percentage points in July, leaving his sinker and curveball (both down four percentage points) and changeup (three percentage points) in the dust.
Lynn had a great month of July (3.27 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 25.2% K-BB rate), so it’s clear that his change in pitch mix yielded positive results. He garnered strikes on nearly 40 percent of his four-seamers, which was a monthly high in 2019. This strike rate largely stemmed from a 34 percent whiff rate on the pitch, which was a 25 percent improvement over June. The four-seamer batting average (.200) and slugging percentage (.347) were fully supported by the expected statistics, per Baseball Savant. In August, Lynn has kept the four-seamer usage above 60 percent through two starts, with even better results than July. In short, Lynn is a fantasy ace and should be started every time out.
Minor had a very rough July — a 6.59 ERA, .546 slugging percentage, .382 wOBA turned him into a pumpkin. His strand rate was near the league average, but his HR/FB (23.5%) was off the charts, considering that he was right around ten percent from March through June. Minor mainly ditched his slider and changeup (down four percentage points each) in favor of the four-seamer. Minor has elite spin rate, so upping the four-seamer was a reasonable decision. Unfortunately, we know that it did not pay off for him, with opponents sporting a .276 average, .365 wOBA, and .517 slugging percentage against the pitch. The expected stats show that the batting average should have been lower, but the slugging percentage and wOBA were certainly earned. Despite the poor outcomes with the pitch, Minor actually had a monthly high in K percentage (29.7%) and whiff rate (26.5%) on the four-seamer.
Minor has had two beautiful starts in August, compiling an 18:2 K:BB ratio while maintaining the four-seamer usage. The K percentage (38.5%) and whiff rate (34.5%) would be a monthly high for him if he keeps it up. What’s even better is that both of these starts were against high-octane offenses in hitters’ parks at Cleveland and at Milwaukee.
Minor has two elite pitches according to pVAL: his changeup and the much-discussed fastball.
Minor was never as good as his first half suggested, nor as bad as he pitched in July. The past two starts likely earned him a spot at Target Field this Friday, especially with Nelson Cruz potentially out. Minor was recently dropped in one of my shallower leagues. It’s probably too late to act given his back-to-back stud performances, but you should see what you would give up to nab him for the stretch run.
Mets’ Ace Changes
Jacob deGrom (SP – NYM)
Noah Syndergaard (SP – NYM)
There’s not much actionable advice for these two aces, given that they are owned in every league and that you are starting them every time out. Just know that Syndergaard has dropped his four-seamer usage by nine percent for his sinker, and his changeup and cutter for his slider (up eight percent). His expected statistics with the sinker and the slider in July were fantastic, and this tangible change in pitch mix gives us reason to believe that Syndergaard has turned a corner. His 2.70 ERA and .287 wOBA in July support that.
deGrom changed out his four-seamer for his slider in July, with even more success than Syndergaard (1.09 ERA, .224 wOBA). The slider garnered a .143 average, .169 wOBA, and .143 slugging percentage in July. Smart choice, ace.