Monday, May 23, 2016

Buying and Selling: Struggling Aces

This post was supposed to be finished and published yesterday morning, but that didn't happen, as I still had to do Kluber. Archer pitched yesterday, so the stats on him are outdated by one start. He got torched that start, and all of the analysis is still applicable.

Heading into this season, I had 19 pitchers tabbed as aces (in no particular order: Kershaw, Arrieta, Sale, Scherzer, Kluber, Bumgarner, Harvey, deGrom, Archer, Greinke, Keuchel, Price, Syndergaard, Hernandez, Carrasco, Fernandez, Lester, Cole, Strasburg). I had them set up in a special leaderboard to compare them, and I noticed a distinct drop-off in ERA after Jose Fernandez. Seven "aces" had ERAs above 4. The rest were all at 3.21 or below (in other words, they were their typical ace-like selfs). This inspired me to take a look at what's slowing these seven struggling studs, and whether they should be expected to bounce back.

The "buy" or "sell" labels assume you can get them at something of a discount due to their struggles, but it also assumes you can extract some name value from them if you choose to sell. This may not be the case in your league, which is part of the difficulty of making generalized buy/sell recommendations.

I suppose it may be better to think of it as either "I'm confident he will return to ace-levels soon" (buy) or "I have little confidence in his ability to recapture his former dominance" (sell).

Max Scherzer
Scherzer's first go around in the senior circuit was a smashing success, complete with a 2.79 ERA and 276 strikeouts (10.86 K/9). The biggest reason for his monster year was an improved BB% (3.8%, compared to 7.0% in 2014), which was driven by a 71.3 F-Strike%, which smashed his previous career high of 64.5. The F-Strike% and, in turn, the BB% have fallen back to his previously established norms, so it appears that was a fluky one-year thing. He was still a stud even before that, however, and his K% and SwStr% are perfectly normal (his K% is actually a career high). The big thing that's bitten him this year is the 2.01 HR/9. Scherzer is a flyball pitcher, so homers will likely always be his Achilles heel, but he's currently posting an unsustainable 21.3% HR/FB ratio. When that corrects, expect his ERA to correct back towards his 3.19 xFIP.

Verdict: BUY
He's probably not going to be a top-3 SP like he was drafted as - he'd have to have maintained the BB%/F-Strike% improvements to do that - but there's no reason to think Scherzer won't be an ace going forward. I'm guessing top 8 or so rest of season.

Chris Archer
While the Rays ace is still racking up Ks at a 27.9% clip, he's succumbing to the deadly combo of walks and homers. Obviously, those are both bad in isolation but even worse in combination; lots of walks makes it more likely the homers come with men on base, and lots of homers makes it more likely the walks come around to score.

Control played a big role in Archer's 2015 breakout, but it's gone down the tube this year; his BB% is a career worst, as is his F-Strike%.

Like Scherzer, half the problem is an inflated HR/FB% that we should expect to regress, and the other half is walks. But, whereas Scherzer's walk rate went from elite to average, Archer's went from average to 10th worst in the league, and there's not a lot of signs pointing towards a bounce back.

Verdict: SELL
Archer will still hold some fantasy value for his Ks, but it won't be the ace-like value we hoped for until he fixes his walk rate. Until then, a 3.75 SIERA just ain't cutting it.

Zack Greinke
Although I'm a big fan of Greinke as a pitcher, I was pretty down on him for fantasy this year due to the park change and the imminent regression from his sparkling 1.66 ERA in 2015. Even then, there's no way anyone could have predicted that his ERA would triple to an ugly 5.08.

Surprisingly, most of his peripherals are about the same as they were in his incredible 2015 run. His BB% is nearly i identical, as is his batted ball profile. His K% is down a couple of ticks, however, and it's backed by a drop of 4 percentage points in xK%. I found a few reasons for the drop in strikeouts:

- Z-Contact% is a career worst
- Fastball isn't getting whiffs anymore (all other pitches actually have slightly better whiff rates)
- Getting to two strikes on 46.7% of batters this year (52.0% last year)
- 44.7% of two strike counts have ended in strikeouts (45.7% last year)

Verdict: INCONCLUSIVE
This is an odd one. At first glance I thought it would be an easy buy, but the strikeout drop gives me significant pause. If you own him and can find someone who thinks he's a completely safe ace, I'd sell. If you don't own him and can get him at enough of a discount to mitigate the risk, I'd buy.

Dallas Keuchel
Keuchel's success was built on the combination of control, contact management, and groundballs. It's a massive red flag, then, when all three of these skills appear to deteriorate simultaneously.

A 10% BB rate for a finesse pitcher is not going to keep you above water. Keuchel just isn't commanding his pitches anymore.

He was never a bigtime K guy, but it's certainly disconcerting to see a drop in strikeouts accompanying the drop in grounders and soft contact and increase in walks. He's just not fooling people anymore.

Verdict: SELL
Dominating without missing bats was already a fragile foundation, and when you're not commanding the sinker, it can (and has) gotten ugly quickly. All arrows are pointing in the wrong direction for Keuchel. He could figure it out and start to click, but he can do that on someone else's roster. Finesse pitchers are simply harder to fix.

David Price
This was the easiest call in this post. Not only are Price's skills not getting worse, his peripherals have actually improved. He's sporting a career best K% and SwStr%, and doing it without a major increase in BB%.

When a good pitcher starts getting hit hard without his peripherals getting worse, I like to look if he's throwing more pitches in the middle of the zone. This isn't the case with Price. He's actually throwing less pitches in the heart of the zone and more on the edges.

Verdict: BUY
Not only is Price pitching perhaps the best he's ever pitched, he has a great offense backing him up. If you can find someone who will give you even the slightest discount on Price, jump all over it.

Matt Harvey
Ah, the dreaded dropoff in all four of pitching's "Holy Quaternity" (racking up strikeouts, limiting walks, getting grounders and inducing pop-ups). When I first looked at that, I thought this would an easy sell candidate.

However, I noticed in mechanics that he's flying open sooner and driving more towards the first base dugout than home plate, so if he can fix that he could get back on track.

Verdict: INCONCLUSIVE
He hasn't pitched quite as bad as his ERA, and that with a mechanical flaw. If he irons that out, he could go back to being  Dark Knight of Gotham.

Corey Kluber
There are some good signs and some bad signs here.

The bad:
- Ks are down, walks are up (never a good combo)
- Sinker velocity is down 1 mph

The good:
- Swinging strike % has remained steady
- Neither strikeouts nor walks have changed a ton
- Sudden spike in grounders
- All non-fastball pitches have the same velocity

Verdict: BUY
I'm not too sure what to make of these changes, but one thing I can observe is that they haven't been big, so there's little reason to think he won't return to form in short order.

Site you should check out:
I just came across the site rototargets.com which is brand new and gathers all sorts of buy low/sell high touts from around the web, including some in-depth analysis pieces and some quick lists. They even linked my Nathan Eovaldi article!

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