Fantasy Superlatives, Starting Pitchers

Nathan Grimm
Rotoworld

Like we did last week, we're trying to take a stab at some year-end lists. This time, let's talk starting pitching.

One thing that's both great and sort of boring about baseball is that guys generally are what the back of their baseball card says they are. There are exceptions, of course, but the rule is more often than not: they were who we thought they were.

Between constant tinkering with swings, juiced balls and whatever else, that rule has become less hard and fast in recent years. The Ketel Martes of the world are becoming more prevalent.

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For pitchers, the formula seems to rely heavily on velocity. One of the easiest ways for a pitcher to make a big leap, or take a big step backward, is a change in how hard they throw. That's not always the case, but it's usually a good guess.

Which makes some of the following superlatives, and the stories behind them, unique. We've seen numerous cases this year of guys making non-velocity-related changes to their approach with wildly successful results. It's been a fun year to root for some good narratives for pitchers both young and old.

Let's get into it.

 

MVP: Justin Verlander

That Verlander leads the league in virtually every pitching category is not a surprise. It's how he's done it that's fascinating. Despite having built an incredibly successful career on the back of a mid-90s four-seam fastball that he threw early and often, the 36-year-old reinvented himself in a way en route to dominating the league yet again. Verlander is still throwing his four-seamer half the time, and is still averaging 94.6 mph on the pitch, but he's throwing it significantly less than he has historically while upping the usage of all three of his secondary pitches. The biggest beneficiary has been his slider, which he's throwing 28 percent of the time this year as compared to 22.3 percent last year and 21.5 percent in 2017 -- the only other years in his career that he's even thrown the pitch more than 20 percent of the time -- and the results have been stellar, with opposing batters hitting .114 with a .218 slugging percentage and 40.8 percent strikeout percentage against the breaker. His teammate Cole has been nearly every bit as good, deGrom remains terrific and Scherzer was so good in the early part of the season that he remained the National League leader in several categories for much of the season despite missing considerable time due to injury, but this has been the Year of Verlander. And frankly, it's about time something went right for the guy.

Honorable mention: Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer

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LVP: Mike Foltynewicz

There are higher-profile names that could be thrown out -- Trevor Bauer has had a disappointing follow-up to his Cy Young-worthy campaign in 2018, and German Marquez was not the Coors Field-proof, frontline fantasy starter that we had hoped -- but few relatively healthy starting pitchers laid an egg quite like Folty. On the heels of posting a 2.85 ERA with 202 strikeouts across 31 starts in 2018, the 27-year-old began the year on the injured list with elbow soreness but he was back on the mound before the end of April. Injury wasn't the problem, or at least outwardly the problem; it was what he did once he returned that let everyone down. After making his debut on April 27, Foltynewicz posted a 6.37 ERA and 1.41 WHIP over 11 starts, a stretch that ended with a four-inning, eight-run loss to the Nationals on June 22. After that start he was sent down to Triple-A by the Braves, returning on August 6. Since his return he's been much better, including a six-inning gem Saturday against the same Nats that prompted his demotion in June, But fantasy players who drafted him as a 200-strikeouts, low-3.00 ERA starter missed out on that production for more than four months.

Honorable mention: Trevor Bauer, German Marquez, J.A. Happ

 

Comeback Player of the Year: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Is this where Ryu belongs? I don't know. He could easily be part of the MVP conversation, especially if the V is being factored in -- despite posting a 1.97 ERA in 82 1/3 innings last year, the southpaw wasn't being drafted as a frontline starter this spring -- but given that his 2018 season was abbreviated due to injury we'll put him here. Ryu is interesting in the fact that he throws five different pitches more than one-eighth of the time and doesn't throw any more than 30 percent. That makes him hard to figure for hitters, and the numbers bear that out -- his xwOBA is .286 and he's in the top 4 percent of the league in exit velocity. More plainly: guys aren't expected to get on base against him, in large part because they're not squaring him up. The years had by the honorable mentions deserve more than a passing nod, too. Sonny Gray has outperformed even the wildest dreams of those hoping he would benefit from a move to Cincinnati and a reunion with his college pitching coach Derek Johnson, owning a 2.80 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 190 strikeouts in 29 starts. Lance Lynn has had little success since he left the Cardinals after the 2017 season but he's back on track in Texas, and there's little coincidence that his renewed effectiveness has come as he's gotten back to throwing his four-seamer more than half the time. Yu Darvish started slow but has ridden a brilliant cutter to an incredibly successful second half. All four are surely members of many a fantasy championship squad this month.

Honorable mention: Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, Yu Darvish

 

Biggest Leap: Shane Bieber

The roadblock Bieber faced after a good but not great 2018 campaign was an unusual one: he was pounding the strike zone too much. That's usually a good thing for pitchers but too often Bieber was living in the zone and getting punished for it, rather than picking corners or intentionally throwing out of the zone to get hitters to chase. With that in mind -- and we don't have any proof that he set out to do that, only the year-to-year numbers we see -- the 24-year-old started throwing fewer strikes, and the results have been monstrous. Bieber reduced his zone percentage from 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent while upping his chase percentage from 28.9 to 32.4 percent. Those two numbers, plus the fact that batters are making contact 45.1 percent of the time when they chase, down from 52.5 percent in 2018 -- that's right, they're both chasing more often and making even less contact when they do -- have helped him avoid giving up as many easy hits as he did in 2018. The results: Bieber is 14-7 with a 3.17 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 241 strikeouts in 195 2/3 innings to date. It's criminal that Lucas Giolito gets relegated to a down-column mention, but as he's imparted upon plenty of hitters this year -- 228 to be exact -- life isn't always fair. Both Max Fried and Matthew Boyd have also made strides that deserve recognition, although Boyd's progress has gone boink in the second half after a wonderful first half.

Honorable mention: Lucas Giolito, Max Fried, Matthew Boyd

 

Rookie of the Year: Mike Soroka

The paths taken by Soroka and Chris Paddack this year are almost opposite in ways. Soroka entered spring training viewed as having a chance to break camp in the Braves' rotation with a good showing. Paddack entered spring as a high-profile prospect but one to remember for the future, not a guy who will be in San Diego any time soon. But Paddack performed throughout spring and forced his way onto the Padres' Opening Day roster by sheer will, while Soroka missed all of spring with shoulder soreness and was ruled out as a candidate to crack the Opening Day roster in late February. Soroka did get healthy, though, and all he's done since then is go 12-4 with a 2.57 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 27 starts. Paddack has been terrific as well, going 9-7 with a 3.38 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 144/30 K/BB ratio in 135 2/3 innings, but he also hit a rough patch in August. Zac Gallen has been nearly flawless in his frst 14 major league starts, not allowing more than three runs in a single outing, and Sandy Alcantara -- who was traded by the Cardinals to the Marlins with Gallen and others in exchange for Marcell Ozuna prior to the 2018 season -- has a lights-out 2.59 ERA in eight starts since the beginning of August. Alex Young, Dakota Hudson, John Means (more on him shortly) -- it's been a good year for young hurlers, but Soroka has been the best of the bunch.

Honorable mention: Chris Paddack, Zac Gallen, Sandy Alcantara

 

One to Watch: Frankie Montas

Montas was destined for a more prestigious spot on this list before he was suspended in late June for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. That suspension virtually ended his season, and what a season it was -- to that point the 26-year-old was 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 97 strikeouts in 90 innings of work. Players take PEDs for all sorts of reasons and it would be foolish to assume his effectiveness is guaranteed to take a hit post-suspension, and fantasy players have the added benefit of a likely discount on draft day due to the concerns surrounding suspended players. A more likely explanation for his sudden success was the development of a splitter that he threw 18 percent of the time with devastating effects. Montas will be back in time for a full 2020 season and shouldn't be forgotten about next spring. Also worth keeping in mind: Caleb Smith, who emerged as a legitimate strikeout source for the Marlins; Brandon Woodruff, who was the Brewers' budding ace before a severe left oblique strain in late July sent him to the shelf; and the aforementioned Means, who has a 3.47 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 137 1/3 innings for the Orioles. The Orioles!

Honorable mention: Caleb Smith, Brandon Woodruff, John Means

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