Almost everyone who plays fantasy baseball follows some numbers in the game. Common statistics that most fantasy baseball owners follow are HR, R, RBI, SB, batting average, W, SV, WHIP, ERA and strikeouts. Winning in fantasy baseball is about finding an edge or information to utilize that your other league members aren’t. This is where next level statistics come into play. These are commonly referred to as sabermetric statistics. Going forward this is what my “Follow The Numbers” posts will be about. Exposing a statistic that says something about the current production (or lack thereof) of a player. All statistics are courtesy of fangraphs.com.
This article will cover major league starting pitchers.
What is Swinging Strike percentage (SwStr%) you ask? Well, it’s pretty simple to explain. It’s swings and misses divided by total pitches. Now, not all starting pitchers are flame throwers and/or are pitchers that have the “stuff” to get a lot of swing and miss. Some make their living, and some do it pretty darn well, without dominating or even doing great in this one area. Some are ground-ball inducing artists of the mound.
It should be said that just because someone is good or better in any of these statistical areas I track, that doesn’t automatically mean they are good or better as a starting pitcher as a whole. This is why we look at more than just the one statistic being highlighted in this Follow The Numbers series when discussing each player. Even though this is just one statistic, it is an important one for fantasy baseball purposes. Obviously all effective starting pitchers are valuable to have in fantasy baseball, but the ones that can strike guys out at a higher rate, with all other things in the statistical analysis of the players being compared being relatively equal, these guys have even more value as they help out more in the strikeouts category. So, without further delay, I give you the starting pitchers listed on fangraphs.com that have a “Qualified” minimum innings pitched and that are, at least at the beginning of the season, dominant in this area.
Chris Sale: 16.5% SwStr%
We just discussed Mr. Sale yesterday, so I won’t go in-depth on him today. However, it is awesome to see his SwStr% so high. I consider anything at or above a 12.5% to be excellent. In 2016 it was 11.3% (above average) and in the two seasons prior to that (12.9% in 2014 and 14.6% in 2015) it was excellent.
Danny Salazar: 16.4% SwStr%
We just went in-depth with Mr. Salazar in the FIP Diamonds article on May 9th. However, the wheels completely came off on May 10th for him as he only lasted 2.2 innings while giving up 5 earned runs. That obviously increased his FIP from the 3.27 it had been all the way up to a 3.55. It is a bit concerning that in his past 3 starts now he has FIP’s of 6.66, 4.10 and then the 7.15 he posted on May 10th. This is something to pay close attention to.
Max Scherzer: 16.1% SwStr%
In his previous two full seasons as a Washington Nationals starting pitcher Mr. Scherzer had SwStr% numbers of 15.3% each season, so it’s not a surprise to see him with this SwStr%. His FIP this year thus far (3.27) is almost identical to the 3.24 he posted in 2016. In short, it looks like he just picked up where he left off in 2016, which is being one of the best fantasy baseball starting pitchers in the game.
Jacob deGrom: 15.7% SwStr%
I discussed Mr. deGrom in the May 9th article, so I won’t discuss him further here.
Kenta Maeda: 15.2% SwStr%
This is a very welcome development from a fantasy baseball perspective. Last season in 175.2 innings pitched Mr. Maeda had a 11.6% SwStr% (great). This season, as you can see, it is excellent after 39.1 innings pitched. It is also good to see his F-Strike% increase from the 61.7% last year to 63.8% this season. The big negative with him this season has been his 1.83 HR/9, which was 1.02 in 2016. Thus, he has a 5.03 ERA and 4.32 FIP. He really needs to get this HR/9 under control.
Trevor Cahill: 13.9% SwStr%
Mr. Cahill has only pitched 43.1 innings in 2015, 65.2 innings in 2016 and now 35.1 innings in 2017 at the major league level, however, we have seen his SwStr% increase each year from 9.3% (poor), to 11% (above average) to now excellent this season. His F-Strike% was 58.8% in 2015 (awful) and 54.6% last season (beyond awful) but this season it’s at 64.4% (average and really, almost above average).
The 29-year-old was used almost exclusively as a reliever at the major league level in 2015 and 2016 but this season with the San Diego Padres has seen all his work as a starting pitcher. He has put up a surprising 3.06 ERA with an equally surprising 2.80 FIP. Now, some might say the ERA shouldn’t be all that surprising, because he had a 2.74 major league ERA last year, but we must remember his FIP last season was 4.35 and he also didn’t have to face hitters multiple times, as he has had to this season as a starting pitcher.
Going deeper on Mr. Cahill (because he might just be having a breakout season) we look at his splits. Specifically, we are going to look at his home/away splits. Look at that ERA disparity! He has pitched almost an equal amount of innings at home and away. However, while his home ERA is only a microscopic 0.49, on the road it is a beyond awful 5.82. However, then we look at FIP and see that at home it is 2.70 and on the road it is 2.91. So, basically, he’s been so amazingly lucky at home this season and so amazingly unlucky on the road! Well…and then there’s the BB% disparity. His BB% at home is 8.8% (which I consider awful). However, his road BB% is way beyond awful at 12.8%. That disparity, combined with other disparities, has led to such a difference in the home and away ERA splits. For example, his BABIP at home is only .150, yet on the road it’s .405. His LOB% at home is a high 95.2% but his LOB% on the road is only 61.6%.
Ok, we can’t just stop there with Mr. Cahill. I mean, I just mentioned that he might be having a breakout season. We need to go deeper! Like, baseballsavant.mlb.com stats deeper!
Here is his 2017 Pitch Breakdown profile:
Sinker: 161 pitches, 7 hits, 8 whiffs
Knuckle-Curve: 128 pitches, 2 hits, 31 whiffs
Changeup: 124 pitches, 6 hits, 23 whiffs
Four-Seam Fastball: 44 pitches, 4 hits, 3 whiffs
Slider: 18 pitches, 4 hits, 3 whiffs
How this pitch breakdown is different from what he did in just under double the amount of innings pitched last year is the big key to look at here.
2016 Pitch Breakdown profile:
Sinker: 633 pitches, 35 hits, 24 whiffs
Changeup: 274 pitches, 7 hits, 68 whiffs
Knuckle-Curve: 220 pitches, 3 hits, 29 whiffs
Four-Seam Fastball: 93 pitches, 2, hits, 8 whiffs
Slider: 31 pitches, 2 hits, 7 whiffs
Did the difference from last season to this season stand out to you? If not, well, it’s the frequency he has used the Knuckle-Curve. Last year of the 1,251 pitches that were tracked by Statcast, 17.6% of them were Knuckle-Curves. This season, in the 475 pitches tracked, 27% have been Knuckle-Curves.
Here’s a percentage breakdown of pitch types comparing 2016 to 2017:
Sinker: 51% (2016), 33.9% (2017)
Knuckle-Curve: 17.6% (2016), 27% (2017)
Changeup: 21.9% (2016), 26.1% (2017)
Four-Seam Fastball: 7.4% (2016), 9.3% (2017)
Slider: 2.5% (2016), 3.8% (2017)
As you can see, the increased usage of the Knuckle-Curve has really helped re-define him as a pitcher this season. Some might be wondering if it is a velocity change that has led to the greater effectiveness. I would say no to that. His fastball, slider, sinker and knuckle-curve velocity numbers are down from last season while only his changeup has had an uptick of under 1 MPH this season compared to 2016.
I am in full believe mode that we are seeing a breakout performance here from Mr. Cahill.