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June 7, 2013

Five to Watch

Checking in on the Holy Trinity

by Bret Sayre

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About a month ago, Russell Carleton talked about pitcher stats and when they stabilize. And now that we’re two months into the season, the time has come where we can look at some of the high-ticket items my eyes drift toward on the stat page without worrying about being distracted by small sample sizes. These performances are real and whether or not they continue, we will always be able to look back upon them through sepia tones and Instagram filters.

If you’ve read my stuff from a previous life, you’ve undoubtedly heard me talk about the Holy Trinity as it comes to starting pitchers. It encompasses the three skills that are most important to the art of pitching: getting strikeouts, reducing walks, and keeping the ball on the ground. Any pitcher who does at least one of these things well can be a major leaguer. Just two of these qualities are enough to be a star, but the pitchers who can do all three are the ones who are special, because they have the largest amount of control over their downside risk.

Over the past two seasons, there have been nine pitchers who have completed the trifecta of having a strikeout rate of 7.0 per nine innings or higher, a walk rate of 2.5 per nine innings or lower, and a ground-ball rate of at least 50 percent—all while throwing more than 100 innings. This group includes Jaime Garcia (who has done it in both seasons), Kris Medlen, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Doug Fister, James Shields, Adam Wainwright, and Dillon Gee (the underdog).

This season, there are five players on track for Holy Trinity status. These are their stories, and the nicknames I’ve appropriately given them. Four of them you could probably guess if given a reasonable number of guesses—but the last guy, that would take a while.

Felix Hernandez, “The Stud”

You guys remember when everyone was freaking out over Felix and his elbow during draft season? Funny, me neither. It turns out that even though his fastball velocity has continued to decline in 2013, diminishing velocity alone cannot stop King Felix. He’s not only a top-10 starting pitcher, but he’s posting both the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his illustrious career.

The secret to his success? A revitalized changeup. King Felix is throwing his change both more often and with more swings and misses than he has previously. Here are some more fun stats with his off-speed pitch. The King is allowing a microscopic .096 batting average and .173 slugging percentage off his changeup. He also has a 6.33 percent ground-ball to fly-ball rate on the pitch. When hitters swing at his change-up, they miss nearly 44 percent of the time. It’s crazy. It’s delicious. It’s full of every hashtag that Jason Parks has ever thought up.

Doug Fister, “The Repeater”

Fister has been so good from a skills perspective that he’s gotten unlucky and still been pretty great from a raw fantasy angle. He has the second lowest fly-ball rate in baseball so far in 2013 (behind only Wily Peralta of all players), though you could argue that it’s actually not the greatest thing for his value to keep the ball on the ground that much in front of that Detroit infield defense.

But the most impressive thing about Fister thus far in 2013 is the fact that he’s kept his strikeout rate at the improved rate he showed in 2012 while simultaneously dropping his walk rate to a new career low of 1.4 per nine innings (he was at 2.06 per nine in 2012). We already knew who Fister was, but now he’s becoming a better version of that guy—and he makes for a great trade target if his owner doesn’t quite realize how good he’s been thus far.

Alex Cobb, “The Newcomer”

Cobb got plenty of juice this off-season and even was declared overhyped by the time the season rolled around. Well, it turns out that maybe the hype he got wasn’t enough. With the highest ground-ball rate in the American League (57.6 percent), Cobb has continued to show a propensity for making life difficult on the ground crew. However, he’s also now increased his strikeout rate and decreased his walk rate for the third straight season, and his 2.90 xFIP is more than a half a run better than the next best pitcher on his own staff—which includes three pitchers (Price, Moore, Hellickson) who were drafted ahead of him.

There are two interesting things about Cobb’s performance these last two months. The first is that Cobb continues to get ground balls at an elite rate despite throwing 10 percent more four-seam fastballs and 10 percent fewer two-seam fastballs than last season. He’s doing this with location, as he’s actually getting ground balls on 47.1 percent of his four-seamers put into play, compared to 45.5 percent of his two-seamers. The second is that Cobb has reversed his platoon split from last season. In 2012, Cobb held right-handed hitters to a 633 OPS, while allowing a 735 OPS to lefties. However, this season, left-handers are hitting only .213/.253/.343—that’s an OPS of less than 600.

John Lackey, “The Comeback Kid”

To head off your question, Lackey is not the most surprising name on the list, despite the fact that he may have been the least likely of these candidates back in spring training. Back on April 7, Lackey suffered a terrible-looking arm injury and it was not difficult to envision that he would be out of commission for a long time. However, this season has been one of the most impressive of his career, especially considering that he hadn’t pitched since 2011.

The most surprising thing about Lackey being on this list is that he’s never had a ground-ball rate above 46 percent in his career, yet this season it is nearly 55 percent. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be due to a change in pitch mix; it is being driven by a huge spike in the number of ground outs he gets from his four-seam fastball. Between 2007 and 2011, that rate was always between 28 and 35 percent, but it’s jumped to over 48 percent in 2013. It’s not that this makes the improvement unsustainable, it just make it more difficult to project with much enthusiasm. However, despite this, Lackey is still maintaining both his pre-surgery velocity and secondary pitch effectiveness—in fact, the whiff rate on his curveball in 2013 is higher than in any of his past five seasons. He’s certainly a pitcher you could get for relatively cheap in your league, and one that could pay strong dividends.

Though, if you want to find someone who would be even less expensive to acquire via trade, look no further than the fifth and final name on this list.

Rick Porcello, “The Shocker”

There was a slight movement in spring training to push for Porcello as a post-hype sleeper (even though he was a failed post-hype sleeper the season prior). A strong showing in Florida led to him winning the fifth-starter job over fan and fantasy darling Drew Smyly. But after April was over, everyone awaited the news that Smyly would be moved back into the rotation—after all, Porcello had an 8.84 ERA, a 1.71 WHIP, and only eight strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings.

But something happened on the way to the dungeon Tigers fans had reserved in his name. Since May 1, Porcello has a 3.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 39 strikeouts, and only five walks in his last 37 2/3 innings. That’s right, he’s striking out more than a batter an inning during this time period. However, because he was so bad in April and has gotten unlucky with his strand and home run rates, his overall season stats sit at two wins, a 5.21 ERA, and 47 strikeouts. In fact, he’s not even among the top 120 starting pitchers for fantasy in 2013, ranking behind stalwarts like Barry Zito, Luke Hochevar, and Miguel Gonzalez. But even his underlying numbers, which often look more impressive than his raw numbers, are standing out this season. Porcello is ninth in the majors in xFIP (3.03), and when you bring up the leaderboard, it’s astonishing to see the names around him. Directly ahead of him are Matt Harvey and Justin Verlander, and directly behind him are A.J. Burnett and Jeff Samardzija. Not exactly the kind of company you’d expect Porcello to be keeping.

This brings us to the most important question—why is this happening? Porcello has essentially scrapped his slider this year, and gone to a curveball—as you can see by the chart below:





































This appears to be paying dividends for him. Batters are hitting only .167 this year off of his curveballs and slugging only .300, which is significantly better than the .286 average and .443 slugging percentage off his slider between 2009 and 2012. On top of this, he’s throwing his changeup more often and getting more whiffs on it than ever before. He’s certainly a risky proposition, especially given his history, but if you want to take a chance on him, now is the time to do it.

Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

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