April 6, 2015
Pitching Trident: Downers
In last week's episode of Raising Aces, we singled out the pitchers that I had ranked higher than the consensus, on the basis of my three-year fantasy rankings here at Baseball Prospectus compared to the Average Draft Position (ADP) at the time that those rankings were formed (late February). This week, we flip the coin to study the downside (there's two sides to every Schwartz), evaluating the hurlers that I had ranked far below their ADPs to see whether there is any rhyme, reason, or merit to my theoretical pessimism.
The same rules apply as last week, eliminating the prospects and injury cases in order to minimize the influence of the three-year window in my rankings, encouraging a more direct comparison to the single-year ADP list. The goal for the Downers is on the opposite end of the same spectrum as the Uppers, to expose the elements that knock a pitcher down my lists while acknowledging my own biases and oversights. Consider my rankings as a side of beef that's about to be butchered.
Cobb and Ross are in similar boats, and they sank together down the ranks as if tied by a rope. Both pitchers are talented, and I actually like what they bring to the table, but each has a red flag that hurts his respective stock.
Cobb is known for his contrived leg lift when pitching from the windup, and though I don't mind the technique in isolation (so long as he can repeat it), the big issue comes up when pitching from the stretch. Cobb requires a completely different timing pattern from the stretch in order to prevent a non-stop barrage of steals, and his effectiveness has taken a big hit when forced into these situations.
For example, last season his K-to-walk ratio with the bases empty (from the windup) was 104-to-22 (4.73) in 399 plate appearances, but his ratio with runners aboard was only 45-to-25 (1.80) in 180 plate appearances as Cobb was spared by an unsustainable .220 BABIP with runners on base. His previous season had similar true outcome ratios (4.04 K-to-walk from windup, 1.86 from stretch) with a league-average BABIP, though in that case he had an incredibly low ISO to help mute the damage. I dunno, maybe he has some magic beans or something really cool that I don't even know about, but I'm not going to trust him until he finds consistency from the stretch.
The issue with Ross comes down to his slider. The usage of his go-to secondary has been soaring, from 25.7 percent in 2012 to 32.7 percent in '13 and 41.1 percent last season. In terms of slider frequency, the 30-percent barrier is often considered a danger zone, and Ross flew past that mark without blinking. The flexor mass strain in his pitching arm that ended his 2014 season was an ominous sign, and the Padres not only have to be careful with his fragile wing, but the fact that Ross has performed better as his slider usage has increased throws a wrench into the decision-making process. The ranking reflects the feeling that he won't mimic the same process in 2015 without risking serious injury, and that his effectiveness takes a hit as the slider is featured less often in his repertoire.
Fiers is a pitcher that drops on my rankings due to a combination of suspect mechanics, pedestrian stuff, and a shaky track record of performance. His over-the-top arm slot results in many pitches that generate strikes despite missing the catcher's targets, resulting in a deceivingly-low walk rate. Fiers benefits from a pair of catchers who are adept at turning low offerings into strikes, expanding the strike zone to help him get away with some of his misses, but his inconsistency and 90-mph fastball are enough to send Fiers plunging down my SP list.
I'm cheating a bit by including Quintana, as he barely fell outside the top-50 starting pitchers according to ADP in late February (he's now ranked 47th). But I wanted to include him because Quintana was a huge oversight on my part and I want to cop to it. His profile is a bit boring, and I guess that my attention was tuned to players with greater risk/reward, but I had also crowned him as the best balance in the AL Central not two months prior so clearly I blew it on this one. His delivery is solid but not spectacular, just like his repertoire, but the results are repeatable and worth far more than where I had him ranked. As penance, I have tried to take Quintana in every fantasy draft that he was available (landed him in two out of three, which I hear ain't bad).
Jacob deGrom presents a very interesting case. The gut feel is that he performed over his head last season, but his in-season improvements were legit and certainly raised the roof of expectations. The low walk rate has been a staple throughout deGrom's pro career, though the strikeouts are likely to take a step backward. I just think that the hype balloon has a bit too much helium, but he is a lot of fun to watch and I will be rooting for deGrom to continue his development on an upward slope this year.
Alex Wood has one of the craziest deliveries in the game, with such intense lean that he was given the bottom-feeding 20-grade for his balance in the 2015 Starting Pitcher Guide. Pitchers with such a pronounced imbalance are expected to struggle mightily with command and repetition, and yet somehow Wood has risen above those obstacles to nail targets with surprising precision. The low walk rates are not a function of arm slot, either, adding to the legitimacy of his skills for mechanical repetition, but foundational instability continues to form a dark cloud of doubt as to his ability to replicate that level of command in the future. I am willing to accept that he has been an outlier, but I am not yet willing to presume that he will continue to defy the fundamental laws of pitching mechanics.
The Hughes ranking has nothing to do with his delivery (which earned a “B” grade in the latest SP Guide) and everything to do with expectation. His walk rate last year was absolutely ridiculous, with just 16 free passes in 32 games started, but it was less than one-third of his next-lowest frequency in a season. His rate of homers allowed was the lowest of his career, and though part of that improvement was related to his move out of the torture chamber of Yankee Stadium and into the cavern of Target Field, I expect some regression in both categories this season. He could double his walk rate and still be among the stingiest pitchers in baseball, yet any more than a small dose of regression to career norms could spell doom to his value.
My pessimism toward Drew Smyly is well-established, and his unstable motion has led me to label him as everything from a “drunken flamingo” to “the leaning tower of pitching.” Similar to Alex Wood, Smyly lacks the stability to support his walk rates, but unlike Wood, Smyly has also received help from an exaggerated over-the-top arm slot that blurs the lines between command and control. His move to the Rays opens up the floor to more questions given the organizational tendency toward well-balanced pitchers, so it will be interesting to see if there are any mechanical adjustments made to his motion this season.
Between the clunky delivery and a below-average fastball that is declining too rapidly for a pitcher Smyly's age, combined with shoulder troubles that are commonly associated with his degree of spine-tilt, I see a recipe for disaster. It seems that Smyly has more defenders out there than any other pitcher that I ranked, and much of the praise has been centered on his performance after being traded to the Rays, but his hit rate of 4.7 H/9 with Tampa is completely unsustainable and we can expect regression even if Smyly continues to defy the story told by his delivery.