Last week I profiled five hitters whose early-season changes in contact rate are changing their fantasy value. This week, it’s the hurlers’ turn.
Before we get to the specific players, I should acknowledge that drawing conclusions from contact rate alone is, of course, overly simple. Just as I did last week, I will try to identify other contextual factors that contribute to the change in contact rate and offer some opinion on whether that context leads me to believe the change has staying power. As was correctly eluded to elsewhere on the internet in a reaction of sorts to comments I made about Brad Miller—specifically the dichotomous nature of my conclusion relative to that reached by another author—untangling this mess is fraught with risk if you’re trying to make definitive statements about the direction the data leads you.
I’m not under any pretense that my evaluations are more correct than someone else’s, assuming they were also made with coherent analysis. Really, who the hell knows what Brad Miller is going to do? I’ve changed my mind about him two or three times in fewer than one thousand major league plate appearances. A week ago I made a case based on what I’ve seen in 2015 and I hope I’m right, for my sake and yours, reader. If I wanted to ensure I wasn’t wrong, I could’ve just gone with ¯_(ãƒ„)_/¯ and called it a day but it’s more fun to do a little research and stake claim to a position, perhaps manifesting a rooting interest where one didn’t previously exist. Isn’t that what fantasy sports is all about?
We had Shields ranked in the four-star tier during the preseason and kept him there in our mid-May update, despite the fact that he gave up seven home runs in the first week of May. On May 8th, his ERA stood at 4.25 and his WHIP at 1.25, but his value was supported by an impressive 30.4 percent strikeout rate. The strikeouts have slowed a bit since then but he still stands at 10.68 per nine innings for the season, a full 3.5 more than he struck out last season and nearly two more per nine than his previous career high. He's achieved that mark by posting contact rate numbers that not only surpass anything he's done in his career but also place him in elite company compared to his peers. Shields' overall 71.19 percent contact rate is the fifth-lowest in baseball among qualifiers.
He has had success trimming his contact rate in the zone but plummeting off-the-plate contact is the bigger contributor to his overall change. Shields' 13.2 percentage point decline in contact rate outside the strike zone is easily the most drastic change in the league. One reason for the change has been a shift in repertoire. Shields’ changeup has been his signature pitch for quite some time but he's been throwing his knuckle curve nearly one out of every four pitches in 2015, where it had been about one out of every eight over the past two seasons. That may be making his entire arsenal more effective, as his whiff rates have increased across the board despite a little drop in velocity. One other potential explanation is a big change in his horizontal release point. Shields is now pitching from the extreme right side of the rubber, a move that was gradual from 2009 to 2013 but has been much more pronounced in the past two seasons. It can be difficult to buy players with name value at much of a discount, but if you’re able to get a break on account of the gopher-ball issue, I recommend that you do.
De La Rosa's electric debut was way back in 2011 and he's been mostly underwhelming since making it back from the Tommy John surgery that cut his rookie campaign short. Now in his first year with the Diamondbacks, he's showing signs of fulfilling the potential he flashed as a 22-year-old. De La Rosa has always pounded the zone but this year has turned some of that control in to command, posting a 16.3 percent K-BB%, a top-30 mark among qualifiers. Despite throwing the ball in the strike zone more than half the time, opposing batters are having more trouble than ever making contact, largely a function of an increased swing rate. De La Rosa is throwing his fastball and sinker for strikes more often, helping him get ahead in counts while the breaking and offspeed pitches are usually down and/or off the plate, keeping hitters off balance. His slider has been helped by an extra tick of velocity while the changeup has benefitted from more velocity separation relative to the hard stuff. De La Rosa was shelled in back to back starts recently, which highlights his volatility from start to start, but there are some encouraging signs here if you're looking for an upside play.
Like Shields, De La Rosa's contact rate is a top-10 mark. Unlike Shields, he is completely out of place alongside Liriano, Ross, Sale, Kershaw, Kluber, Hamels, Archer, and Scherzer. De La Rosa is making his gains almost entirely over the plate, as the 8.87 percentage point reduction in his zone contact rate is easily the best in baseball among regular starters. De La Rosa is in the zone so infrequently (his 42.72 percent rate is fourth-lowest) that batters are really letting it rip when they get a pitch to hit; his 69.3 percent in-zone swing rate is the seventh-highest in baseball. It’s a little curious, as De La Rosa is in the zone with his four-seam fastball more often than any other pitch and aside from a vertical release point that is a little tighter across his five-pitch mix, the stuff hasn’t really changed. De La Rosa is also continuing to increase usage of his splitter, which he is throwing for strikes with more success and coaxing swings at an unprecedented rate. The rest of his arsenal has undergone some notable shifts – he is more or less ignoring breaking balls, rarely throwing the slider and curve that were part of his mix prior to last season and increasing reliance on the cutter, a pitch he added in 2014. There are some positives you can point to but the inning sample is smaller and so is the true talent level. Factor in his age and the home park (though he oddly has a stated preference for pitching at Coors), and this De La Rosa is more of a wait-and-see than a buy.
Wood’s 171 2/3 innings fell short of qualifying in 2014 but his 24.5 percent strikeout rate would have been 13th best among starters if he had a few more innings. The strikeout potential drove his 25th ADP in NFBC drafts but those strikeouts have dried up to the point where his 16.9 rate falls in between Kyle Lohse and Ryan Vogelsong. The pitch mix hasn’t changed much and neither has his velocity, so you have to peel back a couple more layers to figure this one out.
A few weeks ago, Wilson Karaman noted that Wood’s offspeed and breaking pitches had flattened out, and while he has largely fixed that issue, one thing that hasn’t changed since then is Wood’s vertical release point, which has dropped dramatically compared to his first two seasons. For a player whose busy delivery has always led to questions about repeatability, a mechanical change is a big deal. I’m by no means an expert when it comes to evaluating mechanics but the change seems to be taking away some of the deception that was embedded in the funkiness of the delivery. Batters are swinging at about the same rate as last year but whiffing far less on pitches both in and out of the zone. Further, Wood is having more trouble throwing strikes than he ever has, as his 46.58 percent zone rate is the worst of his career. His walk rate has crept up but is still roughly league average and his excellent HR:FB rate is suppressing his ERA. I’m mostly a dynasty guy and therefore I’m hesitant to recommend that you sell a still-young player with a track record in long-term formats, but If you can sell at near full preseason value in redrafts, I think you should. DRA- thinks he’s been worse than league average and cFIP agrees that he’ll pitch to that same uninspiring standard going forward.
Aside from Stephen Strasburg, no other starting pitcher has seen his contact rate rise as dramatically as the second-year groundballer with the big bender. He’s been pitching in the zone more often and that has translated to improvement in his walk rate, but the change is encouraging batters to swing more and limiting his strikeout total. Hitters are laying off the offspeed and breaking pitches, and looking for his four-seamer and sinker in the zone. It’s a solid plan considering Hahn throws first-pitch strikes at a low rate (83rd among 105 qualifiers) and becomes extremely predictable when behind in the count. When behind against righties, he throws a four-seamer or sinker 90 percent of the time compared to 68 percent overall. The gap isn’t as wide against lefties, but there is still a 13 percentage point differential. Hahn’s sweeping curveball is also suddenly impotent. His 24.44 whiffs per swing is a bottom-20 mark among pitchers who have thrown at least 100 yakkers and quite a reduction when compared to the 38.07 mark he achieved in his rookie year. The movement in both dimensions is the same and the velocity is up, so it’s hard to figure the reason for the ineffectiveness other than hitters getting additional looks at the youngster as he adds innings to his short resume. Where DRA- and cFIP agreed on Wood, they diverge pretty widely on Hahn. DRA- thinks he’s pitched like a top 40 starter to date but cFIP believes his true talent is more like a bottom 40 guy. Your leaguemates might be put off by his Roark-ian strikeout total, but the excellent ratios may just give you a hook.
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