In 2016, the Blue Jays lefty was one of the most surprising fantasy pitchers in all of baseball, finishing as a top-15 arm on ESPN’s Player Rater at the end of the year. Of course, much of that was built on the back of a 20-win season and a 3.18 ERA with peripherals that didn’t match up. This year, it’s going a little differently. We are, of course, just a couple weeks into the season and Happ has only made two starts. In those two starts, he has struck out 17 batters in just 11.2 innings. This 13.1 K/9 is a huge jump over his typical rate—around seven or eight per nine innings. The results haven’t exactly gone along with his big strikeout rate, but if he keeps whiffing batters like this he’ll be just fine.
Of course, whether or not he can keep up this small-sample performance is a big question. Looking a little bit deeper, there are some mixed signals. On the one hand, his swinging-strike rate hasn’t changed much from last year, when he struck out just 7.5 per nine. However, he is having much more success on pitches out of the zone. On those pitches, he is both inducing a much higher rate of swings while also allowing much less contact on those swings. Part of that is because of a repertoire change that has him throwing sinkers a lot more often, per Brooks Baseball. It’s been a successful change, as he’s inducing whiffs on a quarter of the swings against the pitch. Happ certainly isn’t going to keep this up, but he has had high strikeout rates early in his career and struck out a batter per inning as recently as 2012. With some of the changes he’s made, it wouldn’t surprise me if he could get back to something close to that level in 2017.
Volquez is coming off a hugely disappointing season in which he pitched to a 5.37 ERA in his final season with the Royals. The Marlins were willing to pony up for a two-year deal for him this winter, and the early returns on the 33-year-old are encouraging. Specifically, with regard to strikeouts, the righty is setting down 10.6 per nine innings. It’s a huge leap forward after striking out just 6.6 per nine a year ago. In fact, he’s had exactly one full season in which struck out at least a batter per inning in his 13 years in the majors.
Unfortunately, the things aren’t quite as promising for Volquez as they were for Happ. For one thing, Volquez isn’t throwing as many strikes this year as he has in the past. That can work for now, but once hitters start to adjust it won’t be as promising. While he is getting more swings on those pitches out of the zone, he’s not getting as large of a decrease in terms of contact on those pitches. As far as repertoire goes, there is one major change: Volquez is airing it out a bit more this year. That’s not to say he’s seen an increase in velocity, but rather that he’s leaning more on his four-seam fastball. Again, this is something that could be working now, but seems like the kind of change hitters would adjust to fairly quickly. It’s always possible these changes are sustainable, but I’d be looking to sell high on Volquez if I owned him.
For the past few years, Samardzija has been one of the most frustrating pitchers in the game. The stuff is there, and he shows it in flashes, but he’s never really been able to put it together on a consistent basis. His command hasn’t quite been there through his first two starts, but the giant Giant has been able to strike out 12 batters per nine innings—after striking out 7.4 per nine last year and 6.9 per nine the year before that.
Unlike the other two on this list, Samardzija is seeing massive improvement in swinging-strike rate. In fact (SMALL SAMPLE ALERT), among the 256 pitchers who have thrown at least 50 pitches, only 25 have induced swinging strikes more often. The bulk of these swings and misses have been on pitches out of the strike zone. On the one hand, that seems like something hitters can adjust to. Just don’t swing, right? It’s not as easy with Samardzija, as he’s not relying on more fastballs, but rather more breaking balls. Specifically, he has been leaning heavily on sliders and splitters. According to Brooks Baseball, the slider is inducing whiffs on just under half of swings, and the splitter is inducing whiffs on just over half of swings. There are going to be clunkers mixed in with Samardzija every so often, but with a good pitcher’s park he might be someone who could pay off in deeper leagues this season.