Buy-High Guide: Pitchers
Note: This is a continuation of the Buy-High Guide: Hitters article.
Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox
Expectations for Porcello were understandably low after a disastrous 2015, but a massive turnaround this season has Porcello on his way to a career year. The biggest driver for Porcello’s success is his sinker usage, which he ramped up from 29.8% last season to 42.3% this season. The sinker is excellent at inducing grounders, so his ground ball rate is trending back up to pre-2015 levels. Somewhat surprisingly, Porcello is still giving up his fair share of home runs—this should improve as the season goes on, given the ground balls and past HR/9 marks.
Porcello’s also seen his whiffs/swing on the four-seamer jump 13.9% to 28.04%. The pitch itself hasn’t really changed, but Porcello has kept it down. In addition, throwing it in tandem with the sinker should allow both pitches to play up. Another factor in play could be health. Porcello hit the disabled list in July of 2015 with a strained triceps and looked like a different pitcher upon return: a 5.81 ERA pre-injury gave way to a 3.82 ERA post-injury. It’s also worth mentioning that Porcello’s new battery mate, Christian Vasquez, is a clear upgrade over Blake Swihart.
Luck has played a role in his resurgence as well. Porcello’s .332 BABIP last season was bound to improve and it has—all the way down to .266 this year. The BABIP could trend back up and the strikeouts may not remain as high, but this should be offset by fewer home runs. This gives hope that Porcello can maintain (or even improve) his solid ratios, while keeping his strikeouts at a high enough level that he can be a very good pitcher in fantasy leagues.
Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
We knew Aaron Nola was good after being selected seventh overall in the 2014 draft, but nobody thought he was this good. The 22-year old has a 2.89 ERA this season, along with an extremely impressive 9.85 K/9 and 1.53 BB/9. In fact, his 6.44 K/BB is third best in baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard. Nola’s also been inducing ground balls at an outstanding 56% rate and his 2.66 DRA is eighth best in the big leagues. There’s no going around the fact that Nola has been elite this season and since he’s listed in a buy-high article, you’ve probably realized that I think he can continue this.
Nola has incredible polish and command, but scouts felt his upside was limited given a lackluster fastball. In a velocity driven era, having a heater that sits at just 90 mph can be damning. Despite what may be a bad fastball, Nola has made it work thanks to elite secondary offerings. The most obvious of these is his curveball, which has been nearly unhittable this season with a .092 batting average against. In addition, Nola’s arm slot and command have allowed everything to play up—not only does he pound the zone, but he can put pitches where he wants and the deception causes hitters to swing at much fewer strikes than you may expect. Nola, like Porcello, has also played around with his four-seamer and sinker usage, increasing the latter to induce more groundballs.
There’s some risk that the league adjusts to Nola as they get the book on him, and the swing rate on pitches in the zone may also increase. There’s no reason to think Nola can’t overcome this, though, given his deep arsenal, deception, and command.
Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles
Tillman was overrated for a few years in fantasy circles, but that trend was no more after a 2015 that saw him post a 4.99 ERA and poor strikeout and walk rates. Tillman has always had little room for error with a bad fastball, unspectacular secondaries, and middling command, but things fell apart last year. He’s dramatically turned it around in 2016, though, and all the sudden Tillman might be underrated. So, what happened?
The key to Tillman’s hot start in 2016 is that he no longer has a bad fastball. Tillman’s heater long had below-average velocity, but it’s now being thrown harder than ever. In addition, Tillman is showing increased faith in his cutter, doubling its usage. This has allowed him to limit the exposure of his four-seam fastball (it may no longer be bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s very good). He’s also seeing some alteration in movement on all his pitches, and this may be due to a change in his release point.
Whatever Tillman’s doing differently, it’s working. His curveball and cutter have seen their whiffs per swing dramatically increase, which is the key to his newfound strikeouts.
Tillman does come with a few concerns, most notably a walk rate that would currently be a career high and an absurdly low home run rate. A poor ground ball rate will cause those home runs to trend up, but improvements in other areas of the game should soften the blow. He won’t carry a sub-3.00 ERA for the rest of the season, but Tillman can still post strong ratios with a good strikeout rate going forward.