Evaluating Early Season Swinging Strike Risers
We’re a month and a half into the season, so it’s due time to evaluate pitchers who have grown in their peripherals. In this article, I took a deep dive into pitchers who have had a spike in their swinging strike rate and how likely that is to contribute to their fantasy performance moving forward.
Trevor Cahill and Jason Vargas
When discussing surprising pitchers early in the season, it’s obligatory to mention Trevor Cahill and Jason Vargas. Each has seen a jump in swinging strike rate, but each has concerns moving forward. Since 2014, Cahill has been used mostly out of the bullpen as he has thrown just 80 and 84 innings each of the past two seasons, respectively. This presents an interesting angle, as it both explains the decrease in velocity he has shown this season and gives a reason for his drastic change in performance. On the other hand, it also presents a concern for injury or fatigue as the season wears on. The other major concern in looking at Cahill’s profile is a 36.9% hard contact rate, which is very high for a starting pitcher. This may be mitigated a bit by a 57.1% groundball rate, but it is still concerning if batters hit the ball out of the park every time they lift it. Cahill’s SIERA and xFIP indicate that he has earned his results to this point, but the combination of a potential breakdown in health and a high hard contact rate makes Cahill someone difficult to buy into long term.
Meanwhile, Jason Vargas is even more difficult to buy into. It doesn’t take a baseball mastermind to realize that his ERA will rise from its current mark of 1.01, but there is little indication that he is deserving of career-best results. He has kept a nearly identical pitch mix to that of his previous seasons and has not gained any velocity, so Vargas simply looks like the 4th starting pitcher of old, with some (far) better luck. Owners of Vargas would do well to sell high if there are believers in their league.
Samardzija is a frustrating pitcher who has shown the ability to look like a top-30 starting pitcher for several months of the season, and then look like a pitcher incapable of being a top-100 pitcher for the rest of the season. Given that, it may be a fool’s errand to try to rely on Samardzija’s increased swinging strike rate to this point in the season. However, it is worth taking note that his 11.8% swinging strike rate matches and exceeds that of his 2014 season, when he finished as a fantasy ace.
The most notable change for Samardzija has come from his pitch mix, as he has greatly lowered usage of his cutter to feature mostly his fastball and slider with a splitter mixed in. That pitch mix is very similar to — you guessed it– his 2014 season. His current ERA is 5.44, so unlike the other of the players mentioned in this article, his increased swinging strike rate has yet to translate to better surface stats. His xFIP and SIERA both indicate his ERA should come down, and his 58% strand rate regressing could have a lot to do with that. Samardzija presents risk given his shaky track record, but he’s a nice buy-low option with excellent upside.
Estrada is everyone’s favorite regression candidate heading into each season, but he has been productive to start the season yet again. In the early going of the season, however, Estrada’s xFIP is under 4.00 for the first time since the 2013 season. This is in part due to a career-best 25.4% strikeout rate, which has been earned through a swinging strike rate 1.3% greater than his previous career best.
There isn’t much evident as far as pitch mix or velocity changes, but Estrada has managed to generate more swings at his pitches. That is a good thing for the time being, as nearly the entirety of that increase has come on pitches outside the zone. Both his swinging strike rate and ability to get hitters to chase pitches outside the zone indicate that he has become more elusive to batters. That makes it likely that he will continue to evade all those calling for regression for at least another season