Jordan’s Research Ramblings: Some Pitching Observations from Week 1
Since last season, I’ve been updating expected strikeout and walk rate leaderboards for pitchers, using data from Baseball Savant. They have now been updated through the games of August 1st this year. I will update approximately weekly, not always with an article in accompaniment, so be sure to bookmark if this is the sort of thing you fancy. For week one though, I would be delighted to share some of my observations from the leaderboards with you.
The leaderboards show a pitcher’s expected strikeout and walk rate given his underlying pitch results: swinging strikes, called strikes, foul strikes, in-play strikes, and balls. Strikeout rate and walk rate are among the stickiest statistics, both stabilizing in less than 170 batters faced, so they are a sensible first place to start out when analyzing pitcher performance at the beginning of the season. Further, I’ve found expected strikeout and expected walk rates are even more predictive of future performance than strikeout and walk rate in very small samples. See the hyperlinked article for a methodology explanation for the expected metrics. Additionally, velocity, spin rate, movement, and pitch mix changes all become sticky quickly. Note that the last one is of course a deliberate choice, presumably announced by proclamation, “I NOW COMMIT MYSELF TO THROWING ONLY SPLITTERS.”
The rest of this article offers data-centric observations on the first week of pitching in 2020 with an eye toward the aforementioned factors: expected strikeout and walk rate, velocity, pitch mix, etc. My approach will be no surprise to familiar readers, as I lack the expertise to offer any particular insight through my eyes. It is indeed hard for me to even differentiate between two faces–though I think mostly out of fear of confusing a dear friend for the delivery guy–let alone to offer complex analysis from watching pitches themselves. For what it’s worth, when watching I am far too easily pleased and generally find every CSW absolutely fantastic and worth getting very excited about. Onwards.
- Shane Bieber leads the league in xK%-xBB% at 35%, up from 23% in 2019 (note: league average is 23.8 K%, 9.5% BB, and 14.3% xK%-xBB%). His fastball velocity has jumped from 93 MPH to 93.8 MPH, and his slider from 85 MPH to 88 MPH (note: all velocity references are from either Baseball Savant or Brooks Baseball, and all spin rate references are from Baseball Savant). His slider spin rate is also way up and he’s throwing fewer sliders and more curves this year, obviously to fantastic results. Tier 1 of starting pitching has for a long time been dominated by 30+ year-olds: Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, and Jacob deGrom (and 29-year-old Gerrit Cole). Bieber looks determined to force some youthfulness into this highly exclusive tier.
- Trevor Bauer‘s first start was dominant, but it was against the Tigers, so you might think there’s not much to pay attention to here. However, the spin rates on his pitches were novel and insane, with his four-seamer at 2817 RPM, up from 2412 in a disappointing 2019. 2817 RPM would have ranked him first on the four-seamer spin rate leaderboards at Baseball Savant in 2019. The cutthroat, analytical-minded Bauer has always been a tinkerer; keep an eye on him as these sorts of absurd spin rates, even if they are of dubious origin, could take his game to the next level.
- Drew Smyly‘s average fastball velocity is at 93 MPH, a full mile per hour over his next highest average fastball velocity in a season–back in 2012, when he was a rookie. This fact, paired with his new pitcher-friendly home in San Francisco, and excellent early season results (25 xK%-xBB%), make him an excellent breakout target at 31 years-old.
- Everyone’s favorite offseason “sleeper”, Dinelson Lamet, has shown why people were so excited about him. His fastball is averaging 97 MPH so far this year, up over 1 MPH over last year, and his xK%-xBB% is at a very strong 23% in the early going.
- Carlos Carrasco is healthy and back to his old dominant ways.
- The name near the top of the leaderboards that surprised me the most is certainly Yusei Kikuchi. His swinging strike rate is up from 9.5% in 2019 to 16.4% in 2020, and his xK% is at 33% this year, more than twice his disappointing 2019 mark. He looks like a new man, not literally but metaphorically, with his four-seamer average velocity increasing 3 MPH to 95.5 MPH, a new cutter, and no more curve. The spin rate on his slider and fastball are also both way up. As soon as I finish writing this, I’ll be submitting aggressive waiver bids for him wherever he is available. He looks like the pitcher everyone was hoping for in the 2019 preseason when he was cracking a bunch of top prospects lists–including my own list, which existed only in the confines of my mind.
- Tyler Chatwood is throwing fewer four-seamers and more cutters, but his average velocity is down a bit over 1 MPH on each of these pitches. He was solid mostly as a reliever last year after a very rough 2018. I’d need to see a lot more from him before believing his longstanding control problems are a thing of the past–look to sell high if you can.
- Joey Lucchesi‘s xK% is 26% in 2020, up from 22% in 2019, thanks to a wondrous 16% swinging-strike rate this year. All of this is surprising when considering his ERA is over 8 after getting shelled in Colorado on Saturday. I was a big fan of Lucchesi heading into 2019 after an excellent rookie year (10 K/9 3 BB/9) and eye-popping minor league statistics. I came out of 2019 quite disappointed. I’m cautiously optimistic about a bounce-back 2020 and am looking to buy low–but it has to be very low indeed, as his rotation spot is far from secure. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him bumped by the time this is published. If I’m named coach of the Padres, however, I assure you I will give him ample opportunities to fail.
- Gerrit Cole‘s xK%-xBB% is a bit down in the early going this year, but his pitch mix, velocity, and spin rates all look normal. Nothing to see here.
- Kevin Gausman was another popular sleeper pick this off-season, moving to San Francisco to pitch in the rotation after a resurgent year in the bullpen in Cincinnati. Don’t let the 5.40 ERA fool you, he has looked the part so far, with a 24% K% and 4% BB%, and stable velocity and pitch mix relative to last year.
- Mike Clevinger‘s fastball velocity has returned to 2018 levels after reaching new highs in 2019. His xK% (24%) has also returned to pre-2019 career norms in the early going (26% in 2018 vs. 34% in 2019). He should be great moving forward this year, a fine back-end dynasty SP1, but it’s probably wise to expect some regression from an outlier 2019. On a similar note, Hyun Jin Ryu’s fastball velocity is also down about 1 MPH compared to previous beginning-of-season norms. Regression should have been expected after his crazy awesome 2019, but I don’t see any reason to panic about his early 8.00 ERA either.
- Zack Greinke‘s expected strikeout rate and fastball velocity are both way down from his 2019 average. His fastball velocity is only at 87 MPH, but it was similarly slow in February 2019 before rebounding. Greinke has often made people like me look silly for worrying too much about his velocity.
- Lance McCullers Jr.‘s sinker velocity is at 94 MPH, right where it was at the beginning of his last healthy season (2018). He looks healthy and I’d give him ample time to shake off the rust.
- I’d venture to claim that there is no better buy-low target right now in fantasy baseball than Robbie Ray. His ERA is approaching 9, which is perfect for anyone looking to buy low. His average four-seamer velocity is up 2 MPH over 2019, at 94 MPH, and his four-seamer spin rate has never been higher, around 200 RPM above career norms. Average velocity and spin rates are also substantially up on the curve and slider. He has had trouble finding the strike zone this year, to say the least (17 xBB%), but his zone % is only a bit down from career norms (35% versus 38% in 2018 and 2019). He reminds me of Yu Darvish last year pre-breakout. He couldn’t find the strike zone until he really could!
- Matthew Boyd has had two bad outings (7.2 ERA) despite ironically only allowing one home run–a testament to HR/FB rate regression. Regression should also be expected to come for his 11.6 2019 K/9, though, which was also an outlier compared to career norms. Notwithstanding, his average fastball velocity is higher than it was at the beginning of the year in 2019 and his pitch mix is unchanged. He should bounce back from his first two starts and be very solid this year, an ideal dynasty SP3, even allowing room for his 2019 strikeout rate to come back to earth a bit.
- Mitch Keller should be monitored closely: his average fastball velocity is down almost 3 MPH versus 2019, and he has had a rough going early this year, with fewer strikeouts than walks. He has also been placed on the injured list with an injury to his side.
- James Paxton‘s velocity is way down, averaging 92 MPH in his lone short outing, after averaging 95 MPH in 2019. He had back surgery in the off-season and isn’t all the way back yet. He’s about to face the Red Sox at the time of writing. His velocity should be monitored closely moving forward. Without a normal spring, it’s reasonable to expect it to creep back. Nonetheless, Paxton enthusiasts will feel better when they see it. (Update: his velocity did not return versus the Red Sox, the fastball averaged 91.5 MPH).