Monday May 4th, 2015

Now that most teams have played somewhere in around 25 games, we can start taking at a lot of the results we’ve seen with more than a grain of salt. League-wide, strikeouts are right in line with where they have been the last two years. The average pitching staff amassed 7.6 K/9 in 2013 and 7.7 K/9 last year, and that number sits at 7.6 through the first four weeks of the 2015 season. There may not be many big surprises in the overall strikeout numbers, but there are a few when you drill down to the granular level.

The top five strikeout teams to this point of the season were fairly predictable. Checking in at No. 5 with 222 strikeouts are the Pirates thanks to a rotation triumvirate of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. The Indians and Dodgers are tied for third with 225 whiffs. The Dodgers, of course, feature one of the best 1-2 combos in the majors in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and they could very well move up this list once Kenley Jansen returns. The Indians, meanwhile, knew they’d get plenty of empty swings from Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, and have picked up reinforcements in the form of Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar.

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Coming in second with 226 strikeouts are the Padres. Tyson Ross and James Shields form perhaps the most underrated duo in the league, Andrew Cashner’s strikeout rate has jumped this year, and the Padres just got Ian Kennedy, who had 207 Ks last year, back from the DL. Add relievers Craig Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit to the mix, and you get a team that is going to miss a ton of bats this year.

The team on top, however, may come as a surprise. With one more strikeout than the Padres, it’s the New York Yankees that lead the majors in whiffs. Their starting rotation, however, is just 13th with 122 strikeouts. It’s the bullpen, led by Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, that has driven the Yankees’ staff to the top of the strikeout leaderboard. Yankee relievers have 105 strikeouts this year, more than 11 teams’ starting rotations. Miller and Betances have combined for 48 in 28 innings, but it’s not just the two of them doing all the work. Esmil Rogers has 17 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings, while Chris Martin has fanned 13 batters in 11 1/3 frames. It will likely be a challenge for the bullpen to keep the Yankees atop the leaderboard all season, but the mere fact that they’ve done it for the first month of the year is an impressive achievement.

Pitchers of the Week

Sonny Gray, Athletics: 14 2/3 IP, 2 W, 16 K, 1.23 ERA, 1.09 WHIP

The A’s AL West foes probably rejoice when they realize they’re going to miss Gray’s turn through the rotation. The 25-year-old righty has absolutely dominated his division rivals this season, shutting down two of them in succession last week. He first navigated eight innings against the Angels, allowing two runs on six hits while striking out six in a 6–2 win. Gray then took the ball over the weekend in Texas, tossing 6 2/3 shutout frames with 10 strikeouts. He walked an alarmingly high seven batters in that game, but was able to get around them thanks to all the whiffs. Gray did walk more than three batters per nine innings last year, but it hadn’t been an issue this season until his last start. Gray’s vanity numbers are sterling through one month, but his strikeout rate is just 21%, and that has led to an xFIP that is more than two runs higher than his ERA. We’ll talk a bit more about him later in the column.

David Price, Tigers: 15 1/3 IP, 2 W, 10 K, 2.35 ERA, 0.85 WHIP

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Another week, another appearance for Price in the top of the Pitching Report. Like Gray, Price victimized two of his division opponents, saving his best for when he and the Tigers both needed it. He had a decent outing against the Twins to start the week, allowing three runs on six hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings, striking out seven batters. Over the weekend in a big series with the Royals, he earned his first complete game of the season, surrendering just one run on five hits. The Royals never put together a sustained rally, scoring their only run on a homer by Lorenzo Cain in the ninth. Price now sports a 2.93 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 40 innings, and remember that he has an eight-run, 10-hit performance in snowy weather on his ledger. A declining strikeout rate may be a bit of concern, but he has proven that he can get the job done even with more balls in play. Price will face the Royals again in his next start on Friday.

Jason Hammel, Cubs: 14 IP, 1 W, 11 K, 1.93 ERA, 0.71 WHIP

There’s an unintentional theme among the Pitchers of the Week in this edition of the Pitching Report, as Hammel, too, had a strong week in his division. He kicked it off with his best start of the season, twirling eight shutout innings against the Pirates, allowing just four hits and striking out seven. The Pirates mounted just one rally against Hammel, and even that only came to be after a throwing error by Addison Russell. He wasn’t quite as sharp in his weekend outing against the Brewers, but gave the Cubs and his fantasy owners six innings of three-run, five-hit ball. Hammel has essentially picked up right where he left off with the Cubs last season when he was involved in the trade that landed Russell in Chicago. What’s most encouraging is that his walk rate is down to a scant 1.6% this year, while his career walk rate is 7.5%. If he can keep that number low, he’ll be a useful starting pitcher in mixed leagues of all sizes for the rest of the year.

Jim Mone/AP

Pitchers of the Weak

Chris Sale, White Sox: 3 IP, 4 K, 24.00 ERA, 3.67 WHIP

There are some things you just typically don’t see in baseball. One of those is Chris Sale getting shelled, by a generally punchless Twins team, no less. In fact, one thing we had never seen before last week was Sale surrender eight earned runs in a start. That’s exactly what he did against the Twins last Thursday. Adam Eaton dropped a fly ball early in the inning, and the Twins took it from there. After run-scoring singles by Kurt Suzuki, Eduardo Escobar and Shane Robinson, Brian Dozier put an exclamation point on the inning with a three-run bomb. Not only were the eight runs a career high for Sale, but he also tied the previous mark for the shortest outing of his career. He draws the vaunted Detroit offense in his next start on Wednesday.

Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays: 8 1/3 IP, 2 K, 12.96 ERA, 2.76 WHIP

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The Hutchison Breakout Train derailed pretty much right from the start of the season, and hasn’t found a way to get back on the tracks. His latest misstep occurred last week, in which he allowed 12 combined runs in starts against the Red Sox and Indians. He also surrendered 17 hits and issued six walks, five of which came in the outing in Boston. Hutchison has now failed to make it out of the fifth inning in four of his six starts, and has allowed at least six earned runs in three of them. Hutchison’s velocity and movement both look fine, but when he misses hitters are making him pay. Hutchison has thrown 213 pitches in the strike zone this season. Of those, 69 have been put in play. Hutchison has allowed a .377 batting average and .621 slugging percentage in those at-bats.

Trevor Bauer, Indians: 10 1/3 IP, 3 K, 7.84 ERA, 1.84 WHIP

Unlike Hutchison’s, Bauer’s breakout train has been mostly on the rails this year, but it took a sharp detour last week. He allowed a total of nine runs, 14 hits and walks, and was lucky to get a pair of no-decisions in outings against the Royals and Blue Jays. He actually picked up a quality start against the Royals, even though he was far from his best, dancing around seven hits and two walks to surrender just three runs. It was the Blue Jays who sunk his week, tagging him for six runs in one inning, highlighted by a Devon Travis grand slam. While Bauer is off to a great start this year, it’s troubling to see that he’s still dealing with control issues. That has always been the one element of his game holding him back, and he has 16 walks in 29 1/3 innings on the year. He gets the Twins on Friday in his next start.

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Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Buy, sell or hold

Buy: Jose Quintana, White Sox

Quintana endured a brutal start to the season, allowing 14 runs in his first three outings combined. But in his last two starts, he has looked more like the pitcher many expected him to be this season. He has just an 0–1 record to show for it, but Quintana has surrendered just three runs on 13 hits in 14 innings, fanning 10 batters in starts against the Royals and Twins. Remember, as we discussed last week, the only way you can buy a pitcher is if his current owner is willing to sell, and it’s hard to imagine Quintana’s owner is married to him at this point.

While the 26-year-old lefty has earned some of his current 5.28 ERA and 1.45 WHIP, he has also been terribly unlucky. Quintana has a .352 BABIP and 65.3% strand rate, both of which should move in his favor over the next five months. Quintana’s best pitch in his breakout 2014 campaign was his curveball, and it has been mostly good this year. Hitters have just a .218 batting average and .340 slugging percentage against it, to go along with a whiff rate pushing 11%. Here it is inducing an ugly check swing and miss from Torii Hunter.

Quintana has been getting beat up on his changeup, allowing a .329 average and .491 slugging percentage. However, that pitch also has a .348 BABIP despite a line-drive rate of just 5.64%, which is borderline laughable. Quintana has already started to turn it around, and as his luck evens out, so will the numbers that matter to fantasy owners. Buy him while you can.

Sell: Sonny Gray, Athletics

I was admittedly down on Gray heading into this season, and to this point he has largely made me look like an idiot. There’s no getting around the fact that he has pitched quite well made his fantasy owners rather happy in the process. There is some doubt as to whether he can keep up this level of production the rest of the season, however. We touched on this a bit earlier, but it bears mentioning here that Gray’s strikeout numbers are down again this season. His K/9 and swinging-strike rate have both dipped, while his strikeout rate has remained flat. At the same time, he has allowed a 37.9% fly-ball rate, a jump of more than 10 percentage points from his career number, but has allowed homers on just 2.3% of those. That is, in no uncertain terms, unsustainable.

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What’s even more unsustainable is his .233 BABIP, a number that doesn’t jibe with reality. As both that and his HR/FB ratio come back to earth, Gray’s ERA and WHIP will increase. Gray’s 1.67 ERA is belied by a 3.93 xFIP. Without the gaudy strikeout numbers to offset the impending hits his rates are going to take, Gray won’t be able to hold steady at his current fantasy value. I may have been selling him during draft season, but he was mighty popular in the public eye. Gray was the 20th starting pitcher off the board by average draft position, in front of guys like Jake Arrieta and Tyson Ross, and just barely behind Gerrit Cole. There’s a huge market for him.

Hold: Carlos Martinez, Cardinals

This section is used for a few different types of recommendations. Sometimes it’s about checking the status of a pitcher before moving forward on a move for him, while others it’s to stress patience with someone who has underperformed. With regard to Martinez, “hold” means to resist the potential temptation to sell high, because chances are we haven’t seen his best yet. We’ve touted Martinez in numerous places on our site during the first month of the season, and he’s finally started to get widespread notice in the fantasy community. Martinez’ filthy fastball-sinker-changeup-slider repertoire has played beautifully in the rotation, and the Cardinals have every reason to believe they have a future frontline starter on their hands. The whiff rate on his changeup is near 20%, while his slider is getting whiffs almost 13% of the time. Meanwhile, both his fastball and sinker check in at about 95 mph on the gun. He’s allowing too many free passes, but that’s a common problem for a 23-year-old. Even with a possible innings limit looming, Martinez has the look of a top-25 starter, at worst.

Prospect Watch

Noah Syndergaard, Mets

Two years ago, the Mets brought Matt Harvey to the majors so he could wreak his elegant form of destruction on the league. Last season it was Jacob deGrom who starred in the Mets’ rotation and won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in the process. They may just be about ready to turn the same trick for the third consecutive year, with Syndergaard waiting in the wings.

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​Syndergaard, a 6’6”, 240-pound righty, was ranked ninth by Baseball Prospectus, and 11th by both MLB.com and Baseball America in their respective 2015 prospect rankings. The 22-year-old is your prototypical power right-handed pitcher. His fastball is a plus pitch, grading as a 70 on the 20-80 scale and sitting at 96 mph. His go-to breaking pitch is a curveball that he can throw at multiple speeds to give it the feel of two different pitches. Despite his youth he has never really struggled to find the plate, with his worst walk rate for an entire season being 7.4%. After a slow start this season, Syndergaard has shown what makes him such a prized prospect in his last two starts at Triple-A Las Vegas

In wins over Albuquerque (Dodgers) and Reno (Diamondbacks), Syndergaard has thrown 14 shutout innings, allowing just six hits and two walks, while striking out 19 batters. Syndergaard will almost certainly be up with the Mets at some point this season, even though Jon Niese and Dillon Gee have been at least serviceable to this point. With Syndergaard dominating the Pacific Coast League, however, the Mets may not be able to keep him down, especially after the Super Two deadline passes. If you have a spot to stash a player in a mixed league, you’re going to want to go after Syndergaard sooner rather than later.

GIF of the Week

Mike Fiers sure does like pitching at Wrigley Field. He dominated on the North Side of Chicago on Saturday, allowing one run on three hits in six innings, fanning 12 batters. In his previous start at Wrigley, he whiffed 14 Cubs in six shutout innings. One of the 12 he struck out last weekend was Dexter Fowler in the first inning on one of the the best changeups I’ve seen all season.

Two-start pitchers

  1. Felix Hernandez
  2. Clayton Kershaw
  3. Zack Greinke
  4. Tyson Ross
  5. Madison Bumgarner
  6. Drew Smyly
  7. Andrew Cashner
  8. Dallas Keuchel
  9. Carlos Martinez
  10. Garrett Richards
  11. Michael Pineda
  12. Alex Wood
  13. Jordan Zimmermann
  14. Matt Shoemaker
  15. Danny Salazar
  16. Phil Hughes
  17. Jake Odorizzi
  18. Travis Wood
  19. Shane Greene
  20. Mat Latos
  21. Wandy Rodriguez
  22. Jesse Hahn
  23. Aaron Harang
  24. Kyle Hendricks
  25. Josh Collmenter
  26. R.A. Dickey
  27. Matt Garza
  28. Ryan Vogelsong
  29. Jeff Locke
  30. Scott Feldman
  31. Clay Buchholz
  32. Chad Billingsley
  33. Jason Vargas
  34. Kyle Lohse
  35. Jesse Chavez
  36. Robbie Ray
  37. Bud Norris
  38. Chase Whitley
  39. Tyler Matzek
  40. Trevor May
  41. Tyler Lyons
  42. Ross Detwiler
  43. Mike Lorenzen

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