Opening Day is upon us and with it comes a fantasy baseball season filled with excitement and unpredictability. The strategy from team to team in regards to how they will manage innings pitched, bullpen usage, and days off will vary, leaving fantasy players to adjust on the fly. With this uncertainty comes the need to make roster modifications to compete with new circumstances.
Most owners are going to be worried about this, and it may be what separates the champions from the rest of the pack. But do not forget about the basics. Buy low, sell high. Finding players on the waiver wire or acquiring undervalued assets via trade is still going to be a major difference-maker in most leagues. The big difference in 2020 is that you do not have the luxury of waiting two months to gain a comfortable sample size. The 60-game season may force your hand to make a decision or take a leap of faith in what the data tells you and your eyes can confirm.
That being said, you should be looking for a few things early on in the 2020 Fantasy Baseball season from specific players in order to gauge their value. It does not matter if you currently have shares or not. You want to know if a tangible change has taken place that will impact future results. That is where a profit can be made in a transaction, knowing information before the other players.
So without further ado, here are a few players you should take a closer look at after the season begins on Thursday.
Hitters to Keep an Eye On
Andrew Benintendi, OF, Red Sox
(Plate Discipline/Batted Ball Profile)
Benintendi was being drafted in the 3rd rd of fantasy drafts last season after coming off an impressive breakout in 2018. However, he was an overall disappointment, posting a .266/.343/.431 slash line with just 13 HR and 10 SB. A 100 wRC+ tells you all you need to know about Benintendi’s 2019 season. It was average.
By most accounts, he had a similar season to his rookie year. Nearly identical wOBA & wRC+, while batting avg was only separated by an elevated BABIP. But there were a few obvious red flags that jumped off the page, like a 17.3-degree launch angle. What was that about? Previous career marks of 14.2 and 12.6 were a far cry from last season’s measurements.
Benintendi’s FB% (40.7) is a healthy mark, on the surface, but let’s a take a closer look at how he is hitting them:
Infield Fly 10.3%
His FB distribution accounted for more infield flies than HR. That’s not ideal.
Benintendi’s 8.1 Barrel% (highest of career) came with the highest HC% of his career. But his HR/FBLD is only 5.9% as well. If he is not elevating the baseball, the ball is not going out with his low EV (88.4). Could there have been bad luck at play? Perhaps. But more likely “mechanical failure.” A .266 xBA is pretty disappointing w/ a .333 BABIP for anyone looking for an excuse to believe. The answer here is simple, Benintendi was making hard contact in 19’, just the wrong kind.
Benintendi swung at the highest % of pitches of his career while making the lowest amount of contact. This aggressive plate approach caused a real issue with his performance against offspeed pitches (changeup). Opposing pitchers are always trying to mess with a hitter’s timing. If you are unwilling to be patient, you will get burned.
Imagine you mindlessly pick up a soda can, thinking it’s full, but it’s empty. What happens? You almost launch the can into the air, throwing it. Now imagine the opposite. The unexpected weight may cause you to drop the can after being ill-prepared to pick it up properly.
This odd but useful example explains what happens when you are too aggressive at the plate. If you expect a fastball, but get a changeup (looks identical) you need to be ready. If you do not have a balanced approach, you are going to:
2.) Pull it foul
Benintendi vs Offspeed
2018: .336 avg .302 xBA .522 SLG .406 wOBA
2019: .167 AVG .236 xBA .238 SLG .199 wOBA
It was reported by hitting coach Tim Hyers that Benintendi made an in-season adjustment to return to his “college swing.” I looked into this and found very little to be encouraged by. Although he did bat .302 from the end of June to the end of Aug, the red flags were all still there.
In 2019, Benintendi struck out a career-high 140 times paired w/ just 59 BB. His plate discipline made it seem as if he were at-bat without a plan. The over-aggressive launch angle suggests he was blindly trying to cheat extra power rather than let his bat speed do the work.
Benintendi has it in him to have a huge bounce-back season. The plate discipline is there, somewhere. He just needs to decide what kind of hitter he wants to be.
What To Watch For Early On
We are looking for Andrew Benintendi to get his Contact% back into the low-to-mid 80s while having a more balanced, level swing. Keep an eye on his early-season launch angle and production against offspeed pitches.
Cavan Biggio, 2B, Blue Jays
(Aggressiveness at the plate)
Biggio was able to show off his raw power and plus speed in his rookie year. Not surprising, as he has always been able to put up dual-threat numbers in the minors, it was his .312/.448/.515 slash line in AAA that prompted his promotion to the big leagues.
But that is not the thing that stands out to me. This is:
That is a unique combination right there. There are not too many hitters who hold a K rate that high who can boast such a high walk rate. So is it for real?
2017 (A+) – 13.3 BB%/25.2 K%
2018 (AA) – 17.8 BB%/26.3 K%
2019 (AAA) – 19.5 BB%/16.1 K%
So how does one come by this particular skill set? Typically being patient and striking out constantly do not go together. For starters, Biggio does NOT swing at a lot of pitches. In fact, his swing rate is 10.9% below the league average. That is a lot.
This is especially true of pitches outside of the K zone (O-Swing 15.8%, League Avg 31.6%), which is a good thing since his O-Contact is 15.6% higher than the league average. BUT, he has a solid 8.7 SwStr% overall. So what gives?
Biggio handled most pitch types well, aside from a bit of trouble with curveballs (14.2 SwStr%) w/ a 0% HR/FBLD. He hammered sliders (.523 wOBAcon – weighted on-base avg on contact) and just about any fastball that was thrown his way. Still, overall his SwStr% was healthy across the board.
So where did the crazy K% come from? Called strikes. That’s right. How do you walk and strike out a ton? You take pitches, both balls AND strikes.
The question is: Can Biggio fix that while still maintaining his BB rate? Time will tell. But the truth is unless your league penalizes for Ks, do you care? Probably not. But you may care about the .234 batting average, which is something he also carried throughout the minors.
It’s likely that if Biggio were to take fewer strikes and be more aggressive, the batting average would go up. Someone with his kind of speed should be able to take advantage of it with a higher BABIP. Instead, he sits at .309, due to a lack of balls in play. You can’t steal first.
Biggio has the lowest O-Swing% in MLB. Literally. The lowest. Hard to imagine there is not untapped potential with that kind of patience. This patience led to having the 4th highest BB rate in the majors behind only Trout, Grandal, & Bregman. The problem is he is TOO passive.
What To Watch For Early On
Aggressiveness at the plate. If Biggio can go into attack mode with two strikes, then we may see a big uptick in production. He hits the ball hard enough to garner 30 HR upside while carrying a sprint speed in the 81st percentile. That gives him 30 SB upside.
Austin Hays OF, Orioles
(Pull% and Opposing Pitch Sequencing)
When Hays finally got the call to join Baltimore in the majors last season he fared well. Batting .309 & slugging .574 in only 21 games. He was also able to hit righties to the tune of .419. Small sample size theater at its finest. But, he was able to improve every day during his stay in the majors.
Hays was not going to get promoted for September call-ups last season if you remember. Baltimore instead intended to ship him to the Arizona Fall League. But due to rule change, players could play in MLB & join a Fall team mid-season. Long story short, Hays was promoted, raked, and erased the need to go to Arizona.
Hays was at his most successful in the minors when he was pulling the ball, with a fairly even mix between his GB% and FB%. When promoted, he exhibited a more balanced approach to all fields. Typically for a rookie, this is NOT a good thing if they were pull happy in the minors.
Why? Usually, that indicates an inability to get around on major league fastballs. This theory is backed up for a pedestrian 30.9% Hard Contact rate, Again, a small sample size, but that is what we have to work with. The same data everyone else has. Typically an all fields approach is ideal, but only if intended.
Statistically, Hays was able to handle major league pitching, but his Pull% leaves his future effectiveness in question. Pitchers were able to sequence Hays at times, so adjustments will be key. As they are for all young hitters.
What To Watch For Early On
At-bats and batted ball data. You are going to need Hays to bat near the top of this Baltimore lineup if he is going to carry value in fantasy baseball. But more importantly, we are going to want to see how he handles major league pitching the second go-round. A pull percentage in the mid-to-high 40s is what we are looking for unless he naturally learns to hit the ball to the opposite field (which I would not bet on during this 60-game stint).
Rhys Hoskins, 1B, Phillies
(Pull% and New Swing Mechanics)
On the surface, Hoskins’ 2018 & 2019 seasons were fairly close, at least production-wise. The only notable difference being avg, and boosts in BB%/K%. But in reality, 2019 was a tale of two seasons.
1st Half: .263/.401/.530 20 HR 59 RBI
2nd Half: .180/.318/.361 9 HR 26 RBI
Hoskins saw a similar second-half decline in 2018, although not to the degree that he slumped this last season. There is still plenty to like when you look at the overall numbers though. Including a league-leading 116 walks. Unfortunately, he also tallied 173 Ks (6th most in NL).
From a batted ball perspective, there is not a ton that stands out in Hoskins’ splits at first glance. But, there was quite a difference in Pull% (1st 54%; 2nd 39.1%) as well as LD% (23.7% down to 16.8%) There was not a big change in Hard Hit%, but there was to his ISO & HR/FB ratio.
Many point to (former) hitting coach John Mallee for “forcing” his analytic approach on every player. Did he force Hoskins to make mechanical changes that led to his struggles? Or was this just a prolonged slump? Maybe a bit of both.
There does not seem to be drastic changes when you look into Hoskins splits in 2019, more of a general decline:
(Metric – 1st half/2nd half)
BABIP – .302/.231
Barrel% – 10.4/8.7
Solid% – 8.5/7.7
Flare% – 22.3/21.5
Weak% – 58.8/62.2
HR/FBLD – 15.7/9.3
Launch Ang – 24.5/23.6
Opposing pitchers were not treating Hoskins any differently, delivering the same percentage of Fastballs vs Breaking vs Offspeed all season. Although the changeup seemed to give him extra trouble:
1st half: .449 wOBAcon
2nd half: .257 wOBAcon
Most signs point to Hoskins simply having a prolonged 2nd half slump with an extended Hard Hit drought from July into September. He pulled the ball far more in the 1st half, which debunks a theory of being overly aggressive at the plate.
So is this something that new Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon can fix? It seems Hoskins made a conscious effort to hit the ball the opposite way in the 2nd half, robbing him of his power. He is a pull hitter, & Philly should lean into that. (Below: 1st/2nd half heat maps)
What To Watch For Early On
Pull percentage. Hoskins also needs to make an effort to go back to hitting more line drives & letting his power do the work. He already has a naturally high launch angle, no reason to uppercut the ball.
Launch Angle by Year:
2017 – 18.4 (24th in MLB)
2018 – 22.4 (4th)
2019 – 24.0 (1st)
Not that lifting the ball is a bad thing. It is all about how you do it. Hoskins held a lower LA in the 2nd half than he did in the 1st. Surprised? Don’t be. An inconsistent swing plane by constantly tinkering is a silent killer that is the root of many slumps in baseball. That being said, it has been reported that Hoskins has been working on a “new swing.” So hopefully that is not a disaster.
If you look at Hoskins’ plate discipline (for a power hitter) combined with his year-end production, it is easy to get excited about what “could be.”
Manny Machado, 3B, Padres
(Performance vs RHP)
Typically a .256/32/81/86 stat line would be considered a successful year. Just not if you are making a $30 million dollars a year as the “savior” of the Padres. Still, Machado’s 2019 was likely one of the best “down years” you are going to see.
After 2018, Manny headed into free agency after putting up a .297/.367/.538 slash w/ 37 HR, 107 RBI, and 14 SB for BAL/LAD. The expectations coming into last season were warranted. However, regression was to be expected when leaving Camden Yards for Petco.
On the surface, Machado’s batted ball data is not all that concerning. But then you start to compare them against previous seasons. Machado’s LD% is the worst mark he has posted in a full MLB season while his barrel rate is the worst since 2015.
Those numbers shouldn’t be a huge surprise considering Machado’s disappointing season. EV was 87th percentile, which seems disappointing since he was top 4% of MLB just two years ago. BUT his EV is actually 0.3 mph faster than 2017. That’s just the way the league has evolved.
The issue here is not how hard he is hitting the ball, but HOW Machado is hitting it. 2019 saw Manny post a career-low Pull Rate of 37% while posting a career-high in Opp% (27.1). His Hard Contact% was actually fine. In fact, 43.5% is a full 4% above his previous career mark.
A 94.5 FB/LD EV confirms that when elevating the ball, Machado still crushes it. So where is the concern? There doesn’t seem to be a big difference from previous successful seasons. That’s it though. Baseball is a game of inches, and that is where the problem lies.
Machado’s LA was down 1.4 degrees from 2018 and just 0.4 from 2017. This may seem like a minor statistical change, but if changing your swing plane causes you to top the ball 32.7% of the time (3-4% higher) then it could wreak havoc on your production. Like a virus.
Could this be an easy fix? Maybe. Is this the root of Machado’s issues? Partly. The change in Pull/Opp% seems to suggest a timing adjustment could be in order. On the other hand, the LA anomaly suggests a slight mechanical adjustment may alleviate some struggles.
Take a look at Machado’s Called Strike% for the last 4 seasons:
2016 – 13.8%
2017 – 13.8%
2018 – 13.4%
2019 – 15.1%
Now look at his Foul%
2016 – 18.9%
2017 – 18.4%
2018 – 17.9%
2019 – 16.9%
– Worse contact
– Less swings leading to…
– More 0-1 counts
– More Called Strikes
– Less Foul Balls (due to contact)
– Higher K%
– Less quality pitches to drive
– Overall production decline
Machado at Petco Park
2019 at Petco Park:
.289/.369/.513.225 ISO.370 wOBA128 wRC+.314 BABIP
Machado vs RHP
Career: .275 AVG .203 ISO .343 wOBA
2019: .239 AVG .161 ISO .305 wOBA
What To Watch For Early On
Performance vs RHP. We all knew Machado was going to struggle a little upon leaving Camden Yards full time, but Petco is not quite the albatross it used to be for offense. The real issue that concerns me was Machado’s heel turn against righties. Early on look for how Manny performs against tough right-handed pitchers as this should go a long way towards a bounce-back season.
Nomar Mazara, OF, White Sox
It’s no secret Mazara has been a letdown given lofty expectations. He hit 20 HRs three years in a row before finally breaking the trend last year (when he hit 19). In 2017 he was able to collect 101 RBI in just 148 games. After that, the hype train was filled to capacity.
But after a 2019 campaign that saw Mazara bat .268 w/ just a 94 wRC+, the Rangers decided it was time for Mazara to move on. He was traded to CWS where the change of scenery may do him some good.
In 2019 Mazara posted a career-high 10.7 barrel rate w/ an xSLG in the 71st percentile. The bad news? Mazara’s 46.8% GB rate is not going to cut it with a “middle of the road” EV & Hard Hit%.
In fact, that GB rate is the most likely culprit of his stagnation at the MLB level. Since Mazara’s rookie season, there have been 292 players w/ at least 1000 PAs. Of those 292, only 38 have a higher GB% percentage than Nomar.
His power numbers are not embarrassing by any means. When I say “middle of the road,” that is exactly what I mean. Mazara has never been able to crack the 20 HR plateau (20,20,20,19) while his RBI production has seen a steady decline year after year.
One interesting note is that even though his EV has stated fairly consistent from season to season, Mazara saw a steep decline in his area vs fastballs. He has seen steady improvement vs breaking/off-speed pitches. But as you can see below, FB gave him trouble in 2019.
Oddly enough, of the pitches thrown to Mazara in 2019, he held the lowest xwOBAcon against 4-seam FBs (.360; league avg is .370) Which is super strange since that is typically where major leaguers do the most damage. Not Mazara, who has always seemed to struggle against heat.
This may explain his poor Pull%. Plus the fact that even though Mazara hit a career-high 10.7% barrels in 2019, his xBarrels of 8.5% mirror last season’s production. His entire batted ball profile is “bleh.”
An xBA of .272 is a bit encouraging given his LD profile. Which is strange considering the career-high xBA comes attached to career-worst marks in both K% & BB%.
We have located the issue. Mazara is swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone (O-Swing) 6.8% more than league average. He seems to be especially susceptible to chasing pitches above the zone, swinging at nearly 3/4 of all pitches middle-up.
If you have a below-average contact rate & an above-average chase rate, you are going to struggle. The most disappointing part of Mazara’s game has been his inability to transfer his on-base skills from the minors to MLB. His OBP has fallen below .320 for each of the last two seasons.
It looks like Mazara’s best path to being a successful major leaguer may come as a platoon player.
vs LHP: .220/.252/.394
vs RHP: 288/.344/.500
What To Watch For Early On
Wait, is there good news? That all sounded really bad.
Yes, it did, and yes it was. The most encouraging things that Mazara has going for his are age and a change of scenery.
But with that change of scenery comes a change in coaching as well. Frank Menechino, named the White Sox hitting coach in October, led the Chicago AAA affiliate to a league lead in runs scored, second in OBG and SLG, and third in HR.
Let’s see if Menechino can cause a shift in Mazara’s batted ball profile, quiet the GB total, and try to unlock that untapped power we know is inside. After all, Mazara is tied for the longest HR hit in the Statcast era.
Marcell Ozuna, OF, Braves
(Shift Tendencies & GB Performance)
Ozuna may have had the most productive disappointing season in recent history. If you ask anyone how he performed last season you are likely to hear words like “awful,” yet he finished w/ 29 HR & 12 SB.
In 2017, Ozuna batted .312/.376/.548 w/ 37 HR & 124 RBI fueled by a .355 BABIP. This led fantasy owners to have unrealistic expectations going into 2018 (his first season in STL), where he batted .280/.325/.433 w/ 23 HR. Definitely not what everyone signed up for.
This leads us to last season, where Ozuna was able to earn a career-high BB% rate & 29 HR while nearly matching his 2017 ISO (.231). The question is, what do you expect of Marcell Ozuna? What “should” you expect?
Ozuna registered elite power metrics last season:
Exit Velocity 93rd percentile
Hard Hit% 96th percentile
xSLG 91st percentile
But guess what? He does this every year. He was in the top-10% EV in four out of the last five seasons, & top-10 Hard% in three of the last five.
In fact, all of Ozuna’s expected statistics are impressive:
xBA .288 (.241)
xSLG .538 (.472)
xwOBA .382 (.336)
xwOBAcon .449 (.383)
xBarrel 12% (12.4%)
A Short Lesson in BABIP
2015: .3202016: .2962017: .3552018: .3092019: .257
- Slow sprint speed
- Elevated FB%
- Elevated popup rate
- High pull%
- Defensive shifts
- Low LD%
- Below average hard hit%
If anyone was under the impression that Hard Contact or Sprint Speed were defining metrics to determine BABIP, Ozuna is your wake up call. As we discussed earlier, not many hit the ball harder than him, & his Sprint Speed was in the 63rd percentile. So what caused the issue?
Batted Ball Data.
Ozuna’s LD% was actually up, which is a good thing. But his Pull rate was 49.5%, well above normal for him (typically high 30s). He hit the ball hard, but right at the fielder (look at GB). This is especially true given that MLB shifted on him 4.3% more.
The strange thing is that Ozuna hit WELL against the shift.
No Shift – .324 wOBA
vs Shift – .390 wOBA
So there goes that theory. Although it should be said that given his Pull%, he may be in danger of being shifted well above 12% in 2020 if that does not change.
The numbers were strongly determined by his poor performance vs LHP. Ozuna hit .217 w/ a .226 BABIP against southpaws. So will this improve? Well, he is a career .290 hitter vs LHP w/ a .328 BABIP. So I will say yes.
If Ozuna continues to pull the ball nearly 50% of the time, he may continue to carry a lower BABIP. But, it’s safe to say that bad luck was a factor in his decreased production in 2019.
Especially batting average on Ground Balls
What To Watch For Early On
Performance on batted ground balls and defensive shift tendencies. Are we going to see bad luck fade away and watch Ozuna’s BABIP normalize? Or are we going to see a further attempt by opposing teams to shift on Ozuna, permanently causing a drop in batting average?
Want to get excited? In 2018 Ozuna held a 13.9% HR/FB ratio. Last season? 22.1% (2nd highest of career).
Remember, in 2017 Ozuna hit 37 homers with a 23.4% HR/FB ratio. In 2017, he hit a HR every 16.5 at-bats. Last season, he hit a home run every 16.7 at-bats. We could be in for an exciting season. OR a very disappointing one…
Pitchers To Keep An Eye On
(Velocity and Pitch Mix)
After being acquired from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade (along w/ Colin Moran), there were high hopes that Joe Musgrove could turn his 6-pitch arsenal into wins. Last season Musgrove hit a midseason lull after getting off to a strong start year. But he finished strong, allowing just 9 ER in 28 IP (2.89 ERA) over his final 6 starts. He set new career highs in starts (31), IP (170.1), & K% (21.9%). Overall Musgrove put together a solid 2019, his 2nd straight year of more than 100 IP & 2+ WAR.
Musgrove struck out nearly a batter per inning in 2019 while carrying a 5.4 BB%. Not that a 16.4 K-BB% stands out, but it’s not bad. His 4.44 ERA was over a 1/2 run higher than a FIP of 3.82. But is Musgrove’s FIP a more accurate description than his 4.31 xFIP?
Musgrove’s first-pitch strike percentage was well above MLB avg, which is excellent for a starting pitcher relying on pitch mix & location more than overpowering the hitter. Get ahead in the count. A perfect fit w/ new starting catcher Jacob Stallings, one of the best pitch framers in the NL.
Behind the Numbers
The Statcast data on Musgrove is not encouraging 40th percentile in EV & just 29% in Hard Hit% is not what you want to see In fact his Weak% dropped from 6.6% & 5.9% the previous 2 seasons to just 3.2% in 2019.
So was there anything encouraging? Yes. During the second half, Musgrove’s K/9 rose to 9.4 (70 2/3 IP), up from 7.5 in the 1st half (99 2/3 IP). His command continues to be solid. This is a pitch mix issue.
Musgrove increased his 4-seam usage from 2:1 w/ his sinker in 2018 to nearly 4:1 ratio last season. But it should be noted that in Sept his velocity jumped to a consistent 94 mph (up from 90-93 range in first five months), possibly due to elevation and location.
Musgrove is better off throwing more 4-seamers out of the zone (57.4%) a la Shane Beiber. More K. More BB. But LESS hard contact.
A near 20% SwStr rate w/ a Zone% of 43 made the slider a tremendous pitch for Musgrove. Why would he throw this pitch with a ONE percent barrel rate & 40.9 K% just 22% of the time? Joe needs to cut down on his pitch to contact FB & mix in this slider a bit more.
Another pitch that should be thrown more is the changeup:
ISO – .198
BABIP – .274
K% – 24.7
BB% – 0.0
GB% – 49.2
Barrel% – 8.2
Zone% – 49.3
SwStr% – 19.3
A pVal of only 1.0 due to limited use, this is just another example of why Musgrove should trust his secondary offerings more. Same with his curveball that offered similarly dominant numbers:
ISO – .219
BABIP – .313
K% – 42.6
BB% – 2.9
GB% – 57.1
Barrel% – 5.7
Zone% – 44.0
SwStr% – 17.1
What To Watch For Early On
Velocity and pitch mix percentage. The early indication from Summer Camp is that we may be in for a treat this season. Musgrove’s velocity is reportedly sitting at 94-95 mph while his fastball and slider were being thrown at a nearly even pace.
If Musgrove comes out of the gate leaning on his swing and miss secondary pitches with the continued uptick in velocity? I would do what I could to acquire him. There is Shane Bieber upside within Joe Musgrove clawing to get out.
(Pitch Mix and FB Usage)
In his first three seasons for Oakland (earlier in his career), Gray posted a 2.88 ERA in 491 IP. Then the wheels fell off. Failing to complete a healthy season in the next three years with a 4.59 ERA, during which he was traded from OAK to NYY. Luckily the Reds saw something they liked, and traded for Gray before 2019.
In fact, CIN was so confident that they signed Gray to an extension before he even threw a pitch for them. He responded w/ career-best K/BB (3.01), K/9 (10.5), H/9 (6.3), & FIP (3.42). Finishing 7th in the NL Cy Young.
So what changed?
Gray increased his K rate by 7.8%, but his SwStr% only jumped 1.2% For reference, the rule of thumb is K% is double a SwStr% (clearly not here). He also saw only a modest jump in O-Swing, 1.3% below MLB average in fact. Overall his discipline metrics are not “impressive.”
However, his Contact rate was a career-best, especially O-Contact. This is important due to his career-low Zone% (3.8% below MLB avg), and FStrike%. Gray was definitely looking to avoid hard contact and attack out of the zone. Only 14.7% of pitches were put in play against Gray.
But the SwStr% is interesting. Where do the Ks come from?
Called Strikes (18.8%)
SwStr% up 1.3%CalledStr% up 0.5%
Upon checking other starting pitchers with a called strike rate over 20%, a few names stand out. However, Gray is an outlier in his relationship between K% and CalledStr% minus SwStr%, outdone only by Aaron Nola. Without an increase in SwStr%, regression in K seems likely.
Behind the Numbers
Gray posted decent metrics across the board, nothing flashy or interesting that stands out. His LD% was down while his FB% was up, this is great to see. Flyballs have the lowest avg BABIP vs the opposite for LD. This resulted in a 1.5% jump in pop-up rate. Those are free outs folks.
As far as pitch arsenal goes, Gray used the entire kitchen sink vs opposing hitters. But similar to Shane Bieber, his fastball is trash. 92% Spin (good) but a 66.7% Active Spin (awful), which results in poor rise. So elevating is likely a bad idea.
Most starting pitchers across MLB have been going away from a sinking fastball, but given Gray’s poor rise he should definitely consider going the opposite way. Opposing hitters have trouble doing damage w/ his 2-Seam & I would love to see it thrown more often. Or better yet, lose the 4-seamer.
Let’s dig into what really made Gray successful last season, his curveball and slider. I would argue his Slider is superior, but he tossed the Curve more & had success. A 32.5 O-Swing%, 40.1 Zone%, & 12.1 SwStr% is pretty good. But he also had a .176 BABIP (red flag).
His career avg BABIP for his Curve is .256, regression is coming. He will continue to throw the Curve more because he is able to throw it in the zone almost 13% more than the slider, but owners should be realistic with results.
That brings us to Gray’s best swing and miss pitch: the slider.
That is fantastic. He BARELY threw it in the zone & hitters could not lay off it. I’d argue an increase in sinker usage could make it even MORE lethal. (Tunnel & Repel)
Gray actually changed the shape of the slider last season. In the chart below you will see horizontal movement is now in the same plane as his Curve for the first time in his career. This makes the slider more difficult to differentiate, which is good.
That being said, we have some red flags w/ the slider. A -.040 spread in wOBAcon/xwOBAcon paired w/ a .208 BABIP (.302 in 2018) is not sustainable. Understand that his breaking pitches are GOOD, they are just not “as good” as they seemed last season.
Gray walks too many & relies on Called Strikes a TON. Risky proposition given the over performance of his breaking balls in 2019. But he legitimately improved as a strikeout pitcher though, so there is something here. You just need to temper expectations. 2.87 ERA vs 3.65 xFIP.
255 BABIP (Career .280)79.7 LOB% (Career High)-.030 AVG – xBA-.052 wOBA – xWOBA
What To Watch For Early On
Simple. Pitch mix percentage and fastball usage. Last year we saw a fantastic performance aided by a bit of good luck. Once certain metrics normalize Gray will either regress or find a way to offset those losses. If he can continue to rely even less on the four-seam fastball (trash) and mix in his two-seam more we could be in business.
(Ground Ball% and K%)
Last year Marcus Stroman was a question wrapped in an enigma. Stroman started off strong in Toronto over the first four months of the season, ending with a first-half 3.18 ERA and 57.8% ground ball rate.
More importantly, he was heavily relying on his slider more than he has in the past. However, once sent to Queens at the trade deadline, Stroman scaled back his slider usage from the mid-to-upper 30s (peak 41.28) to low 20s (low 19.55).
Overall Stroman finished with a solid line last season after a poor performance in 2018. He carried his best K% since 2014, with a second-half strikeout rate of 23%. Which is another question mark in itself. The one overall negative was an overall drop in groundball percentage from 62.1% to 53.7%.
These things all seem to be tied together.
Slider usage up
GB% in upper 50s
WHIP in low 1.00s
Slider usage down, Cutter usage up
GB% in upper 40s
WHIP of 1.37
So the first question is which Stroman do we prefer? The obvious answer would be the first half due to his time in Toronto due to his surface stats being more successful. Stroman seems to live and die with his GB% and despite getting more strikeouts in the second half, he was also giving up significantly more line drives.
As you can see in the chart above, Stroman’s sinker and changeup got LIT UP. This is hardly a surprise because those are his two worst pitches. Before 2019 Stroman had been on the record stating that he admired someone of the great changeups in the game and desperately wanted one of his own. Unfortunately, it was not ready for the major leagues, sporting a 10.3% SwStr rate, 32.4% Zone rate, and 28.3% O-Swing. Those numbers a “meh” personified.
As far as the sinker goes, Stroman himself knows he throws it too often. The poor Mets defense hardly helps in this scenario either, and while they may be improved in 2019, they are still a sub par group in the field.
Marcus Stroman's throwing his slider more this year, his sinker less. “I’ve always thrown too many sinkers. I’m just catching on to the trend. I know how bad the swings are on my slider. I can throw that pitch in any count.”
6 GS, 1.43 ERA, 37.2 innings, 36 Ks #BlueJays
— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) April 27, 2019
So why did he not throw the slider as often in the 2nd half? Simple, he was throwing the cutter more. Unfortunately, his cutter was not nearly as strong an offering. But it was not a “bad” pitch. In fact, Stroman seemed to be intentionally looking to improve upon this pitch in-season.
I figured out how to manipulate my cutter to make it bigger or smaller whenever I want. Didn’t find that until I was with Mets. Can’t wait to attack the zone with a steady mix!
— Marcus Stroman (@STR0) January 23, 2020
There you have it. The issue could be as simple as, at 28-years old, Marcus Stroman was doing what any pitchers do in Spring Training: Trying new things. The cutter performed better down the stretch but was definitely not ready to be thrown as often as he did.
What To Watch For Early On
There is a lot to look for with Marcus Stroman between his GB%, K%, and overall pitch mix. But the thing to key in on would be his pitch mix. In particular, his usage on the sinker, slider, and cutter. The wildcard here could be his developing changeup as well. Like I said, there is a lot to see here.
The Mets defense is going to be below average and there is no way around that, so leaning on his sinker is not going to work. Look for Stroman to deploy his slider/cutter more to start 2020 while checking in on his changeup performance. If he is able to master his new set of toys we could be in for a career year.
Robbie Ray has always been a strikeout machine, posting a 30+% K rate in each of the last three seasons. However, Robbie Ray is also a walk machine, posting a BB% over 10 for the past three seasons (13.3% in 2018). Combine that with a tendency to give up the long ball and you have yourself a headache. That’s Robbie Ray.
Typically, that would be the end of my analysis. What you see is what you get with Robbie Ray. But there has been a development that could change the way we view the Arizona pitcher, and that is pitch mechanics.
Lot of buzz around Robbie Ray these last few days. His arm-action change is pretty substantial. Sky is the limit if his walks come down.
— Lance Brozdowski (@LanceBroz) July 19, 2020
Ray has made an effort to change the way he carries his arm through this delivery. Instead of keeping his arm straight, allowing for extra unnecessary movement, Ray has started to keep his arm more stationary. Ray is keeping the bend in his elbow throughout his delivery. This has allowed him to keep his momentum compact and focused, which has led to better command.
Unfortunately, Ray is still falling off to the 3B-side, but this change in arm action is pretty substantial and the initial result has been favorable.
So how successful can this simple change allow Robbie Ray to be? It’s very similar to the exact mechanical adjustment made by Lucas Giolito. Is that something you would be interested in?
What To Watch For Early On
This is fairly straight forward. Let’s see how this goes folks. If someone else is not paying attention to this change in mechanics you should take advantage and try to acquire Ray. If there is positive evidence that Robbie Ray has found a way to add command to his arsenal we could be looking at a monster.