With the MLB season already a quarter of the way through, now is a good time to take a closer look at the most important men on the field - starting pitchers. In this article, we look at three hot and cold starters each and what you can expect from them going forward. Read on to find out more.
Three hot starters
It’s easy to get carried away with some early season form with starting pitchers but sharp bettors will know that regression could always be lurking around the corner. Instead of just taking the stats at face value, it’s important to analyse what has caused improved performance and whether or not it is sustainable. We’ve taken a look at the early season stars to see if they can continue impressing as the season progresses.
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Gerrit Cole entered the year as a borderline top-25 starter, coming off a disappointing fourth season in Pittsburgh. What’s happened since has been a revelation: Cole’s been absolutely dominant since his trade to the World Champion Houston Astros, with his K/9 climbing from 8.69 a year ago to 13.57 now.
His walks have dropped by some 20%, his HR/9 dropping from 1.37 to 0.73 (despite now facing designated hitters instead of pitchers) and his pitching fWAR sits at 2.7 in nine starts, after 3.1 in 33 starts in 2017. He’s clearly amongst the top five starters in MLB based on 2018 results. The scary thing is, this looks to be for real.
Cole’s good FIP and xFIP both support his miniscule 1.75 ERA. While his LOB% of 86.4% (74.4% career), his .263 BABIP (.309 career) and his greatly reduced home run rates suggest regression may visit soon, but there are also reasons to believe this new plateau is legitimate. Cole’s benefitted from a strategic alteration that’s seen him increase his slider and curve use in support of his 97 MPH fastball and work more in the strike zone; basically, he’s challenging hitters more.
Statcast data shows us that hitters are having less success at barreling the ball, instead getting underneath Cole’s pitches for a 20.6 launch angle, almost double of that from a year ago. In essence, instead of looking to get hitters to ground out, Cole is challenging hitters and succeeding in doing so.
Cole’s velocity is up, but more importantly, his spin rate has climbed some ten percent since joining Houston. Trevor Bauer has suggested that Cole (and other Houston starters) were using pine tar or a similar substance to get a better grip on the ball, allowing for heightened spin rates and resulting in improved strikeout rates. Whether MLB does something about it (as was Bauer’s aim) is up in the air; until they do, though, it seems like Houston have a potential Cy Young winner on the hill.
Aaron Nola is a strong, young pitcher on a strong, young team who has seen some of his numbers improve dramatically. However, there are underlying reasons for the kind of concern we don’t see with Cole.
Nola’s sporting a 1.99 ERA, but his FIP and xFIP suggest that number should probably be around a run higher. He’s benefitted from a career-high 83.9 LOB% and a career-low .273 BABIP while giving up home runs at half the rate he has over the course of his career. That last number in particular will be hard to maintain.
While Nola has seen increased spin rates in all four of his pitches and has increased the use of his wipeout changeup, his strikeouts have suffered a monumental dropoff, sitting at 7.82/9 after logging 9.86/9 a year ago. Attacking the zone more, he’s inducing weak contact, which could be sustainable, but the likelihood is that we’ll see Nola’s numbers at least recede to where FIP/xFIP suggest they should be.
There’s good news and bad news about Corbin’s impressive start to the MLB season. The good? The performances in his first six starts were legitimate. The bad? There are huge warning signs over his last three.
Corbin is sitting on a 2.53 ERA with FIP/xFIP that more or less mirror that. He’s seen his K/9 rise by 30% while his walk and home run allowance has decreased. That said, he sports an unsustainable .238 BABIP (career .308) and a five-year best HR/9, which would be hopeful if not for the drastic reduction he’s seen in his velocity over the last three starts.
Corbin’s fastball averaged 93mph over those first six starts but has dropped to barely 90% since and that will be a concern. While he’s managed to survive the decrease mostly unscathed thus far, his K/9 has dropped and BB/9 has increased as a result. The advice here is to keep an eye on Corbin’s velocity. Until it rebounds, bettors might want to account for this when analyzing the chances of any of the Diamondbacks opposition when he pitches.
Three not-so-hot starters
Just as we might be surprised by some of the improved performance of some starting pitchers, the opposite can also be true. Past performance and sometimes reputation alone can enhance our expectations of certain players and some of those have failed to deliver so far this season.
Although the first few months haven’t gone well for a few starting pitchers, there could be more to it than meets the eye. Can we expect some recovery from those we expect better from for the remainder of the season?
The big prize at last year’s trade deadline, Darvish went from Texas to Los Angeles, where the Dodgers completely streamlined his repertoire before the Japanese-Iranian sensation suffered one of the worst World Series in history (thanks largely to a severe tell the Astros exploited). Undeterred, the Cubs (who have one of the game’s best front offices) signed Darvish to a nine-figure, six-year contract which thus far has been a disaster.
Darvish is currently posting a 5.56 ERA, thanks largely to an astronomical 1.85 HR/9 built around an ugly 21.9% HR/FB rate. While velocity and spin haven’t been issues, command and control have. His 4.76 BB/9 is up two walks from a year ago. The batted ball profile has mostly stayed steady from 2017 but opponents are pulling and barreling the ball more.
Based on Darvish’s maintained K-rate and faith in the Cubs’ decision-making process, the guess here is that Darvish is suffering from having had his approached tinkered with twice in the last ten months. The change in approach from Texas to LA and then LA to Chicago is a lot to take in, especially with a language barrier thrown in for good measure. Darvish is 31, so it’s also understandable that there’ll be plenty of doubters.
As with Darvish, Archer seems to be sporting a kerosene can every time he takes the mound in 2018. He’s rocking a 5.64 ERA, greatly reduced strikeouts and greatly increased home run rates thanks to increased fly ball rates. What we’ve seen thus far has been scary, but there is at least some reason for optimism. Some.
Archer’s deeper numbers set off all kinds of alarms. His HR/9 has gone up 25% despite reduced home runs in MLB and an only-minor rise in Archer’s HR/FB numbers. Perhaps more importantly, Archer’s strikeouts have dropped precipitously, from 11.15/9 a year ago to 8.89/9 now in a league that’s seen strikeouts climb. Basically, while things are trending well for pitchers in general, they’re going the opposite direction for Archer.
The key to hope with Archer lies in his more recent velocity readings. Slowly, but surely, his fastball - which averaged 96mph a year ago but started this year at 94 mph - has started picking up again. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t just velocity that was an issue; spin rate was down too, but with the return to form, there’s hope that hitters will see a return to difficulty hitting Archer’s once-filthy stuff.
Quintana is another Chicago Cubs player with a set of problems. Quintana was meant to be the Cubs’ rotation stabiliser, a guy who at a young age with a secure history, would provide an automatic 200 innings of above-average quality. It hasn’t happened that way, with the former White Sox star registering a 5.23 ERA supported by FIP/xFIP.
Quintana’s problems pop off the page with amazing consistency. His k/9, 9.87 a year ago, is at 8.27 now (we should mention here that his career average is 7.82/9, so that may not be the end of the world). HR/9 is up from 1.10 to 1.52, BB/9 is up from 2.91 in 2017 to 4.57 and opponents are teeing off, with exit velocities up from 87mph to 90.8. Maybe most troubling, hard hit % has risen from 35.5 to 47.2.
The biggest problem with Quintana may be that not that much has changed. His pitch mix is very similar to 2016 but without the same results. His velocity is down, but only by 1mph or so. The real difference, it seems, is that hitters aren’t chasing him outside the zone as they once did.
Increased walks have forced Quintana to come back to hitters, who are clearly punishing him for his inefficiencies this season. This is still a talented guy who has shown the ability to get hitters out in the past, but recent results don’t give any real reason for optimism about a quick turnaround. The Cubs are an incredibly popular team, which can get casual bettors pushing markets their way; on the days Quintana pitches, there could be value on the other side of the market.
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