With approximately one-third of the Major League Baseball season coming to an end, some surprising pitchers have excelled. Below, we look at three starters who have exceeded expectations, along with three who have failed to live up to their promise. Should you bet on their form reverting back to their pre-existing performances, or are their statistics indicative of real change?
Dallas Keuchel – On the surface, Dallas Keuchel looks just like the pitcher he was in 2015 when he earned the American League Cy Young Award. Keuchel has been the only thing hotter than his Houston Astros as a whole, starting 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA and there’s good news for Astros fans: While he’s not quite this good, his FIP and xFIP (measures of how well a pitcher is throwing that removes team defence from the equation) are measuring up to his 2015 numbers, which means Keuchel has almost certainly fixed what ailed him in a sub-par 2016; at least for the most part.
Keuchel has never thrown heat, with his 2015 fastball topping out at 90.85 mph and sitting right around 90 for most of the season. Instead, he relies on a sinker that causes hitters to mash the ball into the ground. While his fastball has dropped into the 89s, the sinker is doing its job better than ever; an astounding 67.4% of batted balls against him have been grounders, up from 61.7% in 2015 (and 56.7% in 2016). You can expect that number to regress a little, and his ERA to rise appropriately.
Ultimately, Keuchel has returned to being a worthwhile ace and you should bet on him that way. Don’t expect the ERA to stay at 1.67, but it’s not going back to 2016’s 4.55.
Ervin Santana – A 34-year old starter with a history of serviceable mediocrity suddenly becomes one of the league’s best pitchers. Sound too good to be true? There’s a reason. Ervin Santana is still Ervin Santana. Actually, in a lot of ways, he’s been worse, regardless of what the surface stats say.
Tanaka is giving up similar ratios of line drives, fly balls and groundballs to a year ago, when he finished top five in Cy Young voting.
7-3 with a 2.44 ERA, Santana looks pretty good at first glance, but every indicator out there is screaming for you to bet the house against him while there’s any chance of the market being fooled. His FIP/xFIP are 4.64/4.88, each of which would be half-decade highs and that suggests he’s been lucky. His strikeout rate is down, his walk rate is up and his home run rate is up, all major indicators that he should already have imploded. Why hasn’t he? BABIP.
On the balls that have been put in play against him, hitters are averaging a minuscule .153, approximately half the league average. In fact, no other starter has a BABIP under .200, so a huge adjustment is coming Mr Santana’s way. It’s already begun; Santana gave up seven runs in four innings in his last start. If the market treats him as anything other than a bad pitcher on a bad team going forward, be sure to bet the other side.
Jason Vargas – Vargas has been one of the ten most valuable starters in MLB thus far, sporting a 7-3 record and 2.08 ERA for the otherwise disappointing KC Royals thus far. Another 34-year old journeyman, Vargas can expect to see some regression too, though his success thus far hasn’t been as deceiving as Santana’s.
The best argument that Vargas is legit is his 7.01 K/9, easily his highest in a decade. While that’s in part due to a league-wide increase in strikeouts as a strategic reaction to shifting (hitters are swinging for the fences more), that still bodes well. The last time Vargas pitched a full season, in 2014, he’d joined the Royals for the first time and immediately enjoyed the benefits of a large ballpark and strong defence behind him.
The warning sign with Vargas is his xFIP. While his FIP of 3.16 is strong, his 4.39 xFIP suggests he’s been awfully lucky when it comes to fly balls going (or, in this case, not going) for home runs. Considering his 0.65 HR/9 and 5.8 HR/FB are both easily career lows, one should probably expect an adjustment in that regard. Be extra careful backing him when he’s playing in Yankee Stadium, the Rogers Centre and other parks that are susceptible to home runs. All told, Vargas isn’t an ace, but he’s not Santana either.
Masahiro Tanaka – The New York Yankees are amongst the hottest teams in MLB, which is why it’s surprising that the one starter who was considered a sure thing for the Bronx Bombers heading into 2017 has been anything but. Masahiro Tanaka has looked brutal from opening day (when he gave up seven runs in 2.2 innings) and given recent starts, there’s real reason to believe it’s not a mirage.
Not everything paints a bleak picture. Tanaka is giving up similar ratios of line drives, fly balls and groundballs to a year ago when he finished top five in Cy Young voting and his fortuitous high HR/FB of 21.2% is unsustainable. Tanaka’s also enjoyed an increased K/9 and markedly increased swinging strike %, suggesting hitters are no less fooled. He’s even throwing as hard as he did at his 2016 peak. Harder even.
Beyond the home run flukiness, Tanaka’s been victimised by a marked increase in BABIP and a shakier bullpen behind him giving up more runs amongst runners he left on base, making his ERA change appear more drastic than it’s been. All of this is a way of saying that while not everything is right with Tanaka, it’s not as wrong as one might think.
Bartolo Colon – Now 44-years old, Colon appeared a year ago to be an ageless wonder who’d pitch forever. Now, sporting a 6.99 ERA over eleven starts, one has to wonder if we’re finally seeing the end of the road.
Colon’s been somewhat unlucky at least, with his FIP/xFIP a still-bad-but-not-quite-as-bad-as-his-ERA 4.96/4.79. He’s had some bad luck with BABIP and HR/FB, but HR/FB doesn’t explain all his marked increase in HRs allowed.
No other starter has a BABIP under .200, so a huge adjustment is coming Mr. Santana’s way.
Ultimately, it appears Colon is just fooling hitters less. His 4.9 SwStr% is abysmally low and he’s throwing far fewer pitches in the strike zone than in the past. The resulting sky high (for him) walk rate and ground-low K-rate just aren’t a recipe for success. Hate to say it, but you can probably bet on Colon’s futility continuing until he’s put out to pasture for good.
Justin Verlander – A year ago, Kate Upton’s anger at boyfriend Verlander being denied the Cy Young was justified. Now though, what looked like a career resurgence is looking more like a last-gasp for a once-great pitcher.
Across the board, Verlander’s peripherals are suffering. His K9 has dropped alarmingly, from 10.04 to 8.49, while his walks have almost doubled. Verlander can’t even blame HR/9 or BABIP luck, with his numbers in both realms looking league-average. Batters are pulling the ball more and just hitting the ball harder and making contact more often. This is not a good thing.
Verlander’s velocity is still what it was, but it looks like the results may be due to other teams catching up with their analysis. With swings against him cut down and contact up, one has to think that the renewed Verlander we saw in 2016 took teams by surprise. Now, a year later, analytics departments across the game have had the opportunity to do their homework and prepare hitters appropriately. Verlander may still have another Cy Young in him, but at this point, I wouldn’t bet on it.
*All data as of 2017-06-08.