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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 9

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

Hard to believe, but the fantasy baseball season is already coming to a close. While it wasn't the long slog we normally love, we can at least appreciate it was here. This week we're looking at a few pitchers who could help you take home some hardware after posting solid starts last week. Youngsters Keegan Akin and Mitch Keller tossed some impressive outings, while Madison Bumgarner turned in his first good start of 2020 after what has been a disaster of a season for MadBum. In addition to their ROS outlook I'm going to look at the pitcher's potential value for 2021, as next year is already on the minds of many fantasy baseball addicts.

Roster percentage is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 09/21/2020. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers who are either still widely available or were hot waiver wire pickups after good starts, and to analyze whether they're a flash-in-the-pan or if there's any staying power.

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Keegan Akin, Baltimore Orioles

9% Owned

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 13.2 IP, 4.61 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 13.1% K-BB%

09/16 vs. ATL: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K

Keegan Akin carved up the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday, putting up a career-high nine strikeouts over 5 innings. A mid-tier pitching prospect in the Baltimore organization, Akin has found early success in the majors, putting up a 3.38 ERA through his first six appearances. Now, the young lefty is staring down a two-start week during the final week of the regular season, and with availability in over 95% of leagues, he could wind up being a crucial difference-maker in championship matchups.

A second round pick back in 2016, Akin was viewed by scouts as a back-end starter or possibly a bullpen arm. He works with a three-pitch mix consisting of four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup. The fastball averages about 92 MPH on the gun, but with an average spin rate of 2390 RPM, Akin’s fastball is firmly above average and can allow it to play better than its velocity. The really interesting piece of Akin’s repertoire is his slider, because it’s more a slider-curveball hybrid. Here is an few example from this start.

With that big, looping movement the pitch resembles a curveball to the naked eye, and it shows up in the data as Akin’s slider has 49.5 inches of vertical movement, a top ten mark among starting pitchers. This type of movement has allowed Akin to throw the pitch to opposite handed hitters with confidence, and is a big reason Akin has held righties to a .232 BA and .318 wOBA, very respectable numbers for a rookie left-hander. Overall, batters have mustered just a .167 BA, .172 xBA, .250 SLG, and .214 xSLG against his slider. While those numbers are impressive, the 25.9% whiff rate is quite poor for a breaking ball and should have us questioning how real the strikeout numbers are for Akin.

High strikeout numbers have been the biggest surprise with Akin’s game thus far, as his 31.6% rate would be top-15 among starters if he had enough innings to qualify. The slider hasn’t been the big source of strikeouts, as Akin had just three swinging strikes with it in his most recent start. Instead, it’s been his changeup and fastball doing the heavy lifting strikeout-wise, with 16 combined swinging strikes between the two pitches in his start against Atlanta. The changeup especially has been key for Akin, since he has a 38.2% whiff rate and 34.2% chase rate with the pitch thus far. He uses it almost exclusively against righties, which has helped contribute to his success against opposite handed batters. The pitch itself has solid movement, especially with its 15.9 inches of break, putting him solidly above average. The changeup’s metrics show that it could play as a strong breaking ball itself and pick up Akin’s slider in terms of strikeouts.

While there are plenty of positives with Akin, there are also some red flags with that should concern those looking at him hoping to squeeze out a few good starts. First, is the legitimacy of the strikeout numbers. The 26.8% whiff rate on Akin’s fastball is wholly unsustainable given his 92 MPH fastball velocity. His 83rd percentile spin rate on his fastball helps, but the whiff rate on his fastball could easily be 10% lower or more over a longer period of time.

The second thing scary about Akin is his flyball tendencies. His 36.4% groundball rate would be the seventh-lowest among qualified starters if Akin had enough innings to qualify. Akin has had a groundball rate under 40% in each of the last three seasons as a prospect. He survived because he was able to generate infield flyballs more than 20% of the time, but he’s had just a 10.5% IFFB rate in the majors. Akin has been lucky to have surrendered just one home run thus far, especially considering his home ballpark and his division.

The third thing that worries me about Akin is a historically bad walk rate. His walk rate has been north of 10% in each of the last three season as a minor leaguer, and is at a bloated 11.3% mark so far in the big leagues. That combined with potential home run regression and suspect strikeout numbers on his fastball make Akin’s numbers look shaky thus far. He could still be used in a league where volume is king, such as a points league, but I’d be nervous about what Akin could do to my ratios in Roto, especially my WHIP. If two so-so starts have more value to you than one good one, then roll the dice on Akin and hope for the best. Otherwise, there should be better options for a team competing for a title.

Verdict: Akin’s changeup looks like a solid strikeout pitch, but poor control and possible home run regression make hima dicey play during the final week. He’s a volume play only since he has two starts in shaky matchups, at the Red Sox and at the Blue Jays. Both teams have been above average against lefties this season, and both ballparks are tough pitching environments. Long term, he looks like he could stick around as a four or five starter in the majors, but fantasy-wise he’ll likely be a matchup-based streamer next season if he makes Baltimore’s rotation.

Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

28% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 10.2 IP, 5.06 ERA, 8.99 FIP, -2.2% K-BB%

09/19 vs. STL: 6 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K

Injuries have kept Keller off the mound for the majority of 2020, and prior to Saturday things hadn’t been to pretty for Keller when he did pitch. But the highly regarded young righty twirled a gem last week, firing six scoreless innings for one of the best starts of his career to this point. Unfortunately, the bullpen coughed up the lead for Keller and spoiled his chances for a win, but we can’t expect too many wins out of any Pirates pitcher given the current state of the team. What we should look for is strikeout ability, ratio help, and quality start opportunities, and with starts like this one Keller could be the answer in those categories.

One of the most prized pitching prospects in baseball, Keller has struggled to find his footing at the major league level. He took a pounding in 2019, going 1-5 and posting a horrific 7.13 ERA in 48 innings. But Keller sort of had a Corbin Burnes-esque season in 2019. The surface stats were terrible, but the skills looked solid. If you look past the ERA and win-loss record, Keller’s 3.19 FIP, 3.47 xFIP, and a 12.0 K/9, which are ace-like numbers. Ironically, the situation has been reversed for Keller this year. His 3.24 ERA is solid, but he has a 6.73 FIP and 6.27 xFIP. He’s only pitched 16.2 innings, and ERA estimators like FIP and xFIP can become skewed in such a small sample size, but it’s still an interesting turn of events for Keller. His 19.7% strikeout rate is uncharacteristically low, and he’s allowed four home runs in his first four starts.

Despite the ugly strikeout and home run numbers, Keller is still one of the most intriguing waiver wire arms out there for the final week. The uber prospect boasts a strong four-pitch arsenal, with a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. The fastball has only averaged 93.8 MPH overall this season, but over his last two appearances Keller has averaged 95 on the gun with it. He was at 95.5 MPH with his fastball last season, so it seems likely that Keller was just getting ramped up during his first two outings and should hover around 95 MPH with his fastball regularly. Of his secondary pitches, Keller’s slider has always been the gem of the bunch. Aside from his changeup, all of Keller’s pitches are considered above average, but his slider is on another level.

Keller’s slider generated an unreal 26.8% swinging strike rate last season, and while that has come down to just 13.5% this year, Keller still got five swinging strikes on 18 pitches in this start against the Cardinals. Batters have also failed to get a hit off of Keller’s slider in 2020, and have just a .072 xBA and .082 xSLG against his slider thus far. With above average velocity and spin, and the good results he’s gotten through his first two seasons, Keller’s slider has all the makings of an elite breaking ball, and should allow him to put up strong strikeout numbers at the major league level.

While Keller’s slider looks good, there should be concern about the viability of his fastball. It has a .205 BA against this season, but has been smoked by opposing batters for a 93.5 MPH average exit velocity, and has a .263 xBA and a troubling .609 xSLG. Keller’s heater was a major reason for his struggles last year, as batters hit .461 against the pitch along with a .719 SLG and .499 wOBA. Those numbers were perhaps the worst possible outcome for Keller, but a .205 BA and .441 SLG against his fastball this season seems near the best possible outcomes. Keller’s fastball has an above average spin rate, but the movement is unexceptional. Keller has above average velocity, but major league hitters can catch up to a 95 MPH heater, especially when it has poor movement. It would be nice to see Keller lean a little more heavily on his offspeed stuff instead of his fastball. It doesn’t have to be a radical shift, but if he threw his slider and curveball 5% of the time each and his fastball 10% less often it could serve him well.

Keller is a pitcher that has the tools to become a high-end starter, and he could put it all together next season. I liked him as a late round sleeper coming into this year, but a month-long stint on the IL never allowed us to see if that could come to fruition. I would go back to the well in next year’s drafts assuming Keller will be another late round flier or $1-$2 player in auctions. His final start this season comes Friday at Cleveland, and the Indians have just a .689 OPS, .139 ISO, and .305 wOBA against right-handed pitching this season. That’s a pretty juicy matchup, and Keller has the stuff to take advantage of a weak lineup. If you need an extra start, Keller is a solid option with an excellent matchup.

Verdict: A plus slider headlines a solid all-around repertoire for Keller, and he’ll finish the season against a weak Cleveland lineup, making him a good streaming option as a high risk, high reward pitcher. He’s also an interesting late round draft pick for next season, and someone I'll definitely look to scoop up in my leagues if the price is right.

Madison Bumgarner, Arizona Diamondbacks

57% Rostered

2020 Stats (prior to this start): 22.1 IP, 8.46 ERA, 8.42 FIP, 6.8% K-BB%

09/20 @ HOU: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

A year ago it would be shocking to see Bumgarner featured in a column like this, but 2020 has been a rough one for ol’ Mason Saunders. Bumgarner has posted an eye-popping 7.36 ERA and 7.84 FIP this season, which are both more than twice as high as his career 3.21 ERA and 3.41 FIP. While no one expected Bumgarner to be this bad, the writing was on the wall coming into the season. Bumgarner really hasn’t been the same since his highly publicized dirt bike accident back in 2017. Sure, he managed a respectable 3.57 ERA between 2017-2019, but a 2% dip in strikeout rate and 4.26 xFIP over that time period are signs of a pitcher on the decline. Bumgarner really benefitted from pitching in AT&T/Oracle Park during that stretch as well, posting a 2.99 ERA in San Francisco, but a 4.61 ERA on the road. That’s why many were left scratching their heads when Bumgarner inked a five-year, $85 million dollar deal with Arizona this offseason. Was Arizona that desperate for veteran arms? Does their front office know about sabermetrics? Did Dave Stewart sneak in after hours to make one final blunder? Whatever happened, Bumgarner is a Diamondback now, but can he ever come close the pitcher he was at the height of his powers? And more importantly, does he have one more epic playoff performance in him, this time for fantasy managers?

Bumgarner’s repertoire hasn’t changed much even in the later years of his career. He still throws out the same four-pitch mix, relying heavily on his four-seam fastball, cutter, and curveball, with the occasional changeup. Bumgarner’s fastball velocity had been trending downwards coming into this season, but has taken a precipitous drop in 2020, as Bumgarner is averaging a mere 88.4 MPH on the gun this season. Below is a graph of his fastball velocity by year, just to allow you to visualize how stark the drop has been.

Even at his best he was never an overpowering pitcher in terms of velocity, with his best years being between 92-93 MPH, but he’s among the slowest in the league. The drop is so steep one has to wonder if something is wrong with him beyond age. He’s 31, which is old for baseball but not ancient. Plenty of pitchers can be effective at this stage in their career, especially pitchers with the raw talent that Bumgarner possesses. He does have almost 2000 MLB innings on his arm if you include the postseason, and such a heavy workload may have accelerated his decline.

It may seem overly simplistic to point to a lower fastball velocity as the reason for Bumgarner’s struggles, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Batters have pulverized Bumgarner’s fastball for a .309 BA and .618 SLG, and the expected stats are even worse, as Statcast projects a .329 xBA and .740 xSLG on MadBum’s four-seamer, and that’s not to mention the scorching 91.2 MPH average exit velocity against. That’s right, batters are sending it back about 3 MPH harder than Bumgarner is sending it in. I wish I could say the velocity was back up in this one, but it wasn’t even close. Bumgarner averaged 88.8 MPH with his fastball, which does tie a season high, but is still about 2-3 MPH below where he needs to be to find success.

What about the cutter? The famous MadBum cutter that has been the key to success for Madison Bumgarner throughout his career. Bumgarner has attempted to lean on his cutter more often this season, using it 36.2% of the time, his highest usage rate since 2013. Unfortunately, his cutter has suffered serious decline as well, as Bumgarner is throwing it just 83.4 MPH this season. That’s about 4 MPH less than last season, but it’s not just the velocity that’s troubling for Bumgarner. Below is a chart of average break on Bumgarner’s cutters by season.

So not only is it slow, it’s not moving much either, which makes it a cookie for major league hitters. Bumgarner’s cutter has been pounded for a .293 BA and .707 SLG this season as well, and it only generated three swinging strikes in this start.

Ultimately, we are a long way away from trusting Madison Bumgarner in fantasy again. If he can’t get his velocity back up we may never see a regularly effective Bumgarner again. He falls into a bucket of once great veterans who are now a shell of themselves, such as Jon Lester, Felix Hernandez, and Johnny Cueto. The only fantasy value I see in these types of players is in their name. More casual players who don’t spend a large chunk of their free time pouring over advanced statistics may recognize the name and the player becomes a trade asset, but I hesitate to draft or use them. His next matchup is solid, home against Colorado, a club with an 89 wRC+ against lefties and a 75 wRC+ away from Coors Field this season, but Bumgarner has shown little signs of life despite solid results Sunday. As far as next season, I’d have to see it before I trust him. He’ll probably be a cheap flier in drafts or auctions, but I’d rather roll that dice on a young up-and-comer like Mitch Keller instead of hoping Bumgarner regains his form. A rebound isn’t impossible for him, but there is nothing in the stuff or metrics that suggest one is imminent, which is why he has to do it on the diamond before we buy back in.

Verdict: It was nice to see at least one good start from Bumgarner this season, but we probably won't see another. Fastball and cutter velocity was still down in this one, and his nine swinging strikes on 80 pitches are fine, but a little underwhelming in today’s strikeout-heavy game. He can’t be trusted in his last start, even in deep leagues. 2021 will be critical for Bumgarner, because if he can’t regain his velocity, either by getting healthy, getting a normal spring training, or a mechanical change, this arm might be completely fried.



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