Researching elite starters has taught me a number of things about pitcher development. One of the most valuable has been the reminder that progress is never linear.
Blake Snell and Justin Verlander present recent examples of that. Verlander has been in “obvious decline” on two occasions now, and both times he’s bounced back. 2016 Blake Snell displayed impressive talent but limited control. He was then relegated to AAA for portions of 2017, lost strikeouts, and saw his ERA increase, but we all know what he did in 2018.
Despite the inconsistent nature of growth, we do see patterns in those pitchers who emerge as elite starters. In parts one and two of the series, I worked to assemble a methodical approach for identifying pitchers who were more likely to emerge as elite starters. If you want to read more about the methodology, check out those articles. In this space, I want to focus on what it reveals about starters for this coming season.Editor's Note: Get any full-season MLB Premium Pass for 50% off. Get access to our exclusive articles, rankings, projections, prospects coverage, 15 in-season lineup tools, daily expert DFS research, powerful Research Station, Lineup Optimizer and much more! Sign Up Now!
Hunting for Upside
Looking at about twenty different stats, I saw a few baseline elements that spanned nearly every pre-elite season. In the vast majority of cases, pre-elite starters offered at least a 3.54 FIP, a 3.7 xFIP, 150 innings pitched, and a swinging-strike rate of 11.0%. There were exceptions to those, but they were statistical outliers. There were many other metrics involved, but those elements offered clear parameters for my search.
To be clear, the system would never have predicted Blake Snell’s Cy-Young performance, but it would have given far more confidence in drafting Max Scherzer in 2013 when he broke out or Aaron Nola last season. I didn’t design it to evaluate a player’s likely outcome. I designed it to indicate the possibility of whether a pitcher looked like a potential elite starter. A positive score means that a pitcher had better than average indicators for a pre-elite starter. A neutral score means the pitcher looked exactly like a pre-elite starter, and a negative score means that a pitcher had below average indicators for a pre-elite starter.
The data offers a way to gauge these players more objectively, but there are reasons not to treat the data as an absolute barometer. For instance, the system likes Alex Wood, and I think he’s undervalued, but there’s a near zero chance that he emerges as an ace. On the other hand, Zach Wheeler has a negative score, but his -1.2 score is easily explained by his return from injury.
Without further delay, here are the numbers…
The Obvious Candidates: Nola, Bauer, Cole, Snell
Aaron Nola, Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole, and Blake Snell are names that don’t surprise anyone. All four of them are getting plenty of attention as potential Cy-Young candidates for this season. Which one you prefer depends on your tendencies. There’s very little mystery around them, but I’ll address what the formula suggests about each one.
Nola and Snell are the most obvious names here because their 2018 seasons already met the definition for elite performances. Nola’s only potential weakness is his walk rate. However, there’s scant evidence of control issues, and his 69.4% first-strike rate supports that.
For Snell, the issue is a simple case of control and efficiency. Snell’s 57.1% first-strike rate and 62.2% strike rate are well below the performances of other elite starters. The only other elite starter who was close to those numbers was Dallas Keuchel who had the most pronounced drop-off after his elite season. The good news for Snell is that he improved both metrics in the second half. Plus the Rays are a pitching organization that just moved to lock in Snell with a long-term contract.
Bauer was excellent last year, but the formula’s primary issue with him was the missed time from his stress fracture and the fact that the Indians clearly limited his innings in those final two starts. Additionally, if he’s actually found a way to emulate Carlos Carrasco’s changeup – and Bauer claims that he has – he’ll be even better this season.
Gerrit Cole’s 6.3 z-score is less gaudy than Nola’s, and there’s less hype on him than Bauer, but he’s still only 28, which is right around when lanky guys finally get everything synced up. At the least, owners can look at his strikeouts, K%, and FIP and have a clear sense that Cole is a virtual lock to be a top-ten pitcher.
Shopping for deGrom: Picks 50 and Up
I mentioned in the previous article that most elite starters finished in the top-100 players the season before they emerged. Aside from the four pitchers above, these are the players most likely to return elite-level value.
Patrick Corbin: Z-Score 9.7 (ADP 50)
Why the Formula Likes Him: On the most basic level, Corbin employs a skillset similar to Chris Sale (they use a strong fastball and slider mix to generate swinging strikes and groundballs). Corbin’s peripheral numbers all compared favorably with those of Scherzer, Sale, and deGrom. In 2018, he ranked 6th in K%, 5th in K-BB%, 4th in FIP, 2nd in SwSt%, and 1st in O-Swing%.
Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Corbin’s mediocre .281 xwOBA and his 6.0 IPS were below standard for the pre-elite pitchers, who usually show more dominance based on batted-ball data and go deeper in their starts.
Final Thought: Corbin makes a perfect target for this season. His numbers compare favorably to Nola, Kluber, and Verlander, but he's available two rounds later. Corbin’s ability to induce groundballs (48.5% GB%) is among the league’s best, and it helps to account for his mediocre xwOBA. He gives up some harder contact, but it tends to be on the ground. Health is a concern, but he’s been my favorite SP target in leagues so far.
Zach Wheeler: Z-Score -1.2 (ADP 92)
Why the Formula Likes Him: Wheeler gets ground balls, limits fly balls, induces infield flies, generates whiffs, and provokes swings at pitches outside the zone. That’s a ton of ways to manipulate batters to sit back down.
Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Wheeler’s xFIP is worse than we'd expect to see, and as a player returning from injury, he also lacks volume and hasn’t shown the ability to go deep into games.
Final Thought: If you want my guess on this year’s Jacob deGrom, it’s Zach Wheeler. I wish there were a higher swinging-strike rate, but the volume should take care of itself this season.
Jameson Taillon: Z-Score -1.9 (ADP 56)
Why the Formula Likes Him: Taillon has already demonstrated the ability to get lots of outs and to get them late in the game. His .214 wOBA on the third time through the order was exceptional. There’s probably some noise built in there, but Taillon’s ability to limit balls in the air and induce grounders is almost identical to deGrom’s.
Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Taillon’s weakest attributes were his volume (191 IP) and his xFIP (3.58). Both of those numbers fall below the thirty-third percentile for pre-elite pitchers. Given that xFIP rewards groundball pitchers like Taillon, it’s worrisome that his number is that high.
Final Thought: By my interpretation, Taillon isn’t particularly likely to provide an elite performance in 2018, but the data may be skewed by his continued recovery from the cumulative effects of cancer and Tommy John surgery. That’s a lot of physical and emotional trauma for someone who is still only 27 years old. A reasonable assessment recognizes that Jameson Taillon is an ass-kicker, and even if his 2019 is not an elite season, it should be very, very good. Like Bauer’s new changeup, Taillon’s grit isn’t baked into these numbers. The last cancer survivor with a season like Jameson Taillon was Jon Lester, who went on to be a top-10 pitcher for years.
German Marquez: Z-Score 0.3 (ADP 78)
Why the Formula Likes Him: Marquez leverages his strong swinging-strike rate (12.6%) with strong GB/FB ratios. His FIP (3.40) was almost exactly the average for pre-elite pitchers, and his xFIP was slightly better (3.10). Moreover, Marquez has demonstrated the ability to eat innings over the last two seasons.
Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: The formula doesn’t care about Coors Field, but it does care about inconsistency. Marquez’s has struggled in his third time through the batting order, and he’s failed to execute his pitches consistently. Both of those issues give us cause for concern.
Final Thought: As Paul Sporer argued a couple of weeks ago, “Coors Field is undefeated” against pitchers. However, Coors Field now has the handicap of the humidor, and I’m not sure that it’s ever met an opponent as talented as Marquez. It’s worth remembering that Marquez is only 24 and that he was a Kluber Formula candidate last year. He did not come out of nowhere. Among these four players, Marquez probably represents the greatest range of potential outcomes this season. Sometimes you throw a Hail Mary and it gets intercepted, and sometimes David Tyree makes a Helmet Catch. It’s worth noting that from June 30th on, Marquez’s performance was almost good enough to generate elite value even without the volume of a full-length season. However, the added difficulty of adjusting to Coors Field may be enough to complicate Marquez’s growth.
Carlos Carrasco: Need an ace-lite? Draft Carrasco. You’re going to love his floor. I guarantee it.
James Paxton: The Yankees knew what they were doing when they acquired Paxton. In a world where only 60 pitchers reach 160 IP per season, Paxton’s health isn’t a liability. If Paxton ever reaches 200 innings in a single season, he’d either be an elite pitcher or extraordinarily close. However, I’m guessing the Yankees are planning on keeping Paxton’s IPS below 6.0, which will make it difficult for him to take the next step.
Noah Syndergaard: Among these six pitchers, he’s probably the best candidate to win the Cy Young if he can stay healthy. If…
Walker Buehler: Give him another 50 innings and two more outs per start, and he instantly becomes an elite starter. However, the news this Spring already suggests he won’t make it to 200 innings.
Mike Clevinger: Looks an awful lot like a poor man’s Walker Buehler.
Jack Flaherty: Misses the FIP cutoff and barely makes the IP cutoff. However, the rest of the numbers suggest he might be on the cusp. Managers looking for a “dark-horse” candidate to ascend to the elite level should consider him.