It’s June. The weather here on the East Coast is B-E-A-UTIFUL. Even during this awful pandemic, when you walk outside the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and that summer vibe is all around you. The only thing missing is baseball.
This is not an article getting into the current quandary that is putting the league and it’s future in shambles. No. I bring this up because without baseball having commenced, drafts are STILL going on. Many leagues, in fact, are waiting to draft until baseball officially IF it announces a return (that’s an elephant-sized if). So with not much positivity in terms of current baseball happenings and talks, let’s turn our attention back to what makes us happy. Drafting.
We all know you can lose your league by making a bad top round pick but you never seem to be able to win that way. Most experts will tell you if you want to win your league, you need to HIT with your mid-round selections. In points league formats especially and in many leagues, I play in, pitching is a premium in most seasons. Gerrit Cole, Jacob Degrom, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Walker Buehler, Jack Flaherty, Stephen Strasburg, and Shane Bieber are all pitchers I’ve seen go in the first two rounds in drafts.
In a shortened season, it may not be getting these guys who most likely won’t pitch that amount of innings worthy of taking them this high, but rather going hitter heavy early, and getting studs later on. THAT’S what this article is for! For those of you looking to draft some pitching in the mid-rounds, here are three guys who I believe will help win your league and are super attractive at their ADP, and three guys coming off of semi-successful 2019 seasons I would avoid:
Is he my top pick to break out this year or top pick to get carded at a bar? The answer is both. Max Fried in his little bit of time in the bigs already has 19 games won to his name to go along with a 3.83 career ERA in 225.1 IP. After 165 IP this past season, Fried was supposed to be able to pitch roughly 200 innings this year before the pandemic. Even in a shortened season, I’m going to give my bold prediction in this article that Fried will be a top 10 pitcher in 2020 (If there’s a season).
Fried throws a fastball that averages 94 MPH to go along with a strong mix of a slider, sinker, change-up, and most importantly his curveball. To everyone reading when I say his curveball is pretty, think of that poster you had of your celeb crush growing up. Yes, that kind of pretty. He throws his curveball over a whopping 25% of the time and over 33% of the time when he’s ahead in counts (David Adler MLB.com). Last year alone he recorded more strikeouts on his curve (63) than any other pitch, including his fastball and had more vertical movement on it than pitching greats Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. Ask Clayton Kershaw what it’s like to have a nice breaking curve to go along with a mid 90’s fastball. Works out pretty well, doesn’t it?
Not only do I love his stuff, but the analytics back up everything he did last year and then some. Now’s the time I rub my hands together and throw numbers at you. Fried had the 4th highest ground ball percentage and 2nd lowest barrel rate and launch angle last year. That means he’s avoiding balls in the air (which means a lot in today’s homer-happy baseball) and isn’t letting guys get the best part of their bat on his pitches. He also ranks towards the top of the league in xSLG and xISO which backs up his limiting of extra-base hits and homers. If the baseball becomes less homer-happy as many assume it will, I see him being able to decrease his ERA more from last year and being amongst the league leaders in wins with that offense backing him. My top breakout this year no doubt and will happily tie my name to his.
It’s Always Sonny in Cincinnati. See what I did there? Please don’t cringe too much because Gray’s performance in 2019 was anything but Gray (okay I’ll stop). Gray has already shown to be a top-notch Major League pitcher in five of his seven big league seasons. There were many documented problems from his time in New York. Literally pick your poison. His 6.98 ERA in Yankee Stadium in 2018 (3.17 ERA for every other park combined), his direct frustration with the Yankees messing with his pitch mix, and having him throw a ton of sliders (which he was not comfortable doing), or just the pressures of being a Yankee.
Regardless of the reason, Gray bounced back beautifully in 2019 with the Reds in arguably his best full season, within 31 starts had a 2.87 ERA, .196 BA against, and 205 SO in 175.1 innings. His metrics back up this turn around as using his revamped five-pitch mix of a 93 MPH fastball, slider, curveball, sinker, and changeup dominated across the board. Gray ranked in the top 10 in xBA, xSLG, Solid Contact %, and in my opinion most importantly, out of the Zone Swing and Miss % and Contact %.
His zone swing and miss and contact percentage being so low show me that he was consistently fooling hitters with his pitches outside of the zone and getting them to chase bad pitches consistently. Gray having five pitches he throws throughout games creates many guesses for the hitters and I believe will allow him to continue to keep hitters off balance. Gray having the 2nd lowest First Pitch Strike Percentage last year shows he’s not afraid to play ball outside the zone.
Has anyone secretly wished to be traded more than Kenta Maeda? Three of his four seasons with the Dodgers, he has reached double-digit wins and maintained an ERA of 4.04 or lower. His reward? Reaching 175 IP in a season just ONCE in his four year Major League career.
The reason was simple from the Dodgers perspective. Maeda’s contract included heavy incentives (estimated 10-12 million per year) with making 250 K every ten innings pitched after 90 innings (truebluela.com) with him receiving a whopping 750 K on top of that at 200 IP. Safe to say we know why his innings were kept in check and he was consistently moved to the bullpen every year.
Fast Forward to 2020, and Maeda is a member of the Minnesota Twins after an offseason trade and the bubble wrap has been finally removed. Maeda is what he is; he’s not going to overpower you as he has an average fastball velocity on his four-seamer of 92.1 MPH. He does combine this with an effective sinker, curveball, and changeup to show why his consistency has not been a fluke. Last year, Maeda ranked in the top 10 in all of baseball (minimum qualifier) in xBA, xSLUG, xwOBA, xISO, and had the 3rd lowest Avg Exit Velocity, Solid Contact Percentage, and Hard Hit % in the entire Major Leagues.
What does this all mean? Maeda consistently induces weak contact and limits balls leaving the yard. He may not have the consistent swing and miss stuff but the expectation for Maeda is to step right away into the Twins staff and eat lots and lots of innings albeit even in a shorter season. To get him as late as he’s going in drafts with his track record? Where’s the sign-up sheet?
Ah, now it’s time to be a Debbie Downer. This is the point in the article where we talk about guys that in my eyes might as well have big “X” over. That starts to me with my Paul Goldschmidt of pitchers in Madison Bumgarner. Yes, the Giants legend and arguably one of the best postseason pitching runs of this generation. I’m not liking the outlook for him this season.
Let’s start with him leaving the best park in the Major Leagues for pitching and moving to a park that’s closer to the middle of the pack in terms of home runs allowed. For a guy who ranked in the top 10 worst pitchers in xISO and Average Exit Velocity, that is extremely troubling. There’s also the fact that he was among the worst in the Majors in Ground Ball % at 37% so a lot of his balls in play get put in the air. Not enough for you? He also had the 4th highest hard-hit percentage and right up there in sweet spot % and barrel %.
What do all these stats mean? Bumgarner was not fooling ANYONE last year. This was his 3rd straight season of under 9 K/9 and a decreasing average fastball velocity that is now under 90 MPH. Now in a new environment with a worse park for pitching, I think his 3.90 ERA will be a thing of the past and this will be the year things really fall apart for MadBum.
Is there a bigger Jekhl and Hyde story than Caleb Smith last year? Before the All-Star Break (13 Starts) he had a 3.50 ERA. After the All-Star Break (15 Starts) he had a 5.42 ERA. Y-I-K-E-S. The worst pitcher in the entire Majors last year in barrel percentage at almost 11%! He also had the worst xISO, Highest Launch Angle, and among the worst in SweetSpot %.
Bottom line this guy let people hit the ball HARD off of him. Now maybe with a less jumpy (If that’s a word) baseball, these numbers will regress some and he will be great like he was in the first half of the season. One of the things most people like in Smith’s game is his high K/9 rate. This is true as you look at his April-July in which he averaged double-digit strikeouts each month (removing his one injured month in June).
Once you look at how he finished the year, his K/9 dipped to 8.3 and then 7.3 to close the season. This means that he had a hard time fooling hitters by the end of the season, evidence by the last two months of a 6.39 ERA. Is this just a case of fatigue? Maybe, but by drafting Caleb Smith, you already know there most likely won’t be many wins attributed to his record with that offense backing him. In a potentially shortened season, I might want a guy in the mid-rounds who I know will get me more W’s and won’t be giving up the long ball nearly as much. Even though chicks dig it.
If you were to look up in “Regression” in the dictionary, would you see Dakota Hudson’s picture? Probably, if you’re looking at Mendy’s Dictionary. St. Louis no doubt knows how to develop pitching as shown by the great talent they’ve had over the years, and Hudson may very well turn out to subtweet me later as a critic and hater (he can do it, I’ll accept the clout), but I don’t see what I saw last year translating very well unless he makes some adjustments.
Let’s start with the one positive on Hudson and that he is a GROUND BALL MACHINE. If the dirt was hungry for balls, they’d be well fed. He led the entire Majors in Ground Ball % at a whopping 57.4%. That’s more than half the balls put in play not even making it to the air. That’s the bee’s knees if you’re excelling in other important stats that correlate well to this.
Howeverrrrrrr, the kindness stops here. Hudson ranked as the fourth-worst pitcher in terms of the first-pitch strike. Getting behind hitters that consistently is never a good sign for continued success. He also ranked inside the bottom 16 pitchers of last year in average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage. When you have a successful and not lucky ground ball pitcher, the hitters need to have a good weak contact percentage for the ball to be easily put into play for the pitcher’s defense to make plays.
Let’s take a step back from the super nerdy stats and go to one that every baseball fan should know. WHIP. That walks and hits per innings pitched for those that maybe have lived under a rock. A WHIP of 1.0 or below is elite. In 202 career major league innings, Hudson has a 1.40 WHIP. This means Hudson basically is giving up one a half base runners per inning pitched. Combine that with a 6.9 K/9 and to me, he had quite a bit of luck last year.
To summarize it up, Hard contact + lots of ground balls with lack of strikeouts + Mediocre WHIP = More inflated 2020 ERA. Sorry for the math, this is a baseball article.
Maybe I’m wrong about all these. That’s fine. Maybe there’s a shortened season in which a lot of these players could shine or falter that I didn’t expect and that’s fine. What is not fine, is if there’s no baseball. Owners and players, please meet somewhere in the middle and give us the game we all love and adore. Let us be able to trash or gloat about articles like these and reflect on our thoughts and opinions. We may all differ in opinions on fantasy value, but we are all the same in one aspect: Let’s play baseball.