2020 Fantasy Baseball: Fun with Fangraphs and mining for starting pitching

Alec Mills
Photo Credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The Fangraphs splits leaderboard is one of my default places to land in the fantasy baseball stats landscape. I’ll often go searching to see what groupings pop up given certain parameters. If you haven’t played around with the tool yet, I’d encourage you to try. Be sure to select “filters,” and then conjure up any set of parameters your little heart desires…and see what happens.

For today, yours truly is mining for hidden gems within the pitching ranks. What I love to see is lots of ground balls and lots of strikeouts. And when the ball does get lifted, I like to see the ability to keep it in the yard. So very simply, from 2019 I want starting pitchers who were better than average in ground ball rate, strikeout rate, and HR/FB rate. Let’s see the thresholds, and then the sample, and work outward from there.

2019 thresholds:

Greater than/equal to 42.7% ground ball rate
Greater than/equal to 22.3% strikeout rate
Less than/equal to a 15.5% HR/FB rate

Oh, one more thing. My sort only pertains to pitchers who were operating as starting pitchers. Relievers have their place, but I’m aiming for quality AND quantity here. Here’s the initial sample:

False alarm. 31 names popped up, including a host of guys who pitched less than 10 innings. I see Alec Mills at 20 innings, and I like him. So let’s do that. Minimum of 20 innings…

Name Tm IP ERA SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Zack Greinke 2 Tms 208.2 2.9329 187 0.228162 0.259627 0.363755 0.262783
Charlie Morton TBR 194.2 3.0514 240 0.214784 0.282636 0.340307 0.270412
Cole Hamels CHC 141.2 3.8118 143 0.260148 0.333879 0.405904 0.317249
Patrick Corbin WSN 202 3.2525 238 0.226542 0.292624 0.375335 0.28514
Zack Wheeler NYM 195.1 3.9625 195 0.257895 0.302808 0.390789 0.293602
Jacob deGrom NYM 204 2.4265 255 0.206711 0.256571 0.32349 0.249802
Noah Syndergaard NYM 197.2 4.2799 202 0.255937 0.304136 0.41029 0.301598
Sonny Gray CIN 175.1 2.8745 205 0.196141 0.280627 0.324759 0.264609
Eduardo Rodriguez BOS 203.1 3.8066 213 0.253247 0.323221 0.390909 0.30691
Alec Mills CHC 20 2.7 26 0.25 0.344828 0.381579 0.319408
Frankie Montas OAK 96 2.625 103 0.230137 0.281726 0.364384 0.275602
Tyler Glasnow TBR 60.2 1.7802 76 0.186047 0.234783 0.274419 0.222273
Hyun-Jin Ryu LAD 182.2 2.3157 163 0.233577 0.262937 0.359124 0.263024
Carlos Rodon CHW 34.2 5.1923 46 0.23913 0.322785 0.391304 0.307087
Brandon Woodruff MIL 121.2 3.6247 143 0.240088 0.293279 0.356828 0.280645
Jose Urquidy HOU 34 4.2353 36 0.244275 0.277372 0.412214 0.290133
Joey Lucchesi SDP 163.2 4.1792 158 0.232633 0.296623 0.405493 0.298107

I’m actually impressed all 17 names and all the columns fit onto one page. Everybody say amen!

As for the list itself, I’m happy with the names. I don’t think there’s a bad one in the bunch. They may not all be great, but we’ll get to that momentarily. For now, let’s sort these guys by recent NFBC ADP:

Jacob deGrom – 9
Patrick Corbin – 47
Charlie Morton – 51
Zack Greinke – 65
Tyler Glasnow – 66
Frankie Montas – 96
Brandon Woodruff – 84
Sonny Gray – 99
Hyun-Jin Ryu – 147
Zack Wheeler – 147
Eduardo Rodriguez – 154
Jose Urquidy – 206
Joey Lucchesi – 249
Cole Hamels – 263
Alec Mills – 643
Carlos Rodon – 698

I removed Noah Syndergaard since he’s out for 2020. RIP. Anyway, if you include Hamels in what is essentially the top 250, I think it’s interesting we are left with only two names in Mills and Rodon…both of whom are free in drafts. So let’s scope those two out.

Given that Jose Quintana (thumb surgery) won’t even begin throwing for two more weeks, Alec Mills is slated to serve as the fifth starter for the Cubs. He’ll likely follow Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Tyler Chatwood. Mills served as the swingman for the Cubs in 2019, amassing a 2.75 ERA. And in Spring Training 1.0, Mills amassed a 0.84 ERA across his 10 2/3 innings prior to play being suspended due to the pandemic. The easy comparison here is Kyle Hendricks, but let’s dig in a bit more.

Mills’ super-slow 65 MPH curveball should do plenty to keep hitters off balance. He’s also effective with the changeup and the slider. It’s the fastball that needs tweaking, given that hitters pasted last year’s version to the tune of a .270 ISO. Mills could ditch it for his sinker, which was much more effective (.111 ISO). He’s also been honing a two-seamer this spring and over the break brought on by COVID-19. And while the two-seamer may not be ready for game action when MLB restarts, it’s at least noteworthy that he’s tinkering with the ineffectiveness of the heater. Knowing thyself is a nice first step.

Last thing on Mills…I think it’s notable that we have three “slow curve” pitchers on this list. In 2019, the five guys with the most curves thrown at 69 MPH or less were Greinke (125), Corbin (79), Jason Vargas (77), Mills (73), and Chris Bassitt (53). Maybe there’s something to that, having to do with the changing of speeds. A topic for another day, perhaps For now, I’ll just call it interesting. Here’s your Mills curveball propaganda…welcome to the slowest pitch in the majors last year, folks:

As for Carlos Rodon, he’s the other man in the grouping that’s essentially free. There’s an injury smokescreen here, as Rodon only managed 34 2/3 innings in 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. Off the cuff I’d like to say that the 2020 fantasy baseball season is PERFECT for Rodon. He’s a former starter that has battled injuries too frequently. However, in the age of COVID-19 he can still be relevant even if the White Sox treat him with kiddie gloves. For what it’s worth, on July 5th, Rodon hurled three innings and 45 pitches. So he can’t be that far off from giving us viable big league innings. He’s also like 14 months removed from surgery, so health really shouldn’t be a massive hurdle.

Rodon’s always been a bit wild, and last year’s 10.8% walk rate was pretty much in line with the 10.0% career rate. But the 29.1% strikeout rate was something new, as was the career-best 12.1% swinging strike rate. He also got hitters to chase more than ever, at 30.4%. Finally, he allowed less contact than ever, at 73.7% (MLB average was 76.2%). Sure, it was a small sample. But we’ve also had back-to-back years of solid home run suppression by Rodon, with HR/FB rates of 9.9% (2018) and 11.4% (2019), respectively. I can tolerate the walks if I’m getting the spike in strikeouts AND if I’m not getting big flies that make those walks hurt far more.

There’s a discernible change here, too. Rodon ditched his heater in 2019 in favor of more sliders, following the path of another guy on this list (one Patrick Corbin). Rodon’s fastball usage dipped from 59.8% to 51.9%, and he bumped his slider usage from 26.1% to a whopping 37.4%. He only used his changeup 10.8% of the time, but the new pitch mix made the changeup more effective, too. Cite the small sample size all you like, but Rodon’s epic slider is absolutely indicative of a guy who could have a ton of success with “pitching backwards” and decreasing the fastball usage. The 2020 season also affords him plenty of opportunity to carve out a starting or a multi-inning role with the White Sox–and in this wacky pitching season even a multi-inning role won’t kill us as it would normally. I’m buying Rodon all day his ADP. Here’s the nasty slider propaganda you were all waiting for…

In summation, one little grouping brought on by my arbitrary parameters allowed me to learn a little more about the slow curve of Mills and the uptick in slider usage by Rodon. I’d say it was well worth it, and I’m interested to see what sort of role each pitcher can carve out for himself in 2020. And maybe, just maybe, these guys can help out the bottom end of our fantasy baseball rosters, too.

One comment

  1. […] I like a bit of safety wherever I can work it into my fantasy baseball drafts. And while there are assuredly more refined processes for evaluating pitchers in the fantasy baseball world, I’ve gotta start somewhere…right? In particular, keeping it simple with pitchers is my jam. Lots of ground balls, lots of strikeouts, not a lot of walks or home runs…I like that recipe, and I like the names it continues to lead me to (I did starting pitchers last week). […]

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