"Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint." Sounds familiar? Well, the fantasy baseball season follows the same pattern, with one's chances of winning skyrocketing with savvy in-season moves. We've discussed several metrics before, and now we're back to talk about additional ways to analyze pitchers, emphasizing tools that are particularly helpful once the season is underway.
Your draft is the books, with advantages now being gained through free agency and trades. You're a smart cookie and use RotoBaller's Sleeper & Waiver Wire Pickups List to gain an edge, but you also want to understand some more metrics underneath the hood.
While preseason analyses can be easier to digest thanks to large sample sizes from seasons past, sometimes the more difficult road is necessary. The season is well underway, and now there's a whole new batch of curveballs that can be thrown into the equation. This can range from a pitcher's velocity changing to literally starting to throw a curveball when they hadn't before.
Using Pitcher Splits
The first component that we'll look at is velocity, a nice, straight-forward measurement to begin with. If a pitcher starts throwing faster, that's usually good. If a pitcher has lost a few ticks, then effectiveness usually drops as a result. Yes, pitchers can learn to work with less, but the concept is that we don't want them to suddenly be unable to replicate their usual routine.
Let's use Felix Hernandez as an example. His average fastball velocity has sat between 93.59 and 92.83 MPH in the past four seasons. Before injuring his calf a few weeks ago, his average fastball velocity has been 90.99 MPH - a notable difference. These are viewable here.
This is not to say that his calf injury is related to the velocity change, but the dip in velocity does point to some performance woes (that we can see thanks to previous lessons). While Hernandez owners may be pleased with his 2.86 ERA and 1.22 WHIP thus far, his behind-the-scenes metrics are flashing "check engine". His 4.10 FIP, 4.10 xFIP, 4.29 SIERA, 8.5 percent swinging strike rate and 9.8 percent walk rate are all career-worst marks by far. There is something wrong here, and velocity can certainly be a symptom.
Velocity isn't just the harbinger of doom though! It can bring joy and new pitchers into the spotlight, like Kansas City's Danny Duffy, who has reemerged as a starter after beginning the season in the bullpen. He averaged roughly 93.8 MPH on his fastball last season before averaging around 97 MPH out of the bullpen. He has carried that momentum forward through his first six starts of 2016, keeping his average fastball velocity in the 96 MPH range. Those six starts have yielded a 2.90 ERA with 38 strikeouts and only five walks in 31 innings, which certainly qualifies as good.
Identifying Recent Trends
We've seen that Duffy is doing well, but how can we be sure that we're looking at relevant information? He's not going to pitch the same as a starter compared to coming out of the bullpen for just an inning of work. Well, one can go to BrooksBaseball's Pitchf/x Tool and see the velocity for each appearance he's made this season.
Ta-da! Also, you can utilize many other variations with the options on the left-hand side of the screen, such as velocity by year, month, game, inning and time through the order.
Thanks to Fangraphs, you can also go to a player's "Splits" tab and you click "SP/RP" to show their numbers as a starter or as a reliever. These are just a few more tools for the toolbox that are especially helpful for midseason analyses when pitchers can have fluid roles or are experimenting with different approaches.
There's much more than just velocity, but in the interest of concision we're going to just look at one other facet of pitching - the pitches themselves. It's not enough anymore to say that a guy can throw a fastball, changeup, slider and curveball. It's not even enough to say that a pitcher relies on his slider more than others. No, we have the actual usage patterns available to us and we're going to use them!
Take Angels' pitcher Matt Shoemaker, who has enjoyed recent success after being demoted to the Minor Leagues not long ago due to poor performance. He was brought back up after injuries decimated the Angels rotation with no one expecting anything different, and subsequently gave up seven runs in nine innings across his next two starts. Since then he has given up only eight runs in 38 1/3 innings, striking out 48 while walking only one! What gives?
There are a few factors to consider, but the headliner is that he's throwing his splitter nearly half of the time compared to roughly 20 percent of the time before this dominant stretch. He's also totally scrapped his curveball, all of which can be gleaned from that graph. We've now got an observable change that coincides with newfound success, bingo.
The Bottom Line
I realize some of these pages and data groupings can be a lot, but hopefully just focusing on those little pieces within the larger landscapes of information make for a smooth introduction. Focusing on velocity and pitch usage percentages can make for fantastic jumping-off points when conducting investigations.
Changes in performance, for better or worse, can be the result of strange luck fluctuations that can be identified through previously discussed metrics such as BABIP, strand rate, home run rate, walks, hard-hit rate surrendered, and so on. One gains a gigantic advantage when you can identify whether a streak has roots in a legitimate change that warrants re-thinking as opposed to mere luck. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but we're just wading in here.
Being able to differentiate between luck and skill is what allows an owner to make the best pickups, ones that have a much higher chance at sustaining their improved performance and who won't burn you later. Utilizing these metrics are part of our weekly starting pitcher waiver wire breakdown, run by yours truly. While pitching is truly a wondrous art to behold in its own right, we all know that the motivation of winning championships takes our appreciation of it to another level.