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Welcome to our surprising starts series. Every week we’ll be going over a few surprising starting pitcher performances around the majors to determine whether these starts were smoke and mirrors or something more.

This week we’ll look at the debut performance of Shohei Ohtani, as well as Kyle Gibson’s domination of the Orioles and Ty Blach’s blanking of the Dodgers.

These starters could become valuable waiver wire targets, some may have more to prove, while others may simply not be worth fantasy owners' attention.

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The Real Deal?

Shohei Ohtani, Los Angels of Anaheim  

04/01 @ Oakland Athletics: 6.0 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K

This performance may not be surprising to everyone, but after an atrocious spring training and talks of starting in the minors, Shohei Ohtani delivered in his first big league start. His four seam fastball averaged 98.3 MPH and topped out at triple digits. Ohtani was able to command the fastball along with his slider and devastating splitter to impress against the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics aren’t the cakewalk matchup that many perceive them to be either. In 2017, Oakland was ninth in the majors with a .329 wOBA against right-handed pitching.

Ohtani got 18 swinging strikes in this start, and 10 of those swinging strikes were with his splitter. He threw the splitter 24 times and batters swung through it 41.7% of the time. Hitters were only able to put Ohtani’s splitter in play three times during this game. He went to the pitch with two strikes often. Ohtani got the third strike with his splitter on five of his six punchouts (he got Khris Davis with three sliders on the other one). It’s a pitch that Ohtani can lean on to put batters away regularly. The best comparison for Ohtani would probably be Masahiro Tanaka. Both pitchers have a splitter they can go to with two strikes to put hitters away. It’s not a perfect comparison however. Ohtani can dial up the heat with his four seamer, while Tanaka relies on an average velocity sinker.

Ohtani made a rather costly mistake in the second inning. He hung a slider to Matt Chapman, who clobbered it for a three run blast. The pitch was mislocated and left over the plate, making it easy pickings for a power hitter like Chapman. This isn’t overly concerning just yet. Even the best pitchers throw bad pitches occasionally and get punished for it. Unless he displays an inability to command his slider over the course of a few starts this issue isn’t very worrisome.

Verdict:

Spring concerns may have been overblown, as Ohtani looks like one of the most talented pitchers in baseball. A lot of his success hinges on his fastball velocity, because Ohtani needs it to set up his secondary pitches. As long as he can mix his 98 MPH fastball with his splitter Ohtani will rack up strikeouts. It was nice to see the Angels allow him to go six innings and throw 92 pitches. If Ohtani can be efficient with his pitches we may routinely seem him go six and seven innings. It’s hard to say this without sounding overreactive, but those that bought him at a depressed price towards the end of spring may have fallen into something special.

 

Kyle Gibson, Minnesota Twins

2017 Stats: 158.0 IP, 5.07 ERA, 4.85 FIP, 6.89 K/9, 3.42 BB/9

03/31 @  Baltimore Orioles – 6 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 5 BB, 6 K

Gibson was straight dealing on Saturday night, keeping the Orioles out of the hit column for six innings at Camden Yards with the wind blowing out.  While his overall numbers from last season look ugly, he had a nice final two months. In August and September Gibson had a 3.55 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 8.4 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9. After years of mediocrity and wasted potential, it looks like Gibson may have finally turned a corner.

The key to Gibson’s success was his curveball. He threw the pitch 22 times on Saturday and got seven swinging strikes with it. 21.6% of his pitches were curveballs, and the Orioles didn’t put a single one of them in play. Gibson has never thrown his curveball this frequently at the major league level, and doesn’t have a particularly strong curveball. Approaching the Twins vs. Orioles series as a whole, it looks like the Orioles may be inept against curveballs as a team. Gibson’s teammate Jake Odorizzi also stymied the Orioles by throwing his curveball 17 times, or 18.6% of the time against Baltimore on opening day. Odorizzi got five of his 14 swinging strikes with the pitch. Like Gibson, Odorizzi is not known for his curveball and has used it 4.9% of the time throughout his career. Fellow Twin Jose Berrios, who does have a strong curveball, pitched a complete game shutout against the Orioles the day after Gibson’s start. The Orioles’ collective trouble with the curve may have been the reason for Gibson’s success, and it looks like a curveball heavy approach was more of a team strategy than something Gibson would employ regularly.

Even if the matchup contributed to Gibson’s success, he still had a good finish to 2017. However, a glance at Gibson’s game logs towards the end of last season brings doubt to the legitimacy of his numbers. His stats were inflated by shutting down the late season lineups of teams like the Padres, Royals, White Sox, and Tigers. Luckily for Gibson three of these teams are in his division, so he’ll get to face them often. On the plus side Gibson’s slider proved especially effective in the last two months of the season. His slider was already his best pitch, but during his hot stretch batters hit just .143 against the slider with a .071 ISO and a 22.12% whiff rate.

Verdict:

Gibson likely isn’t as good as he was Saturday, or as good as he was in the final two months of 2017. Five walks and an unusually high amount of curveballs make his Saturday start look more like a mirage than a turning point. However he’s now a viable streaming option in two start weeks or against bad offensive teams. This is not a pitcher to trust every week in mixed leagues, but he's proven he can handle himself in the right situation.

 

Ty Blach, San Francisco Giants

2017 Stats: 163.2 IP, 4.78 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 4.01 K/9, 2.36 BB/9

03/29 @ Los Angeles Dodgers: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 3 K

When a pitcher’s K/9 is lower than their FIP we usually don’t expect good things from them. Blach defied his peripherals on Opening Day and kept the defending NL champions off the board. We know he’s not a fireballer, with a fastball that usually sits between 89-90 MPH. We also know he’s not a strikeout pitcher. His 10.6% strikeout rate was the worst among qualified starters last season by nearly two percent. But a performance like this still begs the question, can an unconventional pitcher like Blach produce good results?

In this start Blach had three strikeouts in five innings, which isn’t spectacular itself, but what’s worse is he had only three swinging strikes on 81 pitches. In fact, 35 of the 48 total strikes that Blach got during this start were foul balls. On the positive side nine of the thirteen balls in play against Blach were groundballs. It would be unreasonable to expect him to maintain a 69% groundball rate, but Blach would be in a lot better shape if he could keep it above 50%. He had a 46.7% groundball rate in 2017, which is slightly above average, but not good enough for a pitcher that cannot strike anybody out.

It would be nice to look at Blach’s peripherals and see that, despite his shortcomings, he at least induces a lot of soft contact to mitigate all the balls in play against him. Unfortunately that hasn’t been true throughout his career. In 2017 Blach had an 18.4% soft contact rate, which was slightly below the league average. In the start against the Dodgers only 7.7% of the contact against him was registered as soft, while 38.8% of the contact was registered as hard. Those rates will surely normalize towards his career averages over the course of the season, but that type of contact allowed is untenable. Robbie Ray and Chris Archer can get away with that much hard contact, but Blach won’t survive.

Verdict:

The way Blach pitches opposes many qualities we desire in starting pitchers. He doesn’t get strikeouts, he doesn’t have great velocity, and he doesn’t compensate for those two pitfalls by inducing a lot of soft contact or groundballs. San Francisco is the best possible place for him, the park favors pitchers and their infield defense is top notch. He’s only worth considering in NL-only leagues if he has good matchups.

 

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