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Are You For Real? Surprising Pitcher Starts From Erick Fedde and Ronel Blanco

Ronel Blanco - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Waiver Wire Pickups, Draft Sleepers

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?", a weekly column where we take starting pitchers who had surprisingly good starts over the past week and put them under the microscope to determine whether they're legit or just smoke and mirrors.

We had plenty of great performances this week, including a no-hitter from unheralded Houston righty Ronel Blanco, who followed it up with another strong outing against Texas on Sunday. We also saw a great start from Erick Fedde, who is back in the majors after reinventing himself in Korea last season.

Roster percentages are taken from Yahoo! and are accurate as of April 8, 2024.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:

 

Erick Fedde, Chicago White Sox – 5% Rostered

2023 Stats (KBO): 180.1 IP, 2.00 ERA, 2.38 FIP, 24.6% K-BB%
4/5 @ KC:  5 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K

It’s been a successful return to the majors thus far for Fedde, who owns a sparkling 2.79 ERA through his first two starts. Fedde is back after a dominant year in the KBO that earned him a two-year pact with the White Sox this offseason. Did Fedde successfully reinvent himself overseas, or is he bound to struggle like in his Washington days?

Originally a first-round pick by Washington back in 2014, Fedde was a highly-ranked pitching prospect in the Nationals organization before debuting in 2017. Fedde had a hard time in the big leagues during his first run, posting a 5.41 ERA, 1.5 HR/9, and 8% K-BB% in 454.1 innings. He was a sinker, cutter, and sweeper guy with the Nationals, but Fedde tweaked his game in Korea and is working with a refreshed arsenal. He still uses the sinker and cutter, but Fedde has added a split-changeup and has modified his sweeper grip, making it practically a new pitch as well. Here’s an interview of Fedde talking about his new pitching changes. Fedde had his new arsenal on display in this one, so let’s dive into it.

The sweeper is probably the most interesting of Fedde’s pitches. He changed his grip to give the pitch more horizontal movement and improve its velocity. Fedde went from throwing the pitch around 78-79 MPH to 83-84 MPH. Let’s do a side-by-side comparison of his old sweeper and his new one.

It looks like a much sharper pitch with improved velocity and movement, but is it producing better results? Not exactly. Opponents are hitting .400 off Fedde’s slider with a pitiful 7.5% swinging strike rate and 21.9% chase rate. That’s somehow worse than the .321 AVG and 10.9% swinging strike rate Fedde had with the pitch back in 2022. Batters have pulverized Fedde’s sweeper through his first two starts, tattooing the ball with a 91.1 MPH average exit velocity and 14-degree average launch angle against. There’s potential in this pitch, but we need to see either (or ideally both) better swing-and-miss or better contact suppression from Fedde’s sweeper.

Hard contact has been an issue for Fedde thus far, especially his sinker, which opponents are hitting .400 against with a staggering 99.1 MPH average exit velocity and .414 xwOBA against. A pitcher can get away with allowing hard contact on a sinker if they keep the ball down, with Framber Valdez being a prominent example of a sinkerballer who thrives despite allowing hard contact. A key difference between Valdez and Fedde is that Valdez maintains a 65-70% groundball rate with his sinker. Fedde has a 50% groundball rate with his sinker this season and a 55.8% groundball rate all-time. That’s an okay rate, but not good enough when batters are atomizing his sinker. Furthermore, Fedde has an ugly 33.3% line drive rate against his sinker thus far. It’s still a very small sample, but things aren’t trending in the right direction for Fedde. Fedde’s fastball is still mediocre and batters will enjoy taking hacks at a pitch that has a .319 opponent average all-time.

One pitch that has done well for Fedde through two starts is his new split-changeup. He developed the pitch in Korea and dominated the KBO with it in 2023. An 88 MPH offering, Fedde’s splitter has low spin and strong horizontal movement. Here’s an example of the pitch from this start. He’s primarily used it against lefties thus far, but the pitch has the potential to be viable against batters from both sides of the plate. Hopefully, the pitch will allow Fedde to be more effective against left-handed hitters, as he has allowed a .284 AVG with a 1.66 K/BB ratio against lefties all time. Here's an example of his new splitter.

Fedde’s splitter seems to have some potential as a strikeout pitch, but it didn’t earn any called or swinging strikes against Kansas City besides the example shared above. In fact, Fedde notched just three swinging strikes on 91 pitches in this start, a paltry total. It was better in the Detroit game, earning 11 whiffs, including three whiffs on 15 splitters, but we’ll need to see more performances like the one against Detroit to buy into the strikeout upside.

His whiff numbers were solid in the Detroit game, but Fedde also surrendered two home runs in 4.2 innings in that outing. Home runs have long been an issue for Fedde, who has a career 1.55 HR/9 in the majors. His long ball issue could be exacerbated by the hard contact he allows, and his home ballpark isn’t exactly pitcher-friendly. Fedde also doesn’t have the best control, so his combination of hard contact, home runs, and walks means Fedde has blow-up potential in any game.

Verdict:

I was never a fan of Fedde back in his Nationals days, and while Fedde has made some legitimate changes to his game, I’m not convinced he’s ready to break out into a reliable fantasy option. There are too many question marks and too much downside to trust Fedde outside of the occasional stream. He is useable in plus matchups like against Detroit and Kansas City, but should be avoided when a tougher opponent is on the schedule.

 

Ronel Blanco, Houston Astros – 67% Rostered

2023 Stats: 52 IP, 4.50 ERA, 5.99 FIP, 10.6 K-BB%
4/1 vs. TOR: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 K
4/7 @ TEX: 6 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 4 K

It was a week to remember for Blanco, who tossed a no-hitter against Toronto on Monday and pitched five innings of no-hit ball against Texas on Sunday. The 30-year-old has come out of nowhere to become one of baseball’s best early-season surprises. Can Blanco continue to blank-o his opponents, or will he turn into a pumpkin?

Originally signed as an international free agent at age 22, Blanco had a long and winding road to the big leagues. He didn’t even start pitching until he was 18, and at 22 he was considered old when he signed with Houston. He wasn’t much of a prospect either, with Blanco ranking 30th in Houston’s system by Fangraphs in 2023 at the ripe age of 29. He works with a four-pitch mix consisting of a four-seam fastball, a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. It was the changeup that got him plenty of attention last week, as Blanco earned 10 whiffs on 24 swings with the pitch during his no-hitter.

Blanco’s changeup is his signature pitch, and he’s begun leaning on it heavily. Blanco has used his changeup 32.8% of the time through his first two starts after using it just 9% of the time last season. An 85.8 MPH offering, Blanco has above-average movement with his changeup and has been able to generate whiffs with it at the major league level. Not only did he notch 10 whiffs during his no-hitter, but Blanco had a 22.2% swinging strike rate and 47.7% chase rate with his changeup last season.

It’s a little concerning that Blanco only got two whiffs on his changeup against Texas, but Texas is a strong lineup that ranks second in wRC+ and sixth in strikeout rate going into play Monday. Blanco has put up decent strikeout numbers in the minors and in past seasons, and he’s capable of better than the 6.6 K/9 he’s posted in his first two starts.

Increased changeup usage isn’t the only adjustment Blanco has made this season. He’s also changed his fastball location. Here’s a comparison of Blanco’s fastball heatmap from 2022-23 and 2024.

2022-23

2024

 

He’s done a better job keeping his fastball up which is great to see, especially from a changeup specialist like Blanco. High fastballs are more conducive to strikeouts on their own, and if he can blow his fastball by hitters by keeping it up, hitters will have no shot at his deceptive changeup. But can Blanco blow his fastball by hitters consistently?

A 93.6 MPH offering, opponents have yet to get a hit off Blanco’s fastball this season. Batters had a much easier time in 2023, with a .343 AVG, .714 SLG, and .472 xwOBA off Blanco’s fastball. Hitters pulverized the ball with a 95.6 MPH average exit velocity and 28.8% line drive rate off the pitch as well. He has just a 5.3% swinging strike rate with the pitch thus far, which is somehow lower than his 7.1% mark last season. With middling velocity and average spin at 2,207 RPM, Blanco’s fastball is average at best, and a liability at worst. He can use it to set up his changeup, but the pitch is nothing special on its own.

Blanco also relies on an 87 MPH slider that he’s thrown 25.1% of the time this season. He relied on the pitch more heavily in previous seasons with a 48.6% usage rate last season, but he’s used it less as he favors his changeup. Blanco’s slider does have above-average movement and he has a solid 14.3% swinging strike rate with the pitch this season. He even had a 22% swinging strike rate and a 33.8% chase rate with the slider last season. While not as deadly as his changeup, Blanco’s slider looks like a slightly above-average offering and another strikeout weapon he can utilize alongside the changeup.

The secondary stuff looks solid for Blanco, and his fastball is good enough that he can get by, especially if he is consistent with location. That being said, Blanco is still a flawed pitcher and there’s a reason it took him so long to even reach the majors. He struggles with walks, owning a 4.2 BB/9 across all minor league levels. He can struggle with the long ball, posting a 1.5 HR/9 at the Triple-A level and a 1.6 HR/9 in the majors. Even with increased changeup usage and better fastball location, those flaws aren’t erased overnight. Blanco has gone from a complete afterthought to a fantasy-relevant pitcher, but he’s not about to enter ace territory.

Verdict:

Let’s state the obvious: Blanco pitched way above his raw skillset this past week. That’s true of just about anyone who throws a no-hitter, and Blanco doubled down with a one-hit outing against the defending World Series champions on Sunday. Still, he’s got a solid arsenal and could last as a starter in the big leagues. His changeup looks like his best strikeout pitch, and his slider is solid enough to complement it. His fastball leaves something to be desired, but if he continues to pitch up he could experience better outcomes with the pitch. He’s not someone I’d trust in tough matchups despite shutting down Texas and Toronto, but he’s worth an add in 12-team leagues or deeper. He only needs to outpitch either J.P. France or Hunter Brown to keep his rotation spot, and that is very doable for Blanco.



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