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Are You For Real? Surprising Fantasy Baseball Pitcher Starts From Spencer Turnbull and Jack Flaherty

Spencer Turnbull - Fantasy Baseball, MLB DFS, Waiver Wire, Rankings, Pitcher

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.

This week, we had two surprising starts from veteran right-handers trying to bounce back after injury. First, we'll look at former Detroit Tiger Spencer Turnbull's hot start in Philly. Then, we'll break down current Detroit Tiger Jack Flaherty's dominance.

Roster percentages are taken from Yahoo! and are accurate as of April 22.

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Spencer Turnbull, Philadelphia Phillies - 59% Rostered

2023 Stats: 31 IP, 7.26 ERA, 5.55 FIP, 6.2% K-BB%

4/19 vs. CWS: Seven IP, One H, Zero ER, Two BB, Six K

Turnbull was fantastic Friday night, holding the White Sox to just one hit over seven innings en route to his second victory of the season. The 31-year-old righty lowered his ERA to 1.23 following this start, which is the lowest in the National League. Can the former Detroit Tiger keep this up, or will Turnbull go Turnbust?

Originally a second-round pick by Detroit back in 2014, Turnbull showed flashes of promise during his time in the Motor City. Most notably, Turnbull put up a 2.88 ERA and 2.95 FIP in nine starts back in 2021 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. He had a dreadful return to the mound in 2023, but perhaps the change of scenery has done him good. Turnbull works with a five-pitch mix consisting of a cutter, sinker, changeup, curveball, and sweeper.

The sweeper has been one of the biggest keys to success for Turnbull this season. He is using his sweeper more often this season, throwing it 35.1% of the time, compared to a 21.6% career usage rate. Opponents are hitting just .133 off the pitch with a .267 SLG and .235 wOBA. Even better, Turnbull has a projected .214 xBA, .254 xSLG, and .262 xwOBA with his sweeper this year. Turnbull’s sweeper is characterized by its high spin rate and vertical drop, two factors that make the pitch deceptive against hitters from both sides of the plate.

While the outcomes on batted balls have been good for Turnbull’s sweeper, the pitch might not have high-end strikeout potential. Turnbull has just a 13.2% swinging strike rate and a 22% chase rate with his sweeper on the year, both of which are underwhelming numbers for a pitcher’s primary breaking ball. His overall strikeout rate of 25.9% is well above his career average of 21.6%, so it’s very possible that Turnbull experiences strikeout regression going forward. All of his opponents thus far rank in the bottom half of the league in team strikeout rate, and three of the four rank inside the bottom 10.

For Turnbull to sustain his current strikeout rate, he could start relying on his curveball more often because he’s gotten strong whiff rates with the pitch thus far. On the year, the pitcher has a monster 23.3% swinging strike rate and 37.5% chase rate. Those numbers far exceed his career marks with the pitch, and Turnbull has only thrown 30 curveballs this season, so we’ll need to see more from him before we can fully trust this pitch as a strikeout weapon. Still, he has has added about two inches of movement and 150 RPM of spin to the pitch, so perhaps this version of his curveball has more potential than previous iterations. It would be interesting to see him incorporate the pitch more often given these improvements.

Turnbull has two solid breaking balls at his disposal, but what about the big cheese? How does Turnbull’s fastball look? Opponents are struggling with the pitch thus far, mustering a .200 AVG, .240 SLG, and .293 wOBA off Turnbull’s fastball. The 31-year-old's fastball has strong cutting action along with plus movement and spin, which helps make up for its underwhelming velocity at 91.7 mph. It’s hard to say whether his fastball performance is sustainable long-term because the pitch was crushed last season for a .273 AVG, .527 SLG, and .376 wOBA, but for his career, batters are hitting .200 off the pitch with a .294 BABIP.

Last season seems more likely to be the outlier for Turnbull since he had a 7.26 ERA and 5.55 FIP in seven starts coming back from Tommy John surgery, but had a career 4.25 ERA and 3.63 FIP between 2018-2021 prior to surgery. He could maintain close to the results he’s gotten thus far, especially if he can sustain the 47.1% ground-ball rate he’s had with the fastball thus far. Turnbull certainly isn’t a flamethrower, but with good movement and spin, his fastball should play above its velocity and has had decent results in the past.

While Turnbull has been great thus far, there are some glaring red flags in the peripherals. He’s been the beneficiary of a .167 BABIP against, an 84.3% LOB rate, and a 5.6% HR/FB ratio thus far. Turnbull has done a great job suppressing homers in the past, so the home run rate might be somewhat sustainable for him, but the BABIP and LOB rate will definitely regress considering his career .302 BABIP and 67.9% LOB rate.

Once that happens, his ERA will start to climb, but Turnbull has decent enough stuff to keep his ERA below 4.00. He’s displayed good control thus far, though I’m skeptical he can maintain the 25.9% strikeout rate given his career 21.6% K rate and 9.8% swinging strike rate this season. Turnbull is a high-end streamer or a back of the rotation piece for fantasy.

Verdict:

There’s plenty to like about Turnbull’s start to the season. He’s got two solid breaking balls between his sweeper and curveball, and has a fastball that plays above its velocity. Turnbull also has a good history of home run suppression and decent control. He isn’t a sexy pickup like Jared Jones or Edward Cabrera, but he’s a fantasy asset nonetheless. He is pitching over his head with a 1.23 ERA, but I could see him maintaining a sub-4 ERA on the year with a 20-23% strikeout rate. There are rumblings that Turnbull could lose his rotation spot when Taijuan Walker returns; however, I think the Phillies will have a hard time kicking Turnbull to the bullpen if he continues to pitch well.

 

Jack Flaherty, Detroit Tigers - 45% Rostered

2023 Stats: 144.1 IP, 4.99 ERA, 4.36 FIP, 25.2% K-BB%

4/19 at MIN: Six IP, Four H, Four R (Two ER), One BB, 10 K

Flaherty was electric Friday night, fanning 10 Twins in a no-decision. It’s been a renaissance for Flaherty in 2024 thus far, with the big righty posting a 2.95 xFIP and monster 25.2% K-BB% through his first four starts. It feels like ages ago when Flaherty was a high-end fantasy pitcher, but he’s still only 28 years old and has plenty to prove on his one-year prove-it deal with Detroit. Is Jack back, or will Flaherty falter?

Originally a first-round pick by the Cardinals back in 2014, Flaherty was a pretty big pitching prospect in his day, and at first it looked like he was going be an SP1 for St. Louis. Between 2018-2019, he had a 3.01 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 29.8% K rate, and 3.6 K:BB ratio in 61 starts. Unfortunately, shoulder issues cropped up and limited Flaherty to just 35 starts between 2020-2022. He appeared in 29 games last season, but struggled to a 4.99 ERA. Still, we know there’s big talent in his right arm, so it’s easy to get excited about Flaherty’s hot start.

Flaherty has a five-pitch mix consisting of a four-seam fastball, sinker, changeup, slider, and curveball. He has hardly thrown the sinker and changeup this season with a combined 3.2% usage rate, so we’re going to focus on his three primary pitches. First, let’s dive into that famous Jack Flaherty slider, the pitch that earned him so many whiffs in the past.

The 28-year-old's slider is a mid-80s offering with an 85 mph average velocity this season. It’s best categorized by its high spin and plus horizontal movement. Opponents have really struggled against Flaherty’s slider thus far, with batters mustering a paltry .188 AVG, .313 SLG, and .233 wOBA against the slider. That’s quite the turnaround considering opponents pulverized Flaherty’s slider last season for a .339 AVG, .558 SLG, and .406 wOBA. What’s changed? First, Flaherty is getting an extra two inches of drop with the pitch this season, and he’s locating the pitch better. Here’s a heat map comparison of his 2023 slider vs. 2024.

He’s leaving fewer pitches in the zone and getting better results because of it. Flaherty had a 44.9% zone rate with his slider last season, but a 35.8% zone rate with it this year. Considering he has a 38.4% chase rate with the pitch thus far, leaving it out of the zone is a good thing. Most impressive and most encouraging is the number of whiffs Flaherty has managed to get with the pitch. He has a 19.8% swinging strike rate thus far, which aligns with his 2018-19 numbers on the slider. It’s only been four starts, so let’s not anoint Flaherty’s slider as back just yet, but he’s on the right track.

While the slider has been racking up whiffs, it hasn’t been alone in Flaherty’s repertoire. The pitcher notched an impressive 19 swinging strikes in this game, and nine of those came from his curveball. Opponents are hitting just .200 off the curveball with a .200 SLG and .180 wOBA thus far. Again, the most impressive aspect would be the whiffs Flaherty is getting with the pitch. He has a 20.3% swinging strike rate and a 35.2% chase rate with his curveball this season. Those numbers even exceed his 2018-19 run. Flaherty has probably overperformed with his curveball thus far, as it has a .272 xBA and .316 xSLG, but it’s still a strong secondary pitch complementing his slider and fastball.

Speaking of fastball, that’s probably the biggest question mark for Flaherty. His fastball velocity is creeping back up at 93.8 mph, but he averaged just 93.1 mph in this start and is still a ways away from his peak of 94.5 mph in 2019. Flaherty has average spin and below-average movement with his fastball, so he has relied on velocity to get it past hitters.

That hasn’t worked out well for him as opponents have hit .298 with a .497 SLG off Flaherty’s fastball between 2022-23. It hasn’t fared much better thus far, with batters hitting .292 off the pitch with a  .563 SLG and .408 wOBA this season. He’s allowed a .324 BABIP with the pitch as well, so while he’s perhaps been a little unlucky, it’s nothing outrageous or outside expected outcomes. Flaherty has two good breaking balls, but his fastball looks mediocre.

One aspect of Flaherty’s hot start that has me skeptical is the quality of opponents he’s faced. Thus far, Flaherty has faced the White Sox, Athletics, and Twins twice, which are three of the bottom four teams in terms of OPS going into play Monday. It literally doesn’t get any easier. And those lineups still hit his fastball! I like what I see out of Flaherty’s breaking balls, but let’s see him do it against stiffer competition.

Verdict:

Flaherty has done some impressive work with his slider and curveball through four starts, and he possesses some big strikeout upside. His slider and curveball have been whiff machines thus far, and this is the closest Flaherty has looked to his 2018-19 version in some time.

Still, his fastball is below average and has been hit hard despite his strong start. Flaherty has also faced some of the easiest competition a starting pitcher could hope for in the major leagues. I like what I see out of the pitcher, but I need to see it against average and above-average lineups before I can fully buy in. Still, Flaherty should be rostered in 12-team leagues and deeper as you won’t find that kind of strikeout upside on waivers often.



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