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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 21


Welcome back to "Are You For Real?" Each week, we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

This week we're looking at two rookies. A domestic (Adrian Houser), and an import (Yusei Kikuchi). Both have put him some interesting results as of late and deserve a deep dive to see if they're worth adding down the stretch.

Ownership is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 08/12/2019. The goal of this article is to look at pitchers widely available that could be useful in fantasy, whether they have been recently added by a ton of teams or are still sitting on waivers.

Editor's Note: Get our 2020 MLB Premium Pass for 50% off, with exclusive access to our draft kit, premium rankings, player projections and outlooks, our top sleepers, dynasty and prospect rankings, 20 preseason and in-season lineup tools, and over 200 days of expert DFS research and tools. Sign Up Now!

 

Adrian Houser, Milwaukee Brewers

16% Owned

2019 Stats (prior to these starts): 63.2 IP, 4.24 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 15.6% K-BB%

08/10 vs. TEX: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K
08/16 @ WSH: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K

Houser may occasionally throw up his lunch on the mound, but he’s also been throwing up zeros over some dominant innings over his last two starts. Houser has allowed just two runs combined over his last 13 innings, along with 14 strikeouts. Houser once had a little bit of prospect pedigree, having come over to Milwaukee as part of the deal that sent Carlos Gomez to Houston. That pedigree faded as Houser struggled in the high minors, but he’s finally flashing some upside in 2019. Houser boasts a deep five-pitch arsenal, highlighted by a 95 MPH four-seamer. He also throws a two-seam fastball, a curveball, a changeup, and a brand new slider.

Houser has ramped up his slider usage as of late, throwing the pitch 19% of the time over his last three starts, an increase of 7.5%. Well, there’s our answer. He increased his slider usage, and now he’s good. Now we can move on to more important things, like Jason Vargas’s recent hot streak…

Alright, fine, there’s more depth to Houser’s performance than that. Guess we’ll have to table Jason Vargas for now. Or I can sum it up in one sentence. Don’t add Jason Vargas. Now, back to Houser. Houser’s slider is not only a brand new pitch, but he’s been throwing it more often, which has coincided with his hot streak. Normally, that’s how pitchers take the next step. But, in Houser’s case, the slider’s performance just doesn’t stack up. The pitch has below average movement and spin, and batters are hitting .375 against the pitch this season. The pitch has performed even worse as Houser’s increased his usage. Over his last three starts, batters are hitting .400 against Houser’s slider, and the whiff rate has fallen 4%, to a measly 11.4%. Houser is succeeding in spite of his new slider, rather than because of it.

The real key to Houser’s success has been his fastballs. Batters have struggled against both his four-seamer and sinker. Opponents are hitting .186 with a .194 xBA and 88.7 MPH average exit velocity against Houser’s four-seamer, and are hitting .242 with a .203 xBA and 82.9 MPH average exit velocity against his sinker. Houser’s sinker lives up to the pitch’s reputation as a groundball pitch, as batters have an average launch angle of -5 degrees against his sinker along with a 75% groundball rate. The success of this pitch makes me believe most in Houser’s 3.71 xFIP as an ERA estimate, because Houser’s 20.8% HR/FB ratio seems abnormally high based on his ability to induce groundballs. Houser also has a wide gap between his xSLG (.342) and actual SLG (.418), which gives us even more reason to buy into a forthcoming reduction in power numbers against him.

Houser profiles as an above-average ground-ball pitcher with good contact management skills. His strikeout numbers seem a bit juiced by his 10-strikeout game against the Rangers. That game was a little fluky, as Houser notched 13 of his 18 swinging strikes with either his four-seam or two-seam fastball. Owners shouldn’t expect results like that to be sustainable over time. If we subtracted that game from his totals, Houser would have an 8.1 K/9 as a starter. That’s a respectable number, especially considering his groundball abilities, but nothing special. Houser still has value depending on the matchup or week ahead. I wouldn’t rush to grab him, but I wouldn’t be afraid to use him either.

Verdict:

Elite groundball numbers and sinker performance make Houser a viable starter. His secondary arsenal lags behind his fastballs, and therefore Houser’s strikeout potential is limited. He’s a viable streamer or two-start option, and certainly worth adding in an NL-only league.

Yusei Kikuchi, Seattle Mariners

31% Owned

2019 Stats (prior to this start): 126.1 IP, 5.56 ERA, 6.00 FIP, 9.4% K-BB%

08/18 @ TOR: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K

Many were excited to see Kikuchi come from Japan to the majors, but after posting a 4.94 ERA in the first half, Kikuchi probably spent his All-Star break pricing out flights to Tokyo. Things had only been getting worse for Kikuchi, as he’s posted a 5.84 ERA since the break. Even with some rather ugly numbers, Kikuchi has put up solid numbers in two of his last three starts. He struck out eight Padres over five innings on August 7, and fired a CGSO Sunday in Toronto. Sandwiched between that was a five run stinker against the worst offense in baseball, the Tigers. It is starts like that which have made Kikuchi so frustrating to predict. Seriously, who gives up five runs to the Tigers? Even with poor outings like that tarnishing his record, a CGSO is such a rarity these days that Kikuchi’s performance demands our attention.

Kikuchi’s arsenal is about as basic as a mid-20s woman who drinks White Claw. He has a four-seam fastball that clocks in at 92.5 MPH, a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. The slider and changeup have been the best two pitches for Kikuchi. He has a whiff rate above 24% on each pitch, along with an opposing BA below .240. Kikuchi has been increasing his slider usage over these last two starts, having thrown the pitch 33.3% of the time in his last start. He’s been throwing the pitch over 30% of the time over his last six starts, but with mixed results. He has a 5.73 ERA over that stretch, but he’s either given up five runs or more, or two runs or fewer. There’s been no middle ground for Kikuchi, even though he’s begun using his best pitch more often. His strikeout rate has risen to 7.37 K/9, which is a 0.5 K/9 improvement, but still woefully underwhelming. And these are the results he’s getting by leaning on his best pitch. The rest of his repertoire leaves much to be desired.

Kikuchi’s fastball has been smoked this season for a .324 BA and 89.9 MPH average exit velocity against, and his curveball has been even worse. Batters are hitting .323 with a .361 xBA and .629 SLG against Kikuchi’s curveball in 2019. Even with increased slider usage, the fastball and curveball make up approximately 60% of Kikuchi’s pitch mix. How does a starter get away with throwing meatballs 60% of the time? He doesn’t. That’s why Kikuchi has a 5.19 ERA and 5.72 FIP on year. He hasn’t been getting away with using these pitches, and he can’t exactly phase out his fastball, so that means we should keep our hands off Kikuchi in standard leagues.

Verdict:

Based on his history of roller coaster performances, imbalanced arsenal, and lack of big strikeout upside, Kikuchi simply doesn’t seem worth the risk. It’s more likely he’ll be chased by the fifth inning than go for seven strong. If one was desperate they could use Kikuchi in a pinch, but he has even struggled in what should be easy matchups this season. This start isn’t enough to sway my opinion of him, especially during this crucial time of the season.

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