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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 5


Welcome to our Surprising Starts series, where every week we look at lower-owned starting pitchers who have performed unexpectedly well in their last outing(s).

We had lots of big strikeout numbers this week, as two AL hurlers racked up punchout totals in the teens. We're breaking down Mike Minor's 13 strikeout performance on Saturday and Reynaldo Lopez's 14 strikeout performance on Sunday. We're also taking a look at KBO crossover Merrill Kelly, who has done a few impressive things in his return stateside.

Ownership is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 04/29/2019. 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 any full-season MLB Premium Pass for 50% off, with exclusive access to our season-long articles, 15 in-season lineup tools and over 200 days of expert DFS research/tools. Sign Up Now!

 

Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks

10% Owned

2018 Stats (KBO): 158.1 innings, 4.09 ERA, 3.42 K/BB ratio

04/24 @ PIT: 7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K

Merrill Kelly made a name for himself in Korea after washing out of Tampa Bay’s farm system in 2014, and the 30-year-old right-hander landed a major league deal with Arizona this past offseason. Kelly didn’t get as much hype as fellow league jumpers Yusei Kikuchi and Miles Mikolas, and as a result went largely undrafted in mixed leagues. He’s still available in 90% of leagues despite some intriguing starts on the young season.

Kelly boasts a rather deep arsenal. He has both a four-seam and two-seam fastball. His velocity on the fastball isn’t anything to write home about, as he’s averaged 91.4 MPH with his four-seamer, which is about 1.5 MPH below the league average. His secondary offerings include a cutter, a curveball and a changeup, with the curveball being featured 20% of the time and the cutter and changeup being used between 13-16% of the time. The changeup was regarded as Kelly’s best strikeout pitch when he came back from Korea, but the curveball has performed much better in the strikeout department for him thus far.

Kelly’s curveball has a few things going for it. First, his 2727 RPM is 200 RPM above league average. Spin rate isn’t everything with the curveball, but it does correlate well with movement and strikeout rate. Max Fried and Charlie Morton rank near the top of the curveball spin rate among starters, but so do Chris Stratton and Trent Thornton, so the metric doesn’t necessitate success. Kelly also ranks in the 75th percentile in vertical movement with his curveball, meaning that, on paper, this is an above average offering. On paper is one thing, but let’s have a look at the pitch in game. Here’s one of Kelly’s curveballs from his start against the Cubs earlier this season.

That one looked pretty nasty, and it was one of the best curveballs I found from Kelly over all of his starts. When the pitch is at its best it could be an above average strikeout pitch, but Kelly struggles to command it consistently.

With how good the curveball looks and measures up, it’s hard to believe that batters have hit .304 with a .609 SLG against it this season. Those numbers are so bad because Kelly commits two cardinal sins with the pitch: he spikes it in the dirt too much, and he leaves it in the zone too much. Curveball pitchers toe a fine line, and it requires excellent command to use the pitch effectively.

Batters won’t swing at junk and they’ll hammer hangers, and Kelly’s been guilty of throwing both this season. In his start against the Cubs Kelly had his highest rate of curveball usage at 27%, and he issued seven free passes in that game. He’s also been leaving it in the zone far too much and paying for it, as batters have a 45.5% line drive rate against Kelly’s curve. Here’s a look at Kelly’s curveball heatmap demonstrating his issues.

That’s way too much maroon to sustain success. For comparison, let’s have a look at Charlie Morton’s curveball heatmap from this year.

The zone is blue and purple for Morton, and he’s hitting the low and away corner against right-handed batters. It may be unfair to compare Kelly to Morton, since Morton is one of the best right-handed curveball pitchers in the league, however we aren’t asking for Morton-esque results from Kelly, we’re just hoping he can trend in that direction.

The curveball isn’t the only question mark in Kelly’s arsenal, as his fastball velocity should draws a measure of concern from fantasy owners as well. The reason Kelly didn’t make it in the big leagues five years ago is because of his poor fastball velocity. He was averaging 88-90 at Triple-A, and the Rays refused to give him a chance in the majors because of it, despite some solid minor league numbers.

Kelly found success in Korea after increasing his fastball velocity and earned a major league contract because of it. He was supposed to be averaging between 92-94 MPH and touching 96 at times, but he’s sitting at 91.4 MPH this year and averaged 91 MPH in his most recent start. Batters are currently hitting .212 against Kelly’s four-seam fastball, but don’t expect that number to hold. Opposing hitters are pulverizing the pitch with an average exit velocity of 92 MPH, and have a 36.4% line drive rate against Kelly’s four-seamer. He’s been quite fortunate with the pitch thus far, and regression will come if his velocity doesn't increase.

Verdict:

Kelly is doing some interesting things, but there isn’t quite enough here for him to ascend above streamer level yet. If he can command his curveball better, and if he can improve his fastball velocity, then he’d really be exciting. But, as the saying goes, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts we’d all be fantasy champions. Until we see tangible improvements Kelly is usable in soft matchups only. He gets a diminished Yankees lineup this week, and he is a decent option in that outing.

 

Mike Minor, Texas Rangers

65% Owned

2018 Stats: 157 IP, 4.18 ERA, 4.27 SIERA, 14.7% K-BB%

04/27 @ SEA: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 13 K

Minor is a little higher-end than the pitchers typically covered in this article, but he’s gotten off to such a hot start and was absolutely dominant on Saturday, so it’s worth taking a peek under the hood here to see whether Minor has taken a step forward. His 2.88 ERA through six starts would certainly suggest Minor’s improved, but surface stats can be deceiving.

His 4.08 SIERA isn’t too much of an improvement from last season, and his walk rate is up nearly 2%. He’s ridden a .204 BABIP against and an 81% strand rate to his ERA. He is doing one thing differently, though, and that’s increased changeup usage. The changeup has always been Minor’s best strikeout pitch, and this season he’s throwing it 26.2% of the time, a 7% increase from last year. Batters haven’t been able to touch Minor’s changeup this season, and opponents are hitting just .130 with an .044 ISO and a 16% SwStr rate against the pitch. Perhaps the changeup is the key to success for Mike Minor.

Minor’s changeup is a little unique, in that it’s not too much slower than his fastball. He averages 92-93 with his four-seamer, and 86-87 with his changeup. The spin rate on Minor’s curveball is also significantly above league average. Typically, lower spin is better with a changeup and other offspeed pitches because it helps with deception.

For example, Blake Snell, Cole Hamels, and Noah Syndergaard all have low RPM on their changeups because they are deliberately taking something off. Minor, on the other hand, is doing something different with his changeup. Minor’s changeup is more dependent on movement, and has the second-best horizontal movement in the majors behind Chris Sale. Here’s an example of a Minor changeup from this most recent start.

And here’s one from a start against Houston earlier this year.

The pitch comes in like a four-seamer but moves away from right-handed batters, making it hard to square up, and nigh impossible to hit if the batter is sitting fastball.

Minor only throws his changeup to righties, so his increased usage rate could be a result of facing righty-heavy lineups over his first six starts, but he’s begun using it differently this season. He’s going to the pitch 51% of the time when the batter is ahead compared to just 28% of the time last season. That may be the cause of his slightly increased walk rate, but it shows that Minor isn’t looking to give in with a fastball this year, and is willing to attack with his best pitch even when behind. He’s also using it 37% of the time with two strikes, up 16% from last year, and that’s because he’s relying less on his fastball and slider to finish hitters off. Minor hasn’t just begun throwing his changeup more, he’s using it more efficiently and effectively.

In addition to increased changeup usage, Minor is also throwing his fastball harder this season. He’s averaging 93.3 MPH with his four-seamer, which is a career high for Minor as a starter. His fastball has gotten much better results too, with a .214 xBA, .407 xSLG, and 88.6 MPH average exit velocity against this season. Those are all vast improvements over 2018, where Minor’s fastball got crushed for a .279 xBA, .536 xSLG, and 91.3 MPH average exit velocity against. It’s hard to say whether that performance will hold, but with increased velocity and spin rate there’s tangible proof of improvement for Minor.

What Minor’s doing isn’t going to turn him into an ace, but it will turn him into a better pitcher than he was in 2018. Minor could post a career-high strikeout rate (as a starter) this season. He should also reduce his home run rate, since batters are having a hard time with his fastball and he’s throwing his slider less often to right-handed hitters. He’s not a league winner, but he’s a nice little back-end rotation piece that should be solid all year.

Verdict:

Is Mike Minor ready to become Mike Major? Not quite, but there are a few encouraging signs in his profile. Increased changeup usage should help him maintain good strikeout numbers while keeping the ball grounded. His 2.88 ERA won’t hold, but it won’t regress all the way to his 4.06 SIERA or 4.36 xFIP either. Minor won’t win anyone their league, but if healthy he will be a usable asset all season.

 

Reynaldo Lopez, Chicago White Sox

16% Owned

2018 Stats: 188.2 IP, 3.91 ERA, 4.92 SIERA, 9.5% K-BB%

04/28 vs. DET: 6 IP, 2 H, 1 R (0 ER), 3 BB, 14 K

Once a highly regarded prospect in Washington’s farm system, Lopez has struggled to find consistent success at the major league level. The hard-throwing righty has failed at all three true outcomes over the course of his big league career. He doesn’t induce many strikeouts (career 19.4% K rate), doesn’t limit walks (career 9.5% BB rate), and can’t keep the ball in the yard (career 1.24 HR/9). The only thing keeping him in a major league rotation, besides Chicago’s lack of options, is his fastball velocity.

Lopez averaged 96 MPH with his four-seamer in 2018, and the fastball was Lopez’s big strikeout pitch on Sunday. He piled up 17 swinging strikes on his fastball alone in this game, with 24 in total. 17 swinging strikes would be a great total for a starter, but Lopez was able to get that many on his heater alone. He also finished off 13 of his 14 strikeouts with the fastball. Most pitchers, even those with high velocity, get their strikeouts with a  plus breaking ball that compliments their heater, but Lopez is doing it with just the fastball.

So, is there anything special about the fastball besides its heat? Movement-wise its nothing special, just slightly above league average for both horizontal and vertical break. Its spin rate is below average as well, which is surprising considering its velocity. While not a hard-and-fast rule, high fastball velocity has a loose correlation with high spin rate. At 2086 RPM, Lopez has the second-lowest spin rate on his fastball among starters who average at least 94 MPH with their four-seam fastball. His fastball has never been a big strikeout source in the past either, as Lopez had a below average SwStr rate with his four-seamer in 2018. So how, exactly, did Lopez dominate with this pitch on Sunday?

Do you know who Brandon Dixon is? Grayson Greiner? Ronny Rodriguez? If yes, you’re a Tigers fan and you have my condolences. If no, then let’s have a deeper look at the lineup that Lopez carved up with his heater. Only one of Detroit’s starters has a strikeout rate below 25% this season, and it isn’t Miguel Cabrera or Nicholas Castellanos.  Collectively, this team has a 26.6% strikeout rate and 77 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. A lot of clubs are trotting out subpar lineups these days, but the lineup Detroit played on Sunday was especially bad. Weak hitters struggle to catch up with high-velocity fastballs, and it’s possible for a fastball-heavy pitcher like Lopez to put up uncharacteristic (and unsustainable) strikeout numbers against a team like this.

There’s another problem with Lopez’s fastball-heavy approach, and that’s that his fastball hasn’t really been all that good. Batters are hitting .328 against the pitch with a .625 SLG. It’s getting scorched by opposing hitters for a 93.5 MPH average exit velocity, which is terrible for a pitcher with flyball tendencies like Lopez. His 58.6% flyball rate is the highest among qualified starters by over 6%. That paired with his 49.4% hard hit rate against and hitter-friendly home ballpark practically guarantee that Lopez will struggle with the long ball.

Lopez is known for his fastball, but from a numbers, stuff, and results standpoint the pitch hadn’t been effective prior to this start. He doesn’t command his fastball well, and batters crush it when they make contact. The path for Lopez to take a step forward is going to be his slider. He developed the pitch last season, and batters are hitting .214 with a 17.2% SwStr rate against Lopez’s slider all time. It’s an odd offering for Lopez, because it clocks in at just 82 MPH, a huge drop off from his fastball. He’s throwing it 20% of the time this year so far, and it would be nice to see that number creep up to 25-30%. There was no indication of that in this start, but he's had a few starts where he's featured the slider more frequently. Unless that happens regularly, Lopez hasn’t made enough improvements to trust outside of soft matchups.

Verdict:

Lopez took advantage of a weak lineup to make himself look like a strikeout pitcher, but his pitching style won’t work against teams with some punch. He’s usable in weak matchups, particularly those in pitcher-friendly ballparks, but this isn’t a breakout. He might be worth shopping around after two straight good starts against the Tigers.

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