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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 7


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 pitchers that were on nobody's radar coming into the season, Chris Bassitt of Oakland and Adam Wainwright of St. Louis.

Ownership is based on Yahoo leagues and is accurate as of 05/14/2019. 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!

 

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

16% Owned

2019 Stats (prior to this start): 36.1 IP, 4.71 ERA, 5.05 FIP, 9.6% K-BB%

05/10 vs. PIT: 7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 8 K

Grandpa Wainwright pulled a gem out of his sleeve last week, twirling seven dominant innings against the Pirates on Friday. Wainwright has been through a few tough years, and mostly been cast aside by fantasy owners at this point, just barely retaining value in NL-only leagues, where anyone with a pulse and a rotation spot has some value. He got it done in this start by pitching primarily off his curveball and fastball. The curveball has long been Wainwright’s best pitch, but as the quality of his other pitches diminished, so did his performance. That’s why Wainwright made a drastic change, beginning last season, and that was up his curveball usage big time.

Wainwright had a steady curveball usage rate of about 24-27% throughout his career, but last season he upped that to 37%, and he’s at 38.2% in 2019. Not only did Wainwright start using the pitch more often, but he began leading with it. Wainwright has thrown a first pitch curveball 30% of the time to right-handed batters and 38% of the time to left-handed batters this season, compared to just 16% and 20% of the time prior to 2018. It may be unconventional, but what’s a guy with an 89 MPH fastball supposed to do? Plenty of other pitchers have found success using a breaking ball-heavy approach, famous examples including Patrick Corbin, Matthew Boyd, and Rich Hill. The difference between those pitchers and Wainwright, besides them all being southpaws, is that their stuff is flat out better. Wainwright’s curveball isn’t near the pitch it used to be, and it might be too late for him to reinvent himself as a breaking ball specialist.

Wainwright’s curveball has lost nearly two inches of drop over the years, and while we’re in the age of strikeouts, his swinging strike rate with the pitch is at 10.5% compared to a 15% career mark. He’s 37, so of course his stuff won’t be as good as it was ten or even five years ago, but we don’t grade on an aging curve in fantasy. His curveball has performed worse even compared to last season. In 2018 batters hit .152 with a .142 xBA and 79.4 MPH average exit velocity against, and this season they’re hitting .235 with a .271 xBA and 85.9 MPH average exit velocity against. His zone rate is up to 48% and his zone contact rate is at 92.5% with the curveball, which isn’t conducive to long term success with this pitch. Both 2018 and 2019 are small samples, as Wainwright only made eight starts last year and has made eight starts this year, but this is a concerning trend for a pitcher that wants to pitch off his curveball.

Beyond concerns with his curveball, Wainwright’s struggled with the long ball more than ever this season. He’s allowed a career-high 1.45 HR/9 and has a career-worst 87.8 MPH average exit velocity against. Wainwright’s success is reminiscent of Homer Bailey’s April success. Yes, there is some evidence of real improvement here, but the profile is inherently flawed and therefore it’s hard to trust the pitcher as more than just a desperation streamer. Wainwright isn’t quite as bad as Bailey, but owners shouldn’t be breaking out FAAB eager to add him.

Verdict:

Wainwright’s curveball-heavy approach might help him have the occasional good start, but the stuff has diminished to the point where’s he’s impossible to trust either long term or against difficult matchups. He’s usable against a team like the Pirates, but he shouldn’t be trusted against Atlanta in his next outing.

 

Chris Bassitt, Oakland Athletics

40% Owned

2018 Stats: 47.2 IP, 3.02 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 10.8% K-BB%

05/09 vs. CIN: 7.2 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 9 K

Bassitt was promoted to take the rotation spot of the injured Marco Estrada, and he’s quickly become the Athletics best starting pitcher. His strikeout rate has skyrocketed to an 11.31 K/9, which is a career high by a significant margin. Bassitt has been able to rack up the strikeouts with a deep arsenal of pitches, including both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a changeup, a slider, and a curveball. His four-seam fastball velocity has risen to 94 MPH this season, which is 1.2 MPH higher than it was in 2018, and about where Bassitt was pre-Tommy John surgery. While regaining his fastball velocity is a positive sign, the key to Bassitt’s success has been his curveball.

The curveball had always been Bassitt’s best strikeout pitch, but he has made vast improvements with it this season. His 69.96 MPH average curveball velocity gives him the second slowest hook in the majors after Patrick Corbin, and Corbin throws more of a slurve or slowed down slider rather than a traditional curveball. Bassitt has also gained nearly three inches of drop over his career mark, and has notched an above average swinging strike rate with the pitch. His 41.7% chase rate puts him on par with elite curveball pitchers like Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. It hasn’t just been strikeouts for Bassitt either, as opposing hitters have mustered a meager .048 AVG and .089 xBA against the pitch this season. Bassitt had never been a strikeout pitcher in the majors before, but with the changes to his curveball, his boost in punchouts looks to be sustainable.

While Bassitt appears to have made leaps with his curveball, it’s important to remember that we’re still dealing with a small sample size. He’s only thrown 54 curveballs this season; pitch f/X and Statcast data can present a change that ostensibly seems legitimate, but over time cannot be sustained. Maybe it’s a hot streak, maybe it’s his feel for the pitch, or maybe it’s the quality of opponent, but 54 pitches isn’t enough to gauge whether Bassitt can sustain his current success with the pitch. Things look promising, but we need to see a bit more to fully buy into Bassitt as an elite curveball pitcher.

Curveball aside, there are a few more red flags when it comes to Bassitt. First, he is overachieving in the two most obvious pitcher-luck metrics we use in player analysis, BABIP against and LOB rate. He has a .222 BABIP against and an astonishing 100% strand rate. Both of those numbers will inevitably regress towards league average, and Bassitt’s ERA will inch closer to his 4.19 FIP. Most of Bassitt’s batted ball luck has come on his sinker. Batters are hitting .273 with a .455 SLG against Bassitt’s sinker, but have a .349 xBA and .620 xSLG. Opponents have smoked his sinker for a 90.2 MPH average exit velocity and a 36.8% line drive rate. He deserves some credit for his .222 BABIP thanks to his solid curveball and four-seam performance, but he’s overperformed with his two-seamer.

Ideally, Bassitt would take the shift many sinkerballers have taken, ditch the pitch in favor of a four-seamer and breaking balls. The sinker is a dying pitch in today’s launch angle obsessed game, and Bassitt would probably best served phasing the pitch out while upping his four-seamer and curveball usage. He doesn’t have much incentive to make that change right now, so don’t expect it to come anytime soon. Even with his current approach, Bassitt has big strikeout upside and is worth picking up in all but the shallowest of formats.

Verdict:

His velocity has returned to pre-Tommy John levels and Bassitt has made big improvements with his curveball. His .222 BABIP and 100% LOB rate will regress, but he’s still an interesting arm with long-term potential, and deserves to be added in most leagues.

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