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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts from Week 1


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).

Even though the first week had just four days of baseball, there were so many surprising starts to chose from that it was hard to decide which pitchers to break down. This week we're looking at three right-handers under the age of 25 who delivered quality outings last week.

Brad Keller shut down the White Sox on opening day, while Corbin Burnes fanned 12 Cardinals on Sunday. On that same Sunday, a little farther south, Sandy Alcantara delivered eight scoreless innings in Miami's win over the Rockies. The jury is still out on whether these pitchers are fantasy relevant, so let's dig deeper into their profiles to decide if they are priority waiver wire adds or not.

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Brad Keller, Kansas City Royals

50% Owned

2018 Stats: 3.08 ERA, 4.51 SIERA, 1.92 K/BB ratio

03/28 vs. CWS: 7 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K

The 23-year-old right-hander got the opening day nod for Kansas City, and Keller made the most of his opportunity by shutting down the Chicago White Sox over seven scoreless innings. From a run prevention perspective, Keller was good in 2018. His 3.08 ERA was the 16th best in baseball last year (min. 140 innings pitched), and while Keller pitched 21 times in relief, he still had a 3.28 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 118 innings as a starter.

He primarily relies on three pitches, a 94.8 MPH four-seamer, a 94 MPH two-seamer, and an 86 MPH slider. He threw the occasional changeup last season, but it’s mainly the first three pitches for Keller. The two-seamer has been the signature pitch for Keller throughout his professional career, and it’s what helped him achieve a 54.4% groundball rate in 2018, the second highest among pitchers who threw at least 140 innings last year. His ability to induce groundballs has given Keller one elite skill, and that is home run suppression.

Although he’d never pitched above Double-A prior to 2018, Keller was excellent at keeping the ball grounded as a minor leaguer. In 541.1 minor league innings, he allowed just 33 home runs, a 0.55 HR/9 in his minor league career. He also allowed just seven home runs as a big-leaguer last season, good for 0.45 HR/9. Batters managed just a 6.7-degree average launch against versus Keller, which is about 3.5 degrees below league average. This is a repeatable, proven skill and Keller should excel at preventing home runs and extra-base hits as a starter. It helps that he calls Kauffman Stadium home, but he’s the type of pitcher that could keep the ball in the yard just about anywhere. When it comes to the three true outcomes (K, BB, HR), Keller is great at preventing homers.

When it comes to the three true outcomes, Keller is great in one regard, but mediocre in the others. He had just a 1.92 K/BB ratio last season, and Keller never had a strikeout rate above 20% in the minor leagues above rookie ball. His walk rate was never too bad in the minors, but an 8.6% BB rate last season was far too high considering his lack of dominance and groundball tendencies. Groundball pitchers tend to have a higher than average BABIP against because groundballs are more likely to fall in for hits compared to flyballs, and that paired with a high walk rate means tons of baserunners allowed. Keller had a 1.30 WHIP last season, which was worse than league average, and he had a 1.52 WHIP at Double-A in 2017. That is an active detriment to your team and should make owners wary of Keller’s long term viability.

One final note on Keller is that he made late-season adjustments last year with his slider and was able to up his strikeout rate to 19.3% while also posting a 2.66 ERA and 3.22 FIP over his final two months. If these changes carry over he could potentially eclipse a 20% strikeout rate on the year, which, along with his groundball rate, would make Keller much better at run prevention. There is upside here for a Dallas Keuchel-esque profile, but Keller still has growth to do before that happens.

Verdict:

There is potential for something here, and the easy comparison would be Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel has a nice two-seamer and maintain an elite groundball rate at his peak, and also has a solid slider to maintain a tenable strikeout rate. Keller isn’t there yet, and will likely never reach Keuchel’s peak, but could be a decent every week option one day. For now, he’s best used as a streamer. The biggest problem with him is, what are you getting, exactly? In 5x5 leagues starting pitchers are good for four categories. Keller won’t get many wins on the Royals, likely won’t maintain a K/9 greater than 7.0, and would be lucky to have a league average WHIP. So he’ll maybe help you in ERA if the ball bounces his way. He can be started in situations like he had on Opening Day, at home against the White Sox, but owners should be wary of using him against tough lineups.

Note: When this piece was originally drafted, Keller was owned in about 20% of Yahoo leagues. That number has already jumped to 50%, which is an obvious overreaction based on one good start.

 

Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers

20% Owned

2018 Stats (bullpen): 38 IP, 2.61 ERA, 3.49 SIERA, 3.18 K/BB ratio.

03/31 vs. STL: 5 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 12 K

Whether this is a good start is debatable. Yes, Burnes carved up the Cardinals for 12 strikeouts, but he also allowed three home runs over the span of seven batters. Burnes got it done with his vaunted fastball-slider combination in this one, as he recorded a whopping 22 swinging strikes with those two pitches. He threw three curveballs in this start, but it was mostly about the fastball and slider. That’s how it was for Burnes last season out of the bullpen, as he threw either a fastball or slider 93% of the time. What’s surprising about this start, relative to his past performances, is that Burnes was never a big strikeout pitcher in the minors. He had a good strikeout rate, usually between 23-25%, but it kept dipping as he advanced levels and it seemed like Burnes was destined to live in the low-to-mid 20% range. This one start doesn’t necessarily change everything, but there is plenty to like in Burnes’ game going forward.

First, even though Burnes had just a 23% strikeout rate as a reliever last season, he did have a 15.2% SwStr last season along with a 24.6% SwStr on his slider. The slider, at least in this start, had great horizontal break and fell away from right-handed batters. Here is an example:

That pitch, when on, will be unhittable for right-handed batters. In fact, the Cardinals didn’t muster a single hit off the pitch in this game. All the damage came off Burnes’ fastball, which is encouraging given the three home runs allowed.

Usually, when a breaking ball specialist allows three home runs one would about him hanging meatballs, but that wasn’t the case. He did, however, throw three fastballs right down Broadway, and that just isn’t going to work against Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt. Those pitches looked like they were just mislocated, which isn’t ideal, but better than hanging breaking balls. Burnes never had a home run problem in the minors; home run suppression was a positive skill for him as a prospect, so for this one start we can let the longballs slide. We’ll still have to keep it in mind, because Burnes isn’t in Triple-A anymore, and major league hitters will punish those mistakes.

Verdict:

An electric slider and solid fastball could mean big strikeout upside for Burnes, and the home runs seem like an aberration based on his previous track record. With only two solid pitches Burnes could struggle against left-handed batters, though there isn’t a large enough sample size to judge his platoon splits yet. A good ceiling comparison for Burnes might be peak Tyson Ross, who was excellent and getting strikeouts with his slider-fastball combo and not much else. Burnes is certainly more interesting than Brad Keller or Sandy Alcantara, and owned in half as many leagues as the former.

 

Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins

10% Owned

2018 Stats: 34 IP, 3.44 ERA, 5.42 SIERA, 1.3 K/BB ratio

03/31 vs. COL: 8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K

Alcantara went deep on Sunday, delivering eight scoreless innings for Miami in their victory over Colorado. Along with zeros in the run and walk columns, Alcantara allowed just one extra-base hit, a double off the bat of Tony Wolters that kissed the foul line to barely stay fair. Other than that Alcantara kept the Rockies in check, and got it done with an interesting four-pitch arsenal. The gem of his repertoire is a 96.4 MPH fastball that can touch 99 at times. He throws both a four-seamer and two-seamer and keeps them both at or above 96 with consistency. A slider is his primary breaking ball, and Alcantara threw 43 of them in this start, which is much higher than his slider usage last season. Alcantara’s repertoire is rounded out by a decent changeup that he uses exclusively against left-handed batters. There are a few interesting wrinkles to dive into with Alcantara, and first would be his increased slider usage.

Batters struggled against Alcantara’s slider in 2018, managing just a .125 BA and .043 ISO off the pitch, so it would make sense that Alcantara would want to keep throwing it. The slider is Alcantara’s best strikeout pitch, but it’s not exactly Corbin Burnes’ slider. Batters had a 12.7% SwStr rate against Alcantara’s slider last season, and it doesn’t break away from right-handed batters like Burnes’ slider. Here is one of them from yesterday’s start.

Alcantara’s slider doesn’t sweep and tends to break more inward, meaning he likely won’t be piling up strikeouts with it. That being said, batters made poor contact against the pitch last season. In addition to the .125 BA against, batters had a 37-degree average launch angle against Alcantara’s slider last season. Yes, increasing launch angle is all the rage these days, but 37 degrees is far beyond the breaking point of diminishing returns. That leads to flyouts and popups, which is something Alcantara can get away with in Marlins Park. The flyball tendencies of his slider balance well with his two-seam fastball, which has been great at inducing groundballs in a limited sample size.

Last season Alcantara’s best skill was inducing groundballs, and his sinker had a 65% groundball rate in the majors in 2018. Alcantara was typically around a 45-50% groundball rate in the minor leagues as a prospect and was exceptional at limiting the long ball. From a results perspective, Alcantara and Brad Keller are quite similar. Both are low-dominance pitchers with control issues, but both also have above average sinkers and are great at home run suppression. Alcantara has the better fastball, while Keller has the better slider, but both could achieve similar results. Between the two Keller is the preferred option, because we have a larger sample size of success for him and he’s shown better control in his professional career compared to Alcantara. Either way, it’s a rather slim margin between the two.

Verdict:

Alcantara’s eye-popping velocity and increased slider usage make him an interesting pitcher to watch, but like Brad Keller, there isn’t much he can help you with in traditional 5x5 leagues. He won’t get many wins on the Marlins, had a 1.41 WHIP last season, and probably won’t maintain a strikeout rate better than 7.0 K/9. So maybe he’ll help in ERA if you’re lucky. He’s a streaming option, especially at home, but we’ll need to see a little more from him before buying in completely.

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