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Welcome to our surprising starts series. Every week we’ll be going over a few surprising starting pitcher performances around the majors to determine whether these starts were smoke and mirrors or something more.

This week we're looking at Danny Duffy's best start of the season, Clay Buchholz's return to relevance, and sinkerball specialist Paul Blackburn's first start of the season for Oakland.

Duffy has changed his approach to try and reverse a bad trend. Buchholz has been dealing with two effective secondary pitches in his deep repertoire. Blackburn did what he does best, and that's keep the ball on the ground.

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Real Deal or Mirage?

Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals

2018 Stats prior to this start: 69.2 IP, 5.81 ERA, 6.05 FIP, 1.6 K/BB ratio

06/09 @ OAK: 7 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 10 K

Duffy was drafted as a top-200 player coming into the season, but the first two months have been pure disaster for him. The start before this one he allowed four runs and ten baserunners while failing to notch one strikeout against the Angels. It was beginning to look like the end of fantasy viability for Duffy, but he came out and twirled an absolute gem against the Athletics on Saturday. In addition to fanning ten batters he had 19 swinging strikes, nine by way of his vaunted changeup. His ownership is still only at 44% in Yahoo leagues as of writing this, so it would seem that shallow leaguers are hesitant to jump back in on Duffy.

When Danny Duffy was at his best he was effectively using a mix of fastballs, sliders, and changeups. The changeup was always the jewel of his arsenal, but all three pitches were effective for him. This season he’s had a lot of trouble with both his fastball and slider. His sinker has gotten demolished for a .417 AVG and he’s served up a combined 12 home runs between his fastball and slider. The slider performance is especially concerning, because prior to this season he had surrendered only nine home runs with his slider for a .099 ISO all time, but this year he’s already given up five with a .271 ISO. The slider has been losing drop over the course of the season and he’s thrown it much less over his last three starts. Here’s a graph from brooksbaseball.net of his slider’s vertical movement throughout the season.

And here is a comparison of slider location prior to 2018 (left) and in May 2018 (right).

 

There was a larger percentage of sliders in the strike zone in May compared to the rest of his career. He gave up nine home runs in May and batters slugged .630 against his slider. Here’s a slider from his Mother’s Day shellacking from the Indians that sums up his May.

If you’re wondering, that ball landed in the left-center gap, not the moon. So, with his slider failing him what did Duffy do? Did he find the feel for his slider? Did he regain lost movement? Not quite. In fact he’s beginning to abandon the pitch. After using the slider 23% of the time in May he’s thrown it just 16.4% of the time in April and threw only 13 sliders out of 96 pitches against the Athletics. He’s not quite a two-pitch pitcher yet, it’s too early to say that, but he’s only has two good pitches right now. His changeup is still working for him with a 15% whiff rate and .211 average against, and his fastball velocity has recovered from and April dip. Duffy is averaging around 93-94 MPH with his four-seamer.

The fact that his changeup is still effective, as evidenced by this start, means he has value. Lots of starting pitchers have success with two (or even one) good pitch. Chris Archer, Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Jose Berrios, and Patrick Corbin are a few examples. But those pitchers have been prone to big blowups at times and the ball can fly out of the park against any one of them. Danny Duffy with a good changeup and solid fastball is always interesting and he should be picked back in most leagues where he’s dropped. Danny Duffy won’t be “back” until he can effectively use his slider.

Verdict:

His changeup is still working for him and a fastball changeup mix worked wonders for him in this start against the Athletics. His slider has betrayed him all season and he’s working with two good pitches right now. Pick him up if he’s available, but don’t fully buy back in yet.

Clay Buchholz, Arizona Diamondbacks

2016 Stats (last full season in the majors): 139.1 IP, 4.78 ERA, 5.06 FIP, 1.69 K/BB ratio

06/06 @ SF: 6 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

The initial reaction one might have to Clay Buchholz’s success in 2018 is dismissiveness and skepticism. It’s reason he has been omitted from this weekly article until now despite a 1.88 ERA through four starts with Arizona. Last time we saw him regularly he was getting pounded between the rotation and the bullpen for Boston, and had two forgettable starts with Philadelphia before undergoing season-ending forearm surgery. The Royals then released him after Buchholz posted a 6.71 FIP at Triple-A Omaha this season and the Diamondbacks picked him up off the scrap heap. There was a time, however, that Clay Buchholz was a good fantasy starting pitcher. And it wasn’t that long ago either. In 2015 he posted a 3.26 ERA, 2.68 FIP, and 4.65 K/BB ratio in 18 starts. At 33 with a long injury history Buchholz will probably never find that type of success again, but just how good is he now?

His arsenal is pretty much the same as it has always been. He throws five pitches: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a cutter, a changeup, and a curveball. His changeup and cutter are his best two pitches, and both have performed well for him this year. Batters are hitting .200 against the cutter with a 25.4% whiff rate, and are hitting .133 with an 18.9% whiff rate against the changeup. This has led to a 22.8% strikeout rate and 10.2% swinging strike rate, both his best since the 2015 season. Buchholz has lost a notable amount of velocity and movement on his pitches over the last few seasons. His peak velocity was 94 MPH, but he is now throwing around 91 MPH. He has also lost two inches of horizontal and vertical movement on his changeup and cutter compared to his career averages. Since the changeup has been Buchholz’s best pitch we’ll compare one from 2015 to one from this season.

Here’s 2015:

And here’s 2018:

We’re only comparing one pitch to one pitch, but there is noticeably less drop on the 2018 version of the pitch, but more movement away to left-handed hitters. That may be why Buchholz is throwing it 25% of the time to lefties but only 7% of the time to righties this season. He’s never had large platoon splits and this season lefties are hitting .171 against him with a .229 wOBA. Left-handed batters also whiff 20% of the time to the changeup. His changeup has had a spin rate of 1469 RPM this season, which is significantly below the league average (that is a good thing for a changeup; it increases deception). The cutter is his go-to pitch against righties, as he throws it 43% of the time when behind in the count and 30% overall. Between his five pitches, Buchholz has two good ones, which is enough to be an effective starter. Especially considering that he can comfortably throw them to either lefties or righties.

Now to the bad, because we knew there would be some with Buchholz. Even a cursory glance at his numbers suggest regression is coming. He has a .215 BABIP and 95% strand rate. In just a four start sample size where he has performed well a low BABIP and high strand rate are inevitable, and nobody expects him to maintain a 1.88 ERA for an extended period anyway. But an unsustainable BABIP and strand rate only scratches the surface of the bad for Clay Buchholz.

What is really worrying is Buchholz’s 32.4% groundball rate. His four-seam fastball is a big reason for this, as it has a 21% groundball rate and 58% flyball rate against this season. It would be comforting to see an increased infield flyballs, but he has an 8.8% infield flyball rate on the year and an average flyball distance of 204 feet. That puts Buchholz in the top 8% in average flyball ball distance (among pitchers with at least 50 batted ball events). This is how Buchholz has a 4.04 xFIP despite a league average 1.13 HR/9. He is surrendering too many flyballs and hasn’t quite paid the price for it yet with an 8.8% HR/FB ratio. It’s not like he’s limiting hard contact either, as batters are scorching the ball off Buchholz at 88.8 MPH average exit velocity and a 38% hard contact rate, both the highest for him since Statcast was implemented. And Statcast predicts doom for Buchholz with a .255 xBA and .513 xSLG. While he has two effective pitches, things could go sideways for Clay Buchholz in a hurry.

Verdict:

Clay Buchholz is not all smoke and mirrors, but there is a whole lot of it going on here. He can be used in good matchups at pitcher friendly ballparks, which is more than anyone expected from him going into this season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him stick in the Diamondbacks rotation all year, nor would it be surprising to see him DFA’d by the All-Star break.

 

Paul Blackburn, Oakland Athletics

2017 Stats: 58.2 IP, 3.22 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 1.38 K/BB ratio

06/07 vs. KC: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 K

Blackburn made his season debut Thursday after spending two months on the disabled list with a right forearm strain. His performance was similar to how he pitched in ten starts last season for the Athletics. Bland, unsexy, but Blackburn kept runs off the board. Despite such a good ERA in 2017 Blackburn was off mixed league radars because of his pitifully low 9.2% strikeout rate. That was the lowest strikeout rate of any pitcher that threw at least 50 innings last season, and would be the lowest among qualified starters this season by 2%. He succeeds by maintaining a great groundball rate with his sinker and slider mix. Blackburn had a 56.3% groundball rate last season and he routinely had a groundball rate above 50% in his minor league career.

Since Blackburn identifies as a sinkerballer let’s have a look at a few from this start.

Here’s one:

And another:

The pitch moves inside to right-handers and needs to be located in the lower inside corner to be effective. Here is comparison of sinker location and batting average against based on location.

 

For a supposed contact management pitcher Blackburn sure gives up a lot of hits. Batters have feasted on Blackburn’s sinker with a .351 average and .223 ISO against the pitch all time. They saw it well as the sinker had a 96.2% zone-contact rate and 2.6% swinging strike rate. Even for a sinker that’s bad. The sinker’s poor performance was mostly deserved too, as Blackburn’s sinker had a .341 xBA and .392 xwOBA last season. Batters sent it out harder than it came in too, with a 90.8 MPH average exit velocity against versus a 90.2 MPH average pitch velocity. But hey, at least he gets groundballs.

There are some positive attributes to Blackburn’s game. He does a great job of limiting home runs, as he’s never allowed more than 0.77 HR/9 at any level (with at least 40 IP). That will serve him well in Oakland, which is one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in the majors. Defensive whiz Matt Chapman should be Blackburn’s best friend over at third base, as Chapman’s +17 DRS and 8.1 UZR are both tops in the majors at all positions. The A’s infield grades out well defensively, as each regular infielder as a positive UZR and only Jed Lowrie has a negative DRS at -1. With a good defensive infield and a spacious ballpark Oakland is probably the best situation for a pitcher like Blackburn that does not rely on strikeouts.

Verdict:

He’s a sinkerball pitcher with a bad sinker. Since the strikeout rate has been so low Blackburn doesn’t offer enough upside to justify taking a risk on him in most situations. His career 6.2% walk rate is good, but not quite elite and leaves him with a career 1.56 K/BB ratio. He’s only 24 and there is room for growth, but other than his ERA and groundball rate there isn’t too much to get excited about in Blackburn’s minor league track record. Because he limits home runs and walks Blackburn probably won't kill you in any given start, but the overall numbers will be underwhelming.

 

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