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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 saw the big league debut of Jonathan Loaisiga, the first career win for Shane Bieber, and Wade LeBlanc's best strikeout game since since 2011.

Loaisiga and Bieber both have incredible minor league numbers, highlighted by their control and ability to limit walks. LeBlanc has pitched like a minor leaguer for most of his career, but completely shut down the Boston Red Sox on Saturday night.

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Real Deal or Mirage?

Wade LeBlanc, Seattle Mariners

2018 Stats (prior to this start): 54 IP, 3.00 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 3.1 K/BB ratio

06/16 vs. BOS: 7.2 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K

LeBlanc LeBlanked the Red Sox on Saturday, and he had more strikeouts in this start than his previous two starts combined. He had been pitching well prior to this outing, but he wasn’t getting many strikeouts and had a 4.25 FIP and 4.58 xFIP, making it easy to write off LeBlanc’s success. But a nine-strikeout game against the Red Sox isn’t as easy to ignore. The Red Sox have sneakily been bad against left-handed pitching with a .294 wOBA and 25% strikeout rate as a team. Those numbers may be influenced by Sean Manaea’s no hitter and Blake Snell’s 0.95 ERA against the Red Sox in three starts, but they still have poor numbers overall as against lefties.

LeBlanc has been getting it done with a mix of changeups, cutters, and two-seam fastballs. He’s continued to abandon his four-seam fastball and is throwing the changeup and two-seamer a combined 61.7% of the time. The changeup has been LeBlanc’s best strikeout pitch with a 14.5% whiff rate and 49% chase rate this season and had seven whiffs in this start. It may sound like the changeup has catalyzed LeBlanc’s success, but the whiff rate is actually lower than his career average of 18% and batters are hitting .288 against the pitch. Since the changeup is LeBlanc’s best pitch and he’s pitching better than he ever has before let’s compare one from a few years ago and one from this start.

Here is one from 2014

And here is one from Saturday

The pitch has similar movement away from right-handed batters, which has allowed LeBlanc to maintain even platoon splits. There isn’t much difference in pitch movement and location this season compared to LeBlanc’s career. The biggest change he’s made is using the changeup to right-handed batters when ahead in the count, essentially abandoning his four-seamer. He throws his changeup 54% of the time when ahead in the count to righties, and as a result righties have a .280 wOBA against LeBlanc this season.

Most of Wade LeBlanc’s underlying numbers are unexceptional. He still has a 4.19 xFIP and a mediocre 8.8% swinging strike rate. The only standout number is his 36.8% O-Swing rate. That ties him for second highest in the majors (among pitchers with at least 60 innings this season). The other pitchers in the top five all have swinging strike rates above 11% and O-contact rates below 63%. LeBlanc’s O-Contact rate is 76%, which ties him for fourth in the majors (among pitchers with at least 60 innings this season). While LeBlanc’s O-Swing rate puts him the company of Jacob deGrom and Jose Berrios, his O-Contact rate puts him in the company of Bartolo Colon and Alex Cobb. Batters may be “chasing” LeBlanc’s changeup, but it’s not really chasing if they can handle it. Let’s compare heatmaps of batting average against his changeup this year (left) versus his career (right[from brooksbaseball.net]).

 

Those pitches outside the zone are rarely driven for power, but they are often put in play and therefore the result is mostly out of LeBlanc’s control. And since hitters have a 23% line drive against the changeup it’s no surprise that much of that contact goes for hits.

That’s only the first issue with LeBlanc. The second can be summed up in one sentence. His sinker has a 35% groundball rate. The average sinker has a 53.8% groundball rate, 5 MPH more velocity, and two more inches of drop compared to LeBlanc’s 87 MPH offering. LeBlanc has served up five of eight home runs allowed with his sinker, and his recent history suggests it could get worse. The only thing saving the sinker from getting completely tanked is a .225 BABIP against, over 60 points lower than his career average. There’s hardly room for good sinkerballers on our fantasy teams, why should we want a bad one?

Verdict:

LeBlanc is in the middle of a nice stretch, but it’s hard to believe it will last. He is very hittable and susceptible to home runs. The changeup is his only above average pitch, and it still leaves something to be desired. Sooner or later the clock will strike midnight.

 

Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians

2018 Stats (Triple-A): 45.2 IP, 1.38 ERA, 2.66 FIP 8.4 K/BB ratio
06/17 vs. MIN: 5.2 IP, 10 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

The Greg Maddux of the minor leagues got his first career victory in his second career start on Sunday against the Twins. He got it done primarily with a four-seam fastball that sits around 94-95 MPH and can touch 96. His most prominent secondary pitch has been an 84 MPH slider, which he has thrown 18.6% of the time thus far. The pitch has a 21% whiff rate through his first two starts, but batters are also hitting .429 (3-for-7) against it. He also throws a changeup and curveball a combined 20% of the time.

What jumps out about this start and his first start from May 31st against these same Twins is the amount of hits allowed. Bieber has allowed 18 hits in 11.1 innings, including five extra base hits, giving him a 1.76 WHIP despite a 4% walk rate. He allowed three doubles on Sunday, and they weren’t cheap either. The two in the first inning to Joe Mauer and Eduardo Escobar were only a few feet from being home runs. He allowed two home runs in his first start and is lucky to have not allowed one in this start. Batters have crushed his offerings thus far with a 92.8 MPH average exit velocity against. That puts him 11th out of 487 pitchers that have had at least 25 batted ball events. This is obviously a small sample size, but it’s still a bad sign for a pitcher that doesn’t have strikeout stuff and lives in the zone. He has a 91% zone-contact rate and .524 xSLG, which suggest the power he’s allowed hasn’t been misfortune.

Bieber’s minor league stats are so good that it would be foolish to ignore him after this start. He had a 12.0 K/BB ratio between Double-A and Triple-A this season and 14.2 K/BB ratio in the minors all time. However, we’ve seen pitchers fake their way through the minors with elite control only to get destroyed in the majors. Kendall Graveman, Justin Nicolino, and Pat Dean are a few examples of this. It’s too early to say whether Bieber falls into that category, and his minor league numbers are even better than those aforementioned pitchers, but it’s something to consider when a pitcher has below average stuff but gets by on control. With how many hits he’s allowed Bieber is undoing the positives of limiting walks, and he was lucky to only surrender one run in this start.

Verdict:

Allowing eleven baserunners isn’t too impressive, even if the pitcher only allowed one run. His pitches have gotten crushed and he’s lucky to have kept the ball in the yard and keep runs off the board in this performance. His minor league numbers are so good that Bieber should not be written off completely, but this start is not encouraging. We need to see more from him before he enters mixed-league relevance.

 
Jonathan Loaisiga, New York Yankees

2018 Stats (Double-A): 25 IP, 4.32 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 10.67 K/BB ratio

06/15 vs. TB: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 6 K

Like Shane Bieber Loaisiga had excellent minor league statistics, with walk rates that were consistently under 4% and monster K/BB ratios at every level. There are two key differences between Loaisiga and Bieber however. Loaisiga never pitched above Double-A before this start despite being the same age as Bieber, and Loaisiga had better raw strikeout rates than Bieber, usually hovering around 30%. His start on Friday is even more impressive than it looks in the box score. Loaisiga had a whopping 17 swinging strikes between his fastball, curveball, and changeup. 47 of his 57 strikes were either called or swinging, which is an elite 82.5% rate. Both the curveball and changeup were impressive in this start along with the 97 MPH heat he brought with his four-seamer. Let’s have a look at the curveball.

Here’s one

And another.

It goes pretty much straight down, and at an average of 84.6 MPH there is nearly 13 MPH of separation between his fastball and curveball. It isn’t surprising to see a 48% O-swing rate on this pitch, especially since Loaisiga went to it often when ahead in the count.

His changeup is a different story, since he exclusively threw it to left-handed batters. It has horizontal movement away from lefties and Loaisiga attacked outside edges with the pitch. Here is a heatmap of changeup usage against lefties from this start.

And here’s a changeup against lefty Jake Bauers that exemplifies Loaisiga’s approach.

And here's another one to lefty Mallex Smith.

It’s in a place where even if the batter makes contact they can’t do much with it. He threw his changeup 46% of the time to left-handed batters and 67% of the time when the batter was ahead in the count. Loaisiga was able to do this with impressive consistency, show that he possesses superior command in addition to the great control that was evident in his minor league numbers.

Since Loaisiga has displayed such good control we can chalk up the four walks to rookie jitters in his MLB debut for now. It’s something to watch out for as he pitches, because major league hitters probably won’t chase as much as hitters in High-A and Double-A. That being said, what he did in this start looks legitimate and he’s the most interesting pitcher of this week’s trio. Long-term he may not have a rotation spot. He’s in an uphill battle competing with Domingo German for a rotation spot, but should get a few more turns in the rotation as Masahiro Tanaka recovers from his hamstring injury. It’s important to remember that rookie pitchers, even good ones, can be prone to inconsistency even when they flash brilliance like Loaisiga did in this start. He’s someone to be added but used selectively in favorable matchups until he builds more trust.

Verdict:

Control and command both look excellent, and he has three quality pitches that he can use effectively. Loaisiga might just be a short-term option until Masahiro Tanaka comes back, but he’s worth picking up and using in the right matchups until that happens.

 

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