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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 got surprising starts from two veterans that were left for dead by the fantasy community. We also saw an encouraging two-start week from an unheralded young lefty.

Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez, two pitchers with an ERA north of six last season, turned in dominant starts in the midst of hot stretches. Ryan Borucki shut down the Detroit Tigers on Monday, only to turn around and hold the New York Yankees to one run on Sunday.

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Real Deal or Mirage?

Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit Tigers

2018 Stats (prior to this start): 48.1 IP, 3.91 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 4.5 K/BB ratio

07/06 vs. TEX: 8 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 11 K

Zimmermann has sneakily been on big hot stretch, and most fantasy owners (this author included) have been sleeping on him. Over his last six starts Zimmermann has a 1.22 ERA, 2.04 FIP, and 6.8 K/BB ratio. Part of the reason he went unnoticed was because a five-week disabled list stint was sandwiched in the middle of this hot stretch. Another part of it was the negative connotations associated with Zimmermann’s name. Prior to this season Zimmermann has been a disaster in Detroit, pitching to a 5.60 ERA over the first two seasons of his $110 million dollar contract. After a performance this dominant Friday against Texas, Jordan Zimmermann shall be ignored no longer.

Zimmermann primarily works with three pitches, a four-seamer, a slider, and a curveball. He occasionally throws a changeup or two-seamer, but it’s mostly about those the four-seamer and two breaking balls for Zimmermann. His four-seam fastball has lost velocity since its peak, averaging about 91 MPH, where it averaged almost 94 MPH during Zimmermann’s prime. That had been a big contributor to Zimmermann’s rapid decline, as his fastball has been crushed since coming to the Tigers. Between 2016-2017 batters have hit .340 with a .266 ISO and 26 home runs off Zimmermann’s four-seamer. The results with his fastball haven’t been much better, but Zimmermann has compensated by throwing his fastball less. He has thrown his four-seamer just 40% of the time this year, the lowest of his career and continuing a downward trend for him over the past few seasons. He’s also throwing his slider 35% of the time, the highest rate of his career by 5%. With a 19% whiff rate and .186 average against Zimmermann is getting better results with his slider than even during his prime with Washington. This change in pitch mix has been the catalyst for his success thus far.

When Zimmerman was at his best he made up for modest strikeout totals by limiting walks and home runs. Well, Zimmerman’s walk rate is just 4.4% this season, so on the surface it looks like Zimmermann just regained his elite control, but it’s more nuanced than that. He did that by living in the zone, but with diminished velocity and an ineffective fastball that approach isn’t as viable for him. He’s been adjusting by throwing outside of the strikezone more than ever, and his 48.8% zone rate, while still above league average, is the lowest of his career and the first time Zimmermann has ever had a zone rate below 51%. Some of the drop can be attributed to Zimmermann throwing his slider more, which will naturally lower his zone rate. But even his four-seam fastball is down to a 52.6% zone rate, 5% below his career average. He’s been throwing it away to right-handers more than ever this season. Here’s a comparison of Zimmermann’s fastball location this season (left) and prior to this season (right).

Now let’s compare that to batter ISO based on pitch location from 2016-2017 (right) to this season (left).

By keeping the ball away from right-handers Zimmerman’s been much less susceptible to power this season. After allowing 1.63 HR/9 last year Zimmermann is allowing just 0.96 HR/9 this season. This is still a bad fastball, and bad fastballs can get a pitcher into trouble on days where his command wavers. Because of this, Zimmermann is still off-limits in tougher matchups. During his fantastic six start stretch Zimmermann faced four of the eight worst teams in baseball against right-handed pitching based on wOBA (TB, KC, CHW, TEX). He did perform well against two top ten teams (OAK, TOR), but there is still reason to be skeptical of Zimmermann’s abilities against top-tier offenses. That being said, he’s thrust himself firmly back into streaming/matchup play territory. With his next start coming at Tampa Bay on Wednesday Zimmermann is a good option in that matchup.

Verdict:

Zimmerman has compensated for his diminished velocity and fastball effectiveness by throwing it less and throwing it outside to right-handed batters more. He’s throwing his slider more than ever and getting excellent results with it. His hot streak has come against easy opponents, but it’s good to be a pitcher in the AL Central. Zimmermann has gone from an afterthought to a streamer in neutral or positive matchups.

Anibal Sanchez, Atlanta Braves

2018 Stats (prior to this start): 53 IP, 2.89 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 2.7 K/BB ratio
07/07 @ MIL: 6.2 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 K

Like Jordan Zimmermann, it’s easy to be skeptical of Anibal Sanchez. He has been toeing a thin line all season, and his peripheral stats have suggested regression was coming for Sanchez. Prior to this season Sanchez was also literally the worst starting pitcher in the major leagues. His career went into a tailspin after a 2015 shoulder injury, and between 2015-2017 Sanchez has a 5.67 ERA and 1.84 HR/9, both the highest marks among qualified pitchers over that time frame. So how did he stop the bleeding? What changed from Sanchez being, by certain measures, the worst pitcher in baseball to a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher?

The most glaring difference in Sanchez’s pitching style is an increase in cutter usage. Sanchez has begun throwing the pitch 20% of the time this season, and he had never thrown his cutter more than 9% in a season of the time prior to this year. Here’s an example of a cutter from this start that epitomizes why it’s been such a successful pitch for him.

Sanchez froze Eric Thames on an outside cutter, and he’s been attacking the outside corner to both lefties and righties with the cutter all season. Even if Thames swung and made contact he can’t drive that pitch for power. Batters have not gotten an extra-base hit on an Anibal Sanchez cutter outside of the zone all season. Here’s a heatmap of how Sanchez has thrown his cutter to both left-handed batters (left) and right-handed batters (right).

Sanchez’s effective command of the cutter has gotten him outstanding results with the pitch. Batters have hit just .151 with a .113 ISO against the pitch this season. By using his cutter more Sanchez can rely less on his four-seamer fastball and sinker, two pitches that have been obliterated by opposing batters over the past three seasons. Sanchez is throwing a first pitch fastball about 45% of the time, but after the first pitch he’s been using his cutter and splitter to finish off batters. By going away from his fastball Sanchez has been able to limit hard contact, something that had been a big problem for him over the past few seasons. His 26% hard contact against represents a four-year low, and the 24% soft contact against is a seven-year high. His 84.5 MPH average exit velocity is the third lowest in the majors (among pitchers with at least 150 batted ball events). Improvements like this don’t always show up in ERA estimators like FIP and SIERA, but Sanchez has made strides this season.

There are still obvious red flags in his profile. A .232 BABIP is unsustainable even with Sanchez’s ability to limit hard contact, as is his 81.5% strand rate. He’s got a 10.8% HR/FB ratio, which is only slightly below league average, but Sanchez is still throwing softballs with his four-seamer and had the worst home run rate over the past three seasons. It wouldn’t be surprising to see regression in batting average, runners left on base, and home runs allowed. Therein lies the drawbacks with a pitch-to-contact style; the pitcher is inherently more reliant on fortune than a bat-misser. Sanchez has graduated from gas-can to matchup based streamer, but he will not maintain an ERA near his current 2.72 ERA.

Verdict:

Sanchez’s increased cutter usage has helped to curb two of his biggest problems from seasons past, hard contact and home runs. He’s no longer a total disaster on the mound, but a low BABIP and high strand rate point to some good fortune on Sanchez’s part thus far this season. His next start comes at home against Arizona, and since the Diamondbacks have just a .296 wOBA and 24.4% strikeout rate versus righties this season Sanchez is a good streaming option in that matchup.

Ryan Borucki, Toronto Blue Jays

2018 Stats (Triple-A): 77 IP, 3.27 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 2.07 K/BB ratio
07/02 vs. DET: 7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K
07/08 vs. NYY: 7 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K

Borucki had a decent showing in his major league debut on June 26 in Houston, but delivered an even better two-start week, capping it off by holding the mighty New York Yankees to just one run. Borucki had some prospect status coming into the season, ranking as the third best pitcher and eighth best player overall in the Blue Jays’ farm system by MLB Pipeline. His arsenal consists of three pitches, a fastball, a changeup, and a slider. His changeup was his most regarded pitch as a prospect and has performed well during his first three starts in the majors. His fastball averages about 92 MPH and can top out around 95 MPH. His slider, while considered Borucki’s third best pitch by scouts, has gotten good results thus far.

Borucki’s biggest strength as a prospect came from limiting home runs, as he never had a HR/9 greater than 0.7 at any level of the minors when pitching at least ten innings. He’s also had a groundball rate above 49% in each of the last three seasons. His fastball has late movement and has been key to inducing groundballs. Here’s an example of one from his start against Detroit.

Although Borucki throws a four-seamer, it plays a bit like a two-seamer with this movement, enabling him to limit power. Batters are hitting .341 against the fastball, but have a meager .068 ISO. His fastball does have .385 BABIP against, but that’s not all bad luck. His fastball has a 91.1 MPH average exit velocity against and a 28% line drive rate, so it’s not as if all these hits have been groundballs that sneak through holes in the infield. While giving up all these hits isn’t encouraging, since Borucki doesn’t give up many walks or extra-base hits we can live with these singles.

The success of Borucki’s changeup and slider suggest that more strikeouts could be coming for him. He may only have a 9% swinging strike rate, but that is because Borucki’s fastball rarely induces whiffs. He got 24 swinging strikes between these two starts, and 15 of them came from his changeup. His changeup has a 22% whiff rate and his slider has a 19.65% whiff rate this season. Batters are also hitting .105 against the changeup and .167 against the slider. Some of the success has come from luck, and some is likely from deception, but this is certainly encouraging to see. The potential of having two effective secondary pitches along with the ability to limit power gives Borucki more upside than his prospect rankings might suggest. We probably won’t see the best version of Borucki come together this season. Heck, he might not even stay in the majors all season depending on how things turn out for him, but there are reasons to be interested in Borucki.

Verdict:

Borucki excels in limiting two of the three true outcomes already, home runs and walks. The success of his slider and changeup thus far makes it look like there is more strikeout potential for Borucki than his Triple-A numbers suggest. His value is probably restricted to AL-Only and deeper leagues for now, but keep this name in mind. As far as streaming goes, his next start comes against the Red Sox in Boston, which is a hard pass. Even though he’s done well against the Astros and Yankees there’s no reason for fantasy owners to test one of the league’s best offenses.

 

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