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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.

Normally this article covers three pitchers, butt this week we're going a little deeper on two pitchers that have garnered little interest from fantasy owners this season despite positive trends from both.

Yefry Ramirez was dealing Saturday night against the Rangers, and has sneakily been good against in his first taste of the big leagues. Matt Harvey closed out the first half with a 2.38 ERA over his last six starts, capping it off with a one run outing against the Cardinals on Friday.

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Real Deal or Mirage?

Yefry Ramirez, Baltimore Orioles

2018 Stats (prior to this start): 18.1 IP, 3.93 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio

07/14 vs. TEX: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 7 K

You might see this name and think, “Who-fry Ramirez?” One month ago this writer would’ve thought the same thing. When Ramirez first came up it was easy to assume he was just another subpar arm in the Orioles’ never-ending cycle of bad pitchers. Ramirez didn’t have much prospect pedigree and was traded from the Yankees to the Orioles for cash considerations during the 2017 season. Ramirez’s arsenal consists of a 92 MPH four-seam fastball, an 87 MPH slider, and an 85.6 MPH changeup. Ramirez’s fastball is average velocity and hasn’t performed particularly well with a .306 AVG and .194 ISO against. He makes up for it with two solid secondary pitches that have allowed Ramirez to have a 24.7% strikeout rate and an elite 14% swinging strike rate this season. That swinging strike rate would be tied for sixth best among qualified pitchers if Ramirez had enough innings, and is on par with the likes of Gerrit Cole and Blake Snell. It’s only been 23.1 innings for him so don’t get too excited, but that is quite an impressive number to see.

The changeup is Ramirez’s most regarded pitch and has been a key to success for him in the major leagues. Batters are hitting .200 with an .067 ISO and 23.8% whiff rate against the changeup this season. His changeup also has an 81.1 MPH average exit velocity and .160 xBA, so its success has been more than mere BABIP luck. Here’s a look at one of his better changeups from this start.

That pitch looked like a cookie fastball right down the middle only to tail away from the batter, leaving Nomar Mazara dumbfounded. This type of deceptive movement is why the pitch has a 58% contact rate and 36.8% O-swing rate. Ramirez doesn’t throw a great fastball, but makes up for it with a changeup that consistently fools major league hitters.

Ramirez’s slider has also performed well for him. Batters are hitting .105 with no extra base hits and a 19% whiff rate this season. It also has a 40% O-swing rate and .216 xBA against, so like the changeup the slider’s good results are all fluky. He mostly throws the pitch to right-handed batters, which has contributed to wide platoon splits for Ramirez. Righties have a .229 wOBA against Ramirez while lefties have a .356 wOBA. Lefties have demolished Ramirez’s fastball for a .375 AVG and .250 ISO. Those large splits are partially because he only has two pitches to use against left-handed hitters, and because Ramirez does not have a great fastball. He should be able to handle righties well since Ramirez has two good secondary pitches, but lefties will probably continue to give him trouble.

Ramirez certainly has his flaws outside of platoon splits. He has struggled with control in the big leagues, allowing 3.47 BB/9. His fastball has been a problem for him, as it has a 13.3% walk rate despite a 53.3% zone rate. Batters haven’t been nibbling on outside fastball, since he has just a 27.4% O-swing rate, and as a result Ramirez issues too many free passes. Control seems to have been a problem for Ramirez ever since he entered professional baseball. Since 2016 at High-A Ramirez has never posted a walk rate below 7.3%.

The other problem with Ramirez is through no fault of his own, but it’s the team context around him. Other than Colorado, there probably isn’t a worse place to be a major league pitcher than Baltimore. The Orioles have the worst record in the majors, meaning we can’t rely on Ramirez for wins in any matchup. The Orioles are also the worst defensive team in the majors…by a lot. Their -87 defensive runs saved (DRS) is the lowest in the league by 21 runs. They’ve gotten the worst defensive production out of the shortstop position this season with -20 DRS.  They also have the worst outfield, which has accounted for -33 DRS collectively. Potential trades of Manny Machado and Adam Jones would be a big boon to Baltimore pitchers, as the pair has combined for -36 DRS at the two most crucial defensive positions on the diamond. On top of all that Camden Yards is the fifth best ballpark for home runs with a 1.196 HR factor (per ESPN park factors). Usually team context isn’t that big of a consideration when analyzing pitchers, but the situation in Baltimore is rough. That being said, Ramirez has a history of suppressing home runs in the minor leagues, so hopefully those skills translate to the majors in a difficult ballpark.

Verdict:

Ramirez has two plus secondary pitches and a 14% swinging strike rate suggests he will be a good source of strikeouts. A bad fastball leads to large platoon splits and troubles with control. The team context is bad enough to be a legitimate deterrent. He has a history of limiting home runs which helps given Ramirez’s home ballpark and division. Best used as a deep league flier or a streamer against right-handed heavy lineups. If Ramirez continues to pitch well the impending return of both Chris Tillman and Andrew Cashner should not affect his rotation status.

 

Matt Harvey, Cincinnati Reds

2018 Stats (prior to this start): 86.1 IP, 4.80 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 2.9 K/BB ratio

07/13 @ STL: 5 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K

After pitching to a 7.00 ERA and 5.66 FIP with the Mets Harvey has been much improved with the Reds, owning a 3.64 ERA and 3.97 FIP in twelve starts. Harvey has really begun to turn things around over the last month with a 2.38 ERA and 2.64 FIP since June 15. Strikeouts haven’t returned for him, as he has a 6.6 K/9 over that stretch, but good command and a 49% groundball rate helped Harvey find success with his diminished stuff. Harvey regained velocity over this stretch as well, averaging 95 MPH with his fastball, his highest average velocity since 2015. Harvey isn’t doing much different with pitch mix over his hot stretch. He’s still relying on his four-seam fastball, slider, and the occasional changeup. Harvey’s fastball has performed much better during this stretch; batters are hitting .257 with a .027 ISO against it compared to .278 and a .263 ISO before June 15.

Those improvements are great to see, but Harvey’s slider has been the crux of his success. Not only will Harvey be unable to overpower opponents with his fastball like he used to, the league has undergone paradigmatic changes since he was last good. Matt Harvey was an ace before the era of strikeouts and launch angle, and he was either on the sidelines or wholly ineffective for the first two years of this shift. Fastball usage has gone down every year since 2002 (the first year with available data) and fastball usage has gone down 2.5% since Harvey’s peak years. Pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs and throwing more sliders, as slider usage has gone up 3% since 2014.

His slider not only benefited from the velocity gain, but also gained an inch of drop over this stretch. Here is a comparison between a slider from Harvey in April (top) and one from this past start (bottom).

This is only a one pitch comparison, but there is a sharpness present in the slider from last week that wasn’t there in April. The whiff rate on his slider has gone up from 12% to 20.5% and batters are hitting just .135 with a .027 ISO against it since June 15. Harvey got five whiffs on his slider in this start on 32 pitches, which isn’t an overly impressive percentage by itself, but represents marked improvements.

Harvey’s slider has been instrumental in his ability to induce groundballs as well. His groundball rate on sliders is up 3%, and this graph demonstrates how his groundball rate has fluctuated throughout the season based on pitch type.

There is an uptick starting in June and going into July, coinciding with Harvey’s improved production. His slider performance has gone up by several measures over this stretch, as has his fastball. Harvey might not be the pitcher he was between 2012-15, but he might not be the dumpster fire of 2016-2017 either.

There are a few problems with his success that suggest regression is coming. The most glaring is the fact that Harvey has not surrendered a home run during this stretch, despite having a 36.3% hard contact rate. He allowed three home runs on June 8, his last bad start the start prior to his hot streak. Even with a 2.64 FIP over the past month Harvey has a 4.18 xFIP. He’s been enjoying the benefits of a 0% HR/FB ratio, which is of course unsustainable over any significant period of time. It’s also concerning that while Harvey’s slider whiff rate went up over the past month, he still had a paltry 6.6 K/9 and his swinging strike rate only went up 0.8%. He also rarely goes deep enough to get a quality start, having only completed six innings five times in 16 starts and only three of those counted as quality starts. Considering that Harvey was among the worst pitchers in baseball for nearly two years the reward hardly seems worth the risk. He’s a desperation streamer in mixed leagues and a back-end starter in deeper leagues.

Verdict:

Velocity gains have correlated with an increased slider whiff rate and an increase in groundball rate. His 2.64 FIP over his last six starts is a mirage built upon a 0% HR/FB ratio. Harvey’s 4.18 xFIP over that same stretch paints a more realistic picture of what to expect going forward. He’s definitely made improvements over early season woes, but an inability to consistently get strikeouts or go deep into games severely limits upside. Usable in a good matchup to just get volume in weekly leagues, but Harvey isn’t standard mixed league material at this time. Yefry Ramirez would make a more interesting pitcher to stash based on upside.

 

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