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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts (Week 25)


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.

We are beginning to see good production from somewhat unknown and unheralded pitchers due to September callups. The pitchers that were covered this week have all thrown fewer than 35 innings in the majors this season.

Reds lefty Cody Reed struck out double-digit Cubs in just five innings, while Blue Jays lefty Thomas Pannone got his third career win in a two-run outing over the Yankees. Fireballer right-hander Sandy Alcantara turned in another good start for the Marlins this past week as well.

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The Jury Is Out

Cody Reed, Cincinnati Reds

2018 Stats (prior to this start): 28.1 IP, 5.08 ERA, 4.92 FIP, 2.2 K/BB ratio

09/15 @ CHC: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 10 K

Reed matched Jon Lester pitch-for-pitch for five innings in a pitcher’s duel at Wrigley on Saturday. While Reed’s team couldn’t pull this one out in the end, he did post a career high in strikeouts and the highest game score of his career. Originally acquired in the Johnny Cueto deal, Reed had some prospect buzz in the Royals’ system. He was hammered in 10 starts in 2016 for the Reds, posting a 7.36 ERA and 2.27 HR/9 and sort of just faded away until recently. Reed has a four-pitch repertoire consisting of a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a changeup, and a slider. His fastball averages about 92 MPH and tops out around 94 MPH. Reed is most known for his slider, and that pitch was on full display in this start. Emulating fellow lefty and slider specialist Patrick Corbin, Reed threw his slider 47.3% of the time; 43 of his 91 pitches were sliders. His next most used pitch was the sinker at 29.7%, but it was mainly about the slider in this one.

Reed had 16 swinging strikes in this game, and eight of them came from his slider. On the year Reed has a 13.7% whiff rate with his slider, which is pretty weak for a breaking ball, especially for a pitcher relying on it so much. As a starter, Reed’s slider whiff rate has gone up to 15.2%, but that is hardly an impressive number. The pitch does have slightly above average drop and spin rate, but that doesn’t explain the gaudy strikeout numbers Reed had with it in this start. Here’s an example of one of his better sliders from Saturday.

And here’s a not-so-good one that had a good result.

It may have been deception either in delivery or overall approach, or it may have been that Addison Russell was looking for something else, but that pitch looped right into the zone and Russell watched it go by on an 0-2 count.

While there is reason to be skeptical of the strikeouts Reed put up, his slider does excel in inducing favorable contact. Reed’s slider has a 1-degree average launch angle against and .139 xBA. Batters have a 58.8% groundball rate against the pitch and overall a 59.2% groundball rate against Reed. Reed was a decent groundball pitcher in the minors, but he’s taken things to another level in the majors with a 59.6% groundball rate between 2017-2018 compared to a 14.2% line drive rate over that same stretch. Reed threw 51 innings during that time, and among starters with at least 50 innings thrown in 2018 only Marcus Stroman has a better groundball rate, and no one has a better line drive rate. 51 innings is still a very small sample size, especially when spread across two partial seasons, but Reed may be onto something with this approach.

The best current comparison for Reed is a better version of Clayton Richard. Both are lefties that throw mainly sinkers and sliders and have high groundball rates. Reed is better than Richard because he gives up less hard contact, has a better ability to get strikeouts, and has better movement and velocity on his pitches. Both have suffered from Gopheritis at times in their career as well. Reed’s home run issue is a little puzzling. He never had home run issues in the minors, does a great job of keeping the ball on the ground, and has a .327 xSLG against. His sinker is a big contributor to his struggles. Batters are demolishing the pitch for a .480 BA and .400 ISO. Some of that is bad luck, but some of it speaks to the quality of the pitch. Reed needs to phase it out in favor of his four-seamer or work on making the pitch more effective. He is usable against bad teams, and if things line up as they're currently set for Cincinnati, his final two matchups should be against the Marlins in Miami and the Royals at home.

Verdict:

Reed pitches off his slider, partially because it’s his best pitch and partially to avoid throwing his awful two-seamer. The strikeout numbers seem a little fluky, however, Reed is an exceptional groundball pitcher that doesn’t give up much hard contact. His 3.68 SIERA and 3.66 xFIP suggest better results may be coming for Reed. His next two matchups are scheduled against the Marlins and Royals, so if you need someone to beat up on bad teams he’s only owned in 1% of Yahoo leagues. Reed could be out there in NL-only leagues and deep mixed leagues,

Thomas Pannone, Toronto Blue Jays

2018 Stats (prior to this start): 24 IP, 4.13 ERA, 5.19 FIP, 2.1 K/BB ratio

09/16 @ NYY: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K

Anytime an unheralded pitcher goes into an environment like Yankee Stadium and keeps the Bronx Bombers in check deserves attention. Pannone did just that on Sunday, earning his third career win in the process. Acquired at the 2017 trade deadline in a deal that sent Joe Smith to Cleveland, Pannone was Toronto’s number 27 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. Pannone has a three-pitch repertoire featuring a four-seam fastball, a changeup, and a slider. His fastball averages 88 MPH and topped out at 90 MPH in this start against the Yankees. None of these pitches are considered plus pitches, but Pannone’s changeup did induce seven whiffs in this start.

Pannone’s changeup has performed the best for him so far. It has a 15.4% whiff rate and batters are hitting .188 against it with a .166 xBA. Like most pitchers, Pannone only throws his changeup to opposite-handed batters. Here’s an example of one from this game.

Keeping it low and away is the sweet spot for a pitch like this. The changeup has slightly above average horizontal movement and when Pannone gets strikeouts they usually come by way of the changeup down and away.

Pannone also takes an unconventional path to success by inducing tons of flyballs and infield flyballs to get outs. He’s an undersized ninth-round pick from Rhode Island with an 88 MPH fastball, so most everything about Pannone is unconventional.  He has a 20.8% IFFB rate in the majors this season, and routinely had IFFB rates around 30% in the minors. Both his changeup and fastball excel at inducing popups, while his curveball gets the grounders at a 75% rate. Is this sustainable for success in the majors? Probably not, considering Pannone has already served up five homers in 31 innings. Homers started to become a problem for him as he progressed through the minors. He was good at suppressing homers until he reached Toronto’s Double-A system, where he allowed 2.34 HR/9 in 34.2 innings. He has given up ten homers in the minors in 50.1 innings pitched (1.8 HR/9) across three levels this season. Pannone’s 5.69 xFIIP and 5.11 SIERA are scary, as are his final two scheduled matchups, both against Tampa Bay. The Rays have a 105 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this season, tied for fifth best in the league. He should not be trusted during playoff time.

Verdict:

An underwhelming prospect had a good start against the Yankees, but there are too many cracks in this foundation to deem Pannone trustworthy going forward. He might stick around as a Wade LeBlanc-type, however, that doesn’t make him interesting in fantasy. He is 4% owned in Yahoo leagues as of writing this, and any mixed league owners with him should drop Pannone for Cody Reed.

Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins

2018 Stats (Triple-A): 115.2 IP, 3.89 ERA, 4.46 FIP, 2.32 K/BB ratio

09/13 @ NYM: 7 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 6 K

Alcantara has been quite good in his three starts, posting a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings of work for the Marlins. Acquired in the Marcell Ozuna trade this past offseason Alcantara came into the season as the Marlins number two ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline. Miami has a relatively weak farm system and Alcantara would not be ranked so highly in other systems, but he still has the potential to be an effective major league starter. Alcantara’s best attribute as a prospect has been his velocity. He averages 96.5 MPH with his fastball and topped out at 98.6 MPH in his most recent start. Alcantara throws both a four-seamer and two-seamer equally as hard, and has three secondary pitches to compliment them. A changeup, a curveball, and a slider. There are some raw skills and potential here with the 23-year-old Alcantara but he is unpolished.

Alcantara has gotten 28 swinging strikes over his last two starts, 14 in each game. He is getting the swinging strikes mainly with his changeup and slider, but he does have a 10.3% whiff rate with his sinker. Most sinkers do not get many strikeouts and often have whiff rates below 5% and the purpose of the pitch for many sinkerball pitchers is to induce weak contact and get groundballs. Alcantara’s sinker has been effective in obtaining groundballs; he has a 75% groundball rate thus far with an average launch angle against of -9 degrees. However, it has also been getting whiffs at an above average rate. The pitch looks impressive and capable of getting groundballs and strikeouts. Here’s an example from his start on 09/05 against Philadelphia.

Whew! It starts off looking like a fastball in the bottom of the zone and spins down, leaving no chance for Rhys Hoskins. Much like Freddy Peralta, Alcantara can get great movement on his fastball in addition to overpowering velocity.

Alcantara’s secondary pitches have also been effective for him, chiefly his changeup and slider. Batters are hitting under .100 with one extra-base hit combined between the two pitches. He also has a 25% whiff rate with the changeup and a 17% whiff rate with the slider. Alcantara throws his 89 MPH changeup to righties and lefties and both have struggled to make decent contact against it. Here is an example of the pitch from this start.

Compare it to Thomas Pannone’s changeup and the pitch is not only much faster but breaks sharper and harder. Alcantara also is able to put it down and away from a same-handed batter. This pitch has a 44.4% O-swing rate and 25% O-contact rate for Alcantara’s brief career, so he can get batters flailing at it often. Between his changeup and slider, Alcantara has an arsenal that could compliment his big fastball well someday.

There are obvious problems with his success thus far. He fails the basic pitcher luck test with a .152 BABIP, 91% strand rate, and 5.6% HR/FB rate. His 5.22 SIERA suggests Alcantara’s ERA should be nearly four runs higher. While he won’t maintain a 1.42 ERA over a long stretch, he won’t necessarily regress all the way to what ERA estimators suggest either. It’s hard to get precise with Alcantara in just 19 innings, but there is something to like here. Hopefully, he gets a shot in the rotation in 2019 because he’d make a good end-game piece in NL-only leagues or deep mixed leagues. If all else fails Alcantara at least has a future in the bullpen, but it’d be nice to see him get a full season as a starter.

Verdict:

There is plenty to like in regards to Alcantara’s raw stuff, especially the big velocity he brings with his fastball. He is a little raw right now and has issues with control at times. His next start comes home against Cincinnati, which Alcantara could be used as a desperation play in that start. After that, it’s away in Washington, which should be avoided. The Marlins have a makeup game scheduled for Monday, October 1 against Pittsburgh which would fall on Alcantara’s turn, but that game may not get played since it’s likely that both teams will be out of contention. Even if it does play it may not count depending on league rules. Alcantara is an interesting pitcher to watch, but he isn’t anything more than a matchup play for this year.

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