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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts (Week 26)


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 revitalization of another veteran pitcher that was once left for dead. We also saw a young fireballer carry his minor league dominance into the majors.

Adam Wainwright is turning back the clock with two straight good starts, while Josh James is bringing the heat and the strikeouts for Houston in a starter/relief role.

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The Jury Is Out

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

2018 Stats (prior to this start): 29 IP, 3.72 ERA, 5.05 FIP, 1.6 K/BB ratio

09/22 vs. SF: 6.1 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 6 K

Admittedly, a four-run, eight-hit outing is kind of a low bar for a good start. However he only allowed one extra base hit, a double, and had six strikeouts to no walks. His start before this one was even better, where Wainwright pitched six shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the Dodgers. Coming into the season Wainwright was seen as an impediment to younger, more exciting pitchers in the Cardinals system but now is looking rejuvenated. Wainwright still has the same five-pitch repertoire he’s had for the past five years, but he is throwing his curveball more than ever this season. He is also using his cutter as much as his fastball, leaning largely on a curve, cutter, sinker combo.

At its peak Wainwright’s curveball was considered one of the best in the game, and while overall he’s lost both velocity and movement on the pitch he’s experienced a renaissance with the pitch this year. In 2017 batters crushed the curveball for .282 BA and .160 ISO, Wainwright’s worse season with the pitch. That year he was throwing it 72.5 MPH, the spin rate was down nearly 1000 RPM, and it lost one and a half inches of drop compared to this season. Wainwright has regained velocity and movement with the pitch and it has been reflected in the results. Batters are hitting .167 with a .212 xwOBA and 11.6% whiff rate against Wainwright’s curveball. Over these past two starts Wainwright has 27 swinging strikes in total, 15 of which came by way of the curveball. Perhaps injuries were affecting Wainwright more than we realized and instead of being completely washed up he needed to get healthy.

Shifting away from his fastball towards the cutter has been a good move for Wainwright, since he doesn’t have an effective fastball anymore. His sparsely used four-seamer has been demolished for a .500 BA and .417 ISO by opposing hitters. His two-seamer has technically performed better, but batters are still hitting .341 with a .220 ISO against it. He is averaging a career low 89.1 MPH with his fastball and batters are sending it back even harder with an 89.8 MPH average exit velocity. Wainwright has the old-pitcher problem where his breaking ball is still effective, but his fastball has deteriorated beyond the point of usefulness. Wainwright was never a fastball-heavy pitcher, but this year he is throwing it only 36.8% of the time, the first time he has been below 40% in his career. Pitcher’s with bad fastballs can succeed, with Masahiro Tanaka being one of the most prominent examples, but even Tanaka has his share of problems with the longball. There is a hard cap on the ceiling of pitchers with bad fastballs, and they can also be prone to huge blowups. Masahiro Tanaka, Dylan Bundy, and Jordan Zimmermann are a few examples of varying quality that demonstrate the blowup potential. Of those pitchers Wainwright is most similar to Zimmermann. Zimmermann had a great stretch of starts in June and July this season by eschewing his fastball for his slider, but things eventually caught up with Zimmermann.

Verdict:

Wainwright’s curveball is still an effective pitch and plus breaking ball, but his fastball is severely diminished compared to his prime. As a streamer Wainwright is a passable option, though his final start is not a great matchup, coming Friday against the Cubs. If the Cubs have the division wrapped up by then and rest their starters then Wainwright would be fine, but otherwise he should be avoided. Depending on where he ends up Wainwright could be an interesting $1 player in 2019.

 

Josh James, Houston Astros

2018 Stats (Triple-A): 92.2 IP, 3.40 ERA, 3.39 FIP, 3.41 K/BB ratio

09/18 vs. SEA: 5.1 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 K

James was a strikeout machine in the minors, striking out 41% of batters at Double-A and 35% at Triple-A. He’s only pitched 16 innings in the majors thus far, but has 24 strikeouts in that time. James is currently ranked as the Astros’ number six ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, but with four pitchers ahead of him he still had to beat out some talent to reach the majors. James is notable for his big fastball, which averaged 97.4 MPH in this start and reached 100.4 MPH. Along with the fastball James throws a slider and changeup, two pitches that have generated double-digit whiff rates for him. Although James’ slider was more highly regarded by scouts, his changeup has been the biggest source of strikeouts thus far. Unlike many pitchers, James does not throw his changeup exclusively to opposite handed batters. He throws it to righties when ahead in the count 35% of the time. Here’s an example of the pitch to a right-handed batter from this start.

It has solid movement down and away and can look more like a slider at times. It fooled Nelson Cruz there, but Cruz isn’t alone. Batters have chased James’s changeup 50.1% of the time and the pitch has a 21.2% whiff rate.

His slider hasn’t gotten quite the same number of strikeouts with just a 13% whiff rate and 15% chase rate, both low for a slider. The pitch does have above average spin at 2452 RPM compared to the league average of 2090. It also has slightly better horizontal and vertical movement than the average slider. It’s a little loopier than one might expect from a pitcher with James’ velocity. Here is perhaps his best slider, which came in his first start.

He doesn’t attack down and away with it, nor does it break that sharply. The pitch certainly has room to grow as James develops, but this pitch might not be a big source of strikeouts in its current iteration. That’s fine considering batters have only mustered a .111 BA and .211 xwOBA against the pitch. James is getting more than enough strikeouts from his fastball and changeup anyway.

James’ biggest issue is one that plagues many pitchers in this mold, control problems. He had walk rates greater than 10% at both Double-A and Triple-A before his promotion and has walked six batters in 16 innings in the majors so far. Batters not chasing his slider contributes to this problem. As previously mentioned it only has a 15% chase rate, which is even worse considering he only has a 43.5% zone rate with the pitch and a 26% swing rate overall. Batters only make contact 50% of the time, but they can lay off James’ slider. Given how James’ slider has performed the best move for a hitter is to abstain from swinging.

Verdict:

Outside of control and small sample size there isn’t much reason to doubt what James is doing right now. He’ll run into trouble like all young and inexperienced pitchers do, but the stuff looks legit. James’ final start is scheduled for Tuesday in Toronto, and he is a good streaming option even though Toronto has a .324 wOBA as a team against right-handed pitching this season. There is also a slim chance that James could get a second start in Baltimore over the weekend if Charlie Morton can’t make his scheduled start. Morton left early in his last outing on Sunday, and while he is expected to make that start the Astros may have the division locked up at that point and won’t risk Morton’s health in a meaningless game. For 2019 James could compete for a rotation spot since both Morton and Dallas Keuchel are free agents. If he is a starter James would be a great sleeper next year. Otherwise he would probably be used in a role similar to Brad Peacock or Collin McHugh out of the bullpen.

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