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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts (Week 5)

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've got a trio of youngsters to look at, two in the NL Central and one in the AL. Each of these players carried rookie status and moderate prospect pedigree heading into 2018 and impressed during their starts this week.

Nick Kingham looked unbelievable in a spot start against the Cardinals on Sunday, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning. Tyler Mahle made two excellent starts against the Braves and Twins, leading the Reds to two rare victories. Eric Skoglund had what was by far the best start of his big league career against the White Sox.

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Real Deal or Mirage?

Nick Kingham, Pittsburgh Pirates

2018 Stats (at Triple-A Indianapolis, age 26): 22.2 IP, 1.59 ERA, 2.12 FIP, 3.86 K/BB

04/29 vs. STL: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K

Kingham was called up to make a spot start on Sunday and blew everyone away, most of all the Cardinals hitters, as he took a perfect game into the seventh. He isn’t a household name by any means, but Kingham was dominating Triple-A before his callup. 26 is old for the level, so we should take his Triple-A stats with a grain of salt. Kingham has been in the minors so long because he had Tommy John Surgery in 2015 while at Triple-A which set him back a few years. He would have most likely been in the majors at some point between 2015-2017 if not for the injury. He also had success at Triple-A prior to 2018. In 2015 before tearing his UCL Kingham had a 3.22 FIP and 4.57 K/BB at age 23 in Indianapolis. He also had a 3.59 FIP and 3.21 K/BB in 2017 pitching in Triple-A at age 25. While the results of his big league debut are surprising, Kingham has something of a minor league track record.

In his major league debut Kingham mostly played with a four-seamer, sinker, and slider. He also threw a curveball and changeup a few times, but he fed the Cardinals a heavy diet of fastballs and sliders in this start. This mix got him nine strikeouts on 16 whiffs, including 12 with his slider. The slider fueled much of Kingham’s success, so here’s a look at it from Sunday.

The most impressive stat is the 76.5% chase rate on his slider. Hitters swung at a slider outside of the zone more than three quarters of the time. For context Dylan Bundy has a 46.4% chase rate on his slider, Patrick Corbin’s is 49.4%, and Gerrit Cole’s is 38%. Obviously Kingham won’t sustain such a high chase rate over the course of multiple starts, but this is an incredibly impressive number. Kingham also threw a first pitch slider 53% of the time to right-handed hitters. No one throws first pitch sliders that much, the highest pitchers were around 40%. Kingham may have gotten by on a little deception since he’s brand new to the majors and was pitching unconventially, but there is a lot to like about what we saw Sunday.

Verdict:

A slider/fastball approach led Kingham to 16 whiffs and makes his dominant performance look legitimate. This flirt with perfection wasn’t a Jarlin Garcia-esque no-no bid. He won’t be this good every time out, but he has the stuff to get strikeouts. With a two-seamer in his arsenal and an above average groundball rate he should keep the ball in the yard as well. The best comparison would probably be Joey Lucchesi. Their pitching styles aren’t similar, but they are no names using deception and breaking ball heavy approaches to fool hitters. There’s a chance hitters figure Kingham out and stop chasing sliders, and they will stop chasing them to this degree, but there’s also a chance for a legitimate breakout here. Kingham is at least worth an add in every league. This was supposedly a spot start, but the Pirates can’t justify keeping Steven Brault in the rotation over Kingham after this performance. Both the Pirates and fantasy owners should ride out Kingham and see what they have.

Eric Skoglund, Kansas City Royals

Career Stats Prior to 04/28: 32.2 IP, 9.09 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 1.4 K/BB

04/28 vs. CWS: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K

Big league careers don’t start much worse than they have for Eric Skoglund. His ERA was a shade above nine and the peripheral statistics don’t like him either. But, to his credit, he dominated the lowly White Sox on Saturday night. The White Sox have a .313 wOBA against left-handed pitchers, which is middle of the pack, but with a 27.4% strikeout rate they whiff more than any other team against southpaws. Skoglund may have taken advantage of a good matchup, but there were some encouraging signs from him in this start.

Skoglund got it done Saturday using mixing two fastballs, a four-seamer and sinker, along with his curveball. His velocity was up on every pitch and he sat at 93.8 MPH on his four-seamer. Normally Skoglund sits around 92 MPH. There was also increased break on every pitch. The four-seamer, sinker, and curveball all gained at least one inch of vertical and horizontal movement. From a data-based perspective, Skoglund’s stuff was measurably better in this start relative to the rest of his career. He also changed up his pitch selection in a significant way. He threw his curveball 34% of the time (20.3% for his career) and threw his sinker 41% of the time (15.5% for his career). Increasing his usage on these pitches and going away from his four-seam fastball should serve Skoglund well, as batters hit .421 with a .351 ISO against the four-seamer all time.

Nine strike outs are a little suspicious. Skoglund got eight swinging strikes on 88 pitches, and six of them were with his curveball. That gives him a 9% swinging strike rate, which is better than his career average, but still below league average. Expecting Skoglund to maintain a strikeout rate above or near what it was during this start is unrealistic. If Skoglund leans on his sinker and curveball more in future starts then we may see an increase in groundball rate. He had a 46.2% groundball rate during this start, and if he gets less strikeouts his pitching style should lend itself to more groundballs. Out of all the ERA predictors SIERA is the most favorable at 4.13. While that’s not great, SIERA takes groundballs as good outcomes into consideration which makes it more applicable to a pitcher that throws sinkers and curves as much as Skoglund did in this start. There really isn’t much upside in Skoglund because strikeouts will be sparse, but he should improve from a total train wreck to an unspectacular starting pitcher.

Verdict:

Don’t rush to your waiver wire and blow a bunch of FAAB on Eric Skoglund, but keep the name in mind because this wasn’t a total fluke. With how bad he’s been Skoglund can’t be trusted yet. He could ruin your entire week with one bad start. He’s more of a player to watch than a player to add right now, but if these good performances continue we’ll at least have an idea of how he’s getting it done.

 

Tyler Mahle, Cincinnati Reds

2018 Stats prior to 04/24: 21 IP, 5.14 ERA, 5.52 FIP, 2.9 K/BB

04/24 vs. ATL: 6 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 11 K
04/29 @ MIN: 6.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 7 K

Tyler Mahle came up big in a two-start week, delivering a total of 18 strikeouts between his two starts along with good ratios. He has shown flashes of brilliance before, including a 2.70 ERA in four starts last season and a one-hit shutout against the Cubs in his first start. He does it with a pitch mix headlined by his four-seam fastball, and he mixes in a slider and changeup alongside it.

It’s hard to make sense of Tyler Mahle. Coming up he was a moderate strikeout pitcher and more of a control specialist that limited home runs. In his first four big league starts last season he couldn’t strike anyone out and survived by getting groundballs and not allowing a home run. In his first five starts this season he’s racking up strikeouts but can’t keep the ball in the yard and has gotten blasted on several occasions because of it. When he does get strikeouts they come by way of his four-seamer, a pitch with a 10.89% whiff rate this season but notched him 14 swinging strikes in his start against the Braves and eight against the Twins. Mahle also has an 11% swinging strike rate overall, which is slightly above league average (10.6%), but his 27.3% strikeout rate is significantly above league average (22.8%).

What Tyler Mahle has done this season sort of inverts our expectations for him. The 1.89 HR/9 and 21.9% HR/FB ratios will likely drop, but so will his 10.26 K/9. Mahle feels a little Vince Velasquez-y right now. He’s leaning on fastball with middling secondary stuff to support him. Here’s a table comparing key performance metrics between the two.

Stat Mahle Velasquez
K% 27.3% 25.6%
Whiff% 11% 10.2%
SIERA 3.52 3.65
K/BB 3.45 3.78

They’ve been oddly similar, it’s just that Velasquez has a .353 BABIP and 59.5% strand rate. Mahle can been good against bad teams or teams that strike out a lot, but he’s not someone that can be trusted in every matchup right now.

Verdict:

Tyler Mahle’s results are a near opposite of how he profiled as a prospect. His ability to get swings-and-misses relies heavily on quality of opponent, as he doesn’t have a plus offspeed pitch or breaking ball. He’s more of a streamer than a must start at this time.

 

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