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Are You For Real? Surprising SP Starts (Week 6)


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.

With all the exciting young pitching prospects being called up and doing well and some veterans surprising us it was hard to narrow down which pitchers to write about. All three pitchers we're looking at this week have two things in common. They are all under 30% owned in Yahoo leagues, and they all feature a nasty changeup.

Domingo German pitched six no-hit innings in his first big leauge start against the Indians on Sunday, while Trevor Cahill struck out 12 Orioles Saturday night. Alex Cobb wasn't quite as dominant as either of them, but he showed signs of life on Sunday.

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Real Deal or Mirage?

Domingo German, New York Yankees

2018 Stats (out of the bullpen): 14.1 IP, 3.77 ERA. 3.92 FIP, 2.6 K/BB

05/06 vs. CLE: 6 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 BB. 9 K

Domingo German had been effective for the Yankees as a long reliever before making his first big league start on Sunday, and he had quite the gem working before being pulled. German has a four-pitch repertoire, a 95 MPH four-seamer and 95 MPH sinker, an 87 MPH changeup, and an 82 MPH curveball. German got sixteen swinging strikes on Sunday, and thirteen of them came on either the curveball or changeup. Despite the ability to dial up some heat with his fastball, it’s German’s off-speed stuff that’s especially interesting. Here’s a look at a curveball from Sunday.

His curve doesn’t have the big looping action we normally see with a lot of curveballs. It looks more like a slider-curveball hybrid than a traditional curveball. This one to Jason Kipnis was probably his best of the game, but he was able to fool hitters with it outside of the zone consistently during this start. Hitters have chased his curveball 35.5% of the time and whiffed 16.8% of the time at it. The curveball is a good breaking ball, but German’s changeup looked even better in this start. Here is one of them from Sunday.

And another.

That’s bonkers. I’d might even go as far as bananas. What chance do right-handers have against it? It looks like a cookie right over the plate and then cuts sharply inside. It’s no surprise that hitters have chased German’s changeup 48.6% of the time and whiffed at it 26.2% of the time.

Both the stuff and the stats look legitimate with German. Even his minor league numbers are impressive. German never posted an ERA higher than 3.12 or a FIP higher than 3.59 after his first season in rookie ball. He spent an unusually long amount of time in low levels of the minors and 2015 Tommy John surgery killed his budding prospect status, but German dominated every level of the minor leagues. While he won’t be quite this good every time he pitches, what German did on Sunday looked real. The biggest worry with him should be walks. He’s had a 12.4% walk rate during his short major league career, and when he pitches poorly it will likely be due to control issues. Jordan Montgomery is expected to miss 6-8 weeks so German has the opportunity to prove himself. He’s the young up-and-comer to target on waivers this week.

Verdict:

German combines 95 MPH heat with two plus breaking balls to rack up strike outs. Control may be an issue for him, and is probably his biggest flaw right now. He’s definitely someone worth adding and starting next time out against the Athletics.

Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics

2017 Stats: 84 IP, 4.93 ERA, 5.28 FIP, 1.93 K/BB

05/05 vs. BAL: 6 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 12 K

Trevor Cahill has been solid since returning to the A’s on April 17th, but on Saturday he came out and fanned twelve Orioles in a pitcher’s duel against Kevin Gausman. Cahill now has ace-like numbers on the season, with a 2.52 SIERA and 5.17 K/BB through his first four starts. Cahill’s transformation from long reliever to strikeout starter began in 2016 with the Cubs. Cahill posted a then-career best 23.2% strikeout rate and 2.74 ERA out of the Cubs bullpen. The success continued as a starter the next season with the Padres. Before a midseason trade to the Royals Cahill had a 3.40 FIP and 10.6 K/9 with San Diego. Cahill got injured after only three starts with Kansas City and was moved to the bullpen upon return. He struggled down the stretch and spoiled his overall stat line. Starting in 2016 Cahill ditched the low dominance sinkerball approach he used in the early 2010s and began relying more on his changeup and curveball.

The changeup was the pitch for Cahill on Saturday. He got 15 whiffs with his changeup alone while racking up 21 total. 15 swinging strikes in total would be a good start for anyone, and Cahill racked up that many with one pitch. Cahill’s changeup is filthy and more than makes up for his lack of a quality fastball. His late-twenties renaissance didn’t just involve Cahill changing his pitch mix and throwing the changeup more though. It got better. Here’s a look at the pitch from Saturday.

Grab some pine Manny Machado! Cahill’s changeup gained four miles per hour of velocity and two inches of vertical drop. It’s gone from being a fine secondary option to the jewel of Cahill’s arsenal. Even before this start the changeup had a 23% whiff rate, and now it’s 28.7%. Cahill has made similar improvements to his curveball, though to a lesser degree. His curveball has gained about 1.5 inches of drop this season and has a 20.69% whiff rate. Cahill only threw six curveballs in his start on Saturday, but that’s probably because his changeup was working so well. Between the changeup and curveball Cahill has two good strikeout pitches. Even though he’s throwing his sinker less than ever at just 35.8% of the time Cahill hasn’t sacrificed any of his groundball prowess. He has a 59.6% groundball rate this season, higher than his 55.1% career average. No one should expect 12 strikeouts and shutout ball every time, but what Cahill is doing looks legitimate. With all the exciting rookies and prospects doing well Cahill may have slipped under the radar, but he deserves as much attention as any of them.

Verdict:

Cahill has built upon the improvements he made in 2016 and 2017 and his changeup is looking better than ever. He should be able to pile up strikeouts and get groundballs when the ball is in play. Among a sea of young pitchers doing well Cahill is worth adding in redraft over many of them.

Alex Cobb, Baltimore Orioles

2018 Stats before Sunday: 17.2 IP, 9.68 ERA, 6.44 FIP, 1.2 K/BB ratio

05/06 @ OAK: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER (2 R total), 1 BB, 5 K

Before Sunday Alex Cobb had been perhaps the worst starting pitcher in the majors, and it looked like the Orioles bought a $57 million-dollar lemon. Whether the Orioles made the right choice with Cobb is irrelevant to us. What is important is whether Cobb can return to being a viable fantasy starter. Cobb signed with the Orioles on March 21st, giving him very little time to get in game shape. That’s bad for everyone, but especially bad for a pitcher like Cobb that relies so heavily on a breaking pitch. Like his teammate Kevin Gausman, Cobb will live and die by the split-changeup, nicknamed “The Thing” after its unusual grip. Before he had Tommy John Surgery Cobb’s splitter had an 18.66% whiff rate (this number was even more impressive in the early-mid 2010s before the spike in strikeouts). After returning it dropped to a measly 12.24% and it lost five inches of drop. The Thing had turned into Michael Chiklis.

To get an idea of where Cobb’s splitter was here’s what it looked like pre-Tommy John in 2013.

Pretty good right? That’s what made Cobb such an effective pitcher for a three-year period between 2012-2014. Here’s what it looked like three weeks ago in a seven-run shelling at the hands of the Detroit Tigers.

Oops. Instead of “The Thing” that could’ve been called “The Meatball”, and Jeimer Candelario drove it for an opposite field blast. That pitch was not only mislocated, it didn’t have much downward action. If that’s where Cobb’s splitter was at it’s no surprise he’s been hit so hard. Here’s what it looked like Sunday.

Although the drop is straighter compared to his 2013 splitter, that was closer to peak Cobb than the one against Candelario. If he pitches like that all the time he could recapture past success. Cobb also had seven swinging strikes with the splitter this game. He had four whiffs total in his first four starts with his splitter. Another positive sign from this game was Cobb’s velocity increase. He averaged 93 MPH on his two-seamer and 87.7 MPH on his splitter. This is higher than it had been in previous starts and is around pre-surgery levels.

Part of the problem with Cobb is that he’s transitioned towards throwing his two-seamer more often since his return. As much as the splitter is the key to success for Cobb, the shift to a sinkerballer might hurt him. This is probably to combat injury, which is good for Cobb as a real life player, but bad for his fantasy value. Prior to surgery batters hit .297 with a .141 ISO against Cobb’s sinker. This season they’ve hit .313 against the pitch, though last season batters hit .249 against the pitch. with a .104 ISO. Cobb is probably experiencing some bad BABIP luck this season on the sinker. He had a .262 BABIP against with it last season, but a .341 BABIP against this season. Those will probably meet in the middle over time around .300. Cobb’s groundball rate recovered and he has a 59.5% groundball rate with his sinker this season.

The pre-surgery Cobb probably isn’t coming back. Not only has his stuff diminished, but he’s pitching differently. He’s a sinkerballer that, when the pitch is right, can fool hitters with his split-changeup. That can be effective, but it limits his upside. That approach is actually not too far off from Cahill's approach. Play the sinker and offspeed pitches off each other for grounders and strikeouts. But when Cobb’s splitter isn’t working the blow ups can be colossal. The bad might not be worth the good, but there are glimmers of hope.

Verdict:

No, Alex Cobb isn’t back, at least not to pre-surgery levels. The splitter still hasn’t fully recovered but it’s getting closer. It appears that he’s going to play off his two-seamer more going forward, which is bad for his strikeout potential and overall performance. He’s more of a player to stash than a player to start right away.

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