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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.

This week saw two 21-year-old rookies go into Coors Field and blank the Rockies. An uninspiring afterthought veteran also did something very inspiring in a two-start week.

Freddy Peralta fanned 13 Rockies with his heater, while Jaime Barria struck out seven with a four pitch mix. Clayton Richard racked up 18 strikeouts in 16 innings between two starts.

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Real Deal or Mirage?

Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers

2018 Stats (Triple-A): 34.2 IP, 3.63 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 2.71 K/BB ratio

05/13 @ COL: 5.1 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 13 K

Freddy Peralta is the talk of baseball right now after fanning 13 Rockies at Coors Field in his major league debut. This was the highest strikeout total in a major league debut since Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 in 2010. Prior to this start Peralta had middling prospect status. MLB Pipeline had him as the third best Brewers pitching prospect and ninth overall in the organization. His minor league numbers are eye-catching mainly because of the gaudy strikeout totals. Other than a brief 22 inning stint in High-A Peralta’s strikeout rate was higher than 30% at every level in the Brewers’ system. He also excelled at limiting home runs, allowing just 0.61 HR/9 while in the Brewers’ system. His big issue at the minors was always walks. His walk rate has been over 11% during the last three seasons and despite such prolific strikeout numbers his K/BB ratio was usually under three. Other than the walk ratio his minor league numbers have been consistently good, and we’ve seen pitchers with good minor league stats but little prospect hype succeed in the majors this season.

Now let’s break down his arsenal. He's got a four-seam fastball. And that’s about it for Peralta, who threw 89 fastballs out of 98 pitches, a 91% usage rate. Bartolo Colon has the highest fastball usage rate among qualified starters at 84%, but the two don’t compare well since Colon is a sinkerballer and control specialist while Peralta is a wild four-seamer. Peralta also threw eight curveballs and supposedly one 91 MPH changeup. The changeup isn’t identified in Brooks Baseball’s pitch-by-pitch table nor was it recorded in Baseball Savant’s Pitch f/x data, so it may have been a bad or wild fastball that was miscategorized. The fastball clocks in at 93 MPH but can max out around 96. It also has above average horizontal movement and tails outside against right handed hitters. Since he relied on his fastball so much we should have a peek at it.

It has cutting action away which should make him especially good against righties. Peralta showed off his fastball grip to MLB.com's Adam McCalvy, and he uses both a traditional fastball grip and a cut-fastball grip. He got a whopping 18 whiffs with his fastball alone and 19 total. Typically we don’t think of a fastball as a swing-and-miss pitch, which should make us a little suspicious of his strikeout rate. The pitcher that immediately comes to mind as a comparison is J.A. Happ. Happ throws his four-seamer 72% of the time and has a 15.6% whiff rate with the pitch. He also has a career high 29.2% strikeout rate this season pitching primarily off his fastball. Happ gets it done by keeping his fastball up in zone and consistently climbing the ladder against hitters. If we look at Peralta's fastball heatmaps we can see if he did something similar. On the left is pitch frequency, on the right is whiff rate.

  

Peralta’s fastball has good movement and should be especially effective against righties, but he also notched five whiffs on pitches right down the middle. That cannot be sustained at the major league level. Because of the quality of this start and his minor league dominance Peralta pretty much has to be picked up, but this is essentially a one-pitch pitcher that mostly got by on deception against the Rockies. He is reminiscent of Joey Lucchesi, who had some exceptional starts using just two pitches early this season, but once the league had seen him a few times his performance dipped. Like Lucchesi, Peralta may also struggle with opposite handed hitters and struggle third time through the order. It’s the nature of this pitching style. Scouting reports mention a slider and changeup so perhaps he’ll incorporate those pitches more in future outings to strengthen his repertoire.

Verdict:

Peralta should be added based on this performance, but he did all of this with just a fastball. Minor league track record suggest that strikeouts are real but Peralta has massive struggles with control. It will be interesting to see how he’ll be able to maintain such a high strikeout rate without a reliable secondary pitch.

 
Jaime Barria, Los Angeles Angels

2018 Stats prior to this start: 13 IP, 3.46 ERA, 4.84 FIP, 1.0 K/BB ratio

05/09 @ COL: 5.1 IP 5 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

Just another young pitcher going into Coors and shutting down the Rockies. Perhaps we need to reconsider the viability of pitchers in Coors Field against a bad Colorado lineup. Regardless, this marks an impressive start for the 21-year-old, who hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in an outing this season. Like Freddy Peralta, Barria had some prospect status in the Angels’ organization prior to the season. He was ranked as their second best pitching prospect and sixth best prospect overall going in to 2018, but wasn’t on fantasy radars.

Barria often had a low ERA in the minors but bad peripherals. He rarely had a strikeout rate above 20% and his groundball rate was usually under 30%, which would put him in the bottom five among qualified starters in groundball rate. So if he doesn’t get strikeouts, and doesn’t induce grounders, what does he do? Pop-ups. Barria was able to maintain infield flyball rates over 20% consistently in the minor leagues and at times had it over 35% during extended stretches of time. Those results make Marco Estrada green with envy. He also limited walks to great success, never having a walk rate above 6% prior to this season. His K/BB ratio was better in the minors compared to Freddy Peralta because of this. Low-dominance flyball pitchers aren’t usually popular in fantasy, but Barria is still worth a look.

What stands out in this start is the 17 swinging strikes that Barria got against the Rockies lineup, and ten of those whiffs came from his slider. Barria’s swinging strike rate has gone up in every start and he is getting a considerable amount of whiffs on his two breaking pitches, the slider and the changeup. He mixes those pitches alongside a 92.5 MPH four-seamer and the occasional two-seamer. The four-seamer has been the source of many pop-ups for him as batters have popped up his fastball 44% of the time this season.

The pitcher that comes to mind for most when it comes to inducing pop-ups is Marco Estrada. Estrada is a pitcher that used to consistently outperform his peripherals because of his ability to get pop-ups. The problem with this comparison is that Barria doesn’t follow the same pattern skills-wise. Estrada’s average launch angle against has been 20.8 degrees since 2015, when Statcast began measuring it. Barria’s average launch angle against has been 14.5 degrees, which is right in the sweet spot for extra-base hits. Estrada’s high spin rate on his fastball has also been attributed to his success, but Barria has only 2205 RPM on his fastball, which is right around league average. Like Freddy Peralta with his strikeout rate, Barria has displayed the ability to induce pop-ups throughout the minors. Even if it’s hard to identify how he does it at this time, he’s only pitched 18.1 innings in the majors so we’re looking into the minutiae of an already small sample size.

The Angels have steadfastly employed a six-man rotation despite injuries to several of their depth guys, so it will be rare for Barria to get two-start weeks. He also hasn’t cracked 90 pitches in any start yet. There might be something here for Barria, but he isn’t going to get the volume to make a big impact. He’s definitely a streamer consideration, but in 10 and 12 team leagues he’s probably someone that can be cycled on and off rosters.

Verdict:

Barria’s pitching style will lead to bad peripherals, as evidenced by his 4.90 SIERA compared to a 2.45 ERA. He can be streamed in the right matchups, and his 10.9% swinging strike rate suggests room for strikeout growth. A low groundball rate will make him volatile, especially in hitter-friendly parks. With a short leash and the Angels’ six-man rotation the volume won’t be there to make him worth rostering all season.

 
Clayton Richard, San Diego Padres

2018 Stats prior to these starts: 47.2 IP, 6.21 ERA, 5.19 FIP, 1.6 K/BB ratio

05/08 vs. WSH: 8 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 8 K
05/13 vs. STL: 8 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 10 K

If your immediate reaction to seeing the name Clayton Richard is to recoil in disgust few would blame you, but there are actually some encouraging signs here. There isn’t as much background to dig into with Richard because we all know who he is, right? Clayton Richard is the boring old sinkerballer that we love to stack hitters against. That approach, the Clayton Richard we used to know, is gone. He’s started to go away from his sinker and increased his slider usage. After four consecutive poundings in April he started throwing his slider a shade under 30% of the time, and his swinging strike rate has been above 10% ever since. He’s also gained an inch of drop on his slider and has a 21.33% whiff rate, far and away above his career 14.48% whiff rate prior to this season. Between these two starts he collected 16 swinging strikes with his slider and 28 total. Here’s how the slider looked on Sunday.

Compare it to one from 2016.

Pitch location matters here, but there was more horizontal and vertical movement on the pitch from 2018. Clayton Richard might just have him a strikeout pitch.

Before getting too excited, it’s important to remember we’re talking about Clayton Richard here. Maintaining a WHIP under 1.40 would be a small miracle for him. He has a .333 BABIP against. That sounds like a point in his favor, and he’s probably been a unlucky to a certain degree, but this would mark his third straight season with a BABIP over .330. Sinkerball pitchers naturally give up contact which can lead to an inflated BABIP. When 44% of contact allowed is hard contact, like with Richard, hits are going to be a plenty. As he throws his sinker less his BABIP and hits allowed should drop, but he’s going to allow baserunners. Richard has been unlucky in other areas too. He has a 66% strand rate and 17% HR/FB ratio, and those probably should correct towards league averages.

No one is rushing out to their waiver wire and gleefully dropping a good portion of their FAAB on Clayton Richard, nor should they. Most people are going to write him off instantly based on the name and past performance. As of writing this he is 5% owned in Yahoo leagues and that number isn’t about to spike upwards drastically. Nobody believes in Clayton Richard as anything more than a punching bag, but there is reason to get interested in him. He should be owned in every NL-Only or deep league, and is worth streaming in shallower leagues. Don’t discount his ability to go deep in games either. Richard has gone eight innings in his last two starts and threw 197.1 innings last season, eighth most in the NL. Volume has value.

Verdict:

Richard has a career high 21.7% strikeout rate and 10.1% swinging strike rate due to increased slider usage. The sinkerballer still gets a solid 55.1% groundball rate to go along with these strikeouts. His 3.97 FIP is also his best as a starter since 2010. He will allow too many baserunners to make him viable against good offenses, but he’s gone from hands off to a passable streamer.

 

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