Are You For Real? Week 5 Pitcher Standouts

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As the saying goes, you can’t win your league during the draft. The moves owners make during the season are the ones that will dictate who wins. The art to winning in fantasy baseball is being able to determine who should be added to a roster and who should be bypassed. In order to do that, an owner needs to be able to tell if someone is for real or not.

This weekly column will focus on starting pitchers who have recently thrown their hats into the ring for consideration. Today we take a look at pitchers who performed well in Week 5, and analyze their waiver wire viability.

These pitchers will be available in many leagues, and we’ll dig a little deeper to determine whether you should be picking these guys up or leaving them be.

Editor's note: Get a free one-week MLB Premium Pass including our famous Lineup Optimizer/Generator, Premium Matchup Ratings, DFS Lineups, Cheat Sheets, and 10 other tools. Sign Up Now!

 

Killer Curves

Trevor Cahill, San Diego Padres

2016 Stats (almost exclusively as a reliever): 65.2 IP, 2.74 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 66 K (9.05 K/9), 35 BB (4.80 BB/9)

May 2, 2017 versus Colorado: 6.0 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.50 WHIP, 7 K (10.50 K/9), 0 BB (0.00 BB/9)

Trevor Cahill has had a strange career so far. He started out as a young mediocre starter for Oakland before he broke out and had an amazing year in 2010 where he won 18 games with a 2.97 ERA. Unfortunately, that was mostly a mirage buoyed by an unsustainable .236 BABIP, and his low strikeout numbers caught up to him the next season. Over the next three years, he devolved from a mediocre starter to a bad one, and he was eventually pushed into the bullpen by Arizona. Continuing to pitch poorly in the Dodgers bullpen, he was eventually shipped off to the Cubs. There, he was able to carve out a niche as a short reliever, and he helped lead Chicago to a World Series victory. So it would only make sense that he would be signed by San Diego in the offseason to be a starter once again. While he’s always specialized as an extreme groundball pitcher, Cahill has recently added a new piece to his repertoire: the strikeout.

In 2017, Cahill has been a strikeout machine. Amongst all pitchers who have thrown 30 or more innings this season, Cahill has the 7th highest strikeout rate in the league. Even more impressive, one of the keys to his success is that batters are only swinging at 55.4% of Cahill’s pitches that are in the strike zone. That’s not just league-leading, that’s over 3% better than the next best rate. That means that not only is Cahill drawing the 8th most swinging strikes in the league, but he’s also fooling more batters on pitches in the zone than anyone else as well. That’s a wonderful combination for a pitcher.

On May 2, Cahill was tasked with facing a Colorado lineup that is widely considered one of the strongest in baseball. In fact, they’re top-ten in runs scored and batting average and third in home runs this season. Though the game was in San Diego, it was still no easy task. However, Cahill handled them without a problem. Though the Rockies showed enough offensive prowess to make contact at a higher rate than any other team against Cahill this season (77.5%), he still held them to just one unearned run over six innings and allowed only three hits. He helped limit the damage by obsessively keeping the ball down in the zone. While 52 of his 89 pitches were low, only 18 were up. When combining this type of placement with his combination of sinkers, change-ups, and curveballs, Cahill can make it nearly impossible for batters to get any kind of substantial power and lift on the ball. This also allows him to do things like use his curveball to rack up swinging strikeouts, as he did four times on this day. Combining that kind of whiff rate with that ability to keep the ball down and on the ground is a recipe for success.

Verdict

Trevor Cahill is absolutely the real deal. His combination of sinking pitches will draw an elite groundball rate (currently 8th best in the majors), and his curveball looks better than ever. He’s also increased how often he throws it (6.5% more often than last year, 15.7% more often than in his big season in 2010), and it has been the pitch that has finished off 30 of his 37 strikeouts this year. Cahill isn’t perfect and will still have his struggles, especially with control as that has always been a problem, but when his new strikeout ability is added to what he already brought to the table, it can turn him into a very good pitcher this season.

 

Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays

2014 Stats (Injured for 2015/2016): 166.1 IP, 2.87 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 149 K (8.06 K/9), 47 BB (2.54 BB/9)

May 7, 2017 versus Toronto: 8.0 IP, 2.25 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 3 K (3.38 K/9), 2 BB (2.25 BB/9)

In 2011, Alex Cobb looked like he was next in the line of Tampa Bay pitching success stories. Plenty of hype was surrounding how Tampa was using the draft and a strong minor-league system to compete with the big spenders in Boston and New York, and Cobb was just another cog in that machine. After a stellar start to the 2011 season in Triple-A, Cobb came up and looked solid as he carried a 3.42 through nine starts at the age of 23. He had some hiccups in 2012 and looked much more mediocre, but the hype was still real heading into 2013. Cobb lived up to it, winning 11 games and posting a stellar 2.76 ERA and 10.6% swinging strike rate. 2014 was another brilliant year, and Cobb was on his way. Instead, he was diagnosed with a torn UCL and sent to have Tommy John surgery in May of 2015. He missed all of 2015 and the vast majority of 2016 while recovering, and now he’s back for 2017. Tommy John is always iffy, so 2017 will be seen as a test of whether Cobb’s truly back to his old self or not.

On Sunday, May 7, Cobb squared off with the older and less threatening Toronto lineup. He’d go on to post his strongest outing of the season, throwing eight innings while only surrendering two runs, both earned. While he was able to limit the hits to just four, he only struck out three and walked a pair. The ERA for the outing looks nice, but underneath the hood, there’s not a lot of promise. That low strikeout number doesn’t bode well, especially considering Toronto has the 9th most strikeouts in the league as a team. Since Cobb throws a mix of sinkers, curveballs, and splitters, it would stand to reason that he could be using a strong ground-ball rate to help bolster his performance, but his 41.7% in this outing is handily below average. Frighteningly, 33.3% of the balls put in play were line drives. That’s way above the league average of 20.0% in 2017. Overall, while it was his strongest outing of the season, this should be seen as an outing full of red flags for Cobb’s future.

Verdict

Alex Cobb had real potential, and he may still have that potential come back to the surface as he gets further away from his surgery date. For now though, Cobb is not for real. So far, Cobb looks more like he did in 2012 than 2013 or 2014. His strikeout rate that spiked to 8+ in 2013 and 2014 has gone back down to 5.44, the lowest of his major league career and the 10th lowest in the league. He’s also become much more curveball dependent, throwing it 34.8% of the time, as compared to his change-up/splitter whose use has dropped from 38.1% in 2014 to 21.9% in 2017. Cobb was never an elite strikeout pitcher or an elite sinker/splitter-style pitcher that drew grounders by the dozens, but he made a living as hybrid of those two that could translate to an above-average pitcher. Now, both of those things are worse than they used to be. There’s not a lot of upside in a pitcher who is below-average at getting ground balls and strikeouts.

 

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