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Statcast Pitcher Studs and Duds - Launch Angle (Week 5)


Welcome back to RotoBaller’s pitcher studs and duds article series! Each week we will select an advanced stat, choose two top performers and two underperformers, and analyze what those stats could mean for future fantasy output. The next stat we will use is one that has become immensely popular and important with the advent of the Fly Ball Revolution: launch angle.

Now more than ever, hitters are attempting to hit the ball in the air as it increases the likelihood of them getting a hit as well as beating the increasing use of the defensive shift. Conversely, pitchers generally strive to get hitters to put the ball on the ground because a ground ball, even a hard-hit one, is less likely to go for a hit. There are always exceptions to the rule; there are plenty of fly-ball pitchers who are successful and groundball pitchers who aren’t.

While launch angle alone cannot tell the entire story of a pitcher, it can be a good indicator as to how they may continue to perform. Let’s now take a dive into some pitchers’ stats given their impressive and underwhelming launch angles!

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Launch Angle Studs

All stats current as of 4/30/19 and courtesy of BaseballSavant.com

 

Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds

Launch angle: 4.4 degrees

Our first launch angle stud showed fantasy potential in his rookie season in 2017, regressed in 2018, and hopefully is righting the ship in 2019. Luis Castillo had a home run issue in 2018, allowing a 1.49 HR/9 rate with a 9.1-degree average launch angle. However, he has been spectacular this season, posting a 1.23 ERA with a 4.4-degree launch angle. Fantasy players gave up on Castillo in 2018, but is he breaking out now?

Castillo has always had a strong arsenal of pitches and nothing seems to have changed; the average velocity and spin rates of his fastball, changeup, sinker, and slider are all similar to last season. Everything he has done with that arsenal so far has been positive. Castillo’s hard-hit rate is down (31% vs 39.5% in 2018) and he has allowed just a single HR in 36 ⅔  innings pitched. Additionally, his K% (29.9% vs 23.3% in 2018) and whiff% (36.8% vs 28.8% in 2018) are up significantly.

Castillo has looked great so far and his 3.63 SIERA backs it up. He looks to be taking real strides and now is the time to take advantage of his talent. If he can continue to keep his launch angle in check, there is no reason to believe that Castillo can’t be a number two starting pitcher in fantasy owners’ rotations.

 

Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays

Launch angle: 4.7 degrees

Our second launch angle stud is not a new name in the groundball pitcher conversation. Marcus Stroman has always been a groundball pitcher, relying on a good sinker to induce contact. The reason I decided to include him in this segment is not that his launch angle in itself is surprising, but that his overall start to 2019 is much improved from 2018. Stroman battled various injuries last season and posted a poor 5.54 ERA. He seems to have recovered in 2019, however, boasting a 1.43 ERA and 1.09 WHIP through 37 ⅔ IP. Should fantasy owners trust Stroman again?

Stroman can be an effective groundball pitcher because of his pitch arsenal. He has exceptional spin rates on his fastball, cutter, sinker, and slider, allowing him to induce groundballs when he can keep the ball down in the zone. This is a big conditional; Stroman left the ball out over the plate too much in 2018 but has been able to find his spots in 2019. Additionally, Stroman has actually been able to make batters miss more this season, as he has a career-high 23.8% strikeout rate and a career-low 73.8% contact rate.

Stroman’s control is better this season, but that evidence may not be compelling enough to explain the changes in his game. His pitches have not changed in movement or velocity, and his hard-hit rate (35.6%), contact rate, and strikeout rate are all significantly better than his career averages. There isn’t all that much to explain these changes, and despite his improved batted-ball profile, his 4.13 SIERA (which is similar to his 2018 mark of 4.03) suggests that Stroman has been getting lucky. This one is a mixed bag; I would like to see a few more starts from Stroman before making a judgment on him.

 

Launch Angle Duds

All stats current as of 4/30/19 and courtesy of BaseballSavant.com

 

Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians

Launch angle: 19.2 degrees

Carlos Carrasco has been a top fantasy starter for several seasons now, although one wouldn’t necessarily think it looking at his 2019 numbers. He has had a bumpy start to the season with a 5.86 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. Mostly oddly, he has an extreme average launch angle of 19.2 degrees. Fantasy owners may be worried about a pitcher they possibly drafted to be their ace, but should they be?

Carrasco’s season to this point can be grouped into two buckets. He has two outings of allowing six earned runs, one of which he didn’t make it out of the first inning. Then he has four starts in which he looks pretty much like himself, allowing six earned runs with 36 strikeouts in 22 2/3 IP. The two bad starts, especially the short outing, are extremely uncharacteristic of him and should not be considered a sign of declining skills, especially given the other subset of starts he has turned in.

Carrasco’s 19.2-degree launch angle and 91.9-MPH average exit velocity, another stat that pairs well with launch angle, are currently significantly higher than his averages since 2015 (87.4 MPH and 11 degrees, respectively). This is due to the relatively small sample size; his two bad starts have a greater impact on his overall numbers because he has only had five starts. These two bad starts won’t really make a difference after 20 or 30 starts unless Carrasco continues to pitch that poorly, which I doubt. Despite these numbers being skewed, Carrasco has still managed to post a career-high 33.6% K rate while keeping his command in order (5.7% walk rate vs 6.3% career mark). He also has a 3.05 SIERA, indicating that he has pitched much better overall despite the kind of contact he has given up.

Carrasco has been a solid fantasy pitcher for a while now and should be given a longer leash than most pitchers. His velocity and strikeout ability are still there (one of the main things to go for declining pitchers as they age), so I am not worried about the 32-year-old. I consider him to be a buy-low candidate at this point.

 

Dylan Bundy, Baltimore Orioles

Launch angle: 20.8 degrees

Our second launch angle dud would have found himself in this article last season as well. Dylan Bundy, who showed signs of being a fantasy asset when he first joined the Orioles, had a major home run issue in 2018, allowing an insane 2.15 HR/9 with a 17.8-degree average launch angle. That mark has not improved in 2019, as the 26-year-old has allowed a 2.86 HR/9 with an even-higher 20.8-degree launch angle. He has been a frustrating fantasy prospect and, at this point, is there any hope left for him?

In short, not at this time. Even fantasy players who have attempted to believe in Bundy for a while (including your’s truly) can no longer justify his potential upside. His 26.5% strikeout rate is nice, but his 10.1% walk rate and 1.52 WHIP show that he doesn’t have control of his pitches. The lack of control could be the main culprit behind Bundy’s elevated launch angle. Digging deeper, Bundy’s fastball is the real sore spot. He relies on the pitch the most (49.4% usage) but has left it in the middle of the plate much too often, leading to an expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) of .406 for the pitch with six HR allowed.

Bundy’s numbers have been trending in the wrong direction for a while now and it is too much to put up with. Bundy’s 4.37 SIERA is better than his 6.67 ERA, but it’s still unacceptable for a fantasy starter. He cannot be trusted until he can show a better command of his fastball, especially given that he pitches in hitter-friendly Camden Yards.

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