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Pitch Mix Analysis: Starting Fantasy Baseball Pitchers With Upside In Their Arsenal

If you are going to make a living as a Major League starting pitcher, you had better come to the table with more than one effective pitch. There are very rare exceptions, but exceptions do not disprove the rule. Starting pitchers need multiple useful offerings to have success, and that's especially true when we're talking about getting deeper into games.

We saw a few more pitchers appear in 2022 that dominated (at times, at least) with just two pitches. Think of Spencer Strider (67% four-seam, 28% slider), Hunter Greene (54% four-seamer, 41% slider), and even the great Jacob deGrom (47% four-seam, 39% slider). The common denominator among those six pitches I mentioned is that they were all among the game's hardest-to-hit pitches. If you have two elite pitches, you can make it, but success is much more likely overall with three or more arrows in the quiver.

What I want to do in this piece is investigate the pitches that have the best and deepest arsenals. I want to specifically find the pitchers that have impressive pitch mixes but aren't currently viewed as aces in the league. This is a fantasy sports website, and it doesn't do the reader any good for me to tell you that Jacob deGrom is very good. So we will look for some less popular names that stand out in the data. Let's go for it.

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Two Elite Pitches

First, let's check for more of these Strider/deGrom types. I searched the database for pitchers with two pitches that perform five points above the league average in SwStr% by five or more points. It's important that we note that not all swinging-strike rates are created equal. Here's a table of the league average SwStr% by pitch type from 2022:

Pitch SwStr%
Splitter 19.2%
Slider 16.6%
Changeup 15.4%
Curveball 12.9%
Cutter 11.8%
Four-Seam 10.6%
Sinker 7.0%

When I say "above league average," I mean league average for that pitch type. A 15% SwStr% on a four-seam fastball is 4.4 points above league average, but a 15% SwStr% on a slider is 1.6 points below league average - it's very important context. Let's get to these pitchers:

Pitcher Pitch 1 SwStr% Diff Pitch 2 SwStr% Diff
Andrew Heaney FF +5.2% SL +9.8%
Blake Snell SL +9.3% CU +6.9%
Brandon Woodruff FF +6.3% CH +14.3%
Clayton Kershaw CU +7.2% SL +7.5%
Corbin Burnes SL +8.9% CU +8.7%
Drew Smyly SI +5.3% CU +5.6%
Framber Valdez CU +11.1% FC +6.4%
Gerrit Cole FC +5.5% SL +9.1%
Jacob deGrom FF +5.7% SL +17.0%
Jesus Luzardo CH +11.9% CU +5.5%
Jordan Montgomery CH +9.8% CU +6.5%
Luis Garcia FC +8.3% SL +5.3%
Max Scherzer FC +10.3% SL +11.2%
Shane Bieber CU +10.5% SL +6.3%
Shane McClanahan SL +9.4% CH +10.0%

FC = Cutter, FF = Four-Seamer, SI = Sinker, SL = Slider, CU = Curveball

Mostly this is a list of established aces, but we do see some surprising names popping up:

Framber Valdez: Has long been a below-average strikeout pitcher, but clearly has the ability to get strikeouts when needed with these secondary pitches (he mostly throws sinkers) and get whiffs at high rates.

Jordan Montgomery: Has seemingly been on the cusp of making a big step forward for fantasy purposes, but hasn't done it. He did look pretty good after joining the Cardinals, and once again should be a useful late-round pitcher to take for some relatively safe production.

Jesus Luzardo: The stuff has never been a question, it's just about the health and the walks. His arsenal is sick, but I have my doubts he can ever be consistent enough to enter fantasy acedom.

Drew Smyly: A talented pitcher with a career derailed by injury time and time again. He had some good stretches in 2022 but will be a pretty thin pick for 2023 at the age of 33.


Three (or more) Good Pitches

I think we want to look at the swinging-strike rate when talking about elite pitches. When loosening it up, however, I think it's fair to switch to looking at CSW% (called strike plus swinging strike rate). A called strike is just as good as a swinging strike in practice, although a high swinging strike rate turns out to be a better predictor of future fantasy greatness than CSW%. The intent of all pitches is to earn a strike (this isn't exactly true on 0-2 counts, but the pitcher still wants to at least give himself a chance of getting strike three there even if they're okay with missing by a bunch), and CSW% measures what percent of pitches earn a strike (doesn't include foul balls, mind you).

So for this next run, I looked for pitchers with three different pitch types that went three points above the league average CSW% for that pitch type (100 pitches minimum thrown). It's a long list, so I'm going to save us some space and just list the pitchers and the pitch types that qualify without showing the actual numbers.

Pitcher Pitches
Aaron Ashby SL, SI, CH
Aaron Nola FF, SI, CU
Bailey Ober SL, CH, CU
Brandon Woodruff FF, CH, CU
Braxton Garrett SI, SL, CU
Charlie Morton CU, CH, FC
Corbin Burnes CU, CH, FC
Corey Kluber CH, FC, SI
Edward Cabrera SL, CH, CU
Freddy Peralta FF, CH, CU
Gerrit Cole FF, SL, CU
Joe Musgrove FF, SL, FC
JT Brubaker SL, CU, SI
Kyle Wright CU, CH, SL
Luis Garcia FC, SL, CU
Max Scherzer FC, SL, FF, CU
Shane McClanahan SL, CH, CU
Shohei Ohtani FS, SL, CU

The repeats we see here are Woodruff, Burnes, Cole, Garcia, Scherzer, and McClanahan.

More pitchers we aren't surprised to see show up are Nola, Morton, Peralta, Musgrove, and Ohtani.

Some thoughts on the rest:

Ashby: Certainly has some sick stuff, but was so erratic and seems to function more as an opener or an elite piggyback option. He's still just 24 though, so if he can get stretched out a bit and lower the walk rate, he could really blow up quickly (in a good way).

Ober: The big man elevated the SwStr% to a really impressive 13.3% in 2022. He posted strong CSW% marks on the slider (33.5%), changeup (28.6%), and curveball (36.3%). He doesn't have a very good fastball, which could continue to hold him back - but I think there's a lot more ceiling here than he's given credit for.

Garrett: He had a spectacular run at it in July through early August, going for a 37:6 K:BB ratio while taking advantage of some softer matchups. He had a slider, a curveball, and a sinker that beat the league average CSW% by three points. However, the best guess is that he misses the Major League rotation to start the year, which is understandable given his inconsistent performance so far.

Brubaker: He legitimately has one of the league's best sliders (22.6% SwStr%, 33.6% CSW%), and he earned a lot of strikes with the curveball (35.1% CSW%) and sinker (30.0%) as well. There is a lot to like in this arsenal, although at age 29, it's a little harder to believe there's a ton of unrealized upside in his game, especially pitching for a team that has routinely failed to get the best out of their pitchers.

Wright: The breakout 2022 performance is backed up by the arsenal. He put up great CSW% marks on the curveball (37.5%), changeup (28%), and slider (37.3%). He finished the year with a stat line that was much more "good" than "great," but he does seem like a really solid pitcher that gives us a solid floor in 2023. He has four pitches with significant usage, and three of them are quite good. I typically don't want to "buy high" after a breakout year for a pitcher - but I think I'm fine with it in this case.


Checking All The Boxes

One last query I ran. I looked for pitchers with multiple pitches qualifying as:

  • above average in SwStr% by at least two points
  • above average in CSW% by at least two points
  • better than the league average in xwOBACON

xwOBACON is expected wOBA on contact. This stat is calculated only using balls in play, so it's a measure of the quality of contact that doesn't give pitchers credit for getting whiffs (which they should get credit for, of course, but that is taken into account here with the criteria for SwStr% and CSW%). There are only seven pitchers here that qualify, here's the table:

Pitcher Pitch SwStr% CSW% xwOBACON
Carlos Rodon Slider 18.3% 32.1% .314
Carlos Rodon Four-Seam 15.0% 33.1% .353
Corbin Burnes Curveball 20.4% 36.5% .257
Corbin Burnes Slider 24.7% 32.2% .330
Freddy Peralta Curveball 19.3% 36.4% .180
Freddy Peralta Changeup 17.7% 27.0% .281
Luis Garcia Slider 21.1% 36.0% .283
Luis Garcia Changeup 16.0% 26.0% .285
Luis Garcia Cutter 19.6% 31.1% .311
Max Fried Curveball 16.6% 37.3% .296
Max Fried Changeup 19.9% 26.0% .300
Shane McClanahan Changeup 24.0% 35.5% .296
Shane McClanahan Four-Seam 12.6% 29.9% .367
Spencer Strider Changeup 17.4% 25.7% .244
Spencer Strider Slider 24.4% 39.0% .266

We already know these guys are fantasy aces, outside of maybe Luis Garcia, who hasn't proven that yet. It was the second straight year that Garcia put up strong numbers on several pitches, the guy's arsenal is really deep and he's able to get strikes with all of his pitches. His 3.72 ERA and 1.13 WHIP with the 24.4% K% were short of elite, but he was once again a solid pitcher and has a really nice floor with how many different offerings he can go to.

Seeing the Spencer Strider changeup appear here is another positive sign for his future, even though he doesn't like to throw that pitch (5% usage), it still performed quite well when he did choose it (although it's likely that those good numbers were just because hitters had no reason to expect it, something to think about).

I would just say that this table gives us even more reason to believe in these pitchers as legitimate fantasy aces with high floors (at least while they're healthy, which is a completely separate question).

There's the analysis. I have the full data file handy if anybody is interested in it, just reach out to me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

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