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Starting Pitchers Who Could Bust Your Season

Every season there are countless players who do not live up to expectations. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they had a bad season or that they were not an asset to their fantasy team. Simply, it means that they did not return the expected value based on how high they were drafted. For example, J.D. Martinez had a great 2019, finishing 21st in AL MVP voting. However, because he was drafted in the middle of the first round that year, he was a bust at that ADP.

A player that underperforms who is taken as a late-round flyer, such as a 2019 Zach Eflin is not exactly a bust. A late-round pick is much less valuable than a selection in the top 10 rounds, so if a guy doesn't break out, he doesn't hurt your team nearly as much.

With that in mind here are three NL starting pitchers that likely will not live up to their high ADP in 2020 and be labeled a bust.

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Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers

In 2019, Brandon Woodruff was the Brewers' best starting pitcher, and will almost certainly be again in 2020. He has an ADP of 85 according to NFBC, which appears to be warranted based on last season. His 10.58 K/9,  3.01 FIP, and 4.77 K/BB proves that. However, there are some indicators that show Woodruff may not deliver at his current seventh-round draft position.

A large concern is the sample size, as good as he was in 2019, the 121.2 innings he pitched was the second-largest workload of his career. He threw 158 innings in 2016 across High-A and Double-A. Within those 121.2 IP, an electric month of May (1.36 ERA) from the 27-year-old really boosted his season-long stat line. When combining April, June, and the 15.2 innings he threw in July, Woodruff had a 4.32 ERA.

Therefore, it is safe to assume that if Woodruff had a more substantial workload, which he'll be expected to have moving forward, his numbers would have looked significantly worse.

Last season, opposing batters simply could not square up Woodruff’s stuff. Opponents got their barrel to the ball a mere 4.1% of the time, with an 85.6 average exit velocity and a 30.2% hard-hit rate, all top 10% in baseball for the 2019 All-Star. The problem is he just hasn’t played enough to show if the poor contact he generates is a sustainable skill or fortuitous luck. Even if it was mostly Woodruff’s doing, it is unreasonable to expect that he can sustain a 29 K%, and a 6.1 BB%.

Woodruff's current ADP is based on a combination of his upside, and his statistically impressive 2019. However, it seems like a very tough task for him to recreate his 2019 performance in 2020, and his upside is limited by his low workload and streakiness. There is little doubt, he will still be a high strikeout pitcher but his ratios will regress across the board, providing mid-round value, making him a moderate bust.

 

Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves

Mike Soroka will likely be the opening day starter for the Braves after he burst onto the scene in 2019. The runner up for the NL Rookie of the Year, behind Peter Alonso, had a 13-4 record and his 2.68 ERA was the fifth-best in baseball. In 2020, the wins may still be there due to the quality throughout the Braves lineup, but that’s about it, his ERA, WHIP, and all other major statistical categories will regress and make the Canadian a bust at his current 105 ADP.

The righty majorly outperformed his peripherals in 2019. Yes, he finished with a 2.68 ERA, however, he had a 3.45 FIP, a 3.85 xFIP, and a 4.05 xERA. This is largely due to the complete lack of strikeouts for the 2019 All-Star. His 20.3 K% was the 13th-lowest among qualified pitchers. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Grienke fall 23rd and 24th in that category. They are the only two pitchers in the top 30 who are being drafted anywhere close to Soroka, if at all.

There is a decent chance that the Braves ace will regress to a Marcus Stroman, Miles Mikolas, Kyle Hendricks SP4 type, if that’s the case he will undoubtedly be a bust. There is also a chance the drop-off could be even larger.

The 22-year-old was sixth in the league in both GB% (51.2), and GB/FB% (2.02), and tenth in HR/FB rate at 11.1%; clearly Soroka knows how to keep the ball in the yard. The problem is, when pitching to this high level of contact there is always the potential for some bad starts. Last year it only happened once, giving up 10H, five ER, in five innings with just three strikeouts against the Pirates in mid-June. It's fair to think Soroka will have more games like that in the upcoming season, and the fact that the Braves still managed to win that game 8-7 in extras shows how a lot of Soroka’s success is due to the team around him.

The former first-round pick relies heavily on his sinker. He throws it an enormous 45% of the time, third among qualifying pitchers behind Joey Lucchesi and Dakota Hudson. Last season only five pitchers used it more than 40% of the time. Curiously it was the least effective pitch in his arsenal, nine of the 14 HR’s he surrendered came of the sinker, hitters also hit .290 and slugged .448 off of it. He was far more successful with the slider he used second-most in 2019 (24.3%).

It’s certainly possible for a starter to have success with an alarmingly low strikeout rate, look no further than Rick Porcello winning the Cy Young in 2016 sporting a 7.63 K/9. However, that was the exception to the rule and there is a good chance that Soroka could be the biggest bust in the entire majors this year.

 

Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

The highest-drafted pitcher on this bust list is Phillies ace, Aaron Nola. With an ADP of 56, he is on average the sixteenth pitcher taken in drafts. The 26-year-old was a coveted asset heading into last season after he took an ace turn in 2018. Whilst Nola did ultimately have a productive 2020, with 202.1 IP and a 10.19 K/9, but his ratios and raw stats regressed across the board.

The former seventh overall pick had a hard time locating his pitches last season. Granted, control was never a big contributor to Nola’s success, entering last season he had a modest but manageable 2.41 BB/9 across his first four seasons. Then in 2019, the walks skyrocketed to 3.56 BB/9, eighth among qualifying pitchers. The 2018 All-Star threw it in the zone 51.6% of the time in 2017 and 2018, but last year he only threw it over the plate 46.2% of the time.

It didn’t go much better for Nola when he did find the zone. Even though he threw it out the off the plate more than ever, his pitches in the zone had a contact rate of 83.6%, a whole 5% more than his breakout 2018. Most of the damage came due to an increase in frequency the Philly would be facing a hitters count. In 2019 opponents hit at least .400 in 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, or 2-1 counts, as well as .393 in a when a batter was sitting at 1-1.

This level of contact would be manageable if it was soft grounders or popups but that was far from the case. According to Fangraphs, Nola had a 41.9% Hard Hit Rate in 2019, in the four prior seasons that statistic was never above 29.7%, in 2018 it was 25.1%. His 17.4% HR/FB rate was easily a career-high, resulting in a 1.20 HR/9. Substantially worse than 0.72 HR/9 the season before.

The Baton Rouge native can largely credit his lackluster 2019 season to his inability to do any damage with his fastball. He threw his four-seamer 35.5% of the time last season, essentially the same as his curveball. But, whilst the curveball took a step back, at least it was still an above-average, and effective pitch. Opponents slugged an enormous .509 of his fastball, that simply can’t happen against a starter's primary pitch and still be expected to have success. For reference opponents slugged .336 off his 93-mph heater in 2018.

It’s also quite alarming that Nola wasn’t able to figure out how to become more effective as last season progressed. The five-year starter didn’t record a win in the Phillies final seven games and sported a 6.51 ERA over the last five games in September. Philadelphia had high expectations heading into 2019, and the expectation of Nola to continue his dominance was a big part of that. However, just like the rest of the Phillies, Nola disappointed and he may again unless he can significantly change his command of the strike zone.

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