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Slow-Starting Pitchers to Avoid in Drafts

Aaron Nola - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, MLB Injury News, DFS Lineup Picks

This baseball season is going to be like one we have never seen before. While we await word on when and how the season will play out, it is becoming clear that we will be dealing with a shortened season.

I’ve written about how a delayed start will impact injured players and discussed how a shortened season makes pitchers with inning limitations less risky. One thing I, or maybe anyone, has not written about yet is how the shortened season makes getting off to a hot start even more vital.

In a normal baseball season, you can get off to a bad start in April and still have five months to right the ship. But in a shortened season, a bad first month can bury you. Even worse, in a shortened season a blow-up start or two becomes that much harder to make up for since you will have fewer starts, innings, etc. than you normally would.

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Over 162 games, a healthy pitcher makes around 30 starts. So, if they have two bad starts early on, you can survive because there are 28 others to make up for that. But if we are playing 100 or 120 games, you may see a pitcher make 18-20 starts. Suddenly, those two blow-up starts go from being seven percent of their season starts (30 game average), to being worth 10 percent of their starts (20 game season). And that is if pitchers can even make 20 starts this season. The smaller the sample size, the more a couple of bad starts can really sink your ratios.

I wanted to take this a step further and find players who historically have gotten off to slow starts. My thinking is, you can avoid these players in drafts, get off to a hot start and then try to buy these historically slow starters for a discount. There is no perfect science to quantify what makes a slow starter. But I took every hitter's April from the past three seasons and then compared it to the rest of the season (May-September) in the same three-season span.

Again, there is no perfect way to quantify this, but I decided three years was the perfect amount because there is too much noise in using just a one-year sample size. I also wanted to avoid going too many years back, because I wanted players to be around the talent level they are now. For this, I had to use metrics and not raw numbers such as runs allowed or strikeouts because a one-month sample is clearly going to be insufficient when compared to five months. If a pitcher has shown a trend of getting off to a slow start, I would be looking to avoid him in a shortened season draft. Rather than draft them and get myself into an early-season hole, I will avoid them and attempt to trade for them when the team with them is falling down the standing and panicking quicker than in a normal season.

There is one big caveat that I cannot factor into this research: the weather. Perhaps a pitcher struggles to pitch in the cold and that is why historically April is their worst month. But that would not have the same effect now because the season will be starting up in the warmer months. Still, I think it is worth trying to quantify pitchers that historically get off to slow starts!


Corey Kluber, Texas Rangers

Corey Kluber pitched to a 5.81 ERA in the first month of the 2019 season. He was fine early on in 2018, but I can’t say the same for 2017 or for his career. His ERA in April is 3.91, the highest of any month of his career, by a wide margin. He also has his highest xFIP in April and his lowest strikeout rate of any month.

There were already concerns with Kluber. Most of Kluber’s season last year was a wash due to injuries. But the part that wasn’t was certainly worrisome. His velocity was down on all his pitches, while he had his lowest strikeout rate since 2013 (22.6 percent) and a career-high walk rate (8.9 percent). He also had a career-high 37.5 percent hard-hit rate, a career-high 4.88xFIP and a career-high 8.9 percent Brls/PA.

I will give him credit where it is due, his swinging strike rate, exit velo, and chase rate were all on par with his career norms. He also had a .370 BABIP and a 63.8 percent strand rate, both of which would rank in the top two amongst starters if it qualified. That shows that he did have some bad luck, but still, there are reasons to worry. And now you can add slow starter to the list. I have yet to draft any shares of Kluber and I don’t see that changing going forward.


Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

Aaron Nola has struggled to open the season in each of the last two seasons. Even in his elite 2018 where he was in contention for the Cy Young, he opened the season slowly. Nola’s strikeout rate is seven percent lower in the opening month compared to the rest of the season, on average over the last three seasons. His WHIP is 0.20 higher on average, his strand rate five percentage points lower, his FIP has been 0.73 higher and his xFIP 0.76 more than the rest of season norm.

Perhaps it is the cold weather, but that would work against the bats too. Nola goes in a range with a lot of closely-ranked SP2s such as Luis Castillo, Chris Paddack, etc. This makes me put Nola behind those very closely ranked pitchers.


Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins

Kenta Maeda is a pitcher who I think is a great value right now, so the fact that he is a slow starter is worrisome. Over the last three seasons, Maeda’s strikeout rate has been four percent lower than the rest of the season. Meanwhile, his WHIP is 0.37 higher, which is a really big difference. His FIP is 0.74 higher in the opening months, while the xFIP is 0.53 higher.

Maeda has had the privilege of pitching in southern California in his career, so you can’t blame the weather (trust me, I live there). Perhaps it is the way the Dodgers managed their pitchers that affected him, or perhaps Maeda is just slow to get going out of the gate. I still believe Maeda is a good value at his current cost, but if he starts to climb, I will be reluctant to keep buying.


Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs

Kyle Hendricks is someone who I always think is a strong value in fantasy baseball. However, he has also been a slow starter throughout his career. Hendricks relies on strong control, but over the last three seasons his walk rate is three percent higher in the opening month. His WHIP is also 0.26 higher in April. Meanwhile, his FIP is a full run higher and his xFIP is 0.32 higher in April.

In fantasy, Hendricks' biggest contribution is the steady ERA and WHIP he provides. If he gets out to a slow start again this season, he will spend the entire season trying to lower those ratios. That is nothing new for Hendricks, but this time he will have significantly less time to do so. It does add some risk to one of the safest pitchers in the game.


Anibal Sanchez, Washington Nationals

Anibal Sanchez is a reliable pitcher who you can get late in drafts. However, he has been slow out of the gate the last three seasons. Over the last three seasons, his xFIP has been 0.94 runs higher in April than the rest of the season, while his FIP is 1.10 runs higher. His WHIP is 0.54 higher in April (1.75…yikes) than it is in the rest of the season (1.21). His strikeout rate is lower in April, while his walk rate is higher.

Perhaps it has been the cold weather, but if I draft Sanchez in the later rounds of my draft, I will certainly be taking a wait-and-see approach before getting him into my lineup.


Others with a Worse WHIP in the Opening Month

Next to the player's name will be the decrease in WHIP a pitcher has in April, compared to the rest of the season. In Parentheses will be their three-year April average WHIP and then the three-year rest of season norm.


Others with a Worse Strikeout Rate in the Opening Month

Next to the player's name will be the decrease in K percent a pitcher has in April, compared to the rest of the season. In Parentheses will be their three-year April average K percent and then the three-year rest of season norm.

  • Walker Buehler, -8% (21% April K rate, 30% ROS K rate)
  • Lucas Giolito, -7% (17% April K rate, 24% ROS K rate)
  • Taylor Rogers, -7% (22% April K rate, 29% ROS K rate)
  • Roberto Osuna, -7% (23% April K rate, 30% ROS K rate)
  • Sandy Alcantara, -5% (15% April K rate, 19% ROS K Rate)
  • Chris Archer, -4% (24% April K rate, 28% ROS K rate)
  • Yu Darvish, -4% (26% April K rate, 30% ROS K rate)
  • Justin Verlander, -3% (29% April K Rate, 33% ROS K rate)
  • Stephen Strasburg, -3% (27% April K rate, 30% ROS K rate)
  • Danny Duffy, -3% (18% April K rate, 21% ROS K rate)


Others with a Worse xFIP in the Opening Month

Next to the player's name will be the decrease in xFIP a pitcher has in April, compared to the rest of the season. In Parentheses will be their three-year April average xFIP and then the three-year rest of season norm.

  • Yu Darvish, +0.97 (4.34 April xFIP, 3.37 ROS xFIP)
  • Chris Archer, +0.94 (4.43 April xFIP, 3.49 ROS xFIP)
  • Martin Perez, +0.91 (5.49 April xFIP, 4.58 ROS xFIP)
  • Taylor Rogers, +0.87 (4.01 April xFIP, 3.14 ROS xFIP)
  • Ken Giles, +0.76 (3.64 April xFIP, 2.88 ROS xFIP)
  • Lance Lynn, +0.71 (4.79 April xFIP, 4.08 ROS xFIP)
  • Kyle Gibson, +0.63 (4.55 April xFIP, 3.92 ROS xFIP)
  • Justin Verlander, +0.62 (3.96 April xFIP, 3.34 ROS xFIP)
  • Kevin Gausman, +0.61 (4.71 April xFIP, 4.09 ROS xFIP)
  • Max Fried, +0.59 (3.92 April xFIP, 3.32 ROS xFIP)
  • Miles Mikolas, +0.59 (4.40 April xFIP, 3.81 ROS xFIP)

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