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Starting Pitcher Stuff+ Improvers for Fantasy Baseball (2024)

Graham Ashcraft - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, Waiver Wire Pickups

At this time of year when fantasy baseball managers are preparing for drafts, it's wise to look at trends to see which players might be heading in a positive direction and which ones are on a downward path so that strategies are properly adjusted for these signals. If a player is on an upward trend but the ADP hasn't caught up, astute managers may scoop a player up earlier than expected. On the flip side, if a player is headed in the wrong direction, then managers would be keen to wait before drafting or steer clear altogether.

At RotoBaller, there are numerous rankings articles for managers to peruse over in order to assist in developing a draft plan, while other articles look specifically at metrics and trends. This is one such article. Some look at Pull%, for example, while others look at K-BB% as another example.

If you've never heard of Stuff+ or you're wondering why we're looking at this particular metric, check out one of our articles from last season that talks about this and other related metrics in detail. In short, Stuff+ and related metrics, like Location+ and Pitching+, take the batter out of the equation and look simply at the pitcher's skill. Also, it looks at each individual pitch thrown, so there are loads of data points to rely on here. Below are the pitchers with the biggest changes in Stuff+ between '22 and '23, as well as first half '23 and second half '23:

 

Biggest Starting Pitcher "Stuff" Improvers: Year-Over-Year

First, we will look at those starting pitchers that had the biggest increase in Stuff+ from year to year between 2022 and 2023 with a minimum of 50 IP. While the table above shows the top 10, we're not going to touch on them all here, just some of the more notable ones. If you didn't get a chance to read the article I linked earlier, at least know that a score of 100 is average. So without further ado, the first pitcher we'll cover is...

Graham Ashcraft, Cincinnati Reds

GS 2022 Stuff+ 2023 Stuff+ Diff
26 109 128 +19

Even though he was never a highly rated prospect, Graham Ashcraft's first two seasons in the bigs have left much to be desired, but to see his name pop up on a list like this is encouraging. Below are some stats from the last two years and while many of them don't look great despite the improvement in Stuff+, they're heading in the right direction. ERA, WHIP, and Contact% went down while K/9, K%, and SwStr% went up.

His 109 Stuff+ in 2022 was nine points better than average, but his 128 Stuff+ in 2023 ranked FIRST. Not first in the NL, first in all of baseball. So how are the numbers in the table above not very good? For one, it seems he struggles with command, as his 2023 Location+ was below average (99), and his HR/FB% was an awful 16.7%. Also, much of his Stuff+ appears to be buoyed by his slider, which ranked second-best (166) out of all the starters analyzed.

The former sixth-round pick relies on a three pitch mix, the other two being a cutter and a sinker. While the cutter is good (116), his sinker is second-to-last (57), although he uses the sinker just 10% of the time. So he basically has just two effective pitches, and major league hitters can simply sit on one or the other.

Is he someone you're drafting, though? Not likely with such a high ERA, FIP, WHIP, and more, combined with his low strikeout numbers. But as I mentioned, many of those stats are heading in the right direction and he's tweaking his arsenal, not standing pat. For example, he eliminated his sparsely-used changeup in 2023, increased the velocity of his slider 2.5 mph, and added almost three inches of horizontal break to it from '22 to '23.

Pitching in HR-friendly Great American Ball Park surely doesn't help his numbers, but the righty could be someone to keep an eye on when the season begins. He finished 2023 strong before having foot surgery (he'll be ready for the start of camp), posting a 2.58 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, .228 wOBA, and 59:22 K:BB over his final 12 starts (76 2/3 IP).

Location+ (+/- ): 99 (-1)
Pitching+ (+/-): 103 (-1)
Verdict: Still out
Outlook: Neutral (big improvements not expected in '24)

 

Kyle Bradish*, Baltimore Orioles

(*injured -- ETA early half 2024)

GS 2022 Stuff+ 2023 Stuff+ Diff
30 108 126 +18

Like the aforementioned Ashcraft, Kyle Bradish also has just two MLB seasons under his belt, and like Ashcraft, he too had poor numbers in 2022. But talk about heading in the right direction -- his year-over-year improvements were substantial.

Bradish's numbers put him in contention for the AL Cy Young last season, finishing fourth in the voting. Remember how we said that Ashcraft had the second-ranked slider in terms of Stuff+? Well, that's because Bradish's is even better. It ranks first out of all pitchers analyzed (171).

The former fourth-round pick's overall Stuff+ scored 126, which ranked third-best on the season. On top of that, he's got a five-pitch mix, of which his curveball ranks eighth-best (135) and the righty has multiple effective pitches (three of them over 100) with the worst of the bunch scoring no lower than 88.

Bradish has some additional things going for him. He induces a few more groundballs than a pitcher like Ashcraft (~47% vs. ~49%), his Location+ scored 103 (no pitcher scored better than 110), he reduced his BB% from 9.0% to 6.6%, and while his SwStr% was just average (~11%), his K% went from 21.8% to 25.0%. Notably helping to keep the ERA in check, his HR/FB% went from 14.9% to 10.2%.

Based on his Stuff+ numbers, it's reasonable to assume his slider will still be nasty in 2024, and assuming the other pitches don't fall off dramatically, Bradish should put up another quality season in this year. However, based on his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA being quite a bit higher than his ERA, somewhat of a regression should probably be expected.

One last note though -- his BABIP was just .270, which was much lower than his 2022 number of .311, so it doesn't seem he was all that lucky on his way to the superb ERA.

Bradish was expected to be a key cog in the Baltimore rotation after last season's breakout, but a UCL sprain has put his encore performance on hold. The O's and fantasy managers alike received a dose of good news on March 22 from Orioles GM Mike Elias when he stated that the 27-year-old could be back in the early half of 2024. The absence no longer makes him worthy of a top-100 pick, however, if your risk appetite warrants, he should be a fine flier at the end of drafts around pick 250+.

Location+ (+/- ): 103 (+5)
Pitching+ (+/-): 105 (+4)
Verdict: For real
Outlook: Positive (albeit with some regression)

 

Nick Pivetta, Boston Red Sox

GS 2022 Stuff+ 2023 Stuff+ Diff
16 107 118 +11

I highlighted Nick Pivetta in another article because he was also one of the pitchers who had the biggest year-over-year increases in K-BB%. The common theme with Pivetta, Ashcraft, and Bradish though is that they all had better than average Stuff+ (100+) in 2022, yet their numbers weren't great in 2022. This is why you can't use Stuff+ in a vacuum, but rather as a piece of the puzzle in identifying trends.

You may also notice that Pivetta had just 16 starts in 2023. The reason for that is because he was moved to the bullpen in May after being ineffective for the first half of the season. But after getting some advice from fellow reliever Chris Martin, Pivetta adjusted his approach and the break of his slider, which led to much-improved results.

He was then slotted back into the rotation on September 6, ending the season with three straight Quality Starts without allowing a single run in the final two games (14 IP).

While Pivetta didn't make the 1H vs. 2H list, you can see by the numbers that he was much more effective in the second half. The former fourth-round pick has always had a strong strikeout profile but has struggled with command (career 25.5% K%, 9.0% BB%). Pivetta had a 4.3% BB% over his final five starts, which is highly unlikely to stick for all of 2024, but it’s possible he will not regress to his career 9.0% BB%.

His strong SwStr% of 13.1% in 2023 put him right behind the likes of Zack Wheeler and Max Scherzer, while his Contact% of 73.3% was better than both. If Pivetta can ride the momentum of his end-of-season success into 2024, then he could end up being a value in drafts at his current March ADP (167).

Location+ (+/- ): 101 (+3)
Pitching+ (+/-): 106 (+5)
Verdict: For real
Outlook: Positive (look for numbers closer to 2023 rather than 2022)

 

George Kirby, Seattle Mariners

GS 2022 Stuff+ 2023 Stuff+ Diff
30 97 106 +9

George Kirby earned Rookie of the Year votes in 2022, earned Cy Young votes in 2023, and was an All-Star in 2023. Not to beat a dead horse, but George Kirby had worse Stuff+ in 2022 than the first three pitchers we've talked about, yet had better overall numbers, so again don't look at these numbers in a vacuum.

The missing puzzle piece here is Kirby's Location+ score. It was 110 in 2023, which ranked first out of all starting pitchers analyzed. Pitching+, which takes into account both Stuff+ and Location+, was scored at 109, putting the former first-round pick in the top five of all pitchers analyzed.

So maybe Kirby's stuff isn't as electric as other pitchers, but it's very good and he can locate his pitches better than most, which is his key to success. When it comes to pitching, just ask Greg Maddux if electric stuff or location is more important.

Speaking to his ability to locate, he doesn't miss much either. He's got an elite BB% of 2.5%, which was the best in all of baseball for starting pitchers with at least 100 IP, and almost a full percentage point better than second-best (Zach Eflin, 3.4%).

Going around pick 41, it's probably hard to squeeze value out of him for fantasy purposes, but he's a rock solid SP to anchor any manager's rotation.

Location+ (+/- ): 110 (+3)
Pitching+ (+/-): 109 (+3)
Verdict: For real
Outlook: Positive (by all accounts he looks like a Cy Young contender... again)

 

Biggest Pitcher "Stuff" Improvers: 1st vs. 2nd Half

Corbin Burnes, Baltimore Orioles

GS '23 1H Stuff+ '23 2H Stuff+ Diff
32 119 137 +18

If you follow baseball at all, you don't need me or this data to tell you that Corbin Burnes is good. Really good. However, with a stud like Burnes, you're not really trying to determine if he's a value, but rather maybe you're trying to decide between him and another pitcher such as Kevin Gausman, who has a similar ADP. So you need to start splitting hairs to figure out who to draft.

Burnes' stuff was good in the first half, but his numbers (table above) didn't really bear that out. In the second half, however, his Stuff+ of 137 was the best out of all starting pitchers analyzed, and his numbers looked much better. Gausman, on the other hand, had the worst drop of all starting pitchers from first half to second half (111 down to 96 (-15)), and you can see it in his numbers (table below).

There are many other stats you can look at, but if you've done your research and you're trying to decide between the two, I'd rather take the pitcher with the momentum (Burnes) rather than the one who faded a bit down the stretch (Gausman).

2H Location+ (+/- ): 103 (+2)
2H Pitching+ (+/-): 109 (+5)
Verdict: For real
Outlook: Positive (no surprise here, he'll be good again in '24)

 

Cristian Javier, Houston Astros

GS '23 1H Stuff+ '23 2H Stuff+ Diff
31 97 107 +10

This exercise might be best for a pitcher like Cristian Javier, where you don't have a ton of history to go off of, but you do have a stellar season in 2022. If you're looking for a glimmer of hope that he'll return to that form in 2024, then perhaps this is it (or at least a piece of it).

Javier was highlighted in my K-BB% Fallers article, as his K% dropped 10% from 2022 to 2023 while his BB% didn't change. But if you look at 1H '23 versus 2H '23 instead, that was not the case. His K% actually increased from 21.5% to 25.2%, but his BB% exploded from 6.6% to 12.1%. Coinciding with this, his Stuff+ scored better, but his Location+ took a step back (-3).

Javier relies heavily on just two pitches, a four-seamer and a slider, and if one or both are ineffective, it's very problematic (similar to Ashcraft above, a hitter will sit on one pitch or the other).

Checking in on Baseball Savant, we can see velocity and spin were down on his four-seamer, which makes his "rising" fastball more hittable because it doesn't rise as much. But hard-hit% on the slider went from 22.6% in 2022 to 33.7% in 2023, so that pitch became problematic, too.

It seems Javier has some work to do this offseason in order to figure out how to get back to form. He's going plenty late (pick 175), so if he can figure things out, he could be a value. If he doesn't, you're not investing too much in him anyway.

2H Location+ (+/- ): 96 (-3)
2H Pitching+ (+/-): 99 (-1)
Verdict: Not real

Outlook: Negative (he made all the adjustments he needed to in the second half based on arm slot, velocity, vertical "rise", etc., yet still struggled; he may not be able to get additional spin without a foreign substance, so perhaps 2022 was his peak, although not to say he couldn't end up somewhere in between as a 2022/23 version of himself)

 

Braxton Garrett, Miami Marlins

GS '23 1H Stuff+ '23 2H Stuff+ Diff
30 87 97 +10

If you look at Garrett's second half numbers, they look pretty similar to his first half numbers. Both halves looked okay, but he likely didn't see the increase in Stuff+ reflected in his second half numbers because, like Javier, his Location+ took a step back in the second half (-5). For a young pitcher who had his first season with over 100 IP, it was encouraging to see that he was able to keep his ERA/xFIP under 4.00 for the entire season, reinforcing the solid results he was able to post in 2022.

He did this at a time when the Marlins needed him, while competing for a postseason berth and while other pitchers on the team were struggling. These are the type of results I would be looking for when trying to uncover a value in a draft. Currently going around pick 191, he should be just that at that price.

Location+ (+/- ): 98 (-5)
Pitching+ (+/-): 95 (-3)
Verdict: For real
Outlook: Positive (he's got a phenomenal BB% over the last two seasons which should help limit damage, and if he can bring down the 15.2% HR/FB% from 2023 while maintaining solid career K% of 23.3%, then there could be an improvement to ERA and other stats)

 

Conclusion

As we touched on earlier, use this article, not as an end-all-be-all, but to assist in research. Don't go out and draft Graham Ashcraft just because his Stuff+ improved because maybe his K-BB% or HR/FB% still isn't good, so he's not going to help you in fantasy.

But when you see someone pop up on multiple reports, like a Nick Pivetta, then determine that there was a change made (approach, pitch mix, etc.), and then you see a strong finish, there may be something to it. It reinforces the trend. Then hopefully you find values or make a smarter choice and have a better draft than the next manager.



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