Are You For Real? Week 4 Sinker Standouts

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In fantasy baseball, owners can often spend weeks or months preparing for the draft. We'll pour over websites and lists and spreadsheets and forums and magazines for hours upon hours to ensure we make the right choices. But once draft day comes and goes, what’s next?

As the saying goes, you can’t win your league during the draft. The moves owners make during the season are the ones that will dictate who wins. The art to winning in fantasy baseball is being able to determine who should be added to a roster and who should be bypassed. In order to do that, an owner needs to be able to tell if someone is for real or not.

This weekly column will focus on starting pitchers who have recently thrown their hats into the ring for consideration. These pitchers will be available in many leagues, and we’ll dig a little deeper to determine whether you should be picking these guys up or leaving them be. In Week 4 we present...

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A Tale of Two Sinkers

Zach Eflin, Philadelphia Phillies

2016 Stats: 63.1 IP, 5.54 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 31 K (4.41 K/9), 17 BB (2.42 BB/9)

April 29, 2017 at Los Angeles (NL): 7.0 IP, 2.57 ERA, 0.57 WHIP, 4 K (5.14 K/9), 0 BB (0.00 BB/9)

After five different Philadelphia starters go their first taste of MLB action in 2015, Zach Eflin was one of two more who were given their first chance in 2016. The rebuilding Phillies have been running anyone with promise out there to get a chance, and Eflin fit the bill as a young prospect with some upside. In support of his call-up in 2016, Eflin carried a 2.90 ERA and 0.88 WHIP at Triple-A. As a sinker pitcher, he relied more on drawing weak contact that strikeouts, but he had seen his strikeout rise from 4.65 K/9 in Double-A to 7.24 K/9 in Triple-A. If he could carry this kind of growth into the majors and combine it with an effective sinker, there could be real potential there. Unfortunately, that did not occur. Instead, Eflin struck out only 4.41 batters per nine innings in 11 starts in the bigs, and he was battered to the tune of a 5.54 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. 2017 would have to be a year of redemption for the 23-year-old.

And 2017 has been just that, so far. Through his first three starts of the season, Eflin has a gorgeous 1.89 ERA and 0.68 WHIP that is leading many fantasy owners to question whether Eflin’s making the jump. He’s drawing 8% more grounders than last year, his walk rate’s a basement-dwelling 1.42 BB/9, and he’s relying on his sinker more than ever before.

On the 29th of April, Eflin drew an assignment against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. He had a very solid outing of seven innings, surrendering just two earned runs on two solo home runs. He didn’t walk anyone and struck out four in the process. In this case, he didn’t get the win, but he earned it. He was just let down by his bullpen. His plan for the game followed his plan for the season. Throw the sinker. A lot. Against the Dodgers, threw 103 pitches, and 58 of those were sinkers. That means 56.31% of his pitches for the game were sinkers. On the season, 48.73% of the pitches he’s thrown have been sinkers. Eflin’s making no secret of the fact that he is entirely relying on his sinker.

Eflin has always been a sinker-ball pitcher. He has a fastball that averages 92.4 MPH, and he can mix in a change-up or a curve, but his sinker has always been his bread and butter. Like most sinker pitchers, he’s had poor strikeout numbers throughout his career. As previously mentioned, last year’s Triple-A numbers gave hope of an improvement in that area, but that’s proven to be the outlier, not the new standard. His K/9 has risen this season, but just to 5.21. That said, a sinker’s glory usually lies in the number of ground balls they can draw. This is often even advertised, such as when numerous beat writers lauded Eflin’s 47% minor-league ground-ball rate as a sign of how good he was at drawing these easy outs. While 47% is nothing to sniff at, the major league average ground-ball rate for pitchers is 44.4% in 2017. That extra 2.6% isn’t huge, and when combined with extremely low strikeout numbers, that spells possible trouble. And trouble is brewing for Eflin.

To say Eflin’s current ERA is unsustainable isn’t really making the situation clear enough. Eflin has been unbelievably lucky so far this season. He’s combined all the strongest indicators of good fortune imaginable. His K/9 is the 11th worst in the league amongst pitchers who have thrown 15 or more innings in 2017. His BABIP of .132 is the second lowest in the league. Only six pitchers have stranded runners at a higher rate. And to top it all off, even though he’s a sinker pitcher who should survive by drawing ground balls, his ground-ball rate is only 44.6%, 0.2% better than the average pitcher. All of those things point to a change coming.

Verdict

Zach Eflin is really a bad pitcher with a sinker that can help hide his flaws for some short windows. He doesn’t strike out many batters, he doesn’t really draw that many ground balls, and he’s been extremely fortunate up to this point. A correction will come soon for Eflin, and owners won’t want to have him on their team when it happens.

 

Charlie Morton, Houston Astros

2015 Stats (Injured for most of 2016): 129.0 IP, 4.81 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 96 K (6.70 K/9), 41 BB (2.86 BB/9)

April 28, 2017 vs. Oakland: 7.0 IP, 5.14 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 12 K (15.43 K/9), 0 BB (0.00 BB/9)

Charlie Morton is no spring chicken. At 33-years-old, Morton has bounced around the majors for nearly a decade, mostly with middling levels of success. Carrying a 4.53 career ERA and 1.44 career WHIP, Morton has all the hallmarks of someone who should probably be avoided. However, there have also been flashes of greatness lurking just under the surface. Amongst pitchers who have thrown 800+ innings since he entered the league, Morton has the fifth best ground-ball rate. He’s received praise from scouts and analysts around the country as having one of the best sinkers in baseball, and he’s gradually begun to strike out more guys than ever. Prior to 2014, Morton had never struck out more than 6.67 batters per nine innings. That number bounced up to 7.21 K/9 in 2014, and it jumped all the way up to 9.87 for his short 4-start stint in Philly in 2016. It’s shot all the way up to 9.96 K/9 so far in 2017, and that’s starting to get into elite territory. This journeyman may have some promise yet.

On April 28th, Morton hosted the Athletics in Houston. The game was a command performance from Morton, even if the line doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that impression. Morton got the win after going seven innings and striking out 12. He allowed four earned runs, all from the bat of Khris Davis in the form of long balls, but he was great otherwise. He only surrendered three other hits on the day, and he didn’t walk anyone though he did hit two batsmen. Of the nine balls that were put in play but stayed in the yard, seven of them were on the ground.

Overall, that game against Oakland personifies Morton. The 12 strikeouts show the kind of talent Morton has, and it shows that he’s capable of better numbers, such as his 3.49 FIP compared to his 4.50 ERA. Meanwhile, the fact that he gave up two home runs and carries an above-average HR/FB rate shows that he seems to be snakebit in some ways. Both the pitches Davis hit into the stands were good pitches that were low and outside in the zone, they were simply good swings.

Verdict

Charlie Morton is the real deal, but it’s not entirely clear if he can ever be anything more than a back-end version of the real deal. Morton’s new strikeout ability has the potential to be a game-changer for him, especially if he can keep his walk rate low (2.57 BB/9 in 2017 versus 3.37 BB/9 in his career). His sinker is what guys like Zach Eflin strive to throw, and he can actually bring an elite ground-ball rate to the table, though it’s only hovering around 50% so far this season as opposed to his career average of 55.3%. He may never be able to deliver the elite ERA and WHIP of an ace, but 33-year-old Morton has way more potential to be a positive influence on a fantasy staff than many younger and more widely owned candidates.

 

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