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Three Up, Three Down: Pitchers to Buy & Sell

Zack Wheeler - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, MLB Injury nNews

The pitching league leaders are about to cross the 100-inning mark of the year, which means we have accrued quite a bit of data to analyze. We can now have a significant amount of confidence in our data analysis given that we've seen guys on the mound for nearly three full months.

A huge key to winning your fantasy league is knowing when to acquire a starting pitcher and when to deal one away. In this post, we will look at some indicators and give six recommendations on starting pitchers.

When I do analysis like this, I tend to strip off a lot of the new fancy numbers and focus mainly on four things: strikeouts, walks, ground-balls, and home run luck. This is pretty old-school stuff. When you see ERA indicator stats like FIP and xFIP, those numbers are based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Those three statistics are simply, but really powerful. Let's start with our three down, here are three pitchers I would be looking to sell right now.

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Three Down

Kyle Gibson, Texas Rangers

If you had to pick one statistic to judge a pitcher based on to get the best predictions about the future, for me it would be K%-BB%. This is a single number that shows how far apart each pitcher's strikeout and walk rates are. As a general rule, as your K-BB ratio gets bigger (meaning you have way more strikeouts than walks), your box score statistics will improve. Here's how the relationship between this statistic and ERA so far this year (40 inning minimum)

What we see here is a somewhat linear relationship. As K%-BB% is increasing, ERA is generally decreasing. The pitchers that would stand out here would be the ones that fall furthest away from the trend line. Pitchers well below the trend line very well may have their ERA on the positive luck side, and vice versa.

The furthest dot below the line is Kyle Gibson. So far this year, Gibson has a 2.17 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP to go with his 19.3% strikeout rate and a 7.6% walk rate. Those numbers don't seem to make sense together.

To test this a bit further, I consulted data from 2015-2019 to find comparables. I filtered down to only pitchers with this criteria

  1. More than 100 innings thrown
  2. K% between 17% and 22%
  3. BB% between 5% and 9%
  4. GB% between 45% and 55%

Gibson's numbers are all right between these ranges, so it's a pretty comparable group of pitchers. What I find is that no pitcher has been able to post an ERA anywhere near Gibson's 2.17 while checking all those other boxes. The best ERA we find is Mike Soroka in 2019 who had a 2.68 ERA (20.3% K%, 5.8% BB%, 51.2% GB%) over 174.2 innings. Soroka showed elite command that season and benefited from quite a bit of luck as well, and he still could not get anywhere near a 2.09 ERA mark.

When I look at the whole group (79 pitchers), the average ERA is 4.13 and the average WHIP is 1.32. Gibson is smashing both of those numbers.

Now it doesn't take a genius to know that Gibson is overperforming this year. I doubt there are many leagues out there that have a manager that will give up a top twenty starter for Gibson. I do think there are leagues that would give up a solid hitter or a pitcher with much better skills but disappointing numbers thus far.

Sean Manaea, Oakland Athletics

The Athletics' lefty had an outstanding outing last Sunday, striking out 11 Yankees over 5.1 innings in a losing effort against the Yankees. He gave up just three hits and two runs, and for the year he's been very solid with a 3.01 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP to go with a 24.9% strikeout rate.

The advanced numbers on Manaea don't raise any flags, as his FIP sits at 3.08 and his xFIP is at 3.69. We already know that those numbers are heavily dependent on strikeout rate, and that number is the one I don't really believe in.

Manaea is a sinkerballer. He has thrown 826 sinkers this year, making up 59.4% of his arsenal. League-wide, the sinker is the best that generates the least swinging strikes, and it's not particularly close, here's the SwStr% breakdown by pitch type:

Pitch Type SwStr%
Slider 16.3%
Changeup 14.5%
Curveball 12.5%
Cutter 11.9%
Four-Seam 9.5%
Sinker 6.4%

Manaea is outdoing that 6.4% by 3.6 points as his SwStr% on the sinker comes in at 10%. Only Jose Alvarado's sinker beats that number at 10.6%, and Sandy Alcantara is tied with Manaea for second at 10.0%. There is a significant difference between Manaea's sinker and these other two, as both Alcantara and Alvarado average more than 98 miles per hour on their sinker while Manaea comes at 92.

To drive the point home, I looked at every starting pitcher whose most commonly thrown pitch is a sinker this year. The highest overall strikeout rate from this group is Chris Bassitt at 25.9%. Only Lance McCullers Jr. joins Bassitt above 25% there, and the average for this group of pitchers is 20.9%. When we look only at starting pitchers throwing a sinker over 50% of the time (that list is short - it's Manaea, Dane Dunning, Brady Singer, Jake Arrieta, Adrian Houser, and Zach Davies), half of them have strikeout rates under 20% (the second half of that list in the previous sentence).

All of this is to say, Manaea's 25% strikeout rate seems to be a mirage, I don't think it will hang around. Add that to the fact that he's never been outstanding at preventing the home run ball (1.09 career HR/9, which is quite high for a guy that throws this many sinkers), and I think some tough days are ahead for the lefty.

Chris Bassitt, Oakland Athletics

We alluded to Bassitt in the Manaea write-up, as he is another guy who throws a lot of sinkers but still has an above-average strikeout rate. His strikeout rate currently sits at nearly 25.8%, nearly five full points above his career average of 21.2%.

Bassitt does have a more diverse pitch mix than most pitchers, throwing six different pitches more than 5% of the time. 75% of that pitch mix is made up by fastballs of one name or the other, so he has a little bit of Lance Lynn in him. Here's how those three offerings have looked this year by the numbers:

Pitch Share SwStr% CSW%
Sinker 37.3% 4.8% 31%
4-Seam 19.4% 14% 22.1%
Cutter 18.7% 9.6% 26.9%

The sinker is the get-me-over, strike one pitch no doubt. The CSW% and SwStr% disparity is crazy there, with a strong CSW% but a pathetic SwStr%. He locates the pitch well and doesn't get many swings. The four-seamer is the only one there with a strong SwStr%, which is a little bit surprising since it tops out at 95 miles per hour.

Bassitt throws two breaking balls that have been great in limited usage. He's thrown 121 sliders (8.7%) for a 24% SwStr% and 90 curveballs (6.5%) for a 20% SwStr%. Those are elite rates, but both well ahead of what he's done in his career.

This guy is number three here for a reason - he does have a pretty solid resume of preventing runs, and I do believe he will be a useful fantasy pitcher in most leagues moving forward. The recommendation here is to just see if you can convince somebody to give you a very good pitcher for him after they see all the success he's had in the box scores. He has given up more than two earned runs only four times, and two of those came in his first two starts of the year.

He's done an amazing job avoiding the barrel of the bat, and it's just not something I think he can keep up long-term. Anybody you would have taken for Bassitt a month ago, I would go ahead and see if you can make that swap now.


Three Up

Shane McClanahan, Tampa Bay Rays

If you haven't watched this kid pitch, I would recommend it. He consistently reaches triple-digits with his fastball, and the pitch has averaged more than 97 miles per hour this year. He also has a wipe-out slider that has a ridiculous 24.8% swinging-strike rate on 298 pitches this year. He has had absolutely no trouble getting swings-and-misses, not having a single start under an 11% SwStr%:

He has been really impressive this year. His 29% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate are really impressive for a rookie and suggest huge things to come for his future. The reason for his sub-par ERA (4.03) has to do with the long ball, he's given up 1.61 HR/9 this year. That number is bound to plummet soon and fast - as his HR/FB rate of 24.2% is nearly 15 points above the league average. For the year he has a 49% ground-ball rate, so this guy checks all the important boxes.

The biggest thing that was holding him back early on was the pitch count, as is so common to see with the Rays. However, last Sunday he reached a season-high with 86 pitches thrown, going six brilliant innings against the Mariners. It won't surprise me if McClanahan is one of the best pitchers in the league for the rest of the season - go get him now.

Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies

Only four pitchers have strikeout rates above 30%, walk rates below 7%, and ground-ball rates above 45%. Those names are Zack Wheeler, Brandon Woodruff, Joe Musgrove, and Corbin Burnes. When a pitcher is posting a trio of numbers anywhere close to those, they are going to be wildly successful.

I pick Wheeler from this group to recommend trading for because I think he's probably the most attainable of the group. Now, I'm not saying you're going to be able to get Wheeler cheaply, but I do think he's a guy worth buying high on. He has just looked so, so dominant this year and has such a high floor with the sky-high ground-ball rate we're seeing from him.

I would definitely be willing to give up a guy like Max Scherzer who has more injury question marks as we move forward for Wheeler, and I think that's something a lot of people would do given that Wheeler has not been an elite arm in his career.

Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays

This is a guy that I think is probably still very attainable in most leagues, given how frustrating Robbie Ray has been for fantasy managers throughout his career. He has looked like an elite arm in the past only to regress to being a below-average (that's putting it nicely) arm in short order.

The difference this year is clear, it's all about the walk rate. He's thrown 74.2 innings now in 2021 and has posted a 6.5% walk rate, which is four points below his career average of 10.6%. He hasn't had a walk rate below 10% since 2016, so things have really changed for Ray this year. This was clearly by design, as Ray is attacking the zone like crazy this year racking up a 46% zone rate (43% is his career average and that number was below 40% for the previous three years).

He has been reaping the benefits from all the strike-throwing, putting together a 3.50 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP on a 31.5% strikeout rate. He has given up a bunch of home runs (2.05 HR/9), so you can't really see that getting any worse - especially when you consider that they've recently moved their home games away from that bandbox in Dunedin, Florida. I don't think he'll bring that HR/9 down anywhere close to one, but with how few hitters he's walking, the homers aren't hurting him that much as so many of them are solo shots.

Over the last 30 days, Robbie Ray is behind just Wheeler and Lucas Giolito in K%-BB% with a 28.2% differential. As I said before, anybody doing that is bound to have success. I would be buying in on Robbie Ray, and I imagine the Ray owner in your league would be open to a sell-high situation here.

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