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Welcome back to Rotoballer's series using Statcast to extrapolate, dig into, and commiserate over data to examine pitching performances. The weekly series will be dynamic as we fine-tune our findings and enlighten ourselves on the information and tools at our disposal.

One of fantasy baseball's most gut-wrenching feelings is tuning into your pitcher starts only to see them quickly unravel early on. Dylan Bundy and Jacob deGrom are two recent headaches that come to mind. Early-inning blowups dig your ratios in a deep hole and also inflate pitch counts, reducing pitcher longevity and strikeout potential. Studies citing the Elias Sports Bureau noted that from 2000-2009, teams that scored first won around 65% of their games. In other words, when your pitcher implodes the first time around the order, the chances of a win or quality start likely goes in the dumpster.

For Week 7, we'll look at opponent slugging percentage (SLG) in the first three innings for a pitcher and compare it with SLG for the remainder of the outing. Our argument proposes that pitchers with a low SLG early in games should enjoy continued or better fantasy success across a full season. Likewise, if your starters are experiencing major problems with early-inning drama, it might be worth reconsidering their place in your roster. For reference, the median SLG for the first three innings of our qualified pitcher pool is .381. From the fourth inning onwards, the median SLG jumps to .414.

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Early-Inning Cruisers

All stats as of May 15 for 128 qualified pitchers that have thrown over 500 pitches

Justin Verlander, Houston Astros (4-2, 1.21 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 11.61 K/9)

Justin Verlander has been one of the best pitchers in both realms of baseball this season, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that he holds the third-lowest opponent SLG of .191 in the first three innings. Verlander's ability to breeze through a lineup the first time around has allowed him to go six-plus innings and tally quality starts in eight of nine outings. His career best strikeout pace and excellent 5.92 K/BB has resulted in an extraordinary 89.1% LOB%.

What makes Verlander more tough is his SLG climbs to just .302 after the third inning, which is 15th-best in the majors. His velocity this season is stable year-on-year and the pitch values for his three primary pitches all grade very favorably. Despite a depressed .206 BABIP and the aforementioned elevated LOB%, Verlander's 2.24 FIP suggests he's really been that good.

Obviously Verlander is universally owned in fantasy leagues, but he should continue to be viewed as a top-5 pitcher. Jealous owners eager for his services should expect to pay top dollar in the trade market. Verlander owners looking to improve in other categories should demand top-tier assets in return. The SLG data supports Verlander's durability to eat up innings, rack up strikeouts and return elite ratios for the remainder of the season.

Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks (4-1, 2.53 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 11.84 K/9)

Like Verlander, Patrick Corbin has also been exceptional. He's ridden an MLB 11th-best .244 SLG in the first three innings to five quality starts in nine tries. He suffered his first hiccup on May 14 (6 IP, 4 ER), but is still easily on pace for the best season of his six-year career.

Corbin sees modest deterioration in his SLG profile after the third inning, but the .342 clip still puts him firmly in the top third of pitchers. The spike in SLG could explain why he's been pulled before completing six innings three times despite decent headline numbers. The strikeouts and pitch count restrictions could be other reasons. Either way, Corbin's ninth-best 2.72 FIP indicates the disparity between his splits are not alarming.

One anomaly with Corbin is a 39.8% Hard% that contradicts a .238 BABIP. His 16.7% HR/FB is also three points above his normal rates. These could be arguing points for managers looking for a discount on Corbin in trade negotiations. However, Corbin was a late-round steal for keen fantasy drafters in March and has probably returned near-full value. The peripherals support the sustainability of his performance, and it always feels great to play with house money.

Other strong starters: Jacob deGrom (NYM, .183 early-inning SLG), Tyson Ross (SD, .226), Kyle Gibson (MIN, .241)

 

Perilous Starters

Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays (2-3, 5.64 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 8.89 K/9)

No Chris Archer owners need a reminder of his disaster season, but that's just what I'll do. Archer has been a disaster. He's posted only three quality starts and has allowed four earned runs or more five times in nine outings. Unsurprisingly, his .550 early-inning SLG is the 11th-worst mark in baseball.

Archer tends to settle down after three innings, but his .412 SLG is still just league average. While his velocity seems fine and he exhibits good control (2.56 BB/9), he's getting hit early and often. A 41.9% Hard% has resulted in the league's seventh-highest BAA of .278. One theory is that Archer's pitched too frequently in the zone, which has led to his lowest strikeout rate and highest Z-Contact% (84.5%) since 2014.

Archer sympathizers could point to a .331 BABIP, but that figure is in-line with his .325 last season. A 4.30 FIP likely won't have many value/upside trade partners eager to deal. One serious red flag on Archer is a Hard% that's increased every season since 2013, defending the excessive opponent SLG. Unless he goes back to striking out hitters, his batted-ball characteristics and high contact rates imply batters will continue making him pay for mistakes. Archer's intrinsic value has been impaired and fantasy owners should take that into account when assessing him in the marketplace.

Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds (3-4, 6.02 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 8.94 K/9)

There are probably two polar opposite takes on Luis Castillo, the drafters who tore their hair out to his 7.85 ERA in April and the savvy owners that bought low on said ERA and are now reaping the benefits. Objectively, Castillo was horrible in April and has recovered admirably through three May starts. Amidst the frenzy, he's held a .543 early-inning SLG which is 15th-highest in the majors.

In fairness, one April 27 outing magnifies Castillo's early-inning woes (1 IP, 5 ER), but a .449 SLG after the third inning is still bottom-half in the league. Castillo came out blazing last season with a 97.5 MPH average fastball in 15 starts, but that velocity has declined to 95.3 MPH this season. The fastball deceleration has weakened his supporting arsenal and lowered his pitch values across the board. Accordingly, his Hard% (37.9%) and HR/FB (22.2%) have risen sharply in 2018.

Castillo is just 25 years old so the learning curve could persist throughout the season. Owners could conceivably take advantage of his recent success for a steadier rotation arm. Unlike Archer, Castillo's potential is palatable so the trade market could provide room for opportunity. But unless he avoids being pounded early in games, his 4.93 FIP is certainly something fantasy players can do without.

Other poor starters: Kenta Maeda (LAD, .560 early-inning SLG), Chase Anderson (MIL, .500), J.A. Happ (.495)

 

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