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Welcome to our surprising starts series. Every week we’ll be going over a few surprising starting pitcher performances around the majors to determine whether these starts were smoke and mirrors or something more.

This week we'll be going over Sean Newcomb's dominance at Coors Field, and great two-start performances from Reynaldo Lopez and Andrew Triggs.

These starters are definitely worth a look on the waiver wire, but there may need to be more growth before they become lineup mainstays.

Editor's Note: Get a full-season MLB Premium Pass for 50% off today. Ten exclusive In-Season Lineup tools and over 200 days of Premium DFS Research. Sign Up Now!

 

Real Deal or Mirage?

Sean Newcomb, Atlanta Braves

2017 Stats: 100 IP, 4.32 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 9.72 K/9, 5.13 BB/9
04/08 @ Colorado: 6 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K

There were a lot of things to like in Newcomb’s first road start of 2018. He went into Coors Field and dominated the Rockies on Sunday. Newcomb’s nine punchouts came with 15 swinging strikes, and he averaged 94.1 MPH with his four-seamer, a full MPH faster than it was in his first start. What’s most encouraging is zero walks allowed. Poor control has long hindered Newcomb’s success, but Sunday’s start was the first career zero-walk start for Newcomb in the majors. There has never been a question of talent or stuff with Newcomb, but control has been the missing piece at every level.

Newcomb’s tendency to mislocate pitches not only caused him to walk batters, but it led to more batter-friendly pitches and an inordinate amount of hits against him. Although Newcomb’s .327 BABIP against was above average, he has consistently had a BABIP above .300 in the minors. Newcomb’s biggest problem was locating his changeup. The changeup had a 22.91% whiff rate last season, but batters also hit .400 with a .486 BABIP against the pitch. When Newcomb keeps it down it fools hitters, but when it gets left up in the zone the changeup gets crushed. In changeups below the strike zone, Newcomb has a 31% whiff rate, but when it rises in the zone or just outside, batters hit over .600 against it. If we compare his changeup heatmaps from 2017 (left) to 2018 (right) we see that Newcomb has done a much better job of keeping the pitch down in his first two starts.

This is the improvement that Newcomb needed to make to take a step forward, and it would be great to see him maintain this command. Even with improved command, there are still a few things in these first two starts that cause skepticism that Newcomb is ready to be a reliable fantasy starter.

So far in 2018 Newcomb has thrown 45 curveballs and has only gotten three swinging strikes with the pitch. He also used his curveball only 13.4% of the time in his start against the Rockies, and Newcomb’s curveball has been touted as his best pitch as a prospect. High altitude negatively affects curveball movement, so Newcomb may not have been comfortable using the pitch at Coors Field. Still, it’s a little suspicious that he was able to be this dominant on a diet of fastballs and changeups. Newcomb got nine whiffs with his fastball this start, doubling his whiff rate on the four-seamer from a year ago. While Newcomb has a good four-seamer, getting this many whiffs does not seem sustainable over the course of the season. It was likely the product of a Colorado lineup that featured three lefties and was without Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez. Six of those nine whiffs came against left-handed batters. Newcomb had a 3.57 FIP against lefties last season, but a 4.21 FIP against righties.

Verdict:

Command gains and swinging strike rate are certainly encouraging, but Newcomb does not seem on the verge of a breakout quite yet. Putting up zeroes in Coors is always impressive, but he faced a couple members of Colorado’s B-squad on Sunday. Newcomb is definitely worth adding, but he’s not an every game start yet. He should be especially effective against lefty-heavy lineups.

 

Reynaldo Lopez, Chicago White Sox

2017 Stats: 47.2 IP, 4.72 ERA, 4.75 FIP, 5.66 K/9, 2.64 BB/9
4/2 @ TOR 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
4/8 vs. DET 7 IP, 2 H, 0 ER (1 unearned run), 5 BB, 5 K

Once a highly regarded pitching prospect, Lopez struggled in the majors between 2016-17 with a 4.81 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 5.16 xFIP. He had a two-start week last week, and came up big in both outings with only one earned run allowed over 13 innings. Lopez did a lot of encouraging things in both of these starts. Against Toronto, he hit triple digits with his fastball, and against Detroit he showcased his new slider big-time to get some whiffs. Lopez has a 13.1% swinging strike rate through these starts, and has secured 25 whiffs between both games.

In the first start against Toronto, Lopez used a mix between his four-seamer, changeup, and slider to include thirteen swings-and-misses. He also averaged 97.3 MPH with his fastball, which is a great sign since his velocity dipped down to 94.5 MPH last season. This velocity helps set up his changeup, which had four swinging strikes on 18 pitches during this start. Lopez’s average velocity dropped to 95.1 MPH in his second start, but that start came during a 36-degree Chicago afternoon. His the first one was inside a domed ballpark. Lopez came out throwing 97-98 MPH against Detroit in the first inning, but his velocity dipped as the game progressed.

Another interesting note about Lopez’s second start is the absence of the changeup. He threw just one changeup all game, and it was smoked by Leonys Martin for a single into right field. Perhaps Lopez didn’t have a feel for the pitch, or didn’t trust it given the weather or lack of fastball velocity. He shut down the Tigers using essentially just his fastball and slider.  Since the slider is something Lopez had been tinkering with during the spring and hadn’t used it in past seasons it was nice to see him trust it so extensively during this start. The five walks were concerning, but Lopez never had big command issues in the minors. Let’s have a look at the strike zone plot to see how wild he was.

It seems like he was all over the place, but Lopez didn’t walk anyone through the first three innings. He started to get a little wild as the game progressed and did himself no favors with a 27-pitch, 12-ball inning in the fourth. He gets a pass for this start, but if this continues then Lopez could be in trouble.

Verdict:

Lopez’s introduction of the slider has given him a better breaking ball than the curveball he used to feature when he first came up. His arsenal now features a high velocity heater along with a plus off-speed pitch and breaking ball. When all three are working for him he should perform well, and he got the job done without the changeup on Sunday. He has been quite fortunate in these two first starts, with a .108 BABIP against and a 93.8% strand rate. Neither of those will be close to sustainable over the season. Lopez shouldn’t be trusted in every matchup yet, but he’s worth using in positive and neutral matchups.

 

Andrew Triggs, Oakland Athletics

2017 Stats: 65.1 IP, 4.27 ERA, 4.47 FIP, 6.89 K/9, 2.62 BB/9
4/2 vs. TEX: 5 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 7 K
4/7 @ LAA: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K

Like Reynaldo Lopez, Andrew Triggs also made two starts this week and was great in both of them. Triggs has averaged nearly 11 K/9 through his first two starts, and has been getting hitters to whiff consistently with his breaking pitches. As a 29-year-old Baltimore castoff with a career 4.15 ERA Triggs may not seem like much, but there is a lot to like in his profile. His 2017 numbers were also influenced by a hip/back injury that ended his season in June. Pitching through injury Triggs saw his below-average velocity decline, and he surrendered 14 runs in 7.1 innings in his final two starts. If we subtracted those two starts from his overall numbers he would have had a 2.64 ERA and 3.54 FIP in 58 innings while fully healthy. Of course, those numbers can’t be totally wiped from the slate, but this exercise provides more context to his pedestrian 2017 stats.

Triggs’s most effective pitch through his first two starts has been his curveball. Batters have mustered only a lone single against the pitch and have whiffed 21.13% of the time. Between Triggs’ two starts the one against Texas was especially impressive. Of his eleven swinging strikes, ten of them were outside of the strike zone. That is the hallmark of an effective curveball that can rack up strikeouts. Whiffs have been down on his slider, with only an 8.93% swinging strike rate, but he’s more than made up for it with his curveball. Triggs has more strikeout potential than his 20.9% strikeout rate suggests.

Triggs is an interesting player for a couple reasons. He has a sidearm delivery, but despite this low arm slot his grip is closer to that of an overhanded delivery. That has helped him maintain even platoon splits during his short career. He has two breaking pitches that can notch strikeouts. Last season Triggs had double digit whiff rates on both his slider and curveball, and had a 10.4% swinging strike rate overall despite a below average 6.89 K/9. Triggs also throws a 90 MPH that can most generously be described as deceptive, but he does manage to get groundballs with it. For his career Triggs has a 59.8% groundball rate with his sinker. This sinker-curveball combo makes Triggs look a poor man’s Zack Godley. Godley’s stuff is simply better, but Triggs could find success the same way Godley did last season to a lesser degree.

Verdict:

Triggs has the stuff to get strikeouts, and can keep the ball on the ground. He gets little recognition since he has zero pedigree and plays for a small team, which explains his 10% ownership rate in Yahoo! (as of 4/9). Out of the three pitchers analyzed in this article Triggs is the one to prioritize in redraft leagues. He won’t maintain a 2.53 ERA or 10.97 K/9 all season, but he’s worth using in all but the toughest of matchups.

 

More Weekly Lineup Prep