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The Biggest Starting Pitcher Risers for Fantasy Baseball: K-BB%

Tarik Skubal - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, Waiver Wire Pickups

How can you uncover a potential hidden gem late in a draft or determine which players warrant drafting them ahead of their ADP? You analyze the data, of course. OR, you let us do that for you! In this article, we'll look at pitchers that had the most dramatic increases in K-BB% from 2022 to 2023.

If you're unsure why we're using K-BB%, then read this article. It will explain everything in clear and simple terms.

Note that for this exercise, only starting pitchers with a minimum of 50 innings pitched were used as the universe of players analyzed.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball waiver wire pickups and weekly lineup resources:

 

Biggest Year-Over-Year K-BB% Risers

Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers, +10.6%

Early on in his young career, Tarik Skubal was striking out plenty of batters (27.6%), but the amount of free passes he was handing out was too high (8.2%). As you can see in the chart below, the former ninth-round pick has been able to lower his BB% each year since his debut, from a peak of 8.2% to last year's career low of 4.5%. His K% had actually drifted downward until last year when the lefty was able to push it all the way up to 32.9%.

This culminated in a +10.6% year-over-year change in K-BB%, the biggest increase for a starting pitcher from 2022 to 2023. You can also see that he was able to dramatically decrease his HR/9 rate, which in concert with the change in K-BB%, led to career lows in ERA, WHIP, AVG, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Maybe RotoBaller's Connelly Doan is on to something when he mentions him as a potential Cy Young contender in 2024.

Skubal also pitches in the AL Central, which produced the least amount of runs scored in 2023, and he'll more than likely face the Minnesota Twins multiple times. The Twins led the entire MLB in strikeouts in 2023. All of this is likely why his NFBC ADP has pushed higher, all the way to 54, while RotoBaller has him ranked at 68.

Nick Pivetta, Boston Red Sox, +9.5%

It's hard to say if Nick Pivetta's increase in K-BB% is something that points to a successful 2024 campaign. He'll head into the 2024 season at age 31, and his mediocre ERA of 4.04 last season was a career low. Prior to 2023, his best ERA finish was 4.53 (2021) and his xFIP was lower than 4.00 just once in those six prior seasons (3.42 in 2018). Despite these numbers, he's always had a decent strikeout profile, with a K% of 21.1% or higher before last season and a career-best 31.2% in 2023.

After a rough start to the season, Pivetta was removed from the rotation in May and began working out of the bullpen until he was penciled in for a start on July 31. That day, he threw 7.1 innings while striking out 10 and walking none. His six innings of long relief against the A's two weeks prior may have been a precursor of things to come when he struck out 13 and walked just two.

Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks? He credits fellow reliever and veteran Chris Martin for his turnaround. Martin told Pivetta to be more aggressive by going after hitters more and not shying away from staying in the strike zone. In looking at Baseball Savant, it appears he also reduced the amount of vertical break on his slider and added more horizontal break from 2022 to 2023, while increasing the velocity of both his curveball and slider by around 2.0 mph.

These were Pivetta's last four starts of 2023. He had a BB:K of 3:33 and in the final two starts, he didn't even allow a single run. If Pivetta can replicate his end-of-season approach from 2023, then he could easily outperform his NFBC ADP of 190 in 2024. RotoBaller currently has him ranked similarly at 193.

Adrian Houser, New York Mets, +8.1%

Like Nick Pivetta above, Adrian Houser will head into the 2024 season at age 31. Unlike Pivetta, he's never had a strong strikeout profile. Outside of 2019 when he had a 25.3% K%, he's had below-average strikeout rates. Part of the reason that he shows up on this list is actually due to the fact he was so bad at striking batters out in 2022. His K% was 15.2% in 2022, which is considered "poor", according to FanGraphs. He increased it to 20.0% in 2023, which is still just "average", according to FanGraphs.

Prior to 2023, his BB% by season was graded as "below average" or worse. By lowering his BB% to 7.1% in 2023, he got the rate to slightly "above average." In summary, increasing his K% from poor to average and bettering his BB% from below average to slightly above average fueled his +8.1% change in K-BB%. This is the long way of saying "there's nothing to see here." Maybe keep an eye on him as he could probably be useful as a streaming option, but he isn't being drafted, nor should he.

Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates, +7.4%

Mitch Keller is an intriguing one. He was a highly-ranked prospect but hasn't quite put it together in the big leagues. The former second-round pick had a promising debut in 2019, posting an xFIP of 3.47, with a K% of 28.6% and BB% of 7% (21.6% K-BB%) in 11 starts. He walked more batters than he struck out in his five 2020 starts, and his 9.1% K-BB% in 2021 across 23 starts didn't leave much optimism for the future. During those first three seasons, he deployed the same pitch mix: four-seamer, cutter, curveball, and changeup.

In 2022, Keller knew he needed to change something, so he added a sweeper, slider, and sinker while eliminating the cutter. Despite not throwing the sinker before 2022, it quickly became an effective pitch for him and so did the sweeper. The results showed marked improvement:

Every one of those stats from WHIP over to BB% got better from '21 to '22 and even better from '22 to '23. Perhaps the improvements from '22 to '23 were his adjustments in pitch mix again. He eliminated the use of the slider but added back in the cutter, and reduced his usage on the four-seamer from a high of around 56% just a couple of years prior down to 26.1% in '23. He also cut back on his curveball and changeup usage to make room for the cutter usage (24.2%).

The results show that what the 2023 All-Star and the Pirates pitching coaches are implementing is working. With a 25.5% K% ("great" per FanGraphs) and a 6.7% BB% ("above average"), this +7.4% change in K-BB% from '22 to '23 looks to be for real. The trends are going in the right direction, although note that the righty did struggle in other areas in the second half last year, specifically with giving up the long ball, which was possibly due to arm fatigue.

Assuming the arm can handle the innings load this season, with an NFBC ADP of 164, Keller looks like a value. With a ranking of 142 at RotoBaller, 22 spots ahead of his ADP, the rankings agree with that assessment.

Joe Ryan, Minnesota Twins, +7.1%

The last one we'll touch on is the Twins' Joe Ryan. While he's 27 years old, just like Skubal and Keller, he's got less of a track record to go off of. That's because the former seventh-round pick didn't make his MLB debut until 2021 at the age of 25. In those five starts in '21 though, he was superb, with an xFIP of 3.73, 0.79 WHIP, .168 OBA, 30.0% K%, and 5.0% BB% (25% K-BB%).

He had a good season in 2022, going 13-8 with a 3.55 ERA (4.35 xFIP) and 1.10 WHIP, but the righty was unable to keep up with the "excellent" 5.0% BB% he had in 2021, posting a 7.0% BB% while the K% dipped to 25%, resulting in a 17.2% K-BB%. But in 2023, he proved that the strikeout and walk numbers he posted in his debut season were no fluke. The K% got back to 29.3% and he dropped his BB% all the way back down to 5.1%, leading to a K-BB% of 24.3% and a year-over-year change of +7.1%.

Can things like this be forecasted though? Did anyone see this coming? Well, two players of note were mentioned in a RotoBaller article last year which examined the biggest changes in Stuff+. One was NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and another was Joe Ryan.

Keep an eye out for an updated version of that article in the coming weeks as you'll likely uncover a hidden gem or two. Move Joe Ryan up your draft boards in the meantime, as he's ranked 86 at RotoBaller but has an NFBC ADP of 95, so we expect him to outperform.



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