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Return to Form: Veteran Pitchers to Believe In

We're always told that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes I think we're selling old dogs short. With increased age brings wisdom and the know-how to attack life's problems in new ways. Nowhere is that likely more the case than with MLB pitchers.

Often young pitchers are prone to relying simply on their raw stuff. If they throw hard, they'll attack you with heat; if you have a vicious slider, they'll keep daring you to hit it. However, as pitchers get older, many of them learn how to pitch. They may change their pitch mix or their pitch sequencing, but they can find a new level of performance as they evolve, mixing talent with experience.

So far in 2021, a few old dogs have shown a new level of skill. Yet, many of them are still left on the waiver wire or cast aside in favor of the fresh, young arm as we all dream on that mythical "upside." Sometimes it's not the sexy picks that win your league but the consistent ones, so I took a look at some veteran pitchers that have had strong starts to the season to see if there is anything legitimate behind the performance. Hopefully, we'll be able to find some underrated "old dogs" that can take us to the promised land.

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Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals

Veteran Danny Duffy is off to a strong start to 2021, notching a 0.50 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 26% strikeout rate over 18 innings. The two most noticeable changes for Duffy, which we can see thanks to Mike Kurland's awesome pitch mix chart, is a velocity bump as well as an increase in four-seam and slider usage.

The slider has been Duffy's best swing-and-miss pitch over his career, with a 15% SwStr over his career. However, over the years, the fastball has recorded a lower barrel rate than his slider and has recorded a batting average over .250 only twice since 2013. Yet, Duffy gradually lessened his fastball use from 2013 to 2017, dropping it from 63.6% use to 24.7% use. He has slowly been increasing the usage since then and has had only one season where his fastball was not a good pitch for him. It so happens that that came in the only season where Duffy's fastball velocity dipped below 93 MPH on average. This year, Duffy's velocity is up to 93.8 MPH, which would be the highest velocity he's registered since 2016.

Duffy has a history of success with higher velocity, so his results this year, shouldn't be written off too quickly. Using his two best pitches more is a good thing, and the swinging strike rate on his slider this year is 17.9% with a 29.9% CSW. Those are improvements from his career rates, but only marginal ones. Obviously, improvements are good, but we need to understand that this isn't a brand new Danny Duffy; it's just a good version of Danny Duffy.


Corey Kluber, New York Yankees

Remember when everybody said, "Corey Kluber is a slow starter so don't cut him too soon"?  Well, it seems like many of us have forgotten that Kluber is a slow starter who also pitched one whole inning in 2020. He was almost a lock to start the year with some rust. We saw it most often in the command of his cutter early. Without a feel for that pitch, he was forced to rely on the sinker more often, and it got hit...hard.

In his first start, he threw the sinker 30% of the time, earning zero whiffs and an average exit velocity of 98.8 mph. In his second start, he threw the sinker 24% of the time and it earned 0 whiffs and a 94.6 average exit velocity. As Kluber has begun to get things turned around in his final three starts, he has found the command of the cutter and has begun throwing it more often than the sinker.

However, the biggest improvement has been connected to the changeup. After only throwing a handful in his first few starts, Kluber has begun to up the usage of the pitch, throwing it 14% of the time against the Orioles and 24% of the time against the Tigers, basically eliminating his four-seam fastball. In those two games, the pitch earned a combined 50% CSW. With the cutter command back and the curveball still registering a 34.9% whiff rate, adding in the changeup more gives Kluber another plus pitch. It's part of the reason he's 12th among starters with a 14,3% SwStr on the season. He's still throwing the sinker too much for me to be overly excited, but he certainly shouldn't be on any waiver wires, and if he can become more reliant on a mix of cutter-curve-change, I think we could see an even bigger jump for the veteran.


Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays

I feel like the collective fantasy community has been waiting for Robbie Ray to be effective, but now that he is, nobody is believing in it. The 29-year-old has a 2.78 ERA and 1.19 WHIP across four starts with the Blue Jays. While his strikeout rate hasn't been there, Ray is showing improved command with only a 9.8% walk rate or 3.57 BB/9, which could be the best he's posted since 2015. The key reason for that has been improved fastball command and velocity. Ray has been sitting at 95.3 mph with his fastball, which would be a career-high and has consistently touched 97 throughout his last few starts. The ripple effect of that is that Ray is no longer trying to get cute around the corners of the strike zone but is imply coming after batters.

Look at his heat map from 2019, his last full season:

He keeps the fastball inside the righties, but he often misses outside of the zone. That season, he had an 11.8 BB% on his fastball. Meanwhile, this season, you can see he is aggressively challenging hitters over the heart of the plate.

With the added velocity, Ray is able to get away with fastballs down the middle, so this isn't a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that slider heat map, and I believe it's a major reason why you see the dip in strikeout rate for Ray. His slider has always been his best swing-and-miss pitch and he has historically been able to command it well. If you look at the heat map for 2019 again, you'll see really good command of that slider down and in to righties; that year he had a 22.8% SwStr on that slider.

What that means is that Ray is succeeding this year without his best swing-and-miss pitch. Perhaps he simply needs to get a feel for the lighter baseball. A lighter ball will likely break more, so some pitchers will struggle for the feel of the pitch, trying to figure out how hard to throw it or where to aim in order to get the break and finish they want. As a result, I'm buying in on Ray because I believe that slider command, and the strikeouts, are coming.


Lance McCullers, Houston Astros

McCullers may be cheating because he's 28, but we're calling him a veteran for the sake of this article. Not only has McCullers introduced a slider this year, but it immediately became his most used pitch, throwing it 35.8% of the time.

McCullers uses the pitch almost exclusively against right-handed hitters, and, in its place, he seems to throw his curveball strictly to lefties. He's then able to utilize his change-up and sinker to both types of hitters. If you look at the spin direction graphic below, you can see how the changeup and slider become a really nice mirrored pairing, with the sinker and curve also have some near-mirroring. We care about this because it means that McCullers' arsenal plays well off of one another, creating additional deception for hitters.

Since McCullers throws the slider hard (86.7 MPH) and with little vertical drop, the pitch travels on a similar trajectory to the sinker for longer, which is why it might be a pretty effective pitch against right-handers. He has struggled with command of it early, but that's to be expected of a new pitch and is something we can forgive when it has a 37% whiff rate. Since McCuller's curve is still performing at its usual high levels .143 batting average against and 40% whiff rate), he has seen a bump up to a 12.5% SwStr and 31.4% CSW. This new pitch mix may allow McCullers to correct some of the reverse-splits issues he's had in the past and this appears to be a change we can get excited about.


Kyle Gibson, Texas Rangers

At some point, we have to believe that this is real, right? Through seven starts, Gibson has a 2.40 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and a career-high 13.4% SwStr. Most of this can be tied back to his cutter. Gibson introduced the pitch last year but barely threw it. In 2021, he's throwing it 15% of the time, which gives him an arsenal of six pitches that he throws more than 6% of the time. It really is a kitchen sink approach.

The benefit of the cutter is the way it almost acts as an intermediary between his other pitches. It approaches the batter on a similar trajectory to the four-seam and sinker but moves away from righties. Only, it doesn't move quite as much as his slider, creating deception between that whole set of pitches, as we can see from the spin direction graphic below.

The cutter has also become Gibson's best pitch by CSW with a 35.1% mark so far. It's also his second-best pitch by SwStr registering a 16.9% number, which only trails the slider at 24.5%. Since the slider has historically been Gibson's best whiff pitch, the cutter making the slider more impactful is clearly a good thing. I still don't think Gibson is going to be a strikeout arm. His sinker and four-seamer simply don't miss enough bats, and I'd love for him to rely less on one so that he can use his changeup more; however, I think you can expect Gibson to settle into an ERA around 3.80, which will keep him fantasy relevant.


Quick Hitters

Anthony DeSclafani, San Francisco Giants (2.00 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 17.0 K-BB%)

Desclafani is limiting hard contact and has a career-best SwStr rate at 11%. There's been no real meaningful changes to his pitch mix other than that he's using his four-seam less in favor of his sinker. The move to San Francisco will be good for a pitcher with home run problems like Desclafani, but I think his hot start is more being propped up by facing the Rockies twice away from Coors and the Marlins once. He'll be fine this year, but his 26.8% CSW doesn't have me believing that we are seeing a new level of his talent.

Alex Wood, San Francisco Giants (1.96 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 19.8 K-BB%)

I'm much higher on Wood than I am on his teammate. Wood introduced a slider last year and has really upped the usage of it this year. I covered him in this article, but I think the early gains are for real and I'd be buying Alex Wood. He'll be a solid starter for as long as he can remain healthy.

Marcus Stroman, New York Mets (1.84 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 15.0 K-BB%)

It may not seem like anything, but this would be the highest K-BB% since 2014 for Stroman. A lot of it has to do with his improved command since his CSW is actually down to 25.4%. The new splitter is a good pitch for Stroman and pairs well with his sinker, which has now become far and away his main offering. He pounds the zone with it which will help him limit hard contact and keep his ratios low. I had been hoping for more strikeout upside, but I think Stroman can keep an ERA in the low 3's and provide a good WHIP all season long.

Tyler Anderson, Pittaburgh Pirates (3.24 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 14.8 K-BB%)

Anderson moved to Pittsburgh this year and has seen solid results thanks, in part, to a career-high K%. A key for Anderson seems to be that he's increased spin on his four-seam, which has given it a little bit more run. As a result, his fastball increased its whiff rate by 10% and has a 34.8% CSW. He pairs that with a good changeup that has consistently been a plus pitch for him and has a 17.3% SwStr in 2021. Anderson likely won't get you many wins, but he can finish with an ERA around 4.00 and a K/9 around 8.5, which is serviceable in most leagues.

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