Saturday, February 24 2024

Whenever draft season kicks up, the majority of us tend to find ourselves drawn to players who surged in the second half of the year. There’s some excited explorer inside of us giddy about “uncovering” somebody who’s going to take a big step this season and way outearn their current draft status. After all, we’re all hunting for that kind of value in drafts.

However, sometimes I think our search for value and our attraction to second half surges can be a bit misleading, so I thought I’d conduct an exercise for me as much as anybody else where I tried to find starting pitchers who made clear changes in the second half of the year that may be responsible for potential growth. I’m a firm believer that hot stretches exist and that not all changes can be good, so I always want to check to see if a hot streak was the result of a player doing something meaningfully different, and I always want to dig in to see if a change in approach/skills sets up a clear path to another level of success.

So we’ll do that together here.

In this article, you’re only going to find starting pitchers who made clear approach/pitch mix changes in the second half of the year. That means we won’t see guys like Yusei Kikuchi and Jameson Taillon, who made changes to their pitch mix from the outset of the season but started to get comfortable and see better results in the second half (I like both of those arms this year). You also won’t see somebody like Freddy Peralta or Kodai Senga, who were electric in the second half of the year, but didn’t really make any meaningful changes that led to that run of success, or Tarik Skubal and Cole Ragans, who both really only pitched in the second half of the year.

Some of these pitchers didn’t have success – yet – due to these changes, but we’ll try to uncover if they can in 2024. Lastly, in order to fit as many starters into this article as possible, I’ll be a little shorter with the analysis, but my hope is to give you something to look for with each of these pitchers and explain why I might be interested. (Big thanks to Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard for the 1H/2H splits and new pitch tracker. His resource is 100% worth your money).

We have to start with Pivetta. From July 1st on, Pivetta was tops in baseball among qualified pitchers with a 29% K-BB%. Yes, that was better than Spencer Strider. In fact, Pivetta’s 35.8% strikeout rate was also the best in baseball over that span. Now, some people will correctly point out that Pivetta was a reliever for some of that stretch, so if you include just his starts (which we can now toggle for at FanGraphs), he had, wait for it, 29% K-BB% and 34.4% strikeout rates to go along with a 3.26 ERA over 47 innings in eight starts.

We can also tie that success to the introduction of the “Whirlybird,” which is what Pivetta calls the sweeper he picked up from teammate Chris Martin in late June. The pitch was electric with a 25.4% SwStr% over the remainder of the season. He also began to throw his old slider harder and turned it into more of a cutter which made the pitch itself more dynamic and allowed his four-seam to play up.

Pivetta SliderPivetta Slider

Pivetta Slider

Even Pivetta himself discussed the value of the whirlybird in an interview, saying the slider “takes some pressure off of my curveball. Basically, it gives me an extra pitch that, velocity-wise, plays well into my repertoire.” I have Pivetta as a top 50 starter and may need to go higher.

While we’re talking about Pivetta, we should also briefly touch on his teammate, Brayan Bello. The young right-hander is a sinker/change-up pitcher who had a decent amount of success in 2023 in regards to keeping ratios low and picking up moderate swinging strike rates; however, he seemed to lack the other gear we wanted for fantasy purposes because the sinker/change-up pairing tunneled well, but he didn’t like using the change-up as much to righties, especially in two strike counts, despite running high swinging strike rates. As a result, his strikeout upside seemed minimal.

Yet, much like Pivetta, Bello changed his slider late in the summer and went from averaging 2.3 inches of horizontal movement and 6 inches of drop at 84.9 mph to averaging 7.8 inches of horizontal movement and just 2.8 inches of drop at 85.9 mph in September. The pitch also posted a solid 21.4% swinging strike rate (SwStr%) that month. Now, the rest of Bello’s arsenal seemed to suffer in that month, likely due to him tiring from the most innings he’s ever thrown in pro ball, but reports this offseason are that Bello will prioritize the slider in 2024. If he were to add strikeout upside to his profile, that would make him a much more dynamic pitcher, and one that should be going inside the top 50 in drafts.

It’s weird writing Orioles next to his name, right? Anyway, Burnes is another pitcher who made a much-discussed mid-season tweak to his slider; however, unlike Bello, the tweak was far more noticeable. In the first half of the year, Burnes threw his slider 88.3 mph with just 7.3 inches of horizontal movement and very little downward break. In the second half, the pitch was just 84.4 mph with a ridiculous 16.1 inches of horizontal break and 2.1 inches of drop. While Brooks Baseball has different specific figures, the chart below is a great way to visualize just how much the slider movement changed as the year went on.

Burnes sliderBurnes slider

Burnes slider

It registered a 21.7% SwStr%, and he started to lean on the pitch more as the year went on, making it his second most-used pitch in September. The reduced velocity also created more of a velocity gap with the cutter, which allowed Burnes to find renewed success with his best pitch, which was equally important. It’s not as if Burnes was bad with his older slider, but he lacks the same level of dominance with the new one.

Let’s move to yet another teammate and talk about Rodriguez. While the talented young right-hander didn’t have any glaring changes like the three names above, he did look like a different pitcher after coming back from the minors on July 17th. Part of that is due to a velocity bump across all his pitches. While some of that is likely just warming up as the season goes on, I think it’s also a young pitcher just having the confidence to throw his arsenal and not aim it. The harder version of his change-up took off some vertical movement, but the arm-side run was still there, and the pitch continued to miss bats while limiting hard contact. His slider was 2.2 mph harder in the second half, which added vertical break and led to a 6.5% jump in SwStr%, and he also stopped throwing his four-seam exclusively at the top of the zone, which took off some precious Induced Vertical Break (IVB) and SwStr% but made the pitch more valuable overall since it also gave up less hard contact and was used to attack hitters all over the zone.

Considering he posted a 2.58 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 24% strikeout rate across 76.2 inning in his final 13 starts, it’s pretty clear how good this version of Rodriguez can be.

Let’s move to yet another talented second-year starter in Bobby Miller. Miller’s changes are even more subtle than Rodriguez’s, so this blurb will be short because it’s more about pointing to things that could change in 2024. Miller gets tremendous marks for his slider from both Stuff+ and PLV metrics, but the performance hasn’t been there. Yet, it’s clear he’s tinkering with the pitch. He introduced a sweeper in July and August and then faded it out in September, but his regular slider also dropped over 1.5 mph and added more bite as the year went on, so it’s apparent that he’s working on finding the right mix with that pitch which would allow him to take a huge jump in SwStr% on it. He also took almost a mph off of his curve as the season went on, adding vertical break and throwing the pitch 10% more in the second half of the year. If he comes into 2024 with refined breaking balls, we could see a huge uptick in performance from Miller.

Yet another second-year starter who made changes in the middle of the season that led to some success. Pfaadt was the darling of March drafts back in 2023, but he came up and was unable to find much success early, primarily because his four-seam gave up so much hard contact, and he didn’t really have another pitch besides a sweeper that he had trouble commanding in the zone. Well, as the season progresses, Pfaadt started mixing in a sinker and reducing his four-seam usage. While the sinker itself is not a great pitch, it induces more groundballs and gives up less hard contact to righties than the four-seam and can allow Pfaadt to set up his sweeper more consistently since he believes the sinker creates better tunneling with his best pitch.

We also had a great story from MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert about how Diamondbacks’ pitching coach Brent Strom moved Pfaadt’s position on the rubber mid-season. “Before, he was throwing balls out of his hand which became strikes,” explained Strom. “Now we have pitches that are strikes that can become balls, which is what I was trying to achieve.” I worry that Pfaadt still really only has one plus pitch, but these changes clearly worked for him, so we’ll see if he can continue the trend.

Say it with me, another second-year pitcher made an important mid-season change. One of the biggest concerns for Bryan Woo in his debut season was his splits. Lefties hit over .100 points higher off of him, struck out over 10% less, and made way more hard contact. It was certainly an issue.

Woo SPlitsWoo SPlits

Woo SPlits

Which is why Woo started throwing a cutter at the end of June. According to Pitcher List metrics, Woo used the cutter inside to lefties over 50% of the time, but, perhaps weirdly, threw it low 70.5% of the time, which is 98th-percentile. You would believe a pitch designed to mitigate hard contact from lefties would be thrown more in on the hands, and that’s perhaps why the pitch itself allowed a 50% Ideal Contact Rate (Barrels + Solid Contact + Hard Ground balls over Batted Ball Events), which is not good at all. However, the introduction of the cutter makes sense to combat lefties, and it helped Woo post better ratios in the second half of the year, even though his SwStr% dropped. If Woo gets that cutter more in on the hands, then I think he’ll do even better against lefties in 2024, but I think his strikeout rate may be a bit more modest since he doesn’t really have a pitch to strikeout lefties yet.

Emett Sheehan – Dodgers

OK, one final second-year starter; I promise. Sheehan threw 60.1 innings in 2023 and, from a ratio perspective, was admittedly better in his first half innings than his second half innings; however, I am curious about the introduction of the sweeper in late July. The pitch is eight mph slower than his slider and has almost 15 inches more horizontal movement. While he only threw it 4% of the time, it posted a 17.5% SwStr% and had the best Defense Independent ERA (dERA) of any of his pitches. It also allowed a 20% barrel rate and is clearly a work in progress. Yet, I love the idea of Sheehan adding a variation of that sweeper to pair with his harder slider against righties, and since he has a change-up that misses lots of bats against lefties, there’s a clear path to a big jump for him in 2024.

With the news that Walker Buehler will likely be out for the first few weeks of the season, Sheehan will have a spot in the Dodgers’ starting rotation and they could move to a six-man rotation when Buehler returns or, even if Sheehan is bumped out of the rotation, he’d be the next man up if any of Buehler, James Paxton, or Tyler Glasnow were to get hit or need their innings monitored. That makes me fairly confident we could see 120-130 innings of Sheehan this year.

Moving on from second-year starters to, well, third year starters. Kirby is an elite command pitcher who has posted elite ratios and high innings totals since breaking through into the big leagues. His issue has always been the current lack of a true out pitch and inconsistent secondaries. As a way to combat that, he introduced a splitter in the middle of the season and had great success with it, posting a 17.4% swinging strike rate in the second half.

George Kirby SPlitsGeorge Kirby SPlits

George Kirby SPlits

He uses it mainly against lefties, as kind of a split-change out-pitch, but he also tweaked his slider in the second half by throwing it hard and with less overall movement, resulting in the pitch doubling its swing-and-miss in the second half of the year. If those gains can maintain then Kirby will have out-pitches for both righties and lefties, paired with a solid four-seam and sinker, and should emerge as a true fantasy ace.

In truth, Kyle Bradish was good for basically all of 2023; however, he was even better in the second half, posting a 2.34 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 27.3% strikeout rate in 84.2 innings, compared to a 3.32 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 22.9% strikeout rate in 84 first half innings. Now, some of that could have been him shaking the rust early on after missing time when he got hit in the foot with a line drive. Yet, I also believe an important part of his success was throwing his sinker more often in the second half of the year and reducing his four-seam usage down to just 18%. Bradish’s four-seam is clearly his worst pitch, but he has an elite slider and a plus curveball. If he continues to use the sinker as his primary fastball against righties and phases out the four-seam, I think his floor will get higher simply by throwing his worst pitch less often. He’ll still need to use the four-seam against lefties, and I don’t believe this second half stats can simply carry over, but he’s definitely a top 25 arm for me in 2024.

When we talk about the Orioles starters, we often forget about Kremer, which is understandable given the upside in Baltimore‘s rotation now. However, Kremer does appear to have the fifth starter spot, and while I’m a fan of Tyler Wells, who Kremer has pushed to the bullpen, it is important to note that Kremer made noticeable changes and was better in the second half of the season. In 74.2 second half innings, he posted a 3.25 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 20.5% strikeout rate, compared to a 4.78 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, and 22% strikeout rate in 98 first half innings.

Now, that’s not quite the jump we saw from Bradish, but it can be tied to legitimate changes. For starters, Kremer started keeping his four-seam up in the zone with a 17.6 IVB in the second half, compared to 16.2 in the first half. That led to considerably less hard contact allowed, even though it also led to a small drop in SwStr%. Kremer also appeared to add more vertical drop on his change-up in place of horizontal run, still throwing the pitch with over 14 inches of arm-side movement. However, the change-up saw a bump in SwStr%, which was helpful against lefties. While none of this makes him a must-add pitcher in fantasy, it does make him a solid late-round option in deeper formats given his team and ballpark context.

Seth Lugo is another deeper league starter who doesn’t get discussed as much as he likely should. He had a solid first season as a starter in San Diego and will now be locked into a rotation spot in Kansas City with a great home ballpark for pitchers. Lugo came into 2023 and split his breaking ball into two with clear differentiations between the slider and curve; however, as the season went on, he started to morph his slider into more of a sweeper. By September, he was throwing an 86.3 mph slider with just 5.7 inches of horizontal movement and an 81.3 mph sweeper with 16.8 inches of horizontal movement. That sweeper had just a 12.1% SwStr% in the second half, so while it was an improvement from the slider, it wasn’t tremendous as a swing-and-miss pitch. However, it didn’t allow a lot of hard contact, and it allowed the harder slider to improve as well, giving up just a 4.8% barrel rate in the second half after allowing a 10% mark in the first half. This gives Lugo six pitches that he can go to and while he will never be a hugh strikeout arm, I think that depth of arsenal in that home park will make him a solid ratio target in 15-team leagues.

Sonny Gray is one of the more overlooked fantasy starters, and he had a tremendous year in Minnesota. His season gets lost in the shuffle behind guys like Joe Ryan and Pablo Lopez since they both made wholesale changes to their arsenal in 2023, but Gray made some subtle shifts that led to a strong second half. In particular, he started throwing his sweeper over 10% more as the season went on, which is great news since the pitch had a 22.6% SwStr%, gave up very little hard contact, and had a 91st-percentile PutAway rate. He also dialed back on the cutter, which is a fine pitch but does allow over a 41.3% ICR, meaning that it gets hit pretty hard when hitters make contact. Gray has been known to tinker as his feel for some breaking balls goes in and out, so it’s unclear what version of him we see in 2024, but I do believe in his stuff and love the increased reliance on the sweeper.

When the Rays acquire a pitcher, we expect them to make clear changes to unlock a new level, like they did with Tyler Glasnow, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, Jason Adam, Robert Stephenson, and so many more. The things is, it’s hard to make those kinds of changes mid-season. However, we did see a minor tweak begin with Civale’s slider. Before coming to the Rays, the pitch averaged 83.2 mph with 11 inches of horizontal movement. After coming to the Rays, the pitch averaged 81.9 mph with 12.4 inches of horizontal movement. While he was only throwing the pitch 5% of the time, it had a massive bump in SwStr% up to 13.4%. It also gave up a lot more hard contact, but a mid-season switch like that is never going to be perfect. With a whole offseason to work on the pitch, it’s possible we could see Civale add a swing-and-miss slider to his plus curveball and good enough cutter/sinker combo. That could make him an intriguing pitcher for fantasy in 2024; although, I don’t see a Zach Eflin-like leap coming here.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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