Twelve MLB teams played their 81st games on Saturday or Sunday, and only the Cubs, Reds, Royals, and White Sox have yet to reach their personal halfway points. By baseball convention, next week’s All-Star break marks the middle of the season, but statistically speaking, we’ve already reached the real baseball solstice, a fitting time to check in on the players who’ve posted the most surprising stats. Last week, I looked at the hitters who’ve most underperformed or overperformed the preseason expectations set by PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’s projection system. Today I’ll tackle the pitchers, using the same stat: True Average, BP’s park- and era-adjusted offensive metric, which is scaled to a .260 league average. For pitchers, we’re interested in True Average allowed, so the further below .260, the better.
Almost every over- or underperforming player comes with a tale of woe or wonder that explains why he’s stood out — some difference in mechanics or mind-set that’s cured or caused his ills. These narratives are tough to resist, particularly because of the memorable cases in which they’ve turned out to be true. However, we know from prior years that in the aggregate, players’ rest-of-season projections — essentially their preseason projections, nudged slightly one way or another by their recent performance — are still the most accurate estimates of what they’ll do, even if they’re in the midst of uncharacteristic seasons that seem to paint them as new players. The challenge is to pick the players who’ve really changed from the ones who are still their same old selves. I’ve taken a stab at separating one from the other below, but you can take the test, too.
Note: The stats in this article reflect action through Saturday’s games.
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Dallas Keuchel, Astros (.276 Projected, .192 Actual): Keuchel’s greatest asset is his command: Not only does he limit walks, but he works low and away against right-handers more often than anyone else, painting the region highlighted below, where slow fastballs work as well as hard ones and contact tends to be weak.
Keuchel has thrown more than a third of his pitches to righties in those zones, which leads the majors, and he’s held them to a .215/.271/.295 line overall. (Which is actually a big downgrade from his line against lefties, who’ve hit .126/.162/.179 against Keuchel.)
|Name||Pitches||Low and Away vs. RHB %|
One result has been that he’s allowed slower batted balls than anyone but Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. He also contributes in some areas that are often overlooked. The Gold Glove winner has double the Defensive Runs Saved of any other pitcher over the past season-plus …
… and he’s very good at suppressing the running game. Keuchel has the seventh-lowest Takeoff Rate Above Average of any major league pitcher, which means that even after accounting for all the other factors that affect a runner’s decision to try to steal, Keuchel’s presence is still a significant deterrent. The Astros starter first surprised last season; this year, he’s surprised again by becoming even better instead of sinking into one-year-wonderdom. RoS Projection: .265 (Under)
Lance McCullers, Astros (.294 Projected, .214 Actual): McCullers didn’t appear on any top-100 prospect lists this spring, and PECOTA didn’t project him to make an immediate impact. As my colleague Jonah Keri wrote last month, though, the righty has made a show-me changeup into a power pitch that regularly gets GIF’d, and that addition to an already impressive pair of pitches has helped McCullers record a 2.72 FIP through his first 10 big league starts. The rookie’s pro track record is short, so his performance this season has substantially altered his projection. Even so, it seems somewhat pessimistic for someone with his stuff. RoS Projection: .265 (Under)
Max Scherzer, Nationals (.247 Projected, .187 Actual): I’ve already written about Scherzer’s transformation into a master of the strike zone, but here’s one stat I haven’t cited: Scherzer has been behind in the count for just 13.4 percent of his pitches, trailing only Oakland’s Evan Scribner among players who’ve thrown at least 500 pitches. Scherzer wastes no time putting opponents in the hole: Only Phil Hughes has a higher first-pitch-strike percentage. The difference is that Scribner and Hughes throw four-seam fastballs that average 92 mph, while Scherzer’s sits at 95. That’s a combination of stuff and strike-throwing that no other active starter can equal, and in the short term, I’d expect him to continue to capitalize on weak NL East competition. RoS Projection: .242 (Under)
Zack Greinke, Dodgers (.257 Projected, .199 Actual): Greinke is riding a 27.2-inning scoreless streak, so it’s not a shock to find him here. The defense-independent stats say he’s lucking out to a certain extent, but he’s pitching roughly as well as he has since an even longer scoreless streak that ended during his 2009 Cy Young season, when, as Greinke acknowledges, he was even “more nastier” than he is now. Three months of typically stellar pitching by one of baseball’s best starters haven’t moved my expectations much, but I’m still going with the under on the rest-of-season projection, if only because .252 seems awfully high for someone with Greinke’s résumé. RoS Projection: .252 (Under)
Chris Young, Royals (.290 Projected, .233 Actual): Young’s season has further cemented his status as one of the sport’s strangest statistical case studies. The 36-year-old has allowed a league-low .217 BABIP, bringing his career mark to .252, the seventh-lowest among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched, according to Baseball-Reference.
The players ahead of Young pitched during years when the league BABIP was 20 or more points lower than it has been during the 6-foot-10 righty’s tenure, so one can make a case that Young is either extraordinarily lucky or the all-time king of weak contact. What we can say with some certainty is that defense-independent stats that assume no special BABIP-suppression skill don’t properly appreciate Young, whose career ERA beats his career FIP and xFIP by 0.66 and 1.14 runs, respectively.
One could also make a case that few pitchers have been coddled by their ballparks as much as Young, who’s played in favorable parks for fly-ball pitchers since his early years in Arlington. And his BABIP this year obviously has something to do with the Royals’ MLB-best outfield. But neither the dimensions of Kauffman Stadium nor the wheels of Lorenzo Cain & Co. is likely to change during the rest of the season, so Young has found his happy place (and a bit of extra bite on the fastball).
That said, we’ve found reasons for Young’s success before, only to see him slump severely: Last year, while with Seattle, Young held opponents to a .208/.277/.382 line in the first half but tanked to .282/.347/.526 in the second. PECOTA’s conservative projection isn’t totally unrealistic. RoS Projection: .280 (Even)
Shelby Miller, Braves (.267 Projected, .211 Actual): As I noted after Miller’s May no-hitter close call, the Braves starter has eased his addiction to the four-seamer, incorporated sinkers and off-speed stuff, and strengthened his peripherals across the board, getting a big boost in ground ball rate and accompanying improvements in strikeout and walk rate.
This is the sort of evolution that most projection systems are slow to see. RoS Projection: .261 (Under)
Chris Archer, Rays (.264 Projected, .208 Actual): Archer is another guy I’ve given the feature treatment. If he sustains his current rate for the rest of the season, the Rays starter will become the fourth qualified starter in the PITCHf/x era to throw sliders at least 40 percent of the time, according to Major League Baseball Advanced Media’s pitch classifications, following in the less distinguished footsteps of Jesse Litsch (2008), Edwin Jackson (2011), and Tyson Ross (2014). The more (and the harder) he’s thrown that slider, the less hittable he’s become. RoS Projection: .257 (Under)
Mike Bolsinger, Dodgers (.282 Projected, .227 Actual): If there’s a name on this list that screams “regression,” it’s Bolsinger’s: The 27-year-old didn’t make his big league debut until last season, and the Diamondbacks DFA’d him in November before sending him to Los Angeles for an unspecified but presumably small amount of cash. But very little about Bolsinger’s stats says he’s a fluke. The righty’s curve made him a popular target for sabermetrically inclined teams, and he’s added a slider this season. Between his high-BABIP stint with Arizona last season and his 12 starts for L.A. in 2015, Bolsinger has had one of baseball’s best ground ball rates and an unusually high rate of called strikes, which suggests that hitters aren’t picking up his offerings.
Bolsinger is getting an assist from league-leading framer Yasmani Grandal, and it’s possible that hitters will eventually learn to recognize the different arm slots from which Bolsinger delivers each pitch, but he definitely doesn’t look like the below-average pitcher that PECOTA sees. Maybe the Dodgers’ trade for Bolsinger shortly before his breakout was largely luck, or maybe it’s an example of a statistically literate club swindling an old-school organization with a history of ill-advised swaps by spotting and polishing an unsung player’s hidden potential. Either way, Bolsinger is bailing out a rotation that would otherwise be reeling from season-ending injuries to Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu. RoS Projection: .275 (Under)
Jacob deGrom, Mets (.267 Projected, .215 Actual): deGrom is pitching almost exactly as well as he did en route to the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year Award, posting a FIP and xFIP within a tenth of a run of last season’s figures. This isn’t so much a case of a pitcher reaching new heights as it is a case of a previously low-profile, unproven player convincing everyone (including PECOTA) that his old heights are sustainable. RoS Projection: .257 (Under)
Francisco Liriano, Pirates (.259 Projected, .210 Actual): This has been one of Liriano’s good-control seasons, which, when combined with another strong strikeout rate, has given him his best K-BB percentage since his pre–Tommy John Twins years. I almost wrote “the erratic Liriano,” but after two-plus seasons without a blowup or an injury more serious than an oblique strain, the lefty has unearned the adjective. The changeup that’s helped make him a success in Pittsburgh is still working well, although he’s used it a little less. Like Scherzer, Greinke, and deGrom, Liriano has faced among the weakest offensive opponents of any pitcher this year, but it doesn’t look like there’s any collapse coming. RoS Projection: .255 (Even/Under)
Just Missed: Sonny Gray, A.J. Burnett, Scott Kazmir, Jake Odorizzi, Jake Arrieta
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Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (.239 Projected, .300 Actual): The Nats have the hitter who’s beaten his preseason projection by the biggest margin, the third-ranked overperforming pitcher, and the pitcher who’s been the biggest disappointment. It’s been a strange season in Washington. The word on Strasburg is that the minor injuries he suffered in spring training compromised his command, killing his season in subtle ways that didn’t manifest in reduced velocity or an obvious change in location. In three starts after his return from the DL (ostensibly for a stiff neck), Strasburg struck out 18 and walked four in 15.2 innings, which was suitably Strasburgian. Sadly, he strained an oblique in the third outing, sending him back to the 15-day DL. Still, the glimpse we got between absences suggests that the ace PECOTA expected — Strasburg’s preseason-projected TAv allowed was third lowest, behind Kershaw’s and Sale’s — is still in that 6-4 frame. RoS Projection: .245 (Even)
Ian Kennedy, Padres (.271 Projected, .317 Actual): Kennedy hasn’t altered his overall pitch selection since last season, and he hasn’t lost a lot of velocity or movement. He’s walking fewer batters, and he’s grooved fewer pitches than he did in 2014. He hasn’t been elevating — in fact, he’s throwing a higher percentage of pitches low in the zone. On average, his fly balls have traveled a foot less far, at essentially the same angle, and he hasn’t had one bounce off an outfielder’s head. Nonetheless, he’s tied with Kyle “Coors Field” Kendrick for MLB’s highest home run rate, a mystery that Bud Black has probably pondered repeatedly during his weeks as a former major league manager. RoS Projection: .274 (Even/Under)
Jered Weaver, Angels (.249 Projected, .289 Actual): Score one for the predictive power of spring training pitch speeds. Relative to 2014, Weaver showed a larger fastball velocity decline in March than any other pitcher, and much of that decline has carried over into the regular season. Time has stolen 6 mph, on average, from Weaver’s four-seamer since 2010, and we know that losing even one tick can hamper a starter significantly.
Thanks to Weaver’s slower stuff, hitters are pulling him more often and hitting him harder, and the only qualified starters who’ve missed fewer bats are Mike Pelfrey, Jeremy Guthrie, and Kendrick. Maybe Weaver will be better once his hip injury heals. Unfortunately for the Angels, who owe him $20 million for 2016, the odds of regaining velocity at Weaver’s age are slim. RoS Projection: .252 (Over)
CC Sabathia, Yankees (.249 Projected, .289 Actual): I could almost copy and paste from the previous section. Though Sabathia hasn’t lost additional speed this season, he hasn’t salvaged much of what he lost last year. He’s still posting a great walk rate and a respectable strikeout rate, but he’s having home run issues for the second consecutive season. While it’s tempting to say that his high HR/FB ratio will regress to league average, between his hitter-friendly home park and the fact that home runs are the biggest byproduct of slowing pitch speeds, Sabathia’s susceptibility to big flies might be a permanent problem. RoS Projection: .252 (Over/Even)
Doug Fister, Nationals (.261 Projected, .299 Actual): The bad news: Fister has lost a lot of velocity, dealt with an elbow strain, and been this bad even though he’s faced by far the weakest opponents among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 50 innings. The good news: He’s about to be a free agent. With every start by Fister and Robbie Ray, Dave Dombrowski looks a little smarter. Or he would, if the Tigers GM hadn’t traded Ray for Shane Greene. RoS Projection: .265 (Over)
Jerome Williams, Phillies (.285 Projected, .321 Actual): Williams was projected to be very bad, but he’s actually been very, very bad. That’s probably because he’s been a little unlucky, mostly in the sense that he plays for the Phillies, who are bad at catching the ball — and also at everything else, which is why they’ll actually activate him when his hamstring heals. RoS Projection: .291 (Even/Over)
Andrew Cashner, Padres (.256 Projected, .291 Actual): Like Mat Latos, the next man on this list, Cashner has had serious strand-rate issues, plus a much less severe version of Kennedy’s gopheritis. On the whole, though, there’s no serious cause for concern, so Ruben Amaro can keep coveting. RoS Projection: .266 (Under)
Mat Latos, Marlins (.253 Projected, .287 Actual): A disappointing season for Latos actually was widely predicted, based on his downward-trending peripherals, injury issues, and velocity loss in 2014, but it’s possible to put a positive spin on his performance. The righty has had injury issues in 2015, too, but his peripherals (and to an extent, his velo) have recovered, and he’s posted a Latos-like 3.31 ERA with healthy strikeout and walk rates since his return from knee inflammation. Latos’s biggest problem has been a minuscule strand rate stemming from unfortunate sequencing splits: a .286 wOBA with the bases empty, a .361 wOBA with men on, and a .388 wOBA with runners in scoring position. RoS Projection: .257 (Even)
Eddie Butler, Rockies (.286 Projected, .319 Actual): It’s too soon for Butler to be another entry on the list of promising pitchers the Rockies have failed to develop, but he hasn’t yet turned into a counterpoint to posts about the organization’s system pitcher problems. Butler is the anti-Scherzer: Only five other pitchers have thrown a lower percentage of their pitches while ahead in the count. Before his demotion last month to Triple-A, he struck out opponents at a Weaver-esque rate, and his walks outnumbered his K’s. He’s been almost as unsuccessful in Albuquerque, so there’s no sign yet of an impending bounceback. RoS Projection: .301 (Even)
Josh Collmenter, Diamondbacks (.259 Projected, .291 Actual): The Diamondbacks’ depressing Opening Day starter has good control but next to no stuff, averaging 85.5 mph with his cutter and striking out a measly 11 percent of opponents even though he was moved to the bullpen in the middle of last month. He might beat this projection, but only because he’s pitching in short bursts. RoS Projection: .265 (Even/Under)
Just Missed: Carlos Rodon, Sean O’Sullivan, Bud Norris, Julio Teheran, Matt Garza