With Halloween a mere seven months away, it seemed “fitting” to write about the scariest pitchers going into drafts, and the following three pitchers give me the spooks. All three of them flashed some serious warning signs last season, and none of those warning signs are priced into their current draft positions. The following pitchers are three I would avoid in all formats this season.
Cole Hamels has been one of the most reliable starting pitchers in baseball over the last decade, and even a move to the American league hasn’t slowed him down yet. As the 23rd pitcher off the board he’s going to be somebody’s number two starter, and despite his stellar 2016 surface stats, Cole Hamels has me concerned for the upcoming season. The most glaring warning sign is his elevated walk rate, which was a career high 3.45 BB/9 last year and lead to a WHIP that ballooned to 1.31. Hamels also allowed more hard contact than he had in the last decade at 32%, and his average exit velocity against rose by 3 MPH.
A good sign for Hamels is that his velocity hasn’t lost a tick on the radar gun, which is impressive given his age and the number of innings on his arm, however it seems that his fastball is not the problem. The biggest issue with Cole Hamels is the waning effectiveness of his changeup. The changeup is the pitch that made his career, but in 2016 it got hit harder than ever. 25% of balls in play against the changeup were line drives, and the changeup had a slugging percentage against of .445, the highest of the last seven years by nearly 100 points. The changeup also elicited less whiffs than it has over the last seven years. The pitch isn’t fooling hitters like it used to, and if James Shields has taught us anything it’s that when good changeup pitchers go bad, there’s no going back. Hamels isn’t James Shields yet, but his solid surface stats mask his decline. These issues have scared me off from drafting him, and since he wound up with good numbers last year there is no discount baked into his ADP. With other, more exciting pitchers going around the same price or later, the risk on Hamels is too great for the cost.
Jake Arrieta had a miserable start to his career, and after being traded to the Cubs he emerged as an ace with a two year run between 2014-15 that was nothing short of incredible. His 2016 year looked to be headed towards another Cy Young run, but once we hit the summer months Arrieta’s season turned into a roller coaster ride as the command issues that plagued him in Baltimore made an unwelcome return. Due to this, he left fantasy owners a little disappointed given the lofty expectations we had going into the 2016 season. What turned Arrieta’s career around was his sinker and slider combination, in Chicago he moved away from his four seamer and started throwing these two pitches at a significantly higher rate.
Last season he ramped up his sinker usage to a career high 60%, and according to pitch f/x linear weights, his sinker was the only pitch that was working for him. His slider usage dropped by over 10%, and the whiff rate on the pitch dropped significantly after April. Arrieta was having trouble commanding the pitch, which made it less effective and a less trustworthy piece of his repertoire. This lead to a 3.47 BB/9 and the results of his pitching worsened from there. If the slider does not return Arrieta is missing a piece of what made him an ace, and the absence of its effectiveness will affect Arrieta’s bottom line. Given those concerns and the fact that his incredible run was aided by unsustainable home run rates makes Arrieta a scary thought as the 7th overall pitcher off the board. He could certainly regain his form, but as it stands he’s no sure thing to outperform the pitchers going directly after him. I’d be fine to take him 12th or later, but he won’t be there, which means he’s not worth drafting at the moment.
It’s become rather trendy to pick on Zack Greinke, and as an unapologetic conformist, I feel obligated to pile on. After a disappointing 2016 season the highest paid pitcher in baseball had a disastrous spring training outing against the Mexican WBC team, with most of the attention being paid to his diminished fastball velocity, which sat around 88 mph and topped out at 89.5. Greinke himself didn’t seemed concerned in an interview with the Arizona Republic, and that makes one of us.
His fastball had already lost several ticks from its prime, and with all the innings on his arm and the injuries he suffered last season, a dip into the high eighties from 91.3 wouldn’t surprise me. What also worries me is how batters feasted on his fastball last season. His fastball had a .591 slugging percentage against, a number which only two qualified hitters, David Ortiz and Daniel Murphy, outdid in 2016. Greinke also saw his exit velocity against rise by three mph, and his hard contact rate balloon up to thirty percent. After the magnificent 2015 everyone expected regression, but this has moved beyond the point of regression and into a legitimate decline.
With all these issues, Greinke is still going as the 26th overall pitcher in drafts. As it stands, I don’t see a scenario where he returns to the pitcher he was with the Dodgers, or even the pitcher he was with the Royals and Brewers. Out of the three pitchers I’ve named, Greinke is the one I fear the most. Pitchers like Dallas Keuchel, Matt Harvey, and Felix Hernandez have just as much risk as Greinke with similar or greater upside, and are going 20-25 spots later. Taking Zack Greinke as a second starter is putting unnecessary risk on your team.
To win at fantasy baseball, it is necessary to take chances on players, but the foundation of smart risk taking in fantasy baseball is all about relative cost. Hamels, Arrieta, and Greinke are all being valued rather fairly based on past performance, but the problem is that none of their downside is baked into the cost. Hamels is still going as a number two despite the disintegration of his changeup, Arrieta is still going as a top ten pitcher despite the return of his command issues, and Grienke is still going as the 26th starter despite a myriad of problems with health and effectiveness. None of these pitchers are bad, but the best case scenario for each of them would be to meet their current value. Drafting any of them at market price would be taking on all their baggage without any of their upside.
Please direct all questions, comments, and hate mail to @Elliott_TFR