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A High-Def Look at Esmil Rogers

When the Toronto Blue Jays, by way of Mike Aviles, picked up Esmil Rogers for John Farrell this offseason, I thought…well, not much. I don’t care for Farrell, and as far as returns go, Aviles for Farrell and then Aviles and Yan Gomes for Rogers seemed fine.

When I dove into his stats from 2012, I saw a guy who improved pretty dramatically when he got out of Colorado. I also saw a guy with a pretty strong profile for relief success – a fair number of strikeouts, a walk rate that wouldn’t kill you, and an above-average groundball rate.

So I thought the Jays had picked up a decent 7th inning guy.

I did not think they had picked up a solid 5th starter in this deal, mostly because Rogers only had 22 major league starts to his name, accompanied by an ERA over six in 100 innings or so. He also wasn’t a guy who had ever been successful at the Triple-A level as a starter.

But here we are. Esmil Rogers has a 1.71 ERA in 21 innings over four starts, with a 3.32 FIP underneath. He’s compiled that at Atlanta, versus Texas, at Texas and versus Colorado. The Rockies are inflated by playing in Coors, but still, those opponents are all top-12 in wOBA. He hasn’t done this against the Marlins and White Sox of the world.

And like I mentioned, the peripherals support good performance (though not elite performance). He’s struck out 16 batters to just five walks and has a 50% groundball rate. Sure, he has an 85% strand rate and a .241 BABIP, which is why FIP likes him to regress, but the K:BB and groundball profile indicate someone who could succeed in Toronto and in the AL East. If he can keep it up.

The biggest change in Rogers’ profile, per Brooks Baseball data, has been increased use of a sinker at the expense of a cutter and some fastballs. He’s thrown the sinker 27% of the time since May 29 (this includes one relief appearance), up from just 2% from the start of 2012 to his first start this year. He’s cut his four-seam fastball usage from 60% to 35%, which has worked well. He doesn’t lose much velocity when he moves to the sinker (95MPH to 93MPH) but he gains a ton in horizontal movement (from -2.92 to -7.93).

The result has been more groundballs and more balls in play in general. While his strike rate remains almost unchanged, batters put the sinker in play nearly twice as often, with a groundball rate of 50%. While he’s not getting whiffs on either pitch as a starter (less than 5% for both), he’s saving his slider for that purpose.

My guess would be that the added use and efficacy of the sinker has made batters unable to wait on the slider as readily as in year’s past. His slider pitch value has always been decent but has made a leap this year thanks to an increase in whiff rate and groundball rate (21% and 60%, respectively). Whereas previously he was almost exclusively a four-seam and slider pitcher, the added threat of strong horizontal movement has made his slider far more effective. Basically, hitters can’t sit fastball and adjust to the slider because there is significant sink to half of his fastballs now.

Dirk Hayhurst on Twitter last week suggested that Rogers was a two-pitch pitcher now, a sinker-slider with the curveball as a “change of vertical column” pitch. However, the four-seam and the sinker show enough of a difference that I’m confident they’re two unique pitches, making him a three-pitch pitcher with that curveball thrown in 7% of the time to change the vertical column, as Hayhurst posited.

So can Rogers stick around, and is he worth a grab in fantasy leagues? His ownership is at 3% in Yahoo leagues and 1.3% in ESPN leagues, so people aren’t buying yet. And I’d suggest that’s smart in the interim – if the Jays keep their rotation as is, his next three starts will be against Tampa Bay, Boston and Detroit, unfriendly visits for any pitcher.

In the long-term, though, I think his new approach can work. A decent number of strikeouts, a small number of walks and a high groundball rate is a pretty good recipe for success. If he survives these next three starts with a rotation spot, we’ll revisit his profile and the recommendation will almost surely be a buy.