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AL SP New Faces

September roster expansion and resulting call-ups are almost upon us. But although the party has not begun just yet, we have still seen many new faces among American League starting pitchers in recent weeks. Here are a couple worth discussing.

J.A. Happ

Happ was acquired in mid-July as part of a 9-player deal with the Astros and initially worked out of the bullpen for the Jays. Since being moved back into the rotation, he has posted a fantastic 24/5 K/BB ratio over 23.1 innings and a 3.86 ERA. In his first full season in a rotation back in 2009 with the Phillies, Happ boggled the minds of the stats crowd when he posted a 2.93 ERA, despite mediocre strikeout and walk rates and a fly ball tendency, all resulting in a 4.39 SIERA. His good luck continued in 2010, even after his control took a turn for the worse, but finally the smoke and mirrors act concluded last year as his ERA jumped to 5.35, even though his skill profile was nearly identical to the previous season.

This year, his skills are actually the best they have ever been, with a surge in strikeout rate, accompanied by better control and a sudden ground ball tilt. Yet, his luck is back on the bad side of the ledger and so his ERA is above his SIERA for the second year in a row. While his pitch mix is about the same as usual, his SwStk% has jumped to a career best and he is throwing first pitch strikes with great frequency. I’m not sure what he is doing differently, but the advanced metrics support the improved peripherals. While I had never been a fan in the past, he should have value in AL-Only leagues the rest of the way and maybe even mixed leagues given the right matchup.

Zach Britton

After an underwhelming debut in his rookie season last year, Britton had been sidelined all season with a shoulder injury. He finally made his season debut in mid-July and has battled with control problems and major HR/FB issues. The high walk rate is supported by a low F-Strike%, but he has made strides in SwStk%, which has helped boost his strikeout rate so far. Also encouraging is that the shoulder problems have not sapped him of any velocity, as that sits exactly where it did last year.

The most intriguing part of Britton’s game is his extreme ground ball ways. Last year he posted a nearly 53% ground ball rate and this year that rate has shot up all the way up to 62%. Obviously, with just a mediocre strikeout rate and a walk rate over 5.00, a pitcher is not going to be successful no matter how high his ground ball rate is. But Britton hasn’t struggled with his control in the past, so unless he is dealing with an elbow injury (which typically hampers control) or his shoulder issues are the culprit (which usually affects velocity), then this could just be some small sample fluke and/or shaking off the rust of missing 3 1/2 months of the season. While his division, ballpark and merely average strikeout rate will make it difficult to ever generate mixed league value, only improved control (and luck) stand between him having some AL-Only value.

Corey Kluber

After posting a nice 128/49 K/BB ratio over 125.1 innings at Triple-A, Kluber has made five starts for the Indians, but endured disappointing results thus far. His season has been marred by a .364 BABIP and 14% HR/FB ratio, both combining to make it difficult to keep base runners from scoring. He throws a four pitch mix, including a fastball with above average velocity for a right-hander. His 9.5% SwStk% suggests that his stuff has been pretty good and hints at some upside to his current 7.2 strikeout rate. He has struggled with his control in the past though and his low F-Strike% means that his walk rate is more likely to rise than decline. Plus, his batted ball distribution is right around the league average, so he may continue to give up the long ball, though not to such an extreme degree as he has so far. I think he’s the least exciting of the pitchers discussed here, but his strikeout potential does make him a consideration in AL-Only leagues. Mixed leaguers will obviously want to look elsewhere, however.