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AL SP Stock Watch: Santana, Hammel & Quintana

We’re three and a half weeks into the season and nearly at the point where the first major pitching metric stabilizes. We know that K/PA (or K% on the player pages) stabilizes at 150 batters faced, and starting pitchers are creeping ever so closer to that minimum. So at the very least, we have to start taking strikeout rates seriously, but that’s really about it. Let’s now take a look around the American League and some of the movers and shakes in starting pitcher land.

Ervin Santana

From a results standpoint, last season was a disaster for Santana. But really, the majority of his problems stemmed from a crazy 18.9% HR/FB rate. But then we learned over the offseason that Santana had a small ligament tear in his right elbow. Usually elbow injuries affect a pitcher’s control, but all his control related metrics looked pretty normal. Perhaps it hurt his command within the strike zone and it led to all those homers? He didn’t have surgery, so the issue is still there, but clearly his performance has not been impacted by it thus far.

Santana is almost exclusively a fastball-slider guy, which makes it not surprising at all that he would deal with elbow problems. So far this season, he has thrown his slider even more frequently than ever before as if he’s playing chicken with his elbow ligament. I doubt that small increase in sliders thrown has driven the SwStk% spike, but his advanced metrics do support his strong peripherals. Of course, since his pitch mix is essentially the same, encompassing the same two pitches as always, you have to come away thinking this is the same old Ervin we have become accustomed to.

He’s going to post an average strikeout and walk rate and give up more fly balls than the league average. He’s replacement level in 12-team mixed leagues and perhaps a sell high guy in AL-Only leagues if anyone is actually willing to bite. With a mediocre offense backing him and a question mark whether he remains healthy all year, I wouldn’t count on him contributing much positive value all season.

Jason Hammel

Last year in an injury shorted season, Hammel broke out after finally leaving the unfriendly confines of Coors Field. His strikeout and ground ball rates spiked, his SwStk% jumped and his fastball velocity increased. Basically, everything came together to validate the breakout and make one believe it was repeatable this year. But the Hammel that pitched so well over 20 starts for Baltimore last year has yet to appear in 2013. The ground balls have turned into fly balls, the velocity has dropped back to levels not seen since 2009, the SwStk% is the lowest of his career, and the strikeout rate is unacceptable.

Given Hammel’s uninspiring career before last season’s surprise performance, it would be easy to already chalk it up as a fluke. But should we? Quite possibly. Every single one of his pitches have induced a lower rate of swings and misses compared with last season. Last year, his curveball generated a 37% whiff rate per swing, yet after 23 curves this season, not once has a batter failed to make contact when he swung. That’s pretty crazy. His fastball is also generating ground balls at half the rate it did last year. Given his sketchy past, it’s real hard to figure a rebound here. I would not look to try buying low in AL-Only or deep mixed leagues and wouldn’t argue with you if you considered dropping him in your 12-team mixed league.

Jose Quintana

In all honesty, I want to just throw up my hands, shake my head and say “I don’t know”. But that’s not helpful at all, is it? I had many issues with Quintana heading into the season. He completely skipped Triple-A, which isn’t that scary for a pitcher, but he was hardly impressive there, managing just a 7.6 K/9. After an unimpressive rookie season last year from the perspective of SIERA, suddenly Quintana now sports a more respectable 7.9 K/9, compared to the poor 5.4 rate he posted last year. His control remains strong, but his ground ball rate is down a bit.

Many commenters have pointed out that Quintana’s fastball velocity is up this year. This is true, but not to a significant degree — just about a mile per hour increase. Not including last night’s start since the data is obviously not available yet as I type this, the whiff rate on his fastball has indeed increased rather dramatically. Unfortunately, the ground ball rate decline could be traced back to his fastball as well, as it has generated grounders at about half the rate as it did last year. I still remain less than excited, but will admit he deserves more credit than I have given him. I am not confident that he will maintain 12-team mixed league value all season, but he will likely rise in the next tier rankings update.