Michael Pineda, Kyle Drabek & Jeremy Hellickson: AL Starting Pitcher Rookie Update

When I first started playing fantasy baseball around 15 years ago and for many years after that, it was ingrained in my head that I should never draft rookie pitchers or add them to my roster (12 team mixed leagues, obviously in Only leagues, this would be difficult to pull off). I followed this for a while, always avoiding rookies and ignoring the hype. But as new statistical methods of evaluating pitchers became more mainstream and I learned how to use these methods, I realized that rookie pitchers should not automatically be discarded and expected to deliver minimal fantasy value. So I now have no problem drafting and rostering rookie pitchers and evaluate each pitcher on his own, forgetting about whether the rookie label is slapped on or not. With that wordy introduction out of the way, let’s take a look at how some of the top rookie pitchers have fared so far.

Michael Pineda, SEA

The 22-year old was a surprise addition to the M’s opening day rotation and he has started three games so far, logging 19.1 innings. His skills have been solid, albeit unspectacular, but his surface stats give the impression of a sparkling debut. Of course, he is not going to go all season without allowing a home run and is highly unlikely to maintain a .245 BABIP either. The 56% FB% is a major concern, though he is in one of the best ball parks for such an extreme fly ball pitcher. His 13.3% SwStk% is absolutely fantastic, and suggests that his 7.5 K/9 has major upside.

He has been throwing a three-pitch mix, but has only thrown his change-up 8.1% of the time. As a primarily fastball-slider pitcher, I thought he may be having problems with lefties, but so far his xFIP platoon splits do not suggest any cause for concern at the moment. So far, Pineda’s fantasy prospects for this season seem promising. We obviously cannot expect much run support from an inept Mariners offense, but he could very well continue to generate mixed league value all year.

Kyle Drabek, TOR

The 23-year old has started four games and thrown 24 innings for the Jays. However, his skills are less intriguing than Pineda’s. A .266 BABIP and 80.8% LOB% have artificially depressed his ERA, as his xFIP sits at a less impressive 4.40 (versus a 3.00 ERA). The ground ball tilt is nice, but not nearly high enough to get too excited about. The strikeout rate is acceptable, and generally where it should have been expected to be around given his lackluster minor league rates.

Control has been a problem thus far, as he has thrown an impossibly low 35.7% of his pitches in the strike zone (versus the 47.5% league average rate). Seriously, I do not think I have ever seen a pitcher with a Zone% that low. He never struggled with his control this much in the minors, so at least we know this hasn’t been an annual problem for Drabek. Aside from the control issues, the big concern here is the lack of any Triple-A experience. His skills were only okay at Double-A in 2010, so without having even dominated Double-A and actually skipping Triple-A, you have to wonder if he is truly ready to succeed against Major League hitters. I think he has the talent to accumulate a little bit of AL-Only value, but mixed leaguers should avoid him.

Jeremy Hellickson, TAM

I liked Hellickson enough during the pre-season that I boldly predicted he would be the Rays’ most valuable pitcher this year. He has had a disappointing opening to the season, however, but of course the sample size is small enough to not make me look foolish just yet. His control has been uncharacteristically poor, as he has walked 9 batters in 18 innings, after having never posted higher than a 2.8 BB/9 in his professional career. He is still throwing pitches in the zone more often than the league average, though his F-Strike% is slightly lower. His 9.9% SwStk% hints at further upside for his K/9, and I think he is more than capable of pushing that up near last season’s 8.2 mark.

Unfortunately, Hellickson is a fly ball pitcher, but that is really the only negative I could find. He very much reminds me of rotation-mate James Shields, with his below average (for a right-handed starter) fastball velocity and reliance on a devastating change-up. Hellickson, though, seems to have slightly better strikeout ability, but induces fewer ground balls. All in all, I am still very much a fan and remain confident that he will earn impressive mixed league value given his rookie status.




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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.


34 Responses to “Michael Pineda, Kyle Drabek & Jeremy Hellickson: AL Starting Pitcher Rookie Update”

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  1. Sean says:

    Any concern with Hellickson’s struggles vs left-handed hitters?

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    • Mike Podhorzer says:

      His xFIP vs lefties isn’t much worse than against righties. He has been hurt by a 15.4% HR/FB ratio and half the lefty baserunners he has allowed have scored, so his LOB% is very low. Of course, his xFIP wasn’t very good against them last year either. I would have thought his change-up would help neutralize them, but maybe he is doing something differently that is hurting his effectiveness.

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  2. Dscott says:

    You have to love Michael Pineda’s upside, facing in-division rivals Oakland and the Angels at least a couple more games this year. Oakland’s lineup is dismall, and the Angels have a few free swingers on their team. I am definately starting him for most of his home games, and vs weak away opponents. I benched him vs the Rangers early in the year, but he’s put up three impressive starts to begin the season.

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  3. Peter John says:

    I picked up Pineda early in the season after having watched his season debut. His stuff is unbelievable. His fastball touches triple digits at times and his slider dives like Josh Johnson’s. And to top it all off – the dude is HUGE!

    In fact – I see his K-rate going up. Just hope Ichiro can get a few runs in for him.

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  4. Lewis says:

    Drabek didn’t dominate AA? I guess you have pretty high standards. He did win pitcher of the year in his league last year. Not to mention throwing a no-no.

    Not going to AAA is what the Jays are doing with their premium arms these days. Las Vegas is a launching pad and does nothing positive for a pitcher’s development. They’re doing the same thing with Zach Stewart this year and are expected to do the same with Deck McGuire next year.

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    • Mark says:

      I’m a big fan of Drabek’s, but even I wouldn’t argue he’s dominated AA. The ERA was pretty, but the K:BB wasn’t impressive at 1.94. He got a ton of GB’s which nuked some of the walks, but it wasn’t that impressive.

      It’s a pretty stupid decision by the Jays to have pitchers skip AAA because of the launching pad in Vegas. Did they forget that Stewart and the rest of those guys are going to eventually be pitching in the launching pad known as Rogers Centre? They pitch in the AL East – they’re going to have to get used to pitching tough lineups and pitching pretty exclusively in tough pitchers parks.

      I think it’s a disservice to them by having them avoid Vegas, simply because it’s a tough park to pitch in. You have to challenge your prospects, not coddle them.

      Drabek’s walk rate has been pretty disappointing, but he’s managed to walk the tight rope so far. I can’t see him sustaining it though, so I’m hoping he cuts down on the BB’s soon.

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      • Mark says:

        ^^ Sorry, that should read that they’re going to need to get used to pitching in hitters park. IE Camden/Fenway/Yankee Stadium/Rogers Centre.

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  5. Having watched Pineda this year it is very hard not to be impressed, unspectacular? Not so sure about that. Sure he will get lit up a few times, but the stuff he flings just pops. I am a sucker for exciting young pitchers, and will surely roster him from here on out…

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  6. Andy says:

    Most of those Hellickson walks came in one game, against the Red Sox, and anyone watching that game knows the Ump called a very poor game.

    http://cdn0.sbnation.com/imported_assets/696330/location_php.gif

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    • GoHabsGo says:

      I agree – I watched that performance, he was getting squeezed all night.

      There’s been alot of poor umpiring this season (again) already.

      My theory is MLB is shrinking the strike zone in order to increase offense.

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      • Dan says:

        With homeruns down across baseball, the MLB is DEFINITELY shrinking the strike zone in an effort to increase offense. No question about it. The casual fan just doesn’t appreciate a 2-1 pitchers duel. One of the best games I’ve ever attended in my lifetime was late in 2009 when Brett Anderson pitched a 2 hit shutout at Fenway. Half the crowd left before the 7th inning stretch. Absolutely pathetic.

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  7. M's Fan says:

    I have watched all of Pineda’s starts this year and unspectacular is the last word that comes to mind. I had high expectations for him and hes blown those away.

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    • Mike Podhorzer says:

      As I just responded to the previous commenter, I described his skills as unspectacular, specifically referring to his K/9, BB/9 and BB%. That description is purely statistical based and has nothing to do with how he looked or how his stuff is.

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  8. Mikeh says:

    It is pretty tough to take advice about rookies (or in general) from someone who used to automatically discount rookie pitchers and their fantasy contributions. A good pitcher is a good pitcher, rookie or not. Would’ve stunk to have missed out on Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Rick Ankiel, Roy Oswalt, Stephen Strasburgh, Matt Morris, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Tommy Hanson, Doc Gooden, Dontrelle Willis, Jamie Garcia, and countless other rookie pitchers over the years who have been dominant.

    Pineda has been filthy. Set down, crack open a cold one, watch him attack a lineup, and then come back and write a column on how rookie pitchers can win you a fantasy league.

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    • Mike Podhorzer says:

      Hey, blame it on the poor fantasy advice and analysis 10-15 years ago! At that time, we knew a lot less about evaluating pitchers than we do now so it was much easier to simply ignore rookie pitchers.

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  9. mattinm says:

    Any update for Britton and where he fits in?

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    • Mike Podhorzer says:

      Funny you ask. I planned to include Britton in this update, but wrote so darn much on the other guys, I didn’t want my post to be the size of a novel. He’s been a little lucky so far and his pedestrian K/9 will limit his mixed league value. But loads of ground balls and a very good 9.5 SwStk%, hinting at K/9 upside, means he should have at least a little bit of mixed league value.

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  10. Geoff says:

    So let’s say all these three are available. Who would you pick in a mixed league, and would you choose one of them to replace Liriano?

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    • Mike Podhorzer says:

      Hellickson of the 3. Pineda’s stuff might look more electric on tv, but Hellickson is the safer choice and should be better this year. Liriano is a total crapshoot. I loved him coming into the season, but just don’t know what to think anymore. I’d still be hesitant to drop him.

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  11. Jeremy B. says:

    I had Hellickson and Drabek, dropped Drabek for Pineda after Drabek’s last start, and then dropped Hellickson today when Brandon Morrow came off the DL. All for basically the same quantitative reasons given in the article (which sounded pro-Pineda). Then he goes for Hellickson in the talkbacks with “safer choice” and “should be better this year”? Those sound like gut instincts – but I have to admit that gut instincts are a great asset when dealing with small sample stats. I have a gut instinct about Rays pitchers too, after living in TB for a few years now – David Price aside, I’ve never really seen a homegown Rays pitcher improve with age until after they get traded or signed as FAs (if then & the jury is still out on Andy Sonnanstine who is totally wasted in the AL – career BA=.318 OPS=.764).

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    • Mike Podhorzer says:

      Not a gut instinct. Hellickson I had valued significantly higher than Pineda in the pre-season, so 20 innings of better results from Pineda isn’t going to change my opinion.

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  12. Nikita Z. says:

    MP, agree with your take on all three. But it’s not the 20 better innings. Guys with Pineda’s stuff tend to bust through analysis. The best thing about him is even when the ratios correct themselves (which they always do) he will still be 6’7″ blasting hitters with 97+ not waiting for anyone. Because of this, he’s better suited to avoid disasters than Drabek and Hellickson. Bottom line, as all rookies do they will run out of gas. So in leagues with playoffs they’re limited. This is where Hellickson could be better. His stuff is more craftsman/less violent. He might last all year.

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    • Mike Podhorzer says:

      I would clarify your point by saying that any pitcher with a 56% FB% (Pineda’s current rate) is not better suited to avoid disasters than the majority of pitchers!

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  13. Nikita Z. says:

    I don’t like those ratios either. But, consider Yas VS Goose, MJ shooting with his left, etc. It is the game beyond the numbers. Provided his #1 stays above 95mph maintaining his 68% pitch one it’s a mistake to count him among majority of pitchers. This aspect of his game is not getting nearly enough run. That’s more rare than people realize (especially for a baby). But at 97! Half the fly balls are pop ups that carry past the infield. Bats WILL catch a couple, this is inevitable as I conceded earlier, but many in a row? Off of 97+ is a tough ask for any line up, wouldn’t you agree? I just don’t see him imploding many times. Also, while I gave edge to Pineda in disaster department, I stayed in the scope of your three young pitchers. Revisiting that, you dump Drabek quickly anyway and compare Hellickson to Shields! If I’m a Hellickson owner I’m not liking that if concerned about disasters. Still, I would take Hellickson for Pineda in 2011 because I think Pineda will wear out. But there is nothing “majority” about Pineda.

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  14. utb says:

    I get your point, but I’m not sure that I would use “skills” and “statistics” as interchangeable.

    Pineda’s peripheral “statistics” are unspectacular.

    Pineda’s “skills” are off the charts.

    To me – it’s confusing to describe a player’s “skills” by referencing three games of statistics. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I consider skills to be much more synonymous with talent and abilities.

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    • Mike Podhorzer says:

      Good point, I have always used “skills” as defined by the Baseball Forecaster/Baseball HQ, meaning K/9, BB/9, and GB%. Of course, this is FanGraphs so I’ll make sure to be more clear in the future.

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      • utb says:

        Gotcha…and no worries.

        Overall, I think it was a very good piece. In 99% of situations, I think that peripherals tell the story; however, in Pineda’s case (since there are only 4 games to go on) – I think you have to see him pitch to determine his true value.

        He registers in the upper 90’s as it is – but when you consider the fact that the guy is 6’7 – the ball probably looks like it’s coming in even faster.

        Despite some occasional blowups, I think the guy is poised to have a big-time season, rookie or not.

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  15. mo2119 says:

    an amazing amount of his flyouts are actually popouts. Thats why I think he can maintain his stats. Also, While watching Pineda pitch tonight it kinda looked like his changeup had some lateral break like Felix’s (first 3 starts he threw a straight change so maybe felix taught him a thing or two) but the control of the change is still an issue

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  16. Jeremy B. says:

    At the beginning of the season I picked Hellickson over Pineda and Drabek based on the available information at the time.

    Two days ago I picked Pineda over Hellickson and Drabek because (a) new information was available and I revised my opinion based on it, and (b) beause I still could, Pineda was still a FA in my league.

    The challenge of fantasy sports for me is sometimes having to make good decisions based on small sample size, so I can beat other managers to the good pick ups.

    Shields is a great comp for Hellickson, any ideas on who the best comps are for Pineda and Drabek?

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  17. Chutley says:

    Would you rather have Matusz or Hellickson this year? Long term?

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  18. Ben says:

    Not a rookie, but any thoughts on Bumgarner’s struggles? He’s a FA in my league, but I’d have to drop someone like Britton to get him.

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  19. Jonathan C says:

    Wouldn’t it be more significant to track movement on fastballs all else being equal than necessarily velocity, because let’s face it, more often than not if you do not get the barrel of the bat on the ball you will pop it up for an out rather than hit the ball out of the park? or am i crazy?

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