Potential K% Surgers

On Monday with the help of Matt Swartz, I determined that spring training statistics are not completely meaningless after all. Strikeout percentage (K%) and walk percentage (BB%) should indeed be taken into consideration when projecting the upcoming season.

With that in mind, it may be possible to get a foreshadowing of who the breakout and bust pitchers are for the year. Today I decided to look at the 10 pitchers whose spring K% is the most different from their Steamer projection, as in, their spring K% is much higher than the projection. I used Steamer because it has become my favorite pitching projection system and performed the best in the latest round of tests between systems.

Player IP K TBF Spring K% Steamer K% Diff
Greinke, Zack 12.1 20 48 41.7% 24.4% 17.3%
Liriano, Francisco 18.0 23 63 36.5% 20.1% 16.4%
Mendoza, Luis 16.2 16 64 25.0% 9.5% 15.5%
Haren, Dan 15.0 18 53 34.0% 19.1% 14.8%
Hochevar, Luke 14.0 15 54 27.8% 14.7% 13.0%
Garcia, Jaime 13.1 16 51 31.4% 18.4% 13.0%
Maholm, Paul 10.0 10 41 24.4% 13.5% 10.9%
Hammel, Jason 11.2 12 47 25.5% 14.7% 10.9%
Worley, Vance 16.0 18 62 29.0% 18.3% 10.7%
Alvarez, Henderson 11.0 10 41 24.4% 13.8% 10.6%

Note: TBF is Total Batters Faced

Some top tiers names on this list, as well as some very interesting ones that could make a fantasy team. I will discuss the more interesting ones…

Francisco Liriano- The precise reason I boldly predicted he would be a top 10 starter this year and what led me to performing the study in the first place. Even better, he has only walked three batters so far, so his control has been top notch as well. In more casual mixed leagues of 12 teams or fewer, he may not even be drafted. Even in more competitive or deeper leagues, he will likely go cheap enough to provide tons of room for profit.

Luis Mendoza- I had never even heard of him until recently, and he is supposedly competing with Felipe Paulino for the fifth slot in the Royals rotation. Hat tip to Howard Bender for first bringing his name to our attention. His minor league stats have been underwhelming, while his strikeout rates have been pretty pathetic, so this spring K% is quite intriguing. I have not been able to find anything though about increased velocity, new pitches, changed mechanics, etc, that would explain the strikeout rate. If I was able to find at least something that might support the early surge, I would be more confident he can earn some AL-Only league value if he wins a rotation spot. Then again, I would be surprised if Paulino did not make the rotation.

Luke Hochevar- Here’s a name many will be giddy to see. After posting an 8.2 and 8.7 K/9 over the last two months of the 2011 season, he has appeared on some pre-season sleeper lists. The early spring K% suggests that maybe something did finally click and he has reached a new talent level. He already has an above average ground ball rate to go along with average control. I would still hesitate to gamble on him in a standard 12-team mixer, but he might very well earn a tidy profit in AL-Only leagues.

Jaime Garcia- Garcia has landed on my potential K/9 surgers lists a lot due to his strong SwStk% of 10.5%. However, he has been below average in inducing called strikes which is likely the reason his K/9 hasn’t been higher than it has been. But since I believe called strike rate is flukier than swinging strike rate, it is definitely worth the gamble at his depressed draft day cost to see if this spring K% surge is for real. With a fantastic ground ball rate, a good home ball park and offense backing him, he could be a real bargain.

Paul Maholm- Possibly the biggest surprise on this list, this is probably just a sample size issue given that he has only pitched 10.0 innings, the least amount on the list.

Jason Hammel- Now an Oriole, Hammel doesn’t gain much from getting out of Coors Field. His K/9 tumbled last year for no obvious reason, so it’s a good sign to see a rebound in this early spring action. Although he should still be nowhere near a mixed leaguer’s radar, maybe he’ll actually be worth a buck in an AL-Only league.

Vance Worley- He was one of the biggest surprises last year, posting a 3.01 ERA and a 8.1 K/9. Given his weak SwStk% though, I was quite confident that his strikeout rate would be in freefall mode this year. He relies on called strikes to rack up the strikeouts and probably also had some good fortune in the timing of his strikes. So needless to say, it was an easy call for me consider him a strong bust candidate. The spring K% though is suggesting a different tune. Of course, even if his skills were for real, his SIERA was still at 3.72 versus that 3.01 mark, so he was going to experience ERA regression either way. It is just a question of how much. He is going rather cheaply in drafts so he may not be a bad risk, but I’d feel more comfortable in an NL-Only league thna a mixed, especially given how much the Phillies offense has been depleted from injuries.

Henderson Alvarez- I drafted him on my reserve roster in my 12-team mixed auction league and then debated whether to drop him or Homer Bailey to pick up Greg Holland. I decided on Alvarez to throw back into the free agent pool, primarily because of his lackluster strikeout rate in the minors. However, he is reportedly working on his slider and I would assume throwing it more frequently, as he threw it about 10% of the time last year versus 72% for his fastball. More sliders would certainly lead to more strikeouts, though it remains to be seen how it would affect his control and ground ball rate. Pitching in a hitter’s park in the AL East and skipping Triple-A increases the risk, but he’s a definite breakout candidate, especially if this improved spring strikeout rate is a sign of things to come.

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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.

31 Responses to “Potential K% Surgers”

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  1. Rico says:

    Worley is honing his cut fastball, which he’s learned from his Phils rotation mates. Keep this in mind as it could be a strong non-statistical reason for him improving his fundamentals this season.

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  2. Andrew says:

    Cool article, glad I drafted Liriano.

    Also, it’s ZacK Greinke.

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  3. touchstone033 says:

    Mendoza could be one of the best stories of MLB this year if his recent performance carries over to the big leagues. That is, yes, his mechanics were altered. From mlb.com:

    Henry, a longtime reliever who ended his career with the Royals in 2001, remembered that Mendoza was deflated when he reported to Omaha in 2010. Even worse, his pitches were flatter than a pancake. The solution was to get Mendoza on the top of the ball and delivering downhill so that his pitches sank.

    “He tried it and didn’t like it and went back to his old stuff,” Henry recalled. “And then one day, to his credit, he came in and said, ‘I’m ready. Let’s do this for real.’ That was about midseason in 2010. He made the change and he’s been at it wholeheartedly since and he became the pitcher he is now. He’s given himself a chance to be successful in the big leagues. The ball’s sinking, it’s not flat over the zone anymore. He’s a big horse and he’s got the potential to have some fun up there this year.”

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    • touchstone033 says:

      It should also be noted that, after changing his mechanics, Mendoza won the PCL ERA title at 2.18 over 144 innings. That’s doubly impressive, given the PCL is a notorious hitters’ league.

      That’s not to say he’s an MLB ace, but league-average production at the back of the KCR rotation would be a good story for the Royals, baseball, and Mendoza himself…

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    • colin says:

      Sinking fastballs are nice, but generally that is not the pitch I would look for to support a massive K% increase. GB rate fine, and maybe that will allow him to be a better pitcher overall, but I am selling the K%.

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      • touchstone033 says:

        Fair enough. I didn’t follow Mike’s link to see that the mechanics change was known. I am, as always, an idiot.

        That said, where did Matusz fit on this list?

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      • Matusz’ spring K% is only about 22%, which is lower than I expected given the K/9. That’s because his BABIP is high, inflating the strikeout rate. So he wasn’t that close.

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    • kozilla says:

      In a previous fangraphs article it discussed how Mendoza not only changed his mechanics but he also has increased his FB velocity by 2-4 MPH.

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  4. Pops says:

    Luke Hochevar… how you tempt me with your improving K%. Just can’t pull the trigger, but I’ll be watching closely when the season begins. Homer Bailey would be the first to go. Speaking of Homer Bailey, any word on the fifth starter role in Cincy this season?

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    • I own Bailey in all 3 of my leagues. With Madson done, I’d have to think they’d want Chapman back in the bullpen. And Francis sucks. Would be shocked if Bailey didn’t win the job.

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      • Pops says:

        The Reds aren’t paying Chapman $30 million to pitch in middle relief. Maybe the roles are reversed an Bailey goes to the bullpen? I’ve got my eye on guys like Nicasio and Hochevar in the event that Bailey loses out on the fifth spot.

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      • Agreed, but Bailey has never pitched in relief. Chapman has. So it would simply be easier for them to continue the roles the 2 pitchers have performed in recently. Chapman can then be the first guy in line to replace an injured starter.

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  5. guesswork says:

    Why use Marcel for the analysis and then switch to Steamer? I’m assuming there’s not much of a difference, but that could definitely introduce problems. Could you also post the same table for Marcel? Or, if past Steamer projections are available, redo the analysis with those.

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    • Very simple- historical Marcel projections were very easy to retrieve. I’m not sure that Steamer was, though I’m sure I could have found out. There’s no reason to do this analysis again using Marcel projections because the Steamer ones are better.

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  6. batpig says:

    speaking of Steamer…. doesn’t it strike you as odd that their ERA/WHIP projections are, in the aggregate, so much higher than any other projection system? Especially WHIP. Perhaps there’s a huge amount of regression built in, but they only project 4 pitchers to have a WHIP below 1.20 (Halladay, Lee, Strasburg, Greinke) with nobody doing better than 1.13.

    If you click on any player page and compare the Steamer projection to the other systems, they are almost guaranteed to be higher in ERA/WHIP. Perhaps they are projecting a much higher offensive environment overall or something?

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    • Didn’t even notice that, but when checking out some guys with sub-1.20 WHIPs from ZiPS like Kershaw, Verlander and Josh Johnson, all of them were projected for much higher BABIPs by Steamer. All over .300, which made little sense given their history. I just emailed Jared Cross to ask him about it.

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  7. Big Oil says:

    Any buyers of Samardija? Law said, basically, that a “light has gone on” with him. Further, he’s got unreal ratios so far, notwithstanding his outing last week.

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    • Yuuuup. He throws hard too, another plus. He was drafted in my league last night and picked up in my home league recently, but still available in LABR mixed, because that draft was before spring training. I think his control is more important than his strikeout potential, which we know he has. Did the light go on for his control?

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      • Big Oil says:

        Thanks for the reply, Mike. I’ve looked for stories around the internet about a changed approach, new pitch, mechanics, or something, but can’t find much. Pitch F/X data from his spring starts could help, and maybe I’ll look at his 2nd half from last year in comparison to 2010 to see if that shows anything up.

        Here it is from Law’s chat:

        Ralph (Johnsville)

        Have you seen the supposedly new and improved Jeff Samardzija this spring, Thoughts?
        (2:04 PM)

        Haven’t seen, hoping to catch his next outing if I’m in AZ. Have heard it’s been an unbelievable transformation – like the light bulb just went on. It’s just spring, but I’ve seen him in past springs where I wouldn’t have given him a snowball’s chance of big league value, so there’s at least something different there.

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  8. Peter says:

    Okay, let’s say we accept the premise that spring training K% and BB% have some predictive power, even when controlling for projections (such as Marcel) that presumably encapsulate most of the available predictive power derivable from regular season stats (and perhaps additional, non-performance based variables such as age). Why not? I’m an open-minded guy…

    As a result, you now feel emboldened in your prediction of Liriano being a top-10 starter. But you have yourself demonstrated that Marcel projections are (of course) more reliable than those based on spring stats. Marcel predicts a fairly unimpressive season for Mr. Liriano, whereas spring stats predict greatness.

    By your own model, you should be weighting Marcel more, but instead you’re basing your prediction emphatically on an impressive preseason. So it seems to me that you have supported an argument for Liriano outperforming his Marcel projections, but still have not provided a basis for the prediction of Liriano being a top-10 starter—a stronger claim.

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    • Very simple answer: health. Marcel, and any projection system, has no idea why players post the numbers they do, are unaware of injuries, etc. Liriano was not fully healthy last year. His spring suggests that he is now. We all know how good Liriano can be when healthy- he’s shown us before.

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      • Peter says:

        That is a reasonable explanation for why spring training stats might have some predictive power above and beyond Marcel projections (that is, an impressive spring might well be indicative of good health). Unfortunately, that doesn’t answer *my* question, which was “Why weight spring stats *more* than Marcel predictions, when Marcel predictions are more reliable according to your own model?”

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      • Because Marcel projections for players like Liriano are pretty much worthless. Brian Matusz is another guy. Marcel has no idea his velocity was down last year and he was hurt. Spring tells us he’s healthy.

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  9. MrGJG says:

    Man, Greinke continues to miss bats at an incredible rate. I could see him getting 250+K this year if he can stay healthy.

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  10. Nate says:

    The Ks are certainly coming fast for Hammel in the last couple of starts. Anyone heard about an mechanical adjustment or new pitch, etc, or are we (more likely) just seeing the effects luck and/or facing the White Sox?

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    • Funny, I just checked his Fangraphs page before your comment because I noticed that even before tonight he had a strong K/9. Two things stand out to me- velocity up a bit and now at a career high and he has thrown his slider 9% more often than last year. Obviously, more sliders should lead to more strikeouts. He’s always had a slight ground ball tilt and his GB% is way up. So far so good on a breakout.

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  11. balticfox1917 says:

    I watched Hammel pitch last night against the Jays. A generous strike zone helped but this is not the same pitcher I saw last year.
    His two-seamer had a lot of movement toward the outside side of the plate against lefties; looks like a strike but tails away at the last millisecond. The LH Jays hitters had a tough time laying off of it.
    Jim Palmer said during last week’s start against the ChiSox that Hammel had added a splitter and a cutter to his arsenal during spring training. I didn’t see much evidence of a cutter last night–a pitch that generally dives down against hitters batting from the opposite side–but his command of the strike zone was superb again.
    I only saw Hammel once last yr. but one thing stands out: it appears that he has worked on his mechanics during the spring. His delivery seems to be a lot more repeatable than when I saw him last year with the Rockies.
    His velocity was great: hit frequently hit 95-96 with his fastballs.
    Hammel is definitely worth a pick up right now in most leagues.

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