This article is part of our The Saber's Edge series.The simplest way for a starting pitcher to stay in the league a long time is to strikeout as many batters as possible, not walk any batters and when batters do hit the ball make sure it is on the ground. If a pitcher can consistently do these three things, he can be valuable this season and in the future.
This week, I will look at pitchers excelling in these three categories this season and go into some detail on each.
To find the pitchers to examine I use the 50/20/10 rule; greater than 50 percent ground balls, greater than 20 percent strikeouts and less than 10 percent walks. I used these breaking points for two reasons. First, they are simple numbers to remember. The breaks could be adjusted higher or lower a bit to fit a person's desired results. The second key is that only a select few starters make these cutoffs. Of the 105 qualified starters this season, only 14 made the list with some just barely making it the cutoff in one or more categories.
Well, I might as well get to the list of players.
The list has some known great starters, but some names in the list are surprising. Time to dive into and find out how these pitchers are performing at this level.
Noah Syndergaard, Jake Arrieta
I will let someone else describe how they ride to the pitcher's mound on unicorns and each of their pitches has a rainbow following it.
The last two seasons, no pitcher has seemed to underperform his peripherals more than Kluber. This season, his ERA (4.14) is about one run higher than his ERA estimators (2.70 FIP, 3.21 xFIP, 3.22 SIERA). The high ERA along with a just two wins could have him on the outs with his owner. He also has struggled with men on base (60.9 LOB%). No qualified starter in 2015 had an LOB% less than 66 percent, so some regression is coming. I see him as a perfect buy-low pitcher.
The reason people stayed away from Tanaka on draft day wasn't because of his pitching talent. Instead, owners were justly afraid they would lose him for the season to Tommy John surgery. Tanaka has a partially torn UCL and this offseason had bone chips removed, which help stabilize the UCL. I like the idea of owning him in shallow leagues where I can find an decent pitcher on the waiver wire. The only issue with him is the lone win in seven starts, but how pitchers get allocated Wins is always a crapshoot.
Garcia fits right in with Tanaka as a pitcher who has always displayed good talent but has an issue taking the mound every five days. He has never thrown more than 130 innings any season since 2011 when he threw 194. His 60-plus percent groundball rate helps to really limit the home runs (0.2 HR/9 in '16, 0.6 HR/9 in his career). The one big change this season that put him on this list was a 7 percent increase in strikeouts from last season. The reason comes down to hitters taking more of his pitches in the strike zone (more called strikes) and missing more when they swing. The only change in his arsenal is he has all but abandoned a bad curveball.
I am not sure if I am completely buying into Eovaldi. His peripherals look great, but the visible common stats don't. His 4.78 ERA and only two Wins look horrible. Digging deeper, his ERA is up because of a 1.4 HR/9 rate (0.7 HR/9 for his career), and his 3.13 xFIP and 3.14 SIERA are decent. The big change for him is the 23.7 K% with a previous MLB high of 18 percent last season. He has gone from using his slider (23 to 15 percent) to a split-finger fastball (17 to 27 percent). The split-finger fastball has a better swinging-strike rate (15 vs. 8 percent) and gets more groundballs (62 vs. 32 percent). He seems to be a nice hidden pitcher, and I could see him be a decent asset the rest of the season.
Rodon just barely made the list with the high walk rate, but at least his walk rate is down from last season (12 to 9 percent). Additionally, his groundball rate is up a bit (47 to 51 percent). He is just getting the snot knocked out of him with a 1.4 HR/9 and .336 BABIP, which is almost all from right-handed hitters. Additionally, his walk rate is 4.8 BB/9 with righties. He needs to figure out how to get righties out, or he may just be headed to the bullpen as a LOOGY.
There is some good and bad behind Roark's season. First, his strikeouts (22 percent) and groundballs (52 percent) are at career highs. But the reasons behind the changes don't stack up. His swinging-strike rate at 8.2 percent should correlate to a 16.4 K% (basically what he recorded in '14 and '15). His 2.03 ERA is low because of a 0.2 HR/9. Both his 3.59 xFIP and 3.86 SIERA point to higher future ERA. If I was his owner, I would sell him before some heavy regression occurs.
Sanchez is finally producing like people expected when he was a highly touted prospect a few years back. While he barely makes the cut with 20.9 K% and 9.1 BB%, he has made some good improvements. Compared to 2015, his walk rate is down from an unusable 12 percent to 9 percent. Also, his strikeouts are up 5 percent. The biggest difference has been his fastball, which he is throwing more in the strike zone (44 to 60 percent) and which hitters are swinging-and-missing at more (6 to 10 percent).
Jeff Samardzija: He is back to producing like he did with the Cubs with just a tad less velocity. He's a good pitcher and is back to using his sinker more with a nice boost in groundballs (39 percent in '15 to 50 percent in '16).
Taijuan Walker: Increase use of the split-finger has pushed his groundball rate above 50 percent. Also, he is walking almost no one (2.3 BB%).
Carlos Martinez: Barely made the cut, with drops in K% (24 to 20 percent) and GB% (55 to 50 percent). I could see some ERA (2.61) regression into the 4.00 range (3.83 FIP, 3.98 xFIP)
Steven Matz: His change has been an increase in groundballs from all his pitches. I would expect a high groundball rate from him because of his ability to limit home runs in the minors.