Young starters have made strides to lower walk rates
By Paul Sporer
Special to MLB.com |
The early season is the trickiest part of the year for fantasy players.
You don't want to overreact to any hot or cold starts. But you also don't want to miss out on a chance to add a difference-making player.
While definitive answers aren't available yet, some signs exist that will help with the decision-making process going forward. With that in mind, let's look at two really intriguing arms off to solid starts and see how they're attacking their biggest flaw: walks.
Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays: Moore entered 2016 with an 11 percent career walk rate -- simply too high to find consistent success. So when you see the four percent walk rate for Moore through three starts, it instantly jumps off the page.
As is often the case when someone is struggling with walks, fastball command has been the issue for Moore. He has never had lower than a 10 percent walk rate with the pitch. But rather than relying on the fastball less this year and helping his walk rate that way, the left-hander is actually using the fastball a lot more and commanding it better than ever.
His fastball usage against righties is particularly important for this exercise, in large part because he has 46 plate appearances that have ended on the pitch this year and 42 of them are against righties.
His walk rate is just seven percent across those 42 plate appearances, down from 16 percent in 709 plate appearances from 2011-2015. That's great, but he hasn't made any strides with his first-pitch strike rate. It's static at 56 percent with the fastball vs. righties but 51 percent at large, down nine percentage points from 2015.
On the plus side, the pitch has been more effective at getting outs overall.
Moore allowed an .805 OPS to righties with the fastball prior to 2016, but that's down to .479 so far this year. The lefty is generating more swings (46 percent to 49 percent) and misses (23 percent to 26 percent), and his 28 percent strikeout rate is his highest since his 2011 cameo when he logged a 30 percent mark on 30 plate appearances.
As for his pitch location, Moore has been working the fastball on the inner third to righties at a 52 percent clip. That is up from 42 percent over 2011-15 and easily the highest of any year.
Fantasy owners haven't seen enough to totally buy this renaissance with Moore's walk rate just yet, but there are some encouraging signs. The new approach (working inside to righties) has been very successful and has functioned as a key driver in the decreased walk rate.
But he still hasn't hit the road, where his walk rate is actually much worse than at Tropicana Field (12 percent compared to nine percent at home). Fantasy owners could also feel a lot better about this walk-rate improvement if he was throwing more first-pitch strikes.
Aaron Sanchez, Toronto Blue Jays: Sanchez is like a younger, righty version of Moore at this point: He has a lot of promise and electric stuff but has walked too many to find consistent success.
He hasn't been around as long with just 145 1/3 Major League innings -- 59 1/3 of which have been in relief -- but his walk issues were prominent throughout his Minor League career, too. He walked 13 percent of the batters he faced in the Minors and he's at 11 percent in the Majors, even with a seven percent mark out of the bullpen.
His nine percent walk rate so far this season is still below average, but it's a big improvement from the 12 percent he logged as a starter in his first two seasons.
The exercise with Sanchez won't be that much different than it was with Moore in terms of looking at his fastball performance, as Sanchez has used his heater 76 percent of the time this year and 81 percent for his career. But unlike Moore, Sanchez has used his fastball frequently to end plate appearances vs. both righties and lefties, which provides a more complete sample of data.
Sanchez had 200 plate appearances ending on a fastball prior to 2016; righties had a 10 percent walk rate and lefties were at 15 percent. So far this year, he has just a four percent walk rate vs. righties in 26 plate appearances, but lefties are up at 19 percent in 32 plate appearances.
A sharp jump in called strikes seems to be the driving force against righties, as Sanchez has a 47 percent called-strike rate so far compared to 35 percent against righties prior to 2016. He hasn't made any stark changes in location approach, though he is working it on the outside a bit more.
While his walk rate is markedly worse against lefties, he has still been successful against them overall (.158/.273/.342 slash line), save home runs allowed to Corey Dickerson and Brian McCann.
He's actually throwing the fastball in the zone a lot more to lefties at 56 percent, up from 47 percent in 2014-15. He's also getting more first-pitch strikes and more strikes overall, and lefties are making less contact against him. They're chasing about the same and he's getting a lot more called strikes.
While these positive factors don't all relate directly to walk rate, Sanchez is trending in a way that should yield fewer walks going forward.
Fantasy owners should be more encouraged by Sanchez's early season development than they are worried about the continued walk "issues" against lefties. Sure, he's unlikely to maintain his .170 BABIP, but that mark also speaks to how difficult he has been to square up consistently. And with filthy stuff like his, he can live with a worse-than-average walk rate. There's a cutoff point, of course, but the nine percent range is livable for Sanchez.