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Going Deep: Five Starting Pitchers to Watch in Week One

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In this article we take a thorough look at five intriguing pitchers with questions that can be answered in their first starts of the season.

Pitching is far from an exact science, especially when examining a pitcher through the lens of a single start, but there are a few key indicators that I will be looking for early on in these pitchers that could foreshadow long-term success. Depending on each pitcher’s profile, I will be looking for changes in velocity, pitch mix, and pitch utilization. I want to see if these five pitchers are still throwing hard enough, have developed a new pitch, have meaningfully improved an existing pitch, or are utilizing their best pitches more often.

Here are five starters to keep a close eye on in Week One.

Yusei Kikuchi, SP, Seattle Mariners
Kikuchi’s transition from Japan to Major League Baseball hasn’t gone all that well, as he’s racked up a career 5.39 ERA in 208.2 IP since coming over. While Kikuchi’s 5.17 ERA last year was still poor, he actually improved a ton in K/9, H/9, HR/9, and SIERA, only regressing in BB/9. If you aren’t familiar with SIERA (my favorite ERA estimator) it stands for skill-interactive earned run average and it takes into account the types of balls in play that pitchers allow more than other metrics. Back to Kikuchi, walking more hitters is never ideal, but in Kikuchi’s case it meant giving into hitters less and cutting down on home runs allowed, so take the regression in the BB/9 department with a grain of salt.

Where did all of that underlying improvement come from and what should we be looking for to see if it will continue? The first thing to look at is velocity. Kikuchi upped his average fastball velocity from 92.5 MPH in 2019 to 95.0 MPH in 2020; that’s huge and it partially explains the big jumps he made in many categories. The next major change Kikuchi made was altering his pitch mix in a big way.

Kikuchi scrapped his curveball in favor of a new cutter while changing his slider’s shape to include more vertical break. He threw the new cutter 40% of the time, more than any other pitch. That is highly unusual for a new pitch, and it was also his most effective offering. The improved slider also went from being a very poor pitch in 2019 to a slightly above average one in 2020, which was key. Despite the newfound velocity, the fastball will likely never be a good pitch due to Kikuchi’s propensity to leave it over the plate, but the added velocity allowed it to play just a little below average in 2020, as opposed to horrible like it was in 2019.

Kikuchi looks poised to toe the rubber against a potent White Sox offense in the first week of the season, so don’t panic if he gets hit hard. Overall, in this first start we should be looking for Kikuchi to show that he can maintain the velocity gains on his fastball, continue to heavily utilize the cutter, continue to develop his new slider into a whiff pitch with increased usage, and cut down on overall fastball usage while throwing it higher up in the zone. If we see most or all of these things from Kikuchi this week then he should be a solid fantasy asset and a player worth targeting on the waiver wire or through trade.

Tarik Skubal, SP, Detroit Tigers
Full disclosure, I’ve been enamored with Skubal since he first started to have success in the minors. I’ve always been drawn to him because he effortlessly racked up swinging strikes with his fastball despite not having elite velocity. Another strength that plays into the fastball’s dominance is deception. Skubal’s delivery is incredibly quirky and deceptive and all of his stuff plays up because of it. We’re talking about a guy who struck out 37 percent of hitters in the minor leagues; no other starter was remotely close to matching those rates while he was there.

Skubal had a solid 2020 debut in the majors all things considered. In his 32 innings he struck out 37 batters while maintaining a 1.20 WHIP, great numbers for a rookie. Unfortunately, Skubal’s ERA lagged behind at 5.63 mainly due to home run issues, but walks played a small part as well. Command is what will dictate Skubal’s success both this year and far into the future, if he can learn to throw his slider and changeup for strikes even a little bit, he should be deadly. 

Skubal already showed that his fastball plays as a strikeout pitch at the highest level, and while it did get hit hard at times (.547 SLG/ .250 BA) the pitch had an xSLG of .441 and an xBA of just .201, so positive regression is likely coming in terms of hits and homers allowed. Skubal threw the fastball a whopping 58.9% of the time, so if he is able to mix in more secondary pitches the fastball should be more effective with hitters seeing it less. Even more encouraging was the slider’s performance. Skubal’s slider allowed opposing hitters just a .185 BA and .333 SLG, numbers that are only projected for minor regression by Statcast. The eye test matches the metrics in this case, it’s a nasty pitch and he would really benefit from throwing it more in place of the fastball.

The changeup is perhaps the swing pitch for Skubal, as it got hammered (.538 SLG) last year and Statcast shows that it could’ve been even worse. He threw the changeup more than the slider which is encouraging because he at least has some comfort and confidence with the pitch, but the slider clearly should be utilized more long-term. Interestingly the changeup has almost no vertical break, so I’d like to see him experiment with different grips that can provide a vertical element if possible. 

Skubal will either face a beatable Cleveland Indians lineup or a tough Minnesota Twins lineup in his first start of the season. Either way I’ll be watching closely to see if Skubal pumps up his slider usage, shows an improved changeup, and throws more strikes. If he checks those boxes then we could be looking at a high K rate starter with a decent ERA and a very good WHIP. If he doesn’t show all of those things right away we shouldn’t write him off because he’s still so early in his development, but if he does, don’t hesitate to grab him off the wire or in a trade as soon as possible. 

Jamison Taillon, SP, New York Yankees
It’s been a very long time since we last saw Taillon pitch in a Major League Baseball game, as he last pitched with the Pittsburgh Pirates in early 2019. Taillon hasn’t pitched since because he’s been recovering from his second Tommy John Surgery. We’ve rarely seen pitchers come back from a second Tommy John surgery to be effective again, but modern medicine and rehab protocols figure to make a successful comeback much more attainable than it has been in the past. 

When Taillon hasn’t been sidelined with elbow injuries, he’s been a very good fantasy asset, compiling the following career numbers: 3.67 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and a 29-24 record despite pitching for bad Pirates teams. Advanced metrics also look at him favorably as he’s compiled a 3.67 xFIP and a 3.93 SIERA over his career. Taillon hasn’t been a strikeout pitcher, which makes those advanced numbers look even better considering that pitchers with his profile can outperform them consistently. Taillon hasn’t been a liability in the strikeout department like a Miles Mikolas type pitcher is, but he has succeeded by limiting walks, homers, and hard contact. Being that Taillon is now on a very good Yankees team there is a lot more win equity in his fantasy profile this year if he can get back to his old self.

In order to find out what we can expect of Taillon in a Yankee uniform I’m looking closely at his Spring Training performances since we haven’t seen him pitch since early 2019. Before Taillon got out on the mound he revealed that he wants to emphasize a new four-seamer up in the zone in addition to his typical sinker-heavy approach. This is a double-edged-sword in my eyes because while the new approach should really help him generate more strikeouts, it could also lead to more hard contact and home runs if he’s not careful. The good news is that in eight spring innings, he struck out 14 hitters and didn’t allow a home run. 

Last time we saw Taillon in 2019 he was throwing his fastball right around 95 MPH, but thus far it’s hovered around 92 MPH in Spring Training action. I’m not panicking because he’s coming off of a second Tommy John Surgery and should need time for his velocity to recover, but it should be acknowledged that it’s possible that it never does. That being said, he has performed well in the spring so far even with a 92 MPH heater and he’s always had good command, so he might not need a 95 MPH fastball to produce. 

Taillon is likely going to start the Yankees sixth game of the year against the Baltimore Orioles, so he gets to ease himself back in against a poor lineup. I’ll be looking closely at a few things in that start. The main questions I want answered are: Will Taillon actually utilize a high four-seamer approach? If so, can he limit hard contact while racking up more K’s? Is he still sitting at 92, or is he gaining/losing velocity compared to his spring starts? If Taillon is successful with his new approach and the velocity doesn’t decline I’m very interested in him as a waiver wire/trade target who could provide plenty of wins and quality ratios all year long.

Drew Smyly, SP, Atlanta Braves
Smyly only has one impactful fantasy season on his resume, and it came way back in 2014. Smyly is also a 31-year-old career journeyman with a cumulative 4.13 ERA, 9.04 K/9, and 1.26 WHIP who has struggled to stay healthy. So why should we be interested in watching him this week? We should be interested because in a small sample size of 26.1 innings in 2020 with the San Francisco Giants, Smyly reinvented himself into a strikeout machine, posting a ridiculous 14.35 K/9 to go along with a nice 3.42 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP. 

Smyly broke out as a strikeout artist last year by improving his four-seamer/cutter combo and scrapping his poor changeup in favor of increased curveball usage, and let me tell you – that curveball is an absolute beauty. Smyly’s curveball had the fourth best whiff % (50%) among all starters in 2020. The only starting pitchers with a better curveball whiff rate last year? Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Bieber. The curveball is the key to Smyly’s potential emergence as a fantasy contributor, but he quietly excelled with both his four-seamer and his cutter last year as well after they were terrible in 2019. One reason for this is that Smyly’s nasty curveball was likely in the back of opposing hitter’s minds every time Smyly threw a pitch, but I want to take a closer look at why those two pitches were successful last year. 

In 2019 Smyly averaged just 91.2 MPH on his four-seamer that he threw about 50 percent of the time, which is not ideal, especially considering that hitters teed off on it to the tune of a .268 average and .627 SLG. That all changed in 2020 as Smyly averaged 93.2 MPH on the pitch and made a concerted effort to locate it up in the zone where its vertical ride played up. The results were night and day. In 2020 hitters batted just .237 against his four-seamer and slugged just .263. Interestingly, the Statcast expected stats say that the fastball’s performance was somewhat fluky in 2020 (.282 xBA and .441 xSLG), so I’m interested to see how it plays in the smaller ballpark this year in Atlanta.

Moving on to the cutter, Smyly threw the pitch 89.3 MPH on average last year as opposed to just 86.7 MPH in 2019, making it one of the harder cutters thrown by a starting pitcher. It was Drew’s least-thrown pitch, but the added velocity helped it play up a ton. Hitters batted just .143 and even slugged just .143 (not a typo) against the cutter last year, which is super important because a lefty with no changeup must be able pound right handers inside with a quality pitch to get them out. It’s almost unimaginable to think that just one year prior hitters absolutely tattooed Smyly’s cutter, slugging an insane .719 against the pitch while hitting for a .365 average. Statcast says that the pitch will regress a little bit in 2021, but the expected stats say that the gains were mostly legit.

Smyly will likely face off against the Washington Nationals in his first start of 2021; in that start I want to see Smyly keep his velocity gains from a year ago and utilize a similar pitch mix. If the velocity is there and the stuff (particularly the curve) looks nasty, I won’t be put off by one poor outing should he struggle. Overall, if we see something resembling the 2020 version of Smyly this week you can do a lot worse on the waiver wire or the trade market. At the very least, Smyly should be a high-end streamer in good match-ups who can contribute in wins and strikeouts.

James Paxton, SP, Seattle Mariners
Paxton has always been a pitcher that dealt with some injuries, but last year, injuries completely took him off the map in terms of fantasy relevance. While he never put up massive innings totals, Paxton was a very good fantasy starter for many years up until last season. Paxton provided massive strikeout numbers, above-average ERA and WHIP, as well as double digit wins regularly from 2017-2019. It seems that one injury-laden year has completely turned off most of the industry, and it’s somewhat understandable given his injury history and age (32), but he might not be done just yet. 

Last year Paxton’s average fastball velocity regressed down to 92.4 MPH from 95 MPH in 2019, and it really hurt him. This was shown by the fact that hitters slugged a whopping .625 against the pitch in 2020. Paxton only pitched 20.1 innings last year, so I’m not going to overanalyze his performance given that he was dealing with a major injury, but it was very encouraging that he was still able to keep up his ridiculous strikeout numbers despite the fastball velocity being down. 

Let’s dive into Paxton’s Spring Training. Paxton didn’t make his Cactus League debut until March 23rd, as the team had him building himself up in “B” games before throwing him into real action. During that time, more than one report surfaced claiming that Paxton was sitting at least 94 MPH on his fastball, and it showed in his spring debut as he sat around 94 and even hit 97. Paxton showed that the velocity could be back in his other spring start as well on his way to racking up 17 strikeouts in 8.1 innings of Cactus League play.

It’s great that Paxton looked like he is all systems go in the spring, but that was with limited pitch counts against poor lineups. In his first start against the Giants, I’m looking to see if he can hold his velocity past 60 or so pitches and command his pitches well enough to let his nasty stuff take over. If Paxton is able to do those things and he looks crisp with his off-speed stuff then I’m back in on him 100 percent as a waiver wire pickup, but if you consider trading for him, remember to keep his injury history in mind when negotiating.

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