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By The Numbers

The Right Stuff: Second Half Starting Pitcher Standouts

by Matt Williams
Updated On: September 15, 2021, 3:23 pm ET

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In this week’s “By The Numbers” breakdown, the analysis will focus on elite starting pitching parameters in the second half. The goal will be to identify players that have shown the ability to generate whiffs while limiting contact within the strike zone. This is a lethal combination that all but guarantees positive results over time.

The advanced metrics we will be measuring will be O-Swing%, Z-Contact%, SwStr% (swinging strike percentage), K-BB%, StuffERA, and rfCommand. Below is a brief explanation of each statistic:

 

  • O-Swing%: Swings at pitches outside of the zone divided by pitches out of the zone
  • Z-Contact%: Contact made on pitches within the zone divided by swings within the zone
  • SwStr%: Swings and misses divided by total pitches
  • K-BB%: Strikeout rate minus walk rate
  • StuffERA: Evaluates a pitcher based on location/expected outcome
  • rfCommand: ERA Based estimator factoring in influence metrics and command

 

StuffERA and rfCommand are measurements from RotoFanatic that give an in-depth snapshot of a pitcher’s overall effectiveness. In today’s breakdown, a percentile of where each player finished among the league will be used instead of a raw score.

The parameters for O-Swing%, Z-Contact%, and SwStr% will be cut off at the league average for each measurement. This is to say that every pitcher on the list will carry an above-average rate in every statistic. Below are the league average rates for each metric:

 

  • O-Swing: 31.2%
  • Z-Contact: 84.6%
  • SwStr: 11.3%

 

The list will be further narrowed down by only including starting pitchers to post a K-BB rate of at least 20 percent (league average is 14.6 percent), so that you can be certain that every player on this list is well-deserving of your attention.

 

Second Half Standouts


 

Below is a chart that showcases starting pitchers that have hit all of the parameters listed above in the second half:

 

SP Discipline Chart

 

The majority of the names on this list should not be a surprise. Corbin Burnes, Zack Wheeler, Max Scherzer, and Kevin Gausman have been among the best pitchers in the league all season long, while Robbie Ray has finally turned the corner baseball enthusiasts have been waiting for. Aaron Nola has been through an up and down season due to an issue with the long ball but also tied Tom Seaver’s record (along with Corbin Burnes) for consecutive strikeouts in a game year.

The rest of the names in the chart above may raise an eyebrow or two, and that is what makes research like this so valuable (and fun). The elite names on the list confirm why the parameters are legitimate while the outliers give you a reason to dive deeper into why.

 

The Right Stuff: Outliers


Nathan Eovaldi, Boston Red Sox

The right-hander was forced into the “ace” role in Boston to start the year after Chris Sale was sidelined for most of the season after Tommy John surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez questionable with a heart condition. Eovaldi responded by turning in the best season of his career.

After reintroducing a slider back into his repertoire, the 31-year-old has been able to control opposing batters with a five-pitch mix built around his four-seam fastball:

 

  • Four-Seam: 42.6%
  • Curveball: 18.5%
  • Slider: 13.5%
  • Cutter: 13.0%
  • Split Finger: 12.4%

 

Eovaldi has been able to generate a 39.5 percent whiff rate on his curveball this season while posting a 37.3 percent mark with his newly added slider. This has led to the second-highest K/9 and strikeout percentage of the veteran’s career.

 

Eovaldi Curve

 

A 39.8 percent O-swing rate on Eovaldi’s cutter, along with a 35.4 percent O-swing on his splitter give the righty a strong swing and miss base while his curveball (73.7% Z-swing) and slider (77.4% Z-swing) have proven difficult for opposing hitters to connect on within the zone. A balanced attack gives Eovaldi the ability to get hitters out in a variety of ways.

 

Eovaldi Location

 

A 3.57 ERA is backed up by an impressive 2.86 FIP thanks to a league-best 4.4 percent walk rate and 0.77 HR/9. Nathan Eovaldi is not as good as you think, he is better. However, the stigma surrounding his injury history will be difficult for some fantasy managers to overlook. This could lead to another discount in drafts for the 2022 season
 

Sean Manaea, Oakland Athletics

The 29-year-old has shown glimpses of greatness in the past, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued his career coming into his campaign. In his rookie year, Manaea posted a 3.86 ERA before carrying a disappointing 4.37 mark in his sophomore season. The southpaw would bounce back with a strong season in 2018, which included a no-hitter versus the Red Sox, but would end prematurely after a left shoulder impingement ended his season.

Manaea would go on to require shoulder surgery without ever having generated a FIP under four or strike out more than 7.94 K/9. That changed in 2019 over a brief 29 2/3 innings in September when the left-hander returned from the injured list stronger than ever, posting a 1.21 ERA, 3.42 FIP, and a 0.78 WHIP over five starts despite diminished velocity.

In 2020 the Athletics ace would add a curveball to his arsenal but was ineffective in the box score posting a 4.50 ERA, the highest of his career. Many of Manaea’s troubles were due to an elevated BABIP and 60.6 percent left on base rate, but a 3.71 FIP (along with a 3.93 xERA) suggested that his results over a small sample size over 54 innings could be masking his true potential.

The Oakland southpaw would raise eyebrows in Spring Training before the 2021 season by adding extra velocity that would land him back at levels not seen since 2016. Manaea would parlay that newfound velocity into an arsenal that would remove his old slider completely and focus solely on his sinker, changeup, and curveball. The results speak for themselves.

Manaea now boasts the highest swinging strike rate of his career along with the lowest in-zone contact rate, despite working in the zone at a higher clip than ever before. Most of his success is due to the left-hander's fantastic changeup, which generates a 36.6 percent O-Swing, 15.8 percent swinging-strike rate, and a 6.8 pVAL. Manaea’s changeup improved from 84 percent active spin a year ago to 96 percent this season, adding 6.3 inches of additional movement. 

 

Manaea changeup

 

One strange takeaway from Manaea’s success is that his sinker is actually his worst ground ball pitch. At just a 36.8 percent ground ball rate, the lefties changeup (51.8) and curveball (43.8) both produce balls on the ground at a higher clip. However, the sinker does generate an 11 percent swinging-strike rate and a 27.5 percent strikeout rate. Previous strikeout rates for his sinker, starting with his rookie year, have been 13.2, 12.7, 24.6, and 15.7 percent.

 

Manaea Sinker

 

The bottom line for Sean Manaea is that his velocity has returned to pre-surgery levels and he has now tossed well over 200 innings since without a health scare. If he were able to tame his home run rate to career norms, there could be another gear we have yet to see, but given his new high contact approach, this is possibly the new norm. Manaea has posted the sixth-best K-BB percentage in the second half and shows no signs of slowing down. 

 

Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins

Alcantara has “6+4+3=2” tattooed on his arm. That should give you an idea of what kind of result the sinkerballer is looking for when he takes the mound. The big difference between the 26-year-old and your average ground ball pitcher is one particular factor: Alcantara throws 100 miles per hour. 

The right-hander has been successful for almost his entire career, posting a 3.52 ERA over 462 1/3 innings over five seasons of scattered works in the majors. Over his first full year with the Marlins in 2019 Alcantara recorded a 3.88 ERA and 4.55 FIP over 197 1/3 innings with a 6.89 K/9 (18% K rate).

In Alcantara’s follow-up season he was limited to just 42 frames due to missing time on the COVID-19 injured list for most of August. When on the mound though, the righty was fantastic, posting a 49.1 percent groundball rate, 3.00 ERA, and 1.19 WHIP with an improved 22.7 strikeout rate. However, this was an incredibly small sample size that left the question of whether or not this step forward was viable long term. That question has been answered this season.

Miami’s ace not only continued down a path of overall improvement, but he made changes to ensure even further growth. Alcantara increased the usage of his changeup from 10.3 percent in 2020 to 24.7 percent this year. This has been a very important alteration to his arsenal given the fact that the pitch registered a 37.1 percent whiff rate a season ago. 

 

Alcantara Usage

 

Alcantara went from primarily throwing a sinker 34.9 percent of the time to having four pitches above the 20 percent mark. The adjustment has led to a career-best 24.3 percent strikeout rate and 3.49 FIP (3.24 ERA). Not only that, but the right-hander has also posted his highest ground ball rate (52.5%) while continuing to lower his walk rate to 6.5 percent. 

The trend has been even more evident in the second half of the season with Alcantara carrying a 24 percent K-BB rate due to a 29.5 percent strikeout rate. The Marlins righty struck out a career-high 14 batters across nine innings of one-run ball on September 9th, while reaching 101.5 miles per hour on the radar gun. It was the third time that Alcantara has collected double-digits in his last four outings.

 

Alcantara K

 

One of the most important traits that make Alcantara such a valuable pitcher in fantasy, and real-life, is his ability to tally innings. As of Monday, September 13th, the Miami sinkerballer had seven starts of at least eight innings, which leads the major leagues (tied with Wainwright).

Sandy Alcantara is carrying a 3.12 ERA over these last 15 starts (1.55 over last seven) with a 1.05 WHIP over 95 1/3 innings and has shown the ability to be elite in several key areas: generating weak contact, forcing whiffs, and compiling innings. These are the exact qualities a fantasy manager is looking for, and at 26-years-old Alcantara is just getting started. 

 

Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox

The White Sox right-hander may be a bit of a surprise on this list due to the fact that he has posted a 4.40 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in the second half while walking 9.9 percent of batters.

Yes, that is a concern.

The good news is that Cease has also struck out 33.6 percent of hitters during that time frame and has posted a 3.63 FIP. The 25-year-old has fanned 202 batters this year over 151 1/3 innings and has shown moments of dominance throughout the season.

Cease’s pitch arsenal has remained steady over the last two seasons, for the most part, leading the way with a four-seam fastball just over 46 percent of the time with a slider backing it up around the 30 percent mark. The only real change was swapping a 12.7% changeup and 9.3% curveball this season to a near inverse of usage. However, this is not the source of improvement.

The Chicago righty has seen an increase in vertical movement on his fastball of 2.5 inches due to an uptick in pitch efficiency. This has improved the effectiveness of the four-seam, but the real difference has been with Cease’s slider. A drop in active spin percentage from 51 percent to 39 percent has caused the pitch to lose vertical drop and instead flatten out a bit more, allowing the pitch to “slide” more than drop.

 

Cease Slider

 

Cease has generated above a 40 percent strikeout rate on three of his pitches this season (changeup, curve, slider) while posting a near 50 percent whiff rate on both the slider and changeup. The curveball can be especially vicious, at a 48.4 percent strikeout rate, as it mirrors the fastball out of Cease's hand. 

 

Cease Curve

 

Liam Hendriks introduced Cease to Codify this past offseason, which is a game-planning visualization service that teaches pitchers how to fine-tune their arsenal. There may be a few bumps in the road yet to come, but at 25-years-old Dylan Cease has the making of a possible ace if he can overcome his walk issues.

 

Frankie Montas, Oakland Athletics

Montas has been a breakout waiting to happen ever since his 2019 season when he posted a 2.63 ERA over 96 frames with a 26.1 percent strikeout rate. The 28-year-old had been suspended for use of an illegal substance and it was unclear if he would return to form. However, a strong performance built a hype train around the right-hander heading into the 2020 season.

The COVID shortened campaign was difficult for many reasons, but the A’s righty was unable to get into a groove until late due to a back injury that lingered throughout most of the season. The result was a 5.60 ERA and 4.74 FIP over 54 innings with a 9.7 percent walk rate. It was not until the very last start of the year that Montas would tease everyone with a six-inning, 13 strikeout game versus the Mariners.

2021 would bring a new season and a major discount in fantasy drafts for anyone willing to take a chance. Hopefully, you did.

Known for his splitter, Montas' main weapon on the mound has typically been his sinker. The only issue is that the sinker itself is not a very good pitch. It lacks quality movement and generated a mere 36.1 percent ground ball rate last season. The good news is that Montas did exactly what you should do with a pitch like the one just described, throw it less.

Montas went from tossing his sinker 38.1 percent of the time to 29.4 percent this season, while nearly doubling the usage of his splitter. At 51.8 percent, the split-finger fastball is the right-hander’s best swing and miss offering that holds a run value of negative six and a pVal of eight. It is nearly impossible for hitters to lay off, which you can tell when comparing its 28.4 percent zone rate versus a 41.6 percent O-Swing.

 

Montas Splitter

 

When you look at the chart near the beginning of this article, you will notice that Montas posted a 36.2 percent O-Swing in the second half. The impressive part is that no other pitch aside from the splitter registers above 28 percent. That is how dangerous that pitch can be, and is, due to being thrown at the same release point as his four-seam fastball. On top of being 795 RPM less and nine miles per hour slower, it is very difficult to pick up which pitch is coming out of Montas’ hand. 

 

Montas Spin

 

The adjustment to throwing the sinker less and the four-seam and splitter more has worked wonders for Montas and his potential. A 2.26 ERA and 2.53 FIP in the second half should give you a glimpse of what the Oakland right-hander is capable of and his likely offseason helium is going to be well deserved. 

 

Luis Garcia, Houston Astros

Not many pitchers make the jump from High-A to the major leagues, but that is exactly what Luis Garcia did during the 2020 season when he debuted for the Houston Astros. Due to the pandemic shortened season, there were no minor league seasons to develop young talent. However, after posting a 3.02 ERA and 14.80 K/9 with High-A Fayetteville in 2019, Garcia was firmly on Houston’s radar.

The right-hander spent most of the 2020 season at the team’s alternate training site, but when a need arose at the major league level, the Astros promoted Garcia to replace Chase De Jong. The now 24-year-old responded by producing a 2.92 ERA over 12 1/3 innings of work with nine strikeouts.

Garcia was not overly impressive during his first stint in the majors, sporting a .182 BABIP, but he did prove that he could hang at the next level which would help his case in 2021.

This season the Astros right-hander has been on another level, posting the second-highest WAR of any American League rookie (Adolis Garcia) and carrying a 3.43 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 139 innings with 154 strikeouts.

Garcia has not been dominant, but he has been ultra-consistent, allowing four or more earned runs in just four of his 26 games this season. One of the major notable differences between 2020 and 2021 has been the emergence of his cutter. After primarily being a four-seam and changeup pitcher last year, Garcia has now leaned more heavily on his cut fastball after finding a more comfortable grip.

 

Garcia Cutter

 

The Houston rookie has generated a whiff rate above 40 percent on his cutter, slider, and changeup this season. An increase in horizontal movement on the cut fastball, and its negative 12 run value, has made the pitch his bread and butter and primary chase pitch. This all despite still leading the way with 44 percent four-seamers.

Garcia’s entertaining windup and stocky build make him a very interesting pitcher to watch. He is a late bloomer that has made adjustments at the major league level that have paid off.

It remains to be seen if his aggressive usage of the four-seam fastball will cap his overall ceiling, as he throws it in the zone over 60 percent of the time. This limits his overall swing and miss ability but does allow for his secondary pitches to shine. That being said, it’s possible that further arsenal adjustments could open up another gear of dominance we have yet to see.
 

Tylor Megill, New York Mets

In a somewhat similar, but still entirely different story to Garcia, Mets starter Tylor Megill essentially came out of nowhere to rise to the major league level. After spending the vast majority of 2019 in A-ball, the right-hander started 2021 in Double-A before being promoted to Triple-A after just five starts with a 3.12 ERA and 14.54 K/9.

Unforeseen injuries at the major league level in Queens would afford Megill the opportunity to be promoted from Triple-A Syracuse after just three outings, and the 26-year-old has taken full advantage.

Megill was never considered a high-end prospect after not being drafted out of high school and posting substandard numbers in college. However, an increase in velocity sparked some strikeout upside that intrigued the Mets enough to take a flyer in the eighth round of the 2018 draft.

The right-hander’s success, as mentioned before, has a lot to do with newfound velocity. Megill is 6-foot-7 with a 7.3 extension that allows for an imposing experience for hitters. However, a pitch arsenal adjustment may be the most responsible for the former Wildcats’ quick rise to the majors.

Megill once tossed an ineffective sinker that has been entirely removed from his repertoire in favor of a four-seam, changeup, and slider mix (with the occasional curveball). The changeup is a completely new addition that the Mets righty admits to still being a work in progress. This is impressive given how the changeup has been his best swing and miss pitch with a 33.9 percent whiff rate, 39.2 percent O-Swing, and 19.2 percent swinging-strike rate.

 

Megill Changeup

 

Megill is still learning how to pitch and has been improving all season while stumbling along the way. The home run ball and the “big inning” have held the rookie in Queens back at times. However, a recent seven-inning, 10 strikeout game versus the Yankees in the Subway Series showcased what is possible moving forward.

It is impressive in itself that Megill finds himself on a list such as this one surrounded by perennial all-stars. I doubt anyone will make the mistake of thinking he is on that level, but statistics do not lie. Megill’s size, high-90’s max velocity, and ever-improving game plan have an untapped ceiling if consistently can be reached. If you can generate whiffs while limiting in-zone contact, you are going to be successful. That is exactly what Tylor Megill is doing.

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a baseball writer/analyst for NBC Sports Edge, RotoFanatic and is the author of #2021PlayerBreakdowns on Twitter. He is the host of the Turn Two Podcast & you can follow him on Twitter @MattWi77iams.