While the 2019 fantasy baseball season is quickly approaching, there is still value in looking back at 2018. Whether for determining which players owners should keep or simply aiding with this year’s drafts, I’ve been evaluating players this offseason who had surprisingly strong or poor numbers last year. Were they one-offs who are poised to be drastically overrated or underrated this spring, or was 2018 predictive, indicating a trend that owners need to be out in front of? Over the past two weeks, I’ve examined breakout position players. Today, I’ll flip the script and look at a young pitcher coming off an elite second half: Rockies right-hander German Marquez. A repertoire addition was Marquez’s most obvious and important improvement, but a seeming step forward in his command has me particularly bullish on his future.
The Evolution of German Marquez
German Marquez didn’t come completely out of nowhere last season but, suffice it to say, no one was expecting perhaps the best non-Ubaldo Jimenez season ever by a Rockies pitcher. The repertoire change that spurred the German Marquez breakout is apparent, but it’s worth revisiting what he used to be for context. While he was a well-regarded prospect, a fringe changeup kept him from populating top-50 lists. In their final writeup of him, prior to the 2017 season, Baseball America lauded Marquez’s velocity, high-spin curveball and command, but noted that his third pitch “still need(ed) work.”
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As it turns out, Marquez’s feel for the changeup never came, and he threw it only five percent of the time his rookie year, relying almost exclusively on his fastball and curveball. It’s really difficult to turn over a lineup multiple times with only two pitches, since there’s no option for a starter to keep a pitch in his back pocket early and break it out late.
Predictably, working deep was a big challenge for Marquez in 2017. The times through the order penalty affects essentially every starter, but it was especially brutal for the rookie. While the average MLB pitcher allowed a
.080 point increase in OPS between their first and third showdowns against a hitter, Marquez’s split more than tripled that. Seeing hitters for the first time, he stymied them, holding them a .244/.301/.400 line. By their third crack, hitters raked at a .313/.364/.588 clip. By the middle innings last year, Marquez was turning his opponents into Jose Ramirez; his two-pitch approach was untenable.
So what did Marquez do over that offseason? I’ll borrow from Brooks Baseball here.
He never developed confidence in the changeup, but he did find that third pitch. Marquez grew more comfortable with his newfound slider as the year went along, and by the end of the year, it pretty clearly surpassed his curveball as his go-to secondary offering.
That pitch completely flipped the script on his times through the order splits, too. The .249/.326/.409 line hitters mustered their third times against Marquez in 2018 is functionally identical to their .258/.314/.435 slash in their first cracks. His peripherals got worse as he worked deeper into games, and there’s no reason to think Marquez will always be immune to a times through the order penalty- after all, the league generally suffers one, as is mentioned on every broadcast this postseason when teams go to their bullpens. But it seems that Marquez has mitigated that damage significantly. He’s now got the repertoire depth to profile as something of a workhorse; indeed, his 196 innings pitched last year was top-20 in baseball. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t be relied upon past the fourth inning just the season before.
What’s most encouraging about Marquez, though, is how his 2018 season progressed month-to-month, buoyed by his surprising command. It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to get worse results on a pitch the more often he uses it. That makes intuitive sense- use it frequently, and hitters begin to look for it. Yet we didn’t see this with Marquez’s slider. As we saw, he steadily upped its usage throughout the year, and its per-pitch effectiveness progressed along with it. Again from Brooks Baseball, Marquez’s whiff rates by month.
German Marquez became untouchable. Among pitchers with at least 200 sliders after the 2018 All-Star Break, Marquez ranked eighth in whiff rate.
On a recent podcast, Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen opined that the slider had emerged as Marquez’s best pitch. Yet you’ll also notice that plus hook which had been Marquez’s calling card. That took off as well last year. In fact, again setting a 200 pitch minimum, Marquez had baseball’s best swing-and-miss curve from the All-Star Break forward, narrowly edging Carlos Carrasco, Blake Snell and Corey Kluber.
Combine the two to look at breaking pitches generally (upping the minimum to 250 pitches to filter out relievers), and you find Marquez amidst a collection of aces.
The All-Star Break is an entirely arbitrary cutoff, though, so it’s worth examining further how his season progressed.
The stuff was already unquestionable, but it never hurts to add fastball velocity, as Marquez did throughout. The breaking pitches didn’t get harder, though, and by movement and velocity, the two pitches don’t seem all that dissimilar. You’d think that would work against him; if the slider and curve have similar characteristics, might he have closer to two pitches than three? Here’s where I think Marquez’s command is the difference-maker. His intent on the two pitches certainly seems different, especially against right-handers. Compare where Marquez located his sliders and curveballs against same-sided hitters.
The sliders are heavily concentrated in the zone, and in a great spot, right on the low outside corner.
He takes advantage of the extra few inches of depth on his curveball to spot those just below the zone.
Perhaps the similar movement and velocity profiles of his breakers aid Marquez against right-handers. The pitches look similar enough on their way to the plate that they’re tough to discern, but Marquez’s exceptional feel for locating each in different spots keeps hitters off balance.
Marquez dominated righties all season, but a second-half alteration of his approach to opposite-handed hitters seems again to be predicated on his exceptional breaking ball command. In the first half, his breaking pitches to lefties were all over the place.
By the second half, they were much more focused at the knees and on the outer half, and, reflecting the overall theme, he relied on them more.
His strikeout rate against left-handers took off.
Simply put, it seems that German Marquez just clicked in 2018. He’s always had the high-velocity fastball and curveball, but the added slider gave him a third pitch to navigate through opposing lineups multiple times. That was an apparent improvement- of course adding a plus pitch your arsenal helps- but more subtle is the mastery he demonstrated of commanding his breaking pitches.
Maybe we should have seen that coming; after all, scouts lauded his advanced command as a prospect. But with a pitcher who sits in the mid-90’s with a knockout breaking ball, it can sometimes be easy to tag him as ‘power over feel.’ That would seem to be inaccurate, in Marquez’s case. He’s got power and feel, and that makes for a special combination.
You could nitpick a few things here, sure. For all his improvements against left-handed hitters in the second half, they still gave him some trouble overall, slashing .286/.343/.453 against him. His strikeout and walk numbers against them were good, but he doesn’t really have a pitch that he can use inside on them to keep them honest.
He’ll probably always be a little home run prone against good left-handed bats who can target pitches middle-away. It’s also worth noting that his second-half schedule wasn’t exactly a gauntlet. He had six double-digit strikeout performances in 2018, all after the start of August; they came against Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Arizona (twice) and Philadelphia, hardly the ’27 Yankees. And, especially relevant for fantasy purposes, Coors Field is ever lurking in the background. Even extremely talented pitchers can get chewed up by its thin air and expansive outfield, as Jon Gray can attest.
But Marquez probably has better command than Gray ever had, and he unquestionably has better stuff than rotation-mate Kyle Freeland. And we’ve seen pitchers turn velocity, a pair of breaking balls and plus command into acehood before.
Going back to those breaking ball whiff leaderboards, Carlos Carrasco’s name pops out as the top example of what this type of pitcher can become. Carrasco’s changeup is a little bit better than Marquez’s, but he also didn’t click until his late-20’s. German Marquez is entering his age-24 season. It’s not a foregone conclusion that he can’t add a viable offspeed pitch. Even as is, though, he looks like a top-20 overall pitcher in baseball.
For fantasy purposes, Coors Field (and, to a lesser extent, the Rockies’ putrid offense) will keep his value a bit below the quality of pitcher he truly is, so long as he’s in Colorado. Regardless, though, he’s the rare Rockies arm worth playing every fifth day. In Colorado, German Marquez looks like a bona fide No. 2 fantasy option; anywhere else, he’d be a borderline ace. At his age, it’s not out of the question he gets there.
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