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Trend Tracking: Two Veteran Starters to Hold

This week in trend tracking, I’ll pivot to cover some noteworthy veteran arms. Last week, I looked at some young position players showing some promising signs of improvement, so this week will present quite the change in perspective.

Where Zack Greinke Remains Elite

An unsustainable home run rate has plagued Greinke in the early going. That said, he’s continued to show some masterful traits in the season’s early going. His strikeout and walk numbers alone might suffice to keep owners intrigued; Greinke has a top ten K%-BB% in baseball.

We can get more granular, though. We know Greinke doesn’t have knockout stuff anymore; indeed, he’s become something of a kitchen sink type as he’s gotten into his mid-30’s. The changeup remains a plus pitch, but Greinke’s 90 MPH fastball and assortment of soft breaking balls might look out of place in the modern game. Even as a wily veteran, though, Greinke has continued to play with hitters’ understanding of the strike zone.

One proxy for plate discipline is the difference between a hitter’s swing rates on pitches inside the strike zone and outside it. You’ll often hear hitters preaching “selective aggressiveness”; this is the closest proxy we have for that concept. How often do hitters lay off would-be balls and attack hittable pitches? No starter this year has blurred those lines more often than Greinke. Per Fangraphs, Greinke has induced the seventh-highest chase rate on pitches outside the zone. At the same time, he’s induced the seventh-lowest swing rate on pitches in the zone. (Only Stephen Strasburg joins Greinke in the top ten in each category). In other words, Greinke gets hitters to take pitches they should be swinging at and to offer at pitches they should spit on. Even without wipeout stuff, Greinke continues to be an uncomfortable at-bat for hitters.

Speaking of stuff, Greinke doesn’t seem to have lost any from last season. His velocity and spin rates are all in line with what he managed in 2018, when he pitched to a 3.21 ERA with nearly a strikeout per inning. With the ball seemingly juiced further this year, Greinke won’t replicate that level of production, but something like a 3.50 ERA remains attainable.

Perhaps this is the time to buy low on the masterful sequencer. Owners might be inclined to believe that Father Time has finally caught up to Greinke and be willing to cut bait for pennies on the dollar. Even at age 35, though, Greinke’s still got some left in the tank.

Kevin Gausman’s Breakout Fueled by Real Changes, but is it Sustainable?

Immediately after acquiring him from Baltimore at the 2018 trade deadline, Atlanta pushed Gausman to curtail the use of his fastball and slider in favor of his split, which has long been his best swing-and-miss pitch. This season, Gausman has taken that to a whole new level. Per Baseball Savant, he’s gone to the breaking ball just twelve times all season, with only a single slider in his most recent outing against Arizona. Never before in his career has Gausman doubled up on starts with such infrequent breaking ball usage. This certainly looks intentional.

So how’s the extreme two-pitch approach working out? So far, so good. Gausman’s strikeout and swinging strike rates are easily at career-highs in the early going. He’s carving right now. It’s tough to see this level of dominance continuing, though. Two-pitch pitchers have difficulty working deep into games, so Gausman needs something else. Breaking out the slider a handful of times against right-handed hitters might eventually prove necessary since both of Gausman’s current pitches break toward them. He doesn’t have anything to make hitters respect the glove-side of the plate.

Still, it’s tough not to be pleased with Gausman’s early results. He’s something of a sell-high candidate if you can find an owner who really believes in his post-trade numbers in Atlanta. Even with his limitations, Gausman now looks like a 4.00 ERA type with a strikeout per inning. If rival owners aren’t buying what Gausman’s selling, he’s still a fine pitcher to hold moving forward.

Aaron Sanchez Regression Won’t be as Stark as You Think

On the surface, Sanchez is a prototypical regression candidate. His ERA is a run and a half lower than his FIP. That isn’t sustainable. ERA-FIP is so 2010, though. We can dig deeper.

That’s not to say projecting Sanchez to regress toward his FIP is wrong. There’s a reason FIP has taken off as teams’ and fantasy owners’ metric of choice; it’s a solid predictor of future run prevention. Sanchez, though, is more talented than his 4.42 FIP would have you believe. He has been nicked by injuries- especially blisters- in recent years, making it easy to forget the heights he once reached. Back in 2016, Sanchez was a Cy Young contender, riding above-average control and an elite ground ball rate to #2 starter status. The grounders have hung around; the control hasn’t. Sanchez has issued over five walks per nine innings in the years since that highlight season, making it look like something of an anomaly. Maybe it was, but maybe it’s just that Sanchez hasn’t gotten much of a chance over the past couple years due to those blisters. After all, he’s been struggling just to grip the baseball; harnessing its movement is a whole other challenge altogether.

Yes, at some point, Sanchez will need to throw more strikes than he is now. Otherwise, the free passes will come back to haunt him. Sanchez has shown everything you want to see in flashes, though. His bowling ball sinker gets grounders, he’s thrown strikes in the past and there’s swing-and-miss potential in his arsenal, even if his approach hasn’t allowed him to tap into it fully. He’s got mid-90’s gas, and his high-spin curveball has been a whiff machine in the early going. If anything, there might be untapped swing-and-miss here if Sanchez were to lean more heavily on the hook.

We haven’t seen Sanchez put everything together just yet. We’ve seen all the tools of a good pitcher in spurts, though. Sanchez is a health risk, but which pitcher isn’t? As pitcher injuries pile up, it becomes increasingly valuable to bet on ability and pray for durability. If a Sanchez owner thinks they can outsmart you by shopping him while his FIP exceeds his ERA, it’s time to call that bluff. As he gets more feel with continued reps- and perhaps if he ups his curveball usage a bit- Sanchez could be poised to reemerge as one of the AL’s top arms.

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