It’s not exactly breaking news that we fantasy owners tend to get overly enthused about young, up-and-coming players. Still, I was taken aback by the results of a recent poll I ran on Twitter. I had just written a piece on Sean Manaea, who had one of the more encouraging rookie performances in 2016. I knew owners were excited about him for 2017, and I started to wonder how excited they might be. So I asked the denizens of Twitter if they liked him better than the Athletics’ most accomplished starter, Sonny Gray.
Because Manaea is a 24-year-old coming off a strong second half, I figured he might make it a close contest, but I was floored that he actually beat Gray in the poll. While the former All-Star had a disappointing and injury-plagued season, he is only two years older than Manaea. Gray was also typically drafted just last spring as a No. 2 starting pitcher. This wasn’t just a case of enthusiasm for a rookie that may have gone overboard; it was also about an ace who had quickly fallen out of favor.
This led me to realize that Gray’s season — and 2017 outlook — deserved a closer look. As a pitcher who entered this season as an ace, but is no longer viewed as one, Gray has some company. In the American League alone, Dallas Keuchel and Jordan Zimmermann saw their values take substantial hits. I’ll put all three hurlers under the microscope, and in a future column, I’ll also assess the fantasy fortunes of some fallen National League aces.
Since he was the inspiration for this column, let’s start off with Gray.
Sonny Gray, Oakland
2016 Stats: 117 Innings, 5-11, 5.69 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 94 K
Gray began the season with four consecutive quality starts, which resulted in a 3-1 record and a 2.73 ERA, but then his season spiraled downward in a hurry. His trademarks had been an aversion to extra-base hits and a high degree of efficiency, but over the next five starts he displayed neither, allowing a .336 Isolated Power and averaging just over four innings per start. Gray was better after returning from a brief disabled list stint for a strained trapezius, but he was a long way from prime form. Before missing nearly all of the final two months with a strained forearm, Gray had allowed 10 home runs over 68 innings and lasted fewer than six innings per start.
The key to Gray’s problems was a sinker that wasn’t sinking as much. According to Brooks Baseball, Gray lost more than an inch of vertical movement on the pitch. He wasn’t getting as many swings-and-misses on it when he located it below the strike zone, and batters were pummeling it for a higher BABIP when it was in the horizontal center of the zone.
The loss of sinker movement in and of itself isn’t a major concern, and in a vacuum, neither is a midseason dip in velocity. However, given that Gray was diagnosed with a forearm strain just over a month after his velocity started to sag, owners should take a more cautious approach with him on draft day than they did last spring.
He was sufficiently healed to return for a late September appearance, but Gray should be considered a mild health risk. I wouldn’t spring for him before I had already filled my first three pitching slots, but if he is fully healthy, there is no reason why he can’t return to being a top-30 starter.
Dallas Keuchel, Houston
2016 Stats: 168 Innings, 9-12, 4.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 144 K
Fantasy owners never quite bought into Keuchel as Cy Young-level ace, as he was typically drafted outside of the first three rounds, according to Fantasy Pros’ ADP data. Given that Keuchel’s 2015 Cy Young campaign was fueled in part by favorable strand and BABIP rates, there was good reason for skepticism. However, the drop in his performance went above and beyond what even the most cautious owners were expecting.
Keuchel started to turn his year around in the second half before succumbing to shoulder fatigue with just over a month left in the season. Even so, he tested the patience of his most loyal owners, posting a 3.94 ERA over seven starts after the All-Star break. More telling was his 1.08 second-half WHIP, and the improved BABIP and walk rates that underlined it coincided with a rebound in his sinker velocity, as depicted below. Whereas hitters were batting .323 against Keuchel’s sinker in the first half and just .253 in the second half, the improvements were less apparent in his overall ERA and Iso allowed. Keuchel did allow three home runs on his sinker in the second half, but according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, all three had “just enough” distance to clear the fence.
Barring any further shoulder trouble, there aren’t clear reasons to have lower expectations for Keuchel going into 2017 than we had for him coming out of his Cy Young season. It seems doubtful that many owners would take a gamble on him as a No. 2 starter, yet that’s a reasonable expectation for his performance. If you can get Keuchel next spring outside of the first 30 starting pitchers taken off the board, you could luck into a huge bargain.
Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit
2016 Stats: 106.1 Innings, 9-7, 4.87 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 66 K
It’s a stretch to call Zimmermann an ace, but he did pitch like one in 2014 and even in the very early weeks of 2016. His success this past April came despite an average fastball velocity that hovered around 92 mph — right where it was in early 2015, but more than 2 mph below where it was in the first weeks of 2014. Despite a typically mediocre strikeout rate (17.4 percent), he finished April with an 0.55 ERA, as he was extremely stingy with hard contact and pulled fly balls. Zimmermann also was fortunate enough to have stranded 92 percent of his baserunners (per FanGraphs).
Unlike in 2015, Zimmermann’s velocity never rebounded significantly, and from May forward, he was less effective on balls in play and less fortunate with his strand rate. His struggles could have resulted from neck and groin issues, the former of which caused him to miss the entire month of July. No sooner had Zimmermann returned from his neck injury than he missed yet another month with a lat strain.
As with Gray and Keuchel, Zimmermann could return healthy for 2016 and be a much improved pitcher. All three also share a penchant for allowing more contact than a typical early-round fantasy pitcher. What sets Gray and Keuchel apart from Zimmerman is a strong proclivity for inducing grounders. Two or more seasons ago, Zimmermann could be a coveted fantasy pitcher with a strikeout rate below 20 percent partially because of great control, but also partially because strikeouts weren’t quite as ubiquitous. Even if Zimmermann can get back to where he was in 2015 (2014 levels may be asking for too much, as it was an outlier), it won’t be enough for him to be a standout in the current environment. If I were to draft Zimmermann at all next spring, it would be in the late or reserve rounds.