March 23, 2016
Two Trains: Sonny Gray and Jordan Zimmermann
In today's edition of Two Trains, we survey a couple of pitchers who have both suffered from subpar strikeout rates throughout their careers, but whose ratios have put them in the SP2 conversation at various times. The fantasy values of Sonny Gray and Jordan Zimmermann are headed in different directions, with Gray coming off a career-best campaign that earned him the third-most votes for AL Cy Young Award, and Zimmermann trying to rebound from a career-worst performance with a fresh start on a new team in a different league.
NFBC ADP: No. 65 overall, No. 20 among SP
Gray has been a low-ERA machine since coming into the league three seasons ago, with a career mark of just 2.88 and a season-worst ERA of 3.08 (in 2014). He has thrown 427.0 innings over the past two seasons, establishing himself as a workhorse despite his slight frame. The workloads make Gray a fantasy asset in terms of raw strikeout totals, but his per-inning ratios have been less than impressive, registering 7.4 K/9 over the past two seasons combined.
Similar to many of the other value-changing pitchers that have been covered in Two Trains, Gray's 2015 season had multiple shapes:
He was doing his best Zack Greinke impersonation for the first half of the season, compiling a microscopic 1.60 ERA while stifling hits and home runs allowed. Gray even jacked up the strikeout rate during this stretch (league-average K rate was 20.4 percent) and won eight of those first 14 starts, making him a fantasy asset in four categories. However, just about everything went backwards in the second half, and though some regression was inevitable, Gray zoomed past the mean en route to a weak strikeout rate and merely-decent ratios.
His velocity in the second sample followed the downward trend of performance, as Gray dropped a full tick (from 94.8 mph to 93.8 mph) on his average fastball between the two stretches. His changeup was more prominently featured, as well, with a usage pattern that more than tripled despite an average velocity on his cambio that was just five mph shy of his fastball. It's an open question whether these are mere blips on the radar or indicative of forthcoming trends for Gray, but it's worth noting that there was a change in baseline skills and an adjustment in approach during the season.
The stats were rather mundane over the final three-plus months of 2015, and though nothing was too alarming in the fantasy categories, it is troubling that those numbers were accomplished on the back of a .261 BABIP (a .299 BABIP was league average). I have long been an opponent of DIPS theory, as a firm believer that the pitcher can control the quality of contact to some degree, but Gray's success falls a bit outside my comfort zone and I fear that some measure of regression is coming this season.
There's an extra caveat to Gray's situation, and that is the possibility that he gets traded. The A's have been vocal about their preference to hold onto the youngster (they said the same about Josh Donaldson weeks before he was dealt), but one can't help but shake the feeling that such comments are as much a marketing ploy as a sincere appreciation of his skills. Oakland ranked 10th in baseball in defensive efficiency last season at .711, and the home park of O.co Coliseum was middle-of-the-road in terms of run-scoring, though Gray has enjoyed the expansive foul territory in Oakland to generate some extra outs on his above-average rate of pop-ups. A trade to another team could have serious implications on Gray's fantasy value, so there is risk built in to his fantasy profile for 2015.
Verdict: Lower Anchor
I won't go so far as to say that the BABIP is unsustainable, and I'll avoid going the “luck” route to explain his outlier performance, but I do wonder if Gray is about to get torched by the other side of variation, and if that might be masked by a move to a different ballclub by the end of July. The final numbers for his 2015 season look to be right in line with his previous season-and-a-half, with incremental improvements to his rates of hits and walks allowed, but his on-field performance has been less smooth than the season-to-season stats might indicate. ESPN's Baseball Tonight 100 just ranked Gray as the No. 32 player in all of baseball, sandwiched between Gerrit Cole and Corey Kluber, an assessment that I think is worthy of a straightjacket. I like Gray and think that he is a fine fantasy starter, but the helium on his perceived value has reached LD50 levels.
NFBC ADP: No. 120 overall, No. 33 among SP
Zimmermann's fantasy value may have reached a peak at this time last year, with the right-hander coming off of a season with a career-low 2.66 ERA and a career-high 8.2 K/9. His ERA hadn't broken 3.25 since 2010, he had three straight seasons of making exactly 32 starts, and the year prior he won 19 games. Zimm looked to be on the verge of fantasy greatness, but then he cratered in 2015. Most of the campaign was a mild disappointment, but his vulnerability to the longball reached frightening status in the second half of the season.
Zimmermann took a seven-run beating in his second start of the season and it wasn't until the end of May that he was able to bring the ERA down to the low-3.00's. The strikeouts were back down in the first half of 2015, with a below-average rate that was lower than 18.5-19.0 percent strikeout frequencies that he posted from 2011-13, and the extra doses of contact resulted in a truckload of base hits off the right-hander, though his low rate of home runs kept opponent run-scoring in check.
Those stats flipped in the second-half, with hits going down in general while Zimmermann allowed triple the home runs in nearly a dozen fewer innings. He coughed up 18 bombs in his last 16 starts of the season, with 13 of those home runs coming off the fastball despite the fact that his second half velocity (93.43 mph) was within a rounding error of his pitch-speed from the first half (93.44 mph). The overall velo was off more than a full tick from the previous season, which was especially notable for Zimmermann because his average velocity was within 0.1 mph for each season during the three-year stretch from 2012 to 2014. There's also nothing in his strike-zone profile from each split to help explain his sudden case of gopheritis – if anything, he threw more of his pitches down and under the zone in the final few months.
Zimmermann's 2015 season presents a bit of a quandary given the incompatibility of some of the stats. His mechanics present a similar quandary, as his delivery is incredibly efficient from a mechanical point of view (he earns a straight-A on the Mechanics Report Card), yet his egregious delay of trunk rotation takes him past the point-of-no-return, in which the benefits of greater torque are outweighed by the risks of a late arm, resulting in elbow drag on many of the pitches that he throws. He already has one Tommy John surgery scar on his right arm, and his combination of high velocity and elbow drag increase the risk for a second one. I think that he'll be fine from a fantasy standpoint as long as he's on the mound, but there's no telling how long that will be, for better or worse.
Zimmermann's fantasy value has long been mismatched with his on-field value in real life, dodging between over- and under-rated for most of his career. He now heads to a new team, a new league and a new home ballpark, so there is a higher level of volatility to his expected fantasy contributions than there was in the past. Comerica Park in Detroit squelched run-scoring to a greater degree than did Nationals Park last season, and Comerica was particularly harsh on home runs from batters on both sides of the plate, with a right-handed home run factor of 91 and a left-handed home run factor of just 88 (fourth-lowest in the game). The Tigers also had a slightly better defense than the Nationals did last season, based on Defensive Efficiency, but the difference was slight and made negligible by the year-to-year variation in player defense.
Verdict: Raise Anchor
I'm not saying that Zimmermann should be ranked above Gray, but I am saying that they should be ranked much more closely together than currently situated. The ADP draft board requires adjustments to both players, in my opinion, such that Zimm should be drafted higher and Gray's ranking should be lower. It is best to pair Zimmermann with one of the dozen or so high-strikeout relievers that are available this year, and though the same could be said for Gray, the difference is that Zimm can be drafted five rounds later. If pressed to choose between these two detriments to the K rate, it is safer to go with the player whose situation is less likely to change dramatically halfway through the season.