3 starters with potential to become aces

January 27th, 2018

As formulas for successful pitchers go, missing bats with strikes is a pretty good one. At the extreme end of the spectrum, it can signal dominance. At the very least, it offers a full-count fail-safe.

To wit, the ability to avoid contact in the zone is generally related to the level of success a pitcher can expect when the situation calls for him to throw a strike. However, there were some notable exceptions last season.

Even by metrics that drill down to assess performance by the quality of contact allowed -- in this case, expected weighted on-base average, or xwOBA, an advanced metric from Statcast™ -- several starters underperformed compared to peers who demonstrated similar skills.

These three hurlers possessed the raw stuff to suppress contact far more often than the average Major League starter, but they found their results lacking. Diagnosing how their seemingly promising equations went awry might hint at where they'll land going forward.

, Indians RHP

Salazar posted eye-popping swinging-strike rates and contact rates while recording an injury-shortened season that didn't quite match his recent performances. One of Cleveland's many rotation weapons, the soon-to-be 28-year-old still looked the part of a strikeout king, collecting whiffs on 17.3 percent of his offerings in the zone -- an elite rate among starters. His changeup is devastating, averaging 86.6 mph in 2017, to play off a four-seam fastball that averaged 95.3 mph.

The issue for Salazar appears to be a two-seam fastball that, while reaching nearly the same velocity as the four-seamer, isn't as effective. The pitch curiously gained more emphasis within his repertoire in 2017. Specifically, the two-seamer took a much larger role when Salazar was working with runners on. Perhaps seeking more ground balls, the two-seamer got 27.8 percent of that work compared to 13.1 percent in '16.

While it can be dangerous to overthink a pitcher's results with runners on base, it is worth noting a gaping split when his pitch mix seems to hold the answer. Opposing hitters slugged .663 against Salazar's two-seamer overall, and .946 with runners on. They benefited from some luck in doing so, but the .456 overall xwOBA against the pitch still placed it among the five hardest-struck two-seamers thrown at least 150 times.

The good news is Salazar also emphasized his dominant changeup, which he places near the bottom of the zone consistently, and he increasingly leaned on it as his injury-interrupted campaign went on.

Jake Odorizzi, Rays RHP

The 27-year-old Rays mainstay has a different quandary to solve. His four-seam fastball is a gift: Among pitchers who threw their four-seamers in the zone at least 500 times, Odorizzi's had the second-best whiff rate, behind only .

But despite the pitch's career-best proficiency at generating swinging strikes, Odorizzi's overall results when deploying his dominant offering declined, as hitters slugged .462 against it -- partially explaining how his ERA crept back to league average after two straight strong seasons of besting it.

In a pattern that tracks with the league's overall offensive environment, Odorizzi's fastball produced that bounty of whiffs, but also an abundance of home runs (a career-worst 1.9 per nine innings). It may be that the fastball's quality turned it into a curse by way of predictability.

Odorizzi threw it 62 percent of the time in full counts, allowing seven homers, accounting for more than half of the 13 dingers registered against the pitch in 2017. More pressing is the fact that the swinging strikes and the homers were each clustered in the elevated part of the zone he often targets with the four-seamer.

Odorizzi's adjustment to this may have already started. In August, he began throwing fewer pitches in the zone, and he ramped up his cutter usage. We can't draw too many conclusions from those changes just yet. They adversely affected his walk rate, but the change showed an intent to combat the boom-or-bust drama of four-seamer reliance.

, Mariners LHP

A relatively unknown lefty who took a regular rotation role for the Mariners last season, Miranda has a form of Odorizzi's predictability problem, but perhaps a more ready-made solution. Simply put: Miranda throws his fastball -- a decent four-seamer with about average whiff numbers -- for strikes, while seeking chases with his secondary pitches.

Few starters had fastballs make up a greater proportion of in-zone offerings than Miranda. This tendency shows in how hitters approached him, logging a high zone-swing rate near 70 percent and a low chase rate of 23.7 percent.

Still feeling out the Majors, Miranda might be best-served to give his slider more of a look in his second full season. Though used relatively infrequently, it was often thrown in the zone, where it racked up whiffs on 18.4 percent of the swings against it -- an impressive clip comparable to that of Chris Archer's vaunted slider.

It's unlikely to sustain quite that level of performance if deployed more liberally, but it could help Miranda avoid barrels in the zone, while simultaneously keeping hitters off-balance.