As we continue to inch towards a new baseball season, we have a glimmer of hope that the season will begin on time with the first meeting between the league and players on the schedule. As we continue to progress through the offseason, we'll continue to look back at the season that was, and determine what it will mean for certain players moving forward. Last week we started this series by examining American League Starting Pitchers and aspects of their profiles that we can both buy and sell on. This week, we move on to the National League and another group of pitchers. As was the case last week, I'll be focusing on players who aren't at the top of the position, because nobody needs to be told the Jacob deGrom is an elite starting pitcher in the National League.
Buy: Blake Snell will be a solid fantasy SP in 2022
Last year was a tale of two seasons for Snell in his first season in San Diego. The first half of the season saw Snell pitch to a 4.99 ERA over his first 16 starts, and many wondered whether he belonged in the Padres' rotation at all, as they were still in the midst of the playoff chase in July. In the second half of the season, Snell pitched to a 3.24 ERA over 11 starts, and showed glimpses of the pitcher that the Padres thought they traded for in the offseason. Upon close examination of these numbers, it's interesting to note the difference in BABIP between the first half and second of more than 70 points, neither number being sustainable, but on the whole, was close to his career number. Throughout the entire season Snell was able to carry an 11.9 K/9, part of what has made him so valuable in his career. Snell is a candidate for some positive regression, as several ERA indicators like FIP show that he was certainly the victim of a bit of bad luck. Additionally, his hard hit rate was up 5% last year, and 8% over his career average. His ground ball rate was also down 10% last year, as we saw his launch angle nearly double as well.
Sell: Blake Snell will ever reach the heights he did in 2018 again
While there are certainly some key indicators that show Snell certainly wasn't as bad as the 4.99 ERA in the first half indicated, he's certainly not the ace that you think of when seeing a low-3 ERA either. While Snell could never be described as a control pitcher, even in his Cy Young winning season, he took that to new levels last season by walking 4.8 batters per nine. Undeniably, Snell's biggest problem pitch last year was his change up, a pitch that induced more hard contact with a greater launch angle than it previously had, while missing fewer bats than before. Unsurprisingly, we saw Snell rely on this pitch less over the course of the season, with him throwing it only 10%, half the rate he had thrown it in any year since he came into the league. If Snell has lost the feel for this pitch, it won't be the end of the world for his fantasy value, but this was a pitch that was rated out as his third best pitch prior to 2021. As stated above, Snell has never been particularly efficient, struggling to average 6 innings per start throughout his career - also not the mark of a fantasy ace, especially when we see a guy who has been less aggressive in attacking the strike zone on the first pitch over the last two years.
Buy: Eric Lauer has become a nice back-end rotation piece in fantasy
Last year, we saw Eric Lauer pitch rather effectively as the fourth man in a Brewers rotation already featuring Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. Indeed, the 3.19 ERA he posted over 20 starts and 118 innings was unexpected for a guy who got roughed up in four appearances in the COVID-shortened season. Lauer has proven to be an effective pitcher, even if he doesn't pitch deep into games with regularity, with a K/9 over 9 in the last two years, along with declining hit and walk rates. Based on his profile, Lauer has been a candidate of bad luck over his first couple stints through the major leagues, and his career BABIP is quite a bit higher than should be expected of a pitcher with below average ground ball rates. One of the biggest changes to Lauer's game was added velocity to each of his pitches, his fastball up a full MPH, and his slider up more than 4 MPH, and another factor was a better pitch mix, utilizing his low 90s fastball less frequently, and utilizing his slider to great success. His slider has developed into a nice weapon for him, with a whiff rate at almost 28%, and opponents hitting only .119 against.
Sell: Eric Lauer as anything more than a back-end fantasy asset
While he can certainly be a sneaky asset, Lauer isn't without his downfalls. As I eluded to before, Lauer has never been the benchmark for efficiency or pitching deep into a ball game. This year, though he averaged 80 or so pitches per start, averaged only a little more than 5 innings per start. In fact, despite being more aggressive in the strike zone on the first pitch than most pitchers, he struggles to put hitters away early in the count, averaging slightly more than 4 pitches per plate appearance, above the league average. Though his BABIP certainly looked more normalized for a fly ball pitcher this year, the .254 line he posted certainly isn't sustainable, and his opponents xBA was higher than the actual line opponents posted on the year. While we can certainly chalk some of that up to luck, Milwaukee rated out highly defensively last year, also contributing to his fine year. Finally, though some of the ERA indicators show that he did, in fact, have a year that was conducive to success, his xERA and FIP show that he's a little bit closer to a mid-high 3 ERA pitcher. If you're in a league that gives credit for wins, QS, and metrics like these, Lauer definitely shouldn't be high on your list. He can provide solid support to your ratios, however, with a respectable ERA, WHIP, and K/9 for a support arm on your staff.
Buy: Adam Wainwright turning back the clock one more time
Certainly one of the better storylines from last season was Adam Wainwright, in the face of father time, having another storied run on the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals. With his deteriorating velocity, Wainwright has retooled himself over the years, and has approached the pitching equation all over again. Once a dominant sinker-baller, Waino has chosen to attack hitters primarily with the Uncle Charlie over the last several campaigns, throwing the curve between 35-40%. This has been a successful change for him, as opponents have struggled to hit for more than a .200 average off of it over his career. What's more, Wainwright tossed his first shutout since 2016, and totaled 3 CGs to top 200 innings for the first time since 2014. Wainwright continued to command all of his pitches well, with a BB/9 of 2.2, while still managing to strikeout 174 batters this year. If you were able to scoop him off the waiver wire, or happened to hold on to Wainwright heading into last year, he certainly paid dividends across the board.
Sell: Wainwright defeating Father Time
Father Time is still undefeated, and Wainwright will be 41 years old near the end of the 2022 season. Despite having an incredible season by any standard in 2021, Wainwright is unlikely to replicate similar numbers in the coming year. Despite an ERA of 3.05, several ERA indicators show that he was luckier than he should have been with an xERA of 3.87 and a FIP of 3.66. With the number of strong defenders St. Louis has, that likely accounts for some of the regression suggested, but not all of it. Despite posting a stronger K/9 rating this season than the year before, Wainwright saw his whiff rate decline for the third consecutive year, and saw his velocity decline as well (unsurprisingly for a 40 year old). Taking a look at his batted ball metrics, Wainwright has been incredibly lucky over the last two years as his BABIP has dropped below .260 in each season, an incredibly low number for a ground ball pitcher. Wainwright's career average, on the other hand, is near .300, and in the four seasons before 2020 it was a .325 mark. While Wainwright could certainly still have another productive year at the tail end of a fine career, he will have a hard time putting up numbers that reflect anything close to what he's done in the last two years, and his 2019 campaign is a more likely barometer for success this season.
Buy: Kyle Hendricks had a bad year in 2021
By all accounts, 2021 was not a season that anyone on Chicago's north side enjoyed very much as the team traded away long term players, and saw others fall apart. Hendricks was a victim of the latter, as he posted the worst ERA, WHIP, and HR/9 of his career, while his K/9 dipped to the lowest level since his rookie season in 2014. Despite all the negatives, he still managed to limit hard contact, as his average exit velocity was in the top 10% of the league, and his hard hit rate was in the top 15%. On his three primary pitches (Sinker, Curve, 4-Seam), opponents had a higher BA and SLG than expected, showing that these numbers are likely to regress slightly. An ugly year was highlighted by a barrel rate that was more than 3% higher than his career average.
Sell: 2021 was a fluke, and Kyle Hendricks will be a league winner again in 2022
While there are certainly some factors that show Hendricks is a candidate for positive regression, there are even more red flags. Along with the falling K/9 and rising BB/9 rates, Hendricks' hard hit rate has risen steadily in every season since 2016, certainly a trend more so than a one off. While the BABIP he posted in 2021 was almost 30 points higher than his previous season, it wasn't significantly deviated from his career average. In fact, the declining value of Chicago's defense shows that he had the second fewest runs saved defensively since 2016, a defense that isn't expected to improve heading into next season. Pouring salt in a wound, though the 14 games he won is nice, his FIP and xERA show that he probably should have pitched to an ERA north of 5 last year. While I don't expect Hendricks to have a season as bad as 2021 in the coming season, I don't think we can use any of his other previous seasons as a template for what to expect of him any longer either. Tempering expectations somewhere in the middle, he should probably be closer to a high-3 to low-4 ERA pitcher next season with his typical low K/9, but probably fewer wins on a team that's likely to be rebuilding for a while.
Buy: Zach Thompson could have some sneaky value with the Pirates in 2022
In one of the more under the radar moves that came leading up to the shutdown, Jacob Stallings was dealt to Miami for Zach Thompson and a pair of prospects. Thompson surprised many last season when he debuted at age 27 for the Marlins, posting a 3.24 ERA in 14 starts and a handful of relief appearances. Though in the bottom 10% of the league in velocity, Thompson was well above average in limiting average exit velocity, hard hit %, and in expected batting average against. Thompson rated highly on both FIP and xERA, both showing that the success he had wasn't without reason. Though he has below average velocity, Thompson looks deceptive enough on the mound, as he demonstrates an above average whiff rate and chase rate. This can be seen with the well above average vertical movement on both his sinker and changeup offerings. With Miami looking to have a full rotation heading into 2022, Thompson heads to a Pirates team that seemingly has plenty of openings on its pitching staff, and Thompson could hold some sneaky value in the late rounds, or on the waiver wire in dynasty formats.
Sell: We know who Zach Thompson is as a pitcher already
For all the data that exists, Thompson went from a situation in Florida where there were an abundance of arms to Pittsburgh and a completely different organization. In Miami, Thopmson was allowed to top 90 pitches only once, and topped 80 pitches three other times. Because of this, he reached the end of the 6th inning only 3 of his starts. Thompson hasn't had a ton of success in the minors in his career, and has spent most of the last four years as a relief pitcher, so we don't know what kind of durability his arm has. This also correlates pretty closely with his K/9 being quite a bit lower than any stop in the minor leagues as well. What we do know is that in a small sample size, a journeyman non-prospect impressed a lot of people with his stuff last year, and he will have the opportunity to take a starting pitching job and run with it in Pittsburgh. This is the type of player who I'm comfortable taking at the tail end of my drafts in redraft, or taking on for free or limited FAAB in dynasty as a dart throw.