Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and the Eye Test

In my previous 2 articles I gave my top 10 starting pitchers in fantasy baseball and in this post I’m going to compare my top 10 to the top 10 fantasy scorers among starting pitching and explain why it differs and why some of those pitchers who scored in the top 10 I rank behind some who finished outside the top 10. In doing so I need to make the clarification that the point totals I give come from CBS fantasy baseball and is a points league format. There are other sites that have fantasy baseball and there are many formats, but I’ve always done points leagues through CBS because it’s simple and easy to use but also believe points leagues specifically are a better indication of a players’ overall skill in the game of baseball in real life.

There are some people who can do fantasy baseball and actually be good at it without really watching baseball and only using statistics and analytics but I’m not one of those people. It’s good to see where I’m coming from and how different strategies can lead to success. I’m a person whose a numbers guy but also who loves the game of baseball and watches many games and watching my players. It’s important to note that I use the eye test and what I see in players along with the statistics, especially pitchers. I love baseball as a whole but to me pitching is just special. I use the eye test on hitters as well but to a lesser extent. It’s easier to tell just watching if a pitcher has the talent and pitching arsenal to succeed and dominate in the majors for me, and I really enjoy watching my pitchers start. I am a huge Chicago Cubs fan and a fan of baseball as a whole, and I have just as much interest in watching my pitchers’ starts as I do in watching the Cubs. This paragraph is somewhat of a side note but gives insight to me as a person and how much a part that plays in how I rank and view starting pitching.

To restate from my previous articles, the top 10 starting pitchers in 2019 in order with their point totals goes Justin Verlander (765 points), Gerrit Cole (741), Zach Greinke (615.5), Stephen Strasburg (610.5), Shane Bieber (599.5), Jacob Degrom (585.5), Charlie Morton (554), Patrick Corbin (545), Jack Flaherty (544.5), and Clayton Kershaw (534.5). In comparison, my top 10 in order with their point totals as well is Gerrit Cole (741), Justin Verlander (765), Max Scherzer (491.5), Jacob Degrom (585.5), Mike Clevinger (399.5), Chris Sale (332), Walker Beuhler (520.5), Shane Bieber (599.5), Blake Snell (238.5), and Aaron Nola (470.5). I know that’s a lot of names and numbers to keep track of but bear with me! You will see that some point totals in my ranking are well below those in the actual top 10, but I explained in-depth in my previous 2 posts why that was the case and that you can’t just take points at face value when a few of these pitchers missed time with injury (Scherzer, Clevinger, Sale, Snell). Now you’re probably thinking my top 10 is way too injury prone, but injuries are very unpredictable, especially among starting pitching. To try and take that into account only complicates the matter even more, and most in the top 10 from last year have had their own share of injuries. Taking all that into account is why I don’t worry about injury concern with my rankings, because it’s a guessing game and I’m more concerned with upside and how good a pitchers stuff actually is. There are now analytical ways to measure things like how good a pitchers stuff is, but I go more off of what I actually see when I watch these players pitch in my rankings.

Now getting into where my rankings differ, the pitchers in the top 10 from a year ago that were left out of my top 10 were Greinke (615.5), Strasburg (610.5), Morton (554), Corbin (545), Flaherty (544.5), and Kershaw (534.5). More than half the players who scored in the top 10 were left out of my top 10 and I’m gonna explain why. I previously talked about eye test, and the notable players out of this group who easily fail that are Greinke and Kershaw. That may seem harsh, but these 2 are considerably behind the rest on this list for that reason. The other 4 pitchers I actually like a lot, so I want to first talk about the obvious candidates for me who should be moved out of the top 10.

Greinke is an interesting case and almost defies logic, just with how there is clear deterioration with his skill and fastball velocity. Yet he keeps having elite statistical seasons, and last year it got even better. While there is reason to look at it as a player we should continue to trust until proven otherwise, it’s hard to do that with this player if you actually watch him pitch. Sure fantasy baseball happens completely outside the postseason, but that doesn’t mean I’m just ignoring it. I say that because in the postseason in general last year and more specifically in the ALCS vs the Yankees I didn’t like what I saw at all. While it’s what I believe will happen it’s not fact, but it sure feels like he’s teetering on the edge of a major drop-off in 2020. With Greinke people have been saying this for about 3 years now, so while he’s continued to prove the doubters wrong, one of these years he won’t and it’s not gonna be pretty. Greinke has aged well because while he has lost the ability to overpower hitters he was able to adjust and succeed while not being able to throw very hard anymore.

The eye test may not seem fair when a player doesn’t throw particularly hard, but Greinke also used to throw his fastball much faster. With where the game is moving it’s harder and harder for pitchers like this to succeed, and my impression in that playoff game vs the Yankees was that he was struggling to get each and every out. Pitching in the American League now in a hitter friendly park isn’t going to do him any favors, even if the Astros are well known for getting the most out of pitchers who go there. I could be wrong, I’m just staying away from Greinke and don’t want that kind of risk, and would rather have players over him who I can sometimes get cheaper than him on draft day. While Greinke had a respectable 2.93 era last year and 3.73 xFIP that’s not bad either, it does show he was a little fortunate as it’s almost a full run difference. He along with Kershaw have recently shown real signs of decline, which makes them stand out to me as players I want to stay away from.

I view Kershaw as almost more risky because there are injuries like his back issues that are also declining. It’s odd to say these things about a 32 year old who not that long ago was widely known as the best pitcher in baseball, but it’s the reality of things. His injuries I view a bit differently as other injuries because they’ve had a direct impact on fastball velocity and the type of pitcher he’s had to change into. In many ways Kershaw bounced back in 2019 as he stayed healthy the entire season after missing the initial few weeks of the season and had a pretty good year. His k/9 got back above 9, but he also allowed the highest home run rate of his career at 1.41 HR/9 and highest xFIP (3.50) since 2010. That may not seem fair as it makes him a victim of his own dominant success, but the home run rate is just alarming for him any way you put it. The only other time in his entire career his home run rate has been even above 1 was in 2017 when it was 1.18 and he started showing real signs of regression after the injuries started to pile up. To contextualize even further his career HR/9 is still 0.68, a little less than half of what it was last year. Here he’s not a victim of his own success because it shows he’s simply not the type of pitcher to give up home runs, until the last few years. His HR/9 actually impoved to 0.95 in 2018, but spiked back up again last season in a major way.

Context is important and you can’t just look at the stat itself as my top 2 ranked pitchers Cole and Verlander had HR/9 of 1.23 and 1.45 respectively. While that can’t just be thrown out the window, Verlander in his resurgence with the Astros has had a HR/9 right around 1.2 and this year did spike up, but before his time with the Astros he never had a HR/9 above 1 in his career, so it’s not really a concern as he actually became a better pitcher once he got to Houston even though his HR/9 spiked. For Cole his HR/9 was pretty high, but comparing their HR/9 to Kershaw in general is like comparing totally different players because Kershaw can’t pair the dominance of those two with his HR/9. Power pitchers tend to be more susceptible to home runs, but Verlander and especially Cole negate that problem with how many batters they strike out and how in turn the ball is put in play much less frequently. Kershaw may have been that pitcher in his prime as far as sheer dominance goes, but his HR/9 was microscopic, making it a bigger deal how high his HR/9 was last year. When you combine the deterioration in skill and the injury toll of an aging Kershaw with having sudden problems keeping the ball in the park it’s far from ideal. Those are all reasons to be cautious, and when a pitcher doesn’t age well it’s usually because that pitcher is not able to adjust accordingly and is paying for it with a spike in home runs and hard contact. Another concern with Kershaw is the fact he’s not as durable and hasn’t thrown for 200 innings since 2015 when he threw 232 innings. In the last 4 years since then his average innings per season is at 165.

These two pitchers I’ve discussed in Greinke and Kershaw could very well have good seasons this year, but because of the underlying numbers and the eye test I’m not counting on it. They are two players I will stay away from, and as my drafts are already over I can say I didn’t draft either player and it was with good reason. I mentioned other players in Strasburg, Morton, Corbin, and Flaherty who I rank outside my top 10, but will not get into my explanations until the next post. I do like those players and what they bring to the table compared to Greinke and Kershaw, but didn’t quite make the cut for my top 10 for a variety of reasons that I will get into next week!

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