Fantasy baseball: What the future holds for these struggling aces

Are better days ahead for Chris Sale after a disastrous April (0-5, 6.30 ERA, 1.40 WHIP)? AP Photo/Steven Senne

In the early going, many fantasy baseball preseason aces have started slowly or scarily, thanks in significant part to the baseball's rejuiced physics.

Heavy investors in pitching should look away:

In the first month's SP1 massacre, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell, Patrick Corbin, Zack Greinke and Stephen Strasburg have at least kept their shareholders happy with an ERA below 4.00 through Tuesday. (Luis Severino's injury leaves him out of this conversation.)

On the surface, this widespread failure in pitching would look abnormal: The league's BABIP (.291) wouldn't rank among baseball's 50 highest seasons. Of course, in this era of Three True Outcomes, 2019's all-time-record pace of 1.32 HR/9 (just ahead of 1.27 -- unsurprisingly from the juiced-ball revival 2017) explains it clearly. The past four seasons, in fact, are all included in MLB's historical HR/9 top five.

We probably won't know the extent of how top pitchers are affected by the baseball until later in the season. Many of the crazy numbers we'll talk about -- especially those on balls in play -- might wind up normalizing soon, but some have disturbing underlying causes that might not be fully luck-driven.

Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

His hard-hit rate's up a little bit (40 percent), but outside of his unlucky batting average on balls in play and its intertwining squashing of his left-on-base percentage, Scherzer's performance looks normal. Much of the damage done to the 34-year-old's numbers came in a six-run disaster April 20 at the Marlins (as we all predicted). He has since delivered a two-run, 10-strikeout gem against the Padres.

The significant ERA-FIP -- his difference between his ERA and fielding independent pitching (FIP) -- points to better things.

Concern: Low

Mad Max was only on this list because his ERA barely met the qualification, and while I'd like to see a little quieter contact made against him, he's still my No. 1 fantasy arm.

Jacob deGrom

Recent elbow concerns caused a brief placement on the injured list, but his return versus a tough Brewers lineup didn't ease concerns left from the previous two starts, in which he served up five combined homers to the Twins and Braves.

The Mets ace and manager Mickey Callaway, former Indians pitching coach, pointed to a mechanical issue, as noted by The New York Post:

As per Callaway, deGrom "is leaving the rubber a little quick," and that leads to his pitches going to the middle of the plate. Each of his primary pitches -- his fastball, slider and changeup -- got hit hard during the Brewers' five-run third inning.

This is evidenced by the .370 slugging percentage against his fastball and the ridiculous .739 against his slider so far and .600 against his curveball. His Statcast Sweet Spot percentage (39) also ranks among the likes of Michael Pineda, Shane Bieber and Zack Godley -- pitchers notorious for straight gas that sits in the zone and is easily tattooed.

Perhaps it's also adjusting to life without his 2018 personal catcher, Devin Mesoraco, an underrated contributor to deGrom's Cy Young campaign, though the deGrominator is a good enough pitcher independent of his backstop. His K% being the highest on this list tells me he has plenty of time to correct things.

Concern: Low to Medium, but probably Low

As long as the righty's elbow doesn't spark further concern -- his velocity looks normal compared to past years -- the tweak should help him get on track. After all, he's still forcing a 14.6 swinging-strike percentage. All he has to do is minimize his misses along the plate. His Wednesday start versus the feeble Reds offense will give us a clearer short-term view of his direction.

Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

On the back of three straight campaigns with 208-plus innings, Sale was haunted by shoulder inflammation through the end of last year's regular season and into his shaky postseason run.

The lefty and the club insist he's healthy, but fatigue and an abbreviated spring-training schedule -- by design, after last year's World Series run -- fuel concerns.

To be fair, he has fanned at least six batters in each of his past three starts, including 18 in the past two, and his 12.71 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in that window show a marked improvement in dominance and command. On Sunday, however, he was working at 91.9 mph on his fastball after topping out at 96.2 at the Yankees on April 16.

While Boston's biggest mound weapon looked like Drogon last year, he's so far been wight Viserion. ... OK, for those outside the "Game of Thrones" world, he's throwing ice, not heat:

His slider's Whiff% is down to 29.4 after last year's 44.4, and its K% is down from 44.4 to 29.4. It's not the punchout pitch he needs it to be with his dwindling fastball velocity, because it's easier to decipher which of the two pitches he's throwing if the speed gap between them shrinks. And because his heat has been off, he's throwing that slider more often -- another physical concern.

Sale's Barrels/PA allowed ranks among the league's 25 highest, and his BABIP probably would be worse if not for all the homers. His infield fly ball rate has tanked from 15.3 percent to only 2.9 percent. Aerial shots against him have been exponentially more productive than usual.

The pitcher and the club haven't pointed to a mechanics issue, but Sale needs to build up arm strength, and not getting a feel for his high-torque delivery correct could lead to prolonged dangers. Perhaps bringing back Sandy Leon to share work behind the plate will help.

Concern: High

Selling for less than 100 percent of his preseason draft value could save you some stress, but in many leagues, pitching is in high demand, so the return on a trade might still give you equal value. Expecting him to right the ship to something like a top-12 or top-15 mixed-league starting pitcher gives you a sound reason to hold. Context matters.

Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

Prepare for another fastball horror show:

Want more cringe-worthy numbers?

  • His 12.4 swinging-strike percentage from 2018 has dipped to 8.1.

  • 45.7 percent of his batted balls allowed have traveled 95-plus mph, which erases some of the optimism in his low Barrels/PA.

  • His first-pitch-strike rate has sunk from 69.4 percent in 2018 (second best in the bigs) to a paltry 53.2 percent this year.

Encouraging: His past two starts, including one at Coors Field and a sharp 6 2/3-inning quality start against the Marlins, showed some more positives. He also faced a tough Nationals lineup twice early in the season. In fact, his HR/9 probably stems from the three long balls he allowed in Denver. Like several other hurlers on this list, he's working with a new catcher -- the highly coveted J.T. Realmuto -- and Nola really doesn't have a suffocating fastball, so working the corners could be a problem for him right now.

Concern: High

He's not a blow-away strikeout artist and needs to work the plate effectively, so he needs to complement his fastball with effective secondary offerings. Getting his walk rate down will be key in the coming weeks, and his ERA-FIP doesn't present much of a cause to be excited right now.

Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

Even though he doesn't lead with his four-seam fastball, Kluber still concerned us by posting his slowest velocity in 2018. The finesse pitcher with the sinker-cutter-curve approach has been missing early on. His barrel rate is his highest in the Statcast era, and Kluber has the third-worst wOBA with runners on base (.417).

Manager Terry Francona and Kluber have pointed to mechanical issues; he hasn't always been getting the late movement on his pitches that allows him to work confidently in the strike zone. His dip in called third strikes by 4.1 percent, among other disconcerting indicators for his dominance, is further hurting his approach.

Concern: Medium to High

Having logged 200-plus innings in five straight years, the 33-year-old might be gassed a bit, and he's typically a slow starter (3.91 career April ERA, then progressively better through August). And if the departure of catcher Yan Gomes is hurting his chances to get the same rate of called strikes he's used to generating, that would hurt his overall approach.

Banking on late-season improvements tied to a player's career pattern doesn't always pay off -- a possible skills decline should prevent you from taking history as gospel -- but at least he could pick on the American League Central as it continues to tank later in the year. Having shortstop Francisco Lindor back on defense could help Kluber and his fellow struggling teammate ...

Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians

Carrasco has been one of the biggest victims of this year's new balls. Among pitchers with at least 70 batted-ball events allowed, Cookie has been tasty for opposing batters, tied for the fifth-highest exit velocity (91.9 mph) with notorious finesse hurler Mike Leake. His average launch angle of 19.2 degrees dwarfs anything else in his career by at least 9.4 percent.

His barrel rate also ranks toward the bottom of qualified starter rankings, and Carrasco joins his teammate Kluber in the top 10 wOBAs with runners on (.387) and has suffered the highest BABIP of anyone on this list. The righty looked like he was getting into a groove by tossing three perfect frames before leaving his April 23 start with a knee injury and subsequently struggled Sunday.

I'm pleased that only Scherzer and deGrom have a higher K% on this list, though, which gives him plenty of hope, and an AL Central hurler with his skills could continue feasting on those opponents.

Concern: Medium

While his Statcast ratings say he's hurting, his skill output doesn't reflect that high of an ERA. If I'm lagging in the standings and need an extremely positive regression, I'd take the risk.

Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets

For all his health woes, Syndergaard has arguably one of the better arsenals in baseball and was one of the stingiest pitchers last year to square up (1.4 Barrels/PA last year was among the 20 best). He once again sits with an excellent Barrel Rate that doesn't jive with the .376 BABIP, and as that ERA-FIP difference hints, Thor's ERA is about as bloated as ("Avengers: Endgame" spoiler redacted).

The revamped Mets rank 29th in defensive runs saved and in bullpen LOB% (65.9 percent), which look like legit culprits for Syndergaard's misplaced BABIP and LOB%, but he points to one of his own issues right now:

"I don't feel super-comfortable with my mechanics with runners on, basically," the right-hander said Monday, before the Mets lost 5-4 to the Reds at Citi Field. "But it's just all about getting good repetitions in between my starts, and that's what I've been working on, because I feel like I've been doing certain body patterns my entire life, and I feel like I've seen something that needs to change over the last couple of years in order for me to become better."

... With runners in scoring position, specifically, opponents have a .333/.378/.455 slash line against Syndergaard in 38 plate appearances. Last year, Syndergaard limited hitters to a .258/.351/.320 slash line in those circumstances. In his best year, 2016, he put up a terrific .242/.328/.327.

The 6-foot-6 hurler's mechanics and body type have held him back at times, and retooling his delivery from the stretch could help him get back on track. Fun fact: His K/BB actually improves each time through the order (5.50 K/BB on the third time through), so he's trustworthy when he goes deeper into games.

Concern: Low

I'd run to trade for him as soon as you're done reading this.

Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

Buehler finished two outs shy of a quality start in a Tuesday victory but succumbed to many of the in-play luck that's plagued his otherwise solid stuff so far. He hasn't walked more than two batters in any of his six games but hasn't worked longer than 6 1/3 frames in any.

Thanks to his abridged spring-training prep, Buehler seems to be relying heavily on his fastball -- his 57.3 percent usage ranking is in baseball's top 20 and a near 16 percent jump from his 2018 stint, and his whiff rate has dropped 9.6 points to 21.2. His lack of fastball effectiveness has led to a drop in first-strike rate, from 52.5 percent from 63.6 in 2018, and his seemingly diminished confidence in his sinker and breaking stuff, which also have lost putaway power. His curveball, in fact, has an .800 SLG and .601 wOBA in its small sample size. This probably has contributed to his struggles attacking lefties, leading to a lowly 6:7 K:BB so far against those batters.

The Dodgers do play games with their rotation, so Buehler's workload moving forward might not have him take a turn every five days.

Still, he has some good news: His spin rates and velocity readings look comparable to 2018, so it doesn't look like he's faltering with his individual contributions.

Concern: Low to Medium

With the weak contact and low homer rate he's allowing and his far-below-average 54.2 percent, his weak K rate is probably more of a problem tied to sequencing. As his strikeouts rise, so should his ability to leave runners on. Buy before he shows that he's getting back into his regular-season routine.

Other struggling arms

  • Jameson Taillon's 49.7 LOB% makes him a buy-low candidate, too, despite his 7.26 K/9 being far below what we want from a top-end fantasy starter. He's actually boasting career-best rates of 69.5 percent first-pitch strike and 12.5 percent swinging strikes.

  • Zack Wheeler must cut his walk rate (4.29 per nine), but his 3.57 FIP and 65.5 LOB% say his 5.05 ERA is in line to improve, but the Mets' defense and bullpen problems may plague him, too.

  • If Jack Flaherty can rectify his inflated 2.03 HR/9 (1.19 last year), he'll look like a steal for anyone who can net him in a trade now.