During a 2019 season when seemingly anyone making contact is tearing the hide off the baseball, fantasy players have started to wonder which mid-range pitchers they can actually trust.
We harp on looking at which arms can force swinging strikes, but considering how thin the daily and weekly free-agent pools of useful hurlers have become -- as more waiver-wire watchers get aggressive with planning ahead -- we need to keep digging and find a second layer of helpful players.
Now that avoiding contact as a pitcher is becoming an even bigger priority, we could go in a different direction: Which pitchers excel at getting called strikes, and can we find enough on the wire to help us?
When looking at statistics, I figured it'd help to start with 2017, which brought the vintage version of our astronautic baseballs.
Wish I could start with better news for our journey, though. Unfortunately, the league's data through about one-third of the 2019 season shows a second straight year of decline in called strikes, in relation to the swinging variety:
MLB strikes looking vs. strikes swinging, past three seasons
Power pitching looks like it's still winning out. Thanks to the ball's juiced physics and more batters adjusting swings for maximum loft, finesse arms aren't having as much luck dropping in a looking strike.
Our task of traveling down this new path may be just as difficult as the same pitchers we're trying to find. (OK, definitely not, but still.)
At least there's one piece of hope: We're seeing a higher rate of strikeouts with a backwards K.
MLB strikeouts looking, past three seasons
While this season's sample is too tiny for us to determine which locations are most helpful, we still can find solace in this promising revelation.
And while these trends barely tell the whole story of our new three-true-outcomes era, we can piece several of these leader trends together to help us find situations that we can take advantage of as the calendar continues to flip
We must continue looking for artists. Painters. The Bob Rosses of fantasy pitching.
We find oases in three layers: the pitcher, his catchers and home-plate umpires.
Most of the players on the strikes-looking leaderboard are going to be rostered on nearly every ESPN fantasy league roster, but they're setting our baseline, which is almost just as important:
2019 strikes looking, through May 28
The higher the look/swing rating, the more heavily the pitcher relies on called strikes. Of this top 10, Arrieta, Gonzalez, Nola and Greinke have a look/swing of 2.00 or more.
I'm less worried about the Bauers, Strasburgs. I've covered my concerns with Sale and Syndergaard, though the former's have been alleviated.
The sixth-ranked Arrieta looks like the biggest straw house. A 3.60 ERA, 7.59 K/9 and 3.34 BB/9 ... I'm not buying that.
Nola has the third-lowest swinging-strike total of anyone in the top 10, a detriment not far off what was hidden in 2018. The more you dig, the less his overall 10.3 K/9 looks less like a beacon of hope for the rest of 2019, though perhaps he can exceed expectations again.
2018 strikes looking
The 35-year-old Greinke may simply be the best example of using called strikes as a skill. Nola may have hope to turn things around.
Porcello and Chacin are further examples of where we must go as we devalue dominance; they're mostly environment-dependent.
Injuries have prevented us from seeing more from Kluber (bad start to 2019) and Clevinger (amazing). We've seen Freeland pay for this approach this year; he's too concentrated within the strike zone to live like this for extended stretches. Marquez's breaking stuff and K ability is much more trustworthy, despite the Colorado Rockies' Coors Field factor.
Now to the (in)famous pitch-framing discussion. Which pitchers are stealing strikes?
2019 strikes framed -- gets strike-looking call with less than 25 percent odds -- by pitcher, through May 27
2017-2018 strikes framed
Surprising that even through their shaky performances, Matz and Syndergaard still rank highly. Roark and Junis rely on finesse and unsurprisingly rank highly here.
Eflin is enjoying his time with his catchers this season, as his breakthrough hype from the preseason looks to be paying off.
Gonzales has lost some early-season shine, and Means is still clinging to his. (Tough to be a Baltimore Orioles starter, after all.)
Notice how Keuchel made most of his living with this approach -- and perhaps why the increasingly analytical world of baseball front offices has decided not to bring him aboard. He may have been too reliant on called strikes for his own good, and once he had a big enough scouting report, he became less valuable.
Important question: Is getting a called strike a skill?
It's difficult to predict due to so many factors, but the trait at least could make someone better as part of the larger puzzle.
Or, as Keuchel proved as he fell off, it could be a skill ... until every other year it's not.
Often, the credit may depend on the pitcher's battery-mate.
Though debate persists on just how much a catcher can do to achieve consistently favorable umpiring, we can assume it's a combination of the catcher's ability to hover around the tips of the plate; the pitcher's stuff; his trust in where to throw it; and even the pitching coach's influence.
As we try to extract clearer messages from catching metrics, we can establish who could aid a pitcher's ability to log called strikes.
The controversial pitch framing is key among them:
2019 framing runs above average (FrmRAA) overall leaders -- by catcher, through May 28
So far in 2019, we have four top-10 repeats from last season's best strike-stealers -- also one who was close now jumping into the fray, and a few significant risers.
Grandal may objectively hold the year-over-year crown in this metric, when you note his 2018 results with the Los Angeles Dodgers, though Flowers certainly belongs in that conversation, as well.
Even with Hedges' power-centric, harmful-average profile, the post-hype prospect's ability to control the dish is one reason the defensively questionable Mejia will probably top out as only a part-timer in the San Diego Padres' time share.
Realmuto deserves a bit of sympathetic context, having had to deal with Marlins hurlers last season, but is seemingly enjoying doing this same job for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019. Perhaps part of Nola's issue was getting used to a new receiver, but Realmuto seems to be helping Arrieta and Eflin.
Barnhart is certainly the most improved, but this is a great example of determining where to give credit. Is it more due to Barnhart's own growth? The Reds bringing in highly regarded pitching coach Derek Johnson? A slew of effective painters joining the rotation (Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, though Alex Wood hasn't yet pitched in the regular season)? Either way, Cincy pitching isn't the graveyard it used to be.
As for the worst ... well, the New York Yankees aren't keeping Sanchez in there for his framing. His bat and base-stealing suppression are his true gifts.
Here are the backstops stealing the most strikes:
2019 strikes framed -- gets strike-looking call with less than 25 percent odds -- by catcher, through May 28
2017-2018 strikes framed -- by catcher
Ramos, Posey and Narvaez have leaped into the top 10 for 2019.
These numerous groups of data confirm my preseason excitement over Padres, Milwaukee Brewers and Phillies pitchers, given how their catchers excel at working the plate. Davies seems to enjoy having Grandal around to work with his deception-focused approach, and Realmuto's quick emergence also has me more confident in Eflin's potential.
Realmuto and Nola have found a solid connection when it comes to called strikes, so maybe Nola can recover from his early-season woes.
Maldonado has helped the Royals fill the Salvador Perez void -- if not prove more effective.
Don't forget to see which umpires the pitcher-catcher combos most often fool. Umpire crews rotate duties during their assigned series, so if you can time out which pitcher could land an arbiter who's a bit friendlier to hurlers, you could sneak in some favorable streams.
When you may need to decide on a midrange-or-lower starter for a streaming chance the rest of the season, make sure your finesse pitcher has these folks calling your game.
2019 strikes-looking above-average percentage for umpires, through May 28
2017-19 strikes-looking above-average percentage for umpires
2017-2019 strikes framed -- strike-looking call with less than 25 percent odds -- pitcher-friendliest by umpire
2019 framing runs above average (FrmRAA) for strikes looking -- by umpire, through May 28
2019 strikes-looking above average -- hitter-friendliest by umpire, through May 28
Called strikes for free agents
While I can critique the long-term foundation of how much the Greinkes and Nolas of the world can continue relying on this approach for season-long success, that same burden of proof doesn't necessarily apply to streaming opportunities for pitchers who aren't necessarily rotation anchors.
Most of the players I talked about and ranked won't be available in the waiver pool, so here's how the look/swing rate caught my eye with some of my favorite widely available free-agent starting pitchers:
ESPN free-agent SPs with 2019 look/swing stats
While I'm more trustworthy of pitchers with a lower look/swing, this is all about the impact of called strikes on the player's performance.
I was surprised to find Peacock has that high a look/swing, but he and Miley are still helped by capable framers Max Stassi and (to a lower level) Robinson Chirinos, and we should just trust Houston Astros pitchers more than most staffs.
Conveniently, Gray pops up here after I talked about Reds starters.
Means slotted in at the bottom of the top-10 framed-strikes list, and Teheran just missed a few category leaderboards.
Bassitt and Lyles have added curveballs that have given them higher ceilings.
Gibson may be the riskiest name on this list but can often pull out a win in the right setting. He at least has the Twins' elite offense to back him. Stroman isn't much safer, but his new bromance with his slider may lead to better things.
I'm happy to see three primary pitchers (Beeks, Pena, Chirinos) ranked among the four lowest look/swing ratios in this group. It'll typically be much easier for them to get umpiring help, considering they won't need to show five-plus innings of work most times. They can use their small sample size to rely more on the umpire's discretion. Plus, in their roles, strikeouts often come more naturally, as they can max out a bit more on their velocity and break.
I highlighted several of my favorite possible pickups, but this study can be applied to additions from lower tiers among starters. Fantasy streamers should add these steps to their routine when looking for starting-pitching help:
Think of called strike data as a cherry that could make an already tantalizing pitching matchup sweeter.
You don't want to blindly use this as justification for scooping up a one-start rental of a mediocre pitcher in a tough spot, but when you consider a good framer ... a solid umpire for pitcher favoritism ... then a few opposing hitters are out of the lineup ... they could bolster cases you wouldn't normally think about.
Check who's going to have an elite framer and looking-strike catcher receiving his pitches.
Murphy is sharing time with sometimes great framer Alex Avila and Carson Kelly, but the Arizona Diamondbacks' tendency for framing (remember Jeff Mathis?) has aided in Luke Weaver's renaissance and could help the likes of the often streamer-worthy Merrill Kelly.
Vazquez's and Maldonado's skills could even prop up those AL streamers you might not normally consider.
Identify umpires who are generally friendlier to pitchers (Hamari, Estabrook, Danley, Barrett, Miller).
Pair a pitcher-catcher battery with one of these men in blue, and you may just have a surprise gem on your hands.
When you're starving for a streamer, you can get away with less-dominant pitchers if you can pair them with a backstop who excels at framing and an umpire who favors called strikes.
Want to take it to another level? Check the starting pitcher's history with the umpire. You'll have to keep some things in context -- and weigh current results over those more distant in the past -- but such a nugget could tip you off to opportunities others won't see.
That is how you move away from and ahead of the pack.