Kings of Command: Pitchers poised to break out

Pitching is the name of today's game.

In 2015, baseball set a record for the highest strikeout rate in history (19.5 percent of all plate appearances). Zack Greinke's 1.66 ERA was the lowest by a qualified pitcher in 20 years, and between his and Jake Arrieta's 1.77, two of the 14 best ERAs during the expansion era happened in 2015.

There's only one logical reaction for fantasy owners: Continue to bargain shop for pitching.

Wait ... what?!

Counterintuitive as that seems, the age-old lesson remains apt. Remember, as league-wide pitching performance improves, so does the bar for what constitutes an ace. It's merely more important nowadays to acquire elite pitching stats, but that doesn't necessarily mean you need to pay a premium to do so. In fact, the past two American League Cy Young award winners, Corey Kluber and Dallas Keuchel, demonstrate that elite pitching is always available on the cheap, something as true in 2016 as in 1996.

Remember, individual pitching performance remains more volatile than hitting, due to their smaller sample sizes -- by the way, starters' samples are growing ever smaller -- that make them more susceptible to random variance. Defensive influence and risk of injury are further reasons for this.

This is why, when formulating a draft strategy, fantasy owners should rely more upon skills, evidenced by a pitcher's command numbers, rather than past rotisserie earnings. Yet, year after year, some owners fall into those same old traps.

They want past proof.

They want yesterday's stats.

You, on the other hand, want today's and tomorrow's stats.

Using command ratios -- a pitcher's strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates -- is a better way to identify the strongest future performers. Pitchers who command the strike zone, don't give up many free passes and minimize the most damaging contact greatly increase their chances for success. These arms are identified annually by meeting minimum baselines in each category, and they're called "Kings of Command."

"Kings of Command" baseline numbers

Pitchers who qualify for inclusion meet each of the following minimum baselines:

  • Batters faced: 200 or more

  • Strikeout rate (K% of batters faced): 16 percent or more

  • Walk rate (BB% of batters faced): 8 percent or less

  • Command rate (K's per walk): 2.50 or more

  • Ground ball rate (GB% of all balls in play): 42.5 percent or more

Last season, 735 pitchers appeared in a big-league game, and of those, only 91 met all five criteria. That group included American League Cy Young Award winner Keuchel, as well as pitchers responsible for 94 percent of the points tallied in the National League's Cy Young balloting, including winner Arrieta. It also included eight of the top 10 starting pitchers, and both of the top two relief pitchers, on the ESPN Player Rater. Max Scherzer (fourth) and David Price (sixth) were the top-10 starters who missed; Scherzer had a ground-ball rate four percent too low but he paced the majors in K's per walk, while Price was only two ground balls shy of qualification.

But that group also included the following 10 pitchers, none of whom experienced quite as much fanfare, and none of whom finished among the top 60 starting or top 40 relief pitchers on our Player Rater. These pitchers, however, compared favorably to the former group in these command categories, hinting that greater fortunes might be in store for them in 2016.

These "Kings of Command" are listed in alphabetical order, along with their statistics in the above categories, and a look at what they'd need to do in order to break through this season.


Anthony DeSclafani, Cincinnati Reds
2015 Player Rater: No. 87 SP/66 RP, 785 TBF,
19.2 K%, 7.0 BB%, 2.75 K/BB, 46.3 GB%, 3.67 FIP

Three consecutive quality starts to begin his 2015 campaign made DeSclafani a popular April pickup, but he quickly cooled in rotisserie terms, posting a 4.45 ERA, roughly one-half a run higher than the league's average. What was lost during his summer "swoon," however, was the fact that he cut his walk rate by more than half after the All-Star break (9.4 percent before, 4.0 percent after), while increasing his swinging-strike rate (9.2 percent before, 12.3 percent after).

What would spawn a breakthrough? Continued polish of his knuckle-curve might go a long way towards it. His walk-rate drop coincided with its apparent introduction into his arsenal, even though the pitch itself was worth 1.6 runs below average, using PitchF/X data. An up-the-middle defensive combination of Zack Cozart and Jose Peraza for the majority of DeSclafani's starts would also help.

His chances of doing so? Good, being that DeSclafani threw the knuckle-curve roughly 12 percent of the time from Aug. 1 forward, recording 18 of his 65 K's (28 percent) to lend legitimacy to it being a viable pitch. The problem, primarily in traditional Rotisserie leagues, is that DeSclafani could "break out" with an ERA more than a half-run beneath the league's average, yet still finish with a losing record.


Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles
2015 Player Rater: No. 125 SP, 470 TBF,
21.9 K%, 6.2 BB%, 3.55 K/BB, 46.1 GB%, 4.10 FIP

It's his second appearance on a "Kings of Command" list -- he also made it in 2014 -- but the third consecutive year that he has met the requirements. Keith Law's No. 23 prospect in his 2014 rankings, Gausman has disappointed to date at the big-league level, with better stats in relief (3.86 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 29.4 K%) than as a starter (4.27 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 19.7 K%). That raises the concern that he'll eventually be relegated to a reliever's career. At the same time, Gausman's career sample -- 42 starts and 273 1/3 innings -- isn't large enough to write him off, and his stock might never be lower than it is today.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Opportunity, for one. Did you know that the only time during his three major-league seasons when he made at least five consecutive starts with no greater than five days' rest between each was in his final 14 starts of last season? What's more, Gausman's command numbers improved during that 14-start span, but his rotisserie results weren't helped by his having the ninth-highest home run/fly ball ratio (12.2 percent) of 79 qualifiers.

His chances of doing so? Good, as Gausman will enter camp as the Orioles' fourth starter. He's a virtual lock to begin the season in that role, what with the team more focused on settling its wide-open fifth-starter battle this spring.


Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
2015 Player Rater: No. 116 SP, 395 TBF,
26.3 K%, 7.1 BB%, 3.71 K/BB, 48.0 GB%, 3.55 FIP

He was a second-half sensation in 2015 -- before the Reds shut him down in mid-September to manage his workload -- and he begins this season the most buzzworthy of any of these 10 names. Consider that from the All-Star break through Labor Day, Iglesias had a 2.78 ERA (18th out of 98 qualifiers), 0.89 WHIP (seventh) and 70 strikeouts (10th).

What would spawn a breakthrough? One might think it's run support, at least in leagues that reward wins, or minimal workload restrictions. But what would truly elevate Iglesias' stock several levels would be a lights-out pitch to use against left-handed hitters. To that point, Iglesias' swing-and-miss rate was nearly 10 percent lower against lefties than righties, and his changeup, his go-to pitch versus lefties, had a swing-and-miss rate (30.8 percent) that was beneath the major-league average (31.2).

His chances of doing so? Excellent, considering he made incremental gains in that regard versus lefties in his final eight starts. One problem with Iglesias, however, is that fantasy owners are sure to anticipate a breakthrough and draft accordingly; the Reds' competitive state as well as a likely innings cap -- perhaps 180 innings -- might ultimately prevent a top-20 caliber season even in the best-case scenario.


Jeremy Jeffress, Milwaukee Brewers
2015 Player Rater: No. 82 RP, 285 TBF,
23.5 K%, 7.7 BB%, 3.05 K/BB, 58.5 GB%, 3.22 FIP

One of as many as five legitimate contenders for the Brewers' closer role, Jeffress is the one who had the most holds (23) and innings pitched (68), and his 95.3 mph average fastball velocity last season was 25th of the 138 relievers to make at least 50 appearances. He's a logical favorite to win the job out of camp, if only because of those factors as well as his right-handedness -- managers inexplicably seem to prefer righties to lefties in the role -- but it's Jeffress' command stats that make him a compelling choice.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Simply put, landing the job. If Jeffress emerges this spring, his 2015 hints that he'd be at low risk of ever giving it back.

His chances of doing so? At best, 50/50, partly because competitors Will Smith, Michael Blazek and Corey Knebel all also met this column's criteria, making any of them viable contenders in their own right. So why is Jeffress in this spot, and not Smith or Blazek or Knebel? It's the hints we saw from Aug. 1 forward: Jeffress made 25 appearances, 13 of them in games that were within a run on the scoreboard -- posting a 1.40 ERA and 12 holds -- which tied for fifth in the majors.


Shawn Kelley, Washington Nationals
2015 Player Rater: No. 95 RP, 205 TBF,
30.7 K%, 7.3 BB%, 4.20 K/BB, 44.1 GB%, 2.57 FIP

The ultimate "stealth" saves candidate, Kelley is the rare pitcher with a low-leverage middle relievers reputation but a substantially better skill set, and a premium setup role to boot. His strikeout rate alone tells the story: He has had a 30 percent or greater strikeout rate in each of the past three seasons, making him one of only four relievers to claim that with a minimum of 50 innings in each; the other three are Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel. Kelley quietly signed with the Nationals during the winter, and following the trade of Drew Storen, Kelley might well begin the season the team's next-in-line behind Jonathan Papelbon.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Papelbon's removal from the closer role, which has seemed imminent since the final week of last season, be it by trade, injury or team decision.

His chances of doing so? While Papelbon remains the Nationals' ninth-inning man -- and might remain so all year -- there might not be a more volatile choice, at least among the "sure thing" closer's in place. Kelley could wind up 2016's most critical handcuff, and he might not even cost more than a buck in NL-only leagues.


Brandon Maurer, San Diego Padres
2015 Player Rater: No. 95 SP/75 RP, 206 TBF,
18.9 K%, 7.3 BB%, 2.60 K/BB, 49.0 GB%, 3.31 FIP

Starter or reliever, reliever or starter? Maurer, who at the time of the Craig Kimbrel trade appeared to have a competitive chance at emerging as the Padres' next closer, is ticketed instead for their rotation as spring training dawns. While that's typically a wise choice, as it maximizes a pitcher's exposure (read: greater innings total), let's not overlook that Maurer had a 6.62 ERA in 21 starts from 2013-14 and could provide greater value to the Padres by maximizing his leverage as a reliever. One point of note: Maurer's 15.1 percent K rate, 1.97 K-to-walk rate and 42.2 percent ground-ball rate in those 21 career starts would've all fallen short of this column's criteria for inclusion.

What would spawn a breakthrough? In Maurer's defense, he might be a different pitcher today, thanks mostly to an improved changeup that could give him a fighting chance if returned to the rotation. A breakthrough in that role might hinge upon his ability to maintain some of his fastball velocity and changeup effectiveness while easing somewhat off his slider. If kept in the bullpen, it'd be twofold: Winning the closer role and boosting his swing-and-miss rate closer to his minor-league levels.

His chances of doing so? Probably so-so as a starter, which might require a more extensive adjustment, but his ceiling would be arguably the highest of any of the Padres' candidates to close this preseason.


Zach McAllister, Cleveland Indians
2015 Player Rater: No. 119 SP/100 RP, 299 TBF,
28.1 K%, 7.7 BB%, 3.65 K/BB, 45.0 GB%, 3.15 FIP

He was the longest of long shots in last year's column, and he's only a slightly lesser long shot in this year's, but don't let that take anything away from McAllister's growth in 2015. He continued to flash elevated velocity in a short-relief role, resulting in his greatest single-year strikeout rate as a pro, and he was actually more effective against left-handed hitters, his .276 wOBA allowed to them was nearly 50 points lower than the league's average (.323). Unfortunately, it was accrued in relative anonymity, as he amassed only four wins, one save and 12 holds.

What would spawn a breakthrough? He'd need closer Cody Allen to get hurt or struggle significantly, or he'd need the team to move him back into their rotation.

His chances of doing so? Minimal, mainly because even in the aforementioned scenarios, there'd be an additional qualifier. To close, McAllister would also need to out-pitch primary setup man Bryan Shaw, and as a starter, McAllister would probably need to retain closer to the 95.2 mph fastball velocity he has averaged in relief the past two seasons. Neither is completely impossible; in his one start in 2015, McAllister's fastball averaged 94.2 mph. Incidentally, considering McAllister's performance in relief the past year-plus, a return to the rotation seems the greatest long shot.


Michael Pineda, New York Yankees
2015 Player Rater: No. 61 SP, 668 TBF,
23.4 K%, 3.1 BB%, 7.43 K/BB, 50.0 GB%, 3.34 FIP

He has flashed ace-caliber ability at times during his big-league career, from the 2.45 ERA and 24.7 percent strikeout rate he posted in his first 15 career starts in 2011, to the eight performances worth at least a 60 in Bill James game score in 13 starts in 2014, to the 16-strikeout masterpiece he twirled against the Baltimore Orioles last May 10. Unfortunately, injuries have been his primary obstacle: He has totaled only 40 starts the past four seasons combined due to a shoulder surgery (May 1, 2012), shoulder strain (May-August 2014) and forearm strain (August 2015).

What would spawn a breakthrough? Health, obviously, but a return to form of his pre-2015 fastball effectiveness would help. Opponents batted .215 against it in 2014, but .325 against it in 2015.

His chances of doing so? Predicting injuries is an inexact science, but Pineda started 27 times and tallied 160 2/3 innings last season. It's not a substantial leap to expect a 30-start, 190-inning year.


Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox
2015 Player Rater: No. 137 SP, 737 TBF,
20.2 K%, 5.2 BB%, 3.92 K/BB, 46.3 GB%, 4.13 FIP

After the 2015 season that Porcello had -- he finished 70th among the 78 ERA-qualified starting pitchers on the Player Rater -- few fantasy owners will want to draft him. Still, he has more than $62 million left on his contract, virtually guaranteeing him a rotation spot, and he finished the year with a 3.14 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 24.3 percent strikeout rate in his eight starts following a disabled-list stint for a triceps injury. Once considered one of the top 10 pitching prospects in baseball, Porcello has probably passed the point of his career that he'll eventually become a Cy Young winner, but there's still perhaps some juice yet to be squeezed from this orange.

What would spawn a breakthrough? A full season relying upon the sinker-first mentality he displayed during his final eight starts of 2015 -- be aware that more than 50 percent of his first pitches of a count were in the bottom third of the zone -- which was largely responsible for his command-rate growth in 2012-13, could be all it takes.

His chances of doing so? Good, but again, let's not mistake "breakthrough" for "Cy Young votes" with Porcello. For him, a step forward might mean a top-40 starting pitcher season. Then again, that'd be a victory considering his probable draft price.


Adam Warren, Chicago Cubs
2015 Player Rater: No. 58 SP/44 RP, 534 TBF,
19.5 K%, 7.3 BB%, 2.67 K/BB, 45.3 GB%, 3.59 FIP

If there was a reason for Yankees fans to be lukewarm on the Starlin Castro trade, Warren was it. Warren was the third-most valuable Yankees pitcher in terms of Wins Above Replacement (2.7) last season, ahead of both Andrew Miller (2.2) and Pineda (1.7), but he rarely received much attention and had seven wins, one save, three holds and a 3.29 ERA to escape recognition in fantasy. Much of that was due to Warren's performance in relief, as he had a 2.29 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 26.2 percent strikeout rate coming out of the bullpen after Ivan Nova made his healthy return to the rotation. But Warren's 3.66 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 17 starts showed he was also a capable starter. He'll presumably occupy the same swingman role for the Cubs as he had with the Yankees, but could move into a more prominent spot in time.

What would spawn a breakthrough? As the Cubs have Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop locking down the back end of their bullpen, Warren's ability to out-pitch Kyle Hendricks and/or Jason Hammel during spring training, even if it's not enough to overtake either by Opening Day, would help in the long haul. Warren's continued work on his two-seam fastball and curveball, the latter of which was highly effective as a reliever last season, are also keys to his success.

His chances of doing so? Skills-wise, they're good, but Warren's prospects of a rotation or primary setup spot when camps break are far from good. He's the kind of pitcher who might matter more as an in-season pickup than draft-day commodity.

"Kings of Command" master list of qualifiers

During the years, readers have requested the full list of pitchers who met all of the "Kings of Command" criteria. Listed below, in their order of FIP (fielding-independent pitching) are the 91 pitchers who did so in 2015: