There are a bunch of guys that are having great years so far in baseball. Some are younger than others, and are off to career starts, and the younger guys may just be breaking out. So let’s play a little card game here. These players are going all in the pot, but it’s up to us to call their bluff of nothing or are they holding that full house to win it all? First up, are the pitchers that are shinning right now that many of us may not have seen coming.
Ervin Santana, SP, Twins-
This might be the weirdest one of this group because many thought he was a solid 3-4 type of starter for the Twins, but not there freaking ace! Santana had some real nice years with the Angels, and a good first half a couple years ago with the Braves, but others than that he has been hurt a lot. Out of 13 seasons in the majors, he has only gone over 200 innings 5 times. The last time he actually hit that mark was in 2013 with the Royals. He came close in 2014 (196) and last year (181), but at this point at age 34 it will be tough to hit that mark again. That is until this year started when Ervin has taken the role of an ace in Minnesota. So like every player in this post the question is can he sustain it and be this great all year? I am calling bullshit on this, and at one point he will level out. It sounds stupid, especially after he threw a complete game shutout last night, but numbers don’t lie. So far this year in 70 innings, Santana is 7-2, 1.80 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, .136 BABIP, and a 3.81 FIP.
An average BABIP is .300 so that .136 number is going to balloon a bit sooner rather than later. His career BABIP is .282 so somewhere in that range is where Ervin should be. His 2017 FIP of 3.81 is not too far away from his career average of a 4.22 FIP, but right now that 3.81 is above average and should be going towards the 4 mark at some point. He also has an about 6 K/9 in 2017 which isn’t good at all, but also has a career high 3.47 BB/9. Those numbers just don’t seem like they can sustain with Ervin being a successful pitcher. Santana also has a LOB % of around 90% which is crazy. That means he strands 90% of the runners that are on base, his average is 71%, so another number that will regress to the mean. There are a lot of meaningful numbers that will regress for Ervin to bring him back to Earth. That doesn’t mean he would be a bad pitcher, but he also can’t be walking 3-4 guys a game and get away with it. The stretch of bad crooked starts is coming, but when? I’m calling your bluff Ervin!!!
Lance McCullers, SP, Astros
Is this the year McCullers becomes a true ace? He has a lot better case than Ervin does. Lance is only 23 years old so age is on his side, and he has always had the stuff to dominate a lineup. The 2 huge problems for Lance has been the injury history and his walk rate. Of course it’s hard to predict injuries especially for pitchers who seem to never be healthy. With all those injuries his maximum innings in the big leagues is in 2015 with 125 innings. Just a year later he only recorded 81 innings, so as the season goes on will the young McCullers break down? Your best guess on that is shaking a magic 8 ball and praying it comes up gold. The walks have been the thing on the field holding Lance back from ace territory. He has a career BB/9 of 3.55, but so far this year is posting a career best of 2.58. It may just be early success but his K/9 is actually down from his career average of 10.15 to his 9.86 now. That could mean he is throwing more strikes and to more contact. The good thing about that is the contact seems to be turning into more groundballs this year, because his groundball rate is the highest of his career at 60.5%. He may have taken a hit in the K department (9.86 K/9 is still very good), but it has helped him walk less guys and produce more groundballs. Oh and did I mention he hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 4 starts to go along with 19 K’s and 6 walks in those 24 innings. I am folding this hand because Lance has got that full house!
Michael Fulmer, SP, Tigers
Fulmer won the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year award last year and hasn’t really slowed down. Some of his rookie mates have hit the sophomore slump, but not Fulmer. All of his numbers look very similar to what he did for 159 innings last year for the Tigers just a tad better. Nothing seems to out of whack, besides the ERA which is at 2.55 rather than his 3.06 last year. There may be from some luck, because Fulmer is more of a 3-3.30 ERA type of pitcher, but still that’s very solid. Even that I’m grasping at straws because its crazy how consistent this guy seems. With his 159 innings in 2016 and his 60 so far this year, we have seen pretty much a full year of Fulmer and you have to like what you see. He is solid as they come, but is he an ace? That is the big question here, and it some eyes he might be because of the consistent numbers, but with his K/9 consistently at 7ish it’s hard to see him more than a high #2 in a rotation. I think that is the only glaring part of Fulmer’s game that he is missing to become that true #1. I love him as a #2, but he is bluffing as a #1.
Marco Estrada, SP, Blue Jays
This one is real confusing to me. Estrada is 33 years old and has been in a couple of hitters ball parks in Miller Park (Brewers) and the Rogers Center (Blue Jays), but is now striking out the world. Well maybe not the world but to him it is. He is usually around 6-8 K/9, but this year he is up to 10.05.For his career he is at the 8.19 mark for K/9, so I don’t know what to really think about this jumps in strikeouts. All of his other nerdy numbers that I have been using are just a bit better this year, but nothing crazy. He actually has a worse BABIP this year than his career with a .290 rather than his career .258. The only one that is a bit off is the FIP with his 2017 FIP of 3.27. His career FIP is 4.12 and that’s with a 3.82 so maybe the 3.27 FIP isn’t too far off. So again, nothing is too crazy behind the scenes for Marco, except the big jumps in K/9. Even if those numbers go back to his career norm, which isn’t far off where they are now combined with that K rate could still make him an ace. You can see why this is so confusing, but I may have something. Estrada has always been a big change-up guy, and was getting his majority of his strikeouts from the change-up. This year his change-up K% has been the lowest in his career at 20.7%. The big difference is his fastball K% which is at a career high of 34.2%. This is where Marco is having more success and it’s coming over in more K’s. For a guy that isn’t a flamethrower it does come as a surprise but the difference between the speeds of those 2 pitchers is around 12 MPH. In baseball that is a huge difference and will really throw off hitters. This could be the magic combination that is causing all these K’s are maybe not, but I think I am on to something here. He might not be the sexy looking ace, but I am kind of buying it. This could be a classic Chris Moneymaker bluff for the win, but Marco has got me hooked.
Alex Wood, SP, Dodgers
Wood was once on the radar as a breakout candidate with the Braves a few years ago. He was fooling hitters with his whacky delivery while striking out around 8-9 K/9. Then the string of injuries kind of derailed his career. When he got shipped to LA he has been mostly a bullpen guy until now. Now he seems to be healthy and getting his shot again. This time he is bringing the heat though. All of his other underlying stats seem the same to the career norm besides a few. The biggest one is the velocity of his fastball. He is hitting the radar guns at 92.9 which is by far the hardest he has thrown. He is almost up 2 miles per hour on his heater and he seems to be sustaining during his starts. It seems very Danny Duffy like from last year. So now you put his faster fastball with that whacky delivery and you might be onto something here. His FIP is at 1.89 which is elite, so that will certainly come back to earth because Wood has always been around mid-3 FIP type of player. The good thing is that he has the highest K/9 of his career at 10.88 and his highest GB% of 67.6%. So let’s do some math here;
Whacky delivery + Increase in Velo on his FB+More K’s+More Groundballs=Ace!
A little baseball combined with cards is never a bad idea. Some of these players might be bluffing as aces, or they might have the pocket rockets and are for real. We are only 2 months into the MLB season, but I think I can tell who is bluffing and who isn’t. Only time will tell with these guys, but make sure to follow these guys closely, and if you play fantasy to could also be a good sell high segment as well.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : George