Free Agent Pitchers: Your 411

Since Brian Cashman has said – well, he’s said a few silly things so far this offseason – but when he said that starting pitching may be a priority for the Yankees, that did seem to make sense.  So let’s go with it and take a closer look at available free agent starting pitchers.

For starters (like what I did there?), if you’ve read my stuff before you know I’m from the school of pitchers have little control over anything once the batter makes contact with the ball.  They can throw good strikes (or not), and they can keep the ball in the park (or not) – there’s too much randomness in just about everything else.

To that end, as usual, I’ll go with the percentage of batters faced that were struck out minus the percentage of batters faced that were walked (K%-BB%) and expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP).  Those two stats alone will tell us most of what we need to know – we’ll move on to other numbers and thoughts only if necessary.

And if there’s a free agent you have a question about who isn’t on this list, it’s because whatever pitcher your team has in AAA is a better option and it isn’t really worth discussing.

Speaking of which…

Marco Estrada, Gio Gonzalez, Jason Hammel, Drew Pomeranz, and Dallas Kuechel all are over 30 years old and all had their xFIP increase and their K%-BB% decrease in each of the past three seasons.  Over 30 and declining is a hard pass.  And if you’re of the mind that even a declining Kuechel is still a pretty good pitcher, I refer you to the Philadelphia Phillies and the $50 million they still owe Jake Arrieta.  Arrieta also was past 30 years old and had performance declines in 3 straight seasons – the Phillies would love a mulligan on that one.

Lean “No”:

Jeremy Hellickson.  Hellickson has always been an underrated pitcher and had a much better 2018 than 2017, albeit in only 91 innings.  But his fastball velocity has been on the decline and getting 150 innings from him may be a big ask.  Might be worth a risk, but be clear it’s a risk.

Derek Holland.  I was never high on Holland from an eye test perspective and he had a hideous 2017 season.  To his credit, he bounced back well in ’18 with one of his best seasons in a while and showed he can log innings again.  A very good team with no AAA depth may be able to use him as a 4th starter but that’s a pretty small market.

Hyun-Jin Ryu.  The upside of Ryu is that he pitched very well in ’18, coming in 4th among NL starters in K%-BB%.  But a long injury history and only an 81 inning 2018 make him a risk not worth for almost all teams.

Anibal Sanchez is an interesting case.  Unlike the aforementioned declining 30 somethings, he’s improved for three straight seasons in both xFIP and K%-BB%.  And one could certainly argue that with his huge drop in fastball usage combined with a big increase in changeup usage, that he’s made an adjustment that will stick.  But even with the improvements, his 3.81 xFIP in ’18 was only a tick above league average.  His work has been admirable for sure, but 35 years old for 136 innings of league average is a stretch most teams won’t and shouldn’t take.

Lean “Yes”:

Nathan Eovaldi.  I think people overrate Eovaldi and someone is going to overpay for him.  That being said, 29 is young for a free agent and with the philosophical change of increased cutter usage one could argue his recent success is sustainable, despite it being just a 111 IP season in ’18.  Among 66 AL pitchers in ’18 with a minimum of 100 IP, Eovaldi was 15th in xFIP and 16th in K%-BB%.  If you’re confident you can get 160 IP from him, he’s a good #2 on most teams.

J.A. Happ.  Like Sanchez, Happ is also defying age and has improved his xFIP and K%-BB% for three straight seasons.  His fastball velocity is virtually unchanged over that period as well, so it seems that his command is improving while his power is staying put, for now anyway.

Lance Lynn.  If you’re surprised to see his name in the lean yes category, so am I.  I understand the concerns of signing Lynn, but consider this:  Since missing 2016 with Tommy John Surgery, Lynn has thrown 343 innings, saw both his xFIP and K%-BB% improve from ’17 to ’18 and was better in the 2nd half of ’18 than the first. Additionally, his average fastball velocity in ’18 was the 2nd highest of his career. He also had the highest BABIP against of his career, indicating that he may have pitched into some bad luck as well.  Given his history and his improvement over the past two seasons, there are more positives than negatives with him.

Charlie Morton.  35 year olds with up and down careers are typically giant red flags – Morton is an exception.  He’s had a great two season stretch where he’s averaged over 150 innings per season and has been one of the top 10-15 pitchers in the AL.  In 2018 he had the best K%-BB% of his career and the highest average fastball velocity of his career as well so that inevitable decline doesn’t look like it’s coming very soon.  Most teams would love to have him.

Duh:

Patrick Corbin.  Corbin is the best free agent pitcher available, period.  Both his xFIP and K%-BB% have improved for three straight seasons while his IP has increased each season.  In fact, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom were the only NL pitchers with a better K%-BB% in the NL.  He won’t be 30 until after the all-star break next season and he was actually better versus right-handed batters than against left-handed batters (in case you were worried about matchups with a predominantly right-handed team…Boston, cough, cough Boston, cough…)

Did I get something wrong?  Miss something?  Let me know.

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