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The Pop Up Kings of 2017: Pitchers with Hidden Skills

As a follow up to my 2016 edition of this post, I try to find undervalued starters using pop up rates and strikeouts together.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Last offseason, I wrote a nice post about pop-ups, strikeouts, and uncovering undervalued starting pitchers using all the stuff I just mentioned. Well, guess what? Now it’s a new fantasy offseason and those numbers are a full year out of date. Let’s fix that and look at starters that get extra value by being above average at generating pop-ups and combine that with above average strikeout rates.

Looking back at last year’s post, there were some hits: Verlander, E-Rod, Bundy, and Gausman all showed at least signs of success this season. The others that didn’t turn out so great like Marco Estrada, Drew Smyly, Vince Velasquez, and Ian Kennedy were either injured or just awful. This isn’t a perfect recipe for uncovering sleeper pitchers, it is just another thing to look at when evaluating pitchers.

Just like last time, I’m going to show you a table of the leaders in pop-up % (PU%). That is the infield fly ball % x fly ball %. It is the percentage of batted balls that are pop-ups. The second table will show PU% + K%. Because pop-ups are basically automatic outs like strikeouts, it makes sense to combine them into one number. By comparing the two lists, we can see who benefits most from pop-ups and helps propel them up with the big strikeout guys.

The rules: minimum of 50 innings pitched, only top 40 shown so this post isn’t super long. [Cue Mario voice] Here we go!

Name PU%
A.J. Griffin 10.8%
Marco Estrada 8.3%
Ariel Miranda 7.5%
Hector Santiago 7.3%
Dan Straily 7.3%
Brandon McCarthy 7.0%
Edwin Jackson 6.8%
Matt Boyd 6.3%
Jake Faria 6.3%
Adam Conley 6.2%
Andrew Moore 6.1%
Jharel Cotton 6.1%
Yovani Gallardo 6.0%
Dylan Bundy 5.6%
Max Scherzer 5.5%
Parker Bridwell 5.4%
Nick Martinez 5.4%
Ben Lively 5.3%
Ervin Santana 5.2%
Bronson Arroyo 5.2%
Kenta Maeda 5.2%
Matt Andriese 5.1%
David Price 5.1%
Jordan Zimmermann 5.1%
Jeremy Hellickson 5.1%
Blake Snell 5.0%
Danny Duffy 5.0%
Rich Hill 4.8%
Madison Bumgarner 4.7%
Tyler Anderson 4.7%
Rafael Montero 4.6%
Steven Matz 4.5%
Jake Odorizzi 4.4%
Chris Sale 4.3%
Eddie Butler 4.3%
Junior Guerra 4.3%
James Paxton 4.3%
Chase Anderson 4.2%
Lance Lynn 4.2%

Name K%+PU%
Chris Sale 40.5%
Max Scherzer 39.9%
Corey Kluber 37.9%
Danny Salazar 36.8%
Robbie Ray 36.1%
Rich Hill 34.9%
Luis Severino 33.1%
Brad Peacock 33.1%
Clayton Kershaw 33.0%
Stephen Strasburg 33.0%
Chris Archer 32.6%
James Paxton 32.6%
Dinelson Lamet 32.2%
Jacob deGrom 32.2%
Carlos Carrasco 31.6%
Luke Weaver 30.9%
Mike Clevinger 30.7%
Yu Darvish 30.4%
Zack Greinke 30.2%
Marco Estrada 30.1%
Justin Verlander 30.0%
Kenta Maeda 30.0%
Masahiro Tanaka 29.7%
Jose Quintana 29.6%
Luis Castillo 29.6%
Jake Faria 29.5%
Jimmy Nelson 29.5%
A.J. Griffin 29.4%
Trevor Bauer 29.4%
Dan Straily 29.4%
Charlie Morton 29.2%
Alex Meyer 29.2%
Aaron Nola 28.6%
Zack Godley 28.3%
Eduardo Rodriguez 28.3%
Carlos Martinez 27.8%
Ariel Miranda 27.8%
Chase Anderson 27.6%
Jon Gray 27.5%

Ok, let’s first list out the guys on both lists, i.e. the guys that generate lots of pop-ups but also strike out a good number of batters.

Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Rich Hill, James Paxton, Marco Estrada, Jake Faria, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, Ariel Miranda, and Chase Anderson.

Obviously, the names at the top of the list are no-brainers and the pop-ups just make them even more dangerous. Hill’s injury issues are a big deal and really limit his fantasy value, but his strikeout and pop-up abilities are legit.

James Paxton falls into the Rich Hill club for pitchers who strikeout everyone and get pop flies but can’t stay healthy. It is, admittedly, a name that is too long for a club. Paxton is younger, but has shown major health issues. The skills are certainly not in question, however.

Marco Estrada’s skills, however, are in question. Yes, his strikeout rate and PU% are both strong, but a fly-ball-heavy pitcher with an 89-mph fastball in the New Home Run Era is just not going to work. I’m going to avoid him next year.

Jake Faria is going to be an interesting name in drafts. He showed lots of good signs when healthy this year. It’s unfortunate that he got hurt, but he’s still young and we can’t label him injury-prone just yet. I’m on board the bandwagon for this guy. A K%-BB% of 15% and a swinging strike rate of 12% are just too hard to pass up. Playing in a good home park also helps.

A.J. Griffin can be ignored, as usual. Sorry, A.J.

Dan Straily had a stream-worthy season. He put up a career high in K% at 22% to go with a career high K%-BB% of 14.3%. A lot of hard contact and balls leaving the yard hurt him and pushed his ERA over 4. He’s an interesting name to know, but I’m not expecting him to be much better than this in 2018. Like Estrada, he throws a 90 mph fastball and gives up lots of fly balls, which is a risky combo in the juiced ball period.

Ariel Miranda is one of the fringy guys that showed up on this list last year as well. He throws an ok 92-mph fastball and gets a 10.2% swinging strike rate, so he has some stuff to back up his great pop-up generation (#3 in baseball). That being said, a 15% HR/FB% with a whopping 52% FB% led to way too many homers. There are enticing things here, and he’s only going to be 29 next year, but the risk is too high. He’s a very deep sleeper for 2018, but nothing more.

Finally, we get to Chase Anderson. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2017 (although his xFIP was actually much better back in 2014). A surge in strikeouts coupled with good PU% led to great results. His K%-BB% ended at an excellent 16.2%, supported in part by a decent 10.2% swinging strike rate. He’s a fly ball pitcher like most of this list (39% ground ball rate), but unlike almost everyone else, did not give up very many home runs. His HR/FB% of 8.6% was well below league average of 14.2%. That was 8th lowest in baseball. Coincidentally, James Paxton sits 5th on that same list.

On a side note, the list of lowest HR/FB% this year includes many of the top pop-up guys: Eddie Butler, Brandon McCarthy, Danny Duffy, Anderson, and Paxton are all in the top 10 in HR/FB% and the top 40 PU%. That seems like a strange result. Maybe because these guys allow so many fly balls the home runs make up a smaller percentage of their total fly balls allowed. I don’t know, but it was an unexpected result, for sure.

Back to Anderson, he had injury problems, but appears to be fully healthy now. He might be a popular bandwagon pick based on his 2017 ERA and breakout. As much as I want to believe, I see some bad regression coming. His HR/FB% is almost guaranteed to increase closer to league average, his 0.265 BABIP was also suspiciously below league average and should increase in 2018, ditto for his crazy-low 18% line drive rate. Let’s see: more homers, more hits, more line drives. That’s not going to be good for his ERA. His 2017 xFIP and SIERA, 4.33 and 4.14, probably are good estimates of his 2018 production. Sorry Brewers fans, but Anderson is coming back to earth.

Welp, those are my thoughts on some of the league leaders in pop-ups and strikeouts. Pop-ups are often overlooked when evaluating pitchers even though they are basically automatic outs. The leaders in PU% generate double the pop-ups that an average starter does. That’s not an insignificant amount of outs. So, they are worth paying attention to. However, many of them suffer from homeritis and allow too many fly balls. The same things that lead to pop-ups, namely throwing high in the zone, can lead to both more strikeouts and more fly balls and homers. Tschus!