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The Pop up Kings: Pitchers with Hidden Skills

Within this post, you will find an attempt to find under-valued pitchers using pop up rates combined with strikeouts

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Last time, I discussed an often-overlooked but important stat called pop up % (PU%) and why it is superior to infield fly ball % (IFFB%). Because pop-ups are basically automatic outs, they can be very helpful to pitchers, getting them out of jams and functioning much like strikeouts. Despite how important this hidden pitcher skill can be, it is not often discussed in fantasy baseball. Even finding values of pop up % can be difficult, since many sites like Fangraphs don’t list it.

Because of that, I went ahead and made my own 2016 leaderboard of pop up %. I also created a leaderboard for pop up % + K%, since pop ups are similar to Ks. In this post, I am going to focus on what we can learn from the top starters on these two leaderboards. Perhaps we can find some sleepers or undervalued pitchers for 2017.

I was having some technical difficulties, so you will have to refer back to the previous post to look at the lists. I will call out the players I am discussing, so you only need the list to look at the specific values if you are into that sort of thing.

Pitchers that show up high on both lists are the ones for whom pop ups add the most value. They are league leaders in generating pop ups, but also have a decent amount of strikeouts to add to that. When combined, they end up in the company of the top strikeout pitchers like Kershaw, Fernandez (RIP), Darvish, and Strasburg. Many of those strikeout kings don’t generate a ton of pop ups, so K% + PU% just shows that easy outs can be generated in more than one way, but they are of nearly equal value.

I should point out here that since K% is based on strikeouts per plate appearance and PU% is based on pop ups per batted ball, technically they can’t be combined the way I have done here while preserving careful mathematics. However, since it applies equally to all the pitchers, it can still be used for comparison purposes and it still has value.

Enough chit chat, let’s get down to it. I’m just skimming down the two lists and I see Justin Verlander high on both. I was very skeptical of a rebound in 2016 and he proved me wrong, looking mostly like his old self with lower velocity. In addition to a good strikeout rate, he added lots of pop flies. Discovering this makes me trust his 2016 results a little more. I might bump up his draft value a little bit. I think he could be a good bargain in drafts since he is kind of an old, boring name these days.

Marco Estrada and Drew Smyly rank high on both leaderboards as well. They have similar profiles: a 90-ish mph fourseam thrown high in the zone to get whiffs and pop ups, a deadly offspeed pitch, high overall strikeout rates, extreme fly ball tendencies, and home run issues. Smyly got the worst of the homer bug in 2016, while Estrada fared better. Both are highly susceptible to giving up round-trippers, so they come with risk. Estrada’s had more success lately and slightly better health, so I would prefer him. Smyly is a risky upside play very late in drafts.

Ian Kennedy is another name I noticed. Like Estrada and Smyly, he’s a fly-ball-and-strikeout guy with potential home run issues. In Kansas City, he’s in a great park for his skills and put up a decent ERA last year. He throws an 92 mph fastball, but that’s not too much higher than Estrada’s or Smyly’s. I wouldn’t go too crazy on him in drafts, but I like his value and I think he is over-looked too often late in drafts.

If you prefer younger, more exciting pitchers, well, we’ve got some of those too. Eduardo Rodriguez, Julio Urias, and Nick Tropeano say hi. Oh, crap, I forgot Tropeano had Tommy John, so I guess he’s out. Let’s replace him with Kevin Gausman. These three pitchers are young, talented, mostly left handed, and can get both strikeouts and pop ups when they need to. Rodriguez is not guaranteed a rotation spot in Boston, but I’m a big fan and think his ERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA from 2016 are not indicative of his talent level. His combination of strikeouts, pop ups, and a good swinging strike rate combined with great velocity for a lefty give him real breakout potential. Those poor results from last year and his position battle should keep his price low enough to get very good value.

Urias will not come with a discount like E-Rod, however. He had both great results and great skills in 2016. Pop ups are just another weapon in his great arsenal. Be careful about his innings limit in 2017, but otherwise he’s going to be an excellent pitcher, likely top 25.

Gausman is also coming off a very good season, but pitches in the AL East, in Baltimore, and put up a mid-3s ERA, so he’ll be much cheaper than Urias. Seeing him high on the pop up % list is a good boost to his value for me. It is very hard to trust any Baltimore starter these days, but there is no question he is their best starter and worth owning in all leagues once again. He has a well-rounded skill set and should settle in as a top 40 starter. To be clear, Urias is a better pitcher, but Gausman is also a good option.

While we are talking about young Orioles pitchers with upside, how about Dylan Bundy? He’s very high on both lists and penciled in as the #3 starter. Like many of these high pop up guys, as you may have noticed, he has a home run problem. If he can control that (it is tough to do that in Camden Yards), he could knock his ERA down to 2016 Gausman levels with his skills. He actually seems quite a bit like Gausman. Their velocities, swinging strike rates, pop up %, etc. are all very similar. I think there is some good value in a forgotten former top prospect here.

Oh, I forgot Vince Velasquez! How could I forget him? He’s got great strikeout stuff and a solid 5% PU%. He’s listed as the #5 starter for the Phillies right now, but would anyone be surprised if he is their best pitcher? I am certainly buying him for 2017 as a high upside, high strikeout option with some health risk.

Finally, in deeper leagues, Ariel Miranda and Matt Boyd might be worth discussing. Miranda is listed as the 6th starter in Seattle right now and doesn’t strike out many (like Boyd). However, with injury prone guys all over the Mariners rotation (Smyly, Paxton, Iwakuma) it’s a matter of when, not if, he will get to start. He is tops at generating pop ups in all of baseball.

Boyd isn’t far behind, blending great pop up rates with mediocre strikeout rates to form K% + PU% values near the likes of David Price, Rick Porcello, Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon, and Blake Snell, to name a few. Now, I’m not saying Miranda and Boyd (that sounds like a TV legal drama) are on the same level as those names, but I am saying that in deep leagues, where #5 starters like these guys can have value as long as they are league average or slightly better, they might be underrated. Pop ups are their main skill, so many other fantasy owners might overlook their “hidden” skill and undervalue them overall.

That’s all the conclusions I could draw from these tables, but feel free to point out any good trends or sleepers I missed. As always, Tschus!