Three Hot Start Pitchers that’ll Stay Hot

Charlie Morton, SP, Houston Astros

To be honest with you, there’s nothing spectacular about Charlie Morton. His fastball can get as high as 97 MPH, but considering that MLB is now measuring pitch speed earlier in a pitcher’s motion than ever before, that’s not particularly outstanding. It seems that every pitcher has gained between one and two MPH on their fastball this season. So why should we care about Morton?

Because his velocity hasn’t only jumped this season. There’s only so much a 33-year-old journeyman pitcher can do to increase velocity, but it seems that Morton has done whatever it takes to get his pitch speed up. In 2016, despite only throwing 17 innings, Morton’s fastball gained roughly 2 MPH from his average fastball speed in his career. This trend has continued so far in 2017 (granted, it’s still pretty early): his fastball has clocked in right around where it clocked in last year.

The reason we don’t have more data from the 2016 season for Morton is that a hamstring injury from running to first base ended his season in April (DH in the NL, anybody?). However, we can still draw some meaningful conclusions from his small sample size. According to FanGraphs, strikeout rate for pitchers stabilizes around 70 batters faced, and Morton faced 71 in 2016. He struck out almost 27% of batters, which would have ranked 9th in all of baseball, had he thrown enough innings to qualify. He also got batters to chase at a 12.3% rate, which would have put him seventh among qualified starters, sandwiched between Cole Hamels and Corey Kluber. Not exactly bad company to be in.

To be fair, the odds that Morton maintains these elite rates are pretty slim, especially given last season’s sample size, but there’s reason to believe that he has taken a step in the right direction. We only have one start’s worth of data from this season (Morton faced the Mariners on Wednesday), but his SwStr% is right in line with what he posted last season (12.2%, as opposed to 12.3% in 2016) and he only gave up two earned runs in six innings of work. I’m not saying he’s going to win the Cy Young, but Morton is certainly a guy to keep an eye on to see if he can keep up his positive progress. Of course, he needs to stay healthy to even have a chance of putting up good numbers, and he hasn’t been able to do that very well over the course of his career (never pitched more than 171.2 innings in a season). Here’s to hoping.

Brandon Finnegan, SP, Cincinnati Reds

Finnegan was drafted 17th overall in the 2014 MLB draft by the Kansas City Royals out of Texas Christian University. Many scouts believed Finnegan to be one of the most polished arms, and Finnegan made those scouts look good: he became the first pitcher in MLB history to pitch in both the College World Series and the MLB World Series in the same calendar year. Finnegan was used as a relief pitcher with the Royals until they traded him (along with two other minor league pitchers) in 2015 to the Reds for Johnny Cueto. The Reds used him as a reliever for the remainder of 2015, and then they took the training wheels off in 2016, when they allowed Finnegan to enter the starting rotation.

The Reds’ pitching staff in 2016 was historically terrible, but Finnegan was one of the lone bright spots. He didn’t do anything especially well but wasn’t bad either: 3.98 ERA, 1.360 WHIP, 7.59 K/9, and a 4.40 BB/9. I guess you could say he had some control issues, but they clearly did not inhibit him immensely as he managed to keep his ERA under 4.

And then in his first start of 2017, he dazzled. Finnegan was handed the ball to take on the Phillies on Wednesday, April 5th, and he put up a monster stat line: 7.0 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 9 K, 0 R. If that’s not a beautiful outing, I don’t know what is.

I mentioned earlier that K-rate stabilizes for pitchers at around 70 batters faced. Finnegan has only faced 23, but he posted a 39.1% strikeout rate. He obviously won’t be able to keep that up, but he only needs to fan 10 of the next 47 batters he faces in order to keep his K% at or above 30%. For reference, a 30% strikeout rate would have put him third in baseball, squarely between Max Scherzer and Noah Syndergaard, last season.

Finnegan has the pedigree, he just needs to convert that into results. He’s been able to do that so far in 2017, and I fully expect the good results to keep coming in, especially considering that his fastball and change-up have both improved from last season.

Kendall Graveman, SP, Oakland Athletics

Graveman, much like Finnegan, made his debut for a team different from the one he is currently on, and also was involved in a deal for a top-tier MLB player.

Graveman was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 8th round of the 2013 draft, so he wasn’t exactly a blue chip prospect coming out of college. He made his way quickly through the minors (though not as quickly as Finnegan) and debuted with Toronto in September of 2014. Shortly after that, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics with three other prospects (Sean Nolin, Brett Lawrie, and Franklin Barreto) for 2015 MVP Josh Donaldson.

The young righty didn’t pitch exceptionally well in either 2015 or 2016, over 301.2 combined IP he had a 4.09 ERA, 1.349 WHIP, and 5.5 K/9. Really nothing special, but the ERA is palatable for a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Beyond the stats, though, we can see that Graveman has had not one but two impressive velocity spikes since the end of 2015. We can somewhat attribute his gain from last year to this year to the new PITCHf/x systems, but there was also a 2 MPH spike in his velocity between the end of 2015 (when his fastball averaged about 92 MPH) and 2016 (when his fastball averaged about 94 MPH). Any sort of velocity gain is noteworthy, especially a jump of 2 MPH. His most recent jump is less noteworthy (they are still getting the new systems calibrated), but still definitely worth pointing out.

There’s also the added movement Graveman has gotten on his pitches so far. This FanGraphs article goes into more detail, but in short, his sinker has vertical and horizontal movement similar to the sinker of Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez posted an AL-best 3.00 ERA in 2016 and struck out 161 batters in 192 IP. He also finished 7th in Cy Young voting. Graveman probably won’t be able to post numbers that good in 2017, but he’s off to a good start: 13 IP, 12 K, 8 H, 3 BB, 2 ER, and he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning on Sunday. If Graveman continues to pitch as he has been, it will make the Donaldson trade look at least a little less vexing.

This isn’t related to Graveman, or any of the three pitchers I mentioned in this article, but remember Joe Jimenez from the MLB Players to Watch for in 2017 article I posted about a week and a half ago? He got the call to the majors today. The Jimenez era has begun in the Motor City.

(Image Credit: Getty Images)

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