Photo credit: By Minda Haas on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
In my latest Mariners column for Today’s Knuckleball, I wrote about the role that fifth starter Ariel Miranda has been playing in the team’s recent surge towards a wild card berth. In running a streak of 17 consecutive innings without an earned run for a contending team, Miranda’s performance would have caught my attention in any event. Even before his current hot streak, Miranda was on my radar, not so much because of his own accomplishments, but because of another pitcher he reminded me of.
As a Fantasy owner, I’m always looking for pitchers who can deliver value without posting an attention-getting strikeout rate. Owners are always looking for Ks, not only because they are an end unto themselves but typically also a means towards a low ERA and WHIP. Because I don’t want to have to compete for popular (and costly) strikeout pitchers if I don’t have to, I’ve long had a thing for pitchers with extremely good control or a consistent ability to prevent hits on balls in play.
As a pitcher with ridiculously high popup rates in the minors, Miranda profiles as someone who could defy the BABIP gods on a regular basis. The archetype of this sort of pitcher has been Chris Young, and ever since I caught on to the merits of his extreme flyballing ways, I have looked for others like him. Two years ago, I even wrote about this search for low BABIP candidates in a piece called The Next Chris Young.
The pitcher who I determined had the best chance of following in Young’s footsteps was Anthony Ranaudo. He had just come off a seven-start trial with the Red Sox that didn’t go all that well. In 39 1/3 innings, Ranaudo had only five fewer home runs (10) on his stat line than strikeouts (15). Not surprisingly, his xFIP was a bloated 5.79, but because of a .225 BABIP (!!), Ranaudo finished with a svelter 4.81 ERA.Because Ranaudo had done a much better job of avoiding home runs at Pawtucket (nine in 138 innings), his Triple-A ERA was a highly encouraging 2.61.
Shortly after I touted Ranaudo as “the next Chris Young,” the Red Sox traded him to the Rangers, and in 2015, he had more problems with the long ball and, sadly, a very ordinary .311 BABIP. After spending most of last season and the early portion of this season at Triple-A Round Rock, Ranaudo was dealt to the White Sox. Between his struggles in the Rangers organization and his move to a team with an extremely homer-friendly park, my Ranaudo dream was all but dead.
In his age-26 season, Ranaudo gave my aspirations for his Fantasy relevance new life. The White Sox sent him to Triple-A Charlotte, which is a homer haven, but he emerged as a better pitcher, though one who didn’t resemble Young as much. Through his first 13 starts, Ranaudo’s modest ground ball rates were replaced by an exceedingly normal 44 percent mark, but he was still getting popups at an above-average 9 percent rate and holding opponents to a .265 BABIP. What really stood out was the improvement in his control. Ranaudo was throwing 70 percent of his pitches for strikes and walking 0.9 batters per nine innings. Forget “the next Chris Young.” This was the next Bartolo Colon. These results were remarkable for a pitcher who had thrown strikes for a 60 percent rate in the majors before joining the White Sox organization.
The White Sox called Ranaudo up in late July to make a spot start against the Cubs, and while he walked four batters and gave up homers to Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, those home runs were the only hits he allowed. Lasting 6 2/3 innings, Ranaudo came away with a quality start against one of the majors’ best lineups. After a brief demotion to Charlotte, the White Sox brought Ranaudo back up for good on Aug. 17.
If your league mates didn’t spend the next couple of weeks pounding the waiver wire trying to add Ranaudo, there was a good reason for that. He made four starts totaling 19 innings, having allowed 23 runs, all earned. Ranaudo has not taken the mound for the White Sox since his last start on Sept. 4.
I spoke with Ranaudo to find out what changed in Charlotte and why it didn’t translate to a better outcome when he got called up in August. As you might have guessed, the improvements in Ranaudo’s walk and ground ball rates were no accident. While in Charlotte, he lowered his arm slot, which he said allowed him to gain more movement and control on his fastball. After getting clobbered by the Indians in his first start after his August callup, Ranaudo said that White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper and members of the team’s front office asked him to make some changes, including “straightening up my delivery”. While he lasted a little longer in his three subsequent starts, Ranaudo’s results didn’t improve.
Meanwhile, he is trying to adjust to the changes he was asked to make. Ranaudo said the hardest part has been getting comfortable with the new approach, especially since he had developed “a confidence and belief in the stuff (I’d) been doing.”
After the passage of two seasons and multiple mechanical changes, it’s probably safe to give up on my expectation of Ranaudo developing into a Young clone. Given how much he had improved at Charlotte this season, maybe he will turn out to be something even better. It will depend on how well he can adapt to this latest set of changes and what kind of opportunity he will get to prove himself yet again.
I will continue to check in on Ranaudo’s progress, but it’s not about finding the ultimate low-BABIP pitcher anymore. I have followed his career over the last few years in search of cheap WHIP and ERA, and what I found instead was a case study in resilience. That will likely serve him even better than a knack for inducing popups or pounding the strike zone.