There are all sorts of ways for pitchers to succeed, but it’s hard to beat the combination of having control of the strike zone with deception on pitches out of the zone. The cohort of starting pitchers who excel in both ways is small and, not surprisingly, elite. There are eight starters who have thrown at least 48 percent of their pitches in the strike zone, induced swings on at least 31 percent of pitches outside of the zone and have an overall whiff rate of at least 10 percent this season: Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard, Masahiro Tanaka, Danny Salazar and Jason Vargas. The first six are fantasy aces, Salazar has ace-like potential and Vargas has pitched like an ace this season, thanks to his improved changeup.
There are a number of other pitchers who have good enough control and the ability to miss bats, but they are lacking the knack for getting chases on pitches out of the strike zone. Without that skill, they will have a hard time keeping pace with the elites, because without those chases, they will amass more walks and miss out on opportunities to pad their strikeout rates.
One of the pitchers in this class is Charlie Morton. Entering Wednesday’s start against the Rangers, Morton had a 47.1 percent Zone% and a 9.7 percent whiff rate — both just below the thresholds mentioned above. His O-Swing% (swings on pitches outside the zone) was 23.1 percent — far below the threshold for the elites. Morton had been much better at getting swings on pitches out of the zone earlier in his career, and maybe he can recapture that skill or maybe he can’t. In the meantime, Morton can pitch put up results like a Kershaw or a Strasburg in certain starts. He just needs to face an opponent that is not selective, not good at making contact with pitches out of the zone or, preferably, both.
The Rangers are such a team. They have the majors’ third-highest O-Swing% rate and the third-lowest rate of contact on pitches not in the zone. Morton was able to take advantage of this, as he got the Rangers to swing at 34.0 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone. That amounted to a total of 16 swings, and as the plot shows below, Morton got whiffs on six of those swings. He induced a total of 14 whiffs, which contributed to a total of eight strikeouts over six innings. Morton held the Rangers to one run on five hits and two walks and was credited with the win. If you got that start from one of your aces, you probably wouldn’t complain.
Who besides Morton could be ace-like with the right matchup? Rick Porcello is just below the 31 percent O-Swing% threshold shared by the elites with a 30.7 percent rate. Zack Wheeler, Vince Velasquez, Amir Garrett, Tyler Anderson, Dylan Bundy and Chase Anderson have been far less deceptive outside the zone than Porcello, but each could have superb starts against teams like the Rangers, including the Padres, Royals, White Sox and Marlins.
Two of these pitchers, Wheeler and the Brewers’ Anderson, are on Thursday’s slate. Wheeler’s start is at the Braves, who chase a lot of pitches out of the zone, but are good at making contact. Anderson is at the Cardinals, who are more selective but also more prone to whiffing. Neither pitcher may be available and neither has an ideal matchup, but they are still worth checking out for streaming purposes.
Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball.
Plot graphic courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
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