clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A guide to the most watchable rotations: AL West

Which AL West starting rotations are the most enjoyable to watch?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This is part six of a series to find the most watchable rotations in baseball. The NL East can be found here, the AL East can be found here, the NL Central can be found here, the AL Central can be found here, and the NL West can be found here. A reminder of the methodology:

Age — 1 point if the pitcher was born between 1988 and 1990; 2 points, 1991-1993; 3 points, 1994 and beyond.

Effectiveness — 1 point if Steamer projects the pitcher for an ERA between 3.40 and 3.75 in 2016; 2 points, 3.00-3.39; 3 points, 2.99 or lower.

Velocity — 1 point if the pitcher's average fastball velocity in 2015, by FanGraphs' "pitch type", was 91.5-93.0 MPH; 2 points, 93.1-94.5 MPH; 3 points, 94.6+ MPH.

Strikeout rate — 1 point if the pitcher's 2015 K% was between 20.0 and 23.0 percent; 2 points, 23.1-26.0 percent; 3 points, 26.1 percent+.

Breaking ball usage — 1 point if, using FanGraphs' "pitch type", the pitcher's curveball usage plus slider usage is between 25.0 and 30.0 percent; 2 points, 30.1-35.0 percent; 3 points, 35.1 percent+.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim:

Name Age Effectiveness Velocity K% Breaking ball usage Total
Jered Weaver 0 0 0 0 2 2
Hector Santiago 0 0 0 1 0 1
Matt Shoemaker 0 0 0 1 0 1
Nick Tropeano 1 0 0 2 0 3
Jhoulys Chacin 1 0 0 0 1 2

To put it bluntly, there isn't a single member of the current Angels' rotation that I'd want to watch. Of course, this isn't really fair to the Angels. Had I done this before the season, Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney would have been included, and Richards would've recorded a watchability score of 10, which is higher than any pitcher's in this division. If we're talking about stuff (and we mostly are), Richards has to be in the running with Chris Sale for best stuff in baseball, among starting pitchers. He throws two types of fastballs, a two-seamer and a cutter, that both sit anywhere from 94 mph up to 99 mph, and he also relies heavily on a pair of breaking balls, with his slider grading out as one of the best in baseball as well. Want video proof? Here you go.

Interestingly enough, before going down with his elbow injury this season, Richards was making a significant change to his repertoire. (Get it? See what I did there? "Change"? No one?) After throwing his changeup less than one percent of the time over the last two seasons, Richards utilized it just over nine percent of the time in 2016. That's interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is the obvious one — between his pair of fastballs, slider, and curve, Richards already possessed more than enough quality pitches to get MLB hitters out. As far as game theory goes, adding a quality third pitch might be valuable for a pitcher, especially a starter. But a pitch that would be a pitcher's fifth-best pitch may not even be worth adding, because a hitter will never be looking for all four of the best four pitches in a certain count, anyways. The other reason that makes this addition peculiar is that Richards doesn't suffer from platoon splits. Over his career, righties have slashed .235/.304/.353, while lefties have slashed an almost identical .239/.312/.352.

Andrew Heaney would have represented a bright spot and potential building block in the future rotation as well. Hopefully, Tyler Skaggs can come up to the big club in the near future and inject some excitement into the staff, as none of the current rotation members are likely to still be here for the next great Angels team.

Jered Weaver's velocity decline has been well-documented, and he honestly should have scored a negative number in the velocity category. Seriously, he's a right-handed thrower that averages 82.3 mph on his fastball. Matt Shoemaker has one of the better split-fingers among starting pitchers in baseball (video), but the rest of his arsenal is rather fringy. Nick Tropeano and Jhoulys Chacin also project as fringy options going forward. It's interesting to note, though, that it surprised me that Chacin is still just 28 years old, as his promising days in Colorado seemed so long ago.

Houston Astros:

Name Age Effectiveness Velocity K% Breaking ball usage Total
Dallas Keuchel 1 2 0 2 0 5
Colin McHugh 0 0 0 0 3 3
Mike Fiers 0 0 0 2 0 2
Lance McCullers 2 0 2 2 3 9
Doug Fister 0 0 0 0 0 0

Dallas Keuchel may not have the best stuff in the world, but if you like pitchers who induce groundballs and work quickly, then he may be for you. Because most camera angles, including the one in Minute Maid, are over the pitcher's right shoulder, it's much tougher to see the armside run on sinkers from left-handers. However, the downward sink is still readily apparent on a Dallas Keuchel sinker, and you can gauge the lateral movement based off of all the called strikes he gets on the outside corner to lefties and the frontdoor to righties.

Colin McHugh has one of the biggest breaking curves in the Majors. It's slow, but it has that nose-to-toes action that gets so many looking strike-threes. In fact, there's an interesting story about how McHugh got his opportunity with the Astros that you may or may not have heard, depending on how big of a Colin McHugh fan you are. The Astros' analytical department actually analyzed the Statcast information that was already available to teams before it was available to the public. They found that McHugh got more RPMs on his curve than almost any other deuce in baseball, and he just wasn't utilizing it enough. And the numbers bear out the Astros' emphasis on his curve — since he came to the Astros, among all qualified starting pitchers, McHugh ranks in the top five in terms of curveball usage.

He also represents an oddity in the scouting vs. sabermetrics argument. He was exposed to waivers multiple times before landing with the Astros, and it's clear that none of the teams' scouting departments were particularly interested in McHugh. However, there wasn't any sabermetric measurement proclaiming he was particularly good, either. But this Statcast find is kind of in a gray area that's both scouting and analytical. And lo and behold, since coming to the Astros, McHugh has pitched to a 3.44 FIP that ranks in the top 30 over that time, among starting pitchers.

If you really like watching Collin McHugh pitch, then you're in luck, because he happens to pitch twice every time through the rotation. He just goes by the alias Mike Fiers in half of his starts. He also dons a fake black beard under that alias, but it's very silly, and he's not really fooling anyone. Statistically, they both sport excellent career K/BB ratios but suffer from an extreme gopherball problem. They both throw extremely over-the-top and utilize a fastball that has both below-average velocity and movement. They also both use a cutter, changeup, and slow curve as secondary pitches, with Fiers also adding a slider this season.

It isn't that surprising that Lance McCullers owns the highest watchability score in the division (minus Garrett Richards), because McCullers is young and possesses excellent swing-and-miss stuff. He's very short, but his stuff plays big, and the short stature might actually give his high fastball a better angle, a la former Astro Roy Oswalt. Most of his strikeouts come on either that fastball, which sits 92-97 with excellent finish and armside run, or his curve, which is so sharp that it often hits 86-88 mph and morphs into a slider, very reminiscent of an A.J. Burnett curveball in his prime. Here you go.

Oakland Athletics:

Name Age Effectiveness Velocity K% Breaking ball usage Total
Sonny Gray 1 0 1 1 1 4
Rich Hill 0 1 0 3 3 7
Jesse Hahn 1 0 1 0 0 2
Kendall Graveman 1 0 0 0 0 1
Sean Manaea 2 0 1 0 0 3

Going into this exercise, I knew that creating my own methodology for a "watchability score" was undoubtedly going to have problems. It just wasn't going to be perfect. And largely, I've been pretty happy with the results. There has been a very strong correlation between high scores and pitchers that I genuinely enjoy watching. However, I also need to know when to admit I took a loss, and we can see right here that the methodology still isn't perfect. There's just no way that Rich Hill is more watchable than Sonny Gray.

Subjectively, Gray is one of my favorite pitchers to watch in all of baseball, and his repertoire as a youngster was basically what McCullers's is now. Looking at the numbers, Gray gets penalized most in the effectiveness category — in other words, for his Steamer projection. Despite coming into this season with a career ERA below 3.00, Steamer projects him for a 3.83 ERA going forward. Even though his career ERA predictors are decidedly above his career ERA, they still reside in the 3.50-3.60 range, so it's rather odd to see Steamer be so pessimistic on Gray. This also assumes that Rich HIll is a true-talent 26.1 K% or higher going forward, which is quite uncertain in its own regard. Hill punched out that many hitters last season and so far this season, and the projection systems believe it too, but it's just hard to say that a 36-year-old with a 90-mph fastball is one of the ten best strikeout artists in baseball.

Other than Hill, the other four current rotation members could all be building blocks for the future. However, the one I want to talk about at this current point in time is Jesse Hahn, who probably merits a post of his own. Hahn owns a career 3.24 ERA and 3.68 FIP, so he's been effective, but he's been pretty injury-prone so far. This kind of sounds like a young Andrew Cashner-narrative. However, he experienced a pretty significant velocity jump from his rookie season in 2014 to last season, going from 90.9 mph to 92.0 mph. Contrary to what you might expect, though, his strikeout rate fell off a cliff, going from 8.59 K/9 to 5.96.

Now, it's only been a three-start sample so far this season, but velocity stabilizes extremely quickly, and Hahn has experienced yet another velocity bump from 2015 to 2016. However, this jump is even bigger, going from 92.0 mph all the way up to 94.1 mph. Again, inexplicably, his K/9 has fallen in concurrence with the velocity gain, going from 5.96 to a rather preposterous 2.89 batters per nine. Yes, that's strikeouts per nine, not BB/9 or ERA. Also, a velocity jump usually leads to arm injury, or is at least correlated, but with a pitcher already as injury-prone as Hahn, it's pretty tough for him to become more prone to injury. All in all, despite witnessing three (admittedly partial) seasons of Jesse Hahn, we're still unsure exactly who he is.

Seattle Mariners:

Name Age Effectiveness Velocity K% Breaking ball usage Total
Felix Hernandez 0 1 1 2 1 5
Hisashi Iwakuma 0 1 0 1 0 2
Taijuan Walker 2 1 2 1 0 6
Wade Miley 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nathan Karns 0 0 1 2 1 4

Had we done this exercise just a couple years ago, Felix Hernandez would have been the king of these rankings in this division. Unfortunately, though, his velocity has begun to dry up, which has led to a drop in strikeouts. That drop in strikeouts has led Steamer to drop his projection, which has in turn led to a lower number in the effectiveness category as well.

Taijuan Walker, on the other hand, has always had great stuff, and the performance is just now starting to catch up. His advanced metrics have jumped him into the ranks of pitching elite, including an 8.65 K/9, 1.69 BB/9, 48.8 groundball percentage, and a 3.24 xFIP/3.32 SIERA. However, he suffers from gopheritis, allowing about a home run every five innings over the last couple seasons. That makes me think one of two things:

1) Imagine the HR derby it'd be if Walker didn't pitch half of his games at Safeco. Or,

2) Walker is just a HR/FB regression away from experiencing a Gerrit Cole/Jacob deGrom- level breakout.

One other interesting thing I'd like to note, involving Hernandez and Walker, is their split-changes. Why are they split-changes? Well, Felix throws a circle-change, but it acts in every way like a split-finger. Taijuan, on the other hand, actually throws a splitter, but it acts like a changeup. Why can't the world just make sense sometimes?

None of the other pitchers in the rotation are remarkable on their own, although Hisashi Iwakuma's control and Nathan Karns' curve are at least 70-grades.

I would also like to mention that there is only one left-handed starter in all of baseball that can touch 98 mph with legitimate sink, and he currently resides in the Mariners organization. Sorry, Wade Miley, not you. However, despite spending parts of each of the last three seasons in the Show, he's inexplicably toiling away in Triple-A, where he's currently punching out over a batter per inning.

Texas Rangers:

Name Age Effectiveness Velocity K% Breaking ball usage Total
Yu Darvish 0 1 1* 3* 1* 6
Cole Hamels 0 0 1 2 0 3
Martin Perez 2 0 1 0 0 3
Derek Holland 0 0 1 0 2 3
Colby Lewis 0 0 0 0 3 3

*using Darvish's 2014 stats; Darvish sat out the entire 2015 season due to elbow surgery

If you're a baseball fan, you've probably watched Yu Darvish pitch. If you're a baseball fan, you probably enjoyed it. Even if you haven't made a conscious effort to catch a Yu Darvish start, you've probably tuned into ESPN or MLB Network when they're doing a live look-in to one of Darvish's millions of starts in which he's got a no-hitter going on in the ninth inning. He punches out hitters by the fistful, and his repertoire consists of everything but the kitchen sink, so it's always a joy seeing Darvish go to work.

Despite the remaining four Rangers all grading out the same, I'd watch 50 Cole Hamels starts before I tune into a Colby Lewis one. Hamels gets hosed by my methodology because his greatest asset is a dazzling changeup. I will generally prefer watching an average breaking ball over an average changeup, but the truly elite changeups are a pleasure to watch, and Hamels does admittedly get the short end of the stick. Also, while Steamer is notoriously pessimistic, it's pretty questionable that Steamer projects Hamels for an ERA north of 3.75.


The Results

Astros -- 19

Rangers -- 18

Mariners -- 17

Athletics -- 17

Angels -- 9

. . .

Austin Yamada is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.