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The Padres already have an ace

The 2020 Cy Young winner is already in San Diego

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The San Diego Padres are making no secret of their intention to make a run at marquee free agent and true ace starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg, of course, is one of the best pitchers on the planet, and as such, would absolutely make the Padres better. This article is not to say that the Padres shouldn’t try to sign Strasburg. They should! Rather, the point of this article is to highlight the Padres pitcher who already is one of the best pitchers on the planet - and no, it’s not Chris Paddack.

That’s right - the Padres have a pitcher who basically is Aaron Nola with Max Scherzer’s strikeout rate, and who is better at inducing pop-ups at either of them. And again, no, it’s not Chris Paddack.

Who’s the mystery pitcher? Recent Tommy John survivor and forgotten man Dinelson Lamet.

How good is Lamet? According to Statcast, his allowed batted ball profiles in 2019 is most similar to Minnesota’s breakout closer Taylor Rogers, Red Sox ace Chris Sale, and Yankees ace James Paxton. Lamet is a speed merchant in every sense of the term, hitting averaging 96 miles per hour on both his four-seam fastball and sinker in 2019, and 92 with his changeup. But what makes Lamet truly elite are his breaking pitches.

In 2019, Lamet tossed 541 breaking pitches, largely curveballs and sliders. Hitters managed a woeful .116 batting average and .194 slugging percentage against those breaking balls, backed up by a .121 expected batting average, .212 expected slugging percentage, 82.9 mile per hour exit velocity, and 49.4% whiff percentage. In other words, when Dinelson Lamet tosses a breaking ball, hitters manage to make contact only half the time, and even when they do, it’s generally a popup.

Lamet also has an edge is his spin rate - on nearly every pitch he throws, it’s at or near the top of the spin rate leaderboards. The 2407 RPM spin rate on Lamet’s four-seam fastball is comparable to Trevor Bauer (2415), Frankie Montas (2421) and Walker Buehler (2467). His sinker spin rate is 24th in baseball among all pitchers with 1000 offerings in 2019, comparable to Rich Hill, Madison Bumgarner, and Sonny Gray. His slider spin rate is 28th, better than Josh Hader, Justin Verlander, and Gerrit Cole. His curveball spin rate is virtually identical to Max Scherzer’s. In short, Lamet throws everything hard and spins everything he throws, a really good combination.

Here’s my favorite Lamet statistic, though: he holds his velocity throughout games. In 2019, he lost less than a tick on his fastball and a half-tick on his sinker between the first and third times through an opposing batting order. His location actually improves, with the number of grooved pitches decreasing between his second and third times through the order (yes, some of this could be survivorship bias, but still).

So what’s holding Lamet back? His fastball, until recently, was his weakness, fairly hittable relative to his breaking pitches. Yet what makes Lamet really exciting is what he did in the second half of 2019. Wielding two sliders and a wicked curveball, the righty pitched to a 3.85 FIP and 3.35 xFIP, with a 12.97 K/9, 3.5 K/BB, and 24% K-BB%. If not for a fluky high home run rate (20% HR/FB) likely due to the bouncy rabbit ball, he might have garnered more attention. As it is, Lamet finished with a better strikeout rate, FIP, and xFIP than more noticed teammate Paddack. In September, Lamet struck out fourteen playoff-bound Brewers in a brilliant six-inning effort, a month after nearly no-hitting the Mariners.

How did Lamet do it? With his changeup, an offering the righty began introducing more in the second half - and hitters, having to guard against his high-octane fastball, starting whiffing.

And even when they did make contact, they couldn’t do much with it.

That image also shows Lamet’s one weakness, of course. The one reason Lamet hasn’t taken his place among the elite pitchers yet is that his third time through the order, his fastball remains vulnerable. That said, Lamet is hardly alone in that, and his secondary pitches and sinker are so good that he can compensate.

In other words, Lamet is a true six-pitch hurler, with a fastball, sinker, changeup and three breaking balls. His breaking balls are elite, his changeup is improving, and his sinker and fastball, his weakest offerings, both top 96 miles per hour. There’s ace stuff here, and the breakout already started late last season. Lamet is my sleeper pick for 2020 NL Cy Young winner, and on a staff with Paddack and Strasburg, might be a part of the best starting staff in the league.