There are few things in baseball as tried and true as splits. I’m not even necessarily talking about advanced stats when I say this, either. Go find the oldest baseball fan you know and ask them if they’d bring in a lefty to face a lefty with the game on the line. I’ll wager, if they didn’t fall asleep in the middle of your question, 100 out of 100 octogenarians would make that move. Heck, Mr. Burns removes Darryl Strawberry from Springfield’s championship game against Shelbyville because Homer Simpson is right-handed. He plays the percentages and wins. It’s what smart managers do.
Anyway, the point is, when I mention that the following three RHPs have had their issues with left-handed batters to begin 2019, from a very surface perspective, it shouldn’t be all that shocking. However, when dealing with these small sample sizes and projecting them forward, we need more than the results. We need evidence. We need to know why, aside from handedness, these trends are happening. So, well, let’s do just that.
CORBIN BURNES: .694 wOBA AGAINST LHBsNo qualified pitcher this season sports a bigger opponent wOBA when pitching to left-handed hitters than Burnes. The man has been crushed by lefties in all three of his outings so far this year. In fact, six of the 34 LHBs Burnes has faced have taken him deep. That’s twice as many as the 24-year-old has managed to strike out and we’re talking about a pitcher who currently sports a 13.19 K/9. From afar, its one of those situations that seems to reek of sample scarcity and unluckiness. I mean, in a vacuum, you’d assume the SP with a 70.9% contact rate would simply start to see some of the rare contact he allows not go over the fence; at least not to the tune of the 75.0% HR/FB ratio opposing lefties have compiled to this point in the calendar.
Unfortunately, this is about far more than normalization. Without question, Burnes’ best pitch is his slider. If suppressing contact is the No. 1 goal of all pitchers in this era of baseball, Burnes’ slider is a shining example of what an out pitch needs to be. Overall, the offering has a massive 36.4% whiff rate, a number that jumps up to an eye-popping 39.3% specifically against right-handed hitters. In short, its an exceedingly difficult pitch to just make contact with, let alone hit well. As such, Burnes has surrendered only a single base knock off the slider in 2019. However, like most pitches that break right-to-left, Burnes appears unwilling to feature the offering as heavily to LHBs. In fact, while he’s thrown his slider 35.1% of the time when opposing a righty, that frequency falls to a minuscule 10.7% versus a left-hander. Fewer sliders mean more fastballs and, considering LHBs own a 1.083 slugging percentage off Burnes’ four-seam through three starts, more of those probably isn’t a dependable game plan going forward. Until the young pitchers finds a reliable arsenal to use within the split, the DFS world has free-reign stacking lefties in contests Burnes is toeing the rubber.
RICK PORCELLO: .541 wOBA AGAINST LHBsI guess the most interesting thing about Porcello’s 2019 struggles with left-handed batters is not that he’s having the issues themselves, but the way its manifested through three starts. Whether we’re talking about Porcello the prospect, Porcello the Detroit Tigers’ pitcher, or Porcello the Cy Young Award winner; we’re always discussing a man with exquisite control. Coming into this season, the 30-year-old’s career walk rate sat at just 5.4% – the eighth-lowest mark of any pitcher who has thrown in excess of 1,000 innings going back to 2009. His highest BB/9 was 2.74 and that came in his rookie campaign. Again, through every iteration of his professional life, he’s always been able to at least get the ball across the plate. That is, until the first trio of starts this year.
Porcello has walked 12 batters in his 11.1 innings of work in 2019. For the sake of juxtaposition, the right-hander hadn’t walked his 12th opponent until May 24 in 2018 – his 11th outing of the season. So, what’s changed? Well, honestly, its the simplest combination of factors you could imagine. At 42.9%, Porcello is currently sporting the lowest zone rate of his career. He’s also managed just a 20.8% outside the zone swing rate. Essentially, he’s throwing fewer pitches as strikes as he ever has and opponents aren’t exactly helping him by swinging at the balls. There also appears to be a substantial problem with throwing strikes out of the stretch. While Porcello’s walk rate stands at 6.9% with the bases empty so far this season it jumps to an ugly 25.6% as soon as a batter gets on. Now, this might all be a case of early-season struggles or a pitcher trying to be too fine in run-scoring situations. However, the fact remains that free passes have plagued Porcello across the past three weeks and that nine of the 12 walks he’s administered have come to those of the left-handed persuasion.
This, obviously, isn’t ideal from a DFS perspective. While taking a walk is a valuable skill in real life, its impact is less influential in fantasy baseball. We want a .541 wOBA that’s been the product of extra-base hits, not padded by patience. Still, I’m inclined to not ignore Porcello’s awful splits completely. Going back across the past two seasons – years where Porcello was issuing free passes at his normal clip – the right-hander did appear to have his problems retiring LHBs in Boston. Despite the fact that Fenway notoriously favors those hitting from the right side of the batter’s box, the 418 left-handers that Porcello saw over this span combined to hit to a gargantuan .373 wOBA with 2.3 home runs leaving the park per nine innings. The best part? Porcello’s walk rate during this time was only 5.6%. So, don’t let the walks fool you. Porcello is still capable of giving up meaningful contact to left-handed hitters. I mean, we are talking about the man who ended Chris Davis’ 54 at-bats hitless streak. That should tell you all you need to know.
CARLOS CARRASCO: .448 wOBA AGAINST LHBsIt’s easy to forget how effective and valuable Carrasco has been the past half-decade. Though never even the ace of his own team, the 32-year-old is one of only eight pitchers with over 750 innings thrown since 2014 that can also claim to have a K/9 above 10.0 and a FIP below 3.50. The other seven? Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Chris Archer. If that doesn’t strike you as impressive company, I’m not sure what to tell you. Anyway, he’s been about as dependable as starting pitchers come, but that has not been the case through his first three outings of 2019. It’s not just left-handers who have been hitting him, either. The 29 RHBs that have squared off with Carrasco so far this season actually sport a higher wOBA than the lefties at .609. Still, we’re looking to project, not to recap the past. While right-handers have been making a great deal of hard-contact – so much so that Carrasco leads baseball in barrels per batted ball event rate (23.5%) – there’s no way that an overall BABIP of .613 will sustain. Plus, as small details in an impressive history tell us, its left-handers that have given this All-Star issues before.
On the surface, there’s no real reason to be critical of Carrasco’s 2018 campaign. He appeared in 32 games, he tossed 192 innings, and he went into the offseason with a 2.94 FIP – his best mark since 2015. However, there was one area that the right-hander proved vulnerable: pitching to LHBs at Progressive Field. Left-handers compiled an impressive .356 wOBA within these circumstances last season, clearly taking advantage of a ballpark that ranked as the top offensive environment for lefties according to Baseball Prospectus. It wasn’t all setting, though. Much like the aforementioned Burnes, slider usage plays a part in this story. Carrasco only dared throw his slider – a pitch that induced 228 raw whiffs – 18.2 percent of the time to LHBs; down from 39.0% to their right-handed counterparts. Statistically, that decision made sense. While RHBs were held to a lowly .298 slugging percentage off of the pitch, lefties were far more successful with a .488 figure. Yet, Carrasco’s slider isn’t solely effective because it garners swings and misses, it’s also adept at generating groundballs. In fact, by the end of last year, the offering, when put into play, sported a huge 58.8 percent groundball rate. Carrasco could certainly use some of that launch angle suppression right about now.
As of Apr. 16, Carrasco’s pitch mix has become even more contrasting depending on the handedness of his opposition. His slider usage to RHBs is up to 51.5 percent in 2019, but its utilization to lefties has fallen all the way down to 9.3 percent. Knowing that, it probably won’t come as a shock that the RHP possesses a microscopic 0.09 GB/FB ratio within the left-handed split. That amount of fly balls, especially when you’ve been giving up barrels at the rate Carrasco has, is bad news; and it’s equated out to a 3.38 HR/9 mark so far to LHBs. The BABIP will regress and the GB/FB should normalize slightly with time, however, at this point, there’s no denying that Carrasco’s issues with LHBs appear to be more than a blip on the radar.
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I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is theglt13) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.