“The Simpsons” first aired the episode “When Flanders Failed” back on Oct. 4 in 1991. The show tells the story of Ned’s left-handed surplus store – the Leftorium – going under thanks to the wishes of one Homer J. Simpson. Though everything is eventually resolved by the time the end credits roll, it was the first time in my life that I can remember such blatant discrimination based on the handedness of a particular person. Yet, as my life forayed in the realm of DFS baseball, it certainly wouldn’t be the last time I witnessed these types of events. In fact, as we sit just over two months into the MLB season, its become clear that some pitchers simply don’t ever give a left-handed batter anything to hit – at least that’s what the numbers would suggest. Heck, some of these right-handers don’t even allow LHBs to make consistent contact. It’s a sad world.
Let’s take a look at two of the surprising names you don’t want to be stacking left-handed batters against in 2019.
SONNY GRAY: .198 wOBA TO LHBs
Back in 2015, at the peak of his powers, using any hitter against Gray on a given night would seem like a mistake. The young right-hander’s 2.73 ERA was the ninth-best qualified rate in all of baseball and run suppression wasn’t his only calling card. Gray was also a master of launch angle, usually inducing grounder-after-grounder during his trips to the mound. By season’s end, Gray was one of four pitchers able to claim an ERA under 3.00 and a ground ball rate above 50%. The other three? Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta and Dallas Keuchel. However, though it was assumed this campaign was Gray’s entrance to the big time, the seasons following this run of success were not the most kind to the now 29-year-old. There were injuries, there were trades and there were struggles on the National stage in New York City. Headed to the hitter’s paradise that is Great American Ball Park to begin 2019, I don’t think its a stretch to say that most people assumed they’d be often targeting Gray with offensive pieces, not having to avoid him completely. So, how’d we get here?
Gray has faced 112 left-handed batters so far this season. He’s surrendered a mere four extra-base hits during these plate appearances and has yet to allow an LHB to hit a home run in any of his starts in Cincinnati. With a .198 wOBA within the split, no qualified right-handed starting pitcher in the National League has been able to limit LHBs as well as Gray. Actually, considering his league-best 1.82 FIP when pitching against lefties, you could outright suggest no pitcher in all of baseball has been better. The reason for this appears to be Gray’s bevy of useful breaking pitches. While some RHPs run into trouble if they’re unwilling to trust their slider in right-on-left situations, Gray’s able to turn to an above-average curveball and changeup; with both offerings currently possessing a ground ball rate above 80% when put into play by a left-handed opponent. That’s not to suggest Gray shelves his slider entirely versus LHBs, either. While the former first-round pick sees his slider usage drop from 23.2% when opposed by an RHB to 11.6% when a left-hander is in the batter’s box, the pitch has garnered a massive 45% whiff per swing rate within the split. It’s one of the main reasons Gray’s 33% strikeout rate of left-handed batters is the sixth-highest mark in the league.
Still, Gray’s main sustenance continues to be his ability to negate dangerous contact; a skill that’s more than apparent when looking at the number of barrelled balls the right-hander has allowed so far in 2019. Among the 151 pitchers with more than 100 batted ball events, Gray possesses the ninth-lowest overall barrels per plate appearance rate at 2.8% – a figure that falls to 2.6% specific to Gray’s battles with those of the left-handed persuasion. Gray’s microscopic 22.4% fly ball rate within the split is also the ninth-lowest qualified mark in MLB, and that number’s impact is lessened even further by the fact that 20% of the fly balls Gray’s surrendered to LHBs have been infield pop-ups. It shouldn’t be too shocking that a pitcher with a career 53.3% ground ball rate is accomplishing what Gray is accomplishing; however, combined with his elite strikeout rate, Gray has been a left-handed batter’s worst nightmare all season long.
ANDREW CASHNER: .256 wOBA TO LHBs
It seems crazy to think that there’s a Baltimore pitcher that features any type of skill whatsoever, yet Cashner’s been sneaky-good at not just getting left-handed bats out through his first 12 outings of 2019, but keeping them in the ballpark. In fact, when Mike Yastrzemski hit a home run off of Cashner this past Friday, it wasn’t only the rookie’s first career MLB long ball, it was also the first time all season that a left-handed hitter had taken Cashner deep. Considering the RHP’s recent history, this is quite the statistical oddity. I mean, you really don’t have to go all that far back to find a time when Cashner was struggling with batters from the left side of the plate. In 2018, Cashner surrendered a .361 wOBA to lefties along with 1.73 home runs per nine. In 2016, the veteran’s .380 wOBA within the split was the eighth-highest mark allowed among the 101 pitchers with enough innings against LHBs to qualify. To put it simply, Cashner’s consistently been a punching bag for left-handers throughout his generally unpleasant employment in the American League. It begs the question: What’s changed about the 32-year-old’s approach so far this season?
A quick look through FanGraphs’ pitch value rankings tells a clear tale when it comes to Cashner’s sudden success against LHBs. Of Cashner’s four most utilized pitches, only one hasn’t brought back negative value across his 64.1 innings in 2019: his change-up. Actually, it has been the sixth-most valuable change-up in all of baseball by the site’s metrics. Digging deeper, the raw stats back up this sentiment. After throwing his change just 13.3% last year, Cashner’s usage with the pitch is up to a career-high 23.4%. It’s the first time since 2013 that Cashner’s featured the pitch at a rate higher than even 15%. The offering’s importance is amplified when it comes to facing left-handed batters, as well. Within the split, Cashner’s uses his change-up 29.3% of the time. Its induced an impressive 18.2% whiff rate in addition to limiting left-handed opponents to a meager .163 slugging percentage. Really, it has become a rather reliable out pitch for the Orioles’ pseudo-ace, as Cashner turns to the pitch 45% of the time when he’s ahead in the count against an LHB. It’s logical then that Yastrzemski’s aforementioned home run came off a first-pitch fastball, a count where Cashner’s used his best pitch a mere 8% of opportunities.
With Baltimore’s struggle to assemble a bullpen capable of setting down major league batters, stacking any hitter you can find versus the Orioles staff will never cease to be a viable DFS tactic. Yet, it’s worth watching Cashner’s continued evolution with pitch mix. His changeup usage has increased in every month of 2019, capping out at 25.0% overall in May. If that number continues to climb as we get into the heart of summer, any reluctance you have about Cashner’s ability to negate the potency of left-handed bats will have to be extinguished. It’s not as if I’m suggesting you insert the RHP into any of your builds; all you have to do is respect the obvious tweaks he’s made to his arsenal. I promise, its the lone situation I’ll make you endorse a Baltimore pitcher in 2019.
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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.