Weekly Rotation: Five Pitchers with Skyrocketing Strikeout Rates

Posted on June 1, 2016 by Will Laws

Justin Verlander Strikeouts

We are living in the age of the strikeout. This is no secret: strikeout rates have grown larger every year since 2008, setting a new record with each passing season.

That trend has brought a renewed focus on the fluctuation of individual pitchers’ strikeout rates, which the sabermetrics movement favors as one of the telltale signs for how a hurler should be performing. This makes sense: pitchers who can miss bats don’t have to rely on their defense as much, thus keeping the power in their hands.

For this week’s edition of Weekly Rotation, PointAfter visualizations will illustrate the five starters who’ve increased their strikeout rates the most since last season. Every pitcher listed has seen his K/9 IP rate shoot up by at least 25 percent. These guys should be primed for an uptick in overall performance, as long as they can limit walks and keep the balls opposing hitters do make contact with in the park.

Notes: Pitchers must have thrown at least 50 innings in 2016 and 200 innings before this season to qualify. All statistics are accurate as of games played through May 31.

5. Justin Verlander, Tigers

2015-16 Strikeout rate increase: 25.8 percent
2016 Stats: 4-5, 4.11 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 22 BB, 77 K in 72.1 IP

You couldn’t be blamed for writing off Justin Verlander’s dwindling status as an ace entering this season. The 33-year-old’s fastball velocity and strikeout numbers had significantly declined since 2014, and he combined to record a 4.08 ERA in 339.1 innings in 2014-15.

Though Verlander’s ERA has yet to sink below 4.00 this season, his peripherals indicate his in-progress resurgence (1.94 ERA, 44 strikeouts in last five starts) is for real.

Verlander currently ranks second in the American League with 77 strikeouts. His 9.6 K/9 IP rate is the highest of his career, supported by a career-best 11.3 percent swinging strike rate on his fastball. The whiff rate on his changeup has largely recovered to days of yore, too, while a recently unveiled cutter (or hard slider) has added a new wrinkle to his arsenal.

The former Cy Young winner seems to be on the upswing again, and that’s a welcome development for fans of good pitching.

4. Matt Moore, Rays

2015-16 Strikeout rate increase: 34.1 percent
2016 Stats: 2-3, 5.31 ERA, 19 BB, 56 K in 57.2 IP

It’s been a few years since Matt Moore validated his top prospect status at age 24, notching 17 wins with a 3.29 ERA in 2013 to earn All-Star status and a top-10 finish in Cy Young voting.

Injuries largely kept him off the field in the two seasons since then, and when he was on the mound, he didn’t inspire much confidence.

This year has certainly been better — Moore has hurled 10 more strikeouts than he did last year in 5.1 fewer innings — but it’s still had its hiccups. An encouraging April (35 strikeouts, 3.66 ERA, .217 BAA) gave way to a brutal May with (21 strikeouts, 7.36 ERA, .360 BAA).

On the bright side, Moore’s peripherals are actually better than they were in 2013. His walk rate has decreased from 4.5 BB/9 IP to 3.0 BB/9 IP, while his strikeout rate has recovered to 8.7 K/9 IP, essentially right where it was before.

Moore might not live up to the lofty expectations once placed on him as MLB’s former No. 1 prospect, but he should settle in as a dependable mid-rotation starter soon enough.

3. Chris Tillman, Orioles

2015-16 Strikeout rate increase: 37 percent
2016 Stats: 7-1, 2.92 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 27 BB, 61 K in 64.2 IP

The Game 1 starter for Baltimore in each of its playoff series in 2014, Chris Tillman endured a rocky follow-up campaign as his ERA ballooned to 4.99 last season. Fortunately for the Orioles, the right-hander has reverted to being one of the game’s most underrated starters in 2016, and he’s striking out more batters than ever before.

Like Verlander, the 28-year-old has decreased his fastball usage in favor of a cutter/slider, an effective strategy for messing with opponents’ scouting reports and missing bats. According to Fangraphs, batters have whiffed on more than 15 percent of Tillman’s cutters.

Would you have guessed that Tillman’s been a top-five starter in the AL by wins above replacement (WAR)? He hasn’t been tagged with a loss since April 14. If Baltimore can overtake Boston in the AL East or sustain its position in the wild card race, Tillman should be in line to toe the rubber for at least one more massive October matchup.

2. Tanner Roark, Nationals

2015-16 Strikeout rate increase: 40.4 percent
2016 Stats: 4-4, 2.70 ERA, 26 BB, 62 K in 70 IP

Tanner Roark essentially reclaimed his rotation spot this spring because Jordan Zimmermann skipped town for greener ($) pastures during the offseason. After a mediocre 2015 season spent moonlighting as a spot starter and swingman, the 29-year-old late-bloomer has shown he’s at his best as a full-time starter.

Roark’s velocity has remained largely constant since last season while both his walk and strikeout rates have spiked to career highs, suggesting he’s sacrificing a bit of control for power. You can’t argue with the results — Roark possesses a higher WAR than Max Scherzer and virtually the same ERA as Stephen Strasburg (2.69 for Strasburg, 2.70 for Roark). He also leads the Majors in soft contact percentage (31.3%) by a sizable margin.

It must be mentioned, however, that 15 of Roark’s strikeouts were recorded during one dominant April start against the Twins, who often made headlines for their whiff-tastic ways in the season’s first month. Though Roark’s stuff looked fantastic that day, it’s fair to ask whether it was a fluke — especially since he hasn’t struck out more than seven hitters in any other game.

1. Alex Wood, Dodgers

2015-16 Strikeout rate increase: 50.4 percent
2016 Stats: 1-4, 3.99 ERA, 19 BB, 62 K in 56.1 IP

It’s a shame Alex Wood is reportedly heading to the disabled list (triceps), because his injury arose during arguably his best stretch in the Majors.

The left-hander has punched out 50 batters and allowed 11 runs in his last 35.1 innings (2.80 ERA), marking the most strikeouts he’s ever collected over a six-start span. In fact, Wood’s 13.0 K/9 IP rate in May led the Majors. That’s right — during a time when Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard were all healthy, Wood bested all of them in terms of strikeouts per nine innings.

All signs point toward an adjustment in Wood’s release point as the mechanical catalyst for his surge. That change has coincided with a 1.5 mph increase in Wood’s fastball velocity compared to last season, reversing a steady decline since 2013 that probably played a part in Atlanta’s decision to trade him last summer.

Wood’s ERA dipped under 4.00 for the first time this year after his Memorial Day outing against the Cubs on Monday. His fielding-independent pitching (FIP) mark of 3.24 indicates that his 3.99 ERA should be even lower.

Though Wood entered 2016 as the Dodgers’ No. 5 starter, he’s emerged as a guy Dave Roberts could tap for a start during the playoffs — assuming Wood eventually staves off the debilitating injury bug currently infecting Los Angeles’ rotation.

Close calls: Drew Pomeranz (Padres), Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies), Scott Kazmir (Dodgers), Jaime Garcia (Cardinals)

This story was published in conjunction with Yahoo Sports and PointAfter, a sports visualization site that’s part of the Graphiq network.

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