Written by: Ray Butler
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If you do any amount of research prior to your fantasy baseball drafts each preseason, you develop irrational favorites.
You know the type of player I’m talking about. The guy you refuse to leave your draft without rostering. Sometimes your love is easy to explain; sometimes it’s not. Either way, you find yourself completely sold on the fact this player (or prospect) is going to breakout and become a bonafide star. In your mind, it becomes more of a understood fact than an opinion. No amount of facts to the contrary can convince you otherwise.
As you read that, did a particular player pop into your mind?
Adrian Houser might be that player for me heading into 2020.
Let’s start with several rapid-fire facts to set the tone for a pitcher you’re about to fall in love with. Inject these into your veins.
- Adrian Houser was a completely different pitcher in 2019 compared to 2018. The contrast is fairly staggering….
2018 (AA, AAA, MLB)
2019 (AAA, MLB)
- This growth can be largely attributed to being another season removed from Tommy John surgery, which the right-hander underwent in June 2016. The surgery forced Houser to miss the remainder of the 2016 season and the entirety of the 2017 season. The K% from last season to this season is especially impressive, and it makes me wonder if Houser is capable of another, smaller jump in 2020.
- Houser made 35 appearances with the Brewers in 2019: 18 starts (80.2 IP) and 17 relief outings (30.2 IP). That means the comparisons to other starting pitchers you’ll read about below aren’t entirely apples-to-apples, but it will give you an idea of how underratedly good Houser was in 2019 and how good he might be as a starting pitcher in 2020 and beyond.
The stage has been set. The foundation has been laid. Now let’s really dive deep into Houser’s 2019 campaign…
- In 2019, only four MLB starting pitchers met the following criteria: >100 IP, >25.0 K%, >50.0 GB%, <3.75 ERA. Those pitchers? Luis Castillo, Stephen Strasburg, Sonny Gray and Adrian Houser.
- Minimum 450 plate appearances faced, Houser’s .281 wxOBA ranked 16th amongst starting pitchers in 2019. That’s above pitchers like Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Shane Bieber, Patrick Corbin, Zack Greinke and many, many others.
- Sticking with the same threshold, Houser’s .226 xBA in 2019 also ranks 16th amongst starting pitchers. This time, the 26-year-old ranks above Walker Buehler, Corbin, Bieber and 109 others.
- Looking at xSLG does nothing to temper the hype. The right-hander’s .352 xSLG ranked 9th amongst all starting pitchers with at least 450 PA faced in 2019. The pitchers who rank 10th-16th? Justin Verlander, Sonny Gray, Jack Flaherty, Noah Syndergaard, Lucas Giolito, Brandon Woodruff and Walker Buehler.
- Houser’s four-seam fastball (a pitch he threw 31.3% of the time) posted an xBA of .187 in 2019. That ranked second amongst ALL pitchers at the big league level with at least 100 IP. First? Gerrit Cole. Hello.
- Why is the four-seam so successful? Well, for one, its explosiveness at the top of the zone, which is certainly a huge trend amongst starting pitchers in modern day baseball. Here’s where Houser gets his whiffs in the zone compared to the whiffs of another, randomly selected MLB starting pitcher (hint: it’s Gerrit Cole). Not too shabby… (h/t Brooks Baseball)
- Houser’s two-seam fastball (a pitch he threw 36.1% of the time; it’s labeled as a sinker on his Savant page) posted an xBA of .218 in 2019. That ranked third amongst all pitchers at the big league level with at least 100 IP, trailing only Eduardo Rodriguez and Sonny Gray. And if you care, the effectiveness of the pitch can likely be contributed to the fact it has both above average vertical and horizontal movement.
- If he had qualified, Houser’s 3.67 pCRA (a metric more predictive of ERA than FIP, xFIP and SIERA) would have ranked 26th amongst all starting pitchers. That’s tied with Zack Wheeler and above pitchers like Gray, Jose Berrios, Corbin and Rodriguez.
- I’ve saved perhaps the most interesting one for last. One of these is the Statcast profile for Houser. The other is the Statcast profile for Chris Paddack. Indulge me for a moment and consider the hype Paddack (rightfully) garnered throughout the 2019 season. It doesn’t matter which picture is which (h/t to Baseball Savant and to @Padres_Farm for the suggestion). Eery, right?
Does Houser have your attention yet? Here’s one more nugget. I selfishly separated this one from the others because honestly it took me a while to research. 115 pitchers threw more innings than Houser in 2019; when evaluating individual pitches thrown more than 10% of the time amongst those pitchers, only 30 did not have a pitch with an xBA of .270 or higher. There are a few wholly uninteresting names that fit that criteria (Tommy Milone, Wade Miley and Eric Lauer), but the group is largely headlined by the best pitchers in baseball (Cole, Verlander, Strasburg, deGrom, Scherzer, Buehler, Bieber, Giolito and Flaherty are all included). Those 30 pitchers join Houser, whose ‘main-arsenal’ xBAs span from .187 (four-seam) to .264 (slider).
That dive was the most expansive xBA project I’ve ever undertaken, especially since there’s not yet a singular place to evaluate an xBA leaderboard of multiple individual pitches at the same time. I was honestly surprised to learn 26% of the pitchers who threw >111.1 IP in 2019 kept the xBA of their individual ‘main’ pitches under .270 (that percent feels high to me), but Houser is still in good company nonetheless.
Expected outcomes aside, there’s quite a bit to digest with the 26-year-old’s arsenal (h/t Baseball Savant).
Again, Houser’s sinker is more of a two-seam fastball. From a usage standpoint, the right-hander goes about his business in a similar way to Lance Lynn, a pitcher I raved about earlier this season. I am very confident Lynn will be one of the best value picks in redrafts in 2020, but Houser might be even better.
|FF xBA||FF xwOBA||FT%||FT xBA||
Lynn’s four-seam is obviously his superior fastball, and the usage suggests as much (as it absolutely should). Both of Houser’s fastballs were great offerings in 2019, so the usage is more split. But when you combine the two pitcher’s total fastball usage, we arrive at a near-identical number: Houser threw a fastball 67.4% of the time in 2019, Lynn threw one 68.9% of the time. Those percents sit in the top-5 of combined FB% amongst starting pitchers in 2019. Lynn’s fastball-heavy approach served as the catalyst to a 16 win (lol), 3.67 ERA, 28.1 K% 2019 campaign in which the right-hander finished as the 16th most valuable fantasy pitcher according to Razzball’s Player Rater. Houser ranked as the 129th pitcher on the same list, albeit in 97 fewer innings.
Adrian Houser’s fastballs in the second half:
Four Seamer: 2nd in xwOBA and 6th in K%.
Two-seamer: 3rd in xwOBA and 9th in K%. pic.twitter.com/Cm7IVShZN1
— SP Streamer (@SpStreamer) October 31, 2019
So, what has to happen for Houser to become one of the sport’s biggest breakouts in 2020?
First and foremost: opportunity. If you distribute Houser’s 2019 stats to 200 IP, the right-hander’s line would have been 200 IP, 181 H, 82 ER, 66 BB, 210 K, 3.72 ERA. That’s basically a better Jose Berrios, but you and me both know evaluating the pair’s actual performances means comparing apples to oranges. Houser wasn’t a 200 IP pitcher in 2019—he was a 111.1 IP pitcher who made 35 appearances but only 18 starts this season.
In my eyes, the Brewers currently have eight starting pitcher options on their 40-man roster: Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Zach Davies, Jake Faria, Jimmy Nelson, Freddy Peralta, Trey Supak, and Houser. Only Woodruff and Davies are viewed as locks to be in the Brewers’ rotation at the start of next season. As you can see, a golden opportunity absolutely abounds for Houser, and he should currently be considered a favorite to take the ball every fifth day for Milwaukee in 2020—even if the organization is active in trade discussions and free agency this winter.
How can Houser ensure he locks-up a spot? Improving against left-handed batters would be a good start. Lefties slashed .277/.357/.467 in 210 plate appearances versus the 26-year-old in 2019. Here was Houser’s plan of attack vLHB this season (h/t Brooks Baseball).
The slash numbers vLHB do indeed look a little scary, but it wasn’t all bad. Houser’s ERA vLHP? 4.05 (with a 4.11 FIP). He struck out 25.7% of the left-handed batters he faced in 2019. Those statistics (and even the slash numbers, tbh) are far from disqualifying from a splits standpoint.
But it’s one thing to be passable and adequate against opposite-handed hitters. It’s another for it to be a strong suit. Houser may never compile the .217/.273/.343 slash against lefties that he compiled in 2019 against righties, but there is a path to legitimate success already within this profile.
Luckily, Houser’s best pitch against lefties is his four-seam fastball. SO OFTEN, pitchers with imperfect splits struggle against opposite-handed hitters due to an ineffective fastball. Hamstrung, this often leaves us wishing pitchers could attack opposite-handed hitters with changeup and curveball usage that adds to nearly 100%. Of course, a changeup loses most of its effectiveness without the threat of a fastball. These pitchers are eventually relegated to the bullpen, becoming specialists or swingmen who never see a lineup a second time through.
Adrian Houser, Filthy 94mph Back Door Two Seamer. 🤮 pic.twitter.com/4adasJMFFW
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 17, 2019
Thankfully, his isn’t the case for the 26-year-old, who surrendered a paltry .182 BAA vLHB when throwing his four-seam in 2019. Without a doubt, the biggest piece of the puzzle is already in place. From there, it’s simply optimization. Beginning in 2020, there’s no possible way Houser should throw his two-seam (listed as sinker in the table above) more often to LHB than his changeup. I wouldn’t mind seeing the the the usage of his sinker vLHB cut in half, which would optimally correlate with an increase in CH%.
I’m not ready to throw the curveball against lefties completely out the window despite its poor results in 2019, but I would imagine the Brewers will evaluate how Houser utilizes the pitch (location, sequencing, etc.) prior to next season. The four-seam and changeup should account for ~70% of the right-hander’s pitches against lefties (the two pitches accounted for 57% of Houser’s pitches vLHB in 2019). In a perfect world, an optimized curveball plays a large role in what’s left moving forward. And for my money, Houser should put his slider in his back pocket (or light it on fire) versus left-handed hitters until further notice.
Adrian Houser’s 10Ks in 16 Seconds. pic.twitter.com/poiedYTnOi
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 11, 2019
Speaking of the slider, it was Houser’s worst pitch in 2019. It was also his unluckiest offering, with an 80-point disparity in BA and xBA (.344 to .264) and 170-point disparity in SLG and xSLG (.719 to .549). Despite the pitch’s misfortune, even the expected outcomes were quite unsavory for an offering that, in a perfect world, would serve as the 26-year-old’s cherry-on-top versus right-handed batters. Much like what you read about the curveball above, I don’t think Houser needs to ditch his slider. I do think improving his breaking balls will be a focal point of his offseason training; if successful, it’s possible the right-hander soars to heights not even I thought were possible when evaluating the outlook.
Lastly, I wouldn’t be at-peace publishing this article without pointing out the statistical differences in Houser as a starting pitcher versus Houser as a reliever (h/t Fangraphs).
The differences are notable, but they’re also products of a small sample over the course of a single season. I have zero doubt Houser can be effective as a starting pitcher at the MLB level. I have zero doubt Houser has potential to be an above-average MLB starting pitcher, beginning as early as 2020.
But it doesn’t matter what I think. At this moment, it’s fair to be unsure of how the Brewers value Houser as it relates to their active roster in 2020 and beyond. Maybe they add two or three established starting pitchers this offseason (maybe something like Zack Wheeler, Cole Hamels and Michael Pineda?). Looking at Houser’s success in 2019 as a reliever, those additions would make it quite easy to rely on the 26-year-old in more of a multi-inning relief role than a starting pitcher fixture.
For the record, I’m not predicting this happens. I’m not saying it’s likely. In fact, I think it’s really unlikely. But I’ve written north of 1500 words explaining why Adrian Houser could be the steal of your fantasy drafts next season. It’s only fair to also explain how I this outlook could go awry, no matter how far-fetched or unlikely. A disclaimer, if you will.
Adrian Houser had an ADP of 351.3 in the #2EarlyMocks conducted in September. He was selected as high as pick 207 and as low as pick 544. All together, he slots amongst pitchers like Jon Lester, Zach Plesac, Aaron Sanchez and Wade Miley. As you can probably imagine, it was all I could do to type those names without laughing out loud.
I assume the ADP will slowly rise as industry experts do more research and notice the same things I’ve noticed. Heck, maybe this article will serve as a bit of a catalyst. But even if there’s a meteoric rise and he’s being selected by pick 250 in March, you’ll have to pry him away from me.
I keep going back to one of the bulletpoints you read above. It wasn’t supported with a cool graphic or table, but it had as much substance as anything you’ve read in this article.
In 2019, only four MLB starting pitchers met the following criteria: >100 IP, >25.0 K%, >50.0 GB%, <3.75 ERA. Those pitchers? Luis Castillo, Stephen Strasburg, Sonny Gray and Adrian Houser.
Those numbers speak volumes. The ability to keep batted balls on the ground at an elite rate while striking out at least a fourth of the batters you face? All while logging substantial innings and suppressing earned run damage? If for no other reason, these numbers (and the company Houser finds himself in) should open your eyes to Houser’s abilities—both in 2019 and moving forward.
2020 will be the first season I offer my starting pitcher ranks for purchase in the preseason VIP package. These rankings are analytic and formula based, so allow me to leave you with my 2020 projection for Adrian Houser (assuming he’s a starting pitcher)…
Age 27 season: 165 IP, 147 H, 68 ER, 58 BB, 169 K (nice). 3.71 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9
Statistically comparable starting pitchers from 2019: Eduardo Rodriguez (SP20), Max Fried (SP38)
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Featured image courtesy of Charles LeClaire and USA Today Sports