Written by: Ray Butler
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“This is what they look like” is an interesting phrase in the baseball world.
The first time I read the phrase was on FanGraphs, when a member of the former Kiley McDaniel/Eric Longenhagen power duo employed it when describing a young prospect. If you’ve been reading prospect content for long, you’re likely aware of the plethora of attributes associated to the label: raw, athletic, lean, projectable, explosive. Often interchangeable with the phrases “intriguing ball of clay” or “physical specimen”, the most successful, recent embodiments of this archetype (amongst position players) include Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Correa and Fernando Tatis Jr.
Unfortunately, for every Rodriguez or Tatis Jr., there are plenty of Estevan Florials and Lewis Brinsons, who are players that personify the same qualities listed above but—thus far—have fallen well short of the lofty expectations they were once given. Simply put, it’s the volatility that makes the “this is what they look like” archetype so unequivocally mesmerizing. The range of outcomes span from “sitting on the waiver wire in your dynasty leagues in less than two full seasons” to “undoubted cornerstone piece for a championship team and perennial contender”. Successfully wading the waters of the “this is what they look like” prospect world prior to your competition can play a tangible role in the difference between building and sustaining a legitimate fantasy baseball bank roll, and devolving to a player who texts a group of friends to create and play in a league “for fun” a few days before Opening Day.
In redraft leagues, the phrase “this is what they look like” takes on a far different meaning. It’s more immediate. More pressing. Instead of evaluating ‘green’ teenagers who are half a decade away from the big leagues, the phrase evolves into finding value in active players who go largely unnoticed or have been mostly discarded by the vast majority of fantasy baseballers.
In my experience, the phrase pertains more so to pitchers than position players at baseball’s highest level. Last season, Corbin Burnes was a “this is what they look like” player in my eyes. Don’t worry; Adrian Houser was too (lol). More generally, Shane Bieber was once what they looked like. Infinitely more painful are the likes of Nick Pivetta and Matt Boyd, who have essentially been the conductors of their own respective hype trains in previous draft seasons only to unravel once the rubber met the road.
Houser excluded, it’s the perceived ceiling of the Burneses, Pivettas and Boyds of the world that garner our attention more so than safer, floor-first pitchers. It’s a cliché at this point, but drafting this archetype of pitcher leads to the same type of rush as purchasing a lottery ticket at the nearest convenience store. A similar feeling to birdieing the 18th hole in a round of golf, if you will. Who cares if you’re 28 over par thru 17 holes? It’s sinking a 12 footer on the last hole for your only birdie of the round that keeps you coming back to the course.
So what traits allow a big league pitcher to fit the “this is what they look like” label? Simply put, qualities that indistinguishable on the surface. Corbin Burnes already possessed one of baseball’s best sliders and a metrically-elite (albeit inefficient) fastball that had been previously obliterated by opposing hitters prior to his breakout during the sprint season. Nick Pivetta has always possessed fantastic raw stuff, but poor command and unoptimized pitch usage (one could argue, at least) has led to just 4.2 fWAR in 406.1 big league innings pitched. Almost always, these pitchers’ expected statistics are far more rosy than the numbers you read in a newspaper box score. Pipe dreams of correcting these flaws leave fantasy baseballers returning to the well year after year.
While a small cult within the fantasy baseball realm continues to scoop-up late round Nick Pivetta shares in Draft and Hold formats (join us, we have snacks), the most popular, current ‘this is what they look like’ pitcher is probably Joe Musgrove. After breaking the collective hearts of fantasy baseballers in 2019, Musgrove is currently being drafted inside the top-125 in NFBC leagues after a much improved (albeit minuscule) campaign during the shortened season in 2020.
Now that we’ve officially defined a ‘this is what they look like’ big league pitcher, it’s far more important to successfully identify the next wave of this archetype. Yes, the painful part of this endeavor means over-drafting the next Nick Pivetta or Matt Boyd, but it could also lead us to the next Corbin Burnes or Joe Musgrove.
So let’s talk about Trevor Rogers.
The 13th overall pick in 2017, Rogers only accrued 209 combined innings pitched at stops in Low-A, High-A and Double-A before debuting at the big league level in 2020. Throughout the minor leagues, the southpaw showed an ability to miss bats (26.3 K%) with adequate control (6.7 BB%) and moderate run prevention (the fielding independent numbers are better than the 3.92 minor league ERA).
Despite those numbers, the 23-year-old largely flew under-the-radar on prospect lists throughout the industry. As a matter of fact, he’ll make his debut on my top-200 this preseason. Why the underestimation despite solid outcomes throughout the minor leagues? Personally, I was too quick to generalize Rogers’ arsenal. As a minor leaguer, the left-hander’s changeup was perceived as a legitimate weapon, but the fastball was widely labeled as fringe average; the arsenal was capped by pair a crude, unspectacular breaking ball. Especially in the low minors, opposing hitters often struggle mightily with impressive changeups, so it’s common for pitchers to post gaudy strikeout and SwStr% numbers in Low-A and High-A before ascending to levels in which hitters have better attack plans are able to differentiate between the backspin of a fastball and the sidespin/pronation of a changeup.
Often, this archetype of pitching prospect lends itself to cautionary tales. In other words, there are far more Ljay Newsomes than Chris Paddacks or Zac Gallens. In Rogers’ case, it didn’t help that he was old for his draft class and beneath his same-aged peers on the minor league totem pole. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the prospect community appears to have missed on the southpaw prior to 2021, with credible rankers (myself included) likely pointing to a fastball that has either notably improved throughout the last calendar year or was always better than we gave it credit for. Of course, it’s also worth noting the story of Rogers’ development is far from complete.
If you scan the Baseball Savant or FanGraphs Leaderboards, you probably spend about two seconds eye-balling Rogers’ numbers from the sprint season before moving on to a different pitcher. On the surface, a ghastly 6.11 ERA and 4.18 BB/9 (10.0 BB%) in 28.0 IP (Rogers’ first in the big leagues) could be all the ammunition one would need to avoid the left-hander all together in redrafts prior to the 2021 season.
Of course, those numbers help lay the foundation of the 23-year-old being worthy of your attention in the fantasy world prior to Opening Day. A quick exploration of the disparity between Rogers’ actual statistics and expected statistics from the sprint season tell us we’re on the right track:
Did the differences knock you off your feet the same way it did me? Let’s add a little bit of context to those margins. We have to muddy the waters a little bit to arrive at a window that includes Rogers, but if you lower the threshold to >100 batters faced in 2020, no starting pitcher in baseball had a larger gap in BA and xBA:
No pitcher in baseball had a wider disparity in SLG and xSLG….
Or wOBA and xwOBA:
Apologies for the small picture below, but Rogers’ ERA and xERA margin ranked 10th amongst all pitchers with at least 100 batters faced during the sprint season:
As always, hat tip to Baseball Savant for the leaderboards.
If those gaps feel both substantial and notable, it’s because they are. Paired with the noise of a unique, shortened 2020 season and a traditional small sample (it was only 28.0 IP, after all), I believe it’s fair to say those disparities played an important role in the left-hander ranking 628th amongst all players in the fantasy world at the end of the sprint (h/t Razzball Player Rater) despite possessing a Savant dashboard that looked like this:
Before we arrive at our “WHAT DOES A BEAN MEAN?!?!” moment, let’s make sure we’ve covered all our bases in the expected/deserved stats world.
If you were to stop reading this article right now and continue investigating Rogers yourself, the next ‘obstacle’ you’d reach is an unsavory 4.18 BB/9 (10.0 BB%) in his first big league stint. The 23-year-old certainly gave up his fair share of hits last summer, but the walk rate also played a legitimate role in Rogers’ shield-your-eyes WHIP (1.61). A question worth finding an answer to: did he deserve the 10.0 BB% and (far more pleasant) 30.0 K%? Alex Chamberlain‘s Pitch Leaderboard puts a smile on our face:
Note: Per Chamberlain, dBB% is derived from primary plate discipline components: zone whiff, zone contact, zone take, out of zone whiff, out of zone contact and out of zone take.
Well, well, well. According to his expected statistics, Rogers massively outperformed his actual BAA, SLG, wOBA, ERA and BB% during the sprint season. Now, before we revere expected outcomes as though they’re the be-all and end-all looking forward, it’s best practice to throw a bit of caution to the wind.
First, expected statistics are often influenced by defensive prowess and park factors. In other words, a pitcher is not the sole earner of his expected outcomes. Fortunately for Rogers, the Marlins defense ranked in the top half of most team defensive metrics during the sprint season. Marlins Park is also not known for being a hitter’s haven, so we’re justified in saying those exterior factors didn’t artificially inflate (and thus aren’t artificially creating optimism) in the southpaw’s expected outcomes from 2020.
Of course, it’s also important to note that expected statistics are not intended to be predictive in nature. In other words, we can’t simply assume the 23-year-old will magically become the pitcher his expected stats from last season say he should be.
We can, however, use Rogers’ expected statistics from 2020 to reflect on the pitcher he should have been. For fun only, here’s where the left-hander’s expected statistics landed him amongst the expected statistics of other starting pitchers from last season:
Noisy? Certainly. Reliable? Not overly. But interesting nonetheless. Now let’s transition from expected statistics to actual outcomes, albeit with a small twist. If we’ve acknowledged and proven the fact Rogers was notably unlucky last season, let’s cut the misfortune in half. Let’s envision a Trevor Rogers who still suffered from misfortune during the sprint season, but let’s cut the disparities (in ERA-xERA, SLG-xSLG, wOBA-xWOBA and ERA-xERA) by 50% and see how those numbers stack up against the actual outputs of other pitchers. For the sake of this random experiment, we’ll label newly-created numbers as “half as unlucky” in the table below:
Obviously that practice is far from scientifically precise, but I do think it proves Rogers has a little cushion to work with moving forward as long as luck improves at least slightly. Chamberlain seems to agree, too, based on a conversation we recently had on Twitter regarding the left-hander, saying “My first instinct (this is just me) is that, I doubt he’s a true-talent .340 xwOBAcon guy, but even if he was actually much worse, like a .400 xwOBAcon guy, he’s still very clearly better than the .491 that actually happened.” In case you were wondering, if you filter all the pitchers who have thrown at least 1000 total pitches since the start of the 2018 season, a “.400 xwOBAcon guy” would fall in the same range as pitchers including Elieser Hernandez, Domingo German, Nathan Eovaldi, Ross Stripling, Dylan Cease, Yusei Kikuchi and many others. If you prefer a narrower window, starting pitchers who accrued a ~.400 wOBAcon in 2020 include Hernandez, Jordan Montgomery, Charlie Morton, Aaron Civale, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell.
There are other, highly-acclaimed pitching metrics that were also more fond of Rogers’ big league debut than the surface stats suggest. For example, Rogers’ 3.55 pCRA in 2020 ranked 35th amongst all starting pitchers with at least 20.0 IP. Other starters in that range? Walker Buehler, Blake Snell, Zack Greinke, Pablo López, Zac Gallen and Marco Gonzales to name a few. Using the same threshold, the 23-year-old’s 3.86 SIERA in 2020 lands him at 38th amongst starting pitchers. Other, non-ERA metrics arriving at the same conclusion as the southpaw’s xERA during the shortened season is certainly a welcomed sight.
Proving misfortune within a player’s statistical profile is undoubtedly an inexact science, but hopefully the numbers and comparisons above serve as the justification we need to be fairly confident Rogers will take a noticeable step forward in 2021 and beyond (and also a picture of what the near future could look like if the southpaw’s fortune doesn’t positively regress fully this season).
Truth be told, you could probably stop reading this article right now and be more apt to draft Trevor Rogers than you were before clicking the link to this article. If you’re looking for a cherry on top (or can simply appreciate an exhaustive argument/research), I have more good news for you.
Remember the changeup-fueled arsenal that most prospectors (myself included) once doubted would play at a viable level at the big league level? Again, whether we were wrong from the get-go or Rogers has simply evolved into something he once wasn’t, this arsenal is certainly capable of getting MLB hitters out:
GASP! It is shocking that Rogers’ holistic misfortune in BA, SLG and wOBA carries over to the outcomes of his individual pitches!
*narrator* “It wasn’t shocking.”
Just look at the margins between the actual outcomes of the 23-year-old’s four-seam and the expected outcomes. Simply jaw-dropping.
Anyways, other than the fact Rogers’ four-seam was actually really good last season despite puke-worthy results, what are the other important takeaways? Well, despite also being a (smaller) victim of unfortunate results, the southpaw’s slider was surprisingly solid relative to past reports prior to his big league debut. The changeup was as advertised, accruing an expected batting average at the Mendoza line while inducing the 24th-highest Whiff% amongst starting pitchers last season (min. 25 plate appearances). Mind you, this is in a small, 28.0 IP sample.
Anytime a pitcher possesses three pitches that have Whiff rates hovering around the 30.0% range, it’s noteworthy. If you’re like me and instead prefer SwStr%, the excitement doesn’t disappear there either. When you drop the frequency of each individual pitch thrown to 100, 38 big league starting pitchers boasted three separate pitches with a swinging strike rate of >10.0% during the shortened 2020 season. Rogers was one of those pitchers. Here’s the complete list. Note: the number of individual pitches with a SwStr% >10.0% is listed in parentheses next to each pitcher. Thanks for the help with this, Alex Chamberlain.
Side note: Shane Bieber is ridiculous. Sure, there’s a Chase Anderson, Asher Wojciechowski and Alex Young within this list, but this is generally a group you want your fantasy pitchers to be a part of. If you further filtered these names to only include the pitchers with at least three pitches with a >10.0% swinging strike rate and a ground ball rate of >45.0%? You arrive at Luis Castillo, Sixto Sánchez, Zack Wheeler, Max Fried, Yusei Kikuchi, Corbin Burnes, Sonny Gray, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Brandon Woodruff, Blake Snell, Nathan Eovaldi, Shane Bieber, Kyle Hendricks, Zac Gallen and… Trevor Rogers. Excluding Masahiro Tanaka (who now pitches in the NPB), Rogers has the fifth-lowest NFBC ADP amongst pitchers on the table above and the lowest ADP in the smaller, more exclusive group listed above.
Narrowing the scope to focus solely on the 23-year-old southpaw (with the same threshold as the table above) helps us understand just how explosive his arsenal was during the shortened 2020 season:
Pretty darn good for a pitcher who’s being drafted outside of the top-400 this draft season. So is it sustainable?
Rogers’ four-seam lends itself more so to horizontal movement than vertical movement, with an axis in the 10:30-11:00 range (the left-handed equivalent of 1:00-1:30 for righties). Savant confirms this notion, with the left-hander’s four-seam fastball actually possessing 83% more horizontal movement than league average. The movement of the changeup is certainly notable, too:
Generally speaking, while horizontal-moving four-seams and ‘turbo’ sinkers are pleasing to the eye and receive thousands of retweets and likes when published or GIF’d on Twitter, they’re not traditionally known for missing a ton of bats. Rogers also prefers to throw the pitch low in the zone and doesn’t possess premium velocity (93.6 average FF velocity in 2020), so despite a high, raw spin rate (2426 RPM) and a low release point, it wouldn’t surprise me if the four-seam’s swinging strike rate decreases a tad in 2021 and beyond. For the record, I’d love to be wrong about that. Regardless of the future swing-and-miss viability of the heater, the 23-year-old’s changeup should continue to serve as a firm foundation for his ability to strike out opposing hitters. It’s also possible–within a Marlins organization that’s quickly gained a reputation of being able to successfully develop its pitching prospects–Rogers is able to further develop his slider into a weapon we have not yet witnessed from him (it was reportedly a priority this offseason, and he’s had success with the pitch early in Spring Training).
What’s far more undeniable is the fact Rogers should be a hotter commodity in redrafts and dynasty leagues than he currently is. In 72 completed drafts for 15-team leagues on NFBC since February 1st, the 23-year-old is sporting an ADP of 430.28. Jose Quintana has a more favorable ADP.
So often in ‘breakout player’ articles, authors suggest a hitter will break out if he makes a small tweak to his mechanics or a pitcher will break out if he alters his pitch mix. In the latter’s case, these authors often don’t realize that a pitcher’s outcomes correlate directly with a specific usage allotment. Certain pitches are extremely effective because they’re only thrown a certain amount, and because other pitches are thrown a certain amount, too! While I wouldn’t mind seeing Rogers throw his changeup more frequently moving forward, I believe it’s a positive sign we don’t have to make the “if he changes his pitch mix, we could see a big breakout” argument with Rogers.
Instead, the left hander’s viability as a 2021 breakout candidate is bred from extreme misfortune in 2020, the ability to miss bats with multiple pitches, youth, opportunity and affordability. He won’t win the 2021 NL Cy Young and he won’t be a first or second round pick in redraft leagues next season, but the 23-year-old could be a crucial part of your fantasy team’s rotation this season and beyond.
In other words, Trevor Rogers is what they look like.
10 K’s 🔥
Trevor Rogers was dealing today. pic.twitter.com/XitWOM7EFf
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 6, 2020
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Featured image courtesy of photographer Julio Aguilar and Getty Images