Going Deep: Anthony DeSclafani – A Cole Hamels in Sheep’s Clothing?
I will always remember growing up watching Nickelodeon (yeah I was that Millenial kid) and as the day turned into the evening the station would always run old episodes of the Tex Avery show. One cartoon in particular that always stuck with me was a classic cartoon that had this Wiley E. Coyote type repeatedly failing to try and steal a sheep from this doofy looking sheep-hound. The gag that always stuck with me was this image of the wolf taking a sheep and hiding in its fur to sneak up on the sheep-hound (why doesn’t he just steal the sheep he’s hiding in? I don’t know! Stop messing with my metaphor!).
This brings us to Anthony DeSclafani. When I first started looking at DeSclafani’s numbers from 2018 I couldn’t shake this feeling that I had seen these numbers before. For some reason, I kept thinking about Cole Hamels. So I took their 2018 numbers and laid them side by side and it quickly became apparent. Cole Hamels was the wolf. The sheep was DeSclafani’s 2018 ERA and home run rate. We are the every vigilant but kinda out to lunch sheep-dog. Wow, the metaphor actually worked—I mean of course it worked! We’ll take a look at Anthony DeSclafani’s season, what went right, what went wrong and what changed. Then we lay his season alongside Cole Hamels’ 2018 and see if maybe we can use that connection to create accurate expectations for DeSclafani in 2019.
Before we dive into his 2018 though we need to talk a moment about DeSclafani’s injury history so we see everything in the proper context. After finding fast success in the minors DeSclafani made his major league debut for the Marlins in 2014 with a five-start cup of coffee totaling 33 Innings Pitched (IP). That offseason he was traded to the Reds for Mat Latos.
His first season with the Reds showed quite a bit of promise. 2016 though got off to a rocky start when he suffered an oblique injury in early April that sidelined him until June. Once he came back though he started pitching like an ace in the making:
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) tells us what the pitcher’s ERA should have been independent of their defense’s performance. Based on batted ball data, we can see that he may have got a bit of help in 2016 from Lady Luck and solid team defense but still, even with the implied coming regression it was easy to be hopeful about DeSclafani’s future.
Then in 2017, disaster struck. Before he even threw a pitch that year he was put on the 60-day DL with a sprained UCL, which while not requiring Tommy John surgery abruptly ended his season. To make matters worse before he could even make his 2018 return he ends up back on the 60-day DL with another oblique strain, delaying his 2018 debut until June and likely slowing his progress back from the UCL injury. Once back he had an expectedly strange season as he worked through things.
If you put a finger over the ERA and HR/FB% that actually looks really promising all things considered, especially when you see that boost in K%. Really that HR/FB% is what killed him last year and looking at his career and minor league track record, it truly seems like it’s a pretty extreme outlier, even more so when you factor in the double whammy of the injuries he was coming back from. Command and control are the last things to come when you’re working your way back from a UCL sprain and when you lack that command and control it’s really common to give up an elevated (cue the Groucho Marx eyebrow waggle) HR/FB% that comes back down as you continue to recover.
To show two recent examples lets show his HR/FB% alongside two players who just came back from a similar injury, Garrett Richards and Masahiro Tanaka. Here are all three players showing their number for the year they suffered the injury and their first full year back.
Full disclosure, Richards did pitch in 2017 but only pitched 33 innings before going down for the season with a biceps injury so I used 2018 where he pitched a full season. You can that see each and every one of them experienced a significant rise in BB%, BB/9, HR/9 and HR/FB% in their return year. While by no means definitive it seems like we might be able to explain some of his HR/FB% spike on the recovery process from his injuries. Perhaps we will see a regression in 2019 back towards his previous career rates as he gets further along in his recovery.
Perhaps the most important thing worth noting about DeSclafani’s 2018 is a huge change he made in August, September, and October that could have huge repercussions if it carries over into next season. For 34.1 glorious innings in August, he looked like the Ace That Was Promised. During that time he put up a crazy good 2.62 ERA with a 20% K%, a 3% BB% and a 9% HR/FB %! That was the second-best single month stretch of his career.
The following month his peripheral stats took a huge leap forward as well as he registered a 26.4% K% (10.61 K/9) over 28 IP! Unfortunately, the huge strikeout spike was marred by an ugly 6.75 ERA. This was likely caused by a crazy high BABIP of .368 for the month (he hovered right around .270 every other month) so he almost assuredly was the recipient of some bad luck for a lot of those innings. So what spurred on this success/growth? His PitchF/X pitch mix data can tell us a ton about those three months. Check it out.
|Month||FASTBALL% (pfx)||SLIDER% (pfx)||KNUCKLE CURVE% (pfx)||CHANGEUP% (pfx)|
Feast your eyes on the huge leap in slider usage starting in August and continuing on through the rest of the season. By the time all is said and done we’re talking a 7.4% increase in slider usage along with a nearly 2% drop in FA% and a near elimination of his Changeup from his arsenal.
Why is this significant? Because DeSclafani’s slider is his best pitch and it’s not even close. For context here are DeSclafani’s 2018 Pitch Values:
In other words, we want him to throw that slider as much as he possibly can, Patrick Corbin style. For perspective, Patrick Corbin threw his slider 1,303 times for a Pitch Value (which is an accumulative stat) of 27.6 runs saved. DeSclafani threw his slider 623 times for a total of 7.6 runs saved. If you were to stretch that out to Corbin’s 1,303 pitches and suddenly we’re talking roughly 15.90 runs saved, which is an elite pitch. Corbin threw his slider 41% of the time in 2018 which isn’t that far off from the 38.80% of the time DeSclafani threw his slider in those final months of the season. If that is an indicator as to where DeSclafani is leaning in terms of his future pitch mix we could be looking at a completely different pitcher next year in terms of effectiveness.
Now that we’ve looked at DeSclafani’s 2018 you might be asking “What does this have to do with Cole Hamels?” As I mentioned earlier, on a hunch I lined up the season-long and advanced stats in 2018 for both players and it was remarkable how closely they lined up. So closely in fact that I think Cole Hamels’ 2018 might be a great baseline for what we might be able to project for Desclafani’s 2019 numbers. Let’s start by looking at some underlying stats.
The similarity is striking, right? So how come DeSclafani ended up with a 4.93 ERA and Hamels a 3.78 ERA? Defense definitely played a huge part in the results. Since Hamels’ FIP is higher than his actual ERA this implies that his elite defense certainly saved him a few runs he should have given up. DeSclafani’s tells the opposite story as Cinncinati’s defense cost him a bit. xFIP, on the other hand, is designed to tell us what should have been the player’s FIP based on his strikeouts, walks and home runs and it’s telling.
xFIP is by no means perfect but based on those numbers, it is entirely possible the Reds defense may have cost DeSclafani nearly a full run in ERA. SIERA, which factors in batted ball data a bit more heavily than xFIP backs up those suspicions. Now that will still be a problem for the Reds in 2019 but since they were a top 15 defense in 2017 hopefully there is some positive regression due for their defense. Add in some HR rate regression and you could definitely see DeSclafani’s ERA dropping at the very least closer to Hamels’ 2018 ERA of 3.78.
Now to put all this into a fantasy perspective. Last year even with that insane ERA DeSlafani represented the 70th best pitcher in Roto and 61st in Points leagues. There’s a classic PitcherList term we like to use around these parts called a TOBY. The TOBY is a steady guy with little upside, you pretty much know what they are going to give you when they pitch with a dependable if unspectacular consistency. If you are willing to assume he manages to stay healthy in 2018, which I’ll readily admit is definitely a risk, I think that when you take a look at how closely the underlying numbers of DeSclafani’s 2018 lines up with Cole Hamels’ 2018 that we can bump DeSclafani’s 2019 floor up to that of being a TOBY with a decent shot at being the TOBY MAGUIRE (the best of all the TOBYs) in 2019.
His slider keeps getting better and better and if that increased slider usage represents the new normal for DeSclafani there could be even more potential to be unlocked here. Add in some HR/FB% regression and a little more luck defensively and I easily think if he stays healthy he could have a floor of 150 – 170 IP of a 4.00 ERA/1.20 WHIP and roughly 150 to 160 strikeouts, which is pretty much where Steamer has him as well. You may ask where is the value in that? Remember that is pretty close to the same season Cole Hamels just put up and Hamels was a top 50 pitcher in 2018. If DeSclafani keeps those gains he made in the last two months and ends up pitching even close to his 2018 xFIP and SIERA then we’re suddenly talking about bumping that ERA down to somewhere between 3.80 and 4, which pushes him right in line with Hamels’ 2018. That’s definitely TOBY range if not more. This is before we even get to consider the potential his new pitch mix represents for next year.
So if we’ve established his floor, what about his ceiling? Look back at those 2016 numbers. While that near-elite year seems so long ago we actually saw flashes of it in 2018. I don’t think a sub .350 ERA is ever really in the cards for DeSclafani but I do notice he put up a 3.63 xFIP in 2016 and I think that represents a fair ceiling for him. That would put him squarely in that top 50 range. Something along the lines of 150 -170 innings with an ERA between 3.75 and 4.00 with just under a strikeout per inning and a top 60 finish with the potential to do better sounds reasonable to me.
What about the cost? It’s early but currently, his ADP is looking to be right around the last pick of the draft. I will gladly pay that low-risk price for that kind of potential production. This is a great way to balance out any higher risk big bet pitchers you might take in the rounds before and there’s still plenty of hidden upside there.
Anthony DeSclafani likely won’t win you your league but if you carried Cole Hamels all last year then you know there’s a ton of value in the production that DeSclafani represents. You better believe that I will be watching a ton of Anthony DeSclafani come Spring Training to see if that slider usage continues and will be jockeying to take Desclafani in the last few rounds of pretty much every draft I have this season.
(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)