Playing the “second-half splits” game when it comes to offseason draft prep can be a dangerous game. Any time you try to break down a player, find a trend or look for the next sleeper that is going to help you win your league narrowing down the sample size with arbitrary end-points (like looking at a player’s second-half numbers) is a big no-no. Doing that for pitchers, where you may be looking at a sample size of just a dozen or so starts can lead to conclusions that contain more noise than truth.
While looking at second-half splits can be difficult, ignoring them all together would not be too smart either, and no fun as I wouldn’t be writing this right now. In this piece, we will look at promising second-half performances through a tangible lens with the plethora of resources available to any baseball nerd these days. Using things such as a pitch-mix change and true skill growth let’s take a look at some strong second-half starting pitching performers who should carry their end-of-season gains into 2022. All ADP data will be based on NFBC drafts through December 16th.
Did you know that Lucas Giolito had the 10th best ERA among qualified starting pitchers in the second half of 2021? The general sense from the fantasy community wouldn’t have led you to make that guess as a slow start gave fantasy managers a luke-warm feeling on the White Sox star after establishing himself as a fantasy ace over the past two seasons. Improving in the second half basically just meant not repeating his dreadful April (5.68 ERA in 25.1 IP). However, there was some tangible growth beneath the surface numbers. It is pretty easy to write off Giolito’s second-half ERA as a bit lucky due to a low BABIP of .247 but that actually isn’t too far off his career norm of .263. What is most inspiring about his second half is twofold: the reduced walk rate and the emergence of another elite secondary pitch, a slider.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 10, 2021
Giolito improved his walk rate to just 6.6% after the All-Star break, which would have been his best base on ball percentage of his career. He did that by finding the zone more often. After a wild April, that led to an inflated ERA, the Harvard-Westlake product began to pound the zone to much improved results.
However, the decreased BB% coincided with a decrease in strikeout rate. Giolito struck out 27.9% of the batters he faced in 2021, a respectable number, but the lowest percentage of batters he whiffed since his breakout 2019 campaign. That number was even worse in the second half as Giolito struck out “just” 25.8% of batters. While this isn’t bad by any stretch, it’s far from other fantasy aces strikeout numbers. If Giolito is to bounce back to a true fantasy number one, he will need to pair his walk rate gains with his elite strikeout numbers of 2019 and 2020.
The emergency of the White Sox ace’s slider as a top-tier secondary offering may be the key to bringing back that 30% K-rate. Giolito broke out by locating changeups up in the zone in 2019. This led to two elite pitches in the changeup and fastball. However, Giolito talked about losing the feel for the pitch and lack of execution after a rough April start in Boston. Couple that with two years of scouting reports and hitters expecting a high changeup, an adjustment needed to be made. The slider was just that. Giolito bumped his slider usage all the way from 14.8% in April to 30.6% in September. In fact, he threw the breaking pitch as much or more than the change from July onwards. The results for the pitch were encouraging, too. Here are the results by pitch type per Baseball Savant:
Adding another elite secondary pitch should help the fastball (which had a -15 run value in 2019, and -5 in 2020) have improved results. If Giolito can combine his second-half slider with his fastball from 2020 and his already elite changeup, he may be a steal at pick 40.
This wouldn’t be a second-half pitcher article without writing about Sandy Alcantara. The 26-year-old righty broke out in a big way after the All-Star break as many had hoped after a promising 2020 season. In 89 second-half innings, Alcantara pitched to a 3.34 ERA (which includes a 10 run, 3.2 IP disaster at Coors Field), 1.01 WHIP with a 27.4% strikeout percentage, and a minuscule 4.4% walk rate. Alcantara’s breakout has been well documented as changes in pitch mix and as well as a new slider led to big gains for the Dominican-born Marlins workhorse. The slider usage unlocked the strikeout gains many were hoping for and should be enough for Alcantara to make the leap from useful pitcher to fantasy superstar as he was in the second half of 2021.
Similar to the aforementioned Giolito, Max Fried struggled mightily to start the season only to dominate in the second half. Fried was a tremendous buy-low candidate after posting a 4.71 ERA in 72.2 IP in the first half. He rewarded those patient enough to hold on to him or add via trade with a microscopic 1.74 ERA and 0.85 WHIP backed up by a 5.38 K/BB ratio and a 3.08 xFIP. Fried made the jump by improving his fastball as well as getting ahead on hitters. This allowed him to use his wide arsenal (4 pitches with a negative run value) to keep hitters guessing and post his best strikeout percentage since 2018.
Getting ahead in the count gave the Atlanta 27-year-old lefty even more of an edge and the numbers showed that as the season went on.
I would expect Fried’s ADP to rise a bit as we head to draft season (he is currently the 25th pitcher off the board) but if he remains at the 20-25 SP range he can be a great draft-day investment.
Luis Castillo would probably be in this article every year it is written from now until eternity. This is what Castillo does- has a disastrous start to the season, inspires Fireside Chats, and bounces back in the second half. After a brutal April and May that was the talk of the fantasy community, Castillo yet again rewarded managers who were willing to look past yet another slow start. Castillo had the 12th-best K% among qualified starting pitchers in the second half, up from 21.1% in the first half. He also improved his walk rate from 10% to 8.5%. He did this by throwing his best pitch more often- the changeup. The usage was bumped from 23% in July all the way up to 38% in September while dropping his fastball usage by 10%. Additionally, he got his best-ever results on his slider (41.4% Whiff%, 32.7% K%, .170 BAA), which he threw just 17.4% of the time.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 19, 2021
If he can incorporate that pitch into his arsenal a bit more while reducing his usage of the awful sinker (.410 wOBA allowed) we should see a much improved Castillo in 2022. A move away from the cold April in Cincinnati wouldn’t hurt either.
Dylan Cease: the major league leader among qualified SPs for K% in the second half. That’s right, the emerging White Sox star finished one percentage point above NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and was nearly three points better than the AL winner Robbie Ray. While the surface results look good but not great (3.67 ERA) a look under the hood inspires some more reason for hope on the South Side.
Cease did have a slightly above average walk rate in the second half at 9.8% but opposing hitters managed to slash just .218/.296/.371. All of that came with an inflated BABIP of .321 and a 75.6% LOB%, which is a tad bit unlucky for someone who struck out 35% of the batters he faced in 73.2 second-half innings. As with many other names on this list, Cease’s second-half breakout was due to a pitch mix change. He started to throw his best pitch, the slider, more while adding a curve as another useful secondary offering.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 25, 2021
Now we’re getting to some intriguing names. As someone who generally fades pitching early, Tanner Houck is the exact type of pitcher I like to target later in drafts. As the 75th pitcher off the board in NFBC drafts, Houck provides the upside of a league-winner if things go right. However, as with most pitchers being taken this late, there are a few questions. The main and most important one with Houck is if he will stick in the rotation. There was a lot to like about Houck heading into 2021 but his performance post-All-Star break should have the Red Sox strongly considering Houck for a full-time rotation spot in 2022. Every single one of Houck’s pitches had a negative run value and he had two legit strikeout pitches in his splitter and slider which had a 43.8% and 47.5% strikeout rate, respectively. All of this will change if he’s inserted into the rotation full-time, obviously. He made just 13 starts in 2021 (11 of which came in the second half) but pitched five or more innings just five times; however, all but one of his appearances were for more than one inning. I’m betting on a guy with this type of stuff every draft season and will be hoping to have a lot of shares come March.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 15, 2021
Even though Patrick Sandoval’s second half was cut short by injury, there still was a lot to like from the Angels’ southpaw. After posting a solid high-threes ERA in the first two months of the season, Sandoval burst onto the scene with a 2.70 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 33.1 IP. This was due to, you guessed it, another pitch mix change.
As you can see in the chart above Sandoval decreased the usage on his fastball in favor of a sinker, while using his changeup as a primary pitch. This is fantastic news as the change is very much legit and is elite at generating whiffs, which it garners at an insane 51.4%.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 25, 2021
Sandoval’s improved whiff rate coupled with an improved zone contact percentage is the exact sort of combination that leads to breakouts. Had he not been injured in August, the draft price for Sandoval would be hard to believe.
I still can’t believe Patrick Sandoval had 32 whiffs today.
THIRTY. TWO. WHIFFS.
— Nick Pollack (@PitcherList) June 7, 2021
Photos from Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)