As we get further into the season, it’s time to stop evaluating the players who are off to fast starts and start looking instead at the players who are just starting to get into a groove. The fast starters are now basically in two categories: they’ve either cooled off and are “not legit,” or they are still riding strong and have become certified “legit.” As the season continues, new players hit a hot streak and start rising up the charts.
Who’s been picking up steam the past week? The past two weeks? The past month?
Who should we cling to? Who should we sell high on?
Lots of questions. Let’s dig for answers.
Justin Steele, SP, Chicago Cubs
Steele was a little off the radar coming into the season, even after a good rookie year in 2021. He pitched 119 innings last season with strong 3.18 ERA and 9.53 K/9. But an underwhelming 1.35 WHIP and ho-hum minor league numbers understandably left quite a few managers on the fence.
There should be nobody sitting idle now. After 10 starts, Steele has a 2.20 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and a 53:16 K:BB ratio in 61 1/3 innings. He has posted a quality start in eight of his 10 starts, and he was just two outs away from making it nine out of 10. Even his “bad” start was pretty tame by some standard as he gave up five earned runs in six innings but struck out eight.
Looking under the hood, there’s some good news and bad news.
Let’s start with the bad news, because there’s just not much of it. His xFIP is 4.05 which makes sense when you notice his .267 BABIP. Not only does that suggest that Steele has been a bit lucky so far, but he’s also getting a boost from his defense. The Cubs are top 10 in the league in defensive runs saved.
I’m not really going to knock Steele for that because the defense is part of his profile this season and part of what gives him value. Sure, you would like to see his groundball rate come down from nearly 50%, but at least he has the gloves behind him that are able to gobble it all up.
And that leads us into the good news. While the Cubs might have a strong defense, Steele is making their jobs incredibly easy.
Steele leads all qualified starters in hard-hit rate at 25.1%. The next closest is Eduardo Rodriguez at 28.2%. That 3% gap between the No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers on the list is actually quite remarkable.
Hitters have an average exit velocity of just 84.6 miles per hour against Steele this season. Along with that, Steele also has a miniscule 0.29 HR/9 and 3.4% HR/FB rate – both rank second among qualified starters. Nobody is making much quality contact against Steele’s three-pitch mix.
Though saying that Steele has three pitches might be a little generous. He throws his four-seam fastball and slider a combined 95% of the time. The four-seamer is his bread and butter with a -10 run value that ranks third behind only Gerrit Cole and Joe Ryan.
Verdict: Legit. But don’t be afraid to sell high. It really comes down to the improvement in his four-seamer, which last year had a below average run value of +4. He relied heavily on the slider last year to get results because his four-seamer had a .312 batting average against and .389 wOBA. Notably, Steele’s command of the pitch has improved drastically. He’s been able to pitch high and inside consistently with the four-seamer whereas last year he sent it over the heart of the plate far too often.
My only concern is that any loss of command could mean a rough spell for Steele since the velocity and movement on the pitch are pretty similar to last year. Also, the drop in his strikeout rate from 9.53 to 7.78 is a cause for concern, but that should come up since he had a 9.2 K/9 in the high minors and 9.5 last season in Chicago. While I don’t expect Steele to stay in the NL Cy Young conversation for the rest of the season, I do expect him to remain a valuable arm.
Nathan Eovaldi, SP, Texas Rangers
Eovaldi has an interesting profile. He’s basically the opposite of Steele in a lot of ways. While Steele relies mostly on two pitches, Eovaldi has five. While Steele burst onto the scene as a rookie last year, Eovaldi has toiled in mediocrity since 2015 with a 4.10 career ERA.
But, like Steele, Eovaldi has found remarkably consistent success this season from start to start. He has a 2.83 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and a 61:10 K:BB ratio in 60 innings pitched. He’s posted six straight quality starts and has only one start that really hurt you. He is the only pitcher in the league with three straight scoreless starts this season. In those three starts between April 29 and May 11, Eovaldi pitched 25 1/3 of a possible 27 innings and did not allow a single run while striking out 25.
Right now, everything is working for Eovaldi. His splitter has turned into a legitimate weapon in an age where many players have simply abandoned the pitch all together in favor of a more traditional changeup. Eovaldi started seriously mixing the splitter into his arsenal in 2015 while searching for a strong third pitch to compliment his high 90s four-seamer and solid slider. His success with the splitter eventually made it one of his primary pitches, but that also coincided with a decline in his fastball velocity.
Last season, Eovaldi had one of the best splitters in baseball with a -8 run value and 31.6% CSW. Unfortunately, his four-seamer dropped from a high-90s power pitch to a mid-90s clunker. Down about 3 mph, the four-seamer had a .306 batting average against and .388 xwOBA against last year. At 33 years old heading into the 2023 season, it felt like age was starting to catch up with Eovaldi.
Not so fast.
Eovaldi’s velocity is on the rebound. While overall he’s averaging about 96 mph this season on his four-seamer, Eovaldi has regularly been able to get the pitch back into the high 90s in his recent starts. That’s very critical when your offspeed pitch is a splitter (even if it’s a high quality one).
With a greater gap between the two pitches, Eovaldi’s whiff rate on the four-seamer has boosted from 16.3% last season to 23.1% so far this year. Maintaining the velocity on the four-seamer (or even increasing it as he’s done steadily this year) will be critical. His splitter continues to rate as one of the best in the league with a -5 run value and a 29.7% CSW. It may even have room for improvement based on what he was able to do with the pitch last year.
Verdict: Legit. Moving from Boston to Texas has resulted in a very noticeable change in Eovaldi’s game. Sometimes it can be as simple as a change of location to get a guy out of a rut. Eovaldi has improved slowly but steadily over the years and the Rangers have pushed the envelope even further. It’s exciting to see his fastball velocity on the rise once again particularly with the way his splitter has evolved.
If he can continue to pound low in the zone with offspeed while taking the top off with true heat (while mixing in the occasional cutter and curve), then we might be seeing a pitcher that’s hitting a breakout in his early-to-mid 30s. Considering his age, I would probably look to sell high in a dynasty league either this year or next because his peak might be short lived, but in a redraft, I’m riding Eovaldi right to the end, even if there are a few bumps along the way.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
It’s almost impressive how quickly Gurriel fell out of favor in Toronto. One of the top-rated prospects in the game after defecting out of Cuba, Gurriel signed a lucrative seven-year deal with the Blue Jays in 2016. He quickly proved himself in the minors and made it to the bigs in 2018 where he slashed .281/.309/.446 with 11 home runs in just 65 games.
He had 20 home runs the next year in just 84 games and then seemingly put it all together coming out of the pandemic in 2021 with a line of .276/.319/.466, 21 home runs, and 84 RBI over nearly a full season.
But 2022 saw Gurriel take a step back. Last season, he had a career-best batting average of .291 and on-base percentage of .343, only to see his power completely evaporate. He hit just five home run in 121 games and finished with a .400 SLG. That was enough to make Gurriel an afterthought in a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks as he was packaged with top prospect Gabriel Moreno for Daulton Varsho.
That apparently was enough for fantasy managers, as well. With an ADP in the mid-200s or later, Gurriel was either a late-round flier or went undrafted in a number of leagues.
Were we all a bit hasty?
Through the first two months of the season, Gurriel is batting .321/.376/.562 with eight home runs, 27 RBI, and 28 runs scored. Over a full 162 game season, Gurriel is on pace for 30 home runs, 101 RBI, and 105 runs.
A lot of Gurriel’s early success this season can be attributed to career-best marks in both strikeout rate and walk rate. He’s striking out just 14.6% of the time, which is well above league average, and walking 7.3% of the time, which is slightly below average. His strong eye at the plate is definitely his best quality. This year that’s more true than ever as he’s cut way down on the pitches he swings at outside of the zone while making more consistent contact overall. His 16.3% whiff rate is in the league’s 90th percentile.
It’s been nice to see a rebound in his power numbers, as well. His .241 ISO is obviously impressive and is in line with the numbers he was putting up earlier in his career with the Blue Jays.
Verdict: Half Legit. I can only give Gurriel half credit here because the power is mostly smoke and mirrors. His flyball rate is only 21% and his launch angle is actually down to a career-low 9.2 degrees. On top of that, his average exit velocity (88.6 mph) and max EV (105.3 mph) are some of the lowest marks of his career and below average in the league this season.
He’s certainly on a heck of a heater right now with 7 of his 8 home runs in May, but that’s not sustainable with the way he’s hitting the ball. What is sustainable, however, is that batting average. Gurriel has shown consistent improvement in both strikeout and walk rates every single season of his career, so it’s not like his current numbers are coming out of nowhere. If anything, he’s actually getting a bit unlucky right now with a .294 xBA and .400 wOBA.
The Diamondbacks have Gurriel hitting between third and fifth in the order which should keep his RBI opportunities high even in an overall low-scoring offense.
I would argue that the team that has scored the 6th most runs so far this season being called an “overall low-scoring offense” is selling them a little short