2015 Fantasy Baseball: Rookie Report — McCullers and Rodon
In today’s MLB it seems like anyone can have a successful stint as a starting pitcher. For example, Chris Heston and his no-hitter. Heston, never a top prospect, started strong this year in his first three starts, but in five of his 12 starts this season he’s allowed at least five earned runs. So while Heston has had a good run this season, he’s overshadowed some top-flight pitching prospects whom we’ve invested a lot of time in studying and salivating over stat lines throughout the years. And when those pitchers succeed it’s even more rewarding, at least to me, because we – or I or the scouts or writers – nailed a top prospect from the get-go.
And that seems to be the case with Houston’s Lance McCullers and Chicago’s Carlos Rodon. Despite only pitching 31 big-league innings McCullers has already racked up 1.1 WAR – fourth-most among rookie pitchers — according to Fangraphs — thanks to elite strikeout, walk, and home run rates. McCullers has started five games, allowing no more than three earned runs in any start, and accruing a 2.32 ERA to go along with a 2.08 FIP and 2.79 xFIP. He has had some trouble racking up innings due to high pitch counts, but you can’t argue with 36 strikeouts and only six walks in 31 innings. McCullers has struck out at least five batters in each start, and in his last two games, which include one complete game, he’s struck out 18 and walked none. Here are the highlights of his 11-K complete game against Baltimore.
McCullers has cut his walk rate by more than 50 percent from his minor-league rate, so it’s unlikely that his 1.74 BB/9 rate will continue. But his home-run rate in the minors was 0.84 per nine, according to Minor League Central, and he’s never allowed too many fly balls, so I think the home-run rate can stay pretty low.
Now the strikeouts are the real deal, going from 27 percent in the minors to 29 percent in Houston, according to MLC. According to Brooks Baseball, McCullers throws a four-seamer (49%), curve (31%) and changeup (20%) to lefties, while he sticks to the fastball (53%) and curve (42%) against righties. McCullers’ curve is his dynamite pitch. He throws it 85 mph, which is by far the fastest curveball in the Baseball Prospectus database for this season. With two strikes he throws it over 50 percent of the time to any batter. Against lefties he has ended 20 plate appearances with a curve, 12 of which have been strikeouts to only two walks, and against righties he’s struck out 13 batters in 31 at-bats ending in a curve without a walk.
He also has a very good changeup that induces a lot of whiffs to go along with a 95-mph fastball. So while the walks may go up, the home runs and strikeouts should stay fairly steady and McCullers has a good chance to succeed in Houston this season and beyond.
After starting in the bullpen for the White Sox, Rodon has made six starts and has been successful in his own right. While it’s obviously a small sample size, Rodon has been a lot better as a starter. He’s doubled his strikeouts while keeping his walk rate steady, which has led to a better FIP and xFIP, both under 4.00. He’s allowing a ton of line drives (28 percent) as a starter, but his fly ball rate of 29 percent is very good and should play well at his home park. We only have a 40-inning minor-league sample to play with, but the high line-drive/low fly ball rate has been Rodon’s M.O. as a pro. He gave up 24 percent line drives in the minors and only 28 percent fly balls, according to Minor League Central.
Rodon is 5-for-6 in quality starts this season, and he has only given up one home run. He’s very similar to McCullers in that both should be hurt some by their walks, but their home run and strikeout rates are what they’ll excel at. Rodon is striking out over a batter an inning as a starter thanks to a dynamite slider, which has been his calling card since his days at North Caroline State. You can see his slider in action here against Texas, when he struck out 10. I’m no scout, but his slider and fastball are extremely hard to tell apart before it’s too late. His slider starts on the left side of the plate and ends up at the back foot of a right-handed hitter. Lefties swing and miss 41 percent of the time against it, while righties whiff 35 percent of the time, according to Brook Baseball. He’s allowed only two extra-base hits off the slider this season, while racking up a crazy 49 percent strikeout rate with it.
He doesn’t have another truly outstanding swing-and-miss pitch, but as I said about the fastball above the slider makes at least his fastball play up to close to elite. Both McCullers and Rodon were highly touted pitchers coming into the season – McCullers ranked 52nd by MLB.com and Rodon 14th overall – and both have done nothing to eliminate that high standing. I think both will see a little bit of regression coming, but their raw stuff is already good enough to be successful in the Majors.