Fantasy baseball: Game-changing pitches

Simply by adding a new pitch, Martin Perez has gone from a 2-7 pitcher with a 6.22 ERA in 2018 to a 6-1 starter with a 2.89 ERA this season. AP

Sometimes, a pitcher needs to make only one small change to take a huge leap. One of the things hurlers use most frequently to try to generate better results is an alteration to their pitch mix. Such news is often written off as a minor happening in spring training, but when such a trial goes right, it can produce game-changing results.

Fantasy managers who are quick to recognize the risk-reward balance of such a transformation could well find buried treasure. I could point to the awesomeness of Luis Castillo's changeup, Mike Minor's curveball-changeup combo, or one of several pitches delivered by Hyun-Jin Ryu, but those have all been discussed enough. Instead, I want to spotlight several other hurlers who have truly found new heights thanks to a single new or improved offering.


Martin Perez, Minnesota Twins: Cutter

All the way back in 2010, Perez was a prospect with plenty of hype, but the somewhat undersized left-hander had long struggled to generate strikeouts and velocity. That is, until 2019, which looks to be a breakout campaign (2.89 ERA, 9.00 K/9, 3.74 BB/9 through 53 innings). The Twins began the year using him as a multi-inning reliever, and he's since carved his way into the rotation. He's the proud owner of a new cut fastball, which fellow breakthrough hurler Jake Odorizzi kindly helped him cultivate. Opponents have struggled against Perez so far, attaining just a .356 OPS, a .114 average and a 26.3 percent K-rate against the cutter, which has generated the fourth-best swing-and-miss rate among that pitch type (37.6 percent). The left-hander is also using his hips more in his delivery, which helps him align properly on the mound and generate more overall velocity -- topping out at 97.2 mph.

The former top prospect worked with fellow Venezuelan southpaw Johan Santana -- a pitcher to whom he was often compared in the past -- to tweak those mechanics. It seems to have helped. One might even call the pair "twins."

I'm a big fan of pitchers who add a cutter. It's not as stressful as other breaking options and can aggressively improve someone's confidence to work within the strike zone. While I'm not blindly comparing Perez to a former Cy Young winner, the notion that he's taking on a part of his fellow left-hander's game at least says this could be a long-term improvement. He still can be found on the waiver wire in about 40 percent of ESPN leagues.

Frankie Montas, Oakland Athletics: Splitter

Long considered a top blue-chipper for the Red Sox and White Sox, Montas' lack of control in his early minor league seasons diminished any positives from the strikeout potential of his often triple-digit fastball. His stock had wavered in recent years as he flipped between starting and relieving, especially as his limited two-seamer/slider repertoire made him somewhat predictable as a starting pitcher. To help his case to make the A's roster this spring, he added a split-fingered fastball. That all-important third pitch has helped him notch his best ground ball rate (53.5 percent) and BB/9 rate (1.83), while allowing him to last at least six innings in six of his nine starts. Montas' splitter also boasts the second-best whiff rate (25.9 percent) in the league for its type.

He's run into a little bit of bad luck against some tough opponents, but he has steamrolled the Pirates, Indians and Tigers in his past three starts (2.18 ERA, 22 strikeouts, one walk in 20⅔ innings). This new foundation ranks him higher than a mere streamer -- though having Oakland Coliseum as a home park helps, especially with his team's improved defense. He'll probably soon be scooped up in many of the 45 percent of ESPN leagues where he remains unclaimed.

Max Fried, Atlanta Braves: Slider

The left-hander has moved away from his changeup and added a slider in his third season of major league play. He uses it only 9.9 percent of the time but has stymied opponents with it. Hitters have managed only a .171 wOBA and .214 BABIP against the pitch. For a guy who was chiefly comfortable with only a two-pitch fastball-curveball mix, bringing that third confident offering into the fold keeps hitters off-balance. Fried has excelled with a 54.5 percent ground ball rate and a 1.97 BB/9. With his new approach, he's also making a better effort to log first-pitch strikes, currently at a career-best 66.3 percent rate.

Unfortunately, he has only an 8.23 K/9, which by itself would cast doubt on his performance the rest of the season -- especially since he doesn't yet have a track record to sustain above-average rates of leaving runners on base (currently, he's at 82.7 percent). Still, that he may start using the slider more often as he gets even more comfortable with the pitch could help that dominance climb as the season moves along. It could potentially even curb any significant drop-off in effectiveness.

Spencer Turnbull, Detroit Tigers: Cutter

He's lowered his sinker percentage in favor of more four-seamers and, more prominently, a cutter that has the sixth-highest whiff rate (31.9 percent). The ironic thing is that he wasn't even planning to throw the pitch, which he has reluctantly confessed is "supposed to be a slider." The thing about the pitch is that it's supposed to have some depth to it, some sinking action. He throws it typically between 87-88 mph and uses it as his primary off-speed pitch. So far this season, it's been showing a late and sharp horizontal break. Whatever the stat services call it, the offering has helped the 26-year-old to an overall 9.06 K/9, and while his 2.68 ERA is set to climb, he still should at least be a serviceable source of strikeouts and fine to use as a spot starter in mixed formats, when the matchup is right. He is currently available in about 73 percent of ESPN leagues.

Tyler Mahle, Cincinnati Reds: Curveball

Alex Wood came over from the Dodgers in the Yasiel Puig trade and was supposed to shore up the back end of the Cincinnati rotation. However, since an injury has kept him out all season, he may not even get a chance to supplant Mahle, who has surprised with a 3.51 ERA, a 9.47 K/9 and a 1.93 BB/9 during a reliable nine-start stretch early on. Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson has strengthened this starting quintet and helped Mahle add his breaker this spring. To be fair, it's probably the worst offering on this list, but it still has a top-20 whiff rate among curves in the league (22.1 percent).

Mahle has seemingly gained poise with this new pitch, pounding the zone with a career-best 67.3 first-strike percentage and even elevating his four-seam heater -- which has the third-highest whiff rate on strike three (59.3 percent). Unfortunately, one big drawback for Mahle is his frequent hard contact allowed. However, having Jose Iglesias at shortstop might help him trust his defense a bit more. The right-hander remains available in nearly 93 percent of ESPN leagues, and I'd be interested to see how far this new pitch can take him.

Increased use

Jordan Lyles, Pittsburgh Pirates: Curveball

He's been emphasizing his hook since 2017 started, but he's throwing it more often in 2019 and drawing the league's sixth-highest swing-and-miss rate (41.2 percent). Riding a breakout year (1.97 ERA, 9.26 K/9, 3.15 BB/9), he's maximizing his ability to challenge up in the strike zone and complement that with his breaking offering -- a fine combo in the launch-angle era. The righty still has plenty of downside (87.3 LOB%, mostly dipping), but PNC Park remains a favorable home for a pitcher. At the very least he's a solid streamer, but he could wind up as a "near every start" fixture. In the 55.5 percent of leagues in which he's not yet rostered, I'd grab him quickly.

Zach Davies, Milwaukee Brewers: Changeup

The sinkerballer has ended his experiment with a curveball and cutter to rely on the changeup at a career-high 27.7 percent, hearkening back to what helped him break out in 2016. It's again been a surprisingly overpowering put-away offering, ranking first in the majors among changeups with a 68.1 percent swing-and-miss rate and third in misses at 66.7 percent when swung at with two strikes. Only Castillo and Kyle Hendricks have been better in that latter category. Even with that brilliance, he still carries only a 6.15 K/9 on the season, and he's not great at limiting walks (2.73 BB/9), which often forces him to walk a tightrope. He figures to have a painful regression when that 85.6 LOB% corrects itself.

Kevin Gausman, Atlanta Braves: Splitter

In his first full season with Atlanta, the right-hander leads the league with a 38.7 percent splitter usage -- a 12.5 percent increase from 2018. He has baseball's highest swing-and-miss rate on the pitch (51.9 percent) and has lowered his homer rate below 1.27 for the first time since 2014. The switch to the National League -- and his escape from Baltimore -- has been a major help. While his 4.31 ERA doesn't yet reveal it, he's actually delivered career bests with a 9.38 K/9, a 12.8 swinging-strike percentage and a 64.2 first-pitch-strike percentage. He has a beleaguered 65.5 LOB% and the bullpen has let him down, but he's been good. I'm buying.

Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays: Slider

Stroman has done his best to shed his ground ball and sinker tendencies by leaning on his slider, which ever-cerebral Indians ace Trevor Bauer has fawned over for some time and even tried to emulate. Stroman's slider has resulted in the fourth-highest swing-and-miss rate (54.5 percent). Having a more reputable put-away offering could help him continue to establish a higher strikeout ceiling with less of a reliance on his defense for quality results. These shortcomings have been a big reason I've stayed away from drafting him since his profit-fueled 2014 coming-out party. Unfortunately, as is the case with Davies, Stroman's walk rate remains high for someone who's failed to yet climb above 8.0 K/9, so the innings eater will either have to tilt even more in favor of trying to avoid contact or revert back to trusting his defense. Either way, this boost probably isn't enough to prevent expectations of a hard crash late in the season.

Jalen Beeks, Tampa Bay Rays: Changeup

Pitching coach Kyle Snyder has famously helped transform Tyler Glasnow into one of fantasy's biggest risers, but he's also helped Beeks, a former Red Sox prospect, tighten up his changeup. The left-hander has been pulling the string 33.8 percent of the time, compared to just 18.3 percent in 2018. It's a welcome development, especially with the way his fastball has played in his new "primary pitcher" role. I roster Beeks and fellow bulk reliever Yonny Chirinos together in several leagues for the cheap win potential from Rays "followers." There's a high-end pedigree here with his stuff, which should keep Beeks useful for most of what remains of 2019. You can still land him in nearly 94 percent of ESPN leagues.

Luke Weaver, Arizona Diamondbacks: Cutter

After a depressingly disappointing 2018, Weaver has eased off his curveball in favor of a few more cutters. This has helped him work effectively in the strike zone with more movement -- particularly versus LHB, who pelted him for a .363 wOBA last year. Now that he's also using his dazzling changeup to maximum effect while playing off his breaking stuff, the right-hander looks to be on par with his solid 13-game stint in 2017. Weaver is available in just under 40 percent of ESPN leagues, so he's likely already a core member of many rotations. With a friendly, humidor-infused home park and his skills returning to his top-prospect pedigree, he could reside close to the top 30 starting pitchers (barring a smidge of ERA correction) by season's end.