MLB Bettor’s Notebook: Examining Early Results From Pitchers Merrill Kelly, Jesús Luzardo, Zack Wheeler and More

MLB Bettor’s Notebook: Examining Early Results From Pitchers Merrill Kelly, Jesús Luzardo, Zack Wheeler and More article feature image

Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images. Pictured: Merrill Kelly

Each week during the MLB season, the Action Network’s Anthony Dabbundo will compile a weekly notebook of observations, analytical findings and actionable information to help bettors find an edge in betting the daily grind of a 162-game season. 

Most Major League Baseball teams have played about nine or 10 games as of Monday, meaning that the season is roughly 1/16 of the way complete. The sample remains too small on any particular team to have a true read on them beyond just statistical noise and variance. 

More on that in the coming weeks. 

This week, I’m continuing my focus on starting pitching, which remains the area we can learn the most about a team this early in the season. We can track every pitcher’s velocity, spin rate, movement and quality of contact allowed and draw some potential conclusions about what the market might be missing on certain pitchers.

Here’s five pitchers or pitching staffs that I’m watching closely and betting on or against at this point in the season. Last week, I wrote about Shane Bieber’s spin rate and velocity issues, which persisted in his second start.   

Merrill Kelly’s Success Under New Pitching Coach Driven By Changeup 

Arizona hired former Houston pitching coach Brent Strom this season and the improvements have become immediately noticeable for Merrill Kelly. In two starters in Arizona this year, Kelly has not yet allowed a run. He pitched four shutout innings in his first start against San Diego, allowed four hits and struck out seven. 

His last start came against Houston, where Kelly tossed 5 1/3 innings, struck out six and allowed just six total base runners. Kelly was a traditionally average pitcher when you look at his results metrics across the board in his two full seasons as a starter. He had a 101 ERA+ in 2019 and a 96 ERA+ last season. 

He didn’t debut in MLB until his age-30 year because his stuff is generally below average, but it’s taken a leap this season. His stuff+ — a metric compiled by The Athletic’s Eno Sarris — rose from 92.1 last season to 101.2 this year. The metric takes a pitcher’s velocity, movement and spin all into consideration and has proven to be pretty predictive of performance. 

The rise in stuff+ shows itself in the resulting numbers too. He’s striking out a career high 12.5 batters per nine innings through two starts. That’s unlikely to sustain itself, but there’s a big difference in how good Kelly is if he can strike out 10-11 batters per nine innings instead of the 7-8 he was achieving prior to 2022.

When you look under the hood at Kelly’s pitch mix, a lot of his improvement has come from his changeup. Kelly threw it 17.5% of the time in 2021, his fourth-most frequently thrown pitch behind the fastball, curveball and sinker. 

This season, he’s throwing the changeup way more and the curveball way less. His changeup usage rose to 22.7%, his spin rate increased from 1,971 to 2,196 rpm. The result has been a lot more swings and misses and fewer balls in play. 

The whiff rate on the changeup rose from 27.4% to 43.5%. It’s directly led to a career-best K rate and a career-low on hits per nine allowed. 

This isn’t just two starts as Kelly’s stuff was significantly improved in spring training too. He’s a pitcher to target from a betting standpoint until the market adjusts to his improvements, and because he plays on the Diamondbacks — who have no regular starters hitting above .212 — there will be plenty of opportunities to bet on him as a solid underdog. 

His next start is scheduled for Tuesday at Washington.

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What To Make Of Jesús Luzardo’s 12-Strikeout 2022 Debut In Miami

Before discussing Jesús Luzardo, It’s important to remember that Luzardo is just 24-years-old. He was an extremely hyped pitching prospect with good stuff who showed a ton of promise at the end of 2019 and throughout most of the shortened 2020 season. He had all kinds of issues in 2021 with both Oakland and Miami — pitching to a 6.61 ERA, 5.09 FIP and 5.28 xERA. 

Trying to figure out which is the real Luzardo can be really difficult, especially when he opens 2022 with the second-most dominant pitching performance in the entire league thus far, behind only Clayton Kershaw’s seven perfect innings. 

Luzardo allowed three baserunners in five innings, surrendered one run and recorded 12 of 15 outs via the strikeout. As impressive as the strikeouts were, he only walked one batter, too. His 11% walk rate was too high to sustain good pitching last year but dominating a solid Angels lineup with elite stuff and good command is definitely worth noting. 

His first start saw improvements across the board with nearly every pitch. He threw 38 curveballs, his most-used pitch against the Angels, and generated 21 called strikes + whiffs. Overall, he either managed a called strike or swing and miss on 45% of his pitches.

All four of his pitches added at least 1 mph of velocity and the sinker jumped nearly two. Three of his four pitches also added significant run, or horizontal movement, to produce those whiffs. This was especially noted on his curveball and changeup, which dropped less vertically and moved more across the hitting plane.

I think we need to wait for more data on Luzardo before we make any bold proclamations, but I’m fairly confident he is not going to be the 5+ ERA pitcher we saw last season. I'm not convinced his stuff is consistently elite enough as hitters adjust to him to maintain an elite status, but he’s certainly a pitcher to watch. 

His next start comes Tuesday vs. St. Louis, which hits lefties as well as any lineup in baseball.

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It’s Not Always Sunny In Philadelphia, At Least For The Rotation

The Phillies (4-6) have underperformed expectations at this point in the season, losing two of three to the Mets and three of four to the Marlins in consecutive NL East divisional series. 

Much noise has been made about Philadelphia’s lack of offensive output, but the rotation is a far bigger concern at this point in the season. I was one of many who expected a bounce-back season from Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation. While he was mostly stellar in his Opening Day start against Oakland, Nola had all of the same 2021 problems return in his start against the Mets on Wednesday. 

He had trouble with early count command, left too many curveballs up in the zone and was unable to get outs without giving up hard contact with two strikes. Nola’s underperformance was the main issue with the rotation in 2021, but 2022 has more than one issue, and it starts at the top with Zack Wheeler.

The 2021 NL Cy Young runner-up dealt with shoulder and arm fatigue during the offseason after logging well over 200 innings last season. He did not pitch in spring training and while he was OK in his first start against the Mets last Tuesday, Wheeler really struggled with command and velocity on Sunday in Miami. 

Wheeler and Nola were projected to be two of the best 15 or so starters in the National League this year. Through two starts each, Nola has a 6.63 ERA and Wheeler has a 9.39. Nola’s underlying numbers are still mostly fine as I don’t expect him to continue to allow three home runs per nine all season. 

Wheeler is basically treating April as spring training, at least that’s what the Phillies are saying. His pitch velocity was down considerably in the start on Sunday. 

#Phillies Zack Wheeler

Pitch Quality Decline ⭐️

2019 (4.82 QOPA)(Top 12% MLB)
2020 (4.78 QOPA)(Top 14%)
2021 (4.67 QOPA)(Top 20%)
2022 (4.03 QOPA)(Bottom 24%) 😳

Pitch Location ⭐️

2019 (Top 6% MLB)
2020 (Top 12%)
2021 (Top 9%)
2022 (Bottom 42%) 😳

— MLB Quality of Pitch (@qopbaseball) April 18, 2022

Wheeler isn't generating many swings and misses with his fastball right now and that doesn’t project well. He usually sits around 97-98 with the heater and was averaging 94 on the gun on Sunday. 

At the Action Network, we like to compare expected stats to actual stats as potential signs of pitching regression and try to predict how a pitcher will perform going forward. For a team that is as bad defensively as the Phillies, though, you have to be careful with this kind of analysis.

The Phillies rank eighth worst in wOBA allowed this season, ninth worst in OBP and eighth worst in SLG allowed. They’ve been a generally below-average staff and the starters have the sixth worst cumulative ERA in baseball at this point.

Their expected indicators are considerably better than that, but when you play defense as poorly as the Phillies do, you’d be expected to underperform these metrics a bit. The question is how much.

Philadelphia’s pitching has allowed the fifth best xwOBA and seventh best xSLG in all of baseball. 

Is the Phillies pitching staff unlucky, or is the defense so bad that they’re going to underperform this much all year? The answer is probably a little bit of both, especially when you have pitch-to-contact guys like Ranger Suarez, Zach Eflin and Kyle Gibson on the back-end of the rotation.

The fate of the 2022 Phillies likely comes down to this rotation being good, because we know the defense will be bad and the offense will hit. Thus far, the rotation has produced more questions than it has answered.

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In San Francisco, On The Other Hand … Giants Starters Might Be Even Better Than Last Year

The Giants' addition of Carlos Rodón in the offseason really flew under the baseball radar, and I’m not sure why. Rodón’s workload needs to be managed to prevent him from breaking down in the fall due to workload, but when he’s pitching, he’s excellent. 

Rodón has a 125 stuff+ thus far this season, putting him among the list of elite starting pitchers in all of baseball. Throw in the development of Logan Webb into what looks like an ace-level pitcher and the result is an excellent 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. 

Rodón has ditched his changeup this season in San Francisco and is instead throwing his curveball a lot more frequently. He remains a fastball and slider pitcher first, but his third pitch is now the curve. He’s throwing it 11% more this year, and Statcast hasn’t registered a single changeup for him.

The results: his slider remains his most dominant pitch, but his curveball has a 25% whiff rate and a .226 xwOBA against. 

The Giants' improvements to the rotation didn’t end with Rodón though. I wrote about Alex Cobb and my belief that he was undervalued before the season began. Cobb isn’t quite hitting the velocity targets he reached in spring training, but he has switched up the pitch mix a bit. He’s no longer using the curveball, he’s focusing on the sinker and splitter combo that has been extremely effective for him thus far. 

Cobb has a 3.60 ERA through two starts but his xERA is just 1.02, his strikeout rate is more than double his career average and those are all extremely promising signs for the right-hander. He’s a pitcher I’m going to continue to look to buy into going forward as it appears the market once again undervalued the Giants at their 85.5 preseason wins projection.

The only pitcher in the rotation who has had a troubling start is Anthony DeSclafani. He’s had  a significant decline in his stuff+ rating and seems unlikely to repeat his sub-4.00 ERA and xERA metrics from last season because of that drop. Still, with DeSclafani a No. 5 starter, the Giants have probably the most underrated rotation in all of baseball right now. 

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