Strikeouts often take center stage when targeting pitchers in fantasy baseball. Some cerebral pitchers can overcome average strikeout rates with excellent command, and some fireballers can’t find the strike zone (or stay healthy) long enough to turn punchouts into elite results. Yet as a general rule, strikeouts go hand in hand with success.
If we want pitchers who stockpile strikeouts, we’ll want pitchers who get their opponents to chase air.
Although there are many pieces to the puzzle, swinging-strike rate (SwSTR) is a useful tool for gauging a pitcher’s dominance. This stat measures the swings and misses on all pitches thrown. Keep that in mind when seeing a higher number cited for whiff rate, which accounts for misses only on swings.
Also, remember that a hitter doesn’t have to swing to get a strike. Whether it’s a byproduct of location, pitch mix, or a savvy catcher, some pitchers are more skilled at getting the umpire to raise their arm for a called strike. That especially comes into play for one marquee hurler who enjoyed his best season despite his worst SwSTR rate.
The following players’ SwSTR rates didn’t match their strikeout tallies in 2021. For better or worse, that could change this season.
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Patrick Sandoval (SP–LAA)
Sandoval was hardly short-changed in the K column last season. In 87 innings between the rotation and bullpen, the southpaw submitted 94 strikeouts, good for a 25.9% K rate. Even that is underselling his elite 15.3% swinging-strike rate, as Sandoval holds elite company on the SP leaderboard:
Seven of those aces are inside the top-60 consensus ADP. Tyler Glasnow is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Clayton Kershaw is outside the top 100 due to concerns of a forearm injury that took him out of the postseason and deterred the Dodgers from extending the franchise cornerstone a qualifying offer.
Then there’s Sandoval going at pick No. 200.
Most pitchers use changeups to keep batters honest. Sandoval used it to make batters miserable. Deploying it more than any other pitch at a 30% usage rate, Sandoval’s changeup elicited a gaudy 28.7% SwSTR rate. Opponents hit a feeble .139 with three extra-base hits (one triple, two home runs) against the offering.
SP Streamer’s Michael Simione also grouped Sandoval among a batch of highly appreciated aces:
Pitchers with a whiff per swing rate over 32% and a contact rate under 70% (10 start min)
Oh….and Patrick Sandoval pic.twitter.com/qGtD9epf44
— Michael Simione (@SPStreamer) January 28, 2022
While Sandoval won’t mow down anyone with his heater, he also brandishes a plus slider and a sinker capable of inducing weak contact. Highlight his name from him as a late upside pick with immense strikeout potential.
Jose Urquidy (SP – HOU)
Evaluating Urquidy feels like the living embodiment of the “That’s bad… that’s good!” scene from simpsons. I have posted a 4.14 FIP last year. That’s bad. But a 4.5% walk rate fueled a 0.99 WHIP. That’s good! But he only had 90 strikeouts in 107 innings. That’s bad.
But he had an 11.8% SwSTR rate. That’s good.
An uptick in slider usage led to more missed swings, but he still posted a pedestrian 21.3% strikeout rate. Then again, that’s enough if Urquidy maintains elite control while limiting hard contact. While he has surrendered a 9.3% barrel rate with seldom grounders, he also generated a bunch of pop-ups that contributed to his .237 BABIP.
It feels strange wondering if Urquidy can take the next step, as he’s posted a stellar 3.55 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 177.2 career regular-season innings. Including his already extensive postseason work, Urquidy has a 3.62 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 179 strikeouts in 211 frames. A few more strikeouts would make the 26-year-old a strong mid-rotation choice who could spike a high wins tally in Houston’s rotation.
Zach Plesac (SP-CLE)
Last year, Paul Ghiglieri correctly identified Plesac as a pitcher whose strikeouts should fail. His K rate plummeted 11 full points from an exceptional 27.7% to a lackluster 16.7. As a result, his ERA unsurprisingly skyrocketed from 2.27 to 4.67.
It’s not just hindsight to say Plesac was an obvious regression candidate who benefitted from a prolonged hot streak during the shortened 2020. He had no business ever going as a top-25 starter in 2021 drafts, as a .224 BABIP and 91.7% strand rate represented bleeding red flags from a pitcher who previously posted a 3.81 ERA and 18.5% K rate in 2019.
He now might be an interesting bounce-back pick.
Although hardly a power pitcher, Plesac still procured a healthy 11.5% swinging-strike rate last year, higher than Tyler Mahle, Julio Urias, and Max Fried. Plesac had the lowest K rate of all 78 starting pitchers (minimum 100 innings) with a SwSTR% of at least 10.0.
Don’t expect an ace, but Plesac could improve last year’s 6.3 K/9 closer to 7.3 while parlaying his control to a low WHIP. That would make the 27-year-old a valuable depth piece in deeper leagues.
Emmanuel Class (RP – CLE)
Class produced a 26.5% K rate during his breakout rookie campaign, but the typically conservative Steamer projects a noticeable uptick to 29.2% in his sophomore season. To understand why, look at the radar gun. He was baseball’s only pitcher to throw his fastball at an mean velocity of 100 mph.
This isn’t a case of a hard thrower failing to miss bats with no break. Class ranked sixth in SwSTR% among all qualified relievers, but his strikeouts paled in comparison to the other studs atop the leaderboard:
Would now be a good time to mention that Class still delivered a 1.29 ERA last season? That should rise based on the pure law of averages, but probably not as much as Steamer (2.92 ERA) projects. Class garnered a 2.11 FIP and 2.18 xERA last year with help from the third-highest ground-ball rate (67.6%) of all qualified relievers.
You can’t ask for more than a hard-thrower who draws whiffs and avoids the long ball. Class deserves to go right alongside Raisel Iglesias, Edwin Diaz, and Ryan Pressly as a top-flight closer.
Jose Berrios (SP – TOR)
Berríos is the only top-35 starting pitcher in the consensus ADP who posted a single-digit SwSTR rate last season. But don’t panic.
It was just below that benchmark at 9.9, and he still tallied a career-high 204 punchouts in 192 innings. While Berríos induced fewer swinging strikes, he replaced them with more called strikes (19.2%). That yields a 29.0% CSW in line with the past two seasons.
Because of his durability, Berríos has averaged 200 strikeouts in each of the last three seasons. Even if his K rate from him lingers behind other peers available at the same range, the 27-year-old can still justify an SP3 investment through sheer volume.
The lack of whiffs, however, is at least noteworthy for drafters still holding out hope of Berríos finding another gear as a bonafide ace. Pay for a high floor rather than expecting additional improvement from last year’s career-best 3.52 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. In fact, a 4.09 xERA suggests his ERA is more likely to rise back into the high threes.
Chris Bassitt (SP-OAK)
If a 3.15 ERA and 1.06 WHIP weren’t enough to delight drafters who bet on Bassitt’s 2020 success, he also delivered a career-high 159 strikeouts in 157.1 innings. While his SwSTR rate rose into the double digits for the first time, a 10.1% clip still doesn’t support a 25.0% strikeout rate. None of the 10 other starters in the 10-10.5% range (minimum 100 innings) even reached a 22.5% SwSTR rate.
Bassitt won’t fan a batter per inning again, but that’s OK. Boosting an elite 3.31 ERA over the last three seasons, the righty is still a commendable SP4 even if the K rate regresses back to his 21.5% career norm. Just be careful not to expect — or pay for — a carbon copy of 2021. Those seeking strikeout upside around his No. 132 ADP should pivot to Sean Manaea or Eduardo Rodriguez.
Mark Melancon (RP-ARI)
For many drafters, an 8.2 K/9 is already too low for a closer. However, that was more enough for Melancon to flourish as a top-flight fantasy option alongside a 2.23 ERA and MLB-high 39 saves in 2021. After signing with the Diamondbacks, he’s one of few pitchers with a clear grip of his team’s ninth- inning role.
Last year’s 22.3% K rate was a decimal point above Melancon’s career norm, but his 8.7% SwSTR rate dipped far below his career 10.6 clip. It also matches his mark on him from 2020, which saw him accumulate just 14 strikeouts in 22.2 frames for a minuscule 14.7% K rate. The ground-ball specialist also allowed his highest contact (80.4%) and walk (9.4%) rates over a full season last year and will turn 37 before Opening Day.
Melancon is a throwback “saves are saves” option, but the eroding skills will likely make him a strikeout liability whose ERA could rise a full run or more.
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Andrew Gould is a featured writer and editor at FantasyPros. For more from Andrew, check out his archive and follow him @andrewgould4.