Kill the Win

Anthony DeSclafani could be poised for breakout year

Before we dive into this week’s post, I wanted to give a quick synopsis of what the column is all about for anyone who may have missed the first one a couple of weeks ago. Every week this season, the plan is to discuss and analyze a different Reds pitcher in an organization overflowing with talented arms. As the title “Kill the Win” might suggest, I’ll do this using stats more indicative of the player’s true talent than more traditional stats like wins and losses.

With that in mind, the pitcher we’ll be talking about this week is none other than the Reds’ 2015 stalwart, Anthony DeSclafani.

2015 season

desclafani 2015 stats

In a year full of roster turnover, DeSclafani was the only constant on the Reds’ pitching staff. After coming over from the Miami Marlins in the Mat Latos trade in the winter of 2014, he won a starting spot as a rookie and was the only pitcher to stay in the rotation for the entire season. “Disco” started off 2015 on fire, posting a 1.04 ERA in the month of April. That was never going to last, however, as his expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) of 4.44 indicated he didn’t pitch quite as well as it appeared. Additionally, his .174 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), while impressive, was unsustainable. The right-hander fell back to earth over the next following months, seeing his walk rate jump from 9.7 from May to July, while posting an xFIP of 5.19, 4.16 and 4.51, respectively, in those months.

From there, however, he had his best two months of his season. An initial look at his splits in August and September/October may leave you saying, “What is this guy talking about?” After all, his ERA was 4.59 and his WHIP was 1.36.

But a closer look paints a much prettier picture. In August, Disco’s xFIP was 3.05, a far cry from his 4.20 ERA. In September and October, his ERA was an ugly 4.93, but his xFIP was even better at 2.92. Why was there such a discrepancy? There are a couple of different reasons.

The first is that he was flat-out unlucky. Similar to his performance in April, his results had a lot to do with an unusual BABIP. This time, that number was abnormally high instead of abnormally low. In August, batters had an average of .400 (!) on balls they put in play against DeSclafani. The September number dipped a bit to .365, but that was still above the norm. Some of that had to do with seeing a slight uptick in hard-contact percentage (as measured by Fangraphs) in those months, though it wasn’t enough to account for such a ridiculous BABIP.

The second reason for the difference between his ERA and the underlying numbers is that his strikeout numbers climbed, while his walks decreased considerably. Through the first four months, DeSclafani struck out 16.8 percent of the hitters he faced and walked 9.0 percent. In the final two months, he saw his K% jump to 23.9 percent, while his BB% decreased to a measly 3.3 percent as he walked only nine batters.

Two months is a relatively small sample size, but if the 25-year-old can put up those kinds of numbers in 2016 — paired with some better luck — he could be in store for a breakout sophomore season.

What makes him effective?

A big reason for DeSclafani’s success is his command of the strike zone. In 2015, he threw a first-pitch strike 62.8 percent of the time, ranking 26th among 78 qualified pitchers. His 7.0 BB% ranked a more mediocre 41st, but was still a respectable number. If his career minor-league rate of 5.4 BB% is any indication — and his August and September numbers show that it very well could be — he should improve in both areas moving forward.

When it comes to his stuff, Disco doesn’t have tons of different arm angles like Raisel Iglesias, but he does have a solid pitch repertoire to help him get outs. Last season, DeSclafani’s go-to offerings were his four-seam fastball, sinker and slider. He also has a changeup that he mixed in here and there, as well as a curveball that really began looking like a plus pitch toward the end of the season.

In terms of results, his slider is his best pitch, thrown at a fairly high average velocity of 86.8 mph, according to PITCHf/x data. Although the pitch doesn’t generate a ton of movement, evidenced by a lower-end spin rate of just 738 rotations per minute, DeSclafani generated a whiff on his slider 17.9 percent of the time he threw it. When hitters did get ahold of it, they hit just .238/.267/.367 against it. Of his team-leading 151 strikeouts, his slider was the putaway pitch on 77 occasions.

While the slider proved to be his top pitch for the entirety of the season, Disco’s curveball made huge strides during the last two months of the season, as the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Zach Buchanan noted this spring. When he started to get a feel of the curve by using a “spike grip” with his index finger — making it more of a knuckle-curve — he started throwing it more often (as you can see below on the chart, via Brooks Baseball), and with great results.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (1)

With increased spin rates resulting in more movement on the pitch, DeSclafani saw a whiff rate of 12.5 percent in August and 19.4 percent in September, which is when he started throwing the pitch far more than he had previously. If his September rate was maintained for the whole season, it would’ve been his best swing-and-miss pitch. When the pitch was put in play, it resulted in ground balls a whopping 80 percent of the time, this after not generating a single ground ball on the pitch before the final month of the year. That isn’t a rate that could be sustained, but it shows the progress his curveball made.

Like just about every other pitcher in the world, DeSclafani’s four-seam fastball was his most-used pitch. It’s not an offering that will blow anyone away, but it gets the job done at the end of the day. The fastball’s mediocre spin rate of 2,091 rpm was the likely cause of a relatively low 4.1 percent swing-and-miss rate and a ground-ball rate of just 37.5 percent. (A higher fastball spin rate tends to result in more strikeouts, while a lower spin rate results in more ground balls.) However, being able to locate the pitch with a velocity that could reach up to 96 mph on the radar gun probably played a role in batters hitting a run-of-the-mill .263/.318/.410 against it.

Where can he improve?

Many consider DeSclafani’s ceiling to be right about where he was last season, or slightly better. That is, a solid, middle-of-the-rotation innings-eater. If he wants to bring his ceiling even higher, building on the success he had with his curveball at the end of his rookie year will be a key.

With the hook coming along, Disco’s changeup is the pitch that could use the most work. It has a higher-end spin rate (1,675), meaning the bottom isn’t dropping out much and, as a result, he’s not getting many swings and misses (9.1 SwStr%) or ground balls (37.2 GB%). With the development of his curve as his go-to offspeed pitch, we may not see him throw a change all that much in the future, but it will be something to keep an eye on.

The second-most used pitch for DeSclafani was his sinker, which also has room to get better. The offering proved to be quite hittable, with batters posting an average of .322 and an OPS of .842 when they put it in play, the highest marks off of any of his pitches. However, the spin rate (1,941 rpm) he puts on the pitch — which ideally tends to be lower than a four-seamer in order to cause more grounders — was below league average according to Statcast, leading to a healthy 54.1 GB%. Improving the command of his sinker, particularly versus left-handers (who hit .375 against it), would go a long way for DeSclafani.

Conclusions

Although the results weren’t there, the way DeSclafani threw the ball in the final two months of the season should give the Reds reason to be hopeful that he can take another step forward in 2016 after an overall solid rookie campaign. If his curveball continues to develop, it can become a plus putaway pitch next to his already-solid slider, and the strikeout numbers he produced at the end of 2015 could very well be maintained in the long run. Add in the superb control he showed down the stretch, and he could be a candidate for a breakout year when he returns from a strained oblique. Even if he doesn’t develop into a top-of-the-rotation arm, Disco showed last year that he has all the makings of a reliable No. 3 or 4 pitcher for many years to come.

19 thoughts on “Anthony DeSclafani could be poised for breakout year

  1. Still can not believe Miami gave him up. Great trade and looking forward to him being a piece of the puzzle for years to come.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly about DeSclafani. I think he is/will be a tick above what Mike Leake was for the Reds. A solid #3 type starting pitcher.
    I think Iglesias is in for a bigger breakout this year though, and settles in as the #2 starter behind Bailey.
    May I broach this subject with you about DeSclafani? This July trade deadline or possibly next winter, would you think the Reds would dare to entertain offers for DeSclafani and come away with a trade as equal to or better than the Braves’ Shelby Miller trade to the D-backs? The Braves loaded up a Brinks truck of prospects on that trade. The strongly expected to contend Astros and Cubs farm systems come to mind quickly. If Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed and their #1 potential develop and arrive as expected this year, would that make DeSclafani a little expendable to explore such a trade?

    • The Braves got the deal of the century, and Arizona was desperate. That won’t happen again. It was on par with the Latos trade actually! Luckily Disco was salvaged from that give away (we gave away 3 All-Stars!).

    • I was going to post the same thing about considering trading DeSclafani.
      With Bailey, Iglesias, Stephenson, Reed, Lorenzen, Finnegan, Lamb, Garrett, etc. all showing some level of potential as starting pitchers there might be room to trade DeSclafani.
      A team looking to contend this season that needs to upgrade their pitching staff might give up some nice prospects for a pitcher like DeSclafani who has already proven he can pitch at a Major League level and will be under team control through 2020.
      I’d look at Toronto as a potential trade partner. They already have what should be the best offense in the league so may consider their outfield prospects expendable in return for an upgrade to their starting rotation.

    • It’s an interesting thought. I’d be pretty surprised if they trade DeSclafani since he’s the furthest along of any of the Reds’ young arms. However, I think if the Reds were offered a package like the Braves got in return for Shelby Miller, they’d take it in a heartbeat. The arrivals of Reed and Stephenson don’t necessarily mean they’ll look to trade DeSclafani, but I do think they’ll try to flip some of their pitching talent at some point. That, or they’re going to have one heck of a bullpen.

      • Nice article. I would only trade DeSclafani if a Shelby Miller-type of trade surfaced for the Reds.
        Bailey>Iglesias>DeSclafani>Reed>Stephenson looks very good for 2017. And that bullpen will be something. But if only one of Finnegan, Lorenzen, Lamb, and Moscot can step up and show they belong in the rotation, it could creat an interesting special situation regarding DeSclafani. I’d prefer one of the LHers, Finnegan or Lamb, to be the one that steps up too. The Reds have almost 4 months (Aug. 1) for everything to play out. Plenty of time to be patient.

        • Bailey could be traded after he reestablishes value (maybe the 2016-2017 offseason, but more likely mid-2017) if one of those other pitchers can step up and show they deserve a rotation spot.

        • I agree about trading Bailey. After trading all of the guys we’ve traded, there’s no point in keeping any of the bigger money guys, except Votto.

      • Yes – they have to flip some pitching talent in order for skilled players under team control to play together for a long window.

        Right now, the pitching is ahead of the hitting, so the Reds may need to move or redo some contracts.

    • I think DeSclafani will be the 2, 3, or 4 starter of the next Reds playoff contender. I don’t think trading him will come up, unless someone over-offers like Steward did for Shelby Miller.

    • It’s an interesting thought. Given the lack of cost controlled, quality bats in the game, it’s difficult for me to believe they could get equal value. No one wants to give up cheap guys that can hit-get on base. They would need to catch someone in sheer desperation mode.

    • What kind of return would Jorge Soler from the Cubs or Dalton Pompey from the Blue Jays be for DeSclafani?
      Both were top-50 overall prospects last season who got called to the majors with underwhelming results. They are not on any prospect lists this season because of the playing time they got last year but still have that potential.
      The Cubs and Blue Jays have arguably the 2 best offenses in baseball and don’t have room for either of these guys in their line-ups.
      Either team could see DeSclafani as an upgrade to their rotation this season without mortgaging their futures since he is under team control through 2020.

      • I don’t see the Reds trading any pitchers this year. They’re still trying to figure out who is actually good.

        The 2 players you mentioned would be possibilities, but I don’t see the Reds wanting to face Disco for the next 10 years and the Jays seem to have a smaller window that would necessitate a more immediate move

  3. The thing I like about Tony Disco is he pitches to contact and doesn’t nibble like a lot of young guys! At some points in the 2nd half he was hitting 95-96 on the fastball so I’d say his ceiling could be better than a 3rd-4th starter down the road!

  4. If the Reds can ever get everyone healthy then they have a chance to have guys like Homer and Lamb as their 4th-5th starters and that’s pretty strong!!

    • need to see a lot more out of other guys before i say homer is our 4 or 5 seems to me that is quite a bit under rating

  5. I’d really like to see him improve the sinker to get his ground ball rate higher…..essential at GABP. I’d like to think he’ll be our #5 starter on our next playoff team behind Bailey/Iggy/Stephenson/Reed. Then you bring in Finnegan and Lorenzen out of the ‘pen and you’re onto something.

    Man, that felt good just typing that!

    • I still think Lorenzen has a chance to be the best of the bunch with his arm but time will tell? He could also be a reliever, pinch-hitter, and pinch-runner all in one

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