How Will Last Year's Top MLB Rookie Pitchers Fare in 2016?

Noah Syndergaard and his peers will look to build off their strong rookie campaigns as they head into the 2016 season.

While last season was a banner year for rookie position players, there were a few first-year pitchers who deserve our attention as well.

Just two rookie pitchers were worth three or more fWAR last year (compared to seven position players), but the duo includes dominant Mets righty Noah Syndergaard, who Steamer projects to be one of the 20 most valuable pitchers in 2016.

Syndergaard, who made his debut in mid-May, led rookie starters in xFIP- (75) and was seventh in FIP- (84), and probably would have topped the rookie WAR leaderboard if he tossed more than his 150 innings.

Instead, the most valuable rookie hurler (at least in terms of fWAR) was actually Cincinnati's Anthony DeSclafani , who some may have overlooked due to a 4.05 ERA. The 25-year-old though did post a 3.67 FIP (92 FIP-) in 184.2 innings, which led all rookies.

Here is how the other top rookie pitchers in the game fared, followed by a look at how the best of this group might do in 2016.

Anthony DeSclafaniReds3131184.24.051019210219.20%7.00%0.833.21.32.3
Noah SyndergaardMets2424150.03.2488847527.50%5.10%
Lance McCullersAstros2222125.23.2280798624.80%8.30%0.722.82.42.1
Trevor MayTwins4816114.24.0099809322.40%5.30%0.862.31.50.7
Carson SmithMariners70070.02.3160545832.40%7.80%
Robbie RayDiamondbacks2323127.23.52879110421.80%9.00%0.632.11.71.4
Carlos RodonWhite Sox2623139.13.75929310022.90%11.70%0.712.11.60.9
Ken GilesPhillies69070.01.846547929.20%8.40%

Anthony DeSclafani

2016 Steamer Projections: 2.1 WAR, 4.02 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 19.3 K%, 6.8% BB%

The 25-year-old was the most valuable Reds pitcher last season, out-pitching his ERA due to poor ball-in-play and strand rate luck (.318 BABIP, 6.9.9% left-on-base rate).

At the same time, he only had a roughly league average ground ball rate (45.1%) and was actually lucky to only allow 0.83 home runs per nine innings due to a 9.1% home run to fly ball rate.

The home run rate helps explain why more forward looking metrics like xFIP-, SIERA and cFIP treated DeSclafani as a roughly average pitcher, while his FIP- of 92 was above average (Desclafani posted an xFIP- of 102, a SIERA of 4.08, and a cFIP of 98; for xFIP- and cFIP, 100 is average, while the NL average SIERA was 3.84 last year).

DeSclafani’s Steamer projection aligns with these metrics, as he is forecasted to a roughly 2-WAR player.

It should be noted though that his performance improved dramatically in the second half, as his strikeout rate rose to 22.0% from 17.0%, while his walk rate dropped to 4.0% from 9.4%.

Because baseball can be stupid sometimes, his ERA actually rose from 3.65 in the first half to 4.52 in the second half, but his .354 BABIP and 12.3% home run per flyball rate in the second half are the culprits here.

All of this could be random variation, but since we are looking at a roughly 80-inning sample, if any of this split is real, it would have to be the strikeout and walk rates, which are among the first stats to stabilize.

If there is a factor that caused his second half turnaround, it's not glaringly obvious, but it could have something to do with increased slider and curveball use.

In the first half of the year, his slider was his best swing-and-pitch, generating a whiff on 36.1% of swings, according to Brooks Baseball. In the second half, his slider’s whiff per swing rate rose to 37.1%. His curveball had a whiff per swing rate of 10.0% in the first half, but 42.9% in the second.

The difference was DeSclafani threw the pitch 26.4% of the time in the second half, compared to 22.1% in the first half, while his curveball usage rose from 3.4% to 10.8%.

Both pitches were effective putaway pitches, as he threw them a combined 51.2% of the time on two strike counts in the second half, compared to 25.5% of the time on such counts in the first half.

If these numbers mark real trends, given DeSclafani’s 3.33 xFIP and 18.0% K-BB% in the second half, he could easily exceed his preseason projections and provide Cincinatti another season of above average value.

Noah Syndergaard

2016 Steamer Projections: 4.1 WAR, 3.14 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 26.9% K%, 6.3% BB%

The guy who warms up to the “Game of Thrones” theme throws heat that evokes the Targaryen dragons, leaving opposing batters as helpless as a Stark at a Walder Frey party.

His 88 ERA- and 84 FIP- are scary enough, and would have been even better if not for an unsustainable 14.3% home run per flyball rate.

The 23-year-old’s 27.5% strikeout rate was seventh in the majors among pitchers who threw at least 150 innings. The only names ahead of him: Kershaw, Sale, Scherzer, Carrasco, Archer and Kluber (!).

Also, regardless of how you prefer to measure swing-and-miss stuff, Syndergaard was among the best, coming in 13th in swinging strikes per pitch (12.2%), 10th in swinging strikes per strike (20.6%), and 15th in whiffs per swing (28.3%).

And we’re just getting started here.

Syndergaard led the big leagues in fastball velocity (97.7 mph), but also showed impeccable control, as his 5.1% walk rate was tied for 15th in baseball.

In terms of managing contact, while batted ball velocity data can be volatile, Syndergaard allowed the game’s ninth-lowest hard-hit ball rate (24.6%; per Baseball Info Solutions, via FanGraphs) and its fifth-lowest exit velocity (86.1 mph, per Baseball Savant, minimum 200 balls in play)

With all this in mind, the NL East would be wise to heed this warning:

Spring is coming.

Lance McCullers

2016 Steamer Projections: 2.7 WAR, 3.80 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 24.2% K%, 9.8% BB%

McCullers was the American League’s top rookie hurler, teaming with Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh to form a surprisingly strong front-end of the rotation.

He struck out almost a quarter of the batters he faced, which ranked seventh in the American League (minimum 120 innings), utilizing a 95-mph fastball and a curveball that generated a 34.6% whiff per swing rate and 63.3% groundball rate.

His biggest problem was a below-average 8.3% walk rate (3.1 per nine innings), which is hardly a new issue, given 4.5 BB/9 rate in 260 minor league innings.

Steamer projects his big league walk rate to increase further in 2016, but also has his strikeout rate remaining steady, which should allow McCullers to challenge the 3-WAR threshold.

Trevor May

2016 Steamer Projections: 0.7 WAR, 3.47 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 23.2% K%, 7.0 BB%

A midseason move to the bullpen may have been the best thing for the 26-year-old’s career.

After posting a 7.88 ERA and 4.38 xFIP in nine starts during a 2014 cameo, May began last season in the rotation and the results were not much better. In 16 starts, he allowed a 4.43 ERA, with a 3.96 xFIP. His 15.3% strikeout-minus-walk rate was above average, but not high enough to offset a 38.0% groundball rate (while this did not actually bite him, thanks to a 7.6% HR/FB rate, regression was almost surely imminent).

He was thus moved to the bullpen in July, and the results were much better. In 31.1 innings as a reliever, he had a 2.87 ERA, 3.24 xFIP, and 22.0% K-BB% rate.

After making the move, his strikeout rate shot up, from 20.3% as a starter to 28.0% as a reliever. A huge uptick in both fastball usage velocity (presumably due to the opportunity to go all out in his relief appearances) helps explain the difference; from April through July 1, he threw his fastball 45.6% of the time at 93.2 miles per hour, generating .193 whiffs per swing.

From July 2 to the end of the season, he used the pitch 54.6% of the time, throwing it 95.8 miles per hour, and generating a 27.8% whiff per swing rate (per Brooks Baseball).

For context on that final figure, Jacob deGrom’s 26.8% whiff per swing rate on his fastball was the third highest rate in the Majors, according to Baseball Prospectus (minimum 200 fastballs).

With all this in mind, it is not hard to see May exceed his per-inning projections, especially because failed starters-turned relievers tend to be a class of player the projection models undersell (see Davis, Wade).

Carson Smith

2016 Steamer Projections: 0.8 WAR, 3.04 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 26.1% K%, 8.6% BB%

Oh and speaking of relievers, few were more valuable than Smith last season, regardless of experience level.

Only Cody Allen, Aroldis Chapman, and Dellin Betances were worth more in terms of fWAR than Smith, who had a 2.1 fWAR season with the Mariners.

The 26-year-old combined a nasty 32.4% strikeout rate with an above average walk rate and 64.8% groundball rate, culminating in a 58 xFIP-.

He was traded to the Red Sox in the offseason, and will team up with Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, and Junichi Tazawa to form what could be baseball’s best bullpen.