With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, a starting pitcher who entered the 2017 season as an unknown but who quickly cemented himself as a must-own in all fantasy leagues.
Zack Godley, Arizona Diamondbacks
2017 statistics: 25 GS, 155 IP, 3.37 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 3.41 FIP
Entering his age-27 season having tossed over 100 replacement-level innings as a career swingman, Zack Godley was understandably off even the deepest of fantasy radars at the beginning of last year. Committing fully to the breaking ball fever across baseball, however, Godley emerged as a breakthrough performer throughout the season. While there may still be some skepticism about his lack of a lengthy track record, the underlying metrics indicate that there is real reason for optimism here, perhaps explained by a simple change in his approach.
After having turned in brief and underwhelming MLB stints from 2015-2016, Godley was slated to be high-level minor-league depth for an Arizona team that entered 2017 with an extremely high-variance starting rotation. When Shelby Miller went down to Tommy John surgery in April, Godley was called upon as a seemingly unexciting back-end option, a player with a track record of inducing ground balls at the highest levels of the minor-leagues but without the type of eye-catching strikeout or walk numbers that would have boded well for his future. His going on to join Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray at the top of one of the best starting rotations in baseball would have been unfathomable. He did just that, however, logging 155 innings with a 3.37 ERA, a figure even more stellar when considering that he pitched in hitter-friendly Chase Field. While Godley’s success was unexpected, there is no reason to believe that it was a fluke.
The most significant change to Godley’s profile was his uptick in strikeouts in 2017. In his 48 MLB innings as a starting pitcher in 2016, his strikeout rate sat at a mediocre 15.3%. (In his time out of the bullpen, that strikeout rate predictably improved, but only to a still-average 23.2%.) By contrast, Godley fanned 26.3% of opposing hitters last season, which ranked 22nd among pitchers with at least 100 innings and exceeded even his strikeout rate from his prior time as a reliever. Nearly as impressive was that he made such a sharp improvement in his strikeout rate without losing his previous calling card, as he ranked ninth among that group in ground-ball rate as well, placing him among a select group of pitchers who combined punchouts and grounders. He was quite good at limiting hard contact as well; his 86.2 MPH average exit velocity allowed ranked in the top half of starters, an exact match to the batted-ball authority surrendered by more well-known pitchers like Chris Sale, Carlos Martinez, and Julio Teheran. True, a low average exit velocity against does not, in and of itself, portend success; just above Godley on the exit velocity leaderboard is Matt Harvey at 86.1 MPH. However, when coupled with a high strikeout rate, it can be a recipe for dominance. With strikeouts, ground balls, and soft contact in tow, Godley was every bit deserving of the stellar results that he managed in 2017.
If not luck, then what explains Godley’s drastically improved results? The answer may be as simple as a change to his pitch mix. While he featured the same quartet of pitches as he always has, Godley fully embraced his best offering last season, increasing his curveball rate by 11 percentage points from 2016. A low-80’s offering with nearly a foot of drop, the curve had always seemed Godley’s most promising weapon, but he had previously worked it off his more pedestrian cutter and sinker. The pitch itself did not seem to change all that much last season; its velocity and movement were largely the same as they always had been. Rather, Godley adopted an approach that has become increasingly common league-wide, attacking hitters more frequently with a plus breaking ball. While some owners may be skeptical of the sustainability of a breaking-ball first approach to pitching, it is worth noting that Rich Hill, Lance McCullers, and Drew Pomeranz have had long-term success as starting pitchers using their curveballs at or above Godley’s 35% rate, with the heavy dose of breaking balls arguably saving Hill’s and Pomeranz’s careers. Given that Godley drastically increased his curveball rate in 2017 without the pitch losing any of its effectiveness (hitters were as likely as ever to chase it out of the strike zone, even if they knew that he was likely to throw it), this approach may very well suffice for Godley to maintain his success moving forward.
Godley may be one of the more polarizing pitchers in the league come draft day, as, despite his 2017 successes, he is not entirely free of risk. His lack of an established track record is likely to scare off some, and, indeed, Fangraphs projects Godley to post an unexciting 4.06 ERA next year, hesitant to buy too heavily into one fantastic season. It is arguable, though, that that projection is too pessimistic, given that Godley fundamentally reinvented his plan of attack on the mound last season, which the model cannot account for. Other owners may be scared off by Chase Field’s hitter-friendly tendencies, and, while Godley profiles as a pitcher less likely than most to be affected by park factors thanks to his high strikeout and ground-ball rates, his home park is certainly less than ideal for fantasy purposes. That said, Godley had success there in 2017, and if his strikeout uptick proves sustainable, the park effect alone would not be enough to cripple his fantasy stock. For a player currently being selected in the middle rounds, according to Fantrax’s ADP data (perhaps fittingly, immediately after Rich Hill), Godley appears to be worth the gamble.
2018 Player Profiles