Zach McAllister: Can he make the leap?

(Photo: Chuck Crow/Plain Dealer)
2015 is a pivotal year for Zach McAllister in deciphering his ultimate destiny, and it appears that Terry Francona will give him one more opportunity to kick the door down.

McAllister, T.J. House and Josh Tomlin are competing for the last two spots in the Indians rotation as the season begins. It is wise to pencil House in for one of those spots, and the Indians would be foolish to consider Tomlin for the final spot, which leaves McAllister one more opportunity to make the leap from strong rotation depth, to a legitimate rotation member in a staff that's likely to remain hotly contested in the coming years.

The hope is to strip away the bias and the surface of what we see, and to reach beyond to anticipate the possibility of improvement.

First lets talk about overarching results in terms of predictive and reflective pitching statistics: 
2011 17.2 6.11 3.37 3.98 5.30% 53.80%
2012 125 4.24 4.24 4.11 12.10% 64.70%
2013 134.1 3.75 4.03 4.53 7.50% 72.60%
2014 86 5.23 3.45 3.84 6.90% 61.30%

McAllister is a solid big league pitcher deserving of the 10+ starts he was likely to get either way this year. The results we see above are pretty scattered and make drawing conclusions challenging.

A few issues that will likely see improvement from last season, the BABIP against was .332 which is unlikely to sustain to this season. As his BABIP against has generally sat between .290 and .310, a decreasing BABIP would also improve his LOB% (strand rate).

In 2014, McAllister's xFIP as a starter was 4.10, which was actually better than his career number of 4.20. If he had qualified in 2015 he would have been bottom twenty in the category. xFIP is important because it has some predictive abilities, it is a way of evaluating that attempts to rate a pitcher only on what he controls and normalizes HR/FB% to league average.

If we tie his strand rate issue last year to a fluky BABIP and assume that his home run suppression is an actual skill, then one can be optimistic about his ability to be a league average starting pitcher.

There are some issue that McAllister must address in 2015 that have been nagging at him throughout his career; what happens after the first time through the order?

McAllister as a starting pitcher:

1st PA: .217 BA, .612 OPS
2nd PA: .295, .804
3rd PA: .316, .932

While many not named Trevor Bauer are better their first time through the lineup, McAllister's splits are fairly extreme. The question that must be posed of course; what is the underlying cause of this issue?

This leads us naturally to McAllister's stuff on the mound, or perhaps more aptly put at this point in his career, McAllister's nearly singular pitch. Take a look for yourself:

In terms of career usage, McAllister uses his fast ball between 70% and 75% of the time, which is doable when throwing one or two inning stints, but is simply too hard to maintain in the rotation, in particular if the pitch isn't a guaranteed wipe-out pitch.

To put it simply, batters have adapted to release point, run and begin to square up fastballs at an unmatched rate.

They square them up because they are looking fastball, the interaction between pitcher and batter is much about guessing, it is about game theory.

The issue for McAllister is that he does not have enough offerings that make the guessing challenging for the hitter, thus causing significant issues the second time through the order. If you throw the same pitch three out of every four times, it makes it pretty easy for major league hitters.

There is a positive to note, and that's the velocity that McAllister picked up in the bullpen last season appears to be legitimate, as he has sat 95+ in his spring training outings thusfar. This could assist in increasing swing-and-miss, as well as the interaction with his other offerings. 

Over the last week, I have listened to Indians fans, as well as Terry Francona himself, talk about Salazar needing to keep his fast ball down, McAllister himself certainly doesn't:

It is mildly concerning that the highest frequency location for his fastball is the heart of the plate for obvious reasons. Other pieces of information of note, McAllister's fastball gets predominantly arm side run  (which is why there is a high frequency of pitches inside on RHB), rather than any significant downward movement which would induce ground balls. 

This is important because the one main model for a highly fastball reliant starter is one which induces a lot ground balls, but McAllister is neutral or fly ball leaning.

Pitch Type AVG OPS wRC+
Curveball 0.257 0.682 100
Changeup 0.319 0.791 131
Slider 0.324 0.825 139

These are the alternative offerings which McAllister has employed.

The curve ball may be a competent offering!!!!! Why is the usage rate previously show so low??

His curve generates decent swing-and-miss. If one marries data to having watched McAllister, I can comment that the curve ball has been inconsistent. I have seen starts where it is a solid offering, but the inconsistency is evident from start-to-start and pitch-to-pitch. There are far too many times in which his curve hangs from a string.

In other words, McAllister exhibits the exact same traits that Salazar does, without the upside.

The curve ball appears to be ZMac's silver bullet. If he can improve this pitch, a solid five starter he will be. If not, if the HR/FB suppression is not a skill of his, it could blow up pretty quickly. 

Without improving the curve ball, McAllister is merely a 4-to-5 inning pitcher that simply won't be good enough for a team trying to contend.

As for McAllister making the leap, I wouldn't bet on, it but thankfully, baseball is uncertain, and I can't wait to watch this narrative unfold.
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