Looking back at the 2023 trade deadline, it may be that the most impactful deal for Fantasy Baseball purposes was the one that sent Ryan Yarbrough to the Dodgers. That's not a comment on Yarbrough himself, who is what he is and no more than he is, but unloading him is what allowed Cole Ragans to enter the Royals rotation. And that's a big deal indeed.
If you were intrigued by his eight strikeouts over six shutout innings in his first turn replacing Yarbrough, you should be absolutely floored by his follow-up performance Monday at the Red Sox. He struck out 11 over 6 2/3 innings, allowing one earned run on four hits and one walk. Here's what that looked like:
Between the 98 mph fastball up in the zone and the varying movement and velocities down in the zone, you can see why he had the Red Sox tied up in knots. But where did he come from, and how was nobody talking about him until now? And why should we believe this breakthrough will continue during this year of pitching randomness?
The third question I can only answer with a shoulder shrug and a reminder that most everyone who throws a ball for a living is susceptible to that, which makes it unworthy of further dissection. But I can offer real insight on the first two questions.
Where did he come from?
It's fitting that the trade deadline brought Ragans to the forefront, because he himself was a trade acquisition, coming over from the Rangers a month earlier in the Aroldis Chapman deal. With the Rangers, he was working out of the bullpen, struggling to the tune of a 5.92 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and 8.9 K/9. Walks were a major issue, and it seemed like he had no way to get left-handers out, allowing an .898 OPS to them vs. .641 to righties. It was particularly troublesome since, as a left-handed pitcher, that's largely what the Rangers were asking him to do.
But he was a somebody before he became a miscast reliever, being drafted 30th overall in 2016. His stock collapsed thanks to two Tommy John surgeries that took him out of minor-league action for three years, but he reclaimed it to some degree last year, going 8-5 with a 3.04 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.7 K/9 between Double- and Triple-A. He even made nine starts for the big club, not that they were good enough to remember.
What really made prospect hounds sit up and take notice of Ragans again was when he showed up to spring training this year throwing 4 mph harder. It didn't get past those on the Rangers beat either.
"I did a workout program this offseason with a place called Tread Athletics," Ragans told The Athletic at the time. "I feel like I'm throwing [with] the same effort as I did last year, it's just coming out a little hotter."
A 2 mph increase from one year to the next is considerable. A 4 mph increase is almost unheard of, and it would have made Ragans a sleeper if not for the fact the Rangers had a full rotation already. And then he went to the bullpen and, well, kind of stunk. And then he got traded.
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How was nobody talking about him until now?
You can deduce a great deal from my answer to the previous question. Ragans was confined to the bullpen and not performing well there. Even after being traded to the Royals, he spent most of his time in the minors and wasn't particularly impressive there either, delivering a 4.13 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 11.8 K/9 between the two organizations -- worse numbers, it's worth noting, than he had in the minors last year.
Maybe 4 mph of added velocity wasn't all it's cracked up to be. Or maybe he just hadn't figured out how to get the most out of it yet.
Remember those struggles against left-handers? It turns out poor pitch selection was to blame. According to MLB.com, Ragans was relying on a cutter against them, but it was playing like a poor version of his fastball and getting crushed. He needed something with more movement, and so he unveiled a slider in his return to the majors Aug. 2, the first of his impressive two-start stretch.
"That was something that he presented to us," Royals senior director of pitching Paul Gibson said. "We asked what he wanted to work on. He said, 'I want to be better against left-handed hitters, and I think the slider is the way to do that.' We thought the same thing, so let's go get it."
Four of his eight strikeouts in that start came on the slider, and it was responsible for four of his 18 swinging strikes in his 11-strikeout effort Monday. It's less that it's a world-beater in its own right than that it rounds out an already impressive arsenal, serving as the missing link to bring it all together. He can still make use of his cutter, but more as a change-of-pace offering than a put-away pitch. Meanwhile, with his slider giving hitters another look down in the zone, his changeup, long considered his best pitch, can excel all the more. It was responsible for nine of his 18 swinging strikes Monday.
"Trying to get the curveball to the bottom of the zone, the slider to the bottom, the changeup, then [having] something you can elevate and go back to those pitches definitely helps because it's changing guys' eyesight," Ragan said after Monday's start.
And when the elevated pitches have an extra 4 mph of oomph on them, it can be downright devastating.
"That kid was really, really good," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. "We've seen a lot of good pitching the whole season, and the ability to throw 98, 99 with a good changeup, cutter … stuff-wise, one of the best that we've seen."
If there's a knock on Ragans, it's that he's on a historically bad Royals team, and it shouldn't go unnoticed that he didn't actually come away with a win Monday, for as well as he pitched. If that's a concern in your scoring format -- and it is in most -- then it's understandable why you might wonder if he's really the best starting pitcher pickup for the stretch run.
Fortunately, there are a couple other rookies showing signs of a breakout. The most noteworthy of them is Gavin Williams, who was arguably the top pitching prospect still in the minors when he got the call in late June. He finally had his breakthrough outing Monday, one-hitting the Blue Jays over seven innings with 12 strikeouts.
For him, it seems like mostly a matter of confidence. Instead of leaning on his fastball 60 percent of the time, which wouldn't be a formula of success for most anyone, he has begun to mix in his slider and curveball more in his past two starts. He's throwing them with more conviction, too, with both coming in about 1.5 mph harder on average.
The other one worth mentioning here is Chase Silseth, who looked like he'd be the odd man out after the Angels acquired Lucas Giolito. But then Griffin Canning hit the IL with a calf injury, and the rest, as they say, is history. No chance Silseth is giving up his spot now after his latest outing Sunday against the Mariners in which he struck out 12 over seven innings. Here's what that looked like:
All three of his starts since returning from the minors have been good, with two resulting in double-digit strikeouts. The common thread is a revamped slider that he throws 1.5 mph slower than the previous one, but with more movement, turning it into a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch. That's reason enough for renewed enthusiasm over the 23-year-old, but the slider wasn't even his best offering in Sunday's 12-strikeout effort. Of his 21 swinging strikes in that contest, 12 came on his splitter, a pitch he threw twice as often as usual. If that's going to be a weapon for Silseth, too, then look out.
Williams and Silseth, like Ragans, are priority pickups wherever they're available. You don't often see talent like this emerge on the waiver wire this late in the season, particularly at this position. By order of priority, I'd go Williams, Ragans and Silseth, who's disadvantaged by pitching in a six-man rotation. But of them, Ragans is the most available, being rostered in just 25 percent of CBS Sports leagues.