Small Sample, Big Outlook: Dustin May

After a strong performance in 2017, Dustin May truly broke out as a top pitching prospect in 2018, where he added a few MPH of velocity, while also scrapping his slider in favor of a more effective cutter, and a high spin curveball. While questions about his secondary stuff still existed, most considered May to be a top 100 prospect at the beginning of 2019, and he was ranked even higher at the time of his promotion. May’s August call-up was arguably the most exciting of a pitching prospect not named Jesus Luzardo or Brendan McKay, and for the most part he didn’t disappoint, but there are a few red flags that I think need to be addressed with caution moving forward. May’s debut was a mixed bag that, despite small sample size, gives us a great idea of the pitcher that May is, as well as the potential he has.

The Good: 

To start, it’s important to give the context of what May accomplished in the minors prior to his callup. Across AA and AAA, May had a 3.38 ERA, along with a stellar 24.6 K% and 6.5 BB%. By the time he was called up, May had worked his way into the top 50 prospects in baseball, slotting in nicely as the Dodgers #2 behind Gavin Lux. Many expected May to come up and be an impact arm for the Dodgers down the stretch, and for the most part he didn’t disappoint.

For one, the overall results look really good at face value. His FIP was an outstanding 2.90, with his ERA and xFIP both in the 3.60 to 3.70 range. His 19.2 K%-BB% would’ve been tied with his teammate Hyun-Jin Ryu for 20th in the MLB had he thrown enough innings, and possibly most notably, his fastball and curveball posted 96th and 99th percentile spin-rates respectively. He also demonstrated elite control, as his 3.6 BB% would rank 3rd in the MLB behind Mike Leake and Ryu again. While one of the concerns with May is that his secondary pitches lagging behind could force him to the bullpen, he actually fared better in his 4 starts, only allowing 7 ER in 22.1 IP, so the argument could be made that he demonstrated his value in the starting rotation. He also really found his groove at the end of the year, holding opposing hitters to a .404 OPS in 10 innings over 8 scoreless appearances, albeit as a reliever. 

The Bad:

While ending the season on a high note is usually a good indicator for a potential breakout, May has some red flags that lead me to proceed with caution. For one, May really struggled limiting hard contact, and failed to show the complete repertoire required to be a starting pitcher. Among 523 qualified pitchers, he ranked 206th in xwOBA, 228th in barrels/PA, and 104th in hard hit%. His 30 point difference in wOBA and xwOBA suggests that May could’ve experienced a bit of good luck in his results, but a sample size that small wouldn’t be able to tell you that with much certainty. 

I think the biggest issue for May was that his pitch arsenal, despite elite spin rates, was lacking overall, which has been his primary concern ever since he was drafted in 2016. Outside of his cutter, all of his pitches had an opposing xwOBA above .300. His changeup was essentially non-existent, only throwing it six times in his short stint in the majors. A strong changeup is key for a sinker pitcher, as the similar spin and movement keeps hitters off balance, so the lack of a changeup leads to two of my main concerns. For one, not having a changeup limits the effectiveness of his sinker, as demonstrated by his .329 xwOBA and only 13.4 whiff% with his sinker. Additionally, and possibly the biggest concern I have with May, not having an effective changeup makes it very hard to get lefties out. Lefties slashed .346/.404/.481 against May, as opposed to .188/.226/.250 from righties. All 3 of his pitches outside of his cutter had a wOBA above .400, which for reference is a mark that only 13 batters hit in 2019. May’s inability to get lefties out is a huge concern moving forward, and is part of the reason some believe he may be destined for a future in the bullpen. Even May’s curveball, which has elite spin, has failed to be consistently effective due to May’s lack of command with the pitch.  

What does this mean moving forward?

I’m still a huge fan of Dustin May, and I even ranked him 30th in my personal top prospects list. From the past two paragraphs this may be hard to believe, but I think May has a future as a #2 and is one of the best pitchers in dynasty formats, however I would not be banking on him in 2020. I don’t think May is quite ready to be a consistent starter in the MLB, and I think his issues vs lefties will either force him to the bullpen, or back to the minors to develop his secondary stuff more. While I would love for him to prove me wrong, I would personally not be drafting Dustin May for 2020, as I believe he’ll likely struggle as a starter and get bumped out of the rotation. Again, if you’re in a dynasty league, I highly recommend going after May, or maybe even waiting until mid-2020 and seeing if you can buy low for him. May has had plenty of questions asked of him in the past, and he’s answered most of them up to this point, so I’m optimistic that he’ll be able to fix his problems in the future, but for 2020 it’s a no go for me.

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