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FANTASY BASEBALL: 10 Major League Pitchers To Get Excited About Right Now

Isn’t it nice when former Yankees prospects enjoy success elsewhere? Photo Caption: Brad Penner

 

Brief Authorial Introduction: For a more thorough explanation of what this list is all about, you can check out last week’s version featuring hitters. Mostly it’s an organized collection of personal preferences listed in a not-quite-but-almost completely random way. Even more simply, it’s 10 players—pitchers this time around—that I really like, and want to tell you about. So let’s get to it.

1) Jake McGee … because no manager wants to get caught with his Kirby Yates down.

This isn’t about Jake McGee, not specifically. As great as he’s been—and he has been great, allowing seven runs and nine walks in 41.1 innings, while disallowing homers completely—this is really about human nature.

Perhaps the greatest divide between stat-heads and baseball men is how they view bullpen usage, especially when it comes to the closer role. The stat guys believe anyone can record the final three outs, and that bullpen arms should be employed based on matchups and leverage. And I get the argument, the theory behind not having a designated closer, or at least not having your best reliever glued to the role. But in practice it really seems to be more of a headache-creator than a problem-solver.

Just look at what’s happening in Tampa Bay with Joe Maddon, the most forward-thinking of modern managers. He has a clear-cut “best” option in McGee, only he’s letting the machine, the matchups and numbers, dictate who pitches when, and in what order.

The results have been less than stellar.

Joel Peralta has been handed five save opportunities and blown four of them. Juan Carlos Leo Nunez Oviedo has been trotted out twice, as has Brad Boxberger, both of whom have registered a 50-percent success rate, and you know what Grant Balfour is capable of. McGee, meanwhile, has shut the damn door in seven of the eight chances he’s been given.

Last week, the worst case scenario played out and I think it will have a lasting effect on Maddon’s usage of the bullpen going forward.

Holding onto a 4-2 lead with two outs in the seventh against the Royals, Maddon started playing the matchups, using McGee, Balfour, and Boxberger to record the next four outs and get them to ninth. With Oviedo unavailable, that left Peralta to handle closing duties, and he quickly found himself in a two-men-on, one-out scenario. Maddon decided to go to the bullpen once again, calling on the last righty at his disposal, a recently called-up kid namedKirby Yates. Two pitches later and Salvador Perez put the Royals ahead with a three-run homer.

In their next game, with McGee on paternity leave, Maddon turned to Balfour to protect a tie-game in the ninth inning against Toronto, which of course he failed to do, recording just one out while allowing three runs and costing the Rays yet another victory they desperately needed. On Sunday, with McGee back on the active roster and Tampa holding onto a three-run lead, there was no question whose number Maddon was calling. And there was no question that McGee would get the job done, which he did in dominating 1-2-3 fashion (2 Ks and foul-ball pop-out).

See, it doesn’t matter how statistically inclined a manager is, how much they believe in letting the data dictate the decisions, when it comes to who’s shutting the door on a nightly basis, they all eventually gravitate to the most reliable option, the security blanket, which in most cases means the best pitcher. All of us have an adult version of a binky—mine, for instance, is pornography—and for Major League managers, there’s no doubt it’s a closer who consistently gets the job done, regardless of which arm they go about doing it with. It’s just human nature.

So unless Joe Maddon is an alien sent here to test out gameplay theories for some future intergalactic World Series that humans aren’t yet aware of—which is totally possible—it’s inevitable that he’ll eventually abandon the stress of playing the matchups, opting instead for the comforting every-night presence of Binky McGee.

2) Jose Quintana … because he’s not on the New York Yankees.

I know it’s in bad taste to kick a lame horse, but this is the Yankees, the $200 million dollar team, a franchise (and a fan base) that truly believes having more money makes them better than everyone else, more deserving of division pennants and media attention than the other 29 teams. So hearing that Masahiro Tanaka may need TJ surgery, for me, was like hearing the Koch Brothers’ house had been robbed and ransacked by a mob of angry poor minorities.Boo-hoo.

My lack of sympathy is even more hardened in this instance considering the Yankees could have had Jose Quintana in their rotation for something like 500K. He was in their system back in 2011, coming off a season in which he posted a 2.91 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 102.2 innings at High-A Tampa, and his minor league contract had just expired. All the Yankees had to do was place him on their 40-man roster, and he’d have been their property on the cheap for the next three years. Instead, management decided to protect pitchers David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell, he currently of the Bridgeport Bluefish in the Atlantic League (indie ball), leaving Quintana free to sell his services to any other team.

The White Sox, after showing video of Quintana to pitching guru Don Cooper—who, legend has it, shot an ejaculate through his trousers and onto then-GM Kenny Williams’ dart board after seeing Quintana’s smooth, repeatable left-handed delivery—promptly offered him a minor-league deal and a spot on their 40-man. Fast forward three years, and the 25-year old has 455.2 major league innings under his belt, accompanied by a 3.52 ERA and 1.25 WHIP.

This year, he’s been perhaps the most underrated pitcher in the game, compiling a 3.24 ERA/1.19 WHIP with a 2.85 FIP, the tenth lowest mark in the league. On top of that, he’s been extremely consistent, registering a quality start in 15 of 19 starts, the fourth highest total in the league, tying him with Adam WainwrightGarrett Richards andSonny Gray.

In short, Quintana’s good, consistent, young, left-handed and only getting better. And he’s not a New York Yankee because their front office and scouting department didn’t do its homework—the money made them lazy.

And if that doesn’t make you smile, well, you’re probably a Yankees fan.

3) Phil Hughes … because I like people who are the best at something … and who also aren’t on the New York Yankees.

There was a point in his career when the answer to the question, “What is Phil Hughes the best at?” would have been, “Giving up home runs.” Not anymore, not when he’s pitching half his games at Target Field. Now, armed with the confidence that a lazy fly ball won’t turn into a cheap home run, Hughes has become the best at something infinitely more helpful: not allowing walks.

In 121.2 innings this season he’s allowed 11 free passes, giving him a BB/9 of 0.81, making Hughes the league-leader, by far, in that category. In fact, going back through the baseball-reference.com annals, a starting pitcher hasn’t finished with a sub-1.0 BB/9 since Cliff Lee posted a 0.76 back in 2010. Before that, it was Sweaty Carlos Silva’s 0.43 back in ’05.

Authorial TechnicalityHisashi Iwakuma currently has a 0.74 BB/9 and will have enough innings to qualify for the league’s Leader Board after his next start, so really Hughes isn’t the best at Not Walking People, but don’t you think we should let him have his moment here? After all the sh** we’ve talked about him over the years?

Sifting through his underlying numbers, the only thing preventing Hughes from being elite right now is a BABIP of .341, the sixth highest hit-rate in the league, and the sole reason his ratios sit so high despite the fantastic command (3.92 ERA/1.21 WHIP). Hughes’ FIP, which accounts only for things a pitcher can control—Ks, BBs and HRs—is a revealing 2.62, a number bettered by just three other pitchers, Felix Hernandez, Wainwright, and Jon Lester.

With a career BABIP of .300 it’s fair to expect some second-half normalization, and if that happens … well, Phil Hughes may just have a second-half the likes of which we’ve been expecting since he entered the league as a consensus Top 5 prospect back in 2007. And he’s not doing it for the New York Yankees…

4) Ervin Santana … because he’s no longer showing symptoms of bubonic homeritis.

When you start breaking down Ervin Santana’s decade-long career, it’s kind of amazing to find that, yes, he’s been wildly erratic on a year-to-year basis, we all knew that, but at the same time, he’s been weirdly dependable too. In the nine seasons prior to this one, Santana made 30-plus starts six times, and has made at least 23 starts every year—durability numbers basically unheard of in this day and age, especially considering he pitched through a partial UCL tear and never required TJ surgery.

On the flip-side, he’s allowed, on average, 25 home runs a season, despite having some of the better stuff in the league, directly resulting in his unpredictable ratios and the broken smartphones of numerous Fantasy owners.

So why do I like him now, with an ERA north of 4.00 more than halfway through the season? Two reasons: a) The NL East is filled with big parks and bad teams and b) Santana’s HR/9 is under 0.93 for the first time in his career. And not just by a smidgen, either. He’s allowed just nine home runs, pacing him out well-under 20 for the full year, and giving him a HR/9 of 0.74.

Besides that, his K/9 is at 7.8, up a full point from last year, and opposing hitters are making contact just 72.9-percent of the time, the fifth lowest contact percentage in the league, behind only Clayton KershawTyson Ross, Masahiro Tanaka, and Felix Hernandez. If you’re into Fielding Independent Pitching numbers, Santana’s FIP is 3.30, giving him the tenth largest difference between ERA and FIP (E-F) in the league, while his current xFIP of 3.24 would be the lowest he’s ever posted.

Put it all together, and Santana’s pitching better than he ever has, or at least he’s pitching just as good, only now he’s in the NL. Either way, everything points towards an excellent second-half, assuming, of course, that his bout of bacterium homeritis remains extremely mild this year, perhaps even disappears completely.

5) Stephen Strasburg … because he’s still a superhero.

The Stephen Strasburg who debuted back in 2010, the guy with the blazing fastball and crippling curve, the Overpowering Hammer of Justice, doesn’t exist anymore. He was killed-off when the late-great Dr. Lewis A. Yocum removed the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm and replaced it with a cadaver’s.

Prior to that, he was consistently shooting out 97 mph laser beams and snapping off an 82 mph hook that turned the legs of his enemies to Jell-O. These days he can still dial it up to the high-90′s on occasion, but his fastball velocity sits on average about three miles-an-hour slower, as does his curveball, which he’s relying on less than ever before. In its stead, Strasburg’s change-up has become one of the leagues’ most dominant—only Felix Hernandez’s changeup has been more valuable this season than the Stratosphere’s.

Authorial Notation: That’s three Felix Hernandez references in three straight write-ups, all favorable. He’s pretty good I guess.

Strasburg’s got a career-low walk rate while maintaining a 10.7 K/9, a number that trails only Yu Darvish among qualified starters. If you really want to nerd it up, his K-BB% (Strikeout-Percentage minus Walk-Percentage) is the third highest in the league, behind only David Price and Tanaka. In other words, this is as dominant an ace as there is in the league.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, I can hear you saying, if he’s still so freaking elite, why the hell am I stuck with a 3.46 ERA and 1.22 WHIP then, huh? Explain that to me you damned liar…

Okay, jeez man, chill. I was getting there. It’s simple, really—his .347 BABIP is the third highest in the league, nearly 50 points higher than his career norm. For some context, take a look at the pitchers with the Top Five highest BABIPs, along with their ERA, WHIP and FIP:

RNK PITCHER BABIP ERA WHIP FIP
1 Ricky Nolasco .362 5.90 1.62 4.57
2 Justin Masterson .350 5.51 1.65 4.09
3 Stephen Strasburg .347 3.46 1.22 2.72
4 Brandon McCarthy .346 4.80 1.38 3.76
5 Edwin Jackson .344 5.64 1.58 4.26

Notice how much lower Strasburg’s ratios are? And look at that FIP! It’s only by his sheer dominance—his unwillingness to walk hitters, his determination to strike them out—that 2014 hasn’t been a complete disaster.

My point? If you’re believer in normalization and are willing to trust the peripherals—his 2.48 xFIP is the second lowest in the league—then Strasburg, diminished powers and all, is still more than capable of saving your season.

6) Zach Wheeler … because he only needs to fix one tiny issue.

Left-handed batters, Zack Wheeler needs to stop walking lefties. Right-handers are no problem, nothing more than slap-hitters against his powerful three-pitch arsenal. Lefties, however, while not exactly feasting, are definitely enjoying the spread Wheeler is serving up, posting .289 AVG/.387 OBP/.420 SLG slash line against him. Really, the AVG and SLG aren’t killers, it’s the .387 OBP, fueled by a 5.6 BB/9 (against righties it’s 2.6), that’s led to some really difficult outings—like the one in late June in which the A’s loaded the lineup with six lefties, and Wheeler gave up six hits and two walks in just two innings before being pulled. Damn you sabermetrics!

Sandy Koufax, a decent enough pitcher back in his day, once said: “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.”

It’s a lesson Wheeler seems to be learning, slowly but surely. Over his last 10 starts, one of which was the Oakland disaster, he’s posted a 3.07 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with a .227 AVG/.305 OBP/.318 SLG opponents slash. Most importantly, his BB/9 over that span has been a very respectable 3.1.

Wheeler’s profile as a power-pitching groundball specialist portends future excellence, making him a top Dynasty League target with his value still somewhat deflated, while his FIP of 3.41 and BABIP of .318 suggest better things are in store right now, in the present.

7) Ken Giles … because he’s the Closer of the Future (and we all know what that means)

The future, in this instance, may only be a few weeks away, what with all the GM’s circling around and poking a stick at Jonathan Papelbon’s elephant carcass of a contract. The Phillies have already gone out of their way to announce that if such a trade were to happen, Giles and Jacob Diekman will be the two main competitors for the open gig, and one gets the feeling the Phillies brass is unabashedly hoping Giles is the winner—his 100 mph arm is a crowd-pleaser, and if they’re gonna trade away their decrepit World Series-winning core, they need something to keep fans coming to the ballpark, and Battery Give-Away Night probably isn’t the safest of ideas.

Giles entered the year as the Phillies 20th ranked prospect by Baseball America, with his write-up in the Prospect Handbook beginning, “A classic reliever if ever there was one…” and ending with “…needs to harness his adrenaline to throw more strikes.”

So far, in the bigs he’s done just that, posting an 18/3 K:BB split and giving up just one earned run in 14 innings. Whether or not that’s sustainable is anyone’s guess—there are some major warning signs, including a still developing two-pitch repertoire—even Aroldis Chapman is throwing a changeup 11-percent of the time these days—and the aforementioned strike-throwing problem (he had eight BBs against just nine Ks in 13.2 innings at Triple-A earlier this year).

Plus, there’s the fact that the Closer of the Future label isn’t exactly a dependable endorsement, as I think we’ve learned from guys like Drew StorenNeftali FelizRyan WagnerRex BrothersJoel Zumaya, and Bruce Rondon, all of whom were anointed as a team’s Closer of the Future, only the future never came, or at least it hasn’t yet, not for any sustained length of time.

Whatever happens, dominance or disaster, at least watching Giles will be exciting and interesting, which is more than can be said for anything that’s happened in Philly since Ryan Howard blew out his Achilles in the final at-bat of the final game in the 2011 LDS.

8) Wade Miley … because if I can change, and Wade Miley can change, then everyone can change.

I feel like hypocrite including Wade Miley on this list, like some popular girl who talks non-stop trash about that bitch Cindy but then invites her to an exclusive party and acts all super-nice to her the whole time. Because the truth is, I’ve always kind of disliked Miley as a pitcher. I never bought into his stellar rookie season, didn’t think he had the requisite strikeout stuff to make a real impact in our game, and made public statements about him ending up as a back-end starter with league-specific Fantasy value only.

On the exterior, 2014 has been the worst of Miley’s three-year career, and I suppose I should feel justified, only I don’t. Because inside, on the interior, there’ve been all sorts of improvements, and I’m nothing if not a sucker for people with the ability to change.

Miley’s K/9 is up two full points, from the mid-6.0′s to 8.3, pushing his K/BB above 3.0, and his 3.31 xFIP is a Top 25 mark. Looking at it on a game-to-game basis, he’s been the epitome of middle-rotation consistency since April—in his final 13 starts prior to the All Star Break, Miley pitched into the 7th inning nine times and never allowed more than four runs. The one problem he’s had, the reason his ERA is so high despite the peripheral improvement, has been bad luck at home, particularly his inability to prevent balls from flying over Chase Field’s walls.

In 10 road starts, Miley has a 2.85 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. At home, in an equal 10 starts, his ratios come in at a 5.64 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. Peripherally, all is the same, except for one major difference: he’s surrendered 12 homers in 60 innings at home, and just five in 66.2 innings on the road. Apparently, Miley and Chase Field get along like garlic butter and my digestive tract—explosively.

Here’s the thing though—Miley’s 15.7 HR/FB rate is the third highest in the league, behind only Brandon McCarthy and Marco Estrada, and well below his career number of 11.2. The fact that he’s a heavy ground-ball pitcher has helped stave off total ratio collapse, and if he can just get league average luck in the HR/FB department over the second half, Miley could very well return Top 40 starting pitcher value from here on.

Just maybe avoid him at home until that whole situation settles down—no reason to get diarrhea on your shoes if you don’t have to.

9) Luke Gregerson … because sometimes second place is just fine.

Gregerson received plenty of save chances backing up Heath Bell and Huston Street in San Diego, only he was never any good at it, saving just 16 of 24 opportunities despite posting a 2.88 ERA and 1.09 WHIP over five almost entirely healthy seasons.

When Jim Johnson imploded within the first month, Gregerson once again found himself thrust into ninth-inning duties, and once again found himself yorking-up leads, blowing six of nine save chances before Sean Doolittle’s Beard was handed the job permanently.

Authorial Speculation: Maybe it’s just me, but I have the feeling that when Bob Melvin called Gregerson into his office, told him to shut the door and sit down, and then informed him they were letting Doolittle handle the gig, the first thing Gregerson did, after stifling a smile and shaking Melvin’s hand, was go take the first solid dump he’d had in three weeks.

The point of this isn’t to disparage Gregerson, it’s to applaud him for never letting his complete and utter failure as a closer affect what he really excels at—protecting leads, holding them for the closer to take care of when the spotlight’s on in the ninth inning.

Since 2009, no reliever comes close to Gregerson’s 147 Holds, and this year he sits ninth in the league with 15, despite spending a month sweating out ninth-innings. He’s also sporting career-lows in ERA (2.12) and BB/9 (1.9), and leads the league with 45 appearances. As I’ve outlined before, there’s room for middle-relievers in standard leagues, and there’s not many that are as reliable and comforting as Luke Gregerson, even if he can’t be counted on to save your cat from a really tangly bush or anything stressful like that.

10) Danny Duffy … just because.

Duffy, part of the Royals’ Greatest Farm System Ever, debuted in 2011 as a 22-year old, showing plus-stuff before blowing out his elbow a month into the next season. He returned at the end of 2013, registering a 1.85 ERA in five starts, though his command was an issue, evident in his 5.2 BB/9. This season, Yordana Ventura beat him out for the fifth spot during 2014 Spring Training, relegating Duffy to the bullpen, and completely crushing whatever hype was left.

After serving a month down in the pen, Duffy was released due to good behavior and inserted back into the starting rotation. It took him a few starts to get re-acclimated and stretched-out, but since June, check it:

STARTS IP ERA WHIP K/BB
8 49.1 2.19 0.99 3.5

Those are some elite numbers right there, which he’s achieved by sacrificing a few Ks (7.1 K/9) for far fewer walks (3.1 BB/9), letting opponents take a crack at hitting his 94 mph heater that bores in from the left side, and ranks as one of the league’s ten most effective fastballs (opponents are hitting just .194 against the pitch).

Now, here’s the part where the analyst in me wants to say that everything is about to come crashing back to earth, that his underlying numbers are so glaringly in contrast to his results that his performance can’t possibly be sustained. The part where I cite his overly fortunate BABIP (.239) and HR/FB rate (6.4 percent), along with the accompanying 3.80 FIP and 4.36 xFIP and tell you to sell, sell! SELL!!

But I’m not going to do that, not going to suggest that Duffy won’t be able to outpitch his peripherals over the course of the season, and sure to regress to the mean. Because, for whatever unsupported reason, I don’t believe it. I just really like the guy.

And as my parents taught me when they were tired and frustrated and didn’t want to explain things to a 7-year-old me anymore: sometimes just because is the only reason you need.

 

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