Fantasy players are starting to wake up from their baseball hibernation and are once again diving back into things and familiarizing themselves with the player pool, any offseason moves and most of all, the stats. This is a good place to start, but I want us to go all the way back to a time when baseball was still in full swing. As we all know, starting in June or July, many Fantasy owners’ attention shifts towards Fantasy Football. While Fantasy players are prepping for football, they may tend to look into baseball less and less, which can leave players that have a big second half overlooked. As a result they tent to slide down draft boards.
My strategy to address pitching is to draft two top arms in the first four or five rounds. After that, I am fine waiting rounds and rounds before loading up on some high upside pitchers in the double-digit rounds. I sought to find some pitchers going later in drafts that I believe could break out.
What I decided to do was look into some pitchers that started off slow before finishing the season strong. My thinking is that many owners wrote off these players after the slow start, or would be quick to credit the play down the stretch as a hot streak or luck. However, to combat that, I found pitchers that had some sort of change, whether it be changing teams, or their style, that correlate with their hot run. All of these pitchers can be targeted later in drafts to provide depth, and they still have a chance to break out and vastly out-produce their ADP.
James Paxton, Seattle Mariners
Paxton has been a breakout candidate for a few seasons. Well, I think the lefty that can throw fire finally
broke out in 2016, but you may not think so looking at his final numbers. He finished the season with a 3.79 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 3.35 xFIP, and a 1.31 WHIP, and paired those with an 8.70 K/9, and 1.79 BB/9. He had a .347 BABIP and a 66.3 percent strand rate, which are both unlucky and explain why his ERA was so much higher than his FIP. However, while those numbers are respectable, you may look at them and say they are good, but not breakout material. But when you break up his numbers, you see that his season was a tale of two pitchers.
In his first nine starts he pitched to a 4.56 ERA, 3.24 FIP and a 1.63 WHIP, and averaged 7.76 K/9 and 2.53 BB/9. However, in his final 11 starts he had a 3.19 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 3.80 xFIP, and 1.05 WHIP, and averaged 9.44 K/9, and 1.20 BB/9. In fact, he struck out 26 percent of the batters he faced in that stretch, while he walked just 3.3 percent of opposing hitters. Yeah, I’d say he broke out in those final 11 starts. There is a reason I am buying into this stretch and not just thinking it is a hot streak or a lucky run.
Paxton had a change in his arsenal. Over those final 11 games he started to throw his curveball more and more. In fact, it became his second most used pitch behind his fastball. He started to throw it 19.5 percent of the time, compared to just 6.6 percent early on, throwing it in place of his cutter and changeup, as he threw each significantly less, especially the cutter. Pairing his curveball with a fastball that sits in the upper 90s was clearly effective for Paxton, as he started to miss more bats and pile up more strikeouts. Not only that, he cut down on the walks and had fewer men on base, which led to a lower ERA. He currently has an NFBC ADP of 200, meaning that he goes on average in the 16th round. I will gladly pay that price and take a chance on Paxton. In fact, I would be willing to take him rounds earlier just to ensure I land him.
Matt Shoemaker, Los Angeles Angels
Many came into the 2016 season wondering which Shoemaker was the real one: the one who pitched to a 3.04 ERA in 2014, or the one that bottomed out in 2015. Well, early on it appeared it was the latter, and many wrote him off and cut bait with him. I cannot blame them as Shoemaker had an 8.49 ERA, 6.05 FIP, 5.28 xFIP, 1.85 WHIP and just a 6.67 K/9 and 3.94 BB/9 through his first eight starts. However, something changed and he caught fire in his final 20 starts. During that stretch, he pitched to a 2.83 ERA, 2.94 FIP with a 1.08 WHIP, and improved to an 8.36 K/9 and a 1.17 BB/9.
He finished the year with a 9-13 record, a 3.88 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. If owners are looking at end of the year numbers there is no chance that Shoemaker jumps out to them. If they remember the slow start, there’s a good chance they just keep scrolling. But, for those who do not remember, Shoemaker went on a very impressive run, as we can see by those final 20 starts. I am a believer, and it is all because he started to rely more on his best pitch.
Early in the season Shoemaker was mixing in his slider and curveball more, and only throwing his split finger 23 percent of the time. Well, that all changed in those final 20 starts. He started to throw his fastball slightly less, at just 48 percent, compared to the 52.9 percent early in the season. His slider usage dropped from 19.9 percent to 11.3 percent, while he basically cut his curveball out of his arsenal. However, he started to throw his best pitch, his split finger fastball, a lot more. Shoemaker’s usage of his split finger increased from 23 percent to 40.3 percent. That change correlates with his success, as his strikeout numbers jumped, his walk rate declined and his ERA and WHIP shot way, way down.
There are some reasons to be concerned. Some will be skeptical to believe that throwing one pitch more often can really lead to this much success. He also had a poor record due to the fact that he received just an average of 3.63 runs of support per game, which could be an issue again this year. Also, the last we saw Shoemaker, he was struck in the head with a liner in a very scary moment. However, he has been cleared to pitch in 2017. He currently has an NFBC ADP of 234, meaning that he is going in the 19th round in 12-team leagues. He is purely an upside flier, that I will gladly gamble on this season.
Ivan Nova, Pittsburgh Pirates
Nova made a change that we all witnessed. He changed teams and leagues, as he was traded from the Yankees to the Pirates. Pitching in the more friendly confines of the NL clearly helped Nova. In 97.1 innings with the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, 5.10 FIP and a 1.356 WHIP, and he only averaged 6.9 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. However, once he put on the black and gold, he pitched to a 3.06 ERA, 2.62 FIP and a 1.098 WHIP, with a 7.2 K/9 and 0.4 BB/9 in 64.2 innings. Nova seems to be the newest successful resurrection project of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. One thing we know about Searage is he is always working with pitchers to “stay in their lane,” helping improve their control. That certainly seems to be the case with Nova.
We already addressed that he changed teams and leagues, which definitely helped his value. But that wasn’t the only change. Perhaps it was due to Searage, but Nova started throwing his off-speed pitches even more. His fastball usage dropped from 66.4 percent with the Yankees, to 62 percent with the Pirates and he basically stopped throwing his cutter. His curveball usage jumped from 27.2 percent with the Yankees to 30.3 percent with the Pirates, while his changeup jumped from 2.4 percent to 6.9 percent. It makes sense, since his curveball is his only positive rated pitch in his career. He is currently going off the board as the 278th pick, which equates to a 23rd round pick. He is easily worth a flier that late.
Sean Manaea, Oakland Athletics
Manaea is a young lefty that made his MLB debut in 2016. Coming into the year many were high on him, myself included, but may have been turned off with the early results. In his first 11 starts he had a 5.85 ERA, 4.78 FIP and a 147 WHIP, and averaged just 7.35 K/9 and 3.00 BB/9. But then something clicked for the youngster. In his final 14 games he pitched to a 2.44 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 0.99 WHIP, with a 7.97 K/9 and 1.81 BB/9.
The change began as he started to throw his changeup more frequently, in place of his fastball and slider. In fact, he started throwing his changeup 31.6 percent of the time, compared to just 23.2 percent early on. Add that in with the fact that the kid was probably adjusting to being called up, and I am a believer in the former top prospect going forward. He will cost an earlier pick than the other guys, as his NFBC ADP has him going 178th overall, in the 14th round. However, for those who decide to attack pitchers early and then wait for upside arms later, he is a great pick.
Jon Gray pitched to a 3.18 FIP in the second half, which was the 10th best in that span.
Eduardo Rodriguez had a 3.48 FIP in this span, the 18th best.
Mike Foltynewicz had a 3.68 FIP in the second half, the 27th best during that stretch.
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