Drafting a winning Fantasy pitching staff is too often like trying to feel your way around in the dark; you know the direction in which you need to head, but too often you stumble and stub your toe. Many owners call the familiar names of pitchers on the other side of their prime because they are familiar, but truthfully, we all want to uncover that next great arm, that potential ace or strong number two for our staffs.
When we talk about pitching, in the real game or on our Fantasy teams, we like those arms that strike out batters, limit walks and throw groundballs; that tends to be the recipe for success. But, if we scratch the surface, we can find a new generation of young arms who are displaying those skills, even if their standard and Fantasy stats don’t reflect greatness. Yet.
So I got to thinking (you can probably smell it from there): Who are the young arms who are demonstrating the most skills, particularly in those key statistical measures?
So I scratched the surface. First, I made a list of every pitcher age 25 and under last season that tossed at least 50 innings and kept only those who struck out at least 7.0 batters per nine innings. (I suggest you target 7.5 K/9 for Fantasy, but young pitchers tend to grow their strikeout rates, so 7.0 per nine innings is a good floor.) The search yielded 78 names. Next, I eliminated those that walked more than 3.5 per nine innings. Again, I would look to a better number, around 3.0 or fewer per nine innings, but 3.5 walks per nine plus 7.0 K/9 is a 2:1 K/BB ratio, which is another key metric for a pitcher, especially a young arm. Then, I shaved the list to those who owned a groundball rate (GB%) of at least 40 percent.
Our final list of young arms was pared down to 21, from our original 78. Again, they demonstrated each of these skills in 2014:
- 7.0 K/9 minimum;
- 3.5 BB/9 or lower;
- 40 percent GB% minimum.
Of these 21 pitchers, 16 of them had winning records; five had records below .500. Wins, by themselves, are a terrible measure of value as you don’t see run support, luck of the pitcher, or how well the pitchers who followed pitched. But, I would say that this combination of skills yields more wins than losses. A win, here, is a likely outcome. And it is probably one of your scoring categories.
So let’s look at the names. A pitcher’s age is for last season. FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching, or what an expected ERA is for a pitcher if he had league average defense behind him.
*Whitley and Pomeranz started in exactly half of their outings
The obvious: Sale, Strasburg, and Bumgarner have made this list in previous seasons, so it is no surprise they are back again, and it’s a great reminder that Strasburg is an ace and should be treated/drafted like one. Jose Fernandez made the list before his arm injury forced him into Tommy John surgery. Though he may return mid-season, don’t expect much immediately upon return.
The mildly surprising: These are the names that will win Fantasy championships in 2015: Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, Chris Archer, Yordano Ventura, Alex Wood, Gerrit Cole and Michael Wacha. Young arms, albeit with some risk and/or uneven performances of late. Personally, I don’t know why Alex Wood wasn’t in the Braves’ rotation all year. He’s got the tools and the stuff to succeed, even at age 22 last year. Quintana, Archer, and Cole appeared on this list last year, so they have both the innings under their belt and a repeated skill set. A guy named Dallas Keuchel made the list last year, despite his 6-10 record. (What was that I said about wins as a measure?)
When I advocate skipping the Sales, Strasburgs, Bumgarners early in the draft for top-notch hitters and power, this is why. Rounds 7-15 are full of hurlers who have shown skills but need more innings. My philosophy is to draft four or five number two starters. The guy who grabs Strasburg or Kershaw is probably going to sit back a while for pitching, getting a touch too confident. So he’s got Kershaw and, starting in Round 7 for example, you grab Alex Cobb or Jake Arrieta (Matt Harvey is probably available in the 50s or 60s also) and fill out the core of your staff with Wood, Ventura, and Quintana, you will be very very happy with your pitching output, even without that true ace (until one of your draftees shows that he IS a true ace).
The hidden gems: TJ House, Shane Greene, Chase Whitley, Jimmy Nelson, Drew Pomeranz, Dominic Leone and Mike Morin are all names worth monitoring. If you’ve heard any Fantasy buzz about any of these guys, bump them up a tiny bit on your draft sheet. Control is often an issue with young arms, but when pitchers carry obvious skills, especially strikeout ability, they almost always get the chance to improve their walk rates, and most often they do.
A guy like House isn’t being drafted often. He is looking to earn a rotation spot in spring, but watch his progress and any news out of the Indians about him. If he earns the fifth spot, draft him late and stash him. You don’t want someone grabbing obvious talent as a streaming pitching option only to keep him after an impressive outing.
Greene went to the Tigers from the Yankees in the three-team Didi Gregorius trade and is expected to slide into their rotation, which lost Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer this offseason. He is not receiving draft attention yet, but if he has a good spring I would expect him to be an end-game player. Draft him anyway. His control is a possible issue, but – say it with me – it usually does improve in younger pitchers.
Do not be scared by Chase Whitley’s 5.23 ERA, but watch spring news for his early season status. He stepped into the injured Yankee rotation last year and was solid but inconsistent. If he gets April starts in the bigs keep a close eye on him.
Watch out for Jimmy Nelson because your league mates will look at a 2-9 record and a 4.93 ERA. His FIP tells you he was more than a run better than is ERA, and many of his skill statistics, including control, improved last year. He yielded a BABIP of .344, about 45 points higher than league average; so things will get much better for Mr. Nelson this year.
Dominic Leone strikes out more than a hitter per inning and owned a 55 percent groundball rate. That spells success in 2015; watch for news of his role. He could become one of those reliable setup men who can feed 75 or more strikeouts to your team’s total, if you stream correctly.
Don’t forget these stats:
When you are perusing the waiver wire during the season, use these underlying skill-based stats to determine not only who has been lucky or unlucky, but more importantly, who is more likely to succeed moving forward. Younger pitchers who exceed in these areas tend to stick around and receive that very important second look for important rotation or back of the bullpen jobs.
So, scratch the surface and make the intelligent choice at the draft table and the waiver wire this season.