It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates. We’re barely into the offseason, but it’s a great time to start discussing some players to watch as we look toward 2016.
For the second year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. We’ve already covered WHIP, home runs strikeouts, and batting average, and this week we’ll be reviewing hitters who could be sleepers for ERA. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers per each category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Mixed League Sleepers
Jesse Hahn, Athletics
Hahn had a disappointing 2015 season, if only for the fact that he made 16 starts due to an elbow injury. While on the mound, he posted a 3.35 ERA and made nice strides with his control (2.3 BB/9). As he did in his rookie season with San Diego, Hahn had no trouble keeping the ball in the park on the A’s with only five homers allowed in 96.2 innings. His 5.4 percent extra-base hit percentage was two percent below league average, which certainly helped his cause. Hahn ranked eighth in groundball percentage among starting pitchers with at least 80 innings.
The grounders are a major safeguard for his ERA, helping Hahn limit damage. The major questions going into 2016 revolve around the health of his elbow, which makes him a relatively high risk, high reward pitcher. Hahn made his last start on July 1, but did resume throwing in September. His ADP in NFBC slow starts is 381, meaning he’s being drafted like a bench player even in 15-team leagues. For the ERA upside and what he’s produced over 170 career innings (3.23 ERA, 1.19 WHIP), he’s worth much more.
Mat Latos, Free Agent
I try to avoid mentioning bounceback players in these lists, but Latos is well off the radar after two down years. He will likely go undrafted in most mixed leagues, pending a very favorable situation after producing a 4.95 ERA in 116.1 innings between three teams last season. It was far and away his worst season in the majors, but the indicators tell a more favorable story. After four straight seasons of declining velocity, Latos’ velocity increased slightly last season. It was still below his 2013 level, but Latos’ K/9 rebounded to 7.7 and he showed the third best K/BB ratio of his career at 3.13. The result was one of the biggest discrepancies of any pitcher between ERA and FIP (3.72), even with his career-worst .429 slugging percentage against. Latos’ was extremely hittable with a .313 BABIP, nearly 30 points above his career average.
The risk of mentioning Latos at this point is that we have no idea where he’ll end up pitching. His home environment and instruction will certainly matter, and the last mention of interest showed a mix of favorable and not so favorable destinations. But it’s worth remembering Latos is still only 28, and had a career 3.34 ERA pitching half his seasons in hitter-friendly Cincinnati. The velocity isn’t the same as his early career, but Latos is highly capable of at least a league-average ERA if his command remains the same.
Martin Perez, Rangers
Perez returned from Tommy John surgery just after the All-Star break, and had a quiet second half. The lefty’s 3-6 record and 4.46 ERA in 14 starts didn’t cause many fantasy owners to scan the waiver wire for him, nor did his below-average 5.5 K/9. Hidden in those numbers were an impressive 3.40 FIP and 4.06 SIERA, showing a much better pitcher. The lefty also showed as an extreme groundball pitcher, ranking fifth in groundball percentage with starters of at least 70 innings behind the likes of Brett Anderson, Dallas Keuchel, Tyson Ross, and Jaime Garcia.
The impressive groundball rate has helped Perez allow only six long balls over his last two seasons of work, 130 innings combined. Like the aforementioned Hahn, the groundball rate has helped him produce an extra-base hit percentage well below league average at 6.5 percent last season. Though, the most convincing evidence of his potential could be his last two months of performance over 11 starts. Over that time, Perez had a 3.38 ERA and allowed more than three earned runs in only two of his starts. Certainly, there are more favorable home ballparks than Arlington, but Perez’s groundball rate gives him the ability to nullify its impact slightly. He’s capable as a solid ERA contributor for a minimal price, currently going beyond 500 ADP in NFBC.
Rick Porcello, Red Sox
Porcello is one of several unbelievably ugly contracts the Red Sox have added to over the last 12 months, and I won’t spend the effort trying to reason with the four-year, $82 million deal that begins this season. The good news for Boston fans, if any, is that Porcello actually showed major signs of growth despite his 4.92 ERA and 15 losses last season. Among them are a career-best 7.8 K/9 and 3.92 K/BB. The result was a viable 4.13 FIP and 3.73 SIERA, even with his hideous 1.3 HR/9 rate.
Traditionally a groundball pitcher, Porcello showed significant adjustments last season with easily the lowest groundball rate of his career. The change came as a clear result of throwing his four-seam fastball more often at the expense of his two-seamer, a trend that started in 2014. Over Porcello’s first 20 starts last season, he posted a 5.81 ERA and then went on the DL in August with triceps inflammation. Porcello made eight starts after returning in late August, and might have just won some money for astute fantasy owners with a 3.14 ERA and nearly one strikeout per inning. Only Porcello knows how long the arm issues impacted his performance, but it’s clear that he was healthy down the stretch. After showing control last season, there’s hope we’ll be able to find a fantasy asset for a minimal price.
Single League Sleepers
Zach Davies, Brewers
Acquired from the O’s last season straight up for Gerardo Parra, Davies could turn out to be a real steal soon. He was solid in his major league debut for the Brewers, posting a 3.71 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in six starts. Prior to his call-up, Davies had a 3.30 ERA in 128.1 innings at Triple-A vs. mostly more advanced competition at age 22.
Davies has received very little fanfare as a former 26th round pick who averaged less than 89 mph on his fastball after arriving to the majors. The reason he has been so successful, as is the case with several other pitchers mentioned in this piece, is his extreme groundball rate. He produced an elite 2.30 GO/FO ratio in his brief major league time last season, and an above average 1.64 ratio in the minors. His career 7.8 K/9 in the minors hasn’t turned heads, but it’s more than ample given his groundball rate. A 2.9 BB/9 rate in the minors also shows significantly more control than what he produced in Milwaukee, and also shows further room for growth. The upside seems fairly limited, but Davies has a decent shot of winning a rotation spot and inducing enough grounders to be a 4.00 ERA end-game play in NL-only leagues.
Erik Johnson, White Sox
Johnson looked like he was on the cusp of breaking out in 2014 after a great 2013 season that included dominance at three different levels, including the majors. He broke camp in 2014 in the White Sox rotation, but diminished velocity made for a rough year. He averaged sub-90 mph on his fastball, more than two mph below what he showed in his 2013 debut, and the poor results carried over to Triple-A with a 6.73 ERA in 20 starts.
He quietly proved that he was back last season, dominating again at Triple-A Charlotte. Johnson went 11-8 with a 2.37 ERA and 9.2 K/9 in 132.2 innings before making it back to the majors and posting a 3.34 ERA in six starts. Those results are quite similar to what Johnson showed in 2013 as a minor leaguer, with a 1.96 ERA in 24 starts, along with an 8.3 K/9 between Double-A and Triple-A. His average fastball, while not quite what it was in 2013, did rebound relative to 2014. The White Sox have been quiet in the pitching market this offseason, even giving up top starting prospect Frankie Montas in the Todd Frazier trade. Johnson remains the top candidate for the team’s fifth starter job, and could even jump John Danks after his less than stellar 2015. Home runs have been an issue for Johnson in his brief major league time, but last year’s rebound shows real upside.
Jon Niese, Pirates
Often mentioned in trade rumors last year, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Mets moved Niese. It was somewhat surprising that the Pirates traded Neil Walker just for Niese, but the lefty’s profile does make sense for the Pirates. The team has ranked first in groundball percentage in each of the last three seasons, while Niese had a career-best 54.5 percent groundball rate last year. Even with the increase, Niese’s home run rate increased and his ERA went above 4.00 for the first time since 2011 with a career-worst 5.8 K/9. His ERA metrics showed an even worse pitcher, with a 4.41 FIP and 4.27 SIERA on top of his actual 4.13 ERA.
Those facts don’t make Niese particularly attractive going into the draft, but the move to Pittsburgh is the great equalizer. Pitching coach Ray Searage has done a masterful job with capable groundball pitchers in recent seasons, including A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez, Charlie Morton, and Mark Melancon. A history of minor shoulder issues for Niese is a concern and the minimal strikeouts recently limit the upside, but the situation is promising enough to take a flier.
Tyler Wagner, Brewers
Yes, another young Brewers pitcher. Wagner’s debut with Milwaukee in September didn’t go quite as well as Davies, but he was one of several terrific performers for Double-A Biloxi prior to his promotion. Wagner produced a 2.25 ERA in 24 starts, which followed up his 1.86 ERA at High-A Brevard County in 2014. Wagner is two years older than Davies, but otherwise his profile is similar. He barely touches 90 mph with his fastball, and hasn’t produced great minor league strikeout rates with a career 7.2 K/9.
Entering his age 25 season with no Triple-A experience and a poor minor league strikeout rate, Wagner is far from a safe projection. Still, he does look interesting as a fifth starter due to his extreme groundball rate. Wagner was among the minor league leaders in groundball rate last season, with a 2.70 GO/FO ratio. That rate is similar to what he’s shown at lower levels, and gives him a chance to stick around as a fifth starter despite the limited upside. Of course, this week’s signing of Chris Carter to play first base doesn’t do much for the team’s infield defense, but the capability of an elite groundball rate does make him worth a flier in NL-only leagues if he can crack the rotation.