It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2017. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2017 fantasy baseball season.
For the third year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. So far we’ve looked at batting average, WHIP, home run, and strikeout sleepers. In the fifth installment of the series we’ll be reviewing pitchers who could be sleepers for ERA. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto 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
Mike Foltynewicz, SP, Braves
Foltynewicz is coming off a solid but unspectacular season in Atlanta, going 9-5 with a 4.31 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 22 starts. For the third season in a row, Foltynewicz had trouble keeping the ball in the park (1.3 HR/9), but he’s shown solid improvement with his control (2.6 BB/9). The ERA metrics generally support what we saw from Foltynewicz’s ERA (4.24 FIP, 4.13 SIERA), but there’s reason to be optimistic based on his stretch run and improving command. The former top Astros prospect has continued to average better than 95 mph on his fastball, and his control was actually the best of his pro career. Foltynewicz’s 13 percent home run per flyball rate was quite high, but over the last month he allowed only five home runs in 56.1 innings (0.8 HR/9).
Can the improved command (3.17 K/BB) help Foltynewicz keep the ball in the park? That’s the hope, though certainly far from a guarantee. It’s encouraging that Foltynewicz did make progress late in the year, and he’s currently slotted in as Atlanta’s fifth starter behind Julio Teheran, Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and Jaime Garcia in a revamped rotation as the Braves open their new ballpark. Finally controlling a fastball that ranked seventh best in average velocity among starters last season, Foltynewicz seems well worth a flier in mixed leagues.
Aaron Nola, SP, Phillies
Be prepared for Nola to appear on many keeper lists. His metrics from last season are filled with bad luck, most notably the 12th worst BABIP among starters at .334. Just focusing on his components, there’s no way one would predict a 4.78 ERA as his end product in 2016. Nola had a brilliant 9.8 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, and 0.8 HR/9, resulting in a 3.08 FIP and 3.28 SIERA for the season. In fact, the 2014 first-round pick looked like an ace through the first two months of the season, with a 2.88 ERA. Added was his elite groundball rate at 55 percent, helping prevent extra-base hits. His ERA ballooned during the following two months before an elbow issue ended his season. It’s fair to speculate if Nola’s elbow was impacting him well before his season ended.
Nola underwent a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow during September, and claimed that he was healthy in early November. We won’t really know if he’s healthy until spring training, and the best predictor of future arm injuries is past arm trouble. Certainly, Nola is a risk heading into 2017, and the Phillies mediocre offense and bullpen won’t help him much. Still, there is clear ace upside immediately.
Robbie Ray, SP, Diamondbacks
The case for Ray’s brilliant sabermetrics season in 2016 has been covered ad nauseum. To summarize, despite a 4.90 ERA, Ray only trailed Jose Fernandez and Yu Darvish in K/9 and had a 3.76 FIP and 3.59 SIERA. According to Baseball Prospectus, Ray had the 15th best pitcher Wins Above Replacement, ranking one spot behind AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. Unfortunately, Ray was very unlucky with a league-worst .352 BABIP, more than 40 points worse than his 2015 performance, and also had a home run rate that nearly doubled compared to the previous season.
All those metrics are great, but the question is now whether Ray can capitalize on them to help his ERA. Ultimately, it could come down to his velocity. The lefty has shown a significant velocity increase in each of the last two seasons, with a fastball that’s nearly three mph faster than it was with Detroit in 2014, along with a slider that is four mph faster. Ray’s home ballpark, Chase Field, adds another challenge as one of the most hitter-friendly environments in the game. Regardless, last year’s metrics will make Ray a very popular sleeper in 2017, and rightfully so.
Marcus Stroman, SP, Blue Jays
Near the top of the rotation on a playoff team, there’s a perception among many fantasy owners that Stroman is already a top pitcher. However, he failed to rank among the top 100 pitchers last season and likely enters 2017 in the lower tier of starters in mixed leagues. Simply put, the Blue Jays and fantasy owners need much better from Stroman than a 4.37 ERA and 1.29 WHIP to justify a significant investment, especially given his so-so 7.3 K/9 for his career.
There is reason to believe Stroman will improve in 2017, though. He had a 3.71 FIP and 3.62 SIERA last season, already showing signs that his ERA should have been better. His command remained excellent with a 3.07 K/BB ratio, and Stroman’s 60 percent groundball rate ranked tops in baseball among qualifying starting pitchers. His prowess as an extreme groundball pitcher is what makes Stroman so intriguing for ERA, and one would think his 8.0 extra-base hit percentage (slightly above league average) would improve if he continues to provoke so many grounders. That was exactly the case during the second half of the season, when Stroman’s doubles allowed plunged and he had a 3.68 ERA in 14 starts. While Stroman is unlikely to ever be an ace with his current strikeout rate, it wouldn’t be surprising if we see up to one run of ERA improvement in 2017.
Single League Sleepers
Archie Bradley, SP, Diamondbacks
The second Diamondbacks starter to be mentioned in the ERA sleepers, Bradley’s early career hasn’t gone as planned. Over two seasons and 34 major league starts, the former top prospect has a 5.18 ERA due to large part to very mediocre control (4.5 BB/9). In spite of his issues avoiding walks, Bradley’s 4.10 FIP and 4.35 SIERA last season were satisfactory, and far better than his 5.02 ERA. Bradley’s ability to miss bats shined last season with a 9.1 K/9, and his control did start to shape up a bit over the last two months with a sub-4.0 BB/9 over that time.
Control issues and a hitter-friendly home ballpark aren’t usually factors we look for in a fantasy asset, but Bradley’s great strikeout rate and minor league track record (3.01 ERA) make him a very interesting arm to watch. The ERA indicators show that he should improve enough to help in NL-only leagues, with the upside to be a viable pitcher in mixed leagues.
Mike Montgomery, P, Cubs
The Cubs acquired Montgomery near the trade deadline from Seattle last season, paying a significant price in hitting prospect Dan Vogelbach. The lefty and former top pitching prospect with Kansas City had an excellent year, with a 2.52 ERA over 100 innings between seven starts and 42 relief appearances. During those seven starts, Montgomery had a 3.28 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 35.2 innings. He showed a significant increase in velocity with the help of his relief work, and also further developed his status as an extreme groundball pitcher with a groundball-to-flyball ratio above 3.00. While that rate seems unlikely to be maintained in a starting role given the likely drop in velocity, it’s still encouraging with an elite Cubs defense.
Montgomery is expected to enter spring training as a starter, and it remains to be seen if the Cubs will add another arm to the competition as they try to replace Jason Hammel. Still, all of the indicators from last season were excellent, as was Montgomery’s success in a starting role. Depending on the other starting candidates Chicago adds this offseason, Montgomery could be worth a significant investment in NL-only leagues.
Charlie Morton, SP, Astros
Morton signed a two-year, $14 million contract with Houston this offseason despite making only four starts last season due to a torn hamstring. The right-hander has a 4.54 ERA in 893 career innings, so that type of money does seem curious. Though, the Astros have been partial to groundball pitchers, and Morton certainly fits the bill there. He had a 63 percent groundball rate over his four starts last season, and his groundball rate has been no worse than 56 percent since 2011. That’s truly elite, and there’s even more reason to be interested based on a limited sample size of results late year. Morton had a significant uptick in fastball velocity, and it’s probably no coincidence that his strikeouts were also up before he got hurt.
Regardless of whether the velocity and strikeouts hold, Morton has proven he can be a single-league ERA asset in the past. He had a sub-4.00 ERA in 2011, 2013, and 2014 due in large part due his extreme groundball rate and ability to keep the ball in the park. While Morton has proven injury prone during his career, the groundballs should play anywhere, especially with a strong infield defense behind him in Houston. He should enter 2017 as a high floor flier in AL-only leagues.
Luis Perdomo, SP, Padres
Selected in the Rule 5 draft by Colorado and then purchased by San Diego, Perdomo made the jump from High-A to the majors last season. The end result wasn’t pretty, but the Padres could be rewarded for their patience. It’s easy to see why San Diego liked Perdomo’s arm, with a fastball that averaged nearly 94 mph and an elite 59 percent groundball rate. With such a high groundball rate, it’s surprising that Perdomo allowed 23 home runs in 146.2 innings. However, Perdomo really started to settle in after the All-Star break with a 4.30 ERA in 13 starts. For the season, Perdomo had a respectable 4.04 SIERA due in large part to his extreme groundball rate.
It would seem like a low ceiling for Perdomo if we’re just hoping for his ERA to match his SIERA from last year alongside a 6.4 K/9, but that’s not necessarily the case. Remember, Perdomo was extremely inexperienced and overexposed in the majors, so there should be more strikeout upside given his career 7.7 K/9 in the minors and excellent fastball velocity. Until then, the groundball rate does make him possibly viable for ERA in NL-only leagues.