Every fantasy player must take risks throughout the season if he is going to build a strong roster. Would that we could have pitching staffs made up of Clayton Kershaws and Felix Hernandezes. Instead, we must dig into the trash bin at times, hoping to find a hidden gem to propel us to a championship. It is not nearly as daunting a task if you know what to look for and how to look for it, however.
Pitchers have a lot of control over three areas: their strikeout rates, their walk rates and their batted ball profiles (i.e. ground ball vs. fly ball). By focusing on these stats, one can predict with a great deal of accuracy how a pitcher will perform in the future. Conversely, by looking at extremes in areas not truly representative of a pitcher’s skill, one can identify outliers destined to return to form. The stat I will be focusing on here is BABIP, or batting average on balls in play. Starters straying too far above the league average of .296 typically had poor results, but those results are unlikely to stick going forward. By taking a chance on pitchers of this ilk, one can potentially gain a lot of value for very little cost.
o Brandon McCarthy, Los Angeles Dodgers
McCarthy averaged 5.3 strikeouts for every one walk, the ninth-best ratio among starting pitchers this past season. While he doesn’t have the type of stuff to blow hitters away, his pristine control and propensity to induce ground balls pushes fortune in his favor, usually. Moreover, upon arriving in the Bronx from Arizona in early July, the Yankees had him start throwing his cut fastball again, a practice the Diamondbacks forbade. McCarthy finished with a 4.05 ERA, but his .330 BABIP was about 35 points above both the league average and McCarthy’s career average. The move to Dodger Stadium and the Dodgers’ improved infield defense should help McCarthy immensely as well.
o Nathan Eovaldi, New York Yankees
Eovaldi was frustrating for fantasy owners, flashing a fastball that sat at 95 MPH but mustering a below-average strikeout rate at 16.6 percent. The Marlins were just as frustrated, sending the 24-year-old to the Yankees in the Martin Prado trade. As a result, the Yankees may have a diamond in the rough. While Eovaldi’s inability to finish hitters with a strikeout is concerning, it’s a teachable skill and he has other skills representative of a productive pitcher. He walked only five percent of batters, giving him a K/BB ratio of 3.3. Further, he suffered from a .323 BABIP which led to a meager 65.5 strand rate, which led to a 4.37 ERA. Under the tutelage of pitching coach Larry Rothschild, expect Eovaldi to make some significant strides in 2015.
o Ervin Santana, Minnesota Twins
If one looks only at Santana’s 2.84 K/BB ratio (21.9%/7.7%), the right-hander is in the same vicinity as Kyle Lohse, Jon Niese and Dallas Keuchel – certainly fine company. Instead, due to a .319 BABIP, Santana finished with a 3.95 ERA, nearly a half-run per nine innings higher than was estimated based on factors most within his control. With the Braves, Santana posted the second-highest strikeout rate of his career without sacrificing much, if anything, in the way of control. This was due, in part, to doubling his use of the change-up from seven to 14 percent while reducing his slider use by a similar amount. All other things being equal, Santana appears to be a solid bet for improvement in 2015.
o David Price, Detroit Tigers
Price may be an example of a pitcher who has slightly more influence over his BABIP than the typical pitcher. From 2009-13 with the Rays, it ranged from .269 to .298; his career average sits at .285. This past season, Price landed at .308. Nevertheless, Price had another great season, even setting a career-high strikeout rate at about 27 percent with a seriously low walk rate below four percent. Had Price enjoyed better batted ball fortune, his 3.26 ERA would have been even better as evidenced by a 2.78 FIP and a 2.76 xFIP, both of which are ERA retrodictors. If Price can reproduce those numbers in 2015, we should expect his ERA to drop closer towards, or even below, 3.00.
o Travis Wood, Chicago Cubs
Wood has had an interesting career, spanning the channel from going toe-to-toe with Roy Halladay in a one-hitter (July 10, 2010) and finishing the 2014 season with a 5.03 ERA. He’s often shown the skill, but rarely the results. In 2014, his 5.03 ERA was nearly a full two runs higher than 2013’s 3.11, disappointing fantasy owners worldwide. Though hardly anything had changed in terms of his batted ball profile, Wood finished with a .320 BABIP, roughly 40 points higher than his career average and 25 points higher than the major league average. As a result, Wood’s strand rate was a mere 66.5 percent as opposed to 71 or 72 percent. Wood can be counted on for normalized numbers in both regards in 2015 and an ERA much closer to 4.00.
o Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox
Despite an ugly 9-11 record, Quintana had the best season of his young career, finishing with a 3.32 ERA. It was buoyed by a career-best strikeout rate at 21.5 percent and a career-low walk rate at 6.3 percent. The 3.42 K/BB ratio put him in the top-30 among qualified starters. Shockingly enough, Quintana could have had even better results if not for a .320 BABIP. Though the White Sox have Chris Sale and added Jeff Samardzija, Quintana can be just as potent out of the starting rotation.
o Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers
Considering Lewis is now 35 years old, about a year and a half separated from right hip surgery, and coming off of a season in which he finished with a 5.18 ERA and a league-leading 14 losses, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lewis go completely ignored in mixed league formats. His first half of 2014 ended when he allowed 13 runs in 2 1/3 innings to the Angels, ballooning his ERA to 6.54. In the second half, Lewis turned the corner, posting a 3.86 ERA over his final 13 starts. His defense-independent stats overall were decent, owning an average strikeout rate and a slightly below average walk rate, resulting in a K/BB ratio approaching three-to-one. He suffered from a .340 BABIP which is all but guaranteed to whip back closer to .295.
o Wade Miley, Boston Red Sox
Miley seemed to be establishing himself as one of the tougher lefties in the game when he was the runner-up in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2012 and repeated his success in 2013, but a .321 BABIP – as well as a slight rise in his walk rate – contributed to a 4.34 ERA. The D’Backs shipped Miley to the Red Sox in December. It will prove a savvy move for the Red Sox as the 28-year-old has shown an above-average ability to miss bats. While his nine percent walk rate is a bit high for our tastes, it very easily could have been a one-year fluke and is truly only a significant problem as long as his BABIP is high. In 2015, expect Miley to return to his 2012-13 form.
o Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
In the last five seasons, only three pitchers have averaged at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings while averaging two or fewer walks per nine: Clayton Kershaw in 2014, who won the National League Cy Young; Corey Kluber in 2014, who won the American League Cy Young; and Stephen Strasburg, who finished with a 3.14 ERA. If we go back to the start of the millennium, the only other pitchers to accomplish the feat are Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Ben Sheets. Strasburg, clearly, was doing something right, but a .321 BABIP left his results lacking by comparison. While the 3.14 ERA didn’t deviate from his past results, he lowered his walk rate by 33 percent and it should have been markedly lower. If he can repeat the performance, his results should bear fruit in 2015.
o Ian Kennedy, San Diego Padres
Though he had once led the league in wins and received Cy Young consideration before, 2014 was arguably the best season of Ian Kennedy’s career. The right-hander increased his strikeout rate to 24.5, a career-high, while maintaining an eight percent walk rate near his career average. ERA retrodictors like FIP and xFIP (3.21, 3.44) painted it as his best performance to date, below his ERA of 3.63. The results likely would have matched up with the performance if he hadn’t been weighed down by a .315 BABIP, due almost entirely to ground balls. Kennedy’s career average BABIP on ground balls is .236, but they fell for hits at a .288 clip this past season. On 222 ground balls, the 52-point gap accounted for 11-12 hits, or about six percent of the total hits Kennedy allowed overall. With better ground ball fortune, Kennedy may be a valuable fantasy asset.