March 13, 2017
Five to Watch
National League Pitchers
“There is a very, very good chance that our understanding of gravity will not be the same in five hundred years. In fact, that’s the one arena where I would think that most of our contemporary evidence is circumstantial, and that the way we think about gravity will be very different.”
Those are the words of Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, from an interview with author Chuck Klosterman for his latest book But What If We’re Wrong. There’s a lot to unpack there. Allow me to explain. Every offseason, the BP Fantasy Team (myself included) is tasked with forecasting the upcoming season. Despite the mountain of data and considerable scouting resources at our disposal, we’re still going to get it wrong in some cases. Often times, it’s the players that we have the strongest opinions about (like gravity) that we fail to value appropriately.
Here are the burning questions that I keep gravitating towards this spring…
What if a 20-year-old Dodger southpaw could provide enough value in 150 innings to significantly outperform his draft day value?
What if a Yankee castoff just needed a change of scenery and a few mechanical adjustments to unlock his true potential?
What if everyone forgot about the value of a Cardinal righty’s consistent, yet unspectacular performance?
What if a young Brewer possessed a unique skill that enabled him to do more than just survive at the big-league level?
What if an unheralded Mets prospect’s meteoric rise wasn’t a mirage?
What if I’m wrong? I might be. I’m not entirely sold that my evaluation of every single one of these pitchers is correct. However, given the risk associated with every pitcher, these are low-risk investments. When I survey the National League landscape, I keep settling on these five starters as exceptional mid-to-late round values in fantasy drafts this spring. If (when) I’m wrong, you can find me on Twitter.
Julio Urias, Dodgers
NFBC ADP: 167 (12th Round)
At 19-years-old, Urias became the first teenage starting pitcher to debut in the major leagues since Felix Hernandez in 2005. The southpaw sensation recorded a 3.39 ERA (4.08 DRA) with 84 strikeouts (9.8 K/9) and just 31 walks (3.6 BB/9) over 77 innings last season. His rate statistics (especially the ugly 1.45 WHIP) would’ve been even better, if not for an absurd .358 BABIP, which should regress towards league-average going forward. When you take into account his age, it’s even more impressive that Urias was one of just 29 starters (minimum 77 innings) to strike out more than one batter per inning, while also boasted the ninth-best FIP (3.17) of that entire group.
It’s one thing to say that Urias is immensely talented, but that fails to account for some of the truly unique attributes in his profile. Sure, he possesses a deadly four-pitch mix, headlined by a fastball with premium velocity (93-to-94 mph) that generated a staggering 23.68 percent whiffs-per-swing, but he has an almost intuitive feel for his repertoire and how to attack opposing hitters without exposing himself to hard contact. Even if you manage to get on base against him, you’re not going anywhere because he has the best pickoff move on the planet right now. What’s truly terrifying is that he’s just getting started. Over his final six appearances (five starts), Urias gave us a brief glimpse of the future, posting a 1.38 ERA with 28 strikeouts and just eight walks over 26 innings.
There’s no denying that Urias, despite his youth, is an elite talent already. The lone reason he hasn’t ascended into the upper echelon of fantasy starters is because the Dodgers have made it their top priority to manage his workload and avoid pushing him. There is a strong possibility that Urias, who threw 122 innings across two levels last season, may only approach 150 to 160 innings in 2017. It’s almost impossible to forecast anything beyond that. While that limits his fantasy ceiling, it also depresses his immediate value on draft day, making him a potential bargain in the middle rounds. He’s listed at $7 (15-team standard mixed league) in Mike Gianella’s updated auction bid limits. I would have no problem pushing him a couple bucks higher than that. I’m all in.
Ivan Nova, Pirates
NFBC ADP: 270 (18th Round)
After being traded to the Pirates in August, the 30-year-old right-hander made several minor mechanical adjustments, which enabled him to command his tremendous raw stuff. The results were eye-popping to say the least. Over his final 11 starts in a Pirates uniform, Nova posted a 2.66 ERA with an absurd 52-to-3 K:BB ratio. Yes, those are real numbers.
Clearly, Nova enjoyed his time with pitching coach Ray Searage in the Steel City, because he signed a three-year deal to remain in Pittsburgh this offseason. He may end up at the front of their young rotation for the immediate future, especially if Gerrit Cole’s injury issues continue. There’s a bit of anchoring in Nova’s fantasy value that has yet to take place, simply because he was just a complete non-factor with the Yankees for the last half decade. It’s really easy to dismiss Nova’s performance down the stretch as a small sample outlier and move on. But, if it wasn’t a fluke, he’s going to be an absolute steal in the late-rounds this spring. If Ray Searage believes in the legitimacy of what he was doing, then fantasy owners should as well.
Lance Lynn, Cardinals
NFBC ADP: 295 (20th Round)
Fantasy owners seem to be mysteriously forgetting how rock-solid Lynn was prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2015 campaign. He pitched through pain nearly the entire second-half of that season, posting a 3.03 ERA with 167 strikeouts (8.57 K/9),and 73 walks (3.49 BB/9) over 175 1/3 innings. According to Mike Gianella’s retrospective player valuations he earned $13 in NL-only formats and finished as the 22nd most-valuable pitcher in the senior circuit that year. It’s even more remarkable that he accomplished the feat by throwing a fastball 92 percent of the time.
Nearly two years removed from surgery at this point, the 30-year-old hasn’t showed any rust so far this spring. He’s a true throwback innings eater, and after the season-ending injury to top prospect Alex Reyes, should be in line for an all-you-can-eat buffet in the Cardinal rotation this year. While he lack the tantalizing upside of a flashy young arm like Tyler Glasnow, Daniel Norris, or Eduardo Rodriguez, all of whom are going in the same range, he’s a much safer investment with a proven track record. There’s nothing flashy about Lynn, that’s just who he is, but he’s a workhorse you can count on to show up for 30 starts.
Zach Davies, Brewers
NFBC ADP: 300 (20th Round)
The 24-year-old right-hander appears poised to follow in the footsteps of Kyle Hendricks as the next elite command artist on the horizon. His raw stuff isn’t overpowering, however, he’s masterful at commanding the outer edges of the strike zone. Per BP’s new CSAA metric, Davies pitches were a major-league leading 3.5 percent more likely to be called a strike than the average pitcher last season. Davies excels at consistently getting ahead of opposing hitters with a sinker and cutter combo and then putting them away with a stellar changeup, which generated 37 percent whiffs-per-swing in 2016.
Sure, I’m using arbitrary endpoints here, but if you throw out three lackluster April starts, Davies went 11-4 in his final 25 starts with a 3.54 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 125 strikeouts (7.50 K/9) and just 31 free passes (1.86 BB/9) over 150 innings. There isn’t a lofty ceiling here (because of the strikeout limitations), but he’s likely the Brewers Opening Day starter and should be able to challenge for 180 to 200 innings this season. Just for fun, let’s do a quick player comparison using PECOTA’s 50th percentile projection.
If the second-half strikeout rate (8.3 K/9), driven by an increased reliance on his slider sticks, Stroman possesses a much higher ceiling and becomes a vastly more enticing fantasy proposition. However, if Davies can approach 200 innings (which isn’t an unreasonable expectation), the gap between them may not end up being as large as you think. Stroman, a popular breakout candidate industry-wide, is going in the 11th round in NFBC average draft position. Davies isn’t going off the board until the 20th round and could ultimately end up providing comparable value. If you’re looking for the next sabermetric darling, this is clearly the guy.
Robert Gsellman, Mets
NFBC ADP: 338 (23rd Round)
This feels like cheating since I profiled him as a potential breakout candidate in my “State of the Position” article two weeks ago. But, in case you didn’t know, BP ranked Gsellman as the #17 prospect in baseball this offseason. Yes, we did it. All reports indicate that he’s expected to open the regular season as the Mets fifth starter. With Zack Wheeler still recovering from Tommy John surgery, the 23-year-old right-hander has an opportunity to cement his status in the rotation if he builds off his promising major-league debut (2.42 ERA, 1.28 WHIP with 8.5 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 over 44 2/3 innings) last season.
The meteoric rise only began once Gsellman finally arrived in Queens. Armed with a 94 mph sinker, the offering immediately began generating elite swinging strike (19.21 percent whiffs/swing) and ground ball (63 percent) rates. That’s a pretty rare combination. He also added a slider (tasty enough to make the folks at White Castle envious) to the menu out of nowhere, providing the perfect complement for his curveball. As a result, Gsellman’s strikeout rate jumped into uncharted territory and he dominated legitimate big-league hitters in convincing fashion over a small sample. Can he keep doing it?
That’s the real burning question. It’s hard to fake being that good, right? The statistical results and underlying support skills were present last fall. It’s understandable to be wary of a prospect that bursts onto the scene unexpectedly, but for savvy fantasy owners, Gsellman is the type of low-cost and relatively high-floor investment that can bolster a fantasy rotation and return significant value in the late rounds.
Two Guys I Can’t Ignore…
The “Might Be Getting Too Much Helium In Spring Training” Candidate
Taijuan Walker, D-backs
NFBC ADP: 233 (16th Round)
I’ve been conflicted on Walker’s fantasy value ever since the infamous “Mitch Haniger trade” went down back in November. He’s turned in three consecutive impressive starts this spring, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a fly ball pitcher with a massive home run problem already that now has to deal with a true launching pad in Chase Field.
It’s difficult to pass up the 24-year-old at his current average draft position, but I’m still hesitant to make a serious commitment right now. Walker went for $9 in the LABR NL-Only auction last weekend, which is as much (or more) than Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Joe Ross, Jon Gray, Robbie Ray and some of the names I’ve mentioned in the column like Nova, Davies and Lynn. I think the enthusiasm is warranted based on his spring training performance, but I’m not getting carried away just yet.
The “If He Can Stay Healthy” Guy To Monitor
Alex Wood, Dodgers
NFBC ADP: 390 (Undrafted)
The 26-year-old made a mechanical adjustment early last season, rediscovered his release point and was brilliant for a six-start stretch (2.80 ERA with 50 strikeouts and just eight walks over 35 1/3 innings) before an elbow injury in late May sidelined him until September. Given the plethora of options (and the volatility health-wise of those options) at the Dodgers disposal, it remains to be seen whether Wood gets a chance to hold down a rotation spot. He’s the ultimate “if he can stay healthy” lottery ticket, but in deeper formats, the strikeouts alone make him worthy of a speculative stash in re-draft leagues.