CRITERIA: All players in this column are owned in less than half (50%) of all ESPN fantasy baseball leagues at the time of posting. Ownership rates listed next to each player correspond to ESPN leagues. ALSO NOTE that this column has a stern focus on 12-16 team standard fantasy leagues, specifically those with a 5×5 Rotisserie/Head-to-Head format.
ADD OF THE WEEK:
Let that marinate for a moment…
In a combined 174.1 career innings pitched between the starting rotation and the bullpen leading up to the 2018 campaign, Stripling was only worth 1.8 WAR – but here we are, literally talking about a top-20 starting pitcher in fantasy.
A lot of what has led to this distinction is very legit. Look at this magnificent Statcast profile, where all the categories in red indicate either a top-10 or top-5 ranking in all of baseball:
Ross Stripling has been a master of weak contact all along!? The data suggests so, and the surface stats this year have echoed that to the heavens. But how is he doing this?
Here’s one way he’s doing this:
In an age of high launch angles and hitters who look like Dee Gordon muscling up pitches downstairs for power, Stripling has lived in the most desired part of the strikezone with astounding success. He throws his curveball exclusively on the bottom half, and it’s a masterful strikeout offering there as it’s limited hitters to a .115 wOBA and has generated over 43% whiffs. I could throw more heatmaps at you explaining how his fastball is suddenly so good, but that’s simply just a matter of him heaving more of them upstairs to righties consistently (and those same righties are only hitting .200 up there).
His slider, despite registering relatively low whiffs, has become Stripling’s primary source of weak contact. Besides his changeup (another great pitch, but one that he hardly throws for some reason), no other offering in his repertoire has a lower average exit velocity against hitters – and he’s throwing it the most (33.6% usage rate). He could do a better job at keeping it below the belt, as only 42% of them have hit the lower-third of the strikezone, but it’s been really good at avoiding barrels (51% groundball rate, 38.5% infield flyball rate) while the fastball and curve do most of the dirty, swing-and-missy stuff.
You wouldn’t believe this, but there’s a decent chance that Stripling’s been unlucky this whole time! Dude has a .352 BABIP, but that .211 expected batting average in the table above says it’ll actually regress substantially. Couple that with the low exit velocities, and if I’m being honest here: we’re looking at breakout-Jake Arrieta-level contact management!
Now, onto the legitimacy of Stripling’s 24.3% K-BB%: right now, it’s a little fluky. The walk-limiting is very legit (69.8% first-pitch strike rate, 47.5% Zone rate), but he doesn’t complement that with a ton of swing and miss (9.8% swinging strike rate). Hitters are also making a lot of overall contact (79.1%), so I’d have to believe the combination of a 32.7% K rate and 7.6 swinging strike rate on his fastball is infused with a gooey center of called third strikes. If he threw the curveball more, I’d melt all over the chair from which I’m writing this, but there’s a lot of pitching to contact going on with the high usage of both his fastball and slider. There’s definitely 22-23% K rate upside here, but if he wants to punch guys out with the big boys he’s gonna need to go full McCullers.
Either way (and I might be getting just a little ahead of myself when I say this), Ross Stripling, right now in this very moment, looks like a fantasy gem: the kind of waiver wire add that leads owners one step closer to a trophy in October. There’s way, way too much here to love, and although the strikeouts will come crashing down to a level somewhere in-between his first two Major League seasons, Stripling seems to have learned a few things in the bullpen that have carried over. He’s living proof that the depth in this Dodgers rotation, despite all the injuries they’ve already endured so far this season, is truly remarkable.
*Yes, I know they’re both over 50% ownership now!! But I started compiling this list three days ago, where they were both sitting around 40%.*
By now, it’s probably too late for me to endorse either of these gentlemen in deep leagues, but both of them still (somehow) fit the criteria of my column, so it’s virtually a fool’s errand if I don’t say a few things about them. Starting with Flaherty (since he’s currently the healthy one), I’ve noticed that he’s grown quite fond of his slider: a pitch that has held hitters to a .095 opp. batting average on a 45.5% K rate. It’s a truly devastating offering.
(Obviously, you need to stop reading this from here and pick him up if he’s still lingering in your waiver wire…)
He’ll desperately need that pitch all season long to stay relevant, for two reasons:
- Like any other breakout starter this season (see: Pivetta, Nick), the high usage of his slider (26.6%) makes his fastball just a smidge more effective (21.2% K rate and .250 opp. OPS)
- He shelves his curveball (10.7% usage,) and throws his sinker too much (17.4% usage, 1.269 opp. OPS)
There’ll be nights where he’ll get pounded, because his sinker’s so insanely hittable – but those will likely be offset by other outings where his fastball/slider combo is taking the world by storm. This is truly all a matter of pitch selection: something you’d hope he’d improve on as he continues to rely on his strike-throwing ability (45.5% Zone rate) to get back to his strikeout offering.
Something else I’d like to point out about Flaherty that I (really, really) like is how he’s attacking lefties:
Consistency in baseball could sometimes mean insanity, where a pitcher’s confidently doing something horribly wrong that’s leading to poor results. That’s certainly not (yet) the case here, with Flaherty making a very conscious effort to work glove-side against opposite-handed batters.
And it’s working: Despite racking up three more Ks against righties, he’s been holding left-handers to a .200/.289/.200 slash, without allowing a single homer against them.
The upside with Flaherty resides in his command, his slider, and whether or not he’ll start mixing in his curveball more and ditch his sinker. He’s got two out of the three so far, which a chance at top-30-ish results if he could make a few in-game adjustments.
Alex Reyes is presumably making his big league return this Tuesday against the Brewers, after missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. He’s gotten plenty of time to shake off the rust, but with a 44/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 scoreless rehab innings there’s not much that suggests his recovery has been a slow burn. I don’t have much tabular data to hype you all up here, but there is this fun little tidbit by SB Nation that offers a glimpse at what he’s capable of. His last rehab start had him finishing with 13 punch outs over 7 innings of work – including a stretch where he struck out 9 straight hitters – and granted him the opportunity to express an increasing level of confidence in his stuff.
Expect great things from Reyes this season, health-permitting, because it sounds an awful lot like he’s all the way back to form, with renewed vigor on his side. His arsenal is immaculate, and if he’s in the business of attacking the strikezone for St. Louis the same way he did back in Memphis, then the ceiling is the roof for sure.
If you missed out on the three guys above (which is very possible considering how hot they’re both flying off the shelves right now), then stop everything you’re doing right now and pick up this sterling alternative.
From a 61.9% first pitch strike rate (48th best in the league if it qualified), an 11.9% Swinging Strike rate (tied for 27th best), and one of the lowest average exit velocities in all of baseball…
…Heaney – like the aforementioned Reyes – has come all the back from Tommy John Surgery guns blazing. He’s owned righties to the tune of a 27% K rate and a .683 opp. OPS, upped the usage of his devastating curveball to a career-high 24.5% clip, and has discovered a true equalizer in his third pitch – the changeup (5.1 pVAL, which would trail Zack Greinke for fifth-highest in the Majors). Solid control, a universally great arsenal, a top-20 K-rate, and fantastic contact management skills all amount to an ace-like value if the stars continue to align like they are right now. I’ve been singing my praises of Andrew Heaney for weeks, and after a dominant performance in Yankee Stadium, it’s about time you do, too. BUY, BUY, BUY!!
The hope for myself and my fantasy baseball column is that, within the next week or two, I’ll have compiled enough viable evidence to offer up sprawling, comprehensive Sell-High/Buy-Low articles that’ll help you gain a leg up above the competition as the season reaches “grind or go home” territory. As an owner of three separate fantasy teams, I think it’s vitally important to know the true value of each and every player I have, and have an idea of what direction they’re all headed in.
Daniel Mengden is headed in a direction that woefully disagrees with his current success, but this isn’t a Sell-High article, and you don’t always win fantasy matchups by playing the FIP game. This is a buy for the short term, in the hopes that the 25-year old’s .246 BABIP (17th lowest in all of baseball) could hold off his average exit velocity (89.2, 44th highest out of 138 starting pitchers) and expected slugging percentage (xSLG) of .507 just a bit longer while owners wait for their pitching staffs to heal up, or for the next Jack Flaherty/Alex Reyes/Ross Stripling/Andrew Heaney to arrive. Mengden is without a doubt a stop gap pitcher, and if you think I’m simply coming after him because of his discount Rollie Fingers ‘stache, then allow me to elaborate further:
These are Mengden’s whiffs this season. His slider is the only pitch that’s generating a double-digit whiff rate (per BrooksBaseball). The sinker, a new pitch he’s supposedly developed this year, has not only helped prevent him from currently having a league-average strikeout rate, but it’s also not generating sinker-level groundballs (43.2% groundball rate). His hard hit rate, according to Fangraphs, is wayyyyyyy higher than it’s ever been, but he’s also getting twice as many infield flies than before. Hitters are also making a lot of contact against him (82.3%), so that won’t really matter in the long run.
But the short run value is decent enough to warrant an add. He’s not walking people (0.81 BB/9), I just mentioned his newfound ability to get a ton of pop-ups, and his Swinging Strike and Chase rates aren’t nearly as bad as his K rate suggests they are. I think he could skate by long enough for you to throw stones at me in June when I (hopefully) fire up my Sell-High piece.
If he stays healthy all season long, Trevor Cahill will probably have much better numbers than his teammate for a number of reasons. One of them is that his whiffs look like this:
He’s not a very sexy ROS pickup, either (he’s extremely fragile, and his sinker and fastball are really that bad at getting swings and misses), but Cahill has a couple of good out pitches that could carry him to relevance the same way it did a season ago before he got hurt. The changeup, however, is why you pay for Cahill at all, as it is – to put it bluntly – the only reason reason why he’s recently been a solid starting pitcher. It’s a pitch so spectacular (.364 opp. OPS, 44.4% whiff rate) that he’s now throwing it almost as much as he’s dishing out his sinker.
So long as he continues to mix his curveball enough (36.4% K rate, .636 opp. OPS) to complement those two other offerings, Cahill will be A-OK. He’s got a drool-worthy groundball rate that’ll help keep the homers in check, a contact profile highlighted by a 14% swinging strike clip, and the benefit of having about half of his starts at
O.Co Colliseum Ricky Henderson Field. Sure, he’ll probably land on the DL in a month or so, and he’s still hard to watch when he’s not throwing strikes (42.1% Zone rate, 29.9% Edge rating), but there’s no denying the instant value he’ll provide to both your strikeouts and your ratios while he’s active. Think of him as a Rich Hill-lite: the perfect high-floor, low-stress starting pitcher to round out any standard league rotation.
Now, this is going to be fun! Kyle Freeland, a soft-tossing left-hander who calls Coors Field home, is probably the last guy on this list you’d think of rostering in a standard league beyond the purposes of a (road) stream, but I IMPLORE you to reconsider as I convince you of his worthiness.
Let’s look at a couple of graphs and talk about what they both mean, shall we?
Okay, you probably have no idea where I’m getting that – and that’s okay! Because I’m gonna ask that you take another look at his two months of work this season in both graphics, and then focus on that plot point and tabular data from July of 2017. What do they have in common? Besides opposing batting averages, Freeland’s thrown the most four-seam fastballs in those months, with his xFIP is at its lowest in all three (if you ignore his body of work last August). He also un-coincidentally ditched his sinker during those three months, and the consistent use of his cutter/slider over the sinker this year is for good reason: it’s a far, FAR better complementary offering:
This month, in particular, Freeland’s posted a 2.05 ERA on a 3.06 FIP, with a .245 opposing wOBA. This month, he’s also buried his sinker pretty much entirely: he’s only thrown it a little over 6% in May. If you combine his slider and cutter usage (according to BrooksBaseball), we’re looking at over 30% of them in May, and when combined with his four-seam we’re sitting at a 80% cumulative usage rate; good enough for an overall opposing batting average roughly around .170!
Now, if you happen to have already read Craig Edwards’s in-depth analysis of Freeland’s new fastball approach on Fangraphs, I’m gonna sound like a bit of a broken record if I go on, because another reason for his recent dominance lies in the pitch tunneling he’s discovered with the three pitches. Freeland is pitching like someone else entirely, and although the new approach hasn’t made him too much better against right-handed hitters (8.3 K-BB rate against RHH), he’s downright untouchable against same-handed guys now (38.9% K rate, .241 opp. wOBA against lefties). This is an easy deep league BUY, especially considering that his performance at home (1.97 ERA, 24.1% K rate, 1.14 WHIP) is pacing his away numbers (4.17 ERA, 16.1% K rate, 1.21 WHIP).
FAST TAKES (Two-Start Fever)
Vince Velasquez is the Dylan Bundy of the National League: An elite strikeout rate, an absolutely terrible flyball rate that leads to a ton of homers, and just about a league average walk rate. He’s the ultimate “boom-or-bust” starting pitcher, where you’ll either get 6 IP, 2ER, 10Ks, or 4 IP, 7ER, & over 10 baserunners. He’s worth deploying with confidence in deeper leagues and NL-Onlys that need the strikeouts (especially with that upcoming road start at AT&T Park), but the big, big, BIG risk here is today’s meeting in Los Angeles, as the Dodgers (13th lowest K rate in MLB) are feeling more confident at the dish with Justin Turner coming off the DL this past weekend.
Gibson has the light-hitting Royals on tap for Tuesday’s start, and he’ll need to reign in the walks a bit (11.3% BB rate) to be successful against one of the best contact-producing lineups in the league. You’re gonna wanna hope he does so that you could afford benching him against the hot-hitting Indians a week from now. Either way, he’ll rack up plenty of strikeouts (11.9% swinging strike rate, 9.32 K/9) thanks to his wipeout slider and changeup. This will certainly be the week where he cements his fantasy status.
Boyd has been rosterable all season, despite pitching just as poorly as he did a season ago from pretty much every angle of sabermetric analysis. His slider is a beaut (33.3% K rate, 15.85 swinging strike rate), and he’s throwing it way more than ever, but the rest of his arsenal is really bad so it doesn’t matter in the long run. He’s got the Angels (scary) today, and the Blue Jays (breezy) on Saturday, and I would like to believe that this will be where the ERA-outperforming, low-BABIP train makes its final stop.
I see a lot of prime Jaime Garcia in Marco Gonzales’ pitch mix and his ability to throw a ton of strikes, which is a good thing considering how important both will be for him to close the gap between his ERA (4.05) and his xFIP (3.21). I don’t think he’ll ever limit the hard contact the way things have gone throughout his career, but with a 2.93 ERA over his last five starts, and a pair of home starts lined up against the light-hitting Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays, it can’t possibly hurt to bet against that hurting his linescores too much.
Alright, guys! Now, we’re approaching “strictly deep league/AL/NL-Only” territory, here! German’s outpiched his ERA by almost two full runs, while rocking a K/9 over 10 and a 13.6% swinging strike rate. His zone rate is not good at all (41.3%), so every at-bat is an adventure with him. Still, though: take a chance on his low hard-hit rate (30.7%, per BaseballSavant) and high curveball/changeup usage prevailing against the Astros and the Orioles. (Especially the Orioles; they’re awful!)
You know you’ve gotta give Straily a try against the strikeout-prone Padres at Petco, but he’s listed here because his weekend date with the Diamondbacks is equally enticing. Arizona’s offense has been putrid this month, tallying just over 2 runs per game, with Jake Lamb getting absolutely no help from anyone else in this lineup while Goldy continues to scuffle out of control. Get in, get your two quality starts, and then get the hell outta Dodge!
I highly doubt there’s another active pitcher in baseball throwing a slower fastball than Brent Suter (86.7 average MPH), but luckily for you that may not matter as he’s got the Cardinals at home, and the God-awful White Sox in Chicago. Both teams can’t hit lefties to save their lives, but keep in mind Suter’s much-considerable platoon split. Something’s gotta give here.
Easily the “sleeper” stream of the week in 12-16 mixed leaguers, Nick Tropeano should have no problem keeping the BABIP down for a couple more turns as he takes on the Tigers (15th in OPS) in Detroit before hosting the Rangers (26th) in Anaheim. He’s got a neat 11.5% swinging strike rate, but absolutely nothing else that’s positive, so don’t get too attached if he cruises through the next seven days.
Hey guys! Do you agree or disagree with my list here? Were there any “sleepers” that you may have scooped up that I ignored? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment below and get the conversation started!!