When it comes to identifying the next fantasy baseball breakout players, Mr. Cheatsheet’s method helps narrow the field. I use a data-driven method to filter the draft pool to a small number of potential sleepers that are worthy of deeper consideration. When I look for undervalued pitchers, there are a few statistical benchmarks that I identified as being good ways to identify the pitchers who should be among the best in a luck-neutral world. While we know that pitchers like Justin Verlander should be in there, these benchmarks also identify some unheralded pitchers each year which can be found at a much cheaper price tag in your drafts. Based on past years, those unheralded pitchers often stand a good chance of being breakout players. Today, we’ll look at one of the players that is on the list for 2013 and we’ll see if Marco Estrada (SP, MIL) has what it takes to be a real sleeper.
Why He’s Here
Marco Estrada’s journey started as a 6th round draft pick by the Washington Nationals in 2005. Throughout his first three years in the minors, he bounced around the Rookie Leagues and Single-A levels without posting any numbers worth talking about. He posted a 4.64 ERA over those three seasons but he did have encouraging strikeout ability as evidenced by his 8.8 K/9. He didn’t show pinpoint control in his promotion to Double-A in 2008 but he posted a 2.66 ERA and 1.27 WHIP which prompted another promotion to Triple-A that same year. With each promotion, he cut back on his strikeout numbers a bit but he continued to show promise and got called up to the Nats roster in 2008 to help in relief duty. The results were not pretty over 12 innings so he went back to Triple-A in 2009 and dominated again as a starter before being called up to the Nats roster as a reliever where he struggled again. The Nats put him on waivers following that season and the Brewers claimed him to their roster.
He spent a bit of time in Triple-A there where he dominated and then floundered a bit as a reliever in the majors for the Brewers again. In 2011, he finally got the chance to not only pitch in relief in the majors but start as well. He was finally good as a reliever but even better as a starter over 7 starts (3.70 ERA, 1.09 WHIP). In 2012, the Brewers let him loose as a starter throughout most of the year and he posted a 3.76 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 9.3 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 through 23 starts.
He’s now had 176 IP as a starter and posted good numbers in that role but he’ll turn 30 this season which gives folks hesitation to think he’s actually worth a damn. Expecting an older pitcher to be a “breakout” player is rare and Estrada is actually one of just ten pitchers in history who didn’t top 100 innings pitched until age 28 and he was the first one to do with with a K/9 above 9.0. So, we are definitely talking about a rare situation. That being said, his age is one Estrada’s few blemishes and it is likely the main factor for him having an ADP in the 250-range this year. He’s a low risk player with a high ceiling which makes him a perfect narco candidate.
Why He Might Fail
Regression. One of the main reasons for Estrada’s success was his ridiculous control of the strike zone last year. His 4.9 K/BB ratio was among the top five in the entire league. The concern is that he will not be able to keep that up as his 1.89 BB/9 was far better than any year he had previously in the majors or minors. It’s not a stretch at all to expect his BB/9 to rise quite a bit. At the same time, his strikeouts may fall a bit. He had a 9.1 K/9 ratio last year but minor league numbers indicate that somewhere around 7 to 8 K/9 is more of the norm for him. If both areas regress and he becomes a 7.5 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 pitcher then we’re not really looking at anything special for fantasy baseball. With those numbers, he’d likely have an ERA hovering around 4.00 and a WHIP at around 1.30.
While he has been successful recently in the majors, he’s also shown a lot of weaknesses prior to this as evidenced by his 8.04 ERA in his first three stints at the majors. Which pitcher will we get this year? That uncertainty is what makes him a risky pick.
Why He Might Come Through
Last year wasn’t a fluke. Since joining the Brewers, he’s seen more success as a pitcher and it could be because they’ve learned to focus on his strengths. He’s not a high velocity pitcher so his skills weren’t quite suited for bullpen work as the Brewers noticed. Despite that, his fastball is his most valuable pitch and he has increased usage of that in each year with the Brewers. That slight adjustment in style has yielded a Swinging Strike Percentage well above the league average each year as a Brewer (and a Contact Percentage well below league average as well). In addition to the accentuating his ability to create swings-and-misses, the Brewers have helped coach better control for Estrada. While his minor league numbers show a tendency to have a higher walk rate, he has shown much better control since joining the Brewers and that is no coincidence.
With his excellent command and strikeout potential, he could easily have an ERA at around 3.50 with a low WHIP and good strikeout numbers again. Despite his nice 3.64 ERA last year, he had a SIERA of 3.19 so he probably should have been even better than his numbers suggest.
Since he didn’t have a full season of numbers to his name last year, fantasy drafters still don’t have him on their radar but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t.
The price tag is quite low. He is being taken about 20 rounds into drafts when the other names on the board are Ross Detwiler and Welington Castillo. There certainly isn’t a high amount of risk despite his high amount of upside. Estrada has the ability to be a reliable fantasy starter for your team despite being drafted as a bench player. Given the low risk, there’s no reason not to reach for Estrada in your drafts and hope to get a low ERA pitcher with strikeout potential. By the end of the year, he may end up being one of the better pitchers on your team.