Pitchers that excelled in the ERA, WHIP and strikeout categories last year are typically the top valued pitchers in your fantasy drafts each year. Those stats alone don’t always tell the whole story about a pitcher’s chance for success in the year ahead. By using advanced statistics, we’re able to find fantasy baseball’s undervalued pitchers for 2017. These are pitchers who pitched at an elite level last year despite what their standard statistics may say.
I showed how setting different benchmarks with advanced stats can identify sleeper pitchers in an article last week. That generated a list of 8 pitchers that are worthy of a middle or late round pick in your 2017 fantasy drafts. A list of 8 pitchers isn’t enough to build a solid staff around though. To cast a wider net of fantasy pitchers to target, I like to expand my parameters out a bit. There’s never a sure thing in fantasy baseball but targeting starting pitchers with elite skill sets is never a bad strategy.
In today’s post, I’ll show you the set of benchmarks I’m using to help identify pitchers who can generate high strikeout numbers while limiting walks and home runs. These are elite pitchers independent of their team fielding. We’ll take a look at the pitchers this system tells us to target in 2017 and who we should avoid as a result of it too.
The Data Used In My Selection Process
I’ve run a similar analysis in the past couple of years but I’ve found that too many pitchers were meeting my old parameters. I sought to update my criteria for this year to get a tighter list of pitchers.
Despite a pitcher’s actual stats from last year, there’s data we can use to see how well they faced off against batters throughout the year. Using all of the pitch-by-pitch data I could find from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, I referenced it all against each pitcher’s actual ERA, WHIP and K/9 in the following year to see what correlated best to future success. After analyzing several years of data, I found that these advanced stats correlated most strongly with future results:
- K-BB% – This ended up being the stat the correlated best to the next season’s ERA, WHIP and K/9 from my tests. I like strikeout and walk percentage better than K/9, BB/9 or actual season totals because it gives a better picture of how often a pitcher walks or strikes out a batter.
- Contact% – This is a measurement of how often a batter made contact when swinging against this pitcher.
- Swinging Strike% – When accounting all pitches thrown, this is how many times the opposing batter swung and missed.
- Ball In Play% – Of all the strikes thrown by the pitcher, this looks at how many of those were from balls hit into play. (from Baseball-Reference)
- Strikes to Balls Ratio – I take the number of strikes the pitcher threw and divide by the number of balls thrown.
- 0-2 Counts Forced% – Out of all of the pitcher’s plate appearances, this measures how many of them went to an 0-2 count. (from Baseball-Reference)
- Hard Hit% – Of balls hit against the pitcher, this is a measurement of quality of contact for each of them. (from Fangraphs)
The 2017 Benchmarks
I took the league average in each stat as the initial benchmark for my criteria. I raised the bar a bit from there for K-BB% since it had the strongest correlation to success and I lowered the bar a bit for the stats that had a weaker correlation (Strikes to Balls Ratio, 0-2 Counts Forced% and Hard Hit%). When all was said and done, it resulted in the following benchmarks for my 2017 sleepers:
- K-BB above 13.5%
- Contact under 78.2%
- Swinging Strike above 10.1%
- Ball-in-Play under 28.3%
- Strikes-to-Balls Ratio above 1.69
- 0-2 Counts Forced above 23.9%
- Hard Hit under 32.4%
I looked specifically for a pitcher who qualified in six of those seven parameters. The best pitchers in the league tend to meet this criteria and are the top pitchers taken in drafts but we can also find more cheaply valued pitchers who pass these benchmarks as well.
Does It Really Help Find The Best Pitchers?
If we used these parameters prior to last year’s fantasy drafts, we’d have found 38 SPs in our drafts that met the criteria. Those 38 SPs ended up averaging a 3.59 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 9.0 K/9 line last season. On the flipside, the 95 SPs that didn’t meet the criteria ended up with a 4.32 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 7.4 K/9 line in 2016.
Some of the good values that you would have found in the middle or later rounds with this method were Justin Verlander, Kevin Gausman and Jared Eickhoff. You would have also known to avoid flukes such as James Shields, Shelby Miller, Jordan Zimmermann and many more.
For 2017, we have 134 starting pitchers currently on draft boards. Only 37 (28%) of those pitchers met my criteria. It is no surprise that half of the pitchers are found in the first ten rounds of a typical draft but we can also find pitchers meeting the criteria in the later rounds as well. Here is how it breaks down based off current average draft position data:
|1-125 ADP||126-175 ADP||176-225 ADP||226-300 ADP||300+ ADP|
|# SP Drafted||28||13||18||16||59|
|# Meeting MC Criteria||18||4||8||5||2|
|% Meeting MC Criteria||64%||31%||44%||31%||3%|
Despite the benchmarks favoring elite pitchers and thus early-round picks, we can find 19 different pitchers that are hidden through the middle and late rounds of our drafts.
2017 Undervalued Pitchers To Target
In the first ten rounds or so, you’ll want to ensure that you get yourself a few of the top tier SPs but then it would be wise to target pitchers from this list below in order to fill up the rest of your pitching staff. Let’s take a look at the SPs who met my criteria throughout each draft tier.
126 to 175 ADP Range
Rich Hill, LAD
Kevin Gausman, BAL
Julio Urias, LAD
John Lackey, CHC
176 to 225 ADP Range
Matt Moore, SF
Jon Gray, COL
Vince Velasquez, PHI
Lance McCullers, HOU
Drew Pomeranz, BOS
Aaron Nola, PHI
Michael Pineda, NYY
Robbie Ray, ARI
226 to 300 ADP Range
Drew Smyly, SEA
Marco Estrada, TOR
Matt Shoemaker, LAA
Dylan Bundy, BAL
Collin McHugh, HOU
300+ ADP Range
Daniel Norris, DET
Alex Wood, LAD
Julio Urias is one to use caution with, of course, because of his innings limit. In the time that he does pitch, he will do well though. Lance McCullers has potential to be quite valuable despite his low price tag. His numbers last year were inflated by an unlucky BABIP and the average fan may not pick up on that. Drew Smyly should benefit from his move to Seattle and could be a nice late round target. Provided that Matt Shoemaker is healthy this year, he represents a reliable pitcher who limits his walks and has good strikeout numbers as well.
2017 Early Round Busts To Avoid
Finding sleepers is valuable but it is perhaps more valuable to avoid busts with your early picks. There are ten pitchers that didn’t meet my criteria in the 1-125 ADP range. Eight of those missed the cut by quite a bit: Johnny Cueto, Carlos Martinez, Masahiro Tanaka, Zack Greinke, Aaron Sanchez, Rick Porcello, Jose Quintana and Gerrit Cole. The other two early picks who missed the cut, Chris Archer and Julio Teheran, didn’t qualify but they were just barely missed it.
We had 8 pitchers in that same situation last season. Despite being drafted in the 1-125 ADP range, the pitchers who missed the cut had a 4.35 ERA and 1.33 WHIP over last season. The pitchers in the 1-125 ADP range who met my criteria meanwhile had a 3.27 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.
Once again, there’s never a sure thing in fantasy baseball where pitchers can make changes and suddenly find themselves defying the odds. Our best weapon in predicting the future is using past data though. And, based on last year’s data, this analysis gives us a good list of highly valued pitchers to avoid and cheaper pitchers to set our targets on.
Luke is better known as Mr. Cheatsheet despite his last name not being Cheatsheet. He makes spreadsheets, writes blog posts and his rankings were in the top 10 accuracy among FantasyPros experts in 2014, 2016 and 2017. When he's not doing fantasy baseball things, he can be found playing board games or rating beer.