Some fantasy expert folks are smart enough to pick their sleeper pitchers based off extensive scouting of their arm mechanics but then there are fantasy experts like me who are baffled by all of that so they just rely on the stats to tell them who to target. In the nine years that I’ve been doing this site, I’ve been identifying sleepers by setting benchmarks that I’ve found to be indicative of success and targeting the players with late ADPs who surpass those benchmarks. I’ve already talked a bit about this in my post about finding sleeper hitters in 2018. It is not a subjective system at all; it’s just stats and data telling us who to target, even if I hate that player for some reason in real life.
My system for finding sleeper pitchers is based around those pitchers which dominate a strikezone and can ultimately control a batter as opposed to a pitcher who relies on their fielders to help them out. At the end of the day, I’m looking for pitchers who can throw strikes, avoid walks and make batters swing and miss a lot. Based on research I’ve done over the years, I set benchmarks for the top tier pitchers when it comes to these things:
- Swinging Strike % above 8.5
- Contact % under 82.5%
- Strikes/Balls above 1.65
- K-BB% Diff above 17.5%
- Under 30 years old
The first three stats here are focused on pitch-by-pitch success. Swinging Strike Percentage shows the percentage of pitches in which the pitcher was able to make the batter not only swing but miss. Contact percentage isn’t much different than the name suggests as it measures how often the pitcher allows the batter to make contact. Strikes/Balls is a stat that I kind of invented on my own but it shows the ratio of strikes thrown compared to balls thrown by the pitcher. I’ve found that self-made stat to correlate well with current and future walk rates.
Outside of actual statistics, I’ve found that pitchers over 30 are a bit less reliable in becoming a “sleeper” so I narrow the list to only pitchers under 30.
In a given year, this usually generates a list of a dozen or so pitchers. This will include some of the best pitchers in the game but also include pitchers who are being drafted fairly late in your drafts. Those are the pitchers that we want to target.
The 2018 Potential Sleeper Pitchers
After applying all of those filters, I get a list of 18 starting pitchers who meet that elite criteria in 2018. As mentioned above, many of them are already household names like Chris Sale but there are four pitchers who catch my eye this year because of their cheap price tag.
Outside of those first 10 rounds of a typical 12 team draft, we start to see some interesting names. These pitchers performed at a level indicative of the top pitchers in the game but can be found a greatly discounted price. These represent our super sleeper (aka “narco”) pitchers for 2018.
- Luke Weaver, Cardinals
- Jon Gray, Rockies
- Danny Salazar, Indians
- Kenta Maeda, Dodgers
One name that I had to leave off the list is Jimmy Nelson despite him qualifying but that is because he’s injured to start the season and may not be back for a while. He’s an interesting player to keep an eye on if you can stash him away though.
These other four players have the potential to deliver early round value and are likely being drafted in the later rounds due to their inflated ERA or WHIP numbers from last season. However, without getting too deep into the factors that may have caused this, we can see that bad luck may have affected these four pitchers as their average BABIP was .323 compared to an average of .290 for pitchers drafted above them (their LOB% also was 74% compared to 77% for the earlier group). With a little course correction in 2018, we should see these pitchers deliver better numbers this season without costing you a ton in your draft. Everybody loves a little low risk and high reward.
Danny Salazar is one of the more interesting names here for me because his base numbers are similar to Robbie Ray but they obviously got very different ERA & WHIP results last season. If the luck dragons leave Salazar alone this season, he could be one of the top performers from this group.
Luke Weaver is a high-upside young player that we have to be slightly cautious of because his numbers came from a smaller sample size (60 IP). The fact that he is being drafted as late as he is this year though makes him worth a small gamble in my book. If he were being drafted in the first ten rounds, I’d likely be more hesitant to use a pick on him.
Jon Gray and Kenta Maeda are names we’re already familiar with from over the years. While they may not take a full jump to elite pitcher status, there’s still a good chance that they could deliver more value than their draft spot at this point in time so that makes them nice options to have as one of the pitchers deeper in your rotation.
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.