Fantasy baseball success is often about looking beyond the obvious. The owners that you’re going against may look at a pitcher’s ERA, WHIP and strikeouts from last season and not really dive deeper beyond that. If you want to find undervalued pitchers, you’ve gotta take a glance at some pitcher’s with bad base stats but then dive deeper and find their true potential beneath it. As my boy Rocky Balboa once said in the movie named Rocky Balboa, that’s how winning is done!
On this site, I’ve said it many times that I’m not a scout. I’m just a guy who dives way too deep into the data and stats to find hidden meaning. I already showed how setting different benchmarks with advanced stats can identify sleeper pitchers. That is a very targeted approach to try to find some gems in your draft. You can’t really build a staff behind the handful of pitchers that analysis generated so I have another system that gives us a lot of other pitchers that may be worth filling an entire pitching staff with. Yes, this is my yearly “undervalued pitchers to target based on bla bla bla” 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. For those unfamiliar with my process here, I’ll give the rundown on what I do and what crazy stats I use here.
The Data Used In My Selection Process
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 2018 Benchmarks
Looking at typical averages in each stat, I set some initial benchmark. 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, here are the specific benchmarks I use:
- 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?
Looking at the 101 starting pitchers who were being drafted in most drafts last year, 36 met my criteria. Those that met the criteria averaged a 3.76 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 9.3 K/9 over the 2017 season. Those that didn’t meet the criteria averaged a 4.52 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 8.0 K/9 meanwhile. I prefer the numbers from the first group.
Some of the good values that you would have found in the middle or later rounds with this method were Aaron Nola, Robbie Ray and Alex Wood. They were successful. You could have also used this system to know which pitchers to avoid such as Gerrit Cole, Rick Porcello, Julio Teheran and many more. They were less successful last year.
For 2018, we have 126 starting pitchers on draft boards that we could analyze using last year’s stats. Only 35 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||7||13||13||64|
|# Meeting MC Criteria||20||3||4||1||7|
|% Meeting MC Criteria||71%||43%||31%||8%||11%|
Despite the benchmarks favoring elite pitchers and thus early-round picks, we can find 15 different pitchers that are hidden through the middle and late rounds of our drafts.
2018 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
Chase Anderson, MIL
Danny Duffy, KC
Charlie Morton, HOU
176 to 225 ADP Range
Dylan Bundy, BAL
Kevin Gausman, BAL
Kenta Maeda, LAD
Danny Salazar, CLE
226 to 300 ADP Range
Brad Peacock, HOU
300+ ADP Range
Marco Estrada, TOR
Collin McHugh, HOU* (Starting season in bullpen)
Joe Musgrove, PIT* (May be on DL to start season)
Jimmy Nelson, MIL* (Out until June)
Carlos Rodon, CHW* (Out until June)
Eduardo Rodriguez, BOS* (May be on DL to start season)
Dan Straily, MIA* (May be on DL to start season)
Yes, that last tier is filled with guys with asterisks so there are reasons to use caution on each of them. However, the earlier tiers contain guys that maybe aren’t getting enough love. Some of them had decent seasons last year, like Chase Anderson, but people aren’t buying into yet. The advanced stats are telling us that we should. If you grab a player or two from each of these tiers throughout the draft, you’d have a nice deep staff with some reasonable upside to it.
2018 Early Round Busts To Avoid
Finding sleepers is valuable but the ability to avoid busts with your early picks is just as vital. There are seven pitchers that didn’t meet my criteria in the 1-125 ADP range this year. These pitchers have a history of being underwhelming in the past. Here are the ones that you may want to avoid: Madison Bumgarner (well, now he’s injured too so you know), Robbie Ray, Dallas Keuchel, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Luke Weaver made the list. Keuchel, Quintana are the ones that missed the parameters by the largest margin. As you know, I’ve loved Robbie Ray in the past but it will be hard for him to repeat his 2017 season. Luke Weaver is one I’m still intrigued by if the price is right. The rest of the group? Well, I’ll let somebody else take the gamble on them.
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.