There’s an art to finding sleeper pitchers in your fantasy baseball drafts. We’re looking for surprises and, well, surprises are a notoriously difficult thing to predict. That’s why they’re a surprise. Pitchers with past success don’t surprise us when they return to glory. Super phenom prospects don’t surprise us when they live up to their hype. The surprise we’re looking for is the pitcher who had crappy traditional stats, but mixed with some tantalizing advanced stats. As savvy owners know, the traditional stats tell a small part of the true story for a pitcher, so we can often look beyond that and find some gems.
When it comes to sleepers, there’s always going to be some noise in the results but our hope is to find just a couple hits to go along with the misses. My method for unearthing sleeper pitchers is slightly out of the box but, according to the FantasyPros, I have ended up ranking as the #1 fantasy expert when it comes to ranking starting pitchers over 2016 and 2017. Maybe there’s a method to my madness. Speaking of my methods, let’s talk about that.
I originally called my method “the search for narco” when I made this site ten years ago. I didn’t realize that I’d be using a silly name like that for a full decade but, well, here we are. You see, the hidden players that I seek go beyond your ordinary sleepers; in fact, they’re narcoleptic (thus, “narcos”). Oh, I was so clever ten years ago.
When I’m looking for pitchers to invest in, I don’t care about ERA, WHIP or even things like BABIP. I look for pitchers that can make batters swing and miss without generating a ton of walks. If a pitcher can dominate a plate appearance with that sort of ability, there’s less pressure on the fielders around them to help them out. In general, that’s a good thing. Based on research I’ve done over the years, I set the following benchmarks for finding my sleeper pitchers:
- 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. Also, in general, we’re looking for young pitchers without a long track record so that’s why I put in the age qualifier too.
In 2017, this system wisely told us to target Aaron Nola, James Paxton and Robbie Ray late in our drafts. In 2018, the results weren’t quite as pretty as names like Luke Weaver and Jon Gray disappointed us. But, over the course of time, we typically find some great sleepers using this method.
2019 Fantasy Baseball Sleeper Pitchers
Once I plug all of those filters into my magic machine, I’m given nineteen pitchers in our drafts that meet the criteria for 2019 drafts. Eleven of those are pitchers typically being drafted within the first 100 picks of a draft. Those aren’t sleepers. However, there are a solid eight players being drafted in the pick 150 to 250 ADP range. These are the ones that interest us.
The top eleven pitchers are names we mostly know because they had good years last year. As a group, they averaged a 3.04 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. The bottom eight are guys that don’t excite drafters mainly because they averaged a 4.17 ERA and 1.26 WHIP among them. One major difference between these groups is the BABIP and LOB% numbers though. The top guys had a .282 BABIP and 77% LOB compared to a .314 BABIP and 73% LOB for our sleeper candidates. The general conclusion to draw here is that our sleeper candidates possibly suffered from a bit of bad luck and could turn a corner this year to join that top group.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these eight pitchers and why they may be good names to target late in your drafts this year.
Shane Bieber, CLE – After dominating the minors with a K-BB% rate consistently above 20%, Bieber just went ahead and carried those skills into the majors last season. The thing that changed compared to his minor league career was that he started letting up more homers and his BABIP ballooned in the majors. He ended with a 4.55 ERA and 1.33 WHIP as a result, despite a 3.30 xFIP. In 2019, we should see him bring those numbers down quite a bit. A 3.50 ERA and 1.10 WHIP isn’t out of the question to go with his elite K-BB% potential.
Nathan Eovaldi, BOS – It seems like so long ago now but Eovaldi was once a top prospect. Due to a number of factors, he didn’t live up to that hype early on in his career and then Tommy John surgery took him out of the game to make him even more forgotten. His 2018 season was his return and gave us a reminder of his potential as he posted his best season yet with a 3.81 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. The reason he may not be as high on draft boards is because he’s 29-years-old with some prior poor seasons on his résumé. The advanced metrics show that the Red Sox are getting the best out of him and expecting similar results to last year is reasonable. He only got better as the season went on so the hope is that the momentum carries into this season as he continues to thrive after his surgery.
Andrew Heaney, LAA – Heaney is another example of a pitcher starting to improve after Tommy John surgery. Like Eovaldi, he was also a former prospect who has yet to live to that hype. In his first year back from surgery, his 2018 season looked fine (if not uninspiring) on paper with a 4.15 ERA. His great K-BB% rate and xFIP of 3.68 indicate reason for optimism and the projection systems all seem to agree that he should post an ERA under 4.00 this season.
Jon Gray, COL – My immediate reaction to seeing Jon Gray’s name is a visceral one after his frustrating 2018. Many people likely feel the same. But, his advanced numbers have largely stayed the same throughout his career. It seems reasonable to expect a K/9 just shy of 10.0 with a BB/9 just under 3.0 and a WHIP around 1.30. The ERA is much harder to predict with him. He may be my least favorite sleeper candidate on this list because I’m not sure what his ceiling really is due to that home park. I’d still take a flier on him late in a draft even if I won’t necessarily be reaching for him early.
Joey Lucchesi, SD – A promising rookie season with great K and BB numbers and a so-so ERA is a recipe for a fantasy sleeper. Lucchesi lets up a lot of homers so it’s hard to say how much he will really improve upon his traditional stats in 2019. That being said, he’s being drafted towards the very end of drafts and has the potential for nearly 200 strikeouts in a full season. That’s worth a low-risk gamble.
Nick Pivetta, PHI – Pivetta’s 4.77 ERA was a far cry from his 3.42 xFIP last season. He had elite strikeout and walk rates last year but was plagued by letting up far too many homers (which was also a problem in his rookie year). This third season of Pivetta’s major league career will be pivotal to determine whether he is going to have a career consistently above or below the 4.00 ERA mark. Given his 10 K/9 and 3 BB/9 potential, it’s worth taking a later-round gamble on him to see if he can take a leap forward. Maybe his new teammate, the one and only Bryce Harper, will provide proper motivation?
Eduardo Rodriguez, BOS – Honestly, I’m surprised Rodriguez is still just 25-years-old because it feels like he’s been a potential sleeper forever. Really, the main thing holding him back is just health as he hasn’t pitched more than 140 IP in his any of first four seasons. Despite that health gamble, he seems like a safe bet to deliver a solid 4.00 ERA, 1.25 WHIP with elite strikeout numbers when he does pitch. He’s young enough that he also could still take a big leap forward with a few tweaks to his repertoire. It’s a gamble to draft him but one that could pay dividends.
Ross Stripling, LAD – The gamble with Stripling is not based on his talent; he just doesn’t really have a place in the Dodgers rotation yet. The news about Clayton Kershaw having a tired arm already in Spring Training does potentially open the door for Stripling to get a chance to start. As a starter in 2018, Stripling had a 3.39 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 10.1 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9. Needless to say, those are numbers you want on your fantasy squad and there’s no indication that he was aided by luck to achieve that. If he’s in the rotation, you have to take a flier on him. Keep a close eye on the Dodgers this spring to see if he’ll get a shot to start.
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.