Last week, I had told you about my data-driven selection process for finding fantasy baseball’s sleeper hitters each season. You may have been completely dismayed at the time because I wasn’t also offering you a similar type of system for finding sleeper pitchers. You need not feel dismayed any longer because I am publishing my data-driven sleeper picks for starting pitchers here.
How Do I Select My Sleeper Pitchers?
Since I rely on data for my decisions, I had to do a lot of research and analysis about which stats would be most predictive for pitcher success moving forward. By now, it’s a widely known fact that ERA and WHIP don’t tell the whole story for pitchers but those are the stats we rely on most in fantasy baseball.
After lots of tinkering over the years, I came up with a system that analyzes pitch-by-pitch statistics for pitchers to determine if they were pitching well despite whatever their ERA or WHIP told us. I identified a grouping of statistics that I felt had the best correlation to future success and, based on league averages in a given year, I set benchmarks each year for the following statistics:
- K-BB% – In my research, this is the stat had the strongest correlation to the next season’s ERA, WHIP, and K/9 in my tests. It is the percentage of strikeouts per PA minus the percentage of walks per PA.
- Contact% – For each pitch that a pitcher throws, this stat tells us how often the hitter made contact with the pitch. As with all the stats I will list, it was found to be predictive of future success in my testing.
- Swinging Strike% – This is a bit of the opposite of Contact% as this calculates how often a hitter swings and misses at a pitch that a pitcher threw.
- 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 – This is my own statistics where I take the number of strikes the pitcher threw and divide by the number of balls thrown.
- 0-2 Counts Forced% – For each batter that a pitcher faces, this statistic measures how often the plate appearance went to an 0-2 count. (from Baseball-Reference)
- Hard Hit% – Of balls hit against the pitcher, this is a measurement of the quality of contact for each of them and how often the ball was hit hard. (from Fangraphs)
To start my sleeper selection process, I gather all of those stats for the previous year. I then calculate the league averages and standard deviations for those stats that year. I then set benchmarks for each stat that are a certain amount of standard deviations above league average, depending on how predictive the stat is. These are the benchmarks that I set for this year:
- K-BB above 16.6%
- Contact under 74.7%
- Swinging Strike above 11.9%
- Ball-in-Play under 26.5%
- Strikes-to-Balls Ratio above 1.65
- 0-2 Counts Forced above 24.4%
- Hard Hit under 33.7%
Of these seven benchmarks, I narrow my list down to the pitchers who qualified in at least six of them. My list is then created.
Given that last year was a shortened season, the standards for this year are a bit more stringent than usual.
Does It Really Help Find The Best Pitchers?
In mid-March of 2020, I had calculated my projected sleeper pitchers and busts based on this research. The season got suspended shortly after and I was a bit swamped when the season returned so I didn’t actually publish my findings. If I had published that article, you would have been told to target these pitchers:
Despite Matthew Boyd’s best attempts, the group did great collectively. Nearly all of them delivered great seasons, with some of them delivering seasons that would have helped you win a fantasy championship since you would have been getting these pitchers at such a low cost on draft day.
In addition to finding sleepers, I also find potential early-round busts with these calculations. If a pitcher is being drafted in the early rounds but does not meet my “sleeper criteria” then it worries me. The pitchers are not guaranteed to have dismal seasons but they’re usually pitchers that I’d be wary of taking. This was the list from last year of those early-round pitchers that didn’t meet my criteria:
Collectively, the later-round pitchers performed better as a group than all of these early-round pitchers combined. That’s the type of success that I’m used to seeing from my system. This graphic below shows the comparison of fantasy starting pitchers who met my benchmark versus those who didn’t over the past few seasons and how they performed that next season:
So, yes, the system works as a whole. The tricky part is that no system is perfect, of course, so there will be duds in my list of sleepers and there will be stars in my list of busts. As always, take it all with a grain of salt.
2021 Undervalued Pitchers To Target
There were 16 starting pitchers that are being drafted after pick 125 on average that met my criteria this year. These, my friends, are my sleepers.
126 to 175 ADP Range
- Joe Musgrove (SD, SP3, 28 years old) – 129 ADP
- Kevin Gausman (SF, SP2, 30 years old) – 139 ADP
Love these guys!
Gausman is a bit on the older side (for a sleeper) so it’s not like he’s here to shock the league but he’s quietly been a solid performer despite his ERA and WHIP results in the past and has appeared on my list before. He took many parts of his game to another level in San Francisco as he switched up his pitch repertoire and style. I honestly feel like this is the Gausman that we’ve been waiting to see for a while. I’m excited about him at this price point this year.
Like Gausman, Musgrove has appeared on my sleeper lists in the past so I’ve been waiting for him to break out for a while. He showed signs of that in limited action last year with a much more dominating approach to pitching that saw his strikeouts soar, which is a great sign. He’s now in San Diego which is a great opportunity for him to fully break out.
176 to 225 ADP Range
- Triston McKenzie (CLE, SP4, 23 years old) – 180 ADP
- Tyler Mahle (CIN, SP3, 26 years old) – 182 ADP
- Michael Pineda (MIN, SP3, 32 years old) – 219 ADP
- John Means (BAL, SP1, 27 years old) – 222 ADP
This is another solid grouping of pitchers with some potential young breakouts.
McKenzie could be the Next Great Cleveland Pitcher and has looked the part thus far. Mahle continues to develop as a strikeout pitcher with great control and it’s exciting to imagine him putting it all together this year. Pineda represents more of an interesting flier that people mostly write off because of age and past reputation. His two seasons in Minnesota have gone well though and I think it’s safe to pencil him in for a 4.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP with 8.5 K/9. John Means is the Opening Day starter for the Orioles, which isn’t nothing. He may not be racking up wins this year but he is gaining velocity and command as he gets older and could be a nice breakout candidate at the 222 spot in your draft.
All in all, this is a group of guys that I’ll be continually using late-round picks on. At their price point, there’s not much risk here but there’s a lot of potential rewards.
226 to 300 ADP Range
- James Paxton (SEA, SP3, 32 years old) – 228 ADP
- Tony Gonsolin (LAD, SP6, 26 years old) – 244 ADP
- Jordan Montgomery (NYY, SP4, 28 years old) – 251 ADP
- Drew Smyly (ATL, SP4, 31 years old) – 255 ADP
- Elieser Hernandez (MIA, SP3, 25 years old) – 264 ADP
This is where we get into some dart throws. I’m excited about most of these guys here and am excited to throw these darts but, if any, the one that gives me the most pause is Tony Gonsolin. That’s because I’m not sure where he fits into the Dodgers’ plans at the moment (also, it feels like there is a pitcher I love every year that is a fringe starter for the Dodgers and it never works out but that’s just me). With the other four, I see the potential for each of them to take big jumps forward this season.
300+ ADP Range
- Tarik Skubal (DET, SP3, 24 years old) – 308 ADP
- Josh Lindblom (MIL, SP5, 33 years old) – 340 ADP
- Seth Lugo (NYM, RP, 31 years old) – 363 ADP
- Trevor Rogers (MIA, SP5, 23 years old) – 417 ADP
- Keegan Akin (BAL, SP3, 26 years old) – 466 ADP
If the previous group included some dart throws, I don’t even know what to call this group. Look, there’s potential for every one of them to have a decent season if all goes well. Also, look, they likely will go undrafted in your leagues because of the various question marks surrounding them.
Will Seth Lugo return healthy and actually start some games? Can Lindblom finally deliver on the promise he showed overseas? Is it worth owning mid-level starters on the Tigers, Marlins, and Orioles?
These are just some of the many questions about this group!
Hey, if you’re in a deep league, these are all pitchers that the advanced stats see some good in. Last year, we had questions about Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman as they were being drafted in this range too but, lo and behold, they put together great performances. Once you’re this late in the draft, these are the type of high-ceiling pitchers worth grabbing.
2021 Potentially Overvalued Pitchers
There are also plenty of pitchers drafted in the top 125 players this year that do not meet my simple little sleeper criteria. For me, this isn’t necessarily a complete red flag but it’s more of a yellow flag. There isn’t one way for a pitcher to pitch and these pitchers may have their own methods that work for them that don’t factor into my formulas here. Regardless, I’m hesitant about pitchers that don’t meet my base criteria since you saw how it can go with the pitchers from last year.
Here are the early-round pitchers that didn’t meet the criteria this year:
- Blake Snell (SD, SP2, 28 years old) – 46 ADP
- Lance Lynn (CHW, SP3, 33 years old) – 52 ADP
- Corbin Burnes (MIL, SP2, 26 years old) – 62 ADP
- Hyun-Jin Ryu (TOR, SP1, 34 years old) – 70 ADP
- Sonny Gray (CIN, SP2, 31 years old) – 75 ADP
- Max Fried (ATL, SP1, 27 years old) – 77 ADP
- Jose Berrios (MIN, SP2, 26 years old) – 77 ADP
- Kyle Hendricks (CHC, SP1, 31 years old) – 79 ADP
- Zack Wheeler (PHI, SP2, 30 years old) – 89 ADP
- Zack Greinke (HOU, SP1, 37 years old) – 97 ADP
- Chris Paddack (SD, SP4, 25 years old) – 99 ADP
- Jesus Luzardo (OAK, SP2, 23 years old) – 107 ADP
- Sixto Sanchez (MIA, SP4, 22 years old) – 124 ADP
- Julio Urias (LAD, SP4, 24 years old) – 125 ADP
An established pitcher with a track record of success like Blake Snell probably is going to deliver close to his usual numbers so I wouldn’t worry too much there. Some of these pitchers with less of a track record may be getting drafted too early this year and, as we’ve seen before, these pitchers may have off years that mess up your fantasy team. Mostly, I’d just use caution on these pitchers.