2017 Sleeper Pitchers (The Search for Narco)

One could argue that finding a sleeper ace pitcher is more valuable than a sleeper hitter. With most leagues only starting about five starting pitchers, one stud sleeper can change impact your league results substantially. I’ve worked to research appropriate benchmarks to set in order to unearth the next great sleeper pitchers each year that you can find deeper in your drafts. Now you can benefit from that research.

Much like my system for finding sleeper hitters, this is not a subjective system at all. I run last year’s numbers through some spreadsheet calculations and see who meets my researched criteria. That generates my list of 2017 sleepers.


This system is designed around finding pitchers who can dominate a batter. I’m looking for pitchers who can throw strikes, avoid walks and create strikeouts by making batters miss. This means these pitchers control their games as opposed to relying on their defense on balls put in play. From my research, I generated a few parameters that identifies the pitchers who are best at controlling a plate appearance and are poised to continue that dominance in the year ahead:

  • 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.

This system has generated names such as Matt Harvey and Jake Arrieta as potential sleepers to target before they became stars.

The 2017 Potential Sleeper Pitchers

After applying all of those filters, I get a list of 17 pitchers who meet that elite criteria. Many of them are already household names like Clayton Kershaw but the list gets more interesting when we look at the pitchers who are being drafted in the later rounds that meet the criteria.

Once we look at the players who are being drafted in the later rounds, we have a list of eight pitchers this year who performed equal to star pitchers despite their results not matching up to them (blame it on high BABIP or low LOB rates perhaps). These represent our super sleeper (aka “narco”) pitchers for 2017.

  • Steven Matz, Mets 
  • Jon Gray, Rockies 
  • Vince Velasquez, Phillies
  • James Paxton, Mariners
  • Aaron Nola, Phillies
  • Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks
  • Michael Pineda, Yankees
  • Alex Wood, Dodgers

As readers may know, I’m a Phillies fan but I’m not manipulating the numbers here to make more Phillies appear on this list! I do think both Velasquez and Nola are high upside picks for this upcoming year. Maybe the most exciting name on this list for me is Robbie Ray. In fact, I raved about him in a recent tweet:

His elite strikeout ability is already evident and I think he could blossom into a star pitcher if other factors normalize like the BABIP and HR/FB rates.

I will be analyzing these pitchers in a bit more depth leading up to the drafts this year. Do any of these names jump out to you all as guys you’ve had your eye on already?

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  • Randy
    01/23/2017 at 1:31 PM

    Last season in my H2H points (daily moves) league I had Paxton, Pineda, Ray and Gray… Interested in all of them again. I spent some time watching Gray’s starts. He could a bonafide ace by the end of the 2017 season.

    I remember being high on Wood (lol) a couple seasons back but I just can’t trust his ability to stay healthy anymore.

    • Luke
      01/24/2017 at 12:55 AM

      Haha, I hear ya about Wood. It seems like he’s always coming up as a sleeper for me for the past few years. I wish he could stay healthy. He’s not worth drafting anymore but some guy I’ll always be ready to scoop up if I see any indication of him getting hot.

  • Jason
    01/23/2017 at 7:14 PM

    I’m ending up with Gray in almost ever mock so far this year

    • Luke
      01/24/2017 at 12:57 AM

      Nice. He’s going pretty late generally and has potential to be a SP2 or SP3 on most teams. Where do you do your mock drafts at these days?

      • Jason
        01/24/2017 at 7:14 AM

        I discovered couch managers this year I really like it for early mock drafts.

        • Luke
          01/24/2017 at 12:31 PM

          Cool, I used them a few times in the past. Didn’t know they were still around actually. I might have to look into getting their ADP data for my sheets and such here.

          • Cg
            01/25/2017 at 1:13 PM

            I like Gray, but Colorodo still scares me. #3 SP upside. But I see him as a 9 k/9, 4.00 ERA, 1.25 WHIP guy while playing for rockies.

          • Kris
            02/23/2017 at 3:17 PM

            I love Gray, streamed him a few times last year to win my league. Even in that ballpark, if I can get him as my SP3, I will be happy!

            Also liked Paxton as a bounce back guy this year, but it seems everywhere I turn he’s on all sleeper lists…either way, I was hoping to get at least 2 maybe even 3 of these guys on the cheap for the back end of my rotation!

  • Mark
    01/23/2017 at 11:00 PM

    I have had my eye on Robbie Ray since the end of last season. If he can prevent those blow-ups, which after analyzing the stats I believe he will, he has potential to be your best pitcher. Regression to the mean is the name of the game here. It is exciting to read this and get another’s viewpoint and coming to the same conclusion. Thank you for what you do.

    • Luke
      01/24/2017 at 12:59 AM

      Thanks Mark! Yeah, taking a look at his stats, I really think he’s the one who is going to be the biggest surprise on this list. Hopefully we can keep his name a little bit of a secret going into April so we can continue to get him at a cheap price. Thanks for reading and commenting, man!

  • Greg
    01/24/2017 at 12:49 PM

    Would love to hear your take on Steven Matz. Former top prospect who has struggled at times in his real first season. Think he has some upside potential if he can stay healthy.

    • Luke
      01/24/2017 at 1:03 PM

      As a Phillies fan, I hate to admit but he seems like the real deal. As you noted, his biggest red flag is his health. I am a strong believer that staying healthy is a skill in itself too so I worry he may not deliver on his promise. Being a pitcher who uses the Slider a bit when healthy is actually a bad sign because that pitch is sometimes associated with more DL trips. That being said, if he stays healthy this year, his value will never be this low again. He’s going pretty late in drafts at this point. Over a full season, he’s got low 3.00 ERA potential with high strikeouts and a low WHIP.