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December 27, 2013

Sporer Report

Top 20 Risers

by Paul Sporer

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Last week I looked at a handful of guys in the 100-250 range of starting pitchers in 2013 who could jump into the top 90 for 2014. Once again using the ESPN Player Rater, today I’m looking at guys in the 30-90 range who can take that star leap into the top 20. There are some caveats with the selections, mostly just the fact that I refuse to pick a previous star who fell off a bit in 2013 so I’m not littering the list with David Price (32), Cole Hamels (35), and Justin Verlander (41), but rather guys who are on the rise and could make their first appearance in that upper crust.

I also eliminated the 21-29 guys from consideration because that just wouldn’t be much of a jump to make into the top 20. Even the early 30s isn’t a huge surge, but there is only one guy from that section of the pool. Speaking of the early 30s, I almost selected Alex Cobb (35), but he only missed the top 20 because of his time missed due to the comebacker he took to the head. The fact that he still finished 35th with 143 1/3 innings is quite impressive. He took his star turn, now he just has to do it for a full season.

Chris Tillman, BAL (finished 31st in 2013) – Tillman got some attention with a strong stint in 2012 after three brutal false starts from 2009-2011 during which he posted an ERA 5.58 in 180 2/3 innings at ages 21 through 23. When he finally put together of note at 24, it felt late because it seems like he has been around forever. The 2.93 ERA in 86 innings from 2012 was a bit flimsy thanks to a 1.3 HR/9 and unspectacular 19 percent strikeout rate, but the former top prospect was still worthy of attention.

He finally made it through a full season in 2013 and even nabbed an All-Star bid, though that was more due to his 11-3 record than his actual performance. He got some heat for the All-Star selection—even though it’s not his fault he was selected—and it seemed to cloud to perception of his strong finish. After a 3.95 ERA, 19 percent strikeout rate, and nine percent walk rate in 111 2/3 innings during the first half, he rallied for a 3.42 ERA, 24 percent strikeout rate, and seven percent walk rate in 94 2/3 innings after the break.

The key to him becoming a bona fide star will be limiting home runs. It was at 1.4 HR/9 in 2013, putting most of his ERA indicators near or above 4.00 even when you balance out his 14.2 percent HR:FB rate. Homers have been a problem throughout his career, but it is a problem than can be improved. As expected, his home ballpark is a big factor.

He allowed 2.0 HR/9 in the Camden Yards launching pad that carries a 131 park factor for lefty homers and 118 for righties. The fact that he spends a lot of time up in the zone also explains his gopheritis. He had far and away the highest percentage of pitches up in the zone (among qualified starters) at 39.4 percent. Of course you can be effective while working up in the zone at Shelby Miller (36.4) and Matt Harvey (36.3) showed checking in just behind Tillman. I like Tillman to improve with his fastball up in the zone and cut down the homers en route to a top 20 season.

Andrew Cashner, SD (40th) – The 3.09 ERA and 1.13 WHIP combo jumps off the page from Cashner’s 2013 statline, but nothing else is really special. His 18 percent strikeout rate is downright modest, though his 6.7 percent walk rate is definitely strong. Cashner is a great example of why it is always best to dig into the numbers instead of just taking the composite look at someone. Cashner carried an ERA in the 3.80s from early July through mid-August and yet he ended with that 3.09 which tells you how strongly he finished.

In fact, he had a 1.22 ERA in his final seven starts with a 24 percent strikeout rate and 3.7 percent walk rate over 51 2/3 innings including exactly seven strikeouts in six of the outings. This sample alone isn’t why I’m high on Cashner, but the surge was mighty impressive—particularly with the strikeouts since when you watch him, it’s hard not to wonder how he doesn’t strike out a quarter or more of all batters he faces.

He has a great repertoire highlighted by mid-90s heat and two killer breaking balls (including a new curveball that he dominated with this year despite modest usage), plus an emerging changeup. The fact that he plays half of his games in Petco Park doesn’t hurt, either. He had a filthy 1.95 ERA in 78 1/3 innings there last year with a 0.97 WHIP and 4.0 K:BB ratio, too. The 27-year-old righty is a star in the making.

Doug Fister, WAS (58th) – If you didn’t realize how good Fister was, you probably got some education on it in the aftermath of his trade to the Washington Nationals. The returns to Detroit were deemed unfit for a pitcher of his caliber and a lot of the analysis focused on just how underrated Fister is in most circles. His 3.67 ERA/1.31 WHIP combo was negatively influenced by the defense behind him as too many of the groundballs in his 54 percent rate scooted through for hits when average or better defenders would have turned them into outs.

He would’ve made this list with the Tigers, too, because they have greatly improved their infield defense, but he gets the added bonus of joining the National League along with a quality defense behind him. He has never been an overwhelming strikeout force, but he has hovered around league the last two years which pairs very nicely with his groundball lean. He doesn’t burn himself with walks or home runs, either. Improved defense and a friendlier league could shave as much as two-thirds of a run off of his 2013 rate and put him around 3.00 in 200+ innings, a great foundation for a top-20 season.

Gerrit Cole, PIT (65th) – This one isn’t too hard. He debuted with a 3.22 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 21 percent strikeout rate, and six percent walk rate in 117 1/3 innings. He is a former 1.1 pick and the 23-year-old is just a flat-out stud. His inclusion isn’t a surprise, but I had to give him some run. I’m usually a bit leery on young arms, but I’m diving in head-first with Cole.

Jarrod Parker, OAK (66th) – Parker slid back a little from his breakout 2012 season, but a lot of that backslide was confined to a rough start and ugly finish. He had a 7.36 ERA in April, but put together a 3.38 in his final 26 starts despite a pair of seven-ER duds in 4 1/3 innings in his final three. Despite a very friendly home ballpark, Parker actually did his best work on the road, with a 3.74 ERA compared to a 4.16 at home.

His strikeout rate dipped from 18.6 to 16.4 percent, but he did shave a little bit off of his walk rate, too, going from 8.4 to 7.7 percent. Parker doesn’t have as many positive indicators as the others on the list, his inclusion is mostly just my belief in his talent. He has a deep, quality repertoire, great ballpark, and two full years of strong work under his belt. There is another level to the 25-year-old’s game.

Ivan Nova, NYY (72nd) – Nova burst onto the scene in 2011 with at a gaudy 16-4 record that earned him a bit more praise than his 3.70 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 14 percent strikeout rate deserved. His strikeout rate shot up to 21 percent a year later, but so did his home run rate while his groundball rate shrunk and the season was a disaster evidenced by his 5.02 ERA. He got off to a rough start in 2013 carrying a 4.63 ERA through his first eight starts which covered the first three months because he missed most of May and June.

In his final 15 starts he had a 2.59 ERA in 104 1/3 innings with a 1.18 WHIP, 19 percent strikeout rate, and 7.2 percent walk rate. He also had three complete games, including a pair of shutouts in that span. A big part of his success was something I’m hoping to see from Tillman—getting his fastball down more often. In 2012, Nova had his heater up in the zone 40 percent of the time yielding a 1.034 OPS off of the pitch including 13 homers in 413 PA. In 2013, it was up just 27 percent of the time and the OPS dropped to 785 and he allowed just six homers in 379 PA.

A lot of his improvement, if he does make it into the top 20, will come from volume as he was limited to just under 140 innings last year, but there are also real strikeout and WHIP gains to be made given both his arsenal and approach. The 27-year-old will be an integral part to many successful fantasy teams in 2014.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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