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March 27, 2014

The Darkhorses

Strikeouts

by BP Fantasy Staff

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One of the fun ways we all try to outsmart our opponents in fantasy is by searching for hidden value in players who, for one reason or another, we suspect have the ability to outpace their projections (and, relatedly, their draft cost). Our Darkhorses series features staff picks for players who could very well outpace their PECOTA projections for the year and provide the top overall production in one of the standard five-by-five categories. We’ve all picked one player currently projected by PECOTA to fall outside of the top 10 and one longer-shot player currently projected outside of the top 25. We’re taking a look at pitching this week, following our run on offense a week ago. To read the earlier editions in this series, click below:

In this installment, we cover everyone's favorite pitching category: strikeouts.

OUTSIDE THE TOP 10

Homer Bailey, Reds
People say, “Bailey has gone from being a thrower, to a pitcher.” I would say and I am saying that he is now a better pitcher than he used to be. This improved version of Homer Bailey, throws his fastball harder and his splitter more often. Many are wary of the fastball velocity spike, but he actually gained velocity as the season wore on (as most pitchers do) and there was no major drop or spike in any month. The real story for me is not whether or not he is a real life Benjamin Button, but rather the improvement of his splitter. He threw it more than ever in 2013 and also got more whiffs-per-swing than ever on the pitch in 2013. If he furthers his mastery over the splitter, he has a chance to make a run at the strikeout crown. —Jeff Quinton

Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
Gonzalez has whiffed 596 batters since 2011; only nine pitchers in the majors have struck out more during that time. Gio will need more total innings than he has put up in the past to win a strikeout title, which means he’ll need to reduce his walk rate and maximize his pitch effectiveness to do so. It’s a bit of a long shot, but the punch-out ability for Gio is definitely there. —Mike Gianella

Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Health is the real key to Greinke having a shot to lead the league in strikeouts, as the pitcher will need to avoid the type of injuries that have led to him missing 10-12 total starts over the past three seasons. If Greinke is healthy all year, though, he has a decent shot at well over 200 strikeouts, as the right-hander has a long history of fanning between 20 and 28 percent of his opponents over the better part of the past seven years. While Greinke's strikeout rate of 20.6 percent was his lowest full-season total since 2010, there's no reason to think the 30-year-old can't bounce back to his 2012 ways of a 23 percent clip, and if he can repeat his magic 28.1 percent rate from 2011, he very well could creep into the 220-strikeout range. His fastball, curveball and changeup are still well above average pitches, and with the added bonus of getting to face pitchers a few dozen times per year, Greinke could challenge for something just short of his career-best strikeout total of 242. —Ben Carsley

Francisco Liriano, Pirates
Continuing my trend of picking pitchers who are recovering from injury, Liriano collected 163 strikeouts in his first year on the job in Pittsburgh, finishing with a 9.0-plus K/9 rate for the third time in four seasons. His groin is good to go for Opening Day, but betting on Liriano to wear the strikeout crown would also mean ignoring an ugly medical history. He only tossed 161 innings a year ago, his second highest total in eight major-league seasons. The left-hander would likely have multiple 200-strikeout seasons by now if he weren’t so snake bitten, but I kind of like his chances to finally get there after generating a 13.2 percent swinging-strike rate in 2013. —Alex Kantecki

Lance Lynn, Cardinals
I’m double-dipping with Lynn, so hopefully it’s clear that I like him as a breakout candidate in 2014. His biggest hurdle to fulfilling this prediction is his work against lefties. He had an 18.7 percent strikeout rate against them last year (compared to 26.6 against righties). That has to rise into the 20s if he’s going to have a shot at this. With his workhorse tendencies, I think he could legitimately lead the league in innings, which would give him a bit more margin on his total strikeout rate, to the point where he wouldn’t have to be in the upper-20s to log the most strikeouts. —Paul Sporer

Lance Lynn, Cardinals
There are two things you need to be able to do in order to potentially lead the league in strikeouts: eat innings and miss bats. Sounds simple, but it's profoundly true. Lynn crossed the 200 inning barrier for the first time last season, and has a career strikeout rate of over a batter per inning. In fact, he nearly struck out 200 batters last year and it was considered something of a disappointment in the fantasy community. Lynn is never going to be the most consistent pitcher on the planet, or limit walks all that well, but he's built like a horse and is capable of striking out 220-plus batters in 2014. —Bret Sayre

Matt Moore, Rays
I’m admittedly not a big Moore believer, but one of the more interesting things about him is that he managed to post video-game-worthy strikeout totals at every stop of his minor league ascension, finishing his farm career with a staggering 12.6-per-nine rate over 500 innings. Yet that hasn’t translated to his big-league career just yet, as he’s managed to strike out “only” about a batter an inning thus far. I’ll blame his poor command as the most important factor for that, as his inability to get consistently ahead of hitters hasn’t put him in position to put hitters away often enough. But if we chalk up last season’s 10% drop in first-pitch strike percentage (not a typo) as more extreme outlier than harbinger of doom, and explain away his velocity drop of last season to the lingering elbow issue that shelved him for a month (and is now, presumably, completely healed… right?), you can squint hard and see a strikeout champion in waiting. PECOTA projects him 16th in the category, and while I think a lot would have to go right for him to achieve that level, if those things do go right it’s just as likely he takes a next step up into the upper echelons of the league’s strikeout artists. —Wilson Karaman

David Price, Rays
Price's season was essentially two seasons rolled into one. Price before the stint on the disabled list was an ineffective starter who was struggling along very early in the season. The strikeout rates were there, but his ERA was sitting in the low 5.00s on May 15. When he came back his strikeout rate took a hit but Price regained effectiveness and once again resembled the ace we're used to seeing. Price finished the year with a 20 percent strikeout rate, but I think he dials it back up to 24 percent. If he does that and he can match his 2011 workload, he's one extended Yu Darvish DL stint from having a serious shot at leading the league in strikeouts. —Mauricio Rubio

James Shields, Royals
Shields lost about three percentage points off his strikeout rate from last year, which of course is a concern, but his ability to log heavy workloads is an argument in his favor. Shields’ chances of securing the league lead in strikeouts hinge on his ability to return his strikeout rate back to the 23 percent range, while maintaining his 220-plus-inning workload. He’s never going to be able to match the Darvish’s of the world when it comes to pure bat-missing ability, but what he can’t make up for in stuff, he can in frames thrown. —Craig Goldstein

OUTSIDE THE TOP 25

Gerrit Cole, Pirates
While Cole was often more hittable than fans wanted in the minors, based on his stuff, his 21 percent strikeout rate as a rookie made evident that he had the ability to miss bats. With two plus-plus pitches and a third bordering on that, it’s not hard to imagine Cole taking his whiff-inducement to another stratosphere. Sure, sophomore struggles are a real possibility, but the potential remains for him to go super saiyan and annihilate the league in his second campaign. If he can refine his command and learn to adjust to big league hitters, and fool them with both stuff and sequence, he could vault to the top of the strikeouts leaderboard. —Craig Goldstein

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays
This comes with the caveat that anyone who says they can predict what a knuckleballer will do from year to year is just a straight-up liar. That said, remember in 2012 when Dickey burst onto the scene and struck out 24.8 percent of the batters he faced? Add in the fact that he still threw 224 innings last year despite being ineffective for most of the year and we have the ingredients for a serious darkhorse candidate for the top of the strikeout leaderboard. At the very least, Dickey will pitch the innings he needs. The rest is left up to the fluttering ball he tosses toward home plate. —Mauricio Rubio

Sonny Gray, Athletics
Gray doesn't have the bulk innings on his résumé that some of these other starters do (and it's going to be very difficult to get close to black ink without throwing at least 210 innings), but last season, he threw 195 1/3 innings between the minors, the majors, and the postseason. Needless to say, he's unlikely to have any sort of innings limit this year. And for a pitcher who had a 25.7 percent strikeout rate in his rookie season, 210 innings could be all he needs to top 225 strikeouts. Probably the most amazing thing about Gray and his arsenal is that he threw six different pitches in 2013, according to Brooks Baseball, and he had a double-digit whiff rate on all offerings, including a combined 38 percent on his breakers. That's some next-level nastiness right there. —Bret Sayre

Shelby Miller, Cardinals
Lost amid a sea of other talented young pitchers, his postseason disappearance and whispers of arm troubles is Miller's upside, which is still that of a true no. 1 starter. Miller did everything Cardinals fans and fantasy owners could've hoped for in 2013, posting a 3.06 ERA with a 23.4 strikeout rate and 1.21 WHIP. As Miller continues to grow as a pitcher and as he retains his prime velocity in his youth, it would not at all surprise me to see Miller's strikeout percentage tick up even further, making him a real challenger for 220-plus strikeouts if he stays on the field. This is an organization that knows how to develop pitching talent, and Miller is one of the better young arms in the league. I'm gobbling him up anywhere I can this preseason, and his strikeouts are a big part of the reason why. —Ben Carsley

Wily Peralta, Brewers
His 129 strikeouts in 183 1/3 innings last year do not scream, “National League Strikeout King.” In fact, his much improved 59 strikeouts in his final 70 innings last year do not scream that sentiment either. The slider is nasty, and if he can throw it all season without his arm falling off, and if he can do that while commanding his four-seam fastball better as a strikeout weapon, then maybe Wily Peralta, strikeout king candidate, will no longer seem like such a brazen declaration. —Jeff Quinton

Danny Salazar, Indians
The biggest roadblock to Salazar reigning from on high in the Kingdom of the Strikeouts is workload—specifically whether there’s any chance at all he reaches the 200 inning range that’d likely be the bare minimum requirement for competing in this category. I don’t think it’s as farfetched as people are assuming. After logging 87 2/3 innings in 2012, his first season post-Tommy John surgery, the Indians allowed him to jump all the way up to 145 last year in the heat of their wild card chase. Yes, they did it by confining him to four and five inning stints down the stretch, but that 57-inning aggregate jump is significant. The Indians seem to be very much aware of the talent level he possesses, and just as aware of the limitations his physical frame may present for maximizing that talent level for a long time. With the team likely to find themselves on the cusp of contention again, it’s not inconceivable to me that they go all out with Salazar, unleashing him for another significant innings jump up into that 200 range. If he threatens 200 innings, he threatens the strikeout crown. Simple as that. —Wilson Karaman

Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
You might expect this prediction to come with a glowing recommendation of Samardzija and the idea that he’s going to take the big step forward that everyone has expected ever since the beginning of his career. However, a huge leap forward as a pitcher isn’t a necessity for a strikeout title. Aaron Harang won a strikeout title in 2006 with a 3.76 ERA, while A.J. Burnett won a strikeout title in 2008 with a 4.07 ERA. Samardzija could keep walking the same Jekyll and Hyde tightrope he has been walking since he was a rookie, and it might not matter. The punch out ability makes him a legit contender for the title no matter what his overall performance looks like. —Mike Gianella

Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
Projections for Tanaka are all over the place. PECOTA is somewhat conservative, with a projection of 163 strikeouts in 180 innings, and that’s probably a really good starting point for the first-year starter. I don’t think it’s all smooth sailing for the man with the $155 million arm, but Tanaka should at least have a competitive advantage in the first go-around. How he adjusts from there is anyone’s guess. —Alex Kantecki

Julio Teheran, Braves
Since Teheran was my NL Cy Young Award pick, it shouldn’t be surprising to see me tagging him in at least one of these darkhorse categories. He’s shown the gaudy strikeout rates before in the minors, particularly his 27.6 percent mark in 143 innings across three levels in 2010, but of course that’s three years old at this point. Improving upon his 22 percent mark from last year is hardly out of the question, though. Similar to Lynn, he needs to take a big step against lefties (26 to 18 percent righty/lefty split). I think he lets the slider and change do more of the work against southpaws and bumps the strikeout rate up, en route to some November hardware! —Paul Sporer

BP Fantasy Staff is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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<< Previous Article
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Thr... (03/27)
<< Previous Column
Fantasy Article The Darkhorses: WHIP (03/26)
Next Column >>
Fantasy Article The Darkhorses: Saves (03/28)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Minor League Update: S... (03/27)

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