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March 25, 2015

The Darkhorses

ERA and WHIP

by BP Fantasy Staff

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Previous articles in this series:

We’re pushing on in our series about fantasy players we feel PECOTA has underrated. Be sure to read the rules of this exercise in our first post before commenting!

ERA

Clay Buchholz, Red Sox

You want a darkhorse? Here’s a god damn darkhorse. Buchholz finished with a 5.34 ERA last season. Were you to compare this to other ERAs around the league, you’d find it to be rather high. That being said, there’s some recency bias here in that I think people have forgotten just how good Buchholz can be when he’s right. In 2013, Buchholz posted a 1.74 ERA that was good for the best mark in the game among pitchers with 100 innings. Sure, he outperformed a 2.78 FIP that year, but he dramatically underperformed his 4.01 FIP last year, and he has the pure stuff to serve as the ace Boston so obviously lacks. PECOTA projects Buchholz for a 3.83 ERA in 2015, which is actually fairly generous give his 2014 performance. However, even if Buchholz only has a 0.05 percent chance of leading the league in ERA among qualified starters, I’d argue that he does indeed have the ability. That may not be extraordinarily useful for fantasy owners, but hopefully this larger Buchholz nonsense can illustrate that I think his current ADP (per FantasyPros.com) of 85 among starters is too low. We just have to hope he stays healthy (he won’t), isn’t a headcase (he is) and gets some lucky bounces in Fenway Park (but not off the wall). What could possibly go wrong? —Ben Carsley

Madison Bumgarner, Giants

Bumgarner is one of my favorite pitchers and was my bold pick for NL Cy Young (i.e., not Clayton Kershaw was bold) a year ago. He sustained his increased strikeout and swinging-strike rates for a second-consecutive season. His walk rate decreased in 2014. His fastball velocity ticked upward almost a mile per hour. He posted a 2.29 ERA in the second half. His home ballpark is a pitcher’s paradise. He has a good defense behind him. A myriad of wonderful things here. If only Kershaw can get out of his way, Bumgarner will have a legitimate shot to take the ERA crown for starters, even though he’s not in the preseason top 10, according to PECOTA. —J.P. Breen

Zack Greinke, Dodgers

The 11-year veteran was a workhorse for the Dodgers last season, logging 202 1/3 innings, and recorded his second consecutive season with a sub-3.00 ERA. An encouraging sign heading into 2015 was Greinke’s jump in K rates a season ago, as he sported his highest K/9 ratio since 2011, while also posting his lowest BB/9 (1.9) since his rookie season. He was able to produce a 2.71 ERA last year despite a .320 BABIP and questionable middle-infield defense behind him. It would seem like a daunting task to surpass his teammate Clayton Kershaw in ERA, but with Greinke’s ability to induce groundballs at a high rate, adding Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins as his DP combo will certainly improve his chances and give him an outside shot. —Keith Cromer

Mat Latos, Reds

The Marlins traded for Latos this past offseason after injuries limited him to just 16 starts last year. In his last healthy season in 2013, he put up a 3.16 ERA and 3.08 FIP in 210 2/3 innings with the Reds while making half of his starts at the Great American Ball Park. Now that he’s down in Miami, where the home ballpark will abide his fly ball tendencies, look for Latos to get back on track this year as the Marlins make a playoff push. I don’t really believe he’ll have the best ERA in the league, but this is the darkhorse series after all. —Nick Shlain

Moving from Cincinnati to Miami should helps things in terms of parks factors, even with Latos performing exceedingly well at Great American Ballpark over the last few years. It's fair to point out that Latos' peripherals are going in the wrong direction, and while he's compensated for missing fewer bats by walking fewer batters, he's not done so at a high enough rate. His injury issues are well known, but if he can put together even a mostly healthy season in Miami, he could threaten for an ERA crown. This is a totally logical statement given that Clayton Kershaw wouldn't exist in the same universe that Mat Latos puts together a healthy season. —Craig Goldstein

Tim Lincecum, Giants

Pitching with diminished velocity sometimes takes years to master. Sometimes pitchers never master it. But perhaps the work Lincecum did with his Dad this winter has paid off, and his spring training stats aren’t just a mirage of the Arizona desert. It is far more likely that Lincecum remains a shadow of his former self and is lucky to put up a 4.00 ERA, but if you’re looking for a dark horse, this is about as pitch black as it is going to get. —Mike Gianella

Michael Wacha, Cardinals

As one of the most promising young arms in the game, Wacha has pitched to a 3.04 ERA in 171 big-league innings. He’s just barely better than average in K rate, walk rate, and swinging strike rate, which all together adds up to an intriguing package. He keeps the ball on the ground enough, has a legitimate go-to pitch in his changeup and should be throwing in front of a good defense. Playing in the National League doesn’t hurt, either. If he can stay healthy, he can be one of the best pitchers in the game this year. —Matt Collins

Alex Wood, Braves

The great thing about a darkhorse in a ratio category is that there's far less impetus for them to stay healthy than if you're just viewing through the lens of ADP. Which brings us to the unique Braves southpaw. If you watch Wood on television, it's a full body experience, in that your arm hurts by the end of his start. Of course, we've also said the same thing about Chris Sale--but waiting for one of these starting pitchers with strange deliveries to break is both uncomfortable and unrewarding. Enjoy Alex Wood for what he is, while he is it. The NL East is a friendly place to pitch, and while it would certainly be quite the uphill battle to take down Clayton Kershaw in ERA, a mark under 2.50 is achievable with a little luck. —Bret Sayre

Wood quietly pitched 171 2/3 really good innings last year. Only 24 years old and slightly overshadowed by his teammate Julio Teheran, Wood has done nothing but produce when healthy. While health is no guarantee, his 2014 was a step in the right direction. Sure, Atlanta will be bad in 2015, but we are talking an arbitrary statistic here. The NL East should definitely help Wood; the Mets and Nationals are scarier for opposing hitters than pitchers, the Phillies are going to be terrible, and the Marlins play in that ridiculous park. Again, we are talking darkhorses here, but if Wood can build on last season’s success, he can definitely do some (good) damage in ERA. —Jeff Quinton

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals

The NL East projects to be a cesspool of offensive inefficiency, especially when the Washington offense is removed from the equation. Zimmermann's always been an outstanding control pitcher, and last year he started working his four-seamer north and south more than he ever has last year. It helped drive a substantial uptick in his swinging-strike rate on high fastballs and, in turn, his strikeout rate. PECOTA hasn't quite caught on to the new approach yet, and when you add a projected top-10 defense supporting him to the increased strikeouts he's well equipped to significantly outperform his 3.27 ERA projection and make a run at the ERA title if Kershaw gets hit by a bus or something. —Wilson Karaman

WHIP

Johnny Cueto, Reds

I went with a bold pick in Buchholz for ERA, so I’ll go with perhaps the safest pick imaginable in WHIP in Cueto, who posted an 0.96 mark last year in what would’ve been a Cy Young-caliber season if Clayton Kershaw didn’t exist. Cueto’s career WHIP is up at 1.19, which won’t come close to getting the job done, but he’s been right around 1.00 over the past two years combined as he’s missed more bats and given up less contact, even has his walk rate has risen. There’s a lot that could go wrong here, from injuries to a trade to the AL to Cueto regressing to his pre-2012 strikeout rates. But it’s also possible Cueto stays on the mound, is traded to a pitcher-friendly park and matches or bests his WHIP from 2014. He’s not Clay Buchholz, but he’s good. —Ben Carsley

Jason Hammel


Hammel’s numbers in 2014 were mostly depressed by a move to the American League, as he struggled after his trade to the Athletics. He is another pitcher having a solid spring, and a return to the National League could turn him back into the near-elite pitcher he was for the Cubs prior to the trade. Hammel put up a 1.02 WHIP and a sub 2.0 BB/9 in his time with the Cubs. A WHIP title is unlikely but not as crazy as it sounds at first blush. —Mike Gianella

Matt Harvey, Mets

Alright, back to going chalk. Harvey posted a ridiculous 0.93 WHIP in 178 1/3 innings back in 2013. He, of course, missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but will be ready for the start of the upcoming season. I happened to catch Harvey’s first spring training start against the Tigers and he looked as dominant as ever as his fastball reached the upper-90s and nobody got the ball out of the infield in two innings. —Nick Shlain

Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners

Over the last two seasons, only three qualified starting pitchers have a better walk rate than Iwakuma. He pounds the zone, but does so in a way that prevents him from giving up good contact, too. Consistently carrying a ground ball rate above 50 percent has helped him hold opponents to back-to-back sub-.300 BABIPs. Playing in front of a strong infield defense will help keep the hit total down, and his control will take care of the rest. —Matt Collins

It's not a complicated formula for Iwakuma: strong defense, plus strong ballpark context, plus elite control, plus just enough strikeouts. Add it all up, and you've got yourself one of the best pitchers in baseball at keeping hitters off the bases. PECOTA is oddly bearish on Iwakuma, as despite posting the fifth best WHIP in baseball over the last two years he projects just 22nd among starters this season. If I may paraphrase from one of the more noble poets of our lifetime, this aggression should not stand. —Wilson Karaman

Coming off a 2013 season in which Iwakuma ranked third in the AL in BB/9, the Seattle righty showed even better control last year, with an elite BB/9 of 1.06, and his 7.33 K:BB ratio was second in the AL. Iwakuma was sporting a 0.972 WHIP heading into September a season ago, but he was dealing with some minor injuries and struggled the last month of the season, putting up an ugly 7.61 ERA and 1.563 WHIP. That said, Iwakuma still finished the season with a 1.050 WHIP, marking the second time in as many years he has ranked in the top four in the junior circuit in that category. PECOTA sees a 1.12 WHIP for Iwakuma this year, but with his control and that ballpark, my money is on Iwakuma making a run at a WHIP title. —Keith Cromer

Jon Lester, Cubs

Lester's career-best season included a dramatically elevated strikeout rate combined with a reduced walk rate, so both of those things are due for a bit of regression. That being said, the transition to the National League and getting to face pitchers could offset that anticipated regression. If somehow Lester's 2014 is the new normal, then facing said pitchers and weaker lineups could mean he gets even better. It's unlikely of course, but such are the risks when pushed passed the obvious candidates.

Brandon McCarthy, Dodgers

In the same general spirit of the Wood selection, McCarthy is a popular starting pitcher in drafts this year for a few different reasons. The first is his tick up in velocity, which has continued through this spring performance. The second is his continued excellence in allowing free passes. The third is the new scenery that he'll be frequenting in 2015 and beyond—as Dodger Stadium is a far gentler environment than either Yankee Stadium or Chase Field was. McCarthy has a projected 1.14 WHIP per PECOTA, and while that does demonstrate how much the projection system likes him, a mark closer to 1.00 would not be a shock (or at least not nearly as much of a shock as 200 innings would be). —Bret Sayre

David Price, Tigers

Price isn’t ranked in PECOTA’s top 10 for the WHIP category, but one could argue he’s pitching better than he ever has in his career. His strikeout rate jumped, his walk rate remained minuscule, his FIP was the lowest of his career, and he once again proved durable. While the Tigers weren’t anything special defensively last year -- in fact, they were rather poor -- the outfield should be remade and Jose Iglesias should be back at shortstop. In essence, Price posted a 1.08 WHIP in 2015, the best of his career, and there’s reason to believe it will improve even more. Perhaps the only reason his WHIP was so “high” last year was his .306 BABIP—the highest mark of his career and twenty points over his career average. —J.P. Breen

Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers

After a stellar rookie year in 2013, Ryu mainly did two things in 2014: (i) he improved upon his rookie performance and (ii) he dealt with shoulder soreness, limiting him to 152 innings pitched. While shoulder injuries are scary for pitchers, Ryu got some good MRI results today and was prescribed two weeks of rest. This gives him a shot of returning in early May if it really is only dead arm. While this seems like pretty bad advice on the surface, it should be noted that Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels—both of whom missed the first month of the season—were the highest and 18th-highest earning pitchers in fantasy baseball last year respectively.

Regarding Ryu’s actual pitching abilities, he has everything you want in a WHIP-monster: the control, the command, and the employment by a National League team. Additionally, the Dodger’s 2015 defense should improve year over year thanks to the departure of Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez. Ryu’s new catcher, Yasmani Grandal, might even steal him a few more strikes than his predecessors had done. All in all, if Ryu’s dead arm is only that, I think he can make a run at the WHIP title and can do so on the cheap. —Jeff Quinton

BP Fantasy Staff is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Fantasy,  Starting Pitchers,  Era,  WHIP

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<< Previous Article
Every Team's Moneyball... (03/24)
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Fantasy Article The Darkhorses: Wins a... (03/23)
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Fantasy Article The Darkhorses: Steals... (03/27)
Next Article >>
Every Team's Moneyball... (03/25)

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