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October 7, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Searching for Strikeouts: Postseason Rookie Starters

by Ben Carsley

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There’s nothing quite as sexy in fantasy baseball as a young, strikeout-heavy starter. Fortunately for baseball fans everywhere, the 2013 postseason is chock full of them.

From Shelby Miller to Gerrit Cole to Matt Moore and beyond, those in the next wave of stud fantasy strikeout-heavy starters are making their presence felt this October. As we get to watch these young hurlers baffle hitters many years their elder, let’s take a look at how three comparatively under-hyped arms stack up heading into 2014.

Chris Archer, SP, Rays
The baseball community may have collectively experienced a bit of prospect fatigue with Archer, who spent part of his seventh professional season in Triple-A this year. Despite his long MiLB career, Archer just turned 25 in late September and is finally poised to spend an entire season in the majors in 2014.

Throughout Archer’s career, he’s struck out a lot of batters and walked a lot of batters, and this continued in Triple-A in 2013. In 50 innings at Durham, Archer put up a K/9 of 9.36, a BB/9 of 4.14, and a WHIP of 1.46. These numbers are pretty consistent with Archer’s MiLB performances, in which he’s generally struck out somewhere between 8-9 batters per nine innings while also generally issuing between 4-5 free passes in the same span.

However, in 128 2/3 MLB innings this season, Archer has pitched to a line that doesn’t match his scouting report or his minor league track record. The right-hander cut his K/9 to just 7.06—his lowest rate at any level in a meaningful sample—and cut his BB/9 to 2.66, which is the stingiest he’s been with free passes at any level ever. Those rates helped Archer put up an ERA of 3.22 in the majors, but with a FIP of 4.09 thanks to a .253 BABIP.

Archer should start next year in Tampa’s rotation—he should probably start Game Four of the ALDS (if necessary) instead of Jeremy Hellickson this year—and he’ll be worth rostering in many fantasy leagues. That being said, fantasy owners should bank on Archer more closely resembling the pitcher he was coming up through the system rather than the one he showed in 2013. I’d expect Archer to post a K/9 above 8.0 but a BB/9 of above 3.5, and bank on his WHIP posing a slight liability to your fantasy squad.

Sonny Gray, SP, Athletics
Anyone who watched Gray best Justin Verlander in a classic pitcher’s duel on Saturday should be keenly aware of two things: He’s the real deal, and this postseason is going to elevate his fantasy profile quite a bit. While it’s unfair to say that Gray has completely flown under the radar to this point, he hasn’t received the same type of fantasy hype as some other upper echelon pitching prospects.

I admit that I’ve always been a bit low on Gray. In fact, when I wrote my Fantasy Fool’s Gold piece for AL starting pitchers, I brought up Gray’s name, only to be berated by the BP prospect team. My doubts were partially due to his size and partially due to an underwhelming MiLB career, but it’s clear they were completely wrong.

In the second half of the season and in the ALDS, Gray showed why that’s a mistake. The 23-year-old put up a 2.67 ERA with a matching FIP, a 9.42 K/9, and 2.81 BB/9 in 64 MLB innings. That success came after 118.1 innings in Triple-A where Gray put up a 2.74 FIP with similar strikeout and walk rates, which is impressive considering the adversity Gray faced in Double-A in 2012. Gray’s 2013 has been impressive enough that he’s all but assured himself a spot in the A’s rotation next season, where he should pitch near the top of said rotation with Jarrod Parker.

It’s worth noting that high profile duels like Gray’s masterpiece against Verlander could push his price or draft position to a point where it exceeds his likely value. While the strikeout potential is gaudy, Gray did benefit from a .276 BABIP and it would be unwise to bank on him producing an ERA below 3.00. That’s hardly an insult, though, and it’s reasonable to forecast Gray as a top 30-40 starter heading into 2014.

Danny Salazar, SP, Indians
Guys like Salazar are among the toughest to judge from a fantasy perspective. On the one hand, “ZOMG strikeouts,” and it’s always intriguing when a player escapes prospect hype entirely. On the other hand, the sudden change in profile makes said players difficult to assess moving forward, and it’s hard to criticize fantasy owners who take a cautious approach to said players.

For those willing to take said risks, the rewards can be substantial, as Salazar showed this year. The flame-throwing 23-year-old put up an absurd 11.25 K/9 rate in 52 innings in the majors, coupled with a solid 2.60 BB/9, 3.12 ERA, and matching 3.19 FIP. He was so impressive that the Indians pegged him as the starter for their wild card game, and while his performance there left some to be desired, it also showcased his upside for the world to see.

Salazar is like Gray in three ways: he can miss bats in his sleep, he was previously discredited partially due to his size and his postseason status might elevate his price headed into next year. However, his upside might be even higher than Gray’s, while I think he comes with even more risk. Salazar has never held up as a starter for an entire season, and has a history of arm injury. He also showed a tendency to be homer prone this season, although it may not be fair to put that label on him after just 50 innings.

I think Salazar and Gray should be ranked fairly similarly to one another heading into next season, with Gray having the advantage in home ballpark and probability but Salazar a better shot at performing at an elite level. Starters who K batters at the same rate as elite closers are incredibly rare, and Salazar has to be considered one of the most exciting fantasy post-prospects

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

Related Content:  Fantasy,  Sonny Gray,  Chris Archer,  Danny Salazar

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Premium Article Playoff Prospectus: NL... (10/06)
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