Readers, today I am proud to introduce you to the newest member of the Baseball Prospectus Fantasy team, Paul Sporer. You may recognize Paul from Roto Hardball or from his own blog, Baseball by Paul. Paul will be writing the Starting Pitching edition of Value Picks as well as resurrecting the Weekly Planner. Welcome aboard, Paul! —Derek Carty, Fantasy Manager
Welcome to the 2012 edition of Starting Pitcher Value Picks. Each week we will tour the league looking for under-the-radar pitching assets who can make an impact on your fantasy team depending on league format. The entries will be fluid throughout the season as availability rates fluctuate based on performance and as promoted minor leaguers become fantasy-relevant.
Last Chance: Time to get on board with these arms before they are snapped up in your league. These entries are becoming less available with each passing start and find themselves on rosters in 30-plus percent of the leagues at two of the three outlets and over 50 percent at one of them. We won’t necessarily have options in this field each week.
Ross Detwiler (Yahoo! 36%, ESPN 23%, CBS 48%), the sixth overall pick in 2007, is taking full advantage of his chance to shine with three sharp outings to start the season… well, two sharp ones and one during which he enjoyed some good fortune—he gave up five runs to the Cincinnati Reds in his second start, but only one was earned. Detwiler is pairing strikeouts (8.4 K/9; 5.3 career) with an elite groundball rate (64 percent; 43 percent career)—two skills he displayed in spurts throughout his minor league career, but never at these levels. The obvious question is will both (or either) last?
Both are tied to the improvement of his sinker (the groundball rate more so than the whiffs), and as he continues to bury it in the zone and induce weak contact, he should be able to sustain a strong (if not elite) groundball rate. He is also getting more swings-and-misses with the pitch as batters swing over the top. His ability to stay in the 8.0 K/9 neighborhood, however, is going to hinge on his secondary stuff (curveball and change-up). The curve has been downright unhittable to date (.258 OPS against) and is responsible for five of his 15 strikeouts. I think we will see him land in the 6.0 K/9 neighborhood, but with a groundball rate north of 50 percent, he will still hold mixed league utility.
It has never been about talent with Erik Bedard (Yahoo! 41%, ESPN 11%, CBS 57%); the question over the last three years has been whether he can stay healthy? So far, the answer has been a resounding “NO!” Will 2012 be different? That’s impossible to predict, but his 3.41 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 8.8 K/9 in 293 innings over the last three years draws our interest for as long as he is toeing the rubber, even if he doesn’t top last year’s 129 innings.
The Pirates appears to be easing him into the season with pitch counts of 81, 88, 97, and 102 to start the season, and while he is 0-4, he has a strong 2.63 ERA. After seven strikeouts in his first two outings (12 innings), he has 10 in his last two outings (also 12 innings), though he does have eight walks too. He is working some kinks out, but proven talent, a favorable home park, and residence in the National League make him a worthy investment. Time is running out especially at Yahoo! and CBS leagues, though.
Widely Available: These arms are sparsely rostered at most outlets despite possessing the talent and statistics worthy of a spot. Because of the league type each outlet predominantly caters to, you will often see these guys more available at ESPN and Yahoo! than CBS, but roughly 45 percent availability at CBS qualifies as widely available. We should have four-to-six arms in this category in a given week.
Jeff Niemann (Yahoo! 10%, ESPN 5%, CBS 56%) has been limited to roughly five innings in each of his three starts thus far, but the results have been undeniably strong despite what the 4.11 ERA might otherwise suggest. He has a 9.4 K/9, a 3.2 K/BB, and a miniscule 0.98 WHIP. Lost in the mix of his injury-shortened 2011 was the fact that he posted a 7.6 K/9 and 2.9 K/BB in 104 innings after returning from the back injury that cost him most of May and June.
The elevated strikeout rate could be a product of the shortened outings, but he is plenty useful at 7.0-plus strikeouts per nine too. Home run issues have plagued him since 2010, but an anomalous 18 percent HR/FB rate thus far should lower with time. Until he can figure out how to jump below the 1.2 HR/9 mark he’s had since 2010, however, his upside will be limited, but it could be a fixable problem if his groundball rate continues to rise.
Excellent in his first start of the year against one of the best teams in baseball (St. Louis), A.J. Burnett (Yahoo! 22%, ESPN 6%, CBS 43%) has name value and a proven track record that will earn him a spot on rosters quickly now that he’s healthy again (especially among fantasy managers who look past his 5.00-plus ERA over the past two years and see xFIPs of 4.49 and 3.86). Like Bedard, this is a proven talent moving into a more favorable ballpark in the easier league. Already a career 8.2 K/9 arm, getting to face pitchers should only help his cause.
While his WHIP is elevated for what we would want out of a mixed league option (1.50), the competition for Felix Doubront (Yahoo! 6%, ESPN 1%, CBS 29%) has been robust; in his three starts, he’s faced the top three AL East counterparts who make the division such a tough one for the Red Sox (the Yanks, Rays, and Jays). With 20 strikeouts in 16 innings, starting is agreeing with Doubront and portends future success even with his modest 3.9 BB/9 in tow.
The WHIP ballooned when he allowed nine hits to the Rays in his second start, but it has been 1.27 in the other starts. Buy in now, even if you only plan to stash him on a reserve roster. His gaudy strikeout rate and presence on the high-profile Red Sox make it dangerous to wait until his WHIP is palatable; he will be long gone by that time if he keeps missing bats at or near this level.
Jarrod Parker (Yahoo! 17%, ESPN 4%, CBS 39%) made his much anticipated debut on Wednesday afternoon, and after going six and a third, allowing just one run on seven hits and a walk with five strikeouts, those percentages are set to rise. A heralded prospect, Parker was brought over in the Trevor Cahill deal. He has big-time bat-missing stuff that would play anywhere but will play especially well in Oakland’s home ballpark. Like any rookie, he will have ups and downs, but the favorable non-Texas matchups and venues in his division give him widespread appeal.
On the cusp of mixed league viability, Drew Smyly (Yahoo! 5%, ESPN 2%, CBS 27%) has been a revelation for the Tigers early on, especially considering that two of his three starts have come against Tampa Bay and Texas. He showed a ton of polish in short order in his minor league debut last year, but the 9.3 K/9 was more a result of command and deception than stuff. Still, his 8.4 K/9 this year has everyone taking notice. Color me a tad bit skeptical on the strikeouts maintaining the rest of the way, but even with a drop to the 6.0 K/9 area, he is still a solid AL-only play.
A disaster outing against Arizona on April 13th has torpedoed Juan Nicasio’s (Yahoo! 7%, ESPN 2%, CBS 30%) numbers early on (4.76 ERA, 1.45 WHIP), but his 6.7 K/9 and 2.4 K/BB outline the talent. Apart from the meltdown during which he walked five in 2 2/3 innings, Nicasio has a 14-to-2 K/BB in his other 20 innings of work. Small samples across the board in 2011, but he did have a 1.98 ERA in 41 innings at Coors Field, so don’t be scared off by his Colorado address.