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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 edition, we attempt to weigh contextual factors and individual pitcher trends as we examine ERA.


Madison Bumgarner, Giants
A trendy Cy Young sleeper pick, it's not entirely surprising that Bumgarner is projected to have an ERA in the low-3.00s (3.16 to be exact), but is no shortage of reasons that could end up in the mid-two's instead. First of all, Bumgarner took a slight step back in his walk rate last season (7.7 percent), which was out of line with his first two full seasons in the Giants' rotation (5.5 and 5.8 percent, respectively). Secondly, the combination of what is a very strong pitchers' park and what should be a strong defense behind him can be factors that make him more likely to outperform his peripherals (which are pretty outstanding anyway). Finally, Bumgarner saw a big spike in his swinging strike rate in 2013 (11.1 percent–nearly two percentage points higher than his previous high) without a much of a jump in strikeout rate. If this holds, his K% could take a jump in 2014, and fewer balls in play is obviously a very good thing for ERA. —Bret Sayre

Matt Cain, Giants
Cain has an amazing park for about half of his starts, a strong track record, and a second half improvement that can be traced back to a tangible mechanical adjustment that led to a resurgence of the Matt Cain of old and then some. Clayton Kershaw is probably an insurmountable ERA obstacle, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Cain captured some of that pre-2013 magic and snuck away with an ERA title. —Mike Gianella

Gerrit Cole, Pirates
Cole put up the 35th-best ERA among pitchers who threw at least 110 innings last year, but he showed the kind of steady improvement you want to see out of a young pitcher in his rookie season. His FIP- pointed to a pitcher who was better than his ERA, and the strikeout increase down the stretch last year is a welcome harbinger for his future potential. He’s got the talent and workhorse physique to pitch deep into games, and the Pirate offense should help reward him plenty. —Wilson Karaman

Cole Hamels, Phillies
Unless you were in a league that counted quality starts in 2013, Hamels was a disappointment. You likely paid top dollar and were rewarded with eight wins and a 3.60 ERA. The innings and the strikeouts were still there, but a 4.05 ERA in the first half had many owners shopping their ace for below market value. Hamels bounced back in the second half with a 2.97 ERA over his final 91 innings—spurning those who traded him for a bag of peanuts—and finished the season with a 3.23 FIP. The latest news on Hamels’ shoulder is encouraging, as the Phillies are expecting their 30-year-old back in late April or early May. If he were completely healthy, drafters would likely still punish the southpaw for a down year, but in reality it was just unlucky. Hamels has recorded a sub-3.10 ERA in three out of the last six seasons, including a 2.79 ERA in 2011. He can get there again. —Alex Kantecki

Cliff Lee, Phillies
Lee possesses arguably the best command in all of baseball, and in 2013, he had a K/9 of 9.0 and a ground-ball rate of 47 percent. That is a package of talents that can challenge for an ERA title year in and year out. He has aged well from a beard perspective as well as from a results perspective. I have been looking for any indicator of a decline, but I cannot find any for Lee as he heads into his age-36 season. —Jeffrey Quinton

Mat Latos, Reds
I picked Latos as a downballot Cy Young Award candidate last year, and I was poised to pick him as my winner this year, but the knee surgery moved me off a bit. Even if he misses a couple of starts, it could cost him his chance, much as it did for Anibal Sanchez a season ago. Latos is a bit underappreciated among the upper tier of pitchers despite holding up brilliantly after moving from San Diego to Cincinnati. He jumped back into the low-3.00s again last year, and he’s shown the ability to dip into the 2.00s. Cincy had put the tax on him that many expected so seeing him win an ERA crown isn’t out of the question. In fact, last year, he had a 2.77 ERA in 94 home innings, compared to a 3.48 mark on the road. —Paul Sporer

Mike Minor, Braves
Hey, we're calling them darkhorses, right? I don't think Minor has a very good chance of leading the league in ERA, but sometimes you wait to late to open a Google Doc and eight of your colleagues have made better choices. Minor pitches in front of a good defense (Dan Uggla aside) in a homer-suppressing ballpark and has already demonstrated the ability to post an ERA in the low-3.00s. Entering his age-26 season, it's not unreasonable to think he could drop his ERA a bit more, especially if the improved control we saw last year is legit. Minor has the stuff to miss bats and the contextual factors that typically lead to ERA success, so yeah, sure, why not? —Ben Carsley

David Price, Rays
Much was made of Price’s dropoff in strikeout rate without enough credit going to the corresponding dropoff in walk rate. Price focused on his fastball more down the stretch, which cause fewer missed bats, but his impressive command allows him to succeed even with a fastball-heavy arsenal. With the Rays’ impressive defense behind him, more balls in play shouldn’t hurt Price as much as they might another pitcher, and that’s without considering the possibility that he reverts back to his normal pitch distribution. All this withstanding, Price led the league in ERA two years ago, and while other pitchers have come into their own in the meantime, he stills retains the talent (and a good defense behind him) to sit atop the league leaderboard at year’s end. —Craig Goldstein

Max Scherzer, Tigers
PECOTA’s ERA projections for Max Scherzer are to be expected for a player who was inconsistent up until a year ago. Scherzer accelerated the gains he made in 2012 en route to 214 inning of 2.90 ERA ball and a Cy Young Award. The half-run increase PECOTA sees for Scherzer is fair, but I think given a bit of luck, he can greatly outperform his projections. Scherzer has long had the stuff and strikeout numbers to become elite. Perhaps last year was a step forward in that direction as he was able to combine his skill and talent with some newfound consistency to become one of baseball’s best pitchers. If he maintains his BABIP luck from last year and continues to churn out quality starts, this could perhaps be a year in which he leads the league in ERA. —Mauricio Rubio


Clay Buchholz, Red Sox
While he did not do it for the entire season due to injury, the Clay Buchholz of 2013 was the Clay Buchholz many had always dreamed of. Buchholz changed his pitch mix in 2013 by throwing his sinker, cutter, and four-seam fastball more. Moreover, he located them better. The stuff has always been there, and it finally seems to all be coming together. —Jeffrey Quinton

Andrew Cashner, Padres
Yes there's the Petco effect, but that's not the only thing in play here. If he can carry forward the strikeout rate he showed towards the end of 2013 (and one that is actually indicative of his front-line stuff), he could be a legitimate Holy Trinity candidate for 2014 (K/9>7.0, BB/9<2.5, GB%>50)—which would give him a great shot to produce a very low ERA. The biggest improvement Cashner made in 2013 was with his walk rate, which had been over 10 percent for his career headed into last year. However, after a strong 6.7 percent rate in 2013, he stands poised to continue to capitalize on the positive effects it will have on the rest of his numbers. Sure, there's injury risk with Cashner, but he did throw 175 innings last season after spending the first three weeks of the season in the bullpen. So as long as none of his friends accidentally stab him again, maybe this is the year he throws 200 innings and proves many people wrong. —Bret Sayre

Johnny Cueto, Reds
Health will be of primary concern when it comes to Cueto. If he can stay healthy, he has a legitimate shot at winning the ERA crown. Cueto hasn’t posted an ERA over 3.00 since 2010, when he was a 24-year-old. He hasn’t exactly been a workhorse, though, as he’s topped 200 innings only once in his career and posted only 60 2/3 innings last year due to a variety of injuries. When he does pitch, he’s been a solid starter. Cueto has the talent; the only question is whether he’ll pitch enough to qualify for the ERA crown. —Mauricio Rubio

Doug Fister, Nationals
As of today, Fister is expected to make his first start of the year in early April, meaning those who drafted the right-hander at a discount are about to be handsomely rewarded. Going from the AL to the NL, Fister should benefit from no longer having to face the DH. Additionally, the NL East features a pair of bottom feeders in the Marlins and Mets, both of which play in pitcher-friendly parks. Fister was hit hard last year (.279 BAA), but it was accompanied by a .332 BABIP, 34 points above his career average. Since 2011, Fister’s 3.23 FIP is the 14th-best in baseball, and he has the proven upside of a 2.83 ERA in 2011. —Alex Kantecki

Corey Kluber
Kluber is fourth from last among qualified starters (162-plus IP) in PECOTA’s ERA projection so I think this sufficiently qualifies as a darkhorse candidate. I get it, though. He had a career 5.35 ERA coming into last year and his 3.85 in 2013 isn’t exactly making anyone drool. And yet I’m still happy to darkhorse him in this category. He has a deep arsenal of electric stuff and I see the 28-year-old as a big breakout candidate in 2014. He’s got great control, but the command needs to take a step forward as he can get bashed when he misses. If he limits the implosion starts, he could have a special season. —Paul Sporer

Charlie Morton, Pirates
Morton’s 63 percent ground-ball rate last season was the best in baseball, and playing in front of the shift-happy Pirates defense is a match made in heaven. He’ll enter the season almost two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and some BABIP luck on those grounders could lead to a Derek Lowe 2002-type campaign. —Wilson Karaman

Julio Teheran, Braves
Teheran dropped his ERA from 5.68 in 2012 to 3.20 in 2013, and while we can’t expect any type of similar experience in 2014, we can expect a similar performance going forward. While that would normally mean a repetition of his 3.20 ERA (or perhaps higher according to FIP), variance is a weird thing and could push his ERA the other way. We can’t always predict which way variance will swing but with a strong outfield defense behind his 41 percent fl- ball rate, and Andrelton Simmons snapping up ground balls in the infield, a small reduction in Teheran’s HR:FB ratio (10.1 percent) could go a long way toward pushing him to the top of the ERA heap. —Craig Goldstein

C.J. Wilson, Angels
It will always be difficult for a pitcher with such high WHIPs to win an ERA title, but Wilson has a great pitchers’ park on his side and a high strikeout rate that also helps. Wilson will need a lot of luck, but having a full year of Mike Trout’s athleticism and ability behind him in center field won’t hurt the cause. —Mike Gianella

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
I'm all over Zimmermann this season, snatching him up in many leagues as my SP2, as I look for a no doubt four-category fantasy contributor. Zimmerman's peripheral stats have been pretty similar over the past two seasons, and I see no reason for that to change as he enters his age-28 season in 2014. Zimmerman registered an ERA of 3.25 with a 3.36 FIP last year, an ERA of 2.94 and FIP of 3.51 in 2012 and an ERA of 3.18 with a 3.16 FIP in 2011. He's about as consistent as consistent comes, but if he can get even a little lucky with BABIP we could be talking about a sub-3.00 ERA once again thanks to his great control and a solid up-the-middle defense behind him. —Ben Carsley

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In the Fister analysis it was mentioned that the NL East had a pair of bottom feeders, the Mets and the Marlins. I think the Phillies look poised to increase the number of flounders to three.