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:

My gift to you is that I won't make a Devo reference here, even though the acronym WHIP is also a word.


Madison Bumgarner, Giants
While Bumgarner saw his walk rate jump by almost two percentage points in 2013, his strikeout rate responded in kind. I think we can see Bumgarner combine the two skills, lowering his walk rate to below six percent and maintaining a strikeout rate above 24 percent going forward. Bumgarner has also made strides with his WHIP in every season, going from 1.306 to 1.212 to 1.114 to last year’s 1.033. With a staggeringly low rate of 6.5 hits per nine innings, Bumgarner is sure to see some regression in that category, but can offset it, at least in part, by reducing those free passes. Bumgarner is already one of the top pitchers in baseball and coming off a season with a WHIP that was a hair’s breadth from 1.000. If he can just maintain his current abilities, there’s a good chance he ends up on top of the leaderboard in this category. If he continues taking steps forward, there’s no doubt. —Craig Goldstein

A.J. Griffin
Griffin is slated to start the season on the DL with a late-April target return, but that gives him plenty of time to log 162 or more innings and qualify for the WHIP leaderboard He’s a fly-ball pitcher in a perfect park for it, which should keep his BABIP low, and he’s posted a 6.3 percent walk rate in 282 MLB innings. A full season of the 5.7 percent mark from 2012, plus another sub-.250 BABIP, could keep his baserunner count minuscule enough to bring home a WHIP crown. —Paul Sporer

Cole Hamels, Phillies
I would start by reading what Alex Kantecki wrote about Cole Hamels in yesterday’s ERA Darkhorses article; very good stuff there. Alex covers Hamels in both depth and breadth, so I will add what I can. In 2014, the Phillies are employing infield shifts, Ben Revere should play more games, and Delmon Young and John Mayberry will be playing less in the outfield. I’m not saying that Cole Hamels is rooting for Ryan Howard to get his annual injury by the time he returns in late April or early May, but he would do so if he wanted my darkhorse WHIP prediction to come true. —Jeffrey Quinton

Felix Hernandez, Mariners
PECOTA's 2014 projection for King Felix's WHIP is right in line with what we've seen from Hernandez over the past few seasons. Hernandez finished with a WHIP of 1.14 in 2012 and 1.13 last year—placing just outside the top-10 each time—and PECOTA sees a 1.15 WHIP finish for Felix in 2014. But if we're looking for a pitcher who can take a small step forward and sit atop the WHIP category, why not Hernandez, who is still somehow only entering his age-28 season and who posted the best K/9 and BB/9 rates of his career in 2013. Despite declining velocity we have some evidence that suggests Fernandez is actually getting better as he ages, inducing just as many swings-and-misses as when he was younger yet walking fewer batters. It's a recipe that leads to WHIP success, especially in a spacious park like Safeco. Hernandez' defense might not do him any favors and the fastball needs to stop losing value, but it's hard to bet against his consistency and ability at this point in his career. —Ben Carsley

Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
Iwakuma’s 1.01 mark last year was fifth-best in the majors among starting pitchers. But PECOTA doesn’t appear to buy that effort as his true talent level, projecting his WHIP to balloon all the way up to 1.21 in 2014. Unless that magical right middle finger of his doesn’t heal properly to the point where it affects his splitter grip, I don’t see it. Iwakuma’s splitter dominated every other splitter in baseball by margins usually reserved for Mariano Rivera in the “Best Cutter” category. His miniscule BABIP looks an awful lot like the product of a pitcher who keeps the ball off the barrel rather than a flash-in-the-pan recipient of good fortune, as his line-drive rate was the second-best among qualified starters behind Strasburg. Add in a walk rate under five percent, one of the best pitchers’ parks in the majors, and what should at least be an average defense, and you’ve got all the ingredients for another run at the WHIP title for Iwakuma this year (health permitting, of course). —Wilson Karaman

Mike Minor, Braves
Minor is already on the 15-day DL with shoulder soreness and won’t join the Braves' starting five until the end of April. If all goes well in recovery, the breakout pitcher will look to build off a career year, in which he recorded a 181:46 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 204 2/3 innings. Minor’s .229 BAA was 18th-best among starters, and he dropped his walk rate from 7.7 percent to 5.6 percent while missing bats at a career best rate. PECOTA projects a 1.16 WHIP, but I at least see a return to sub-1.10 territory. The delayed start won’t help, but all of the pieces are moving in the right direction. —Alex Kantecki

Justin Verlander, Tigers
If PECOTA is going to give me such an easy dark horse, I’m not going to say no. Verlander beat health expectations this spring, it appears he’ll be ready for Opening Day, and the velocity in the second half was back to normal. Verlander should go back to being his hard-to-hit self, and even though he won’t be getting the benefit of Jose Iglesias on defense, he remains a top tier American League starter. —Mike Gianella

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
WHIP, as a category, is a tough one to predict, as it's even more subject to the whims of BABIP than anything else. However, if you're going to bet on someone to have low ratios, the best way to do it is to take a look at walk rates. And Zimmermann has some of the best in the business. In fact, over the last three seasons, his walk rate has been below five percent in aggregate. This is quite excellent. He can improve on last year's 1.09 WHIP and bring it down into the elite range. —Bret Sayre


Andrew Cashner, Padres
Cashner showed the ingredients of a tiny WHIP last year, posting a career-best 6.7 percent walk rate and .269 BABIP. He’s a heavy ground-ball pitcher, so the Padres defense will need to stay on their game and continue to turn his batted balls into a throng of outs. He has the command and control to improve the walk rate even more, plus he pitches in the right ballpark to feel comfortable challenging batters in the zone to induce the weak groundball contact. He definitely has the talent for the low-1.00 (or sub-1.00 last year) WHIP needed to top the league. —Paul Sporer

Gerrit Cole, Pirates
I've generally preached caution when it comes to evaluating this season's crop of second-year pitchers, as I think the likes of Michael Wacha, Danny Salazar, and Sonny Gray are all somewhat overvalued in drafts. I'm all in with Cole, though, who I've long viewed as a no-doubt ace and who I think takes that step forward in 2014. Cole profiles as someone who will strike out at least a batter per inning (or close to it), post a decent walk rate and get more than his fair share of ground balls, too. Factor in an excellent defense behind him, a favorable home park and the fact that Cole pitches in the NL, and there's nothing not to like here. PECOTA's projection for a 1.17 WHIP is fair, but it's certainly doesn't represent Cole's ceiling. —Ben Carsley

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays
It was only one year ago that Dickey had a 1.05 WHIP on his way to the Cy Young Award in the National League, and while it would take a fair amount of luck to get back there again in 2014, there are signs that it's more possible than you think. First of all, Dickey improved his control substantially in the second half—moving from an 8.6 percent walk rate down to 6.1 percent, which was right in line with his previous three seasons. And if that's not enough Dickey love for you, I blathered on about him in the last episode of Flags Fly Forever, but you were listening to that already, right? —Bret Sayre

David Price, Rays
Yesterday, I mentioned Price’s reliance on his fastball toward the end of last season. Price’s fastball command means that a continuation of this trend will result in an absurdly low walk total, which is always good news when you’re betting on WHIP. Price hasn’t seen a WHIP of above 1.200 since 2009, his first full season as a starter, and cracked the 1.100 barrier last year (if only barely). If he continues to push a fastball heavy arsenal, I have no doubt that he can establish a career high (low?) in this category. If he does so, there’s no reason he won’t be among the top names. —Craig Goldstein

Danny Salazar, Indians
The WHIP darkhorse category was nice enough to give me an opportunity to talk about Salazar without having to factor in his innings limit. Last season, his average fastball was 96.99 mph. He also had elite whiffs-per-swing rates on his fastball, as well as his slider and splitter. He also has very good control (2.6 walks per nine innings). I was tempted to end all of those sentences with exclamation points. If we are going to carp, his biggest current flaw is a bit of a home run tendency, but those dingers count the same as singles in the WHIP calculation. Given Salazar’s tremendous stuff and control, he has a shot at making a run at the top WHIP spot.— Jeffery Quinton

Max Scherzer, Tigers
PECOTA sees regression with Scherzer. I see a pitcher who took a significant step forward and isn’t giving much ground back in 2014. He’s always going to be difficult to make quality contact against, and another WHIP below 1.000 wouldn’t surprise anyone. —Mike Gianella

Drew Smyly, Tigers
Post-Doug Fister, the Tigers are expecting big things from Smyly. Last season, the 24-year-old worked exclusively in a relief role, posting a 2.37 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 63 appearances. He has a career 3.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio (including 4.76 last year), and opposing batters have struggled to make hard contact against the left-hander. While his relief numbers are better than his starting numbers, I’m a firm believer in his ability to miss bats. There could be some growing pains early, but I fully expect him to succeed in a starting role. —Alex Kantecki

Julio Teheran, Braves
PECOTA takes a cautious approach in projecting Teheran to take a step back from last year’s 1.17 mark, but I see some room to grow. Despite Dan Uggla’s anchor at the keystone for most of the season the Braves finished sixth in baseball in defensive runs saved last season. Teheran’s fly-ball tendencies may make him susceptible to home runs from time to time, but the profile works just fine on balance when you call a (slight) pitcher’s park home and have the Uptons and Jason Heyward patrolling the outfield behind you. He showed glimpsed of an elite control profile, maintaining a would-be-top-10 4.8 percent walk rate through the season’s first half before the longest season to date of his pro career took its toll down the stretch. And while his line-drive rate was middle-of-the-pack in his first full season, his infield-fly clip was among the best in baseball. If he can finagle a scenario where he retains his control through a full season, gives up a bit less barreled contact, and maintains his rate of weak infield contact there’s a very plausible path forward for him to threaten a sub-1.00 WHIP. Toss in a little luck on the margins, and you’ve got yourself a potential league-leader. —Wilson Karaman