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As the Fantasy Team continues to roll out our new Fantasy Categorical Breakdown series, it’s time to dive a bit deeper into the fantasy depths to locate some mid- to lower-tier guys who could offer a healthy number of strikeouts. Inclusion in this piece should not be construed as an endorsement of these players. However, these are a handful of names that fantasy owners should consider when seeking strikeouts on draft day.

The Quick Hit Jumpers

Robbie Ray, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks

Upon moving to Detroit prior to the 2014 season, the fantasy community hyped the young southpaw as an under-the-radar option in deeper leagues. He had struck out 160 batters in 142 innings between High-A and Double-A in 2013, and appeared poised for a breakout with the Tigers. The strikeout numbers plummeted in 2014 but rebounded in a huge way in 2015, as he moved to the Diamondbacks organization and struck out 176 batters in 169 1/3 innings in Triple-A and the majors. The 24-year-old gained two miles per hour on his fastball and largely ditched his changeup in favor of a slider, which helped his swing-and-miss rate immensely. His changeup missed bats 9.86 percent of the time in 2014, compared to his slider’s 19.30 percent swinging-strike rate this past season. I want to see the velocity jump hold in spring before I jump on board; however, Ray showed significant improvements that directly led to his strikeout spike.

Kyle Hendricks, SP, Chicago Cubs

Striking out only 14.6 percent of major-league batters in 2014, Hendricks saw that number rocket northward to 22.6 percent in 2015. All of that sounds great, except for the fact that he accomplished that with a measly 8.1 percent swinging-strike rate. Lance Lynn was the only other pitcher (min. 100) with a swinging-strike rate under nine percent who struck out at least 22 percent of the batters he faced—and Lynn was barely under at 8.9 percent. Furthermore, Hendricks massively increased his strikeout rate with a nearly identical swinging-strike rate from a year ago; in fact, it even decreased! He benefited from batters becoming surprisingly passive against him. Don’t expect that to continue in his second full season.

Taylor Jungmann, SP, Milwaukee Brewers

You know the old saying: Starters should be expected to post career-best numbers during their rookie season. Or something like that. At least, that’s what happened with Jungmann when he made the jump from Triple-A Colorado Springs to Milwaukee. He owned an ERA under 3.00 with strikeout rate over 22 percent and a walk rate that was well under his minor-league norms. The curveball took a legitimate step forward once he left the pitching hell known as the Pacific Coast League, but it really only dazzled in August. It had a 17.36 percent whiff rate on the year, which isn’t anything special. The right-hander showed he has real potential to stick in the back-end of a MLB rotation. Just don’t get carried away and think he’s draftable in most fantasy formats.

The Interesting Cases

Ian Kennedy, SP, San Diego Padres

Only 22 percent of ESPN owners had the right-hander on their fantasy rosters, but Kennedy offers underappreciated strikeout production. He was a top-30 fantasy pitcher in terms of strikeouts and has whiffed more than a batter per inning in each of the past two seasons. I think most people remember him as the guy who never lived up to the hype in the Bronx and the guy who disappointed in Arizona after his banner 2011 season. In San Diego over the past couple years, though, Kennedy has seen his velocity spike and his swinging-strike rate stabilize over 10 percent. His struggles stemmed from a home-run rate that was far above his career averages. If they return to his career norms and the strikeouts remain, he’ll be a nifty pickup for fantasy owners in the later rounds.

Carlos Martinez, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

Martinez steamrolled the National League in 2015, finally realizing the potential he had shown throughout his professional career. He’s yet another example of how prospect fatigue can cause fantasy owners to miss breakout candidates. The right-hander finally trusted his changeup and kept lefties from demolishing him—though he was far from perfect against them—but he more importantly started striking them out at 21.6 percent. Martinez has always been a three-quarter-slotted assassin versus righties. That’s not new. The fact that he’s somewhat figured out lefties is massive. He’s in the “deeper options” because fantasy owners will shy away due to the shoulder strain. Take advantage of that.

Lance McCullers, SP, Houston Astros

Lance McCullers came up to The Show as a 21-year-old fireballer who was billed as a future reliever and had just posted a terrible 5.47 ERA in High-A the year before. His promotion shocked most of the baseball Twitterverse. Then, inexplicably, the right-hander cut his walk rate to 8.3 percent and used his devastating fastball-curveball combination to strikeout more than a batter per inning. His 77.4 percent contact rate was 34th best of 141 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings—better than those of Ian Kennedy and Carlos Martinez. Hell, it was almost identical to those posted by Felix Hernandez and Carlos Rodon. I will readily admit that I have zero idea what to expect from McCullers in 2016. He could explode and spend most of the year in Triple-A, or he could give more of the same and be a fringe top-50 fantasy starter with ample strikeouts. You feelin’ lucky, er nah?

Nate Karns, SP, Seattle Mariners

A fantasy darling who will likely enjoy a post-trade bump in fantasy recognition, Karns owns a career 8.89 K/9 (23.1 percent strikeout rate) and finally posted a solid ERA to back it up. The interesting thing is that the 27-year-old hurler doesn’t have great strikeout peripherals, as none of his pitches boast high swinging-strike rates. He does more holistic damage with his repertoire; however, it’s disconcerting to rely on a guy for strikeouts when he doesn’t appear to have a “plus” pitch—even if that’s difficult to ascertain by looking at statistics. Still, Karns has the track record to justify the hype. Just remember: It may not seem like it, but Safeco actually offers a worse pitching environment than Tropicana Field.

Clay Buchholz, SP, Boston Red Sox

Buchholz has always had good stuff. Not as good of stuff as Joe Kelly, but good stuff nonetheless. The problem has traditionally been that the right-hander struggles to get ahead in the count and is forced to groove pitches to avoid walks. In this way, not all low walk rates are created equally. In 2015, though, his first-pitch strike jumped from 60.7 percent to a career-high 65 percent, while his zone percentage jumped through the roof. He accomplished all this without throwing his fastball more often, which is primarily the reason why his strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate both increased dramatically. If Buchholz can carry over these trends to 2016, he’ll be a great buy-low option for fantasy owners. Of course, that’s a huge if and his injury history brings added baggage.

Hector Santiago, SP, Los Angeles Angels

The Angels continue to look for reasons to avoid starting Santiago every fifth day, but he finally started 30-plus games in 2015 and was the 52nd-ranked fantasy starter in ESPN leagues. Although his impact in the strikeout category is more cumulative than rate-based, only 43 pitchers struck out at least 160 batters. Santiago was one of them. Assuming he breaks the season in the rotation, the lefty is a sneaky source of strikeouts. I’d rather draft someone like Kennedy in the late rounds of a fantasy draft, but Santiago is solid and pitches in a nice park. And, no, Andrelton Simmons won’t help him. The southpaw has a 29.9 percent ground-ball rate.

Will Smith, RP, Milwaukee Brewers

Out of all MLB pitchers who threw at least 50 innings, Smith had the seventh-highest strikeout rate (34.5 percent) and struck out as many batters as two qualified starters (Mike Pelfrey and Mark Buehrle). His slider is one of the more wicked weapons in Major League Baseball. The added benefit of Smith is that he’s likely second in line for the closer’s job in Milwaukee, and new general manager David Stearns shouldn’t have the same attachment to K-Rod as the former regime. Draft him in deeper leagues for the strikeouts, celebrate when he vultures a few saves.

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