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Over the last two days, Wilson Karaman took a comprehensive look at how the league-wide uptick in offense impacted the overall ERA landscape this past season, while J.P. Breen shed some light on 2015’s most prominent over/underachievers.

Predicting which non-elite, lower-tier (in some cases) fantasy starters will take a significant step forward in ERA exclusively is a tall order even for Nostradamus himself. However, that’s exactly what we will attempt to do with the final installment of the ERA portion of our categorical breakdown series. Without further delay, let’s dive into the pool of starting pitchers to uncover some arms with the potential to take a step forward next season.

The Quick Hit Jumpers

Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers

The sheer mileage alone is enough to ward off the risk-averse fantasy owners on draft day, but it’s nearly impossible to overlook how well Verlander pitched this past season. His 3.38 ERA (inflated due to poor pitch framing and below-average defense) ranked 38th out of 141 starters who eclipsed the 100-inning plateau in 2015, but his 2.65 Deserved Run Average (DRA) was the fourth-lowest mark in the game, trailing only Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Jake Arrieta.

At 32 years old and with diminished fastball velocity, Verlander won’t ever come close to replicating the truly legendary run he put together from 2011-2012, but at this time a year ago, there were valid questions regarding whether or not he was even a top-50 fantasy starter.

Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals

There are plenty of reasons, aside from the obvious durability concerns, to be skeptical about the 29-year-old southpaw after a season in which his 2.43 ERA (fourth-lowest out of 141 starters this season) outperformed his DRA (3.28) by nearly a full run. When it comes to Cardinals starters, however, Garcia isn’t an unexplained outlier. He’s part of a fascinating trend of Redbird hurlers (including Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, and John Lackey) whose ERAs significantly outperformed their DRA this past season.

Was Garcia’s sterling ERA in 2015 a bit of a fluke? You bet. That doesn’t mean, however, that he didn’t pitch exceptionally well. In addition to posting the 13th-lowest DRA of any starter, he racked up a 62 percent groundball rate, issued just 2.1 walks-per-nine, and held opposing batters to an absurdly low .213 TAv. The only question mark going forward is whether or not he can remain healthy.

Lance McCullers, RHP, Astros

Perhaps the most intriguing name on this entire list, McCullers' long-term value hinges on whether or not he can survive as a starter relying almost exclusively on two pitches (fastball and curveball). The primary and secondary components of his arsenal are exquisite. The x-factor is whether or not his changeup, which is still developing, becomes a truly one-of-a-kind weapon, especially against left-handed batters. The stuff is fantastic and the statistical results (3.62 DRA) from his rookie campaign were equally impressive.

The strikeouts alone (9.1 K/9) give him the profile of a future fantasy ace, and if his repertoire continues to evolve as a starter, look out. No matter how you slice it, the combination of stats, stuff, and upside makes McCullers one of the most compelling young arms in the game.

Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners

The upside for a supremely athletic right-hander who possesses an arsenal, like Walker, is off the charts to begin with. However, in this case, the advanced metrics may be even more optimistic about his potential going forward than anything else. According to cFIP, a predictive pitching metric developed by Jonathan Judge, which serves as a true pitcher-quality estimator that approximates a pitcher’s current ability, Walker’s 2015 ERA is extremely deceptive and not at all indicative of his true talent level.













Only 31 starters who eclipsed 100 innings this past season posted a higher ERA than Walker. Of that group, Walker and Rick Porcello were the only ones to post a sub-100 (above-league-average) cFIP. There isn’t a better candidate on this list to improve in ERA next season than Walker. Did I forget to mention he’s only 23 years old?

Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP, Red Sox

The 22-year-old southpaw posted the lowest DRA (3.44) of any rookie starter while ranking 23rd out of 141 pitchers who accumulated 100 innings of work this past season. To put that performance in perspective, Rodriguez graded out ahead of fantasy studs like Matt Harvey, Madisom Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Johnny Cueto, and Felix Hernandez, just to name a few.

Rodriguez's actual 3.85 ERA (69th out of 141 starters) wasn’t nearly as impressive, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider that he had four absolutely disastrous outings in which he was shelled for six or more earned runs. He recorded a quality start in 13 of his other 17 outings in 2015, which is reason for optimism that he can develop into a stellar fantasy option in the near future.

The arsenal is already impressive, especially his four-seam fastball, which recorded the fifth-highest average velocity (putting him in elite company with the likes of Clayton Kershaw and David Price) out of 59 left-handed starters in 2015. The other element of his fastball that stands out is the high rate (44 percent) of groundballs it generates per ball in play. It’s not at a Jaime Garcia- or Brett Anderson-like level, but for a power pitcher, it’s an excellent rate. The only lefties to pair a high groundball rate with premium velocity (94 mph-plus) in 2015 were Kershaw, Derek Holland, Steven Matz, and James Paxton. If the slider, which is a work in progress, develops into a quality third offering, he’s going to be special.

The Interesting Cases

Taylor Jungmann, RHP, Brewers

The former Longhorn burst onto the fantasy scene this summer with a dynamic curveball, which generated an eye-popping 46.81 percent whiffs-per-swing rate, the third-highest mark of any starter in the game. In addition to striking out nearly a batter per inning (8.1 K/), and generating a 48 percent groundball rate, Jungmann delivered a 3.84 DRA, which was a top-40 mark this past season. There is a lot to like here, especially if the price on draft day is in the middle-to-late rounds of mixed leagues.

Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox

You won’t get caught in a bidding war for his services next spring, that much I can guarantee you. The durability, or lack thereof, is a legitimate gripe. If you can overlook the fact that he’s topped 115 innings just twice in the last five years, the underlying numbers suggest that he’s still every bit as talented as ever. Before being shut down in early July, Buchholz owned a 3.26 ERA (3.37 DRA). If you are a straight-up FIP enthusiast, his 2.65 mark (by far the lowest of his entire career) will grab your attention. Considering that he will cost next to nothing, Buchholz is worth a gamble in 2016.

Chad Bettis, RHP, Rockies

If you’re searching for a potentially undervalued fantasy asset, the Colorado Rockies pitching staff is a good place to start. On the surface, Bettis’ 4.23 ERA isn’t going to turn any heads, but his DRA (3.77) was considerably lower, nearly half a run, suggesting that he was a bit of an unlucky victim at times last year. The 27-year-old won’t be much help outside of NL-only formats, but oftentimes the key to winning a deeper format like that is identifying a pitcher who will exceed expectations. He’s a high-risk gamble, but if you believe in the predictive value of cFIP (Bettis’ was 98 by the way) and in DRA as a more accurate metric to evaluate pitcher performance, Bettis should be on your target list.

Mike Leake, RHP, Free Agent

The quintessential back-end fantasy rotation stalwart, Leake is criminally underrated in shallow fantasy formats, but an invaluable source of quality innings in deeper leagues. He posted the lowest DRA (3.56) of his entire six-year career splitting last season between Cincinnati and San Francisco. Where he signs as a free agent this offseason will determine his value going forward, but he shouldn’t be overlooked anymore, especially not after earning $13 in NL-only formats last year.

J.A. Happ, LHP, Free Agent

The journeyman southpaw quietly earned $12 in NL-only formats last season as Ray Searage and Jim Benedict’s latest scrap-heap reclamation project in Pittsburgh. A free agent this offseason, his new area code will ultimately matter more than anything else, but let’s not overlook the 10-start stretch to close the season in which he went 7-1 with a 1.37 ERA while striking out over a batter per inning.

Rich Hill, LHP, Athletics

Sure, why not? He's the ultimate analytics-savvy fantasy owner's sleeper. That will happen when you compile a 1.49 DRA in four starts and then sign with Oakland two months later as a free agent.

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