As the Baseball Prospectus Fantasy Team boldly pushes forward in our Fantasy Categorical Breakdowns series, be sure to catch up with previous installments over the past couple of weeks. Before we do, please make sure to take a look at J.J. Jansons’ excellent intro piece that aired last week and Wilson Karaman’s smart look at under/overachievers in the Win category.
The win category is troublesome because it’s just the ERA category plus numerous external factors. In other words, pitchers attractive in run prevention become even more attractive in fantasy leagues when they benefit from potent offenses or shutdown bullpens. The latter part is too often forgotten, while the former probably gets too much attention.
Ultimately, it’s healthy to admit the limited nature of what I’m doing in this article. I’m isolating quality offenses and teams with potentially elite bullpens and then finding a deeper arm or two who could outperform their 2015 run-prevention numbers. That’s it. Nothing fancy. But, dammit, that’s what I’m going to do.
The Quick-Hit Jumpers
Much like his more-heralded counterpart Dallas Keuchel, McHugh compiled impressive win totals on a surprising Astros team that seemingly contended a year or two before it was supposed to. He nearly eclipsed the 20-win mark, thanks to allowing two or fewer earned runs in 13 of his final 19 starts. His quality end to the season might make fantasy owners jump back on the McHugh bandwagon; however, it’s important to realize that his decreased effectiveness largely came on the back of BABIP regression. His 3.89 ERA partnered with a seemingly sustainable .310 BABIP. Considering he doesn’t have a minor-league track record of low BABIP, it does not seem reasonable to assume that his .259 BABIP in 2014 is a harbinger of what we should expect going forward. His 2015 campaign is probably more representative of his skill set—which is decent enough, but largely mediocre. Even with a quality Astros bullpen, McHugh isn’t likely to near the 20-win plateau again this upcoming season.
Consistently inconsistent with an offense that can plate tons of runs, that’s what one expected from De La Rosa in 2015 and what fantasy owners would be wise to expect in 2016. Although he missed bats in Arizona with an 11.1 percent swinging-strike rate, it was paired with too many hittable pitches and too many walks. His 4.74 DRA and 113 cFIP illustrate this fact quite well. The right-hander will enjoy successful stretches thanks to an offense that features Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, but he’s realistically nothing but a lottery ticket for fantasy owners. And one with an unattractive downside. He’ll probably win more games than his ERA suggests he should. The issues in other categories, though, should keep fantasy owners from trying to capitalize on that.
Lackey recently signed a two-year contract with the Cubs. He’s coming off the best statistical performance of his career; however, his 2.77 ERA only resulted in 13 wins. That’s largely because the St. Louis Cardinals struggled offensively and had the occasional hiccup at the back-end of the bullpen. Now, though, the right-hander will move to the North Side of Chicago, where he’ll join one of the youngest and most talented offenses in Major League Baseball. And there are rumblings that the Cubs are seeking to dramatically upgrade their bullpen. That all translates to an upswing in his fantasy stock. The problem, of course, is that Lackey should experience a big downturn in performance. His 82.6 strand rate is far different from his career norm (72.9 percent), and his overall performance wasn’t much different than it was in 2014. His whiff rate actually declined. His strikeout, walk, and ground-ball rates are almost identical. His 4.01 DRA and 100 cFIP suggest that he’ll be average in 2016. That’s valuable. That’s just not how he’ll be valued heading into the 2016 fantasy season.
The Interesting Cases
It feels as if Richards somehow disappeared off most people’s fantasy radars. His overall performance dipped in 2015, sure, but he continued to hold left-handed hitters at bay and pitched pretty well outside of a disastrous month of August. Too much has been made of his small velocity decline, too, as his swinging-strike rate actually increased to 11.1 percent this past season. The 27-year-old is entering his hypothetical prime with an entire offseason to train—something that couldn’t happen last winter due to his knee injury. He’ll be on a competitive club with a decent bullpen, and he’ll have Mike Trout. That should count for something.
How about one of the best second-half performers from the 2015 season moving to one of the best teams in baseball? Iwakuma posted a 3.05 ERA after the All-Star Break, including a no-hitter, and got even better as the year progressed. He finished with a cool 2.03 ERA in September, as his splitter devastated hitters down the stretch. The right-hander is moving from Seattle to Los Angeles, transitioning to a club that won 16 more games than the Mariners in 2015. And if the Dodgers can acquire Aroldis Chapman—as is being discussed—he’ll benefit from a Kenley Jansen-Chapman combination at the end of games. That can only help the projected win totals.
Six of the Blue Jays’ starting pitchers in 2015—including J.A. Happ and David Price—ranked among the top-50 starting pitchers for wins. That’s an incredible statistic that’s largely predicated on Toronto having one of the most potent offenses in Major League Baseball. That fact shouldn’t change in the upcoming season, so it seems likely that Chavez will similarly benefit from the Blue Bombers in the Rogers Centre. He started 26 games a year ago and was below average. Still, his ERA was roughly one-and-a-half points better than Drew Hutchison’s, and the latter still won 13 games in 2015. Fantasy owners should consider that a lesson learned.
Shields struggled his way through his worst season since 2010—posting an ERA worse than the league’s average—but still managed to win 13 games on a bad Padres club. How? He was consistently mediocre. The right-hander only gave up more than five runs in one outing, which was a seven-run drubbing against the San Francisco Giants on June 25th. Aside from that loss, Shields pitched through the fifth inning in every game and didn’t allow more than five runs to cross the plate. This left the Padres effectively in every game that he started, allowing him to salvage a few wins that he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to collect. Eating innings and not getting shelled, two attributes that are often overlooked in fantasy leagues but can be useful in fantasy leagues.
In 24 starts last season, Thor only won nine games, which is surprising given his 3.24 ERA and the emergence of Familia in the back-end of the Mets’ bullpen. A full 30-plus starts from the right-hander should bring double-digit wins; however, Syndergaard has deGrom-breakout potential. His 82 cFIP ranks better than Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, and Matt Harvey. Although he’s someone who won’t be cheap on draft day, he’ll likely get overlooked due to his position on a loaded starting rotation. He’s a potential no. 2 fantasy starter on a good ballclub. The wins should be there.
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