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As pitchers begin to become more and more of a dominant force in the real world, the fantasy world is starting to change their valuations of the position. While many used to wait on the position, building their stable of hitters in the first few rounds before targeting pitchers, drafts and auctions are now seeing more valuable resources going towards a legitimate SP1. That means there is less of an advantage of having one of the top-tier arms, making a strong SP2 and SP3 even more important. That brings us to today’s matchup, with a couple of right-handers in their 20’s who are being taken as secondary arms. It’s Garrett Richards vs. Michael Wacha.

ERA
Richards 2015: 3.65
Wacha 2015: 3.38

This was a close matchup last season, with Wacha edging Richards out by 13 spots on the qualified pitchers leaderboard. The Cardinals young starter has outperformed his peripherals in each of his three major-league seasons, largely due to his ability to induce weak contact. To wit, he has a career 3.48 FIP and 3.64 DRA to go along with his career 3.21 ERA. To go along with the weak contact he allows, he is helped by a typically strong St. Louis defense. Richards hasn’t had the same effects, but has outperformed his FIP in each of the last two years. He will be helped tremendously in this regard in 2016 as a heavy groundball pitcher whose team just added defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons. This should end up being a close matchup, especially due to the Angels’ improved infield defense, but Wacha has a longer track record of low ERAs. It’s difficult to bet against that happening once again. Advantage: Wacha

WHIP
Richards 2015: 1.24
Wacha 2015: 1.21

While ERA was relatively close with a clear winner, the competition between these two in WHIP last year was essentially a wash. On that same qualified pitcher leaderboard, they were separated by just five spots in this category. The easiest component here to predict is walk rate, but unfortunately they are relatively even here. Richards’ BB/9 went above 3.0 for the first time in three years last season, but there weren’t enough tangible changes to his control numbers to think he can’t sneak back under 3.0 moving forward. Wacha, meanwhile, has been more consistent in his career, walking between 2.6 and 2.9 batters per nine innings ever year. Consistency gives Wacha a slight edge in walks. Of course, hits matter, too. Richards used to allow BABIPs around .300, but changes in his game over the last couple of years have helped bring that down below .275. In 2016, again, he will be helped by the addition of Simmons. Wacha, again, has been more consistent, staying right around .275 in his entire career. Due to the consistency, we’ll call the hits allowed a wash, giving Wacha the slightest of overall victories. This one could really go either way, though. Advantage: Wacha, slightly

Strikeouts
Richards 2015: 175
Wacha 2015: 153

Although the overall numbers were more skewed, these two ended 2015 tied on a per-nine-innings basis. Obviously, the reason for the overall disparity is the fact that Richards tossed more innings. However, even if they throw the same number of frames moving forward, there are plenty of reasons to think the results can stay the same. Richards saw a decrease in his K-rate after setting down roughly a batter an inning in 2014. He did this while maintaining his high swinging strike rate, suggesting he could get back to that 9.0 K/9 pace he was on prior to last year. Wacha, on the other hand, has been inducing fewer and fewer whiffs as time has gone on, which has contributed to his ever-declining strikeout rate. Obviously, inducing whiffs isn’t the only way to get strikeouts, but it illustrates the difference in stuff between these two pitchers. Richards has the advantage here even if Wacha can match him in innings. Advantage: Richards

Innings Pitched
Richards 2015: 207.1
Wacha 2015: 181.1

This past year was the first in Richards’ career in which he hit the magical 200-inning mark. Wacha’s 181 frames represented a career-high workload for him as well. Of course, there are injury issues we’ll get to a bit later. This was part of the reason St. Louis limited his innings, but I’d expect the kid gloves to be taken off in 2016. With that being said, Richards is going to be throwing in front of an inferior bullpen. The Angels have Huston Street, Joe Smith, and not much else. Meanwhile, the Cardinals can turn to Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Jordan Walden. Mike Matheny could also be more likely to stretch out their appearances beyond a single inning. All of this is to say that it’s more likely for Wacha to be removed from a game earlier than Richards. Between that and the simple fact that Richards has carried a large workload before, the Angels’ righty gets the win here. Advantage: Richards

Wins
Richards 2015: 15
Wacha 2015: 17

Blech. Nobody likes trying to predict wins, as there are just so many outside factors involved here beyond the pitcher’s control. With that being said, it’s still important for fantasy so we need to persevere. Wacha does have a slight advantage in ERA, which gives him a bit of a leg up here. It’s close enough that team talent can sway it the other way, though. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in this instance. The two offenses were close last season, but it’s easier to see a repeat performance from the Cardinals than an Angels lineup that still relies on an aging Albert Pujols. St. Louis also has a preferable bullpen to hold leads, as mentioned above. Things can change very easily here, but as of now Wacha has the clear edge. Advatange: Wacha

Quality Starts
Richards 2015: 24
Wacha 2015: 19

While this isn’t quite as painful as wins, this is still another stat that’s tough to predict. In this case, both players are roughly as likely to go through a start allowing three or fewer runs. Wacha does have a near-negligible advantage there, but really it comes down to which will be able to pitch deep into games on a more consistent basis. I suspect Wacha will be able to go this more often than he did in his return from injury last season, but Richards is still more likely to do it more often than not. That advantage outweighs Wacha’s in run prevention, giving Richards the overall win. Advantage: Richards

Injury Risk
Let’s start out with the obvious. Every pitcher in baseball is an inherent injury risk. The task is to find which is a bigger risk, but both could easily get hurt at any point. Each has suffered from a major injury in the last few years that caused them to miss significant time. The worry that comes from their ailments differs, though. Richards was undone by a knee injury toward the end of 2014. While knee injuries are scary and there’s plenty of risk that it could reoccur, it’s far from the most worrisome injury that could affect a pitcher. Wacha, on the other hand, missed time due to a shoulder injury in that same season. This is what one thinks about when one considers scary pitcher injuries. It’s not to say the shoulder will bother him again, or Richards’ knee can’t blow out again, but arm injuries make one worry about a pitcher much more than leg ailments. Advantage: Richards

Ceiling
Oftentimes, it’s easiest to just hand this category to the youngest player and move on. In this case, that’s the 24-year-old Wacha. To be fair to him, he does have a very intriguing ceiling. It’s hard to see him becoming an overpowering strikeout dominator, but he could very well throw 200 innings of sub-3.00 ERA ball while striking out between eight and nine batters per nine innings. His ceiling may leave him right on the outside looking in among the elite, but it’s still an incredibly valuable fantasy asset. Richards, though, has the package to join the elites. To be clear, plenty has to go right and it’s far from a guarantee, but the tools are in there. He’s the rare combination of elite groundball rate with strikeout stuff. He could add a couple of starts to his total to get up to 220 innings, and could very well strikeout more than a batter per inning. With Simmons in town, his groundball-heavy style could help him also get back to the sub-3.00 ERA club. I wouldn’t pay for that production, of course, but there’s a path for Richards to be an easy SP1 by the end of the season. Advantage: Richards

Overall
As of this writing, NFBC has Wacha going as the 27th pitcher off the board while Richards is going as the 29th. Overall, the two are separated by a full round in 12-team leagues. Even in a vacuum, however, Richards is the play here. Wacha has the inside track in the rate stats, but they are close enough that they could go either way. On the other hand, Richards has a relatively clear advantage in innings and strikeouts, to go along with a higher ceiling and less injury risk. Either one would be a solid SP2 or SP3 depending on league size, but one has a much more realistic track to becoming an SP1. That’s Richards, who gets the win this week.

And the winner is Garrett Richards