After subjecting three straight hitters to the Pod Projection process, it’s time to move on to starting pitchers. I have decided to begin with everyone’s favorite sleeper, Reds sophomore Raisel Iglesias. After coming over from Cuba, Iglesias has pitched just 36 minor league innings and 95.1 Major League innings. And despite a lackluster 4.15 ERA during his debut, the hype machine has been running all offseason.
Such a limited track record and unimpressive ERA doesn’t typically result in an NFBC ADP that equates to the 40th starting pitcher selected. So what we have here is our classic so-called sleeper, who isn’t going for sleeper prices. As a result, he’s no sleeper, as everyone is on the bandwagon. Are fantasy owners justified in their optimism?
Iglesias recorded just 129.1 innings last year and never eclipsed 82.2 over a season while pitching in Cuba. While 170 innings is typically only amassed by the #4 or #5 starters on a team assuming good health, Iglesias is slotted into the second spot in the rotation. But, there’s simply no way to forecast an innings mark any higher. I am projecting 29 starts and we cannot be sure that he has the endurance to make it through the entire season unscathed. Further adding to the risk, Iglesias ended last season with shoulder fatigue. It just doesn’t give us a whole lot of confidence that he could pitch the number of innings a typical number two starter does.
In his 16 starts, Iglesias punched out 27% of the batters he faced. He managed such a feat by using a wicked slider, swing-and-miss changeup, and solid sinker/four-seam fastball combination. However, during his three seasons in Cuba, he posted a far less impressive 17.7% strikeout rate. Now granted, this goes all the way back to 2010-2012, so a lot could have changed since then. But in addition, he posted just a 17.4% strikeout rate at Triple-A in 2015, though the sample size of 29 innings is rather tiny.
So here’s the bottom line — the filthy stuff he came at hitters with and his xK% both validate the strikeout rate he actually posted with the Reds. But with such a small body of work with which to analyze, and weaker performances within the data we do have, we have to assume some amount of regression.
He posted a 7.1% mark during his starts and overall, but control is something he seriously struggled with while in Cuba. There, he posted a career walk rate of 12%, which is inexcusable given his soft strikeout rate. But he has clearly sharpened his control since, as he did throw an above average rate of strikes with the Reds. Though, his xBB% was a bit higher than his actual mark. The thinking here is similar to the logic behind the strikeout rate projection — there was little fluky about his performance, but given what we know, and don’t know, we have to project some sort of regression. That 7.7% walk rate was exactly the league average walk rate last year. Given his 45 Command scouting grade (which was slapped on at the end of 2014), it doesn’t seem to be overly pessimistic.
GB%/LD%/FB%: 46% / 21% / 33%
Batted ball type distribution is always the toughest when dealing with a player who recently came over from a foreign league. We have strikeout and walk rates, but we do not have any sort of batted ball type data. Was he an extreme ground ball pitcher in Cuba, but lost some of that ability in the Majors? Was he a fly ball pitcher there, but used a sinker more, or introduced it even, here, which raised his ground ball rate? I have no idea. So I simply projected a near identical distribution as last year, with a minor decline in ground ball rate and corresponding increase in fly ball rate. It’s simply closer to league average, which is what I’ll project when given a lack of any track record.
Iglesias really struggled with the long ball last year and allowed an inflated 13.9% HR/FB rate. According to our park factors, Great American Ballpark (GABP) is the second best home run park in baseball. So it would be easy to chalk up the gopheritis to his home digs. But that wasn’t actually the case. He allowed a 9.8% HR/FB rate at home, but a ridiculous 21.4% mark in away games! That gap is going to narrow, of course, but GABP is still a home run haven and it doesn’t matter that he happened to post a lower mark there last year. My 11.5% projection nearly matches the 113 park factor, which already accounts for half his games being played on the road.
He posted a .286 BABIP last year, despite a league average line drive rate, below average IFFB%, and a slight ground ball tilt. He didn’t even benefit from a usually strong Reds defense, as the unit actually posted a negative UZR/150 for the season. So, with no proven ability to suppress hits on balls in play and maintain a below league average BABIP, the projection calls for a regression right back to the league average.
Below is my final projected pitching line, along with the other systems for comparison:
For a guy with such a limited track record, it’s pretty amazing how close we are on the projections. I’m actually most bullish from an ERA perspective, though my walk rate represents the highest forecast, which pushed my WHIP projection higher than all but ZiPS, which has the highest ERA projection. I have no idea where that .313 BABIP from ZiPS is coming from. I also can’t comprehend how ZiPS can forecast an even worse HR/9 mark!
So to answer the original question I asked in the intro — are fantasy owners justified in their optimism? — I would say yes, with a caveat. The innings risk is a real concern and it needs to factor into valuations. My ranking of 52 among starting pitchers posted in Tuesday’s update reflects this. Clearly, I’m probably as bullish on his performance as anyone out there, but it would still be difficult for me to pull the trigger early enough to make him the 40th pitcher off the board. That’s evidence that the sleeper hype has gotten a bit out of control.
Iglesias’ situation actually brings up an interesting topic of discussion that I’ll briefly summarize. His ADP is a perfect example of how much more difficult it has become to sneak through starting pitcher sleepers late. Surely due in part to the popularity of this very website, fantasy owners are far more aware of a pitcher’s underlying skills (strikeout, walk, ground ball rates) and the luck metrics. So rather than draft Iglesias based on his inflated 2015 ERA, fantasy owners are rightly looking deeper and instead focusing on the elite strikeout rate and the impressive 3.26 SIERA. It’s cool that fantasy owners as a group have dramatically increased their knowledge base, but it makes it harder to scoop up those breakout candidates cheaply and build a pitching staff filled with them.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.