For many in my generation, when one thinks of starting pitching, the focus immediately turns to Atlanta. It’s been an overwhelming constant for the Braves, whether we’re talking Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tim Hudson or (at least last year) Mike Minor. In fact, since The Strike, the Atlanta Braves have enjoyed the best starting pitching in Major League Baseball. Their cumulative 3.73 ERA is well-ahead of the pack, with the Los Angeles Dodgers being the only other team with a sub-4.00 ERA from their starters since the 1995 season.
Thus, it’s not surprising the Braves trotted out yet another effective rotation last year. Even without the injured Brandon Beachy, their rotation featured three top-30 fantasy starters in Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen. The trio are poised to headline the rotation once again in 2014, so in terms of a fantasy outlook, there’s plenty to like.
Kris Medlen was the fantasy darling heading into the 2013 season because he dazzled down the stretch with a 1.57 ERA in 2012, and many fantasy owners hoped it was a harbinger of things to come. While nobody legitimately expected another sub-2.00 ERA, owners had to be pleased with his 3.11 ERA (3.48 FIP) as he largely performed to expectations. However, the 7.17 K/9 strikeout rate was rather underwhelming for a guy with such a high swinging-strike rate.
Two significant question marks remain with Medlen: (1) can the strikeout rate take a step forward, and (2) can his arm handle back-to-back seasons of a 200-inning workload?
In relation to the strikeout rate, the right-hander owned the worst strikeout rate of any qualified starter who owned a swinging-strike rate above 10.0%. The closest strikeout rates for pitchers in that category came from Ricky Nolasco and Zack Greinke, both of whom historically have much higher strikeout rates when posting such lofty strikeout rates. In addition, our own Eno Sarris wrote an article illustrating that Medlen has the third whiff-iest changeup/splitter in all of baseball. While none of that conclusively leads one to believe his strikeout rate must necessarily increase this upcoming season, but all signs point to such a conclusion being quite reasonable.
As for the second point, I’m slightly worried about his arm health because his average fastball velocity dropped below 90 mph for the first time, and it’s a workload he hasn’t experienced thus far in his professional career. On the flip side, his velocity numbers in previous years are bolstered by stints in the bullpen in which his velocity likely played up, and his velocity didn’t taper off throughout the year. It seems to mostly be a non-issue. It’s just something to keep in the back of your mind if you’re an owner wondering if you should reach for him on draft day.
The true gem in the Braves rotation for fantasy owners was Mike Minor. He was being drafted below guys like Brett Anderson and Jonathan Niese, and he was the #16 fantasy starter last year according to Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings. The southpaw flashed a glimpse of his ability in the second half of the 2012 season, posting a 2.16 ERA in 87.1 innings, cutting his walk and home run rates dramatically. That success carried over into 2013, as he finished with 200+ innings and a 3.21 ERA.
Things to like about Minor last year: his swinging-strike rate increased from 7.8% in 2012 to 9.6% in 2013; his velocity remained constant; he threw first-pitch strikes 64.5% of the time, which was a career best; he held righties to a .295 wOBA and showed no signs of a platoon split; and his 2.02 BB/9 walk rate was a career best.
Mike Minor is currently being drafted as the 17th-best starter, which seems to be solid value. The statistics suggest no reason as to why he cannot have a repeat performance in 2014.
Julio Teheran — who signed a six-year contract extension today — has been a mainstay on Braves’ top-prospect lists for years. He lost much of his luster coming into 2013, though, as he struggled to a 5.08 ERA in 131.0 innings in Triple-A the previous season. Nonetheless, the right-hander was tremendous in his rookie season. He posted a 3.20 ERA with a 3.78 K/BB ratio, which ranked 16th of all qualified starters.
The strikeout-rate appears legitimate, as his 10.5% swinging-strike rate can absolutely sustain a strikeout rate that’s slightly below a batter per inning. Teheran is intriguing because he can miss so many bats with his fastball. His 10.0% swinging-strike rate with his fastball, which Brooks Baseball on which places a 60-grade (above average) compared to the remainder of the league.
One big concern surrounding Teheran, though:
Underlying issues against lefties are clearly present, and while his overall numbers still translate to a top-30 starter, owners would be wise to watch this trend early in the year. I could see a situation in which it makes sense to avoid starting Teheran for a start or two against particularly lefty-heavy lineups, and really, such a situation is not desirable for any fantasy starter.
If you’re searching for a sleeper on the Braves’ staff, that could be southpaw Alex Wood. He impressed in a brief stint in the rotation, and overall between the rotation and the bullpen, his 3.13 ERA and 2.65 FIP are quite attractive. Mix that with an above-average ground-ball rate and good strikeout numbers, and we’re talking my language.
He’s known for his unorthodox pitching motion, which is very tough on left-handed hitters, but my biggest concern about unorthodox southpaws is that they have the potential to feature massive platoon splits. Alex Wood did not show that last season. He held lefties to a .253/.320/.302 slash line and righties to a .255/.326/.365 slash line — and though his K/BB ratio was much better against lefties, he held his own against righties to the tune of a 3.10 FIP.
Wood is currently being drafted behind guys like Daniel Straily, Chris Tillman, and Jose Quintana. I like Alex Wood much better than those three. I see solid upside if you can get the young lefty as the starter #68 on draft day.
Another starter Alex Wood is being drafted behind is fellow-Brave Brandon Beachy. The right-hander is coming off Tommy John surgery and suffered a setback in his brief comeback attempt last year, so it’s difficult to ascertain what Beachy will bring fantasy owners this year. He impressed in 2011 and 2012 prior to his injury, but his strikeout rate dropped dramatically (as did his velocity) in his 30 innings last year. The small-sample caveat obviously exists when talking about 30 innings; however, that’s all we have to work with in his post-TJ timeline.
For owners selecting Beachy, it’s largely a question mark with few reliable answers at the moment. He’s currently going as the 62nd-starter, and I’d prefer a slew of guys behind him for the certainty and upside. We’re talking guys like Tyson Ross, Alex Wood, Scott Kazmir, Kyle Lohse, Rick Porcello and John Lackey, just to name a few. I was huge on Brandon Beachy in 2012 and stashed him in a few leagues in 2013, but I’m not liking the value heading into the 2014 season.
Keep in mind the Braves also have Gavin Floyd, who is battling back from Tommy John surgery himself. He’s not anything to get too excited about — and certainly not someone I’d draft to stash — but he’s someone to keep on the radar once the summer months start rolling in.
As a whole, the Braves have solid starting pitching options, as they have throughout the past two decades. They may not be the biggest names in the National League, but guys like Minor and Medlen offer solid, consistent value in the 20-to-30 range. And even Alex Wood is an intriguing arm as the potential fourth or fifth starter. Fantasy owners have grown accustomed to looking to Atlanta for pitching, and that should continue into the 2014 season.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).