When I first started playing fantasy baseball around 15 years ago and for many years after that, it was ingrained in my head that I should never draft rookie pitchers or add them to my roster (12 team mixed leagues, obviously in Only leagues, this would be difficult to pull off). I followed this for a while, always avoiding rookies and ignoring the hype. But as new statistical methods of evaluating pitchers became more mainstream and I learned how to use these methods, I realized that rookie pitchers should not automatically be discarded and expected to deliver minimal fantasy value. So I now have no problem drafting and rostering rookie pitchers and evaluate each pitcher on his own, forgetting about whether the rookie label is slapped on or not. With that wordy introduction out of the way, let’s take a look at how some of the top rookie pitchers have fared so far.
Michael Pineda, SEA
The 22-year old was a surprise addition to the M’s opening day rotation and he has started three games so far, logging 19.1 innings. His skills have been solid, albeit unspectacular, but his surface stats give the impression of a sparkling debut. Of course, he is not going to go all season without allowing a home run and is highly unlikely to maintain a .245 BABIP either. The 56% FB% is a major concern, though he is in one of the best ball parks for such an extreme fly ball pitcher. His 13.3% SwStk% is absolutely fantastic, and suggests that his 7.5 K/9 has major upside.
He has been throwing a three-pitch mix, but has only thrown his change-up 8.1% of the time. As a primarily fastball-slider pitcher, I thought he may be having problems with lefties, but so far his xFIP platoon splits do not suggest any cause for concern at the moment. So far, Pineda’s fantasy prospects for this season seem promising. We obviously cannot expect much run support from an inept Mariners offense, but he could very well continue to generate mixed league value all year.
Kyle Drabek, TOR
The 23-year old has started four games and thrown 24 innings for the Jays. However, his skills are less intriguing than Pineda’s. A .266 BABIP and 80.8% LOB% have artificially depressed his ERA, as his xFIP sits at a less impressive 4.40 (versus a 3.00 ERA). The ground ball tilt is nice, but not nearly high enough to get too excited about. The strikeout rate is acceptable, and generally where it should have been expected to be around given his lackluster minor league rates.
Control has been a problem thus far, as he has thrown an impossibly low 35.7% of his pitches in the strike zone (versus the 47.5% league average rate). Seriously, I do not think I have ever seen a pitcher with a Zone% that low. He never struggled with his control this much in the minors, so at least we know this hasn’t been an annual problem for Drabek. Aside from the control issues, the big concern here is the lack of any Triple-A experience. His skills were only okay at Double-A in 2010, so without having even dominated Double-A and actually skipping Triple-A, you have to wonder if he is truly ready to succeed against Major League hitters. I think he has the talent to accumulate a little bit of AL-Only value, but mixed leaguers should avoid him.
Jeremy Hellickson, TAM
I liked Hellickson enough during the pre-season that I boldly predicted he would be the Rays’ most valuable pitcher this year. He has had a disappointing opening to the season, however, but of course the sample size is small enough to not make me look foolish just yet. His control has been uncharacteristically poor, as he has walked 9 batters in 18 innings, after having never posted higher than a 2.8 BB/9 in his professional career. He is still throwing pitches in the zone more often than the league average, though his F-Strike% is slightly lower. His 9.9% SwStk% hints at further upside for his K/9, and I think he is more than capable of pushing that up near last season’s 8.2 mark.
Unfortunately, Hellickson is a fly ball pitcher, but that is really the only negative I could find. He very much reminds me of rotation-mate James Shields, with his below average (for a right-handed starter) fastball velocity and reliance on a devastating change-up. Hellickson, though, seems to have slightly better strikeout ability, but induces fewer ground balls. All in all, I am still very much a fan and remain confident that he will earn impressive mixed league value given his rookie status.
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.