Starting Pitchers: Five Picks Outside the Top 50

Everyone loves value, and paying down at pitcher is quite popular — even in writer/expert leagues. Waiting on pitchers puts some extra pressure on hitting on value plays to offset the lack of a “true” ace. That’s not to say the following pitchers will perform like fantasy aces, but they do appear poised to outperform their draft positions — some by a significant amount, in my opinion. Each of the five pitchers highlighted below is being selected outside of the top-50 starting pitchers in NFBC drafts, just one is being selected inside the top-200 picks on average, and three of the five are being selected, on average, outside of the top-250 players.

*NFBC ADP data current as of March 10th.

Patrick Corbin – SP 54, Average Pick: 194.58
Patrick Corbin successfully returned from Tommy John surgery last year and made his 2015 debut with the Diamondbacks on July 4th. The lefty made 16 starts that spanned 85.0 innings and was mostly sharp by any measure (3.35 FIP, 3.27 xFIP and 3.44 SIERA). His ERA estimators and batted ball data lined up favorably with his pre-injury work. In fact, he actually gave up less hard contact (35.1% hard-hit ball rate in 2013 and 30.8% hard-hit ball rate in 2015) in his return, yet his BABIP jumped from .283 in 2013 to .327 last year. Corbin allowed a .295 BABIP prior to last season, so his .327 mark from last year’s likely due for some regression, and our Depth Charts, Steamer and ZiPS projections all reflect that. Couple the BABIP regression with his slightly improved control (4.8% walk rate in 2015 compared to 6.0% walk rate prior to 2015), and the lefty should whittle away at his 1.27 WHIP from last year.

As for Corbin’s stuff, it looks good. The average velocity for his fourseam fastball and sinker sat around 93 mph as they did in his breakout 2013 campaign, according to Brooks Baseball, but his changeup featured a bit of added velocity last year (which isn’t good). Regaining some feel for his changeup should aid him in his quest to quiet down the bats of righties. Corbin’s slider remains a filthy bat-missing pitch and ranked ninth in whiff/swing percentage (43.07%) among those thrown a minimum of 200 times in 2015, per Baseball Prospectus, and it helped fuel his 10.8% swinging strike rate that was both a career high and bested the league average of 9.9% last year. The biggest knock on the young lefty is that his innings will almost certainly be capped. Manager Chip Hale floated 175 to 180 innings as a possibility, but it’s probably best to temper expectations a bit shy of that — especially if you believe the Diamondbacks will reach the postseason, since the innings cap would include any postseason work. Even with the innings limit, the total package is a top-50 starting pitcher who’s being undervalued in NFBC drafts.

Ian Kennedy – SP 64, Average Pick: 246.65
The contract the Royals extended to Ian Kennedy has largely been panned, but from a fantasy perspective, I love his landing spot. The bad news is that Kennedy moves from the Senior Circuit and facing lineups featuring a pitcher hitting to the Junior Circuit and facing designated hitters. The good news outweighs the bad, though. Kennedy struggled with homers last season (1.66 HR/9 and 17.2% HR/FB compared to pre-2015 marks of 1.03 HR/9 and 9.8% HR/FB, respectively), and he moves from playing home games in a homer-amplifying ballpark to a homer-suppressing park. Yes, that’s right, Petco Park enhances homers by 11% to lefties and plays neutrally for homers to right-handed batters, per StatCorner’s three-year rolling averages. Conversely, Kauffman Stadium has a park factor of 84 for left-handed homers and 76 for right-handed homers. So, in addition to the standard regression to his career norm in homer rate, he could get an additional boost from his new home digs. He also upgrades defenses.

Kansas City has graded out as the best team defense in three straight years. Last year, the Padres ranked 29th in team defense. Only the White Sox checked in with a lower team defense grade than the Friars. With the three-year reigning top team defense behind him, he’s a candidate to best his ERA estimators since pitching isn’t defensive independent and he’s backed by the best in the league. As for the controllable numbers, Kennedy has been strong in that respect as well. He’s struck out 24.4% of the batters he’s faced the last two years — supported by a 10.2% SwStr% — with a 7.8% walk rate. His ability to miss bats at an above average rate while walking batters at around a league average rate has helped him earn a 3.80 FIP, 3.56 xFIP and 3.54 SIERA over the past two years, and I expect him to pitch to a mid-three ERA — similar to his xFIP and SIERA — with a healthy contribution to strikeouts. Overall, he profiles as another top-50 starting pitcher who’s being under drafted. Before even factoring in cost, I’d take him over Shelby Miller (SP 43 and 157.40 average pick), Luis Severino (SP44 and 160.81 average pick), John Lackey (SP 52 and 185.66 average pick) and Kenta Maeda (SP55 and 204.37 average pick) among several others. After factoring in cost, he looks like a steal.

Matt Moore – SP 72, Average Pick: 269.39
Matt Moore is a bigger dice roll than the aforementioned hurlers highlighted as values, but his September finish provides me enough encouragement to endorse nabbing him in drafts as a high-upside pick. The young lefty made his return from Tommy John in a start on July 2nd. He wasn’t sharp and was chased after 4.2 innings. After five more rough starts, the Rays demoted Moore to the minors to right the ship. He was fairly dominant for Triple-A Durham and parlayed that into a half-dozen starts for the Rays in September. In those starts, he struck out 19.9% of the batters he faced with a 10.7% SwStr% that points to more upside and paired his punch outs with a 6.9% walk rate. His 2.97 ERA in those turns overstates his excellence (4.24 FIP, 4.07 xFIP and 4.06 SIERA) in September, but the numbers aren’t the only reason to have some faith in Moore outperforming his ADP.

Prior to his demotion, Moore’s fourseam fastball averaged 92.36 mph and sinker average 92.16 mph. After being recalled from Durham, his fourseam fastball averaged 93.35 mph and his sinker sat at 91.86 mph — albeit on just a 0.18% usage rate. The velocity lines up favorably with the cheddar he was pumping out in 2013 and 2014. That wasn’t the only change after his September return. Moore upped his fourseam fastball usage from 50.81% to 61.14%, almost entirely cut out his sinker, reduced his cutter usage from 7.32% to 4.99%, cut his changeup usage more than in half dropping it from 17.07% to 6.6% and bumped his curve usage up from 18.7% to 27.09%. All of his offerings were hammered before September, but only his changeup had a batting average against above .250 — and it was an alarming .571 batting average against — in his last six starts. The changeup did induce a promising 21.62% whiff rate at the end of the year, and the ISO was below .150 on the pitch. Improving his changeup would help him immensely, but at least Moore was aware the pitch wasn’t good, and he used it less often. With the exception of Moore’s sinker (which he threw only one), all of his pitches netted a whiff rate north of 10% in September, per Brooks Baseball. The type of swing and miss Moore generated at the end of the year is worth speculating on for cheap.

Clay Buchholz – SP 77, Average Pick: 286.69
Clay Buchholz’s career high for innings pitched in a season is 189.1 (2012), and the 31-year-old starter has bested 170 innings just three times in his career. Buchholz hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and that absolutely has to be factored into his draft position. Last year, a strained flexor tendon limited him to 18 starts and 113.1 innings. If bells are going off in your head reading about a flexor tendon injury, Homer Bailey missed the end of the 2014 season with a flexor mass injury that required surgery and ended up going under the knife for Tommy John surgery after just two starts in 2015. Before penciling in Buchholz for a visit with Dr. James Andrews, it’s worth noting that last May, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said about the torn ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John surgery, ” it does not appear the injury is at all related to the right elbow flexor mass injury Homer sustained late last season.” Despite an injury ending Buchholz 2015 prematurely, there were plenty of positives for him to build on this season.

Prior to last year, Buchholz totaled a 18.1% strikeout rate (9.1% SwStr%), 8.7% walk rate, 4.06 FIP, 4.07 xFIP and 4.17 SIERA in 149 starts. He did tease gamers with a nifty 2013 season in which he spun a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts (108.1 innings), but the ERA estimators (2.78 FIP, 3.41 xFIP and 3.59 SIERA) were more good than great. Last year, Buchholz was a different pitcher and arguably better than in 2013 — even if his 3.26 ERA begs to differ. In 18 starts and 113.1 innings, Buchholz set a new career best with a 4.9% walk rate, struck out batters at a 22.8% rate that fell just short of the 23.1% mark tallied in 2013, but he also blew his career SwStr% (9.1%) out of the water with a 10.6% SwStr%. The result of his whole body of work in 2015 were glowing ERA estimators (2.68 FIP, 3.30 xFIP and 3.35 SIERA).

A look at his PITCHf/x data sheds some light on his excellence last season. Buchholz fourseam fastball and sinker average velocity were their highest since 2011 at 93.20 mph and 92.73 mph, respectively. He also flip-flopped his fastball usage cutting back from a 27.43% usage rate for his fourseam fastball in 2014 to 16.93% last year while bumping his sinker usage up from 17.6% to 26.85%. Not coincidentally, his ground ball rate of 48.3% in 2015 was up from 46.6% in 2014. Another major change in his PITCHf/x profile involved the changeup. He kicked his usage up from 9.17% in 2014 (and under 14% in each year from 2012-2014) to 17.1%. Wise move by Clay because the pitch is his best bat-missing weapon (22.18% whiff rate last year).

Don’t compare the numbers on Buchholz’s changeup from last year to previous years, though, because it’s a completely different pitch. The movement changed dramatically on his changeup and featured horizontal movement that mirrored that of his sinker. In addition to missing bats, the changeup is now a ground ball inducing pitch with a 52.17% ground ball rate last year. With tangible gains made to his skills and pitch mix, the juice is now worth the squeeze investing in Buchholz with a mid- to late-round pick knowing he’s unlikely to reach the 200-innings threshold. I’d reach a couple rounds ahead of his ADP to secure his services, and he still shouldn’t require a top-200 pick since his highest NFBC selection is 193.

Kyle Gibson – SP 93, Average Pick: 336.73
Kyle Gibson is the cheapest arm on this list, and while his upside isn’t as great as that of the others, he’s not devoid of potential. The righty has steadily improved each year since reaching the bigs in 2013. His ground ball rate of 53.4% ranked tied for 10th highest among qualified pitchers in 2015, and he’s yet to post a sub-50% ground ball rate in The Show. Ground balls are ideal for keeping the ball in the yard, and Gibson owns just a 0.78 HR/9 in his career. It’s not enough to get the fantasy community fired up (nor should it be), but it’s a piece of the puzzle. Gibson’s walk rate has hovered around league average in back-to-back years (just below in 2014 at 7.5% compared to a league average of 7.6%, and just above in 2015 at 7.9% compared to 7.7% for the league average). What should be generating more buzz in the fantasy community is his steady growth in the strikeout department.

In his rookie year, Gibson struck out just 12.2% of the batters he faced. In 2014, he struck out 14.1% of the batters he faced. Last season, he ticked his strikeout rate up to 17.7%. His punch outs have been accompanied by SwStr% growth, and last season, his 9.8% SwStr% was basically league average (9.9%). His strikeout rate was not nearly as close to the league average of 20.4%, though. Where he goes from here is primarily dependent on pitch usage.

Gibson has slowly reduced his fastball (fourseam and sinker) usage in favor of his slider and changeup. His fastballs don’t miss wood and each yielded a sub-5% whiff rate in 2015. His three secondary offerings have whiff rates north of 10% in his career, though. His slider is his best strikeout pitch with a 20.86% whiff rate in 2015, and among those thrown a minimum of 200 times in 2015 by starters, it ranked 14th in whiff/swing percentage. Gibson’s changeup is another put-away pitch that yielded a 18.51% whiff rate (his best mark in the majors). It doesn’t rank nearly as well as his slider in whiff/swing rate, but it did check in as better than average in that category. And when batters do put the ball in play, it coaxed a 62.93% ground ball rate last season.

Gibson’s least utilized secondary pitch is his curveball, and small sample size caveats apply to analyzing it, but it’s a promising pitch. Last year, he earned a 10.99% whiff rate on his curveball, and that was the lowest mark in his big league career (15.38% in 2013 and 14.74% in 2014). Furthermore, among curves thrown a minimum of 50 times in 2015 (there were 174 that hit that threshold), it ranked 23rd in whiff/swing percentage (40%). He’s thrown fewer than 100 in each of the last two years (95 in 2014 and 91 last year), so I wouldn’t hang my hat on him using it more this year, but if he does, take note and bump his stock up accordingly. A breakout for Gibson in 2016 could look something like 2014 Dallas Keuchel-lite. Gibson’s a nice target to round out rotations in large mixed leagues and AL-only leagues.

We hoped you liked reading Starting Pitchers: Five Picks Outside the Top 50 by Josh Shepardson!

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BrianKelder
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BrianKelder

Emergency keeper Question: 20 team Roto league, keep 11, counting total bases and OBP instead of Avg, had a great offer, but I can’t decide. I would trade Miguel Sano for Syndergaard and Luis Severino, with the Brewers SS prospect Arcia thrown in. What do you think? Would you do this? My thought is to build around sluggers.