The Projections Are Wrong! 6 Starting Pitcher Targets + Bonus Hitter Sleeper

Every year, spring training performances inflate, and sometimes deflate, auction prices and ADP. The vast majority of the time, it’s the wrong reaction. But sometimes, it’s the right move. We do learn new information during spring training, such as exit velocities, pitch velocities, new stances, new pitches added to a repertoire, etc etc. That’s what I care about, not that a hitter is batting .450 (unless it results in more projected playing time) or a pitcher holds a 1.37 ERA (unless it wins him a rotation spot or the closer role). So let’s talk about my starting pitcher targets, plus a bonus hitter sleeper.

This is not an exhaustive list of starting pitchers that I think new spring training information should drive you to go the extra buck. I’m excluding some names, like Tarik Skubal, who are already hyped to the moon and cost top tier prices. I’ll focus on cheaper names who I am quite confident will handily outperform their projections. One of the weaknesses of computer projection systems (and why I trumpeted my Pod Projections when I had calculated them for 20+ years) is an inability to account for new information during spring training. So if you’re valuing players using these forecasts, you’ll have to manually or mentally adjust some of the metrics yourself.

And away we go…

Shane Bieber

Why He’s Cheap — After first breaking out in 2019 by posting a 30.2% strikeout rate and 3.28 ERA, Bieber enjoyed an incredible run during the short 2020 season. That year, he posted an unbelievable 41.1% strikeout rate, likely with an assist from a career best 94.3 MPH average fastball velocity. He was fantastic again in 2021, and although the results were elite in 2022 with his first sub-3.00 ERA over a full season, his strikeout rate tumbled to 25%, while his fastball velocity cratered to just 91.5 MPH, a whopping 2.8 MPH decline in just two seasons. Last year, his velocity was essentially the same, but it was no longer enough, as his strikeout fell precipitously again, to just 20.1%, and his ERA rose nearly a full run to 3.80. The performance has made him the cheapest he’s been, probably since heading into the 2019 fantasy season.

Why The Projections Are Wrong — Driveline Baseball to the rescue! Check this out:

While that velocity average of 93.2 MPH is below his 2020 peak of 94.3 MPH, it’s still a meaningful rebound from his lows. Also remember this occurred back in early February and pitchers generally gain some velocity as the season progresses. The tweet also expressed excitement about Bieber’s elite curveball returning, a pitch that generated an outstanding 24% SwStk% back in 2020. Unfortunately, we have no Statcast readings from his spring games to confirm whether the velocity has stuck.

Even though spring training is full of small sample results and includes varying levels of competition, I like to validate that the new information we learned is showing up in the stats. It’s less of a big deal if we don’t see it yet in the performance, but I’m more confident when seeing an improvement that it’s real. Over 17.1 innings, Bieber’s SwStk% sits at 22.3%, which is more than double his mark from 2023 and he’s struck out 31.1% of opposing batters. He peaked at a crazy 17.1% SwStk% back in 2020 and sports a career mark of 13.6%. Spring training SwStk% marks run at significantly higher rates than during the regular season for the reasons I outlined earlier, but this is still great to see. While I don’t know how much his strikeout rate will actually rebound, I would bet a lot that it exceeds even the most optimistic 24.6% forecast by ZiPS.

Bryce Miller

Why He’s Cheap — The former top prospect enjoyed an acceptable rookie season last year, but suffered through ups and downs that ultimately resulted in a meh 4.32 ERA/4.17 SIERA and underwhelming 22.2% strikeout rate. He showcased his 70 grade fastball that averaged 95.1 MPH and topped out at 98 MPH, which generated a strong 13.5% SwStk%. However, he had nothing else really to complement it, as his second most thrown pitch was a cutter that generated an 11.8% SwStk%, while everything else was in single digits. Talk about badly needing some secondary stuff! The good news is that he already has the fastball, the velocity, and the control, so he’s exactly the type to speculate on in the hopes that everything suddenly comes together.

Why The Projections Are Wrong — Those hopes might be answered with a new…SPLITTER! First, the quick analysis:

Backstory and sexy splitter videos

Of course, simply adding a pitch by itself doesn’t automatically mean breakout. He has absolutely dominated hitters during spring training though, as his absurd 32.9% SwStk% attests. That’s nearly triple the SwStk% he posted during his rookie campaign last year! Of course, it comes over just 73 pitches in eight innings against 36 batters faced. So the sample here is tiny. We also don’t have Statcast data for him either (boooooo). But the early returns and the videos are promising. Given his depressed cost (61st pitcher off the board in March NFBC Main Events), and the most optimistic projection sitting at just a 22.2% strikeout rate, he might turn a massive profit.

JP Sears

Why He’s Cheap — He’s an Athletic! Who wants a starting pitcher in front of an offense expected to be one of the worst in baseball? If wins are a category, you’re not bidding up A’s pitchers, despite the pitcher friendly park. His first full season in the rotation last year was not exactly fantasy worthy. He posted a 4.54 ERA, with averageish strikeout and walk rates, and his extreme fly balls ways led to severe gopheritis (1.78 HR/9). He did post a reasonable 1.26 WHIP though, but with just five wins, he was essentially just a strikeout positive. You don’t want to roster those stats anywhere outside AL-Only leagues, and even in those, you might actually prefer a middle reliever.

Why The Projections Are Wrong — But then spring was upon us. We only have one spring training game monitored by Statcast, but it’s a goody:

That’s his four-seam fastball. He averaged just 93.1 MPH with the pitch last year. So if this is actually his new level and not just a one game spike, he’s up over a mile an hour already and that was in early March.

He’s recorded just 13 spring training innings so far, but sports a 30% strikeout rate and 15.7% SwStk%. That’s significant for someone who was close to the league averages last year. Don’t forget, this is a guy who had posted 30%+ strikeout rates in the minors at three straight stops from 2021 to 2022 while in the Yankees organization.

The most optimistic projection calls for a match of last year’s 21.9% strikeout rate. He’s going to crush that rate if this velocity surge is real. While the wins might not be plentiful, he could certainly help in the other three categories and end up a major steal in deeper leagues.

Tanner Houck

Why He’s Cheap — After a disappointing 5.01 ERA during his first full season as a starter last year, the former top prospect wasn’t much of a strikeout guy, despite posting an above average 12.9% SwStk%. He entered spring training without a definitive role, but recently earned a spot in the Red Sox starting rotation. Given the role uncertainty and ugly performance last year, he’s generally been an afterthought, reserve for sleeper lists based on potential we originally thought he had.

Why The Projections Are Wrong — This was from late February, but my eyes widen any time I read about a potential velocity increase:

Once again, we have no Statcast readings to confirm whether his velocity is actually up. But we do know that he lost 1.4 MPH on his four-seamer and 1.1 MPH on his sinker last year, though that may have been expected given that he recorded more innings as a reliever in 2022. So we’re flying blind here a little more than the other names so far. However, in 15 spring training innnings, he has posted a superb 30.1% SwStk%, resulting in a 28.1% strikeout rate.

Here’s more evidence of real change:

Topping out at 97 MPH in mid-March is good. His maxVel last year was 96.6 MPH, and that was all season! So it’s encouraging to hear he has already at least matched last year’s max velocity in the middle of spring training, though I would have loved to get some Statcast data.

As the 127th pitcher off the board in NFBC March Main Event drafts, he’s practically free (though ever so slightly more expensive than Sears, who has gone 137th), and makes for an obvious dart throw.

Casey Mize

Why He’s Cheap — The one-time top prospect debuted to weak results in 2020, but followed up a bit better in 2021. Though he posted a 3.71 ERA, it wasn’t exactly supported by the skills, as he struck out just 19.3% of opposing batters and lucked into a .254 BABIP. Then in early 2022, an elbow injury led to TJ Surgery, which cost him the rest of the season and the entirety of the 2023 season. So we got a former top prospect who didn’t exactly impress with his skills during his first full season, and then went down with the dreaded elbow injury with a surgery named after its fix. He entered spring training with a very outside chance of making the Tigers rotation, which meant outside of the deepest of leagues, no one was rostering him, taking a wait and see what he does in the minors approach.

Why The Projections Are Wrong — Boy, have things changed quickly! To the surprise of many, Mize ended up making the Tigers rotation. Unlike the others on this list, his small sample spring stats are unimpressive. He has struck out just 22.2% of opposing batters (higher than his previous times in the Majors, but still low enough to care little about) with a mediocre 10.1% SwStk%. So if I was just combing through strikeout rates and SwStk% marks to identify standouts, he would not have made the cut.

Luckily, I have read enough about the quality of his stuff to dive deeper. Thankfully, we have Statcast data, and this time, for multiple games! Let’s check out the four-seam velocities:

Those velocities compare to these marks before his surgery:

While it’s not ideal for his latest game to be his lowest velocity of his four games, even that low mark represents a substantial increase from his previous years. And remember, it’s only March and he missed all of last year! This is highly encouraging.

A big test will be with his control/command as sometimes TJ returnees take some time to get that back. His 14.3% walk rate during spring training may or may not be evidence of struggles there, as you never know exactly what he might be working on and whether his walks are actually a red flag or not.

With a rotation spot locked in, career best velocity, and former top prospect status to remind us how good he was originally expected to be, he’s a perfect speculation in all leagues.

Jack Flaherty

Why He’s Cheap — How many of you have been burned by Flaherty and have banned him from your teams? You may have forgotten, but Flaherty used to be good! He posted mid-to-high 20% strikeout rates from 2018 to 2021, with ERAs typically under 4.00, and fastball velocity of at least 94 MPH over a three year period through 2021. But injuries have taken a toll, he lost velocity the last two seasons, and his strikeout rate has slipped to around league average, while his ERA skyrocketed to 4.99 last year. He’s the guy you’ve given up on that when/if drafted, you laugh at his new owner.

Why The Projections Are Wrong — His velocity is back!

His four-seam velocity had fallen to just 93.1 MPH last year and 93.3 MPH the season before, while Statcast shows him averaging between 94 and 94.3 MPH in 2020 and 2019, respectively. He has already matched that for his six game spring average, though it took a slight dip in his latest start. And may I remind you — we’re still just in March!

The spring results also match the velocity rebound, as he’s struck out a double-take-worthy 37.1% of opposing batters with a 15.3% SwStk%. So are we finally witnessing a healthy Flaherty with his velocity back? Sure seems that way. And that version was quite good. I’m buying in all league sizes and formats.

Bonus Hitter – Ty France

Why He’s Cheap — A first baseman who hit just 12 homers last year with a .250 batting average and has just one steal to his name over his entire career is what we call free agent fodder in most fantasy leagues. Even when he was a pretty solid hitter in 2021 and 2022, he was still a bottom tier corner guy in shallow mixed leagues. He posted a 30.7% HR/FB rate and .372 ISO during a half season at Triple-A back in 2019, but that power disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

Why The Projections Are Wrong — Driveline Baseball to the rescue, part deux!

Inspired by J.P. Crawford power spike last year after a visit to Driveline, France decided to embark on that journey himself this offseason. Working on his hitting mechanics, he estimates he gained 3.5 MPH of bat speed, which sounds quite significant. Can the changes and added bat speed get him closer to matching the power he had showcased back in 2019?

So far over a small sample of 47 spring training plate appearances, he has walked more than he has struck out, which includes a walk rate double his career mark and a sub-10% strikeout rate. He hasn’t homered yet and sports just a .103 ISO, but that certainly doesn’t mean the Driveline work won’t result in increased power during the season.

As the 30th first baseman off the board, he’s an ideal backup plan if you miss out on a top tier guy or decide to truly gamble by waiting out the position and scooping him for cheap. There’s nothing so far that hints at what is possible, but given the nearly free price, I’d much rather speculate here on a Driveline-fueled breakout (of which there have been many already) than those going just ahead of him like José Abreu and Josh Bell.

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.

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28 days ago

I like how you think. I added 4 shares of Sears at yesterday’s first NFBC FAAB deadline, and I also added a share of Flaherty. It took more than a few moments for me to muster the courage to bid on Flaherty, for all the reasons you mention.

Good read.