Fantasy Baseball: Finding value with low-strikeout pitchers

31 Jul. 2016: Boston Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright (35) pitching in the first inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo By John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo By John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)

There is more to drafting a fantasy rotation than chasing strikeouts, but owners perennially express a clear preference for bat-missers with their drafting choices. The bias makes sense to a large extent, given that strikeouts are a category and that the avoidance of contact helps with other categories.

In 2016, the major league average strikeout rate for starting pitchers was 20.2 percent, and all but two of the top-15 starting pitchers in ADP (per FantasyPros) had a strikeout rate of at least 24.0 percent. One of the exceptions was Jake Arrieta, who just missed the cutoff at 23.9 percent. The other was Johnny Cueto, who was still well above average at 22.5 percent. While Arrieta and Cueto are still good at striking out opponents, they get extra value from their consistent ability to induce soft contact.

Despite their less-than-elite strikeout rates, owners are giving Arrieta and Cueto their due. Outside of the top-30 starters in ADP, there are several other pitchers who have had success, even though they pitched to contact at a much higher rate than their more popular peers. The following five starters in particular strike me as candidates to provide much greater value than what their draft position would indicate. They are likely to excel at limiting baserunners, even if they aren’t standouts at limiting contact.

  • Sonny Gray, Athletics (2016 strikeout rate, 18.2 percent; 56th in SP ADP)

There is no denying that Gray comes with health risks. He missed time due to strains to his trapezius and forearm last season, and he is currently shut down with a strained lat. There is also no denying that, when Gray was healthy over his first two-plus seasons, he was highly effective.

In his full seasons of 2014 and 2015, Gray was mediocre as a strikeout pitcher with a 20.3 percent K-rate, but he limited opponents to a 25.2 percent hard contact rate and a 17.6 percent line drive rate. Those marks were well below the major league averages and enabled him to hold hitters to a .267 BABIP. Toss in some strong ground ball tendencies, and the result was a 2.91 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP over those two seasons.

Maybe Gray will miss a large portion of the schedule due to injuries again this year, and maybe injuries will limit his effectiveness again. Or perhaps he will return from this latest issue in full health and pitch like he did prior to last season. If he doesn’t, you will have blown a late-round pick. If he does, you will have pulled off one of the biggest steals of your draft.

31 July 2016: Oakland Athletics Starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) [9102] delivers a pitch to the plate during the first inning of Major League Baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

  • Ivan Nova, Pirates (2016 strikeout rate, 18.6 percent; 77th in SP ADP)

Nova experienced a whole new level of success after getting traded to the Pirates last August, but getting batters to strike out more wasn’t a significant part of his formula. A key factor was getting Nova out of Yankee Stadium, where he allowed 1.5 home runs per nine innings since 2014. Another key was Nova finding a way to throw his curveball for strikes.

Prior to the trade, Nova got strikes on just 54 percent of his curveballs, but afterward, that rate jumped to 65 percent. He worked in the strike zone more frequently and got chases on pitches out of the zone more often. That led to a microscopic 0.4 BB/9 ratio and a 1.10 WHIP with the Pirates.

As with Gray, there is risk with Nova, but in this case, it’s taking the chance that the improvements won’t have survived the offseason. Nova is getting drafted far later than Gray is, so there is not truly any risk, other than passing up the opportunity to take a late-round flier on someone else. There are few pitchers available that late, though, who possess the upside Nova showed late in 2016.

  • Steven Wright, Red Sox (2016 strikeout rate, 19.4 percent; 73rd in SP ADP)

I have been as guilty as anyone for the underrating of Wright, as I had him ranked 86th among starting pitchers — even below his ADP. After taking a closer look, I realized that the knuckleballer has some of the same appeal that Gray does, given that he has been proficient at limiting hard contact and line drives over the last two seasons. That has helped Wright to post a .270 BABIP over that span.

Also, just because Wright hasn’t been a strikeout pitcher during his tenure as a starter doesn’t mean he can’t be one this year. In 2016, Wright became more adept at getting swings-and-misses, and his 10.8 percent whiff rate was well above the major league average for starters (9.5 percent). However, he was far below the MLB average for foul balls and saw his called strike rate fall as well. If Wright can increase his rate of non-swinging strikes, he could be a surprisingly robust source of strikeouts.

  • Tanner Roark, Nationals (2016 strikeout rate, 20.1 percent; 38th in SP ADP)

In spite of a pedestrian strikeout rate, Roark finished 13th among starters in Roto value in 2016. Maybe owners are punishing Roark for the lack of strikeouts and, just possibly, they are also holding his 2015 season against him. He didn’t whiff as many batters that year, but he also wasn’t as effective at preventing hits on balls in play. Even though his 4.38 ERA from that year was sandwiched by sub-3.00 ERAs, that inflated mark may still stick in owners’ minds.

Roark did not have as much control over his curveball in 2015, but whether the pitches were in or out of the zone, opponents had fewer problems making contact with them. Those balls in play produced plenty of hits. Roark allowed a .378 BABIP on curveballs, as opposed to a .275 rate in 2014 and a .295 rate in 2016.

Consistently throughout his career, Roark has done a superb job of preventing hits on balls in play with his slider (.253 BABIP) and changeup (.186 BABIP), so the real aberration here is his 2015 curveball. In three-plus seasons, Roark has allowed hard contact at a modest 24.2 percent rate, and I’m willing to trust that and the positive impact it will have on his ERA and WHIP.

May 20, 2016: Washington Nationals starting pitcher Tanner Roark (57) in action during a game between the Miami Marlins and the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park in Miami, FL (Photo by JCS/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by JCS/Icon Sportswire)

  • J.A. Happ, Blue Jays (2016 strikeout rate, 20.5 percent; 43rd in SP ADP)

If you draft Happ at his current ADP, you won’t be getting him at a bargain price, but not all leagues agree that he is a top-50 starter. For example, his latest selection in NFBC drafts was with the 264th overall pick. If you’re in a league in which Happ is still available after at least 50 starters have come off the board, he is worth the gamble.

It’s not that Happ has great control or is a wizard at inducing soft contact. What he does do is allow contact just enough to let the Blue Jays’ strong defense help him out. Last season, Happ allowed a .204 batting average on grounders and an .039 BABIP on flies. The Blue Jays’ staff as a whole allowed marks of .227 and .062, respectively.

Happ likely over-performed, but it appeared the Jays defense was helping the staff to be better-than-average at preventing hits on balls in play. Particularly if Ezequiel Carrera plays more regularly in left field, the Blue Jays defense could be even better in 2017, and Happ could beat the odds on balls in play once again.

Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball, ESPN.com.

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