We asked our fantasy staff which starting pitchers they would consider their top sleeper picks at their current ADP. Here’s what they had to say. And remember, if you missed our top-75 fantasy starting pitcher rankings, you can catch them here. If you missed our buyer-beware segment, check that out here. Who are the top sleepers? Click here to find out.
WHICH ROOKIE STARTING PITCHERS SHOULD YOU STASH THAT COULD MAKE THE BIGGEST IMPACT?
Jim Finch: It seems so long ago that fantasy baseball owners were frothing at the mouth over the debut of Jose Berrios. He was considered a top-five pitching prospect and top-20 (or close to it) overall, displaying all the tools we look for when assessing young pitching talent. His potential new home park was the icing on the cake.
Here we are one year later and Berrios has an ADP of 374 and is the 105th pitcher off the board in NFBC drafts. Where’s the love? I realize his debut was atrocious. The low walk rate we expect nearly doubled (5.40 BB/9). He left his low fly ball rate and limited home run potential back in the minors. And the strikeouts, while acceptable, were lower than anticipated.
It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. Berrios had one of the worst strand rates in the league (59.7 percent), and his BABIP (.344) didn’t do him any favors. To put things into context, out of 326 players with 50 or more innings, Berrios had the 6th lowest strand rate and the 18th highest BABIP. That accounts for half of his struggles. Berrios is responsible for being one of the worst pitchers to get ahead of the hitter and not locating his pitches resulting in a higher contact rate.
While his major league debut was not all sunshine and rainbows, I prefer to focus on what he did in Triple-A over the first four months. Over 17 starts (111.1 innings) Berrios put up a 2.51 ERA, a 2.91 FIP, and a 0.99 WHIP. His K/9 was a shade over 10.00. The walks were a little higher than the previous years, but still acceptable. Those home run issues he experienced in the majors were not present (0.65 HR/9 – 0.54 career) thanks to a 27.84 percent fly ball rate. That is basically what he did over 75 innings in Triple-A in 2015.
How quickly we forget how dominant a young arm can be when they don’t produce right out of the gate. Berrios struggled in his major league debut. So what, lots of prospects struggle. That doesn’t mean we just toss them aside for the new next big thing. Don’t forget about Berrios on draft day.
Al Melchior: There is no shortage of rookie starting pitchers who could make an impact this season, though no particular one stands out. Tyler Glasnow made a big splash with six strikeouts in his Grapefruit League debut. Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, both acquired in the Adam Eaton trade, could find their way into the White Sox rotation sometime this year. Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell could form a dynamic duo in Tampa Bay, as could Francis Martes and David Paulino in Houston.
At the very outset of spring training, it seemed that Luke Weaver had a chance to outshine all of these prospects this season. Some of that had to do with his teammate Alex Reyes undergoing Tommy John surgery, opening the door for Weaver to compete with Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal for the Cardinals’ fifth starter job. With that unfortunate development, Weaver, along with Glasnow and the Athletics’ Jharel Cotton (profiled here by Greg Jewett), stood as good of a chance as any rookie to spend the entire season in a big league rotation.
That possibility took a potential hit when Weaver left his second spring appearance with back spasms. The issue is reportedly a minor one, but even if Weaver were to miss enough time to fall behind in his battle for a rotation spot, he could be the next in line to replace an ailing starter.
Weaver’s late 2016 debut did not go well, at least as his final stat line tells the story, as he gave up seven home runs in 36 1/3 innings on his way to a 1-4 record and 5.70 ERA. Still, there was much to like about Weaver’s introduction to the majors. Most notable was his 11.1 K/9 ratio, and after a shaky four-inning big-league debut against the Cubs, Weaver rolled off a five-start run in which he threw 65 percent of his pitches for strikes and posted a 3.33 ERA, 2.39 xFIP and a 1.15 WHIP. Then he faltered over his final three appearances, uncharacteristically struggling to throw strikes.
The bulk of Weaver’s work produced skill indicators that were in line with his stats from Double-A Springfield earlier in the season. A high fly ball rate – in addition to high whiff and strikes-thrown rates – was another common denominator between his major and minor league stints, but pitching home games at Busch Stadium should minimize the damage from those long drives.
Maybe Glasnow and Cotton will pitch as many innings as Weaver, or possibly even more, but the Cardinals’ potent lineup could give Weaver an edge in run support and wins. Weaver’s back woes make it even more difficult to pinpoint a single top rookie starting pitcher to target, but at least for now, I’ll be making a special effort to find a late-round pick to dedicate to the Cardinals’ righty.
Greg Jewett: A change in scenery can clear a path to opportunity. Of course, how a player responds factors in as well. Most fantasy players prefer taller pitchers who create more downward plane resulting in more power and success. But Marcus Stroman provides hope for shorter pitchers to breakthrough.
This segues to Jharel Cotton. His name alone makes him stand out. Despite pitching in the uber-hitter friendly PCL last year, Cotton maintained a WHIP of 1.08 along with an impressive 155:39 strikeout to walk ratio in 135 plus innings.
Fueling his success is a plus change along. More importantly, Cotton’s fastball velocity improved last year to further the speed difference between the two pitches. Our own Bernie Pleskoff makes note of this and more in his scouting report on Cotton from last September.
Presently, Cotton seems to be flying below the fantasy radar. His recent ADP of 254th in NFBC drafts makes Cotton the 70th starting pitcher selected. Whether it’s his diminutive stature or small sample size bias, this feels too low for a player teeming with upside.
Starting with his size, durability did not slow down Cotton who completed 165 innings between Triple-A and the majors despite being under six foot. An increase of 20 innings to his workload this year would help him reach 185 innings. As alluded to in the report above, Cotton addressed an issue in which he tipped pitches enabling him to thrive after his trade to the A’s.
During his stay in Nashville and upon his promotion to Oakland combined, Cotton maintained a WHIP below one. During his five starts with the A’s, Cotton shined. Taking the results with a grain of salt, they remain impressive nonetheless. In five starts from September to the end of the season, here’s how Cotton ranked versus starting pitchers during this time frame:
- Tied for first in WHIP with Jon Lester
- Tied for 11th in swinging strike percentage with Danny Duffy
- 23rd in K-BB% (17 percent), higher than Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray
- Tied for 28th in FIP (3.76)
How did Cotton finish the year so strong? As alluded to above, his change grades out as his best pitch. According to Fangraphs weighted change ranks for the last month, Cotton finished tied for first. This placed Cotton higher than Tanner Roark or Kyle Hendricks.
However, Cotton’s breakthrough does not rely solely upon his change-up. Take note of his whiff-per-swing rate increases illustrated in the chart below courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net:
Fantasy owners should be encouraged by the spikes shown in Cotton’s curve and cutter above. In fact, if his arsenal can be harnessed, Cotton could remain effective versus batters on either side of the plate.
Last year, Cotton did not exhibit any split issues. He faced 52 left-handed hitters finishing with a 11:4 K:BB rate and .146/.212/.229 slash against. Versus right-handed batters, Cotton recorded 12 strikeouts with zero walks and a .217/.217/.400 slash line.
Being a fly ball pitcher, his home park works in his favor. If Cotton can survive the PCL, his transition to the majors should proceed well. Cotton did give up four home runs to the 112 batters he faced with Oakland. There will bumps along the way during his development as the league adjusts, but with health and his strong change-up, his stock will rise.
As draft season approaches, Cotton could garner more attention. Be sure to stash him in the queue during upcoming drafts and take Cotton ahead of his ADP. Repertoire and improved velocities should put Jharel Cotton firmly on your young pitcher to target list. Regression will ensue in regards to his ERA, but Cotton may be on the precipice of 3.50-to-3.75 earned run average with a WHIP at 1.2 or lower. Ratio protection from rookie’s make for a rare breed.
Statistical credits: Fangraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net, hosted.stars.com, MiLB.com