Last year, I did a bit of fantasy baseball data-mining to find some potential pitching breakouts. I came upon five guys who matched the following criteria:
- Pitched at least 100 innings
- K-BB% higher than 15% (among the best at striking out batters & preventing walks)
- BABIP over .300 (unluckier than league average)
- ERA over 3.50 (below average in most fantasy baseball leagues)
K-BB% was key, as it shows how much better a pitcher is at strikeouts compared to walks. Really, these are the two things that a pitcher can control other than home runs. Ironically, home run rate is what did in Ian Kennedy and Michael Pineda for most of last season.
Last year was a mixed bag, with the jewel being AL Cy Young winner and virtually undrafted Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello, who was tagged as a breakout. Those in weekly leagues also hailed Michael Pineda, as he closed strong to lead some to fantasy baseball glory.
Here is this year’s class that matches the same criteria. Strangely enough, it is also five pitchers:
Aaron Nola, Phillies
Nola was a strange case last year, since he was a tale of two halves. From April 6 through June 5, he had twelve starts of 2.65 ERA baseball, with a K/9 of 9.81 and a WHIP just south of one. After that point, he yielded 36 earned runs and struck out just 36 batters in just 33 innings, while walking 14. He was two completely different pitchers; Nola allowed more than three earned runs just twice in his first twelve games and he yielded more than three in six of his last eight games. He was put on the DL with an elbow injury out of nowhere, which leads to believe he was hiding that injury. Nobody falls apart that quickly. He’s my favorite on this list for a high K-rate, a low HR-rate and a hyper-inflated BABIP (.334).
Jon Gray, Rockies
Gray has the Colorado Rockies and Coors Field stink hanging over him, so can’t really ever trust him. There’s also that his ERA last year was nigh-unusable (4.61). He struck out a lot of batters last year (9.91 K/9 in 168 innings), but there isn’t much about his peripherals that would suggest mixed-league relevance outside of spot starts. His BABIP barely qualified, and his 66.4% LOB is the only thing that screams positive regression. He’s not worth using, despite being on this list. He has too much against him and too far to go to be mixed-league relevant.
Juan Nicasio, Pirates
Nicasio was bad as a starter and below-average as a reliever last season, putting the two together as a 4.50 ERA for the year. He’s currently a middle reliever, which means low innings, few wins and no shots at saves. Even if he returns on the promise of 2015 Spring Training, he faces an uphill battle for relevance. There isn’t much use in most leagues for a high-threes (if he gets his luck back in order) middle reliever.
Michael Piñeda, Yankees (again!)
Last year, home run rate spiked in an extraordinary manner, and it’s hard to find a pitcher who more betrayed his peripherals. 43 pitchers had a higher fly ball rate, but only four pitchers allowed a higher home run rate. His HR rate was well outside his career norms, to the point that it dragged his HR/9 upwards significantly. Should he get back in line with his career norms, Piñeda will be a good value pick in the late teens of your fantasy baseball drafts. He is the second player on this list I would target, behind Nola.
Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks
Robbie Ray is an enigma, as he was #10 in strikeouts and one of just eleven players to surpass 200 strikeouts last season. He also brought with him a team-ruining 4.90 ERA and a WHIP north of 1.40, which made him basically unusable on a game-to-game basis, despite the strikeouts. Ray showed flashes of usefulness in 2015 with a 3.52 ERA. With a FIP nearly a run-and-a-quarter lower than his ERA, he is a bounceback candidate. While you shouldn’t go out of your way to get Ray, he’s worth a look.
While it’s unlikely that this crop yields another Cy Young, there are several pitchers here worth monitoring for fantasy baseball. Nola and Piñeda lead the way, with Ray and Gray carrying intrigue. The only one who won’t flash relevance, unless things change drastically, is Juan Nicasio, and that’s solely due to his role.