I’ve done most of my analysis thus far on starting pitchers, so I’ll continue the trend. A lot of pitchers broke out (depending on your definition of the term) last year — I counted 13, give or take, amid the top 50 starting pitchers of ESPN’s Player Rater — which is an excellent indicator of how valuable drafting unknown arms can be to a successful fantasy season. Seasons are won and lost on the backs of sleeper picks, and it’s time to acknowledge that sleepers exist outside the top 75-or-so pitchers according to “the experts.” For example, Hisashi Iwakuma was ranked 76th of starting pitchers (263rd overall) in preseason rankings by the ESPN staff. Patrick Corbin and Julio Teheran, the latter of whom had an incredible spring training, did not crack the top 300 players.
But I digress. Not all that glimmers is gold. Likewise, not all breakout stars are true fantasy studs. Let’s look at the 13 players I counted among ESPN’s top 50 starters and assess what their 2014 seasons will look like.
Hisashi Iwakuma: LEGIT
Iwakuma is a borderline breakout candidate — a handful of owners, including me, converted him from streamer to permanent addition to our fantasy rotations in the latter half of 2012. He dominated then, and there was no reason to think he wouldn’t do it again, based on advanced metrics. Anyway, he’s legit, but he benefited from a remarkably low BAbip, so there could be sizable regression to Iwakuma’s ratios. I ranked him 32nd overall heading into 2014, but that’s more a floor than a ceiling.
Jose Fernandez: LEGIT
No need to discuss the matter. Next! Top 10 starter.
Matt Harvey: LEGIT, but…
Harvey just had surgery on his elbow, so don’t worry about drafting him — unless you’re in a keeper league, then make sure he doesn’t slip too far. You don’t need to draft him in the 16th round for him to be valuable next year. He may warrant a 10th-round pick in your keeper league, depending on your keeper rules and the format of your league (number of DL spots, etc.).
Mike Minor: LEGIT
Is this just going to be a list of guys who are all legit? Maybe. Minor is basically the same pitcher he has always been, but he cut down on his walk rate big-time. There’s no reason to think he’ll magically lose control; my projection accounts for it to an extent, so his No. 27 ranking could be an undervaluation.
Clay Buchholz: KINDA LEGIT
Buchholz has always had the skill set. Two problems: he benefited from very favorable BAbip and HR/FB rates, and he has never started more than 26 games in a season. The perennial injury risk coupled with potential regression reminiscent of Kris Medlen between 2012 and 2013 makes him someone not worth banking on again.
Homer Bailey: LEGIT
Bailey is, like Iwakuma, a late-2012 bloomer. I streamed him like crazy as I tried to meet my innings cap in 2012, including his first no-hitter (yes, I’m bragging), so his 2013 breakout is less surprising. I may be among a small crowd who thinks he’s a top-20 pitcher, though, but I don’t mind.
Patrick Corbin: KINDA LEGIT
Corbin is good, but he clearly petered out as the season concluded. I’m inclined to think he’s more the post-All Star Break pitcher than the pre-All Star Break one. I ranked him 36th, which accounts for his upside and downside.
Julio Teheran: KINDA LEGIT
Good, but not as good as he was. He’ll improve, but he’ll also regress, which will, for matters of simplicity, cancel out each other. He’s actually a very god pitcher, but he only earns the “kinda legit” label because I think he’s going to miss expectations for him, which seem to be pretty high right now. (Also, I have a quota to meet. C’mon, people!)
Justin Masterson: KINDA LEGIT
He’s by no means an ace, but he did filthy things with his slider this year. It all depends on how often he uses it and if he’s able to retain its effectiveness next year. Still, he’s not much more than a back-end fantasy rotation kind of guy.
Chris Tillman: NOT LEGIT
The 16 wins are more of a statistical anomaly than anything. He keeps improving his K’s per nine innings, but his value was fueled almost entirely by his win count. I’d be happy for him and his owners if he notched 12 next season.
Travis Wood: NOT LEGIT
It’s not fair to see these pitchers are “kinda legit” or “not legit” because they are all professionals, and damn good ones at that. That said, stat-heads waited all year for Wood’s BAbip to regress. It never did. Doesn’t mean it never will. Also, he plays for the Cubs. He’s simply not worth the bid or draft pick.
Ricky Nolasco: KINDA LEGIT
The peripherals have always been there but he had seemingly suffered from bad luck — until last year, that is. The biggest question is if he’ll be able to replicate it. Yeah, why not? He plays for a good team in a pitcher’s park. The risk still exists, though, that the soon-to-be-31-year-old reverts to his incredibly hittable pre-2013 self.
Keep in mind that “kinda legit” pitchers are still worth drafting. Just try not to overpay too much.
Do research before your draft and find some sleepers of your own. A rookie pitcher always manages to wiggle his way into the Cy Young and/or Rookie of the Year conversation(s) — find one on which to gamble in 2014!