Tagged: Justin Masterson

Revisiting my bold preseason predictions

This just in, folks: Corey Kluber leads all MLB pitchers in wins above replacement (WAR). The great thing about running your own website is you have full discretion to toot your own horn when you please. As much as I find it tacky to do so, I made bold predictions for a reason: to see if my projections are actually worth a damn. I just wish I had time to make more; I should have started early in the offseason as I ran out of time the longer the academic year has worn on. (I’m a graduate student, so publishing to this website is not always the most optimal use of my time. According to societal expectations, at least — I think it’s a great use of my time!)

Anyway, let’s revisit my bold predictions to discuss a) their accuracy thus far, and b) why they have (or have not) been accurate. Here they are, in chronological order:

Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starting pitcher

Ross is ranked 31st of all starters, according to ESPN’s Player Rater. Instead of rehashing details, you can read the linked article to see why I glowed about Ross this offseason and have chosen him as a streamer several times already this year (before he gained more recognition and, consequently, more ownership). That he qualifies as a reliever in ESPN leagues is a huge plus as well. I readily admit it’s not insane for a random names to rank highly in the player rater; just check out the names around Ross’, including Alfredo Simon, Josh Beckett, Aaron Harang and Collin McHugh. Unlike the names I mentioned, though, I think Ross has the natural ability to stay there, given his strikeout propensity that limit the damage done by walks (which, by the way, is a problem nowhere near as bad as Shelby Miller‘s — I guess six wins will mask his atrociously bad WHIP that will blow up in his face sooner rather than later.) Ross is still available in 21 percent of ESPN leagues, so if he’s out there, you should grab him. Just don’t expect him to keep winning as often in front of that terrible San Diego offense.

Brad Miller will be a top-5-to-7 shortstop

As terribly as this prediction has turned out — Miller is batting .151/.230/.247 with 3 HR and 3 SB — I do not regret making it. Miller has struck out in 28 percent of his plate appearances, which is way, way worse than he ever was in Triple-A or even last year, when he struck out 17 percent of the time. It pains me deeply that The Triple Machine hasn’t hit a triple. Have I given up on him this year? Honestly, yes. His batting average on balls in play is grossly unlucky right now, but even regression to the mean won’t fix what his strikeout tendency has broken. But I still like him as a sleeper for next year, or even as a late bloomer this year. If he can demonstrate an improvement in his plate discipline as the year wears on, I will give him another chance. It upsets me, though, that he had such a hot spring. It fuels the fire of analysts who criticize spring training stats as unreliable. I agree, to an extent, but Miller’s spring stats were an extension of his 2013 season — albeit an extension inflated by some good luck. It’s worth emphasizing here that strikeouts really aren’t luck-based, so to say the his spring training was lucky is an ignorant dismissal.

Corey Kluber is this year’s Hisashi Iwakuma (aka big breakout candidate)

There’s one thing I, at least, can privately appreciate about my bold predictions: I abided by all of them in every single I’m in, unless someone happened to grab a pitcher before me. Ultimately, in four leagues, I grabbed Ross and Miller in four of them, and Kluber in three — and in the fourth one, I promptly traded Jayson Werth and Tyson Ross (who I drafted in the last round) for Norichika Aoki and Corey Kluber (this is a points league, so Aoki carries some value for his lack of K’s and contact approach). Did I win the trade? Who knows — I traded one guy I liked for another I liked more. Point is, I actually rolled with my bold predictions. Might as well eat my words, right? (Is that how that saying goes?)

I got Kluber in the equivalent of the last round in every draft and for $1 in my primary keeper auction league. Yes, I’m bragging. But, more importantly, this isn’t a revelation to me. I knew Kluber would be good based on last year’s peripherals, as did a host of other people on FanGraphs (namely, Carson Cistulli and the Corey Kluber Society). But a lot of people didn’t see it coming, which is crazy to me, and it makes me question what it really takes to become a paid professional “fantasy expert.” Tristan H. Cockcroft ranked Kluber 58th of starting pitchers this preseason, which is better than I expected, but look at some of the names above him: Matt Garza? Justin Masterson? Zack Wheeler? For a guy who invests so much in seeing an improvement in skills, Wheeler has been, for his entire career, buying up billboards to plaster them with slogans such as I HAVE CONTROL ISSUES. Kluber is essentially the antithesis of Wheeler. And, yet, who has the smaller track record? Ridiculous… (In Eric Karabell’s defense, he said pitching is so deep this year that owners may not be able to draft Kluber, which was a roundabout way of indicating he liked him, at least somewhat, heading into draft day.)

Anyway, I’m clearly on a rant, and I need to get this train back on the rails. Kluber is somehow not 100-percent owned at this point — he’s 99.9-percent owned, but hey, at least I’m not lying — yet he’s striking out everyone and their mothers. I don’t know if he continues to strike out 10 per nine innings (10.28 K/9), but the percentage of swinging strikes he has produced has jumped 1.4 percent, placing in the top 1o in the category, behind Max Scherzer and ahead of Madison Bumgarner. This is all a long-winded way of saying he could, and perhaps should, be a 200-K guy this year. In that sense, maybe he’s not a buy-low guy, but his lack of name recognition and his .350 BABIP makes him a prime candidate to be exactly that. A handful of rankings have him in the 35-to-40 range; even then, I can give you a case to trade perhaps a dozen names ahead of him for Kluber, including Gio Gonzalez, Matt Cain and, yes, maybe even Justin Verlander (who, at this point, is still owned in most leagues simply because of name recognition and past performance; and while I understand the importance of past performance, do not let yourself be blinded by nostalgia).

Dan Haren will strike out fewer than 7 batters per nine innings

This one is random, but hey, it’s legit: Haren has only a 6.89 K/9 right now. You can read the linked post to find out way. I may rip him a little too hard — his control still makes him a fairly solid starter — but he’s more of a Kyle Lohse these days than, well, a Corey Kluber. Lohse is serviceable, but he’s not elite, and Haren should be able to net you an extra win or two along the way in front of a lethal Dodgers offense.

OK, that’s it. I’m 3-for-4 in my bold predictions so far this year, which is a pretty good day at the plate, so I’ll take it.

Also, the academic year is winding down, and once it winds down completely, Need a Streamer will ramp up with more content. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

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Panning for gold using spring stats, pitcher edition

Here’s the second installment of my breakdown of spring training stats. You can view the first one by scrolling down like four inches to the previous post. Here is a look at a variety of pitchers in no particular order.

James Shields, KC
Important stats: 14.2 IP, 18 K, 0 BB (0.61 ERA, 0.48 WHIP)
Why they’re important: Shields is firmly entrenched as a solid No. 2 fantasy starter, but he is off to as a hot a start as anyone right now, striking out 11.05 batters per nine innings and walking nobody. Not saying he’s worth bumping up in your rankings, but perhaps he’ll give you a little more than what you expected this year.

Max Scherzer, DET
Important stats: 14.1 IP, 16 K, 2 BB
Why they’re important: It would be unjust to exclude him. He’s having an excellent start, but he’s an excellent pitcher, so this is nothing extraordinary at this point.

Chris Tillman, BAL
Important stats: 12.2 IP, 14 K, 2 BB
Justin Masterson, CLE
Important stats: 13.0 IP, 14 K, 2 BB
Why they’re important: What’s the difference between them? Tillman has a 4.97 ERA and 1.26 WHIP while Masterson is sporting a 0.00 ERA and 0.62 WHIP. Meanwhile, their underlying stats are almost identical. This is where small sample sizes can really warp perspectives. Each guy is the victim and beneficiary of batting average on balls in play (BAbip), respectively. Only difference is Masterson is giving up fewer fly balls, making him less prone to home runs and hits.

Corey Kluber, CLE
Important stats: 14.1 IP, 15 K, 2 BB
Why they’re important: Maybe you’ve caught on to the trend again: I’m focusing on guys with excellent strikeout rates as well as strikeout-to-walk ratios (K/BB). Ignore the 5.02 ERA and 1.33 WHIP; Kluber’s BAbip is a sky-high .395 over this small sample size. He’s steal dealing. Also, he has the fifth-best ground ball rate of qualified spring training pitchers. I’ve read concerns about his home runs allowed last year. Can’t hit a home run on the ground, son. (Well, technically you can, but… shhhhhhh.)

Josh Johnson, SD
Important stats: 13.1 IP, 1.05 WHIP, 13 K, 4 BB
Why they’re important: For people hoping for a comeback, these ratios (8.78 K/9, 2.70 BB/9) are the makings of a solid starter. He’s not on my radar, but I acknowledge reasons why he could be on it (aside from the fact that he used to be one of the most dominant pitchers in all of baseball).

Alex Wood, ATL
Important stats: 14 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 12 K, 2 BB
Why they’re important: He had a 1.73 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in the minors with a 3.78 K/BB. He followed it up with an 8.9 K/9 in the majors, nearly identical to his minor-league rate. The Braves develop great pitchers (and they know when to deal them… looking at you, Tommy Hanson). Wood is the next in line.

There are pitchers having bad springs, too. Guess which statistic I’m primarily using to evaluate them?

Tony Cingrani, CIN
Important stats: 12.2 IP, 6.39 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 13 K, 6 BB
Why they’re important: I’m not as concerned with the ratios as I am the walks, which he’s handing out at a 5.68 walks-per-nine-innings (BB/9) clip. Strikeouts are still there, which is good, and, of course, it’s worth acknowledging the small sample size. Maybe he’s working off the offseason slumber. But I’m keeping my eye on his control.

Tim Hudson, SF
Important stats:
 13.1 IP, 1.58 WHIP, 9 BB
Why they’re important: Nothing matters here except for the lack of control. Cingrani’s walks are a bit disconcerting; Hudson’s walks (6.08 BB/9) is really worrisome, especially for an older pitcher coming back from a gruesome foot/ankle/leg injury. Perhaps it’s a bit early to predict the beginning of the end, but I’ll say it anyway: this could be the beginning of the end of Tim Hudson. It’s a shame, but it ultimately happens to everyone.

Matt Moore, TB
Important stats: 10.1 IP, 2.32 WHIP, 10 K, 11 BB
Why they’re important: He’ll always be loved for his strikeout propensity but his walk rate (9.58 BB/9) is most horrifying of all. I understand if you like him, but I will never draft him because of how he damages my WHIP — and a player with bad command is one bad-luck-BAbip away from having an absolutely miserable year.

Jose Quintana, CHW
Important stats: 6 IP, 30.00 ERA, 4.00 WHIP
Why they’re important: And the Worst/Most Humiliating Spring Training award goes to… Jose Quintana! Just look at it. It’s almost impossible how bad he’s been. But, in his defense, there’s a .586 BAbip at work here. And that, my friends, is why sample sizes this small should not be trusted. Some statistical anomalies are worth noting, but this one is simply outrageous. I am not changing my ranking of him based on this.

Other notable pitchers having bad springs, in terms of control: Zach McAllister, Dan Straily

Rookies/prospects having good springs: Yordano Ventura, KC (1.76 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 15-to-1 K/BB ratio in 15.1 IP)… Drew Hutchison, TOR (2.79 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 16-to-1 K/BB ratio in 9.2 IP)…

Rookies/prospects having bad springs: Allen Webster, BOS, continually plagued by command issues (5.25 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 5.25 BB/9)… Archie Bradley, ARI, baseball’s No. 1 pitching prospect, also plagued by command issues, a problem he has had his entire professional career (4.32 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 6.48 BB/9)… Trevor Bauer, CLE, allegedly on the comeback trail, but starting to doubt it (10.29 ERA, 2.43 WHIP, 6.43 BB/9)…

I said this verbatim in my last post: “Do your own research, form your own opinions.” It’s important to remember that these are incredibly small smaple sizes, meaning there’s a lot of volatility involved here. Still, some metrics can be very telling, and strikeout and walk rates can be much more indicative of future performance than ERA (or even WHIP, which can be jerked around by fluctuations in BAbip). Again, don’t put your eggs into one basket (where spring training stats is the basket in this analogy), but it’s worth remembering a name or two.

Pitchers due for strikeout regression using PITCHf/x data

If FanGraphs were a home, or a hotel, or even a tent, I’d live there. I would swim in its oceans of data, lounge in its pools of metrics.

It houses a slew of PITCHf/x data — the numbers collected by the systems installed in all MLB ballparks that measure the frequency, velocity and movement of every pitch by every pitcher. It’s pretty astounding, but it’s also difficult for the untrainted eye to make something of the numbers aside from tracking the declining velocities of CC Sabathia‘s and Yovani Gallardo‘s fastballs.

I used linear regression to see how a pitcher’s contact, swinging strike and other measurable rates affect his strikeout percentage, and how that translates to strikeouts per inning (K/9). Ultimately, the model spits out a formula to generate an expected K/9 for a pitcher. I pulled data from FanGraphs comprised of all qualified pitchers from the last four years (2010 through 2013).

The idea is this: A pitcher who can miss more bats will strike out more batters. FanGraphs’ “Contact %” statistic illustrates this, where a lower contact rate is better. Similarly, a pitcher who can generate more swinging strikes (“SwStr %”) is more likely to strike out batters.

Using this theory coupled with the aforementioned data, I “corrected” the K/9 rates of all 2013 pitchers who notched at least 100 innings. Instead of detailing the full results, here are the largest differentials between expected and actual K/9 rates. (I will list only pitchers I deem fantasy relevant.)

Largest positive differential: Name — expected K/9 – actual K/9) = +/- change

  1. Martin Perez — 7.77 – 6.08 = +1.69
  2. Jarrod Parker — 7.74 – 6.12) = +1.62
  3. Dan Straily — 8.63 – 7.33 = +1.30
  4. Jered Weaver — 8.09 – 6.82 = +1.27
  5. Hiroki Kuroda — 7.93 – 6.71 = +1.22
  6. Kris Medlen — 8.38 –  7.17 = +1.21
  7. Francisco Liriano — 10.31 – 9.11 = +1.20
  8. Ervin Santana — 8.06 – 6.87 = +1.19
  9. Ricky Nolasco — 8.47 – 7.45 = +1.02
  10. Tim Hudson — 7.42 (6.51) | +0.91

Largest negative differential:

  1. Tony Cingrani — 8.15 – 10.32 = -2.17
  2. Ubaldo Jimenez — 7.68 – 9.56 = -1.88
  3. Cliff Lee — 7.11 – 8.97 = -1.86
  4. Jose Fernandez — 8.15 – 9.75 = -1.60
  5. Shelby Miller — 7.20 – 8.78 = -1.58
  6. Scott Kazmir — 7.71 – 9.23 = -1.52
  7. Yu Darvish — 10.41 – 11.89 = -1.48
  8. Lance Lynn — 7.58 – 8.84 = -1.26
  9. Justin Masterson — 7.84 (9.09) | -1.25
  10. Chris Tillman — 6.60 (7.81) | -1.21

There’s a lot to digest here, so I’ll break it down. It appears Perez was the unluckiest pitcher last year, of the ones who qualified for the study, notching almost 1.7 fewer strikeouts per nine innings than he would be expected to, given the rate of whiffs he induced. Conversely, rookie sensation Cingrani notched almost 2.2 more strikeouts per nine innings than expected.

There is a caveat. I was not able to account for facets of pitching such as a pitcher’s ability to hide the ball well, or his tendency to draw strikes-looking. With that said, a majority of the so-called lucky ones are pitchers who, in 2013, experienced a breakout (Cingrani, Fernandez, Miller, Darvish, Masterson, Tillman) or a renaissance (Jimenez, Kazmir, Masterson — woah, all Cleveland pitchers). Is it possible these pitchers can all repeat their performances — especially the ones who have disappointed us for years? Perhaps not.

(Update, Jan. 24: Cliff Lee’s mark of -1.86 is, amazingly, not unusual for him. Over the last four years, the average difference between his expected and actual K/9 rates is … drum roll … -1.88. Insane!)

Darvish and Liriano were in a league of their own in terms of inducing swings and misses, notching almost 30 percent each. (Anibal Sanchez was third-best with 27 percent. The average is about 21 percent.) However, Darvish recorded 2.78 more K/9 than Liriano. Is there any rhyme or reason to that? Darvish is, without much argument, the better pitcher — but is he that much better? I don’t think so. Darvish was expected to notch 10.41 K/9 given his contact rate. Any idea what his 2012 K/9 rate was? Incredibly: 10.40 K/9.

More big names produced equally interesting results. King Felix Hernandez recorded a career-best 9.51 K/9, but he was expected to produce something closer to 8.57 K/9. His rate the previous three years? 8.52 K/9.

Dan Haren didn’t produce much in the way of ERA in 2013, but he did see a much-needed spike in his strikeout rate, jumping above 8 K/9 for the first time since 2010. His expected 7.07 K/9 says otherwise, though, and it fits perfectly with how his K/9 rate was trending: 7.25 K/9 in 2011, 7.23 K/9 in 2012.

I think my models tend to exaggerate the more extreme results (most of which are noted in the lists above) because they could not account for intangibles in a player’s natural talent. However, they could prove to be excellent indicators of who’s due for regression.

Only time will tell. Maybe Jose Fernandez isn’t the elite pitcher we already think he is — not yet, at least.

————

Notes: The data almost replicates a normal distribution, with 98 of the 145 observations (67.6 percent) falling within one standard deviation (1.09 K/9) of the mean value (7.19 K/9), and 140 of 145 (96.6 percent) falling within two standard deviations. The median value is 7.27 K/9, indicating the distribution is very slightly skewed left.

The role of luck in fantasy baseball

I apologize for being that guy that ruins that ooey gooey feeling you get when think about the fantasy league you won last year. As much as you want to think you are a fantasy master — perhaps even a fantasy god — you should acknowledge that you probably benefited from a good deal of luck. Sure, for your sake, I will admit you made a great pick with Max Scherzer in the fifth round. But did you, in all your mastery, predict he would win 21 games?

Don’t say yes. You didn’t. And frankly, you would be crazy to say he’ll do it again.

I focus primarily on pitching in this blog, and let it be known that pitchers are not exempt from luck in the realm of fantasy baseball. If you’re playing in a standard rotisserie league, you probably have a wins category. In a points league, you likely award points for wins.

Wins. Arguably the most arbitrary statistic in baseball. Let’s not have that discussion, though, and instead simply accept the win as it is. The win has the most drastic uncontrollable effect on a fantasy pitcher’s value. (ERA and WHIP experiences similar statistical fluctuations, but at least they aren’t arbitrary.)

I had an idea, but before I proceed, let me interject: if you’re drafting for wins, you’re doing it wrong. But, as I said, you can’t ignore wins.

But let’s say you did, and drafted strictly on talent, or “stuff” (which, here, factors in a pitcher’s durability). How would the top 30 pitchers change? Here’s my “stuff” list, which you can compare with the base projections:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Cliff Lee
  6. Yu Darvish
  7. Chris Sale
  8. Cole Hamels
  9. Jose Fernandez
  10. Madison Bumgarner
  11. Stephen Strasburg
  12. David Price
  13. Justin Verlander
  14. Alex Cobb
  15. Homer Bailey
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Michael Wacha
  19. Anibal Sanchez
  20. James Shields
  21. Danny Salazar
  22. Marco Estrada
  23. A.J. Burnett
  24. Corey Kluber
  25. Brandon Beachy
  26. Zack Greinke
  27. Matt Cain
  28. Sonny Gray
  29. Hisashi Iwakuma
  30. Gio Gonzalez

Here are the five players with the biggest positive change and a breakdown of each:

  1. Brandon Beachy, up 23 spots
    His injury history has weakened his wins column projection. Consequently, the number of innings Beachy is expected to throw is significantly less than a full season. But if he managed to stay healthy for the full year (say, 200 innings)? He’s a top-1o pick based on pure stuff. If you draft with the philosophy that you can always find a viable replacement on waivers, Beachy could be your big sleeper.
  2. Marco Estrada, up 22 spots
    Estrada’s diminished expected wins is more a function of his terrible team than ability. Estrada has underperformed the past two years, Ricky Nolasco style, but if he can pull it together, he’s a top-30 pitcher based on “stuff.” And hey, maybe he can luck into some extra wins. However, if he can’t pull it together — Ricky Nolasco style — he’ll be relegated to fringe starter.
  3. Danny Salazar, up 9 spots
    Salazar has immense potential. His injury history led the Indians to cap his per-game pitch count last year, and that has been factored into his projection. But if he’s a full-time, 200-inning starter? He’s a top-25 starter with top-15 upside. Again, this is in terms of “stuff”. But is Ivan Nova better than Felix Hernandez because he can magically win more games? Of course not. Among a slew of young studs, including Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and so on, Salazar is a diamond in the rough.
  4. A.J. Burnett, up 8 spots
    His projection is already plenty good. But you saw how many games he won in 2013. Anything can happen.
  5. Corey Kluber, up 8 spots
    Most people were probably scratching their heads when they saw Kluber’s name listed above. Frankly, I’m in love with him, and it’s because he’s a stud with a great K/BB ratio. I understand why someone may be inclined to dismiss it as an aberration, but his swinging strike and contact rates are truly excellent. Even if they regress, he should be a draft-day target.

Here are the three starting pitchers with the biggest negative change.

  1. Anibal Sanchez, down 10 spots
    He’s great, but he also plays for a great team. Call it Max Scherzer syndrome. He carries as big a risk as any other player to pitch great but only win five or six games, as do the next two players.
  2. Hisashi Iwakuma, down 6 spots
  3. Zack Greinke, down 4 spots

Let me be clear that although I created a hypothetical scenario where wins didn’t exist, I don’t advocate for blindly drafting based on “stuff.” It’s important to acknowledge that certain players have a much better chance to win than others. Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox could win 17 games just as easily as he could win seven. It’s about playing the odds — and unless a pitcher truly pitches terribly, don’t blame the so-called experts for your bad luck. He probably put his money where his mouth is, too, and is suffering along with you.

Here is a more comprehensive list of pitchers ranked by “stuff,” if that’s the way you sculpt your strategy:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Cliff Lee
  6. Yu Darvish
  7. Chris Sale
  8. Cole Hamels
  9. Jose Fernandez
  10. Madison Bumgarner
  11. Stephen Strasburg
  12. David Price
  13. Justin Verlander
  14. Alex Cobb
  15. Homer Bailey
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Michael Wacha
  19. Anibal Sanchez
  20. James Shields
  21. Danny Salazar
  22. Marco Estrada
  23. A.J. Burnett
  24. Corey Kluber
  25. Brandon Beachy
  26. Zack Greinke
  27. Matt Cain
  28. Sonny Gray
  29. Hisashi Iwakuma
  30. Gio Gonzalez
  31. Doug Fister
  32. Jordan Zimmermann
  33. Alex Wood
  34. Kris Medlen
  35. Jeff Samardzija
  36. Mike Minor
  37. Jake Peavy
  38. Kevin Gausman
  39. Tyson Ross
  40. Patrick Corbin
  41. Lance Lynn
  42. Francisco Liriano
  43. Andrew Cashner
  44. Ricky Nolasco
  45. CC Sabathia
  46. Hiroki Kuroda
  47. Tim Lincecum
  48. Tim Hudson
  49. Jered Weaver
  50. Shelby Miller
  51. Clay Buchholz
  52. Tony Cingrani
  53. Matt Garza
  54. John Lackey
  55. Ubaldo Jimenez
  56. Justin Masterson
  57. Julio Teheran
  58. R.A. Dickey
  59. A.J. Griffin
  60. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  61. Dan Haren
  62. Johnny Cueto
  63. C.J. Wilson
  64. Ian Kennedy
  65. Chris Archer
  66. Kyle Lohse
  67. Scott Kazmir
  68. Carlos Martinez
  69. Jon Lester
  70. Ervin Santana
  71. Jose Quintana
  72. Derek Holland
  73. Garrett Richards
  74. Dan Straily
  75. Tyler Skaggs

What to expect from pitchers who broke out in 2013

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.

Shelby Miller: LEGIT
I’ve discussed him in the past. He benefited from an unsustainable LOB%, but he’s good.

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!

Early SP rankings for 2014

I wouldn’t say pitching is deep, but I’m surprised by the pitchers who didn’t make my top 60.

Note: I have deemed players highlighted in pink undervalued and worthy of re-rank. Do not be alarmed just yet by what you may perceive to be a low ranking.

2014 STARTING PITCHERS

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Max Scherzer
  4. Yu Darvish
  5. Felix Hernandez
  6. Cliff Lee
  7. Stephen Strasburg
  8. Jose Fernandez
  9. Cole Hamels
  10. Justin Verlander
  11. Anibal Sanchez
  12. Chris Sale
  13. Mat Latos
  14. Madison Bumgarner
  15. Alex Cobb
  16. Homer Bailey
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Zack Greinke
  19. David Price
  20. James Shields
  21. Jordan Zimmermann
  22. Michael Wacha
  23. Danny Salazar
  24. Jered Weaver
  25. A.J. Burnett *contingent on if he retires
  26. Kris Medlen
  27. Mike Minor
  28. Jake Peavy
  29. Corey Kluber
  30. Lance Lynn
  31. Matt Cain
  32. Hisashi Iwakuma
  33. CC Sabathia
  34. Gio Gonzalez
  35. Doug Fister
  36. Patrick Corbin
  37. Francisco Liriano
  38. Sonny Gray
  39. Ricky Nolasco
  40. Hiroki Kuroda
  41. Tim Hudson
  42. Marco Estrada
  43. Shelby Miller
  44. Trevor Rosenthal
  45. Tony Cingrani
  46. A.J. Griffin
  47. Brandon Beachy
  48. Tim Lincecum
  49. Clay Buchholz
  50. Ubaldo Jimenez
  51. Alex Wood
  52. Julio Teheran
  53. Tyson Ross
  54. Hyun-jin Ryu
  55. Matt Garza
  56. Andrew Cashner
  57. Johnny Cueto
  58. C.J. Wilson
  59. John Lackey
  60. Justin Masterson
  61. R.A. Dickey
  62. Kevin Gausman
  63. Jon Lester
  64. Dan Haren
  65. Ervin Santana
  66. Derek Holland
  67. Chris Archer
  68. Jeff Samardzija
  69. Bartolo Colon
  70. Ivan Nova
  71. Matt Moore
  72. Ian Kennedy
  73. Dan Straily
  74. Rick Porcello
  75. Jarrod Parker
  76. Carlos Martinez
  77. Jeremy Hellickson
  78. Kyle Lohse
  79. Scott Kazmir
  80. Jason Vargas
  81. Tommy Milone
  82. Wade Miley
  83. Dillon Gee
  84. Brandon Workman
  85. Chris Tillman
  86. Zack Wheeler
  87. Yovani Gallardo
  88. Miguel Gonzalez
  89. Jose Quintana
  90. Garrett Richards
  91. Robbie Erlin
  92. Felix Doubront
  93. Jhoulys Chacin
  94. Jonathon Niese
  95. Chris Capuano
  96. Nick Tepesch
  97. Alexi Ogando
  98. Bronson Arroyo
  99. Travis Wood
  100. Trevor Cahill
  101. Tyler Skaggs
  102. Randall Delgado
  103. Martin Perez
  104. Mike Leake
  105. Carlos Villanueva
  106. Todd Redmond
  107. Brandon Maurer
  108. Tyler Lyons
  109. Ryan Vogelsong
  110. Zach McAllister
  111. Wily Peralta
  112. Brett Oberholtzer
  113. Erik Johnson
  114. Jorge De La Rosa
  115. Paul Maholm
  116. Hector Santiago
  117. Burch Smith
  118. Jeff Locke
  119. Joe Kelly
  120. Jason Hammel
  121. Jake Odorizzi
  122. Danny Hultzen
  123. Anthony Ranaudo
  124. Archie Bradley
  125. Rafael Montero
  126. James Paxton
  127. Taijuan Walker
  128. Yordano Ventura

Bold Prediction #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starter

Update, 3/18/14: Word on the street is Tyson Ross’ innings will be capped this year. I have amended my prediction accordingly.

Here’s the deal. I know most people outside of San Diego don’t know who Padres pitcher Tyson Ross is. Thus, it would be a bold enough prediction for me to say he’ll be a top-60 starter. Truthfully, I think he’ll be a top-30 starter. So, for the sake of splitting the difference, I did exactly that.

BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR 2014, #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starting pitcher.*
*At the moment he is shut down for the season.

Ross, 27, debuted with the Athletics four years ago and has never once been fantasy relevant. Ross got stiffed in the wins category in 2013, going 3-8 through 16 starts for the mediocre-but-not-terrible San Diego Padres despite posting a 3.17 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Many failed to notice so, again, he was hardly fantasy relevant. But that’s only according to the masses. In the case of Ross, the masses were wrong.

For starters, his 2013 ERA and WHIP would be 100-percent helpful in the context of any league, and his peripherals indicate his performance was legitimate. The BAbip may regress a bit, but the home runs allowed and runners stranded are about league average.

For Ross, though, his most important statistic is his strikeout rate: 119 K’s in 125 innings (8.6 K/9). Admittedly, it’s nothing to phone home about. Of pitchers with at least 100 innings, Ross ranks 25th on a strikeout-per-inning basis. However, Ross allowed the seventh-lowest contact rate and recorded the ninth-best percentage of swinging strikes of the lot. Contact rates and swinging strikes are (very) highly correlated with total strikeouts, and understandably so.

Thus, Ross’ strikeouts were not a fluke — at least, they weren’t in 2013 — despite recording a meager 5.7 K/9 through 70-plus innings in 2012. What gives?

The slider gives. Ross’ was the third-most valuable of all sliders thrown as measured by FanGraphs’ pitch value metric “wSL,” or “slider runs above average.” Only Yu Darvish and Francisco Liriano extracted more value from their sliders throughout the year than Ross. (I wrote about Justin Masterson’s slider a while back — it was fourth-most effective.) Even on a weighted basis, Ross threw the third-best slider per 100 pitches, behind only Randall Delgado‘s (which benefits from a small sample size) and Jose Fernandez‘s famous wipeout pitch. Moreover, Ross’ relied more heavily on his slider this year than in any other, throwing it in one-third of all pitches, up about five percent from his career frequency.

Something must have clicked for Ross, because his slider humiliated batters in 2013. Although it does happen occasionally, I have no reason to expect Ross will suddenly lose his touch. If he can come close to repeating his 2013 performance, his 2014 will look a lot like Patrick Corbin‘s 2013, but with a better strikeout rate. Corbin finished 2013 as the No. 23 starting pitcher. That’s upside on which I’m willing to gamble.

So there you have it, folks. This segment will recur throughout the offseason and will culminate before Opening Day, so stay tuned for more bold predictions!