Last week, we spent time going over pitcher analytics and how we can use them to prepare for both drafts and in-season management. Today, I’ll be focusing on the former, draft prep, and build on what we discussed last week. As player projections become more widely available and drafts start kicking off in earnest, early draft value is coming into sharper focus.
Using the 2023 Steamer/Razzball Fantasy Baseball Projections and current ADP numbers from NFBC drafts, below are some pitcher reviews that stand out to me, both good and bad, as I assess some of the various analytical categories. Come along as I shake the pitcher tree and let’s see who falls out!
K/BB, Strikeout-to-Walk Ratio: This measure of command simply tells us how many strikeouts recorded for each walk allowed. Again, the higher the ratio the better, but how do we quantify? Generally, the league average K/BB is about 2.5 so we want to be higher. As a gauge, the elite SPs spun a K/BB ratio in the neighborhood of 5.0 last season, while Aaron Nola was more of an outlier at slightly over 8.0. Most fantasy targeted starters fall into the range of 3.5-4.5. For 2023, these two SPs are projected to have ratios above 4.5 and are currently being drafted outside the top 20 SPs off the board in NFBC drafts. Let’s see if these trends are justified.
Kevin Gausman, Blue Jays: Currently being drafted as the #23 pitcher, Kevin Gausman ranked #3 in K/BB last season at 7.321, behind only Aaron Nola at 8.103. There’s no question Gausman benefitted from better control as he maintained a K/9 > 10.5 for the 4th year in a row and reduced his BB/9 rate by a full run. It’s not all sunny news here though as his BABIP was the highest of his career (.363), primarily due to an increase in LD% by 3% (24.6). This was also evident in his ERA. Although a 3.35 ERA is not awful, his FIP was 2.37. You’ll recall from last week’s article that the FIP removes some of the things out of a pitcher’s control and results with a truer indication of what their ERA should be. In Gausman’s case, it appears to me that he has a better season in there but only part of it is under his control. Current drafting suggests the jury is still out on the top 10 finalists in Cy Young voting.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw returns to the Dodgers for his 16th season after signing a one-year deal. Kershaw was limited to 22 starts for the second year in a row but generally made the most of those, pitching to a 2.28 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. His K/BB remained excellent at almost 6.00 and logged his best ERA/FIP combo since 2016. Kershaw is currently being drafted as the #49 P, anywhere between overall picks #93 and #159. Certainly, age and injury risk are driving the unflattering ADP more than the analytics. If he can maintain good health, admittedly a big “if” lately, then he should provide exceptional value to his fantasy owners.
K/9, Strikeout Rate: In 2022, the league-wide average K/9 was about 8.7% and I like to target those over 10%. For starters, the list of those projected to be greater than 10% is relatively small and reserved for the top names on the draft boards, such as Jacob deGrom, Spencer Strider, Tyler Glasnow, Carlos Rodon, Shohei Ohtani, and Gerrit Cole. As you may have guessed though, the list of relief pitchers with K/9 > 10% is quite extensive. Besides the top relief pitchers on everyone’s draft board due to their likelihood for Saves (SVs), here are a couple others that you will find later in drafts to help boost your Ks, and if you’re lucky enough to track them, Holds (H).
Alex Vesia, Dodgers: This southpaw is working his way up the Dodgers bullpen hierarchy after a stellar 2022 campaign. In fact, the back end of the season saw him toss an impressive 0.36 ERA and 0.72 WHIP, with 40 Ks (25.2 IP). He relied heavily on a dominant 4-seam fastball that finished off two-thirds of his 79 Ks. He won’t be in line for too many SV chances but he’s a must for H or SV+H leagues during the late rounds in drafts.
Jake Diekman White Sox: Another lefty to keep an eye on toward the end of drafts is Jake Diekman. The well-traveled vet was traded to the South-Siders last August and now fills a prominent role in the formidable White Sox pen. Diekman has maintained a constant fastball (95-96 mph) and K/9 (at/above 11.0) for the past six seasons and there’s no reason to expect much of a drop-off this season. He’s not one to target to help your ratios per se, but his FIP suggests his 2022 ERA was a bit higher than his skills dictate. There are other relievers in the Sox pen who line up better to capture SVs while Liam Hendriks is away for treatment, but he’ll be a solid H candidate with a few SV opportunities mixed in for good measure.
LD%, Line Drive Percentage: There’s a saying in pitching circles, “Line drives are death to pitchers.” This is because line drives generally result in batting averages over .650 and 1.25 or more runs per out. Therefore, we want to stay clear of pitchers who induce a higher percentage of line drives. Here are a couple starters projected to have suppressed LD%.
Nathan Eovaldi, Rangers: Nathan Eovaldi’s final season in Boston resulted in a career low LD% of 16.5. Unfortunately, that’s one of the only statistics that sticks out in a positive way from the 2022 season. Following a 32-start season in 2021, he was limited to 109.1 IP due to back and shoulder ailments. As compared to 2021, his K/9 was down over 1.0, his HR/9 was up the same, and his FIP jumped up from 2.78 to 4.30. He continues to limit walks (1.65 BB/9 in 2022) which generates a fantasy-friendly WHIP. However, his fastball velocity was also down a full tick (96.9 mph to 95.8 mph) so that presents a big red flag. Was that attributed to the back/shoulder ailments or are we seeing the common post-30 decline? He moves on to the new-look Rangers and Globe Life Field, generally considered neutral for pitchers and hitters. Currently being drafted as the #89 pitcher (overall pick range of 208-285), drafters are showing there’s plenty of concern that remains here. However, Eovaldi does provide moderate reward potential for the risk-averse drafter.
Dustin May, Dodgers: At the opposite end of the age spectrum, youngster Dustin May made his way back from TJ in August of last year and the initial results are encouraging. Through his 6 starts (30 IP), there’s enough positive in his advanced pitching stats (velocity and swinging K%) while inducing a good GB% (51.3) and low LD% (19.2). As expected, he still has work to do to return to pre-TJ numbers, specifically dialing in his control more consistently. The Dodgers will certainly look to limit his full-season workload before fully unleashing him next season. As the #62 pitcher off the board (overall pick range of 124-213) however, he should provide enough value to your fantasy team this year to warrant a spot on the roster.
Barrels/PA%, Barrels per Plate Appearance: Remember this figure from last week? In a nutshell, the graphic illustrates a barrel. If you look at the “barrel zone” in red and picture a fly ball at that angle and exit velocity, you can easily imagine the result.
In review, a barrel is a batted ball with similar hit types in exit velocity and launch angle that results in a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. The batted ball requires an exit velocity of 98 mph to qualify as a barrel. As the exit velocity increases, the launch angle classified as a barrel also increases. The launch angle range grows two to three degrees for every mph increase on the batted ball. Once the batted ball reaches 116 mph exit velocity, a barrel is credited if the launch angle is between eight and fifty degrees.
In 2021, barreled balls had a .772 batting average and 2.591 slugging percentage. Barrel rate has an extremely high correlation with HR rates as well and therefore is the most predictive power metric. In fact, almost 62% of all barrels resulted in a HR. I provided this table last week to illustrate the point.
Note that each pitcher’s ERA tracks well with the Barrels/PA% in the last column. Apart from Tyler Anderson, all names in the table above are consistently drafted in the first 5-6 rounds. A low Barrels/PA% is a good starting point to evaluate pitchers prior to drafts. So, let’s dig a little deeper into the ADP lists and look at a couple other names that warrant consideration because of this stat.
Alex Cobb, Giants: A quick look at Alex Cobb’s 2022 numbers (7 wins, 3.73 ERA and 1.30 WHIP) doesn’t accurately tell the tale of his first season with the Giants. After 7 starts, Cobb was sitting at a 6.25 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. However, a K% approaching 28% and 2.73 FIP clearly told those who were paying attention to have patience. He rewarded those by registering a 3.05 ERA and 1.24 WHIP the rest of the way. One of the keys to his success? You guessed it, Barrels/PA%. Cobb ended the season with one of the best Barrels/PA% amongst qualified starters at 2.5, bolstered by a low 17.8 LD%. There are plenty of concerns in his game, including a moderately low velocity/spin rate combination, age and injury concerns. However, if he continues to limit HRs and take advantage of the solid defense behind him, drafting Cobb at his current ADP (204 – 309) may provide very good value later in drafts.
Freddy Peralta, Brewers: Freddy Peralta comes into the 2023 season a year removed from the stellar 2021 campaign of 10 wins, 195 K, 2.81 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. So, what happened in 2022? A lat strain cost him over 2 months in the middle of the season and then shoulder fatigue added missed time late. He saw drops in both his fastball velocity (93.4 to 92.7) and K% (33.6% to 27.1%), especially in the second half, most likely attributed to the shoulder fatigue. On the positive side, he had an even better Barrels/PA% than Cobb (2.2 vs Cobb’s 2.5), also directly tied to his low 18.0 LD%. His HR/9 rate dropped to 2021 levels, and he induced a much higher GB% than years past. We’ve seen many examples of successful pitchers transitioning from “throwing gas” to “learning how to pitch” and it appears to me Peralta is making a similar transition. Injury concerns will linger until he proves otherwise. However, as the 55th pitcher being drafted this month (overall ADP range of 121 – 179), he potentially provides tremendous value if he finds his 2021 this offseason.
BABIP, Batting Average on Balls in Play: BABIP, also commonly referred to as Hit Rate (H%), measures a pitcher’s ability to prevent hits on balls in play. It removes walks, strikeouts and home runs from the batting average equation. BABIP doesn’t specifically consider the type or quality of contact (ground ball vs. fly ball) nor strength/weakness in team defense. So, the BABIP is generally not the most accurate predictor of pitching results on its own. Over the past few years, the league average BABIP was between .290-.300. So, a pitcher with a BABIP significantly different is expected to see movement in a direction toward the mean.
Michael Kopech, White Sox: Michael Kopech is one of those pitchers that had a glowing BABIP last season (.223) …and should immediately raise red flags for further analysis. After primarily pitching in the bullpen in 2021, he became a starter and pitched relatively well with a 3.54 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 105 Ks over 119.1 IP. You’d expect a pitcher of Kopech’s pedigree to see improvement across the board with another year away from TJ. However, an xERA of 4.79 suggests the opposite (recall an ERA less than the xERA projects ERA regression). This supports the BABIP expectation above that his ERA may move in the wrong direction. Kopech is being drafted at a wide range of ADPs (between 217 – 396) so there are many drafters being very cautious here. In my book, he’s worth a flyer toward the middle-latter ADP range but I’d suggest letting someone else assume the risk earlier.
Hopefully, these pitcher outlooks are getting you excited for fantasy baseball. As you can see, there’s a lot to glean from these analytics and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (trust me!) to make sound judgments on which players we want to take chances on during drafts. Don’t take my word for it though, follow my lead and pick a few of your favorite pitchers to do a deeper dive on. Read what others are saying as well. In the end, make your own call. None of us can predict the future here, we’re just trying to use the available information to make the best possible projections.
As always, I want to give a plug for all the great stuff available at Razzball. You’ll find everything you need on the Razzball site (GET YOUR RANKINGS HERE) to help you make these deeper dives. So, do yourself a favor and head over there often as more and more information becomes available. The best part – FREE!