Low-Cost Pitchers With High Fantasy Value Potential

Image credit: Jonathan Loaisiga (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Major league batters have a lot to say about the quality of a pitcher’s stuff, and in this post-PITCH f/x world of ours, that conversation is broadcast far and wide.

Picking up that signal behooves fantasy players in all formats—and simulation players, too, such as those in Strat-O-Matic leagues.

When evaluating pitchers using advanced pitch metrics, I focus on three attributes that most ace starters have in common: fastball velocity (vFA), chase rate (O-Swing%) and zone contact rate (Z-Contact%). Those are the abbreviations found at FanGraphs.com, the source of all pitch data presented here.

The benefits of velocity are obvious, but the other metrics also have obvious value when you think about them. O-Swing and Z-Contact paint a picture of strike-zone command by spelling out how often pitchers induce batters to chase out of the zone or swing and miss in the strike zone.

To add context to the metrics, I place them on the 20-80 scouting scale so I can see at a glance which pitchers are above-average and—more importantly—by how much.

To give you an idea how grading pitchers by this method matches real-life value, here are the top 10 major league starters with at least 100 innings last year, ranked by the average score of their velocity, chase rate and zone contact rate. Remember, these values are placed on the 20-80 scale, where higher values are better.

Starter vFA O-Swing Z-Contact Average
Chris Sale 63 67 77 69
Jacob deGrom 65 71 69 68
Max Scherzer 59 65 74 66
Justin Verlander 61 62 69 64
Noah Syndergaard 72 67 53 64
James Paxton 63 66 62 64
Gerrit Cole 68 55 68 64
Luis Castillo 65 58 67 63
Luis Severino 72 57 61 63
Blake Snell 65 58 67 63

It wouldn’t be shocking if any of these 10 starters won a Cy Young Award at some point in the future. Paxton and Castillo are the most unproven, but the quality of their stuff certainly is not.

Keep going down the list and you’ll find Nathan Eovaldi, Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler, Michael Fulmer, Masahiro Tanaka, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Chris Archer, Jameson Taillon and Carlos Carrasco in spots 11-20.

This group is comprised of No. 2 starters and second-tier fantasy aces, but that doesn’t mean you will be able to trade for any of them and still keep your shirt in the deal.

That’s why the shrewd fantasy player has already begun speculating on pitchers poised to break through in 2019, and Baseball America is here to help you identify the best bets.

In this piece, we highlight nine young—or at least young-ish—starting pitchers who flashed high-quality stuff in the big leagues in 2018, albeit in small samples. For that reason, investing in them requires tolerance for risk and, frankly, a leap of faith. But at least their acquisition cost won’t be prohibitive.

Last year a similar analysis, which also factored first-pitch strike rate (F-Strike%), yielded success stories such as Blake Snell, Sean Newcomb, Jose Berrios and Luis Castillo.

Statistics displayed here include pitchers’ work as starters only. Grades are rounded to the nearest half grade.

Josh James | RHP | Astros
vFA: 70 | O-Swing: 55 | Z-Contact: 55 | F-Strike: 50
IP: 15 | ERA: 2.35 | SO9: 11.2 | BB9: 3.5 | HR9: 1.2

James’ velocity surged in 2018 and he parlayed that high-90s heat into the highest strikeout rate in the minors (13.5 per nine innings), a September callup and a spot on the Astros’ postseason roster. Opposing batters had a hard time squaring up the 26-year-old James’ fastball—an encouraging sign for his rotation prospects—which helped his secondary weapons play up, particularly his chase-pitch changeup.  

Jonathan Loaisiga | RHP | Yankees
65 | O-Swing: 65 | Z-Contact: 55 | F-Strike: 55
IP: 18 | ERA: 3.00 | SO9: 10.5 | BB9: 4.0 | HR9: 0.5

Loaisiga entered 2018 with no experience in full-season ball. He finished it in the big leagues for the playoff-bound Yankees. A combination of mid-90s velocity and swing-and-miss secondary stuff (curveball and changeup) give Loaisiga impact potential. The 24-year-old has had trouble staying healthy enough to take the mound, but the raw ingredients are here to surpass expectations.

Domingo German | RHP | Yankees
60 | O-Swing: 60 | Z-Contact: 70 | F-Strike: 50
IP: 68 | ERA: 6.19 | SO9: 10.4 | BB9: 3.4 | HR9: 1.7

Scouts raved about German’s stuff at Triple-A in 2017, his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, and he made his big league debut later that year. He slid into the big league rotation in May 2018 and used a curveball-heavy approach to generate chases galore. German will be 26 this season, and if he can find a way to refine his changeup and tame lefthanded batters—they slugged .506 against him last year—he has significant upside.

Matt Strahm | LHP | Padres
55 | O-Swing: 70 | Z-Contact: 75 | F-Strike: 65
IP: 13 | ERA: 1.35 | SO9: 12.2 | BB9: 2.0 | HR9: 0.7

Strahm reached the majors in 2016 and has missed time with knee injuries the past two seasons, but he has shown pure bat-missing stuff when healthy. The only catch is that his teams have been reluctant to commit to him in the rotation. Even last year, in his five starts he never reached even 60 pitches. The 27-year-old Strahm throws a legitimate swing-and-miss fastball, curveball and changeup, and if granted a rotation spot he could surpass expectations for a Padres rotation starved for viable options.

Caleb Smith | LHP | Marlins
vFA: 50 | O-Swing: 50 | Z-Contact: 65 | F-Strike: 50
IP: 77 | ERA: 4.19 | SO9: 10.2 | BB9: 3.8 | HR9: 1.2

Smith posted a top 40 swinging-strike rate among starters with 50 innings last season. But then the rookie suffered a lat injury in late June that knocked him out for the season. Smith throws a strong slider and changeup, and if he can improve command of his fastball and throw strike one more often, the 27-year-old could take a giant step forward.

Max Fried | LHP | Braves
vFA: 50 | O-Swing: 35 | Z-Contact: 70 | F-Strike: 30
IP: 22 | ERA: 2.49 | SO9: 11.2 | BB9: 5.8 | HR9: 0.0

Fried has tantalized scouts for years—he ranked as the top prep southpaw in the 2012 draft—but shaky control has undermined him throughout his career. And yet his elite-spin curveball and outstanding changeup are true bat-missing pitches. It’s just that the 25-year-old Fried’s scattershot fastball puts him in disadvantage counts too often.

The path to Fried’s success could be a Rich Hill pitching style that emphasizes curveballs. Fried is bound to turn in a productive year in the big leagues at some point, so ask yourself: Am I feeling lucky?

Touki Toussaint | RHP | Braves
vFA: 55 | O-Swing: 50 | Z-Contact: 65 | F-Strike: 35
IP: 27 | ERA: 3.33 | SO9: 9.7 | BB9: 5.7 | HR9: 0.3

Toussaint struggled to develop a changeup as he climbed meticulously through the minor leagues. Everything seemed to click for the 22-year-old in 2018, when he refined a splitter and began locating his outstanding curveball. Toussaint brought that mix to the big leagues in September, drawing an elite 20 percent swinging-strike rate on his splitter. As is the case for many young pitchers, the key for Toussaint will be working more frequent advantage counts—and that lesson can take time to learn.

Daniel Ponce de Leon | RHP | Cardinals
vFA: 50 | O-Swing: 55 | Z-Contact: 80 | F-Strike: 35
IP: 19 | ERA: 2.79 | SO9: 10.2 | BB9: 2.8 | HR9: 0.0

The Cardinals called up Ponce de Leon in late July, and he progressively earned the organization’s trust—three of his final five appearances were starts—thanks to a swinging-strike rate that kept climbing. Batters had trouble touching the 27-year-old’s fastball even in the strike zone, which is somewhat startling given his low first-pitch strike rate, average velocity and ordinary secondary stuff. Will opponents adjust the second or third time around?

Sean Reid-Foley | RHP | Blue Jays
vFA: 55 | O-Swing: 40 | Z-Contact: 65 | F-Strike: 45
IP: 33 | ERA: 5.13 | SO9: 11.3 | BB9: 5.7 | HR9: 1.6

Many slider-reliant righthanders, like Reid-Foley, are better suited for the bullpen, where they are less subject to platoon splits and the second time through the order penalty. If that is the case for the 23-year-old Reid-Foley, his velocity (up to 97 mph) and wicked slider (opponent hit .095 off the pitch in Toronto) could put him in line for saves at some point. Expect the rebuilding Blue Jays to give him a long leash in the rotation in 2019.  

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