Fantasy Sleepers: PitcherSporting News — (Matt Lutovsky)
It's not hard for fantasy baseball owners to look at starting pitcher rankings and think they've spotted some potential sleepers and breakouts. With that many SPs, someone's bound to stand out as undervalued. Moreover, someone's bound to have a surpringly strong season. Between injuries and fluky BABIPs all the rest, pitchers and top prospects can be all over the board from one year to the next, which is why it's difficult to actually be correct about sleeper predictions during your draft.
When we try to identify SP sleepers, we generally look at peripherals and advanced stats like K/9 ratio, BB/9 ratio, HR rate, FIP, BABIP, swinging-strike rate, and more. Wins, ERA, and WHIP are obviously going to be influenced by these, and while the end results might be all that matter in most fantasy leagues, they tend to be more volatile and somewhat luck-based than hitting stats. Wins are impossible to predict from year to year, and ERA can fluctuate wildly based on some poor batted-ball luck, so don't get too caught up in the standard numbers.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2019 cheat sheet
Heading into 2019, there are a number of interesting young pitchers who could make a leap. Obviously, injuries will be a constant worry (several are coming back from serious injuries), but that's really a constant worry with all pitchers. While we're mostly focused on young starters, there's always the possibility a mid-career guy makes a slight adjustment to his delivery or develops a new pitch that changes his outlook, so don't think this list is the end-all, be-all of potential sleepers.
You'll go through pitchers like toilet paper once the season starts, but having a few high-upside young guys on your roster after the draft is always a worthwhile risk.
2019 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Sleepers
Eligibility based on Yahoo's default settings
Touki Toussaint, Braves. Over the past two seasons in the minors, Toussaint struck out 330 batters in 281.1 innings. He carried that over to his seven-game (five-start) audition in the majors last year, whiffing 32 in 29 frames. Walks were a major issue (21), as they were in the minors, but Toussaint has shown the ability to get out of trouble while not allowing many homers. The 22-year-old righty could be a WHIP killer, but if he can harness his constantly moving three-pitch mix, he could also be a solid three-category contributor.
Sean Newcomb, Braves. Newcomb's first two seasons with the Braves has yielded a lot of strikeouts...and a lot of walks. The latter has killed his WHIP (1.42), but he showed signs of improvement last year despite a declining K-rate. Newcomb was always a high-BB guy in the minors, so perhaps it's silly to think he can curb that part of his game much, but at 25, it might be just as silly to assume he's a finished product. Like Toussaint, he can be a big-time three-category contributor even if all he does is cut down on his homers.
Shane Bieber, Indians. Bieber never had a FIP higher than 2.57 at any of his usually brief minor league stops, and his microscopic BB-rate (0.6) has always kept his WHIP low. His 19-start major league debut last year was also quite successful given his age, though some fantasy owners might be missing it because of an unsightly 4.55 ERA. Don't be fooled. Bieber struck out over a batter per inning, walked fewer than two batters per nine, and had one of the largest ERA-FIP differentials in the league (4.55 to 3.23). All signs point to the 23-year-old righty continuing to break out, as his fluky .356 BABIP is sure to come down.
Julio Urias, Dodgers. Whether it's as a shutdown mutli-inning reliever or a starter, Urias is too talented not to produce. The 22-year-old lefty barely pitched last year after season-ending shoulder surgery in 2017, but in 10.1 relief innings with the big club (counting the postseason), he struck out 12, walked only one, and allowed just two runs. Urias might start the season in Triple-A, but he'll definitely be up at some point, and even though he'll likely be on an innings restriction, he can still post numbers better than his 18-game (15-start) 2016 rookie campaign (3.39/1.45, 9.8 K/9 ratio).
Nick Pivetta, Phillies. The Phillies have a pair of young righties who have similar profiles, but the 26-year-old Pivetta here is more noteworthy than 24-year-old Zach Eflin, mainly because of Pivetta's more proven strikeout ability. He whiffed 188 batters in 164 innings last year and 140 batters in 133 innings the year before that. His career 5.33 ERA (4.77 last year) will likely scare some people off, but his 3.80 FIP last season suggests he pitched better than the standard numbers indicate. Improvements in every major peripheral last season are encouraging signs that Pivetta can really break out this season.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Red Sox. Rodriguez has steadily improved the past two seasons, seeing his K-rate climb above 10 last year. He'll be on a lot of radars this spring, but it feels like the 25-year-old lefty still has another gear. He's one of those "obvious sleepers" -- almost too obvious -- but when all the peripherals are improving and a young player is hitting what should be his prime, what's not to like?
Tyler Skaggs, Angels. Like Rodriguez, Skaggs' peripherals suggest a big breakout is on the horizon. He upped his K-rate to 9.3 last year while lowering his BB-rate (2.9) and significantly lowering his HR-rate (1.0). A little more luck with his .328 BABIP and the 27-year-old lefty will have the ERA and WHIP that match his improving peripherals.
Joey Lucchesi, Padres. Lucchesi flashed high-level stuff during his 26-start rookie campaign in 2017, striking out 145 over 130 innings. His 4.08/1.29 line won't jump off the screen at you, but the 25-year-old lefty had a decent BB/9 (2.98) and mainly struggled with homers -- something that wasn't a huge problem in the minors and shouldn't be a huge problem given his home park. There's a lot of upside here.
Tyler Glasnow, Rays. The former Pirates top prospect rebounded a bit last year after a truly disastrous 2017, and he'll head into this season as one of Tampa's few penciled-in starters. Glasnow whiffed an impressive 11 batters per nine innings last year, but his BB-rate (4.3) and HR-rate (1.2) weren't great. The former dropped quite a bit after his move to Tampa (and back into a starting role), but the latter skyrocketed. Glasnow is the type of guy who could destroy your ERA/WHIP for a month before you finally drop him, but the 25-year-old righty could also be a major breakout after working with Rays' pitching coaches (see Snell, Blake).
Joe Musgrove, Pirates. Musgrove has always seemed on the verge of a breakout, but he's never quite been able to put it all together. Returning to a full-time starter's role last year, he posted career bests in BB/9 ratio (1.8), HR/9 (0.9), FIP (3.59) and WHIP (1.18). However, his strikeout rate slightly dipped to 7.8, and it's unclear how effective he can be for fantasy owners if that doesn't rise. There's little doubt the 26-year-old righty has upside, especially playing in a pitchers park in Pittsburgh, so we're optimistic he can break out this year.
Alex Reyes, Cardinals. Tommy John surgery and lat surgery have limited Reyes to only five starts between the minors and majors over the past seasons. Obviously, he has to be considered an injury risk at this point, but his pedigree as one of the top prospects in all of baseball shouldn't be forgotten. He was fantastic in his 12-game, five-start major league debut as a 21 year old in 2016, posting a 1.57/1.22 line with a 10.2 K/9 ratio. His BB-rate is the main worry, but Reyes clearly has the tools to perform at a high level. He'll be on an innings restriction this year and may bounce around between Triple-A and the majors or the bullpen and rotation, but Reyes will have fantasy value when he's on the mound.
Josh James and Forrest Whitley, Astros. James and Whitley might ultimately be fighting for the No. 5 spot in the Astros rotation, be it in the spring or at some point in the season. Whitley has a more impressive minor league resume (3.28/1.19, 13.3 K/9 ratio), but he's yet to pitch above Double-A. James saw a meteoric rise last season, posting a 3.23/1.12 line with a 13.5 K/9 ratio between Double-A and Triple-A, then impressing in his six-game (three-start) major league debut (2.35/0.96, 11.3 K/9). At 25, James isn't a "young prospect", but clearly he's progressing well. The 21-year-old Whitley likely has more upside, but James figures to start the season in the rotation, giving him more immediate value. (Update: James is dealing with a right quad injury, which has possibily knocked him out of the running for fifth rotation spot.)
Brent Honeywell, Rays. Honeywell missed all of last season because of Tommy John surgery, and he doesn't figure to start the year with the big club. The 23-year-old righty is someone to watch once he does get the call, though, as he dominated in the minors (2.88/1.08, 9.9 K/9 ratio) and looked well on his way to a rotation spot prior to last spring. His minor league profile is virtually spotless, as he limits walks and homers, though his fly-ball tendencies could lead to more homers in the majors. Either way, Honeywell is name to remember once the season starts.