Today I'll be going over 3 pitchers in the American League who I consider to be among my top sleeper candidates for 2014. These are pitchers you can get outside the first 10 rounds, but who have huge upside and could end the season among the game's best.
2013 Stats: 64.0 IP, 2.67 ERA, 67 K, 1.11 WHIP
Current ESPN ADP: 177.3 (18th round)
2014 Prediction: 200 IP, 3.15-3.20 ERA, 190-195 Strikeouts, 1.18-1.20 WHIP
Sonny Gray has the kind of curveball that makes you want to reevaluate your life choices. It's the kind of pitch that robs a hitter of a good night's sleep, that keeps them up at night thinking again and again, “why did I swing?” Breaking down his pitches using the “pitch value” statistic* I used in my last article, we can see just how good this pitch was:
Fastball: 0.26; Slider: -3.61; Curveball: 3.30 (compare to Clayton Kershaw at 2.69); Changeup: -1.06
*Just as a reminder about what the pitch value statistic tells us: it showcases how many runs-saved above-average a certain pitch was worth over the given sample. The version I use is standardized per 100 pitches in order to make it simpler to compare among pitchers.
The strong negative values associated with the slider and changeup jump out immediately, but after you account for the relatively few times he throws these pitches (2% for the slider and 7.2% for the change in 2013) when compared to his fastball and curveball (64.6% and 26.1% respectively), you can see why these pitches did not have a large negative effect on his overall numbers. In 2013 the slider and change were there primarily to keep hitters guessing; it was the curve and fastball that got those hitters out.
Gray's fastball doesn't have the premium velocity that other pitchers on this list possess (i.e. Danny Salazar), but averaging 93.2mph and topping out at just over 95mph, he doesn’t exactly throw junk either. The fastball acts as his setup pitch and does a good job in doing so. In addition, it gets a good number of groundballs (51.2%), which are turned into outs at an effective rate by the capable A's infield. The curve he possesses however is mind-blowing. By 2013's pitch value numbers, it was the best curveball in baseball belonging to a pitcher who threw at least 60 innings. That number will probably come down to earth a bit as the sample size enlarges, but considering his stuff, minor league track record, the huge size of the A's foul ball territory (curveballs get a disproportionate amount of flyballs relative to other pitches because of the sharp downward break), and the defense behind him, I fully expect Gray's curve to still be in the top 5 in baseball.
The big adjustment Sonny Gray will have to make this season is improving his changeup in order to give him another tool against left handed batters. Him and the A's coaching staff have made this their project of the Spring and if he can improve it even slightly, I can see Gray being a force to reckon with this season, especially since his innings cap should be quite loose considering he threw over 180 innings last season between the majors and the minors. 200 innings are within reach and I expect them to be very good ones for fantasy owners.
2013 Stats: 52.0 IP, 3.12 ERA, 65 Strikeouts, 1.13 WHIP
Current ESPN ADP: 183 (19th round)
2014 Prediction: 160 -165 IP, 3.25-3.30 ERA, 180-185 Strikeouts, 1.15-1.18 WHIP
Danny Salazar averages 96mph on his fastball (95.9mph to be exact). Just stop for a second and think about that. For a lot of pitchers that's their limit, that's where they top out. Not only is Salazar able to hit 100mph on the radar gun when he needs to, but he lives consistently on the upper end of the velocity spectrum. While fastball velocity isn't everything, it gives a young pitcher a lot more room to breathe than he would have without it. As anyone who's ever played baseball will tell you, it's much harder to square up a pitch moving that fast, even when the location isn't perfect. His fastball velocity also creates almost 10mph of separation between the fastball and his offspeed stuff, something which I haven't talked much about in my recent articles, but is another key indicator of whether a pitcher has what it takes to thrive in the bigs (you'll sometimes hear stories of pitchers taking up a new pitch that isn't very good just to “change up speeds” on the hitter). That's not to say that Salazar is a one-pitch pitcher however:
Fastball: 0.39; Slider 0.67; Changeup: 1.23;
Salazar has 3 legitimate weapons to face opposing offenses with, and importantly, an above average weapon for both lefties and righties. That will help him immensely to pitch deeper into games which is where a lot of those innings, wins, and strikeouts fantasy owners look for come.
Salazar will undoubtedly be on an innings cap next year, considering his age and the fact that he only threw 145 innings of professional ball last season. I'd be quite surprised if the Indians let him get too much above 165 innings. Salazar however generates so many strikeouts due to the quality of his stuff that this rather low innings total won't effect him as much as it would others. It will hurt him in the win department certainly, and for those of you in H2H leagues with a playoff bracket to consider you'll want to have a backup plan when Salazar is shutdown. With a K/9 of 11.25 last season however, he's shown that he can use those innings he gets to the fullest. I expect that rate to come down to around 10-10.25 in 2014 as offenses adjust to his stuff, but that's still enough to get as many strikeouts as Hisashi Iwakuma did last season. He's a pitcher whose career I'm very excited for.
2013 Stats: 177 IP, 4.32 ERA, 142 Strikeouts, 1.28 WHIP
Current ESPN ADP: 234.7
2014 Prediction: 185-190 IP, 3.55 ERA, 160 Strikeouts, 1.20 WHIP
There aren't many pitchers in baseball who have been put in precisely the wrong kind of environment needed to foster their success quite like Rick Porcello has been. His groundball rate last season was 55.1%, good for 12th highest of any starting pitcher in the majors (with a minimum IP of 100) and yet the defense which manager Jim Leyland put behind him every day was one of the worst we've seen in the last decade. By Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) Prince Fielder was worth -13 DRS, Omar Infante was worth -5DRS, Miguel Cabrera was worth -18 DRS, and Jhonny Peralta was worth 0 DRS. Having Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the corners may be the best thing in the world for runs scored, but it's the worst nightmare of a groundball specialist. That's a huge part of why Porcello gave up a BABIP of .315 in 2013 (and .344 the year before), a number good for 19th highest in the major leagues for a pitcher with at least 100 IP.
Contrast that with the defense he'll see in 2014 and the picture gets much brighter. Ian Kinsler is a well above average 2nd baseman worth 11 DRS last season, and Nick Castellanos should be a big improvement over the lumbering Cabrera at 3rd. Even Miguel Cabrera, challenged defensively as he is, should do quite a bit better than Fielder was able to in his time at 1st base (in his last season playing 1st base prior to the move to 3rd, Cabrera put up -3 DRS, 10 runs better than Fielder did last year). It's a big blow that Porcello won't have Jose Iglesias backing him up at shortstop, but I'm fairly confident that the World Series hungry Detroit Tigers will not be satisfied to send out a platoon of Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez all season long. The plus defensive glove of Stephen Drew is still out there on the free agent market and signing him would make all kinds of sense for this team. There are other good options on the trade market to pursue. Until the Tigers do make a move though, Perez and Suarez should grade out defensively as about the same as Perlata last year, good enough to not hurt Porcello much. Even with the loss of Iglesias, what we're looking at is probably the best defense Rick Porcello has ever had behind him in his major league career and I think that it will make a big impact on the quality of the innings he gives fantasy owners going forward.
It's not just about the team surrounding him however. Porcello is coming off the best strikeout season of his young career, with his K/9 rising from 5.46 in 2012 to 7.22 in 2013 while his walk rate is on a 3-year decline. He's also importantly shown himself to be reliable in terms of health, averaging 30 games started over the last 3 seasons. At only 25 years old he has youth on his side, and I can see him taking big step up this coming season. No matter how you slice it, there's a lot to like in Rick Porcello, especially when you can get him in the same round as guys like Justin Smoak.
Honorable Mentions: Taijuan Walker would have made this list if it were not for concerns about the health of his shoulder going forward and the innings cap he will face as a rookie pitcher. Even if he is healthy, in a season darkened by a shoulder scare I expect Walker will probably be on a very tight leash innings wise. The talent is there, but the circumstances prevent him from cracking this list.