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2017 Breakouts Due for Regression - Starting Pitchers

The 2017 season saw a number of starting pitchers emerge and become studs for both their real and fantasy teams. Aaron Nola and James Paxton finally matched their prospect hype. Alex Wood finally stayed (mostly) healthy and earned his first All-Star appearance. Trevor Bauer finally seemed to put his inconsistency behind him with a dominant second half.

Every year, part of planning for the fantasy baseball season involves finding these potential breakout candidates who are the keys to winning a league championship. In a similar vein, it’s crucial to identify whether last year’s emerging stars are due for regression to avoid overpaying for them in redraft leagues or know when to shop them in dynasty leagues.

It's worth noting that regression doesn’t mean you simply put a player on a "Do Not Draft" list and ignore them entirely. For instance, posting a 3.50 ERA the year after earning 3.00 mark is still solid. However, knowing which players are likely to regress can help you set your expectations and draft appropriately. Without further ado, here are three starting pitchers who may regress this year after their breakout campaign in 2018.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!

 

Starting Pitchers Due for Regression in 2018

Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks

After posting high strikeout totals in 2016, Ray’s peripheral stats pointed to a potential breakout in 2017, and he came through in a huge way for fantasy managers. The southpaw became a first-time All-Star and finished the season with a 15-5 record, 2.89 ERA, and 32.8% strikeout rate, the latter of which trailed only Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and Corey Kluber for the league lead. While he’s touted as a top starting pitcher in 2018, it’s worth pumping the brakes on the hype, however.

Given his track record, he’s a safe bet to maintain a high strikeout rate. His ERA, though, is highly unlikely to sit below three again, barring a significant change. Another number that jumps off the page for Ray is his walk rate — but not in a good way. He issued a free pass to 10.7% of the hitters he faced last year, the highest mark among all qualified starting pitchers. While that was a career-worst, it wasn’t much of a fluke, as his career mark sits at a below-average 9.5%. This problem has plagued him since the minor leagues, where he also maintained a double-digit walk rate (10.5%).

The encouraging news is Ray’s stuff is good enough to limit the damage. That being said, even for the most dominant of pitchers, the 84.5% strand rate he managed last season (which ranked second in the majors) is not sustainable in the long run. The league average typically hovers around 72% (it was 72.1% in 2017), and even the great Clayton Kershaw, the active leader among starting pitchers, has not maintained a career LOB% that high (79.0%).

Furthermore, Ray gave up a ton of hard contact last season, with batters managing an average exit velocity of 89.1 mph against him. Among 128 pitchers who allowed 300 or more batted balls last season, that was fourth-worst. It’s not a one-year outlier, either; that’s right in line with his numbers from the previous two years, as well (89.2 mph in 2016 and 88.0 in 2015). Given that he’s a below-average groundball pitcher (40.3% in 2017, 42.3% for his career), that’s a cause for concern when it comes to giving up extra-base hits.

Ray’s average draft position is currently 47, which puts him as the 13th starting pitcher off the board. His strikeout totals make him a good investment, but avoid reaching in the draft and overpaying for last year’s low ERA and WHIP. The humidor being installed in Chase Field will limit how many homers he allows, but unless he improves his control significantly, he’s highly unlikely to allow so few runs in 2018. He’s a top-20 pitcher — let’s not pretend his 3.49 xFIP and 3.53 SIERA were terrible. Just temper your expectations.

 

Gio Gonzalez, Nationals

An unheralded member of the Washington rotation behind Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez bounced back from a poor 2016 to finish sixth in National League Cy Young award voting last year. He proved to be one of the most valuable late-round picks for fantasy owners, going 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA in 2017 while topping 200 innings (201 â…“) for the first time since 2011. Expecting that type of performance from the southpaw again in 2018, however, would be unwise.

Gonzalez has never been known for his control, and 2017 was no different. His walk rate of 9.6% (right in line with his career 9.7 BB%) was third-worst among all qualified pitchers, trailing only Ray and Lance Lynn. Because he limited hard contact well (85.0 mph average exit velocity), he kept his ERA low despite giving up so many free passes. But the rate at which he prevented runs was unsustainable. Gonzalez’s 81.6% strand rate was significantly higher than his career mark of 73.7%, and his batting average on balls in play (.258) was a far cry from his .293 career BABIP. He’s much more likely to regress toward the mean than he is to repeat those numbers, meaning an uptick in ERA is coming as predicted by his 2017 FIP (3.93), xFIP (4.24), and SIERA (4.41).

Also worrisome is Gonzalez’s declining velocity. Since averaging 93.0 mph in 2015, his fastball speed has dipped in each of the last two seasons, falling to 90.1 mph last season. At age 32, he’s unlikely to regain that speed. Gonzalez’s strikeout rate (22.7%) was right in line with his career rate (22.9%), but it was nothing to get too excited over, as it was only a tick above league average (21.6%). More concerningly, he struggled to miss bats again, maintaining below-average contact (79.0%) and whiff (8.7%) rates that worsened for the third consecutive season.

On a team with a talented offense, Gonzalez should be a steady source of wins for fantasy owners in 2018. But don’t bet on him to contribute heavily in any other category. At his current ADP of 150, several pitchers may provide better value, such as Charlie Morton or Jameson Taillon.

 

Chase Anderson, Brewers

Much like the rest of Milwaukee’s surprisingly strong starting rotation, Anderson burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere in 2017. Through his first three seasons, he was a three-win player according to FanGraphs wins above replacement, but he more than doubled that number in 2017 with 3.3 fWAR. Although an oblique injury caused him to miss a large chunk of the year, Anderson went 12-4 with a 2.74 ERA in 141 ⅓ innings at age 29, earning him an $11.75 million extension in the offseason. The adjustments he made were encouraging, but luck played a part in his success.

The most notable improvement Anderson made was with his strikeout rate, which jumped to 23.4%, a nearly 5% increase from 2016. With a jump in his fastball velocity from 91.8 to 93.2 mph and a better curveball and changeup, he managed to hold batters to an 84.4 mph average exit velocity, fourth lowest among starting pitchers with 300 batted balls against them. For those reasons, the breakout made sense in some respects, and Anderson isn’t someone to avoid in fantasy drafts. But don’t reach for him expecting such a low ERA again.

Unlike Ray and Gonzalez, Anderson had a strong walk rate (7.5%), but he did share some similarities. The right-hander also had a high strand rate (80.6%) and a low BABIP (.265), neither of which are likely to continue this season. Additionally, Anderson’s home-run-to-fly-ball ratio was only 8.6%, a number bound to go up given his career rate of 12.1%. He’s also a below-average groundball pitcher (39.3 GB% for his career) and throws at a home ballpark with slightly above-average home run factors for both left- and right-handers. Although he did a fantastic job of limiting hard contact, it's unlikely that he allows only 14 home runs in 2018.

The adjustments were encouraging, and Anderson is still a relatively low-risk pick with an ADP of 171. While you may opt to take a pitcher with higher upside at this point in the draft, like Taillon, Kenta Maeda, or Dinelson Lamet, Anderson isn't a pitcher to avoid altogether. There are tangible reasons for his improvement; just don't expect a repeat of 2017's performance. He doesn’t have a long track record, but the uptick in velocity and improved secondary offerings make a sub-four ERA a possibility in 2018 as long as he maintains them.

 

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