The key to winning a championship in fantasy baseball is to find some gems in the late rounds of your fantasy baseball drafts. Anyone can draft a top-10 player, but only the good ones can find the diamonds in the rough.
Below are some AL starting pitcher sleepers for 2017. I analyze five starting pitchers from the American League who I think will break out in 2017 and provide great return based on their current draft stock. Also check out my piece on the five National League sleeper starters.
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AL Starting Pitcher Sleepers
Daniel Norris (SP, DET)
The centerpiece of the David Price trade is beginning to pay dividends for Detroit. The man in the van made some nice improvements in his game last season, and is finally ready to make a big impact in the majors. For the third straight season Norris improved his ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and last season his strikeout ability finally began to show in the majors. His 9.22 K/9 sets a new career high, besting the 6.75 mark he set in 2015. The leap in strikeouts is legit; Norris held a K/9 close to 10.0 in his minor league career.
His 3.93/4.00 FIP/xFIP show he got a bit lucky last season, but you can really see the improvements in his game if you look at the final two months of the season. In September and October Norris threw 29.2 innings, with a 2.72 ERA, 11.53 K/9, a .219 opponents’ batting average, and a 3.58/3.36 FIP/xFIP. He is projected to begin the season in the starting rotation, and should be ready for another jump in innings after throwing 154.4 total innings last season. Norris can be had late and provide big value given his ADP of 308.7 according to fantasypros.
Dylan Bundy (SP, BAL)
After dealing with a laundry list of injuries in the minor leagues including Tommy John surgery, Bundy is finally in a position to help the Orioles. The former fourth overall pick started last season in the bullpen, experiencing his first major league action since 2012. He was eventually able to earn a starting spot in late July, and never looked back. His final 4.02 ERA may not look appealing, but Bundy showed us a ton of good things last season that suggest the best is yet to come from the 24-year old.
Last season Bundy posted a swinging strike rate of 10.5 percent, which would have placed him in the top 25 among starters if he qualified. He also had an above average strikeout rate of 21.9 percent. Where he faltered last season was getting through the order a third time; Bundy had a 7.62 ERA the third time through. One of the main culprits for that are the career-high number of innings he threw last season (109.2), causing some fatigue earlier in games. Heading into this season he is fully healthy, and isn’t expected to be on a hard innings limit according to Buck Showalter. He is also re-incorporating a cutter into his repertoire, something that may also help him keep opposing hitters on their toes during his outings.
James Paxton (SP, SEA)
After losing the fifth starter spot to Nathan Karns, Paxton was sent to the minors to begin the season. The move ended up being a blessing in disguise for Paxton; he started pitching with a slightly lower arm angle after working with pitching coach Lance Painter, and the results were almost immediate. He came back up to the majors and threw for a 3.79 ERA, but a FIP/xFIP of 2.80/3.35. The proof for Paxton is all in the numbers.
His average fastball velocity jumped from 94.1mph to 96.7 mph in 2016, touching 100mph at times. His K/9 rate jumped from 7.5 to 8.7, and his swinging strike rate of 11.7 percent would have placed him just outside of the top-10 among starters if he qualified. The tweak in delivery not only brought his fastball velocity up, it gave him more drastic movement on his cutter, which accounted for a 19.1 percent SwStr% last season. The change also helped him control the plate better; he lowered his BB/9 from 3.90 to 1.79 last season. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound lefty offers big upside heading into 2017, especially for fantasy owners who haven’t realized his potential yet.
Sean Manaea (SP, OAK)
Manaea wasn’t the most highly-touted prospect that came up last season, but he offers as much upside as any heading into 2017. On the surface it doesn’t look like he performed spectacularly; he posted a 3.86/4.08/3.96 ERA/FIP/xFIP last season, with a 7.71 K/9 rate across 24 starts. Looking a bit deeper, we see he has much more to offer in 2017.
Last season he flashed excellent control with a BB% of 6.2 percent, placing him among the likes of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. His 11.8 percent SwStr% would have placed him just outside the top-10 in the league among qualified starters, and just above the previously mentioned James Paxton. He made big strides in the second half last season, posting a 2.67 ERA with a K% of 22.8 percent and a BB% of 5.6 percent. He held opposing hitters to a measly .218 average over that span with a 1.02 WHIP. Manaea is the 45th rated pitcher according to FantasyPros, but has the talent to out-perform that ranking if he continues making improvements as he did in the second half.
Jharel Cotton (SP, OAK)
Let’s keep things in Oakland for my final sleeper, Jharel Cotton. Cotton was brought in as a part of the Rich Hill trade, and impressed in his brief stint in Oakland. Over 29.1 innings he posted a 2.15 ERA with a 7.06 K/9 and a 1.23 BB/9. He did have a 3.76/4.32 FIP/xFIP with a low 1.98 BABIP, but he shares some of the positive statistical signs the other pitchers on this list possess.
He posted double-digit strikeout rates for the majority of his time in the minors, and seems to have brought some of that with him to the majors. He posted a 5.75 K/BB rate, and his 12.5 percent SwStr% would have placed him in the top-10 in the league had he qualified. The big velocity difference in his fastball and changeup certainly help to keep hitters off balance, his fastball sits at 92.3 on average compared to his 77.1 mph with the change. After throwing 165 total innings last season, there should be no restrictions on him heading into 2017. Cotton is the perfect pitcher to take late in drafts as a roll of the dice upside option.