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As fantasy baseball managers, we all love the sleeper. There’s always that gratifying feeling at season's end where you can go back and say “I told you so!” Every year there are endless amounts of articles and debates on who will emerge as a top-tier player from out of the shadows and into the limelight. It's as broad of a spectrum as ever before in 2019 with the amount of up and coming talent and current players that are entering their alleged prime years. For this article, we will look at a player of the latter.

Entering his age-29 season, Ross Stripling will begin the year locked into a rotation spot for the first time in his career. Stripling showed us an excellent first half in 2018 that led to his first ever All-Star selection. An injury-riddled second half put a damper on his season as a whole, but he still ended his year going 8-6 with a 3.02 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 6.18 K/BB in 122 IP.

Stripling's disappointing finish has caused many people to jump off the right-hander’s bandwagon, but here’s why we should stay on board.

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Brief History

At age 29, it may not sound that appealing for a player at this age to have his first ever rotation spot going into spring training. There's good reason, however. A tear of his UCL in his first spring game of 2014 forced Stripling to go under the knife. Recovering from Tommy-John surgery kept him out of the entire 2014 season as well as half of 2015. In 2016, he made the Los Angeles Dodgers' opening day roster and nearly threw a no-hitter in his first major league start.

Keeping his innings capped, Stripling only started 14 games as he split the rest of his time between the bullpen and Triple-A. Pitching exclusively out of the bullpen in 2017, Stripling found his way back into the rotation last year and showed us some promising skills.

 

Up and Down 2018

Stripling began the year in the Dodgers bullpen, but due to injuries in the pitching staff, he was put back in the rotation at the beginning of May. From May 6 to the All-Star break, he threw 76.1 IP with a 2.01 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 10.54 K/9, and 0.83 BB/9. It’s no fluke he was elected an All-Star as his underlying metrics support these numbers. His 2.63 SIERA and 2.44 xFIP suggest he never pitched that far out of his ERA. Stripling still managed to give up a high BABIP (.311) despite having a stellar 51.8% GB% and a low 29.4% Hard%.

Shortly after the All-Star break, Stripling was placed on the disabled list with right toe inflammation. He returned for one start on August 9 before getting put back on the DL right before his next start, this time it was lower back inflammation. Returning a month later, Stripling wasn’t nearly as effective. Tossing just 12 innings, he had a disastrous 50.0% HR/FB and 40.5 LD% which led to a 6.75 ERA, but it did have the silver lining of a 3.01 xFIP. With such a small sample size we can’t honestly take these numbers too seriously, but we need to understand that this awful month inflated his overall stats.

By seasons end, Stripling still finished with career-highs in K/9 (10.03) and BB/9 (1.62). His yearly upward trending Chase% and Whiff% also reached a new peak due to his increased use of his curveball, which generated the highest Whiff% (16.4%) of all his pitches. His Statcast numbers also showed he still should have gotten better results than what he did. His expected .223 AVG, .266 wOBA, and .355 SLG slash line were all under his actual slash line (.257/.309/.431), so it's arguable that the best is still to come.

 

2019 Projection

The 2018 first-half Ross Stripling will be closer to what we will see in 2019 rather than the second-half Ross Stripling. His elite walk rate from last season should remain in the same neighborhood, and his elevated BABIP is likely to go down due to his above average ground ball and soft contact skills. These factors should see him achieve another WHIP below 1.20 and an ERA in the low threes. There’s likely to be some regression in his 2018 strand rate (86.1%), but the fact that he is generating more strikeouts than previous years implies that it’s not going to fall off a cliff. More than a strikeout per inning is almost guaranteed and with the Dodgers gearing up for another shot at the World Series, wins will be there for the taking.

With a current ADP of 220, Stripling isn’t seeing a ton of love by early drafters, mostly because his 122 IP last year was the most he’s thrown in a season since the TJ surgery. It may appear like he’s injury prone, but his two stints last season were his first trips to the DL since May of 2016. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Dodgers starters, so Stripling should be a lock to keep his job throughout the year. With a full year in the rotation awaiting, Stripling is ready to emerge as your “I told you so” player.

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