Pitchers can be crazy to try to project. Most of their fantasy-relevant stats, such as wins and ERA, are heavily influenced by factors outside of their control. Often your best bet is to focus on strikeouts, a fantasy stat that pitchers actually have control over.
This is especially true when looking at arms with relatively little track record. Rookie Michael Fulmer burst onto the fantasy scene with the Tigers last year, but his 3.06 ERA masked a much higher 3.95 xFIP. Kenta Maeda also experienced success in his first North American campaign, but his xFIP (3.70) doesn't seem special either. Should fantasy owners trust either in 2017?
Editor's note: Be sure to also check out our 2017 fantasy baseball rankings dashboard. It's already loaded up with tons of great rankings articles and draft analysis. Aside from our tiered staff rankings for every position, we also go deep on MLB prospect rankings, impact rookies for 2017, and dynasty/keeper rankings as well. Bookmark the page, and win your drafts.
The Fantasy Jury is Out
Michael Fulmer (SP, DET) ADP: 125.3
Strikeouts are the root cause of the discrepancy between Fulmer's ERA and xFIP, as his 20.4 percent K rate last year was not special by any means. He will probably be unable to hold opposing hitters to a .268 BABIP again, and his 79 percent strand rate feels somewhat fortunate. He'll need additional Ks to help fantasy owners this year.
That sentence applies to any number of undesirable fantasy arms, but Fulmer's repertoire suggests that he can up his K rate as soon as this coming year. His fastball averaged 94.9 mph last season, allowing it to produce a SwStr% of 7.8 percent. His best pitch is a change with a 19 percent SwStr%, 37.3 percent chase rate, and 66.7 percent GB rate when hitters manage to put it into play. His slider does not have an ideal chase rate (29.3 percent O-Swing rate), but its 13.3 percent SwStr% provides a nice complement to the heat-change combo anyway. Fulmer's two-seamer won't net him any strikeouts (4.9 percent SwStr%), but its 55.9 percent GB rate helps Fulmer mitigate homers and induce double plays when needed.
Fulmer lacks the minor league dominance many owners look for in younger arms, but this is mostly the result of his general lack of minor league numbers. Before he tossed 174.1 IP last year between the majors and minors, his previous professional best was just 123.2. He also pitched multiple levels per year, preventing him for accumulating a decent sample of innings anywhere. Fear of the unknown may be driving his cost down right now but does not figure to adversely affect his performance.
Fulmer was great at keeping the ball out of the air last year, posting a FB rate of just 31.5 percent. He also figures to have a favorable schedule, as the Royals seem finished as a contender while the Twins and White Sox look like total disasters. He looks like the real deal as an SP2 for an SP3 price.
Kenta Maeda (SP, LAD) ADP: 102.3
Maeda's 16-11 record would impress if anyone still used it to determine a pitcher's worth. We know better now, so we conclude that Maeda impressed with his 25 percent K rate instead. Amazingly, Maeda's repertoire suggests that an even better performance in 2017 is possible.
Maeda throws five pitches: a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curve, and change. Maeda's fastball was even better than Fulmer's, posting a 9.2 percent SwStr% and 54.2 percent Zone% to help set up his other offerings. His two-seamer is similar to Fulmer's in that it does not lead to Ks (4.5 percent SwStr%) but induces enough grounders (55.7 percent GB rate) to help Maeda get out of jams. Maeda's slider is a great strikeout pitch (21.3 percent SwStr%, 49 percent chase) and his changeup is strong too (14.6 percent SwStr%, 43.4 percent chase). These four pitches make a great repertoire.
Observant readers may have noticed that the last paragraph focused on four pitches despite Maeda throwing five. This is because his curve was terrible. Not only did it post a SwStr% (5 percent) on par with a BP fastball, it also got hit like BP to the tune of a .398/.416/.663 line. Maeda threw this terrible offering 17.9 percent of the time, giving him plenty of room to improve simply by throwing his good pitches more often. Fastballs may be necessary to set up other offerings, but ineffective curves can safely be scrapped.
Maeda pitches for one of the stronger clubs in the NL, so he seems like as good a bet for Ws as any other. The fact that he shares a rotation with a god should also help him duck the other team's best arms, potentially leading to more run support. An overall Zone% of 41.9 percent presents risk that his 7 percent BB rate could climb, but Maeda should fool hitters for a few more seasons. He has the strikeouts and supporting cast to be a fantasy ace, yet he is currently being drafted outside the top 100 on average. Buy!