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NL Starting Pitching Sleepers for 2020

The shorter 2020 MLB regular season has led to a few shifts in fantasy strategy, but perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the starting pitching landscape. We're used to constructing fantasy rotations around strikeout pitchers and ratio arms or high-upside flyers and solid innings-eaters. However, with a shorter season, there will likely be no major innings eaters. The guys who we were counting on for only 120 innings now might be no different from the guys that usually throw 200 innings.

I discussed the way in which this impacts your fantasy rotation construction when I took a look at the AL starting pitching sleepers. However, we also have some volatile oft-injured arms or unproven young guns listed below who are the perfect type of risks to take in a shorter season. Much like the arms on the AL list, I believe these pitchers won't crush you with bad starts because I either don't believe they'll happen or because you're investing so little draft capital that you can simply cut the pitcher after one or two outings if you don't like what the performances suggest.

(ADP numbers are from March 1st to March 31st using Online Championship data on NFBC. My rankings are for standard 5x5 formats)

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:

 

Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals (ADP: 165)

Martinez returned from a shoulder injury in 2019 and spent the entire year in the bullpen, finishing as the team's closer after Jordan Hicks tore his UCL in late June. Martinez was effective in the role, locking down 24 saves and four wins while compiling a 3.17 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 17.5% K-BB% in 48.1 IP.

However, now that he's a full year removed from injury, the veteran will begin 2020 back in the rotation. Due to injuries, Martinez hasn't been a full-time starter since 2017, when he went 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA and 1.22 WHIP while notching 217 strikeouts in 205 innings. The right-hander has always been a good source of strikeouts, with a career 23.4 K% and above-average movement on most of his offerings.

However, injuries have made Martinez a risky option. That risk is not as pronounced now that the season will be shorter for everybody, and Martinez's likely inability to reach 180+ innings can't be held against him.

When on the mound, Martinez has shown flashes of dominance. He has infuriating control issues, but his Whiff% and Chase% are slightly above league average, and his 10.6% career SwStr% is solid.

One interesting development from last year is that Martinez essentially scrapped his cutter, which had a negative pVAL, and increased the use of his changeup, which had a 3.6 pVAL and registered a .111 BAA and a 37.9 Whiff%. If Martinez is able to pair that changeup with his slider, which had an 8 pVAL and 40.8 Whiff%, he could survive his inconsistent fastball.

With Martinez as a starter, it seems fair to pencil him in for an ERA around 3.50, a WHIP near 1.25 and a 9.0 K/9. That sounds like close to Madison Bumgarner or Eduardo Rodriguez territory, yet Martinez has an ADP of 165, while Bumgarner is going 122 and Rodriguez is going 132. With Martinez locked into the starting job, I'd rather wait 30+ picks and take the chance on his upside.

 

Mitch Keller ,Pittsburgh Pirates (ADP: 219)

While Keller has been a popular sleeper pick for much of the offseason, there are many projection systems and fantasy host sites that are still running for the hills. It's not hard to blame them. Keller was not great in his MLB audition for the Pirates last year, pitching to a 7.13 ERA, a 1.83 WHIP, and a .348 BAA. Not all of that was a fluke, as the right-hander features a fastball that induced only a 17.6 Whiff%, a .324 xBA, and .476 xSLG.

However, you shouldn't follow those who have turned their back on the Pirates' top prospect.

For one, many of Keller's underlying metrics suggest that he was actually pitching much closer to his 3.47 xFIP. His BABIP was .478, which is certainly not sustainable, particularly since Keller did a strong job of limiting hard contact. Keller allowed 49% medium contact, which is, in part, demonstrated by the exit velocities pictured left, where Keller's struggles came when he misses in and over the plate, as most pitchers would.

The ability to command the zone more consistently seems to be feasible for Keller, who scored a 102 on Eno Sarris' Command+ metric. That ties him with Gerrit Cole, Mike Soroka, and Matthew Boyd, among others. All three, despite having the same Command+ score, had a better BB% with Cole and Soroka finishing at 5.9% and Boyd at 6.3% compared to Keller's 7%. Getting more comfortable at the MLB level could lead to improvements in command for Keller, which is good news for his already strong 21.6% K-BB% and 11.8% SwStr%.

The strikeout metrics are thanks in large part to two plus secondary offerings: a slider that had a 47.8 Whiff% and a 29.5 PutAway%, and a curve that had a 34 Whiff% and a 25.5 PutAway%. If he can limit damage on his fastball, which also had an outrageously high BAA, and use it to set up his plus offspeed, Keller should continue to be a strong source of strikeouts.

All of which indicates that he should be able to finish with an ERA around 3.80, WHIP around 1.27, and just under 10 K/9. He won't get a lot of wins on the Pirates, but that stat line equates to a rbEDV around 200.

 

Garrett Richards, San Diego Padres (ADP: 243)

Richards is another perfect example of a pitcher whose value goes up in a shorter season. The veteran right-hander has a lengthy injury history. However, his ADP has begun to rise as the shorter season became apparent, but I still think it hasn't risen far enough.

Yes, Richards hasn't pitched more than 100 innings since 2015 but he's tantalized with upside in his brief periods of health. He had an average SwStr% of 11.7 from 2016-18 and a 25 K% during the same span. In fact, since the end of 2105, Richards has been well above league average in terms of K% and had spikes in 2018 that hinted a dominance.

Part of that spike in 2018 was a change in his pitch mix (right). After a few years of slightly increasing the use of his fastball, Richards made a conscious decision to cut down on both his fastball and sinker usage in favor of his slider and his curve. That was  good news since his best pitch has always been his slider.

In 2018, when he threw the slider more than any other in his repertoire, it registered a .153 xBA, .311 xSLG, 45.0 Whiff%, and 33.1 PutAway%. He only threw the pitch 46 times in his three starts last year since he was just beginning to get comfortable after coming back from injury, but the pitch still registered a .190 xBA and 57.1 Whiff%. If he goes back to throwing that as his main pitch and continues to up the usage on his curve (.161 xBA, .129 SLG, and 30.4 Whiff% in 2018), then Richards could be a major asset for strikeouts.

The Padres signed Richards to a two-year deal and only got three starts from him in 2019. There's a very good chance that in a short season and the final year of his contract they simply see how much they can get out of him. Richards' risk was never talent-based but volume-based, so that risk is limited now. Also, if he were to get hurt again, you could always pick up a streaming starter and continue to accrue stats at the position you had pegged for Richards on your roster.

With a pick this late in the draft, even if you get just 100 innings of above-average K-rate and a high-three ERA, you're getting more than enough value.

 

Alex Wood, Los Angeles Dodgers (ADP: 268)

Julio Urias is getting a lot of hype as we move into a shorter fantasy season, but that's caused his ADP to rocket up inside the top 130. I can no longer qualify that as a sleeper, but that added attention has actually taken attention away from the Dodgers' announcement that Wood is penciled into the rotation and will get the benefit of last year's 15th-ranked defense according to OAA.

Wood only pitched 35.2 innings last year after recovering from an injury, so there's not a whole lot to take away. However, he had a 3.68 ERA and 1.21 WHIP on a much similar Dodgers team in 2018. That year he had a 21.2 K% and 6.3 BB%, which is indicative of his plus control and ability to limit free passes.

In fact, prior to his injury-impacted performance in 2019, Wood had a career sub-1.22 WHIP and has been great at limiting hard contact (left).

With three pitches that he uses to keep hitters guessing, Wood has shown consistent success in preventing solid contact and high batting averages. His curve has also demonstrated to be a solid out pitch (Whiff% and PutAway% are the two right-most columns below), helping him towards modest strikeout totals.

What results is a pitcher with a solid floor, who won't have many blow-up outings or hurt you with ratios. The knocks on Wood were always that the Dodgers messed around with the innings of their starting pitchers and he didn't accrue a lot of strikeouts. The shorter season will limit the discrepancy in strikeouts, and it's hard to see the Dodgers manipulating their pitching staff when they don't have the monitor innings totals.

Wood will likely get at least 100-120 innings and provide you with good ratios and a strong chance of wins on a championship contender. If you can secure your high-strikeout arms early on, Wood makes for a great overlooked option to round out the rotation.

 

Cole Hamels, Atlanta Braves (ADP: 329)

Hamels is a pitcher that was all but forgotten about in February. After suffering a shoulder injury, it was clear that the new Brave was not going to start the year on the active roster. As a result, the veteran's draft price plummeted. Now, Hamels will likely be able to pitch a full season; yet, his ADP hasn't really corrected.

Some of that may have to do with a profile that isn't exciting. Yes, Hamels had a solid 2019 season, with a 3.81 ERA over 27 starts; however, his pitch mix was less alluring. He increased the usage of his fastball last year despite it giving up a .289 xBA and dropping in max velocity by nearly two MPH.

He pairs his fastball with a dynamic changeup that recorded a .207 xBA, 43.8 Whiff%, and 28.8 PutAway%. Since he throws those pitches a combined 56.8% of the time, any more decrease in his fastball velocity could jeopardize the effectiveness of his changeup.

So why am I pitching Hamels as a sleeper? The answer is simply value.

If you can get value on all, or almost all, of your draft picks, your team will likely be in good shape. Going outside of the top 300, Hamels presents tremendous value. He has a career K% of 23%, has had an ERA over 4.00 only twice in his 14-year career, and pitches for a strong team that is likely to put him in line for a good number of wins.

Hamels will not win you a draft, but he should be able to get you double-digit wins (depending on the length of the season) with a K/9 around nine, and an ERA just under 4.00. That's a solid way to spend a late-round pick if you've added enough upset to your rotation early in the draft.

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