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Starting Pitchers Who'll Continue to Break Out in 2019


I'm sure many of you are familiar with the concept of "TINSTAAPP". Spelled out it means "There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect" and it basically implies that it's impossible to predict which starting pitching prospects will pan out and which will flame out. There are plenty of examples in both directions; for example, Chris Sale was hyped coming up and has followed through on that. How about Chris Everts? If you're not familiar with the name, I don't blame you. He was selected one spot ahead of Zack Greinke in 2002 and even further ahead of Cole Hamels, and I'd wager no more than 50% of you have even heard his name.

Being able to separate the flame-outs from the rising stars is what separates top fantasy players from those who chase "potential" and "upside". It's impossible to predict, but you can use the data to make some educated guesses on guys who will be successful even if they weren't necessarily top prospects.

That's what I'll focus on here. Some not-so-obvious names that had excellent 2018 seasons and should be on your radar for 2019. Let's take a deeper dive on five names who could become make-or-break players later on in your draft.

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Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals

Flaherty is ranked behind similar breakout studs like Walker Buehler, Aaron Nola, and Mike Clevinger (I know he was solid in 2017, but I'm counting 2018 as the breakout due to the 200 IP) but he should be held to the same standard. After dominating every stop in the minors, Flaherty announced his presence with authority (name that movie) with a 3.34 ERA and an eye-popping 182 strikeouts across 151 innings last season.

The peripheral stats support a repeat performance in 2019. His 3.58 xFIP and 79.3% LOB% in 2018 indicate that there wasn’t a ton of luck involved with his final lines, although I think it’s fair to expect a small jump from his .257 BABIP and therefore his ERA and WHIP.

The biggest shot you can take at Flaherty was the fact that he struggled to work deep into games. The 151 innings came across 28 starts, which puts him at just over 5.1 innings per start. Flaherty will carry a ton of value in any ratio-based format, but his points league owners would like to see him go deeper into games and accrue more quality starts and wins. There isn’t an extensive injury history working against him, and the future is extremely bright for the top arm in the Cardinals organization. A dare to declare him an ace heading into 2019.

 

Nick Pivetta, Philadelphia Phillies

Although you'd never know it judging by his 7-14 record (#KillTheWin), Nick Pivetta quietly flashed excellence in 2018. Following a middling 2017, Pivetta improved in several key areas in his sophomore season and gave fantasy owners plenty of reason to invest heading into the new season. For starters, Pivetta turned on the nastiness and upped his K/9 to 10.32 (up from 9.47) while simultaneously cutting back on walks, shaving off more than a full walk per nine innings (2.80).

The homers were still a bit of a problem (1.32 per nine) but that marked a strong improvement from 2017 (1.69). His ERA was an unsightly 4.77, which, combined with his record, likely explains why the hype train isn't firing on all cylinders here in March. It's definitely left the station, but we ain't chuggin' yet. His xFIP was a rock-solid 3.42, so there was definitely some bad luck mixed in there last year. Similarly, the .326 BABIP will likely come down a little bit this season and hover closer to his .304 career mark. 

Pivetta is currently coming off the board as the SP44, but there is easy top-30 upside here given his penchant for making batters swing and miss. His 12.0% swinging-strike is an encouraging mark that should yield to a great return for those looking for true upside options later in the draft.

 

Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies

Let's just say it at the beginning, so I don't need to bring it up again, shall we?

"kYle FrEeLaNd pItChEs iN cOoRs hE iS HaRd tO tRuSt."

Yes, the Coors effect. It's a quantifiable, measurable factor that can't be ignored. HOWEVER...Kyle Freeland may be the guy that you can work with in Coors. German Marquez too, but I'll save that for another time. Freeland was positively excellent all season, tossing 202.1 innings of 2.85-ERA ball and earning a 17-7 record. Wackiest part of that? He was BETTER at Coors (2.40) than he was on the road (3.23). WITCHCRAFT.

He's got a lot of the peripheral stats to back up the surface numbers too. Like Pivetta, Freeland improved his K/9 while cutting back on walks, and somehow managed to lower his already decent 0.98 HR/9 to an absurd 0.76. Read that again--15 of his 33 starts came at Coors, and his HR/9 was 0.76. The man keeps the ball down, and keeps runs off the board because of it.

Freeland is likely going to regress--his 4.22 xFIP indicates that a sub-3.00 ERA is not likely to be repeated. However, a regression of a full run in the ERA department would still put him under 4.00 and make him a legitimate contributor to any fantasy rotation. The Rockies will get their fair share of wins this year, so if you're in a league that still counts that horrid stat (#KillTheWin), he's particularly useful.

 

Marco Gonzales, Seattle Mariners

Gonzales was a top prospect early on in his career, but a string of injuries has turned him from bona fide blue chip to post-hype sleeper. He finally threw a full season last year, and the results were there. Across 29 starts he went 13-9 with an even 4.00 ERA, and provided a huge value to anyone who snagged him early in the season.

Gonzales relies heavily on a sinker, an ever-improving cutter and a nice mix of off-speed stuff, which is conducive to keeping the ball down and has proven effective. There's no real blow-away stuff here, but all of it is well-developed and keeps Gonzales in the game every time out.

The big factor that separates Gonzales from the field is his pinpoint control. In 2018 he walked just 32 batters across his 29 starts, which is one of the better marks in the majors. In the days of casual 100-mph heat, that kind of accuracy is no longer considered sexy--it's still darn effective though. There is nothing to suggest that Gonzales will regress, and in fact, he may improve upon some of his marks given that his xFIP was nearly half a run lower than his ERA. Right now Gonzales is the 69th (nice) starting pitcher off the board, which is wildly cheap for what kind of production I foresee him bringing to the table.

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