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Late-Round Draft Fliers for ERA

The MLB league average ERA shot up to 4.51 last season, the highest mark since 2006 and the seventh-highest mark since 1920. Only 20 qualified starting pitchers posted an ERA below 3.50 last year, and 40% of qualified starters posted an ERA north of 4.00.

With the category being thin on elite options, ERA can be one of the most important categories to hit on late in drafts. Finding a pitcher with an ERA below 4.00 towards the back-end of a draft can be a significant boon for fantasy teams.

Below are three pitchers who are likely to post an ERA below 4.00 in 2020 but are being drafted outside of the first 250 picks on average. Playing time is generally a concern for these pitchers, but their likely-to-be solid ERA makes each of them worth seriously considering late in drafts.

 

Rich Hill, Minnesota Twins (374 ADP)

Hill owns the seventh-best ERA over the past four years among qualified pitchers with an impressive 3.00 mark, and the 40-year-old has seen his ERA dip below 2.50 twice in that time. A master of soft contact, Hill consistently ranks near the top of the league in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. Additionally, Hill’s devastating high-spin curveball and fastball combination have helped propel him to a 29% strikeout rate for the past four years. As a result, Hill ranks among the upper echelon of pitchers in xwOBA as well as several other important categories. 

The most obvious downside to drafting Hill is his injury history. Already sidelined until June to recover from elbow surgery, Hill has never had a 200 inning season and has averaged only 109 innings per season over the past four years. A likely shortened season mitigates Hill’s injury risk though, and he’s well worth the risk at his ADP considering that his past performance and arsenal make him likely to post an ERA below 4.00 in 2020.

 

Ross Stripling, Los Angeles Dodgers (298 ADP)

Since entering the league in 2016, Stripling has never posted an ERA+ below 100, and his 3.47 FIP from last season would’ve ranked 15th among qualified pitchers, one spot ahead of Zack Wheeler. Encouragingly, Stripling began relying on his changeup (14.7% usage rate in 2019) and curveball (28.3% usage rate in 2019) more frequently last season. Stripling’s changeup was his best pitch by xwOBA last season with an impressive .211 mark, and his curveball wasn’t far behind with a .214 xwOBA.

Stripling used a new grip on his changeup last season, and the adjustment paid off. Stripling’s changeup posted career bests in average vertical movement (-35 inches with gravity), along with a career-low 82.7 mph average velocity and 1584 rpm average spin rate. As a result, Stripling’s changeup generated a strong 17.6% swinging-strike rate, the best mark in his arsenal.  Although Stripling’s curveball didn’t seem to change much in 2019, it was his best pitch by xwOBA in each of the previous three seasons and posted a solid 14.7% swinging-strike rate along with a 4.7% barrel-rate last year. 

Like with Hill, Stripling comes with some playing-time risk as his career-high for innings sits at just 122. Additionally, Stripling is currently slated to start the season in the bullpen for the Dodgers. However, Stripling’s adjustments and past performance suggest that he’s very likely to post an ERA below 4.00 with the potential for an ERA below 3.30 in 2020. That level of upside makes Stripling well worth a pick at his 298 ADP -- especially for those in need of ERA late in drafts.

 

Alex Wood, Los Angeles Dodgers (317 ADP)

The Dodgers’ stellar rotation depth makes it unusually full of ERA sleepers, as playing-time concerns depress the ADP of potentially high-quality pitchers. Wood may spend significant time in the bullpen for the Dodgers, but he’s on track to start the season in the team's rotation and should start a minimum of 15 games in 2020 (assuming a full 162-game season), making him a worthwhile pick for those in need of ERA late in drafts.

Wood posted an impressive 3.29 ERA between 2016-2018 before a back injury held him to just 35.7 innings last year. Armed with a dominant slurve that posted an impressive 19.6% swinging-strike rate in 2018, a decent changeup (.293 xwOBA in '18), and a mediocre sinker (.322 xwOBA in '18), Wood owns a solid arsenal that should allow him to bounce back in 2020 and post an ERA below 3.80. 

Even so, Wood comes with a healthy amount of playing-time risk. Although he emerged from spring training as the Dodgers’ fifth starter, the team’s rotation depth and Wood’s ability to pitch in relief likely give him a short leash. Still, few players offer as much in terms of ERA at Wood’s 317 ADP, so fantasy owners looking for ERA towards the back-end of drafts should strongly consider the 29-year-old.

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