Pocket Aces: Quietly Acquiring Some Stud Starting Pitchers

Heading into the 2017 season, the fantasy baseball experts, bloggers and general enthusiasts alike were nearly unanimous in singing the praises of breakout ace candidates like James Paxton, Lance McCullers, and Robbie Ray. What wasn’t to like about these young pitchers after all? Paxton increased his velocity late last year and was, for two months anyway, one of if not the best pitcher in baseball. At 25 years old, Ray entered 2017 coming off of a season which he posted an ace-like 11.25 K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings pitched). The 23 year old McCullers was unhittable when healthy, and many projected with a full 2017 season of starts, he’d likely be a Cy Young candidate.

The hype has been justified so far. Ray’s command issues aside, all three have been great. To own any (if not several) of them is to be extremely hopeful for your fantasy baseball team’s chances in 2017. Unless you drafted them accordingly, however, you’ll have to pay a pretty penny to roster any one of them for yourself now that the season is underway. With a handful of starts and a few hundred pitches under most starters’ proverbial belts, here are a few young hurlers who have also excelled early on. Having less overall fanfare than those previously mentioned, you might be able to acquire these pitchers’ services without breaking the bank for your re-draft or, even better, keeper/dynasty leagues.

 

Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals

In 2015, Michael Wacha hd the 10th most wins among starting pitchers in the majors, no small feat considering he was 23 at the start of that season. Wacha also had the 2nd worst fielding independent pitching (FIP) of those 10, so he had defensive help getting there, but the future was extremely bright nonetheless. However, an abysmal, injury shortened 2016 did all but turn him into an afterthought heading into this year. So far this year,, Wacha looks to have regained his 2015 form and then some. Most notably, increased velocity and swinging strike (SWSTR%) percentages have notably improved, and while his career averages suggest this rate is likely to drop, he’s made obvious improvements to his pitching approach.

The below chart reflects his fastball velocity this year vs. his career average, along with his swinging strike % (SWSTR%), his career average in SWSTR%, and the league average for starting pitchers in 2017.

Fb Velo. Career Avg. SwStr % Career Avg. MLB Avg.
95 93.6 14.4 % 9.6 % 10.4 %

I find these improved numbers more helpful than traditional stats like ERA, BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and Win/Loss records, as they can negate the small sample size argument. They are stats that can be measured on every pitch thrown, and clearly Michael Wacha has shown marked improvement in these areas. Wacha’s fantasy value was overshadowed by that of stud teammate Carlos Martinez, along with the return of Lance Lynn, and Wacha’s own subpar 2016 and injury concerns. In 2017, all looks great so far for the big righty, and with the profile still somewhat low on him, you may be able to get him at a comfortable price.

Luis Severino, New York Yankees

Considering he had not won a start since 2015, few were certain Luis Severino would even start the year in the rotation, let alone be discussed as a potential stud starting fantasy pitcher. The New York Yankees have always viewed Severino as having that potential and have stuck by him. Early on in this 2017 season, we’re starting to see that dedication and work pay off. First, let’s view Severino’s chart, using the same statistics that we applied to Wacha earlier.

Fb Velo. Career Avg. SwStr % Career Avg. MLB Avg.
96.7 95.8 10.9% 9.5% 10.4 %

Unlike with Wacha, a cursory glance at the charts show very little outside the norm for Severino this year. That’s because the argument can be made Severino has changed his approach in a different manner this season. Consider that he’s not only striking out more batters (12.75 K/9) and walking fewer (1.50 BB/9), but consider also how’s doing it. According to PitchF/X, Severino is throwing his changeup nearly 22% of the time, nearly twice his career average of 11.5%. Then factor in that he’s allowing contact to opposing batters at a career low while finding the strike zone at a career high, and the case can be made Severino is starting to realize his potential.

As with all Yankees pitchers, the right field dimensions in the Bronx serve as a massive pinstriped warning flag. Thus far, however, the righty has fared admirably against left handed hitters, holding them to a paltry .488 OPS (On Base % + Slugging %), surrendering 1 extra base hit and no home runs in 21 plate appearances against. There’s evidence that Severino has begun encompassing the role of next Yankee great, and like Wacha (perhaps more so), you could likely acquire his services and maintain most (if not all) of your best offensive fantasy hitters. And with only 48% ownership in Yahoo! leagues, you might even find him on the wire.

Jason Vargas, Kansas City Royals

At 33 years old, it seems too late to typify Vargas as a “blooming potential ace”, but the intriguing starting pitcher has followed up a successful late 2016 run (post Tommy John surgery) with a few very good appearances to kick off 2017. He’s never been a high velocity guy, but the control displayed so far has been solid, finding the strike zone 6% more than league average. Vargas deviates from the “ace” profile, but with top 10 swinging strike % and top 15 strikeout-to-walk percentages, along with 57% ownership (at press time) in Yahoo! leagues, he should be added in most formats. I don’t anticipate Vargas will hold the same potential keeper/dynasty value as some of the other names on this list due to his age, but for this season, you just might find yourself a waiver wire gem with JV.

Jimmy Nelson, Milwaukee Brewers

Plain and simple, Brewers pitchers give me stress-induced ulcers. Miller Park is a cruel mother of a park to pitch in, so including any of them as trade or waiver wire targets goes against the better judgment of some. Remember, however, that we’re talking about a young, sinker-tossing ground ball inducing pitcher. who has been limiting walks and maximizing strikeouts. Nelson has typically had command issues, such is not the case this year. A ground ball pitcher who also notches K’s, now that sounds a little bit like McCullers! I mostly kid, as Nelson just isn’t that strikeout guy, but the sinker, when thrown effectively, can negate that home park and keep him pitching late into games. Owned in just 17% of Yahoo! leagues, he can be had for a song (read: waiver claim).

Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates

I bet you didn’t expect the article to end with the biggest (arguably?) or most well known name mentioned. That’s kind of the point for listing him here, the hype was already pretty high on JT, but in case his owner in your league isn’t as woke: Taillon is throwing harder (95mph) than, allowing fewer fly balls (19.6%), fewer home runs per 9  (.45) and inducing more ground balls (55.4%). Quite simply, he’s been phenomenal, outside of issuing a few more walks than you’d like. On the off chance you can negotiate a feasible trade, given his stuff and friendly home park, he’s the ideal low-key target, assuming your league hasn’t quite caught up to just how great he’s been so far.

In a nutshell, these are guys who maybe weren’t the fantasy darlings the Paxton’s and McCullers’ were in the pre-season, who could potentially provide huge payoff at an affordable cost, provided you act now before they continue to dominate.

Follow Me on Twitter @MatthewJamesTFR