This is a pivotal time for fantasy owners. We're just about a third of the way through the season, and we're at a point where early small sample sized starts have begun to fade and real, believable trends can be pulled from 2011's data. Let's take a look at three similar pitchers who all have one major difference: ownership rates.
One of these guys is owned in nearly every league in America. The other two are not. As I'll argue below, there isn't really a good reason for this (other than market inefficiency). So, here they are. Feel free to guess amongst yourselves at who they are before we hit the jump and my thrilling reveal:
Player A (26 years old): 5-3, 3.07 ERA, 6.26 K/9, 3.19 BB/9, owned in 94% of CBS leagues.
Player B (25 years old): 2-6, 3.88 ERA, 6.56 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, owned in 69% of CBS leagues.
Player C (29 years old): 1-3, 3.60 ERA, 7.06 K.9, 2.35 BB/9, owned in 51% of CBS leagues.
Pitcher A ran out to an incredibly hot start, with a 2.18 ERA in the season's first month. That likely explains his high ownership rate, and he's certainly a player worth owning. He's currently using his 92.5 MPH fastball about four out of every five pitches, and it's one of the most valuable pitches in the league according to Fangraphs Pitch Type Values. His fastball is currently 18th, right behind Josh Johnson, Cliff Lee and Michael Pineda. This is aided by his heavy reliance on the fastball, but it's clearly a very effective pitch.
Pitcher A is posting decent strikeout and walk rates (6.26 K/9 and 3.19 BB/9) and is generating a ton of ground balls (55.7%), as he's done for his entire professional career. His success can't really be pinned on luck, either. He's posting a .296 batting average on balls in play, a 76% strand rate and a 5.3% HR/FB rate. The home runs will probably increase a bit, but his other luck metrics are pretty stable. And since he gives up so few fly balls (currently 27.1%) we're only talking about a difference of 1-2 home runs in that regard anyway.
In short (kinda): he's a good pitcher. He's been a surprise to a lot of people, but that really should not have been the case. He was a highly regarded prospect on the team that traded him in 2009, and he's always been a ground ball machine. The fact that he's owned in 94% of CBS leagues is not outrageous. Being a sub-3 ERA pitcher was unsustainable, but he is a sub-4 ERA pitcher, and there's value there.
The other two pitchers had less blazing starts to the 2011 season, but they've ended up in similar places.
Pitcher B has a worse ERA, but his strikeout and walk numbers are both better than Pitcher A (6.56 K/9, 1.94 BB/9). He's been a tad unlucky with a 60.8% strand rate, but he's also benefiting from a low home run rate (3.6%). He's getting a solid amount of ground balls (41.5%). He missed most of last season with injury, but prior to that posted a strong first half-season as a Major League starting pitcher in 2009: 9.07 K/9, 2.86 BB/9, 3.59 FIP, 3.35 xFIP.
In short: he's a good pitcher. Seeing as his velocity is back in his return from injury, there's no reason to believe his success thus far this season is much other than true talent. He doesn't generate as many groundballs as Pitcher A, but he strikes out more and walks fewer.
Pitcher C is the oldest of our three breakout talents, and the least owned. He might also be the best.
Pitcher C spent 82.1 innings between the rotation and bullpen for his team last year, and was effective enough to get a full-time slot in the starting five this spring. He hasn't really disappointed, despite his poor won-loss record. He has the best strikeout numbers of our three hurlers (7.06 K/9), good walk numbers (2.35 BB/9),and a stellar ground ball rate (52.8%). He's been slightly unlucky in the BABIP department (.328), and hasn't received much run support from his team's woeful offense.
In short: he's a good pitcher, and he's undervalued by fantasy leagues right now because of things out of his control.
So now, for those of you still with me, who are these guys?
Pitcher A: Justin Masterson
Pitcher B: Jordan Zimmermann
Pitcher C: Tim Stauffer
All three are post-hype prospects coming into their own as Major League starting pitchers. All three of their breakouts are very much for real, and all three of them have value. But one of them is owned in 9 out of 10 leagues, and one of them is barely owned in half. There's an inefficiency there just waiting to be exploited. So, I say, GO OUT AND EXPLOIT, FRIENDS! Exploit til the cows come home.
If you can trade for Masterson, it's fair to expect him to be a 3.5-4 ERA pitcher from here on out. But if the price is outrageous based on his hot start, you'd do well to pass and look for similar pitchers elsewhere. And if you can grab Stauffer right now on the cheap because of some bad luck and a lack of name recognition? Yes. Do that.