Many times fantasy leagues are won not just by the big name stars, but by the random players who drift under the radar and break out. In 2005, I won a league with the help of Doug Davis, who randomly decided to strike out 200 batters that year. Doug Davis! Who'd a thunk it?
A shrewd fantasy manager can charge his way up the standings by finding pitchers who are good but also relatively obscure for one reason or another. They could be unknown soldiers because their team sucks, or because they arrived on the major league scene with little fanfare, or because they pitch for a small-market team. If other managers are busy seeking out only the pitchers they saw in October or those who were on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball all the time, the lesser-known guys fall in the draft and become bargains.
Whatever the cause, being able to pick out the hidden gems in the league could be the key to helping you win your league. Call it dumpster diving, wasteland scouring, or some other unflattering name, but by knowing who the good pitchers are in the league's lesser-known environments, you could jump one step ahead of everybody else.
After the jump, five darn good pitchers who should help you in 2012, but who still dwell under the fantasy baseball radar.
1. Cory Luebke
One thing I love about fantasy baseball is that the ERA category is not adjusted for park factor or difficulty of opposition at all. If you have a soft-tossing junkballer with a miniscule strikeout rate who is simply the product of his spacious home ballpark, who cares? It's the low ERA and WHIP you care about, never mind the smoke and mirrors act from whence they came.
Enter Petco Park, now entering its ninth season of turning crappy pitchers into viable fantasy options. You have to admire a baseball stadium so pitcher-friendly that it has turned Wade LeBlanc, Jon Garland, Kevin Correia, and the corpse of Aaron Harang relevant. Next in line comes perhaps my favorite WTF? pitcher of the year, Corey Luebke.
Luebke began the season in San Diego's bullpen, then was made a starter when Clayton Richard fell to injury. As a starter, Luebke thrived. In seventeen starts, he struck out 111 batters (in 100 innings) and walked only 29, good for a 3.31 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. His fly ball-happy tendencies were nicely squashed by Petco Park too, enabling him to challenge hitters at will without fear of reprisal. It all combined to make Luebke one of the more unlikely bargain pickups in fantasy last year.
Can he do it again? Well, he never, ever produced lofty strikeout rates in the minors, so the 9.9 K/9 this past year should alarm the skeptics. He has a four-pitch, changeup-happy repertoire, so this doesn't appear sustainable to the naked eye. However, he pitches in Petco, and as long as the park's never-ending outfield expanse keeps the fly balls in the yard, he should be just fine. The Pads will still have no offense to speak of, so don't look for gaudy win totals. For a sneaky source of strikeouts and ERA, though, Luebke is your man.
2. Bud Norris
The Houston Astros are a terrible team. Perhaps you're aware of this. What you may not be aware of is that, on this team, lives a pitcher that ranked ninth in K/9 in 2011, and who would have ranked fifth in that category had he thrown enough innings in 2010. That pitcher is Bud Norris, a big, hard-throwing righty who has racked up decent strikeout numbers the past few years, but who has also been a bit of an unknown because of the general hopelessness of the sad sack franchise that employs him.
Norris has the ability to be much more than a late-round curio. What killed him his first two years in the majors was a brutal walk rate and subsequent descents into pitch count hell, but in 2011 he made significant strides in cutting the free passes down. More improvement in this area could give him tremendous value, and with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder now out of the NL Central, his opposition just got a bit weaker, too.
3. R.A. Dickey
Fans keep waiting for the fall with this 37-year-old knuckleballer, but after two seasons as a full-time Mets starter, it hasn't happened. That might be Dickey's major asset on draft day: nobody thinks he can keep this up, so he's a perennial bargain. As long as the knuckleball keeps fluttering, why doubt that he can continue to succeed? Knuckleballers are rare, endangered creatures who apparently have some modicum of control on balls put in play, so Dickey's continued low BABIP is probably sustainable.
He's durable too, like any knuckleballer, because throwing the pitch causes little taxation on the arm. Plus, how can you not root for him? Knuckleballers have long been a dying breed, and every pitcher who tries to bring it back (see: Charlie Haeger) seems to flame out immediately, but they're fun to watch and they hang around the majors forever if they can master the pitch. Pitching in a hitter-unfriendly park in the non-DH league, Dickey is primed to make it three improbably good years in a row.
Long a personal sleeper favorite of mine, starting with his days as a White Sox prospect, McCarthy finally overcame the injury bugaboo that had plagued him forever and broke out. After only once cracking the 100-inning mark as a major leaguer, McCarthy threw 170.2 innings and shocked the masses by tying for second in the AL with five complete games.
What stood out the most, and what separated him from the pack, was his incredible control. McCarthy only walked 25 freaking batters in 2011, with an absurdly low 3.6% base on balls percentage. He was second in the AL with a 4.92 K:BB ratio, and ranked third in BB/9. It wasn't a fluke, either, as great control was what made him an appealing prospect in the first place. His injury history is scary, and oft-injured leopards rarely change their spots in baseball, but the urine-soaked hell hole that the A's call home is very friendly to fly ball pitchers and McCarthy should be a nice bargain given his toiling in relative Lew Wolff-created obscurity.
Volquez was a complete mess in 2011, and he hasn't been healthy since his breakout "rookie" campaign in 2008. Normally he wouldn't be worth the trouble but, again, Petco Park. Volquez shifts over to the Padres rotation for 2012 and could flourish with a move away from the homer-happy environs of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. In an ideal world, Volquez stays off the DL and, emboldened by his new park's deep fences, starts challenging hitters, resulting in less walks and less strenuous outings. Unfortunately, "ideal" is not synonymous with "likely", but if Volquez is going to get his mojo back anywhere, it's going to be Petco Park. He's absolutely worth a late-round flyer and could once again be a strikeout machine for your team.
John Lannan. He doesn't strike anybody out and he's seemingly always walking a tightrope, but he's gotten it done in three of the last four years, so why deny that he can do it again? He's a perfectly vanilla back-end rotation option, good for some innings and a sub-4.00 ERA.
Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez has had a place on this list every year since 2008, as it seems that a lot of fans still don't realize just how darn good he is. That's what happens when you're a late-2000s Houston Astro. In a vacuum, he'd be a trade option, but his contract (he's owed about $36 million over the next three years), wholly inappropriate for a team in Houston's nuked-out situation, probably ensures that he'll continue to wallow in anonymity as he exits his peak years.
Danny Duffy. Ray Guilfoyle mentioned him last week in these pages, and it's worth reiterating. Duffy was terrible in 2011, but he was just 22 and he was good in an eight-start audition in AAA. Keep an eye out for him, because if he puts it all together, the Royals have an offense good enough to help him put up decent win totals and he'll help you in the strikeout category regardless.