Personally I don't feel there is one correct way to draft a starting rotation for your fake teams. In general, I prefer to wait a little longer than the big name/price guys in mixed leagues, however, if everyone in your draft takes this approach, you'd be foolish not to grab a King Felix type for a reduced price. In AL only leagues I feel it's important to come away with a solid ace to balance out the 5th and 6th starters you'll eventually roster. Whatever your strategy, at some point the mid level talent pitchers will be nominated; it's here you can strike and build a championship level rotation without spending half your budget doing so.
Today, as I've done throughout the entire ranking series, I'll take a look at three American League starting pitchers who in my opinion are must target arms in all leagues. For mixed league owners these three will provide tremendous value and production as back end options in your rotation, and for AL only owners, they will slot in as upside No. 2 or 3 type arms for your fantasy staff. This is not an AL starting pitcher prospect list, so you won't see the Bundy's, Walker's and Hultzen's of the world. The names that follow are names most owners will at least recognize and in the case of two of the players, contributed heavily to their team's 2012 success. What makes them sleepers for the purpose of this article is their perceived value on draft day versus how I project them to perform in 2013.
The first pitcher was often overlooked as he progressed through his organizations system due to the talent around him, but proved he belongs in a big league rotation with his limited time in 2012. Our second pitcher contributed 136 innings in 2012 for this big league club, and while his team has plenty of starting options, should see an increased workload and continue to shine in 2013. Our last pitcher has been around since I was a kid collecting his baseball cards, but I believe he still has another helpful season in him.
Before we dive into each player, it's important to point out what these three pitchers all have in common. All three starters limit walks, have above average change ups and solid ground ball rates. While other owners are caught up looking for the high strike out arms, these low walk, ground ball, change of pace type arms are often underrated in drafts. The low walk approach is nothing new, and makes perfect sense to fantasy managers that employ the strategy. Less walks = less base runners = less damage on hits or homers. On top of that, a decent ground ball rate should keep more pitches out of the stands. Lastly, pitchers who can change speeds on hitters with a quality change up are more likely to either strike a batter out when the pitch is really on, or induce weak contact, allowing these pitchers to have increased success. These are the exact reasons why I target James Shields in all my leagues, however, that's a topic for another day. Now that I've rambled on long enough, let's take a look at today's American League Fantasy Sleepers - Starting Pitchers:
Erasmo Ramirez - SEA
Ramirez was often over looked as he climbed up the Seattle Mariner's Organizational Ladder due to the presence of Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and even Brandon Mauer. Due to how much I enjoy watching this kid throw, I'll forgo the short joke and merely state the facts -- Ramirez is a right handed pitcher who is under 6 feet tall; not your ideal build, however, Ramirez is able to work around his shortcomings. Okay, one joke.
As I mentioned in the open, all of the pitchers referenced today limit the amount of free passes handed out from start to start. Last season in 136.1 innings pitched between AAA and the majors, Ramirez issued 30 base on balls, splitting time as both a starter and a reliever. Looking back at his previous years in the minor leagues, the impressively low totals continue on with 32 walks in 152.1 innings pitched across both AA and AAA in 2011 and 21 walks in 151.2 innings pitched during the 2010 season while pitching in A ball. Not allowing batters to reach base for free is just part of the reason Ramirez has been successful early in his career.
The next reason, and probably the most important to me, is the quality of his change up. Last year, Ramirez threw the change up 21.9% of the time according to the PITCHf/x Pitch Type data on fangraphs. According to the PITCHf/x Pitch Values data also found on fangraphs, this pitch was worth 6 runs above average. While that's encouraging, the real promise comes in the speed difference the hitter must adjust to when Ramirez throws fastball/change up or change up/fastball. Last season, Ramirez averaged an 11.5 MPH difference between his fastball (92.6) and his change up (81.1) Anything over a 10 MPH difference is ideal and with the late run the pitch has against left handed hitters, it'll continue to baffle the league in 2013. For fun, last year Ramirez threw the change up 193 times, with hitters posting the following triple slash against the offering: .102/.113/.163 with an impressive 41.5% strike out rate.
More than likely Ramirez will fly under the radar as the 2013 draft season approaches. This could be due to pitching for a team located in Southeast Alaska, or the fact Ramirez started last season in the pen and also missed time with a right elbow flexor strain. When Ramirez returned to action in September, he made four starts and looked great. The starts were at Toronto, at home against an Orioles team fighting for a playoff spot, and on the road against divisional rivals, the Angels and A's, both competing to win the West. Over those starts Ramirez walked 5 (4 in one game against the A's) while striking out 21 batter in 27.1 innings. Locked into the rotation to start 2013, Ramirez is a great back end starter in mixed leagues, and should be drafted as a mid-rotation arm in AL only leagues with the understanding he could outperform that slot.
Alex Cobb- TB
For many Alex Cobb is a rather familiar name. After all he did pitch 136.1 innings for the Rays in 2012 and was quite effective in his first extended stay in the big leagues. While his overall numbers (11 Wins, 4.03 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 106 K) might not blow the casual fantasy owner out of the water, a deeper look at his underlying numbers and minor league track record paints a very promising picture. I've never been much of an artist, so try to follow along.
First, let's get the easy stats out of the way - While a 4.03 ERA isn't horrible, a 3.67 FIP and 3.54 xFIP shows Cobb may have actually pitched a little better than his year end ERA discloses. His 106 K's in 136.1 innings pitched (7.00 K/9) will play any day of the week, but I feel there could be a little room for growth next year in this department. Obviously more innings should equal more strike outs, but I can't help but notice rates of 9.63 in AA - 2010, as well as 9.36 and 9.58 in brief AAA stints during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The increase might not be a lot, and may not even hit the 8.09 K/9 Bill James has projected, but an increase in K/9 coupled with more innings is still a positive any way you slice it.
Like Ramirez, Cobb has shown the ability to limit the amount of runners he lets reach first base for free. Pitching in the AL East, where one swing of the bat can change a game (and a pitchers ERA) limiting walks becomes even more crucial in my opinion. Cobb's 2.64 BB/9 is in line with his minor league numbers, with totals of 2.14 in 67.1 innings pitched during the 2011 AAA season, 2.63 in 119.2 innings pitched during the 2010 AA season, as well as 2.24 and 2.26 in 2009 and 2008. While the strike out may be sexy, you live and die with your control.
An average strike out rate, above average walk rate, what else could this 25 year old starter bring to the table? How about one of the best ground ball rates in the league last year? That's right, only Trevor Cahill and Derek Lowe induced more ground balls among pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched in 2012. The league average for GB% in 2012 was 45.1%. Alex Cobb's rate... 58.80%. Earlier I talked about the importance of not walking a ton of hitters especially in the AL East parks, against those line ups. It's extremely difficult to hit a home run on a ground ball, which is yet another reason I believe Cobb will not only survive pitching in the AL East, but will be quite good at it in 2013. Speaking of the long ball, his 12.80 HR/FB rate seems a little out of place considering only 21.2 of the balls put in play against him were hit in the air. Going back to the minors one more time, Cobb was quite effective at limiting the long ball and I'd expect his home run against numbers to normalize this year.
Lastly, and most importantly in my opinion, is the
quality dominance of Cobb's change up. In fact, depending on which website you visit his change up could be classified as a splitter due to the amount of movement the pitch has. So while the 5.2 MPH difference between his fastball and change up isn't ideal for a traditional fastball/change up combination, the movement more than makes up for the lack of separation in speed. Going back to the PITCHf/x Pitch Value data referenced earlier, Cobb's change up was worth 11.7 runs above average, or 6th best among pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched last year. Coming in at 11.9 was James Shields, a target of mine as mentioned earlier.
So while some of you may be wondering why Cobb is appearing on a 2013 sleeper list, when he more than likely appeared on some 2012 lists, it's due to all the reasons listed above, and the overall profile that typically gets overlooked by many fantasy managers. In a recent CBS Roto Mock Draft, Cobb was selected in the 23rd round. Sign me up. It's worth noting the Rays have quite a few quality arms competing for rotation spots in 2013, so Cobb isn't necessarily guaranteed a spot in the rotation. If I was a betting man, and really if you're playing fantasy baseball, aren't we all betting men, I'd put my money on him starting the year in the rotation. Managers who draft early should take advantage of this unknown and acquire Cobb for pennies on the dollar. Just for fun: According to Baseball Reference the pitcher most similar to Cobb through age 24 - Anibal Sanchez. He just happens to be another pitcher I'll be targeting in 2013.
Andy Pettitte - NYY
A 22 year old, 25 year old and now a 40 year old. No one said sleepers had to be young. It does seem like older people sleep less though, doesn't it? Andy Pettitte decided playing Major League Baseball was pretty cool, and after taking the 2011 season off, returned to the mound for the New York Yankees. In 8 starts between May 13th and June 22nd, Pettitte threw 54.2 innings, of 3.47 ERA ball, with 52 K's to 14 BB. Not only a small sample size, but also slightly misleading as he posted ERA's of 6.43 and 7.50 in two of those starts. Outside of those two starts (yes, now dealing with 6 starts) he was pretty darn effective for owners who were patient enough to roster him as he built up arm strength in the minors. Then on June 27th Casey Kotchman lined a ball off Pettitte's ankle, fracturing his ankle and putting him on the shelf until September. In the 4.0 innings pitched before fracturing his ankle, Pettitte had struck out 7 Cleveland Indian batters.
Continuing the trend of change up analysis, Pettitte's offering is not in the same class as the first two pitchers mentioned in this article. That said, it was still worth 2.4 runs above average, according to PITCHf/x Pitch Value data, with an 8.3 MPH difference between his fastball offerings and the change up. While his change up was still valuable to a degree last season, it was his cutter, which he started throwing more often, that really stands out. Last season Pettitte threw his cutter 25.0% of the time according to Fangraphs Pitch Type data, which was a 5.0% increase over the usage in 2009 and 2010. Since the cutter is sometimes recognized as a two seam fastball depending on which data you use, it's difficult to pin an exact value to the offering. Looking back at previous seasons shows a steady trend of the pitch being worth multiple runs above average. 11.1 in 2009 and 7.0 in 2010, using the Pitch Values feature on fangraphs.
After taking a season off it was great to see his control was still top notch, posting a BB/9 rate of 2.51. Remember, we're looking for pitchers with lower walk rates (not rocket science) especially when pitching in the AL East. Somewhat surprising was the 8.24 K/9 rate (6.67 career) Pettitte posted in 75.1 innings last season. I'd except that number to regress towards his career average, with a high of 7.25 +/- being attainable. Project Pettitte out to 165 innings pitched and you're looking at 133 K's to forty something walks next year. For owners who play in strike out minus walk leagues, make sure you adjust your rankings accordingly.
Speaking of innings pitched, owners who pick up Pettitte as a back end starter in deeper mixed leagues shouldn't worry too much about the potential for injury or lack of innings. Simply head to your waiver wire and you'll be able to find a reliever with strike out upside, or a fill-in-back-end starter to cover any missed time. Owners in AL only leagues, where the available talent on the waiver wire is less desirable, will want to try to build in a level of protection when rostering Pettitte next year. Here's what I mean. While I have Pettitte as my 18th ranked Starter (28th pitcher - at $12) in AL only 12 team leagues, I wouldn't want to head into the season with him as my rosters true number 2 starter. Depending on how the draft, or preferably auction goes, it would be ideal to roster a pitcher who projects to throw a few more innings as your number 2, and slot Pettitte one spot down in your fantasy rotation. This narrows the gap between a potential loss due to injury or lack of innings and the production you'll receive from a waiver wire addition. If you end up rostering Pettitte at the top dollar, just make sure you add a top non closer relief arm, to add quality innings to your overall pitching line.
As I was conducting my research on Pettitte, I couldn't help but notice how close the Fan projections on Fangraphs are to my projections for Pettitte next year (I have him with a slightly lower ERA, a win or two more, and a handful more innings pitched) For fun I decided to take a look at some other fan projections for pitchers with similar innings pitched. The closest I was able to find was Clay Buchholz, project at: 181 IP, 3.81 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 133 strike outs; and Ivan Nova, projected at: 157 IP, 4.25 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 131 K's. I bring this up because after looking at Tristan Cockcroft's early 2013 Starting Pitcher ranks, both these guys rank ahead of Pettitte (Buchholz at 60, Nova at 71, while Pettitte was not ranked) In no way is this a shot at Tristan's rankings, I love his work, but I find it interesting, these two pitchers would be ranked so much higher. It's for this reason I feel Pettitte will present a great buying opportunity in drafts this season, and should outperform many pitchers taken before him.
Jarrod Parker - I felt it was a stretch to call Parker a sleeper this year, regardless of how you define the term. That said, I project this kid to have an absolutely stellar season, and will pay full price to obtain his services in 2013.
Hisashi Iwakuma - After starting the 2012 season in the bullpen for the Seattle Mariners, many casual fantasy mangers may have missed the brilliant string of starts Iwakuma put together from July on. Starting the year as the M's number 2 starter, Iwakuma won't cost an arm or a leg on draft day and will provide instant value.