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Three Starting Pitchers Who've Been Surprisingly Valuable Lately

A few unlikely names emerge when looking at which National League starters have been the most valuable in fantasy over the last month.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how many good or great NL starting pitchers have been unusable in fantasy lately due to either injury or sudden poor performance, and was thinking about this topic again yesterday.  I was feeling like things had been a bit topsy-turvy lately in terms of pitcher values, so while looking over one of my NL-only teams, I decided to rank all (NL) pitchers in terms of overall fantasy value (as determined by CBS sports in this case) over the last 28 days.  In the top six were four names that were completely unsurprising -- Jacob deGrom was number one, no doubt fueled by his recent complete game one-hitter, Max Scherzer was second, Jose Fernandez came in fourth, and Steven Strasburg was number six.  But it was numbers three and five that really stood out:  these spots were filled by Anthony DeSclafani and Junior Guerra.  I don't own DeSclafani anywhere so he wasn't really on my radar at all.  I knew Guerra had turned in a string of solid starts as he has been one of the main reasons I've been able to stay afloat in the league where I've had some extra tough pitching luck lately.  I haven't been able to figure Guerra's success out as the season has progressed, but decided to take a closer look at both him and DeSclafani.  I wanted to see not only if I thought there was any chance they would continue to be valuable this year, but to start to think about whether or not either pitcher was someone I might actually target in 2017.

As I mentioned, DeSclafani is the name that caught me the most off guard.  His numbers over the last month are absolutely stellar:  five of five quality starts (with four wins to boot), a 2.67 ERA,  .98 WHIP, and 33 strikeouts in 33 innings with only three walks.  His career numbers are unimpressive at best (4.08 ERA and 1.33 WHIP), but his K/BB ratio is better than these numbers would suggest (214 K/69 BB in 260 innings).  He is still a relatively-young 26 years old who doesn't have a ton of minor league experience and may finally be hitting his stride.  While his minor league numbers weren't eye-popping, they were solid -- he's never been a strikeout guy, but in 2013 between high A and AA he had 23 walks and 115 strikeouts in 183 innings.  Don't forget that back in February his name was mentioned as the Reds probable opening day starter, before an oblique injury derailed the first half of his season.  The numbers he's put up over the last few weeks are not sustainable, of course, and Steamer thinks he'll have a lackluster 3.97 ERA the rest of the season... but I will be monitoring him as the year goes on.  By the way, he pitched again today after I wrote this, and turned in another excellent start (admittedly, against the hapless Braves):  eight innings, two earned runs, zero walks, three strikeouts, and yet another win.

If you are a Junior Guerra owner, I assume you are doing what I'm doing -- just closing your eyes and hoping his seemingly miraculous run of good starts lasts as long as possible.  Guerra is 31 years old, has spent most of his career as a reliever, and came into the season with only a 4-inning major league cup of coffee from 2015 (during which his numbers were atrocious).  His minor league numbers are hard to interpret as he has bounced around:  2006 - 2008 in Rookie and A-ball with the Braves and Mets, played in the Mexican League in 2012, and 63 innings of both starting and relieving for the White Sox AA and AAA affiliates in 2015.  Basically, none of his numbers were even mediocre, let alone good, at any of these stops.  One positive is a K/9 rate of over 11 over some of those seasons, though that part of his game hasn't translated to the majors this year, as is current K/9 rate is 7.87.  He wasn't even pitching well for the AAA Brewers before his call-up this year:  in four starts (23.1 innings) his ERA was 4.63.  So far this season, he has a 3.06 ERA, 1.07 WHIP in 83 innings.  Over his last four starts, it's a 1.61 ERA/.86 WHIP, with 27 strikeouts and 8 walks.  I can't find a rational explanation for his success so far this year, and one would have to assume he is in for a major correction.  Guerra also pitched after I wrote his numbers up yesterday, and after an extremely shaky first inning in which his control was noticeably off and he gave up two walks, two hits, and a run, it look like the correction had begun.  But he managed to bounce back and turn in a very nice quality start:  six innings, two earned runs, three walks, six strikeouts against the Pirates.  I don't know how Guerra is doing it, but the term "late bloomer" exists for a reason, so I'm going to be paying attention to see what happens next.

The third pitcher I wanted look at is Mike Leake.  He didn't show up anywhere near the top five in my initial search mentioned above, but when I sorted by the last 21 days, he appeared in the top ten.  During that time, he has started four games, three of which were quality starts, with an ERA of 3.12 and a WHIP of 1.04.  But the most interesting thing about Leake lately is his strikeout numbers.  Over his career, Leake has 817 strikeouts over 1200 innings, but he has 29 Ks in his last 29 innings.  He has also managed 10 or more strikeouts in each of his last two starts... and he didn't issue a single walk in either of them.  Granted, he faced the Brewers and the Padres, so that is something to keep in mind, but it's still a rather startling development.  I can't imagine he will keep up anything close to this pace as the season progresses, but Leake still has me intrigued.  The stat that really piqued my interest was this:  so far in 2016, Leake has the third best K/BB rate in the NL, behind only Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard.

All three of these pitchers are likely to regress, possibly to a disastrous extent, between now and the end of September.  But I am going to be following all of them to see how things play out.  They have all been seriously overperforming lately compared to what their past numbers would have indicated they might do, but I always like to stop and think about external factors that might play into on-the-field performance.  Guerra is getting his first real taste of the big leagues at a relatively advanced age and is clearly determined to succeed at the major league level.  DeSclafani may feel fully healthy for the first time in ages, and may also feel a level of job security pitching for the Reds, who haven't exactly had a lot of guys, both veterans and rookies, showing that they belong in a major league rotation so far this year.  And Leake may be just be happier and more comfortable with the Cardinals than he has been up until this point in his career.  I am certainly not going to expect any of these names to continue showing up at the top of the list every time I sort pitchers for overall value -- but they have all proven enough so far this year that I will keep an eye on them in 2016 and, depending on how things go, will keep them in mind for 2017 as well.