Here are three pitchers. All three pitchers are in the National League (and, were last year, too). All three pitchers started at least 20 games and threw at least 120 innings in 2018. Who are they?
Pitcher A: 137 IP, 2.62 ERA, 151 Ks
Pitcher B: 130 IP, 3.74 ERA, 156 Ks
Pitcher C: 125 IP, 3.81 ERA, 153 Ks
All three pitchers are in the top 20 in xFIP (out of all players who pitched at least 120 innings in 2018).
Only pitchers A and C are also in the top 20 in FIP.
Only pitchers B and C are also in the top 20 in K/9 (they’re both in the top 15, actually).
Pitchers A and C had HR/9 under 1; B’s was over 1.
Player A’s Average Draft Position, as of 2/25/18 on ESPN, is 51.6 (14th P drafted overall).
Player B’s ADP is 65.3 (20th P drafted).
Player C’s ADP is 256.4 (104th P drafted).
Answers: Player A is Walker Buehler (95.1% ESPN ownership), Player B is Stephen Strasburg (95% ownership), and Player C is Kenta Maeda (12.6% ownership).
Let’s look at Kenta Maeda since his skills seem to be similar to Buehler and Strasburg, but his ownership is anything but. Maeda is 30 years old, ditto Strasburg, while Buehler is 24.
Maeda transitioned to the bullpen last year, but he still started 20 games, and he has the peripherals of a top 30-40 starting pitcher. His numbers were elite regardless of role: as a reliever, Maeda had a 2.64 xFIP (top 10 for RPs) and a 13.25 K/9 (top 10 for RPs); as a starter, he had a 3.49 xFIP (top 30 for SPs) and a 10.62 K/9 (top 15 for SPs).
Maeda’s status as a starter or a reliever is currently unknown. The Dodgers like to have a deep rotation to alleviate injury concerns. Odds are that Maeda will start some games this year, or continue as an elite bullpen option, or just switch back and forth depending on need. Due to this ambiguity, his value in fantasy is also unknown because we don’t know if Maeda will help with Quality Starts, Innings Pitched, Holds, or Saves. We do know that Kenta Maeda can give us elite strikeout numbers and good (low) ratios, and it seems to be that he can do that regardless of what role he’s in.
When drafting your fantasy baseball team, remember that the big names always have some sort of associated extra value. Buehler is young and good, and Strasburg is famous and good, but their numbers last year weren’t all that different from the relatively unknown (but, good) Maeda. If you knew you were going to draft a player with top 20 ratios and K/9, don’t you think you’d draft him before the 20th round?
As a SP/RP, Maeda has some serious upside. As an RP only, he’s still elite due to his numbers, though he loses fantasy relevance because he won’t get Saves. As an SP only, he’s still elite due to his numbers, though he loses fantasy relevance because we don’t know how many starts he’ll get (due to the Dodgers’ reliance on depth).
As a Pitcher only, though, Kenta Maeda should be treated as well as his numbers from last year suggest. For instance, Rich Hill, Maeda’s teammate, pitched 132 innings last year with a 3.70 xFIP and a 10.18 K/9. He’s three times more owned than Maeda (36% ESPN ownership), despite being older, prone to missing games, and having similar peripherals.
I’m not saying that Kenta Maeda will be a top 30 pitcher this year. I’m saying he pitched like he was a top 30 pitcher last year. Can he do it again? Isn’t it worth a mid-round pick to find out?
At the very least, you’ll be drafting a player with a career 3.66 xFIP and 9.76 K/9. That line would have been the 19th best xFIP last year for qualified starters (Miles Mikolas had a 3.67 xFIP last season, with a 6.55 K/9), and the 15th best K/9 (Aaron Nola had a 9.49 K/9, with a 3.21 xFIP). Both Nola and Mikolas are being drafted in the top 150 players (Nola’s the 6th pitcher off the board, by ESPN’s ADP).
In fantasy, we tend to focus on players with opportunities. More at-bats is a good thing, more starts is a good thing, more innings pitched, and so on. Volume of opportunities usually translates well to volume of counting stats. Kenta Maeda is a player who doesn’t have projections suggesting massive amounts of opportunity, but he does have skills that suggest he’d use those opportunities well, if provided to him. He’s a player with upside, perhaps a lot of it. Fantasy is about discovering value and predicting success, generally based on underlying numbers. Kenta Maeda isn’t young, but he is a sleeper. Drafting him won’t cost you much, and could provide plenty of value.
All stats courtesy of ESPN.com, Fangraphs.com, and CBS.com. Thank you!