Pitchers to Target in Deep Leagues (Fantasy Baseball)
The top touted arm in this week’s piece was once an extremely useful fantasy starting pitcher, but he’s been a train wreck in recent seasons. He’s turned back the clock of late, though, and deserves to be rostered in many leagues. He’s joined by a familiar face in this column and two young righties who are almost universally available.
Jordan Zimmermann (DET): Yahoo! – 29%, ESPN – 22%
Zimmermann’s first two years with the Tigers, 2016 and 2017, were nothing short of disastrous. Among starting pitchers who pitched a minimum of 250 innings in 2016-2017, Zimmermann’s 5.63 ERA was the second worst, according to FanGraphs. The advanced metrics didn’t paint a much prettier picture with him tallying a 4.93 FIP, 5.21 xFIP, and 5.09 SIERA during that time frame. The veteran righty struck out a paltry 14.3% of the batters he faced, and there were zero indicators suggesting he’d return to fantasy relevance this year. The 32-year-old pitcher’s season started much like his first two in Detroit. After his first five starts spanning 19.1 innings, Zimmermann tallied a 7.91 ERA (4.98 FIP, 4.16 xFIP, and 3.81 SIERA), 1.71 WHIP, 5.6% BB%, and 24.4% K%.
He’s put that poor start in the rear-view mirror and pitched like his peak self of late. In his last half-dozen starts totaling 37.0 innings, Zimmermann has ripped off a 1.22 ERA (2.04 FIP, 3.68 xFIP, and 3.54 SIERA), 0.70 WHIP, 3.7% BB%, and 25.0% K%. He’s been treated to some soft matchups during that six-game stretch, but there are reasons to believe Zimmermann can settle in as a useful fantasy arm even after he suffers some regression.
Zimmermann has avoided hard contact during his run of excellence yielding just a 25.8% Hard%, and he’s made a wise decision with his pitch mix. Among qualified pitchers from 2015-2017, no one has posted a lower run value on their heater than Zimmermann. Despite the heater getting pummeled worse than any other qualified starter’s during that three-year stretch, he used it 57.3% of the time. Over his last six starts, he’s thrown his still-bad heater just 43.5% of the time, and he’s leaned heavily on his slider and curve. Even while struggling over the last few years, Zimmermann’s slider had the 10th best run value from 2015-2017 among qualified pitchers. The righty’s curve was rocked last year, but that’s an outlier with the pitch posting excellent run values in 2015, 2016, and this season.
It’s possible regression will hit more harshly than his advanced metrics suggest after the league adjusts to his more breaking-ball heavy pitch mix. However, cutting back on bad heaters has helped other starters in recent years as well, and Zimmermann could be just the latest success story. Zimmermann’s done enough to warrant ownership in most 12-team mixers and all deeper leagues.
Trevor Cahill (OAK): Yahoo! – 14%, ESPN – 12%
Last call for Cahill on the cheap. A’s beat reporter Susan Slusser tweeted that, “Cahill is a strong possibility for Thursday at Houston after a strong rehab outing last night.” Speaking of that rehab outing, Cahill held Triple-A Iowa scoreless through four innings on three hits, one walk, and seven strikeouts. According to MiLB.com, he threw 42 of 65 pitches for strikes. I wouldn’t advise starting Cahill against the Astros in Houston in his first start off the DL, but I would suggest scooping him up now and holding him through it. If you have a DL spot, there’s also the added benefit of adding him, stashing him there, and holding him on the DL until his start after that — as long as you don’t need to make any adds between his first and second start off the DL.
Felix Pena (LAA): Yahoo! – 1%, ESPN – 1%
Let’s start with the bad. Pena is available in 99% of both Yahoo! and ESPN leagues after all, so he has to have some blemishes. The most obvious is that he’s largely a two-pitch pitcher. In his four starts, Pena has thrown his changeup only 3.9% of the time. He’s basically a fastball/slider hurler, and sliders have a massive platoon split. He’s faced just 43 left-handed batters this year, but he’s coughed up a .346 wOBA to them. On the plus slide, he’s held the 37 left-handed batters he’s faced as a starter to just a .300 wOBA, per FanGraphs. That’s a tiny sample size, though, and I’d expect the 28-year-old to have some struggles with lefties. With that in mind, I wouldn’t use him against lefty-heavy lineups.
Moving on to the positives, Pena’s pitched well in his fours starts. As a starter this year, he’s pitched 19.2 innings to the tune of a 2.75 ERA (2.31 FIP, 2.73 xFIP, and 2.98 SIERA), 1.22 WHIP, 7.2% BB%, and 30.1% K%. He also has sparkling plate discipline numbers in those starts with a 33.5% O-Swing% (30.5% league average), 61.4% Z-Swing% (67.1% league average), 71.1% F-Strike% (60.5% league average), and 13.3% SwStr% (10.6% league average).
Pena’s slider is a standout offering. He’s held batters to a -9 wRC+ and totaled a 27.5% SwStr% on the pitch this year, and he’s held them to a 16 wRC+ with a 22.8% SwStr% in his young big-league career. The pitch is a high-spin offering. According to Baseball Savant, 238 pitchers have thrown a minimum of 100 sliders this year, and Pena’s has the 38th highest average spin rate (2,613 RPM). One reason to believe Pena can have success as a two-pitch pitcher is something of a double-edged sword. The 28-year-old pitcher’s high for innings pitched in a start this year is 5.1. He’s hit that season-high mark in each of his last two starts, and he pitched five innings in the start before that. By using him as a five-and-dive starter, the Angels are limiting his times through the order and, thus, limiting the number of looks hitters get at his limited arsenal. As I advised above, I’d still avoid using him against lefty-heavy lineups currently. However, Pena looks like a valuable source of strikeouts in deeper leagues who won’t hurt your ERA and WHIP if deployed carefully.
Robert Stephenson (CIN): Yahoo! – 0%, ESPN – 0%
Stephenson isn’t a player who should be scooped up in even deep re-draft leagues just yet. However, I’ve chosen to highlight him for dynasty leaguers and for deep leaguers to keep tabs on in re-draft leagues. The Reds are in the midst of a rebuild, and Matt Harvey‘s name has been bandied about as a trade candidate. A Harvey trade is the most obvious path to a rotation spot for Stephenson, but it’s far from the only path. Harvey and Tyler Mahle are the only two starting pitchers who’ve pitched for the Reds this year with an ERA under four. Anthony DeSclafani‘s 4.43 ERA is the third best among Cincinnati’s starters. The club could opt to pull a struggling starter like Luis Castillo in order to help him right the ship, and that would be another route to Stephenson getting a look in the rotation.
The 27th pick in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft has failed to live up to expectations for the Reds to date, but he’s doing some interesting things at Triple-A Louisville this season. Stephenson’s 12.2% BB% in 16 starts spanning 86.0 innings continues to leave a lot to be desired, but he’s managed to record a 3.35 ERA (4.15 FIP and 3.75 xFIP) thanks in large part to his sky-high 29.6% K%. The righty’s strikeout rate is supported by an eye-popping 16.0% SwStr%.
Circling back to Stephenson’s poor control, it’s been palatable of late. Over his last five starts, he has a 8.6% BB% with an enormous 36.2% K%. His spotty control got the worst of him in one of those five starts in which he walked five in five innings, but he walked one or less in three of those turns. He’s walked exactly one batter in each of his last two turns. Stephenson’s Triple-A pitching coach Jeff Fassero has some noteworthy quotes in this piece, and Fassero specifically noted he’s found consistency over roughly the last six weeks. If Stephenson is able to maintain his consistency, he’ll get a look on the parent club sooner rather than later.