AL Starting Pitcher Sleepers (2019 Fantasy Baseball)

by Elliott Baas | @ElliottBaasBB | Featured Writer
Feb 18, 2019

Tyler Skaggs flashed elite upside during a wildly erratic season.

The most important thing in winning fantasy baseball is scoring the most points. But how do we score the most points, you ask? By getting excess value on draft day. That’s what makes ADP analysis and sleeper targets so valuable. Not every sleeper has to pop big time to get enough value to win your league, but you’re moving in the right direction if you can routinely get positive value out of draft picks. Think of it as finding money on the street. You’re not always going to find a $100 bill, but picking up singles and quarters puts extra money in your pocket. In this article, I look at three AL starting pitchers who could provide a little extra value at their current pricr (based on FantasyPros’ consensus ADP).

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Tyler Skaggs (LAA): 91st Pitcher, 228 Overall ADP
It’s been a rough road injury-wise for Tyler Skaggs, who has made just 60 total starts in four years, after having Tommy John surgery in 2014. Even when he has started, Skaggs’s surface numbers haven’t been great. He’s had a 4.22 ERA and 2.8 K/BB ratio over those 60 starts between 2016-2018, but last season we finally saw why he was a consensus top-15 prospect once upon a time.

He rolled through the first three months of the season, posting a 2.64 ERA, 3.10 FIP, and 9.8 K/9 in 92 innings. He was throwing his vaunted curveball 30% of the time and getting batters to whiff 32.6% with it. He also began mixing in his changeup more, a pitch that can garner solid results against right-handed batters and help Skaggs maintain near-even platoon splits. Over those 92 innings, the only glaring red flag was an 82% LOB. Besides the fortunate strand rate, there was nothing to suggest Skaggs couldn’t sustain his breakout production. That’s until he started July in a familiar place, the trainer’s table, and after that the injured list (formerly disabled list).

A right adductor strain did Skaggs in, and in case you aren’t sure what the adductor muscle does, it’s apparently the muscle that helps one pitch well. Skaggs was a disaster on the mound after suffering this injury. In 33.1 innings following his adductor strain, he pitched to a 7.83 ERA and 1.65 WHIP. He also served up six home runs over that stretch after giving up just eight in the previous 92 innings. Those 33.1 innings were split between three separate trips to the injured list for the same injury. Technically, the Angels marked it as a right and left adductor strain, but I think he strained the left one after spinning around too fast watching another home run fly over the fence.

So the conclusion is if Skaggs can stay healthy, he’ll be a sub-3.00 ERA ace and I should spend big on him, right? Hold on there, eager beaver. Before blowing your auction budget on Skaggs, remember why his ADP is down in the 200s in the first place. He’s never pitched more than 125.1 innings in a single season. The argument in his favor is similar to the case for drafting Rich Hill or James Paxton. We know we aren’t getting 200 innings. Heck, even 150 might be stretching it, but if we play around injuries and make good choices with streamers, the end results are solid. Obviously, Skaggs’ innings aren’t as reliable as Hill’s or Paxton’s. That’s why he’s going at pick 228, but there is plenty of value to extract.

In fact, we can calculate Skaggs’s value around his injuries by using league averages to fill in the missed innings. Skaggs made it easy on us by being totally worthless after July, and most sensible owners would have dropped him and never looked back after he served up 10 earned runs to the Rays on July 31. Let’s say you had to eat that disastrous start, which hurts, but even including that nightmare outing Skaggs gave you a 3.34 ERA, 1.25 ERA, and 9.4 K/9 in 113.1 innings. Pretty good, but he left us with about 60 innings to fill on waivers. Sixty innings we had to stream off waivers. If we add 60 innings worth of a league-average starter (4.19 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 8.25 K/9) to Skaggs’ numbers, his numbers morph to a 3.64 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 9.0 K/9. Not bad, right? Besides the WHIP that’s essentially David Price‘s 2018, and Price is going more than 130 picks higher than Skaggs.

Here’s the real kicker: You’re likely going to get better than league-average innings off waivers. Yucky, unusable pitchers like Matt Moore and Yovani Gallardo are included in the league average, and you’ll never dig that deep (hopefully). Second, sharp fantasy owners (which, since you’re reading FantasyPros, you are clearly are) can choose streamers well enough to get above-average results from average pitchers. And, if by some miracle, Skaggs can stay healthy for 30 starts, we’ve got ourselves a solid starter on the cheap without having to worry about streaming.

Collin McHugh (HOU): 93rd Pitcher, 231 Overall ADP
Thanks to Houston’s ridiculous rotation depth last year, Collin McHugh posted a 1.99 ERA and 4.48 BB/9 as a high-leverage reliever. Well, Charlie Morton is in Tampa and Lance McCullers is in a sling, meaning McHugh has a starting spot once again.

Based on ADP, it seems like a bullpen move hurts fantasy owners’ perception of a pitcher. It was something I wrote about in the NL version of this article when looking at Kenta Maeda. McHugh wasn’t in the bullpen because he deserved the demotion; he was there because the Astros had a historically good rotation last season. McHugh would have started for practically any other team. As a full-time starter, he’s never had a FIP above 3.95 or a K/BB ratio worse than 3.1. That on its own makes a solid, dependable starter. Plus, pitching for the Astros means he’ll pile up wins and have a great defense behind him. Based on past performance, that’s just his floor. There is enough to suggest McHugh has the potential to take a step forward in 2019.

When McHugh first found success in 2014, pitching to a 2.85 ERA in 25 starts, he did it with a four-pitch mix headlined by a plus curveball. McHugh’s curveball has long stymied opposing hitters, who have hit a meager .196 with a .111 ISO against it throughout his career. It also has a 16.4% SwStr rate and a 49.6% ground-ball rate. A pitch this good on its own is awesome to see from a starting pitcher. One pitch of this caliber is enough to make a solid starter, which McHugh was for three-and-a-half years with Houston.

Over the last two years, however, McHugh has developed a lights-out slider to complement his curveball. Since incorporating the pitch in 2017, batters have managed just a .116 AVG and .047 ISO against it, along with a 15.9% SwStr rate. Obviously, those numbers are juiced since McHugh was pitching out of the bullpen last season, where he can give every pitch all he’s got. But even as a starter in 2017, batters hit .135 with a .115 ISO against the pitch. He also posted an overall 12.4% swinging strike rate in 2017, a career high as a starter.

Now it looks like McHugh has two dominant breaking pitches to help compensate for a mediocre fastball, and he’s in an excellent environment for pitchers. He not only has great talent around him, but Houston’s ability to extract every bit of ability out of a pitcher is second to none. Remember when Morton was an injury-prone journeyman ostensibly on his last legs in pro ball? Remember when the Pirates just couldn’t “figure out” Gerrit Cole? Remember when Justin Verlander-well, he’s always been pretty good, but the point is McHugh’s slider-curveball combo has shown a lot of promise, and Houston can help him transcend to the next level. At pick 231, this is a dice worth rolling every time.

Dylan Bundy (BAL): 124th Pitcher, 305 Overall ADP
Dylan Bundy’s 2018 season was a little like a David Lynch film. There’s beauty, there’s tragedy, and when it ended I had a lot of unanswered questions. For those of us who feel a little Wild at Heart (that’s a Lynch film. It won the Palme d’Or, which is like an Oscar except foreign films can win sometimes), Bundy is a good high-risk, high-reward sleeper.

He showed us exactly what he’s capable of in April by posting a 2.97 ERA and 4.40 K/BB ratio in his first 36.1 innings. Then in May, he showed us what else he’s capable of by posting a 6.12 ERA and 3.62 HR/9 in 32.1 innings, which was higher than his BB/9 for the month. That means a major league hitter who faced Bundy in May had a better chance of sending a ball over the fence than getting a free pass to first base. Think that’s crazy? The same was true in July when he allowed 3.72 HR/9 compared to 2.79 BB/9. So yeah, to call Bundy a little volatile would be an understatement.

Bundy’s volatility all boils down to the lack of a viable third pitch. His fastball is already below-average, and he doesn’t have anything to lean on besides his slider. It’s a known fact that Bundy’s slider is out-of-this-world amazing. Last season, batters hit just .176 against the pitch with a 25.1% SwStr rate. When his slider is on, it rivals the league’s best. Unfortunately, his injury problems sapped his fastball velocity and left him with an underwhelming repertoire overall.

That slider will always make him interesting, and since so many people (including yours truly) got stung hard by him last year, Bundy’s fallen into last-round or waiver-wire territory at pick 305. The changeup is the pitch to watch. It got pulverized last season for a .356 AVG and .724 SLG against, but it also had a 16.5% SwStr rate along with more favorable xStats. The pitch, which has shown more promise than his curveball, has the potential to help Bundy survive against lefties. Play carefully with Bundy, because his blowups can be utterly atrocious. In roto leagues, one or two bad starts can take an entire month to make up, but if things click Bundy could pop big time. He’s a guy to keep on a short leash and leave on the bench early in the year to see how he does.

Here’s a look at NL Starting Pitcher Sleepers

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Elliott Baas is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Elliott, check out his archive and follow him @elliottbaasbb.

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