6 High-Risk, High-Reward Pitchers (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Pitchers are inherently volatile. In the age of high velocity, it seems Tommy John surgery has become a right of passage for so many young hurlers. When coupled with an increase in offense league-wide, that volatility creates high variance when it comes to choosing pitchers and trying to mitigate risk factors.
It’s common to put pitchers into three categories when preparing for a draft: elite, safe and boring, or the always exciting upside picks. Everybody knows the high-profile arms that fall under the “elite” category. Most of the “safe and boring” tier is comprised of steady, but unspectacular, veterans. The “upside” tier typically causes the most excitement, and also consternation, among fantasy baseball drafters and rankers alike.
The reason for this is simple. We all want Blake Snell and Trevor Bauer production for half the cost. Finding that kind of value allows you to allocate more draft capital to hitting. As a result, many hurlers in the “upside” tier typically see their ADP shoot up the boards the closer we get to Opening Day. Naturally, there is a ton of risk baked into this strategy, for if you fail to identify the right arms, you’ll quickly find yourself with a dumpster fire of a pitching staff.
The following pitchers represent high reward but high risk on draft day.
Jack Flaherty (STL)
Flaherty, who submitted a 29.6% strikeout rate bolstered by an elite slider that generated a 22.9% swinging-strike rate, has all the tools to be a stud. He’s also backed by a strong lineup in St. Louis. However, the 3.52 BB/9 is an alarming sign. If Flaherty can’t curb the walks, he’s going to have a hard time replicating last year’s 3.34 ERA. Adding a splitter to his repertoire will give him an extra pitch with movement to pair with his four-seamer, and that might be enough to help him reach the next level. However, a high walk rate is never what you want to see in a pitcher.
German Marquez (COL)
If Marquez didn’t pitch half his starts at Coors, he’d probably be a top-10 or 12 pitcher. A 3.77 ERA and 230 strikeouts made him one of the best pitchers on fantasy rosters last year, and his second half might have been one of the best by a pitcher we’ve ever seen. He averaged over six innings per start with a 2.47 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and an insane 33.9% strikeout rate.
The reward with Marquez is obvious, so how much draft capital to spend for him depends on how much risk one wants to attribute to his home park. Supporters will point to the fact that Marquez actually pitched as well or better at home than he did away, but no pitcher so far has truly been able to conquer the park factors that make Coors so tough on pitchers. To insist that Marquez can and will do so is a risk in itself.
Madison Bumgarner (SF)
Bumgarner is no longer the impenetrable 200-inning ace he once was in his prime, but he still has value as a fantasy starter. Spring velocity readings have him closer to his career norms after injury-shortened campaigns the last two years seemed to take their toll. He was never a power pitcher who touched the high-90s with his fastball, instead relying more on the deception of his delivery to keep hitters off balance. Still, a return to 91-94 mph should make those who draft him more optimistic than in recent years, where he was closer to 88-91 mph.
The highly competitive Bumgarner presents great value as a still relatively young pitcher (29) with tremendous pedigree whose stock has fallen due to injury concerns. Supporters will say his injuries were more of the fluke variety (a dirt bike accident in 2017 and a ball hit off his throwing hand during spring training in 2018). Then again, there is risk baked into his depressed ADP. Bumgarner has not stayed healthy in two straight seasons, and his 4.32 xFIP suggests regression could hit last year’s 3.26 ERA hard. Plus, it’s very possible, perhaps even likely, that he gets traded out of the pitching-park haven he has called home his entire career. If he ends up in Milwaukee or Atlanta, the two most rumored destinations, he’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate the same success in a hitter’s park.
Luis Castillo (CIN)
Castillo was on nearly everyone’s sleeper or breakout list last year, and he burned anyone who took him early. Most expected the 17.2% HR/FB rate he posted during 2017’s electric run to go down, but it instead actually increased to 17.9% in 2018. His K/9 also regressed, down from 9.87 in 2017 to 8.75 in 2018. Despite this, many are once again predicting that this will be the year Castillo breaks out, pointing to an xFIP of 3.69, elite velocity, and yet another strong finish to a season highlighted by a near 25% K rate and 2.63 ERA in the second half.
That being said, the reward is hampered by risk since we’ve never seen Castillo do it over a full season, and he still starts half his games in the sandbox that is Great American Ballpark. The key stats here, though, are his ground-ball and hard-hit rates. Castillo posted an elite 58.8 GB% and a hard-hit rate of 29.6% in 2017. The allure from last offseason was finding a pitcher who could post a K/9 over 9.00 who didn’t get hit especially hard and induced ground balls at an elite rate, thus mitigating the damage done by the home-run ball. Instead, we saw Castillo’s ERA go up more than a full run, as the HR/9 shot up from 1.11 in 2017 to 1.49 in 2018 and the Hard% jumped from 29.6 to 38.4%. It’s no coincidence that this coincided with a major drop in GB% (45.9%). Castillo’s velocity and ability to generate swings and misses remains unquestioned, but his inability to harness all his tools over a full season makes drafting him a gamble.
Yu Darvish (CHC)
Darvish was once one of the top pitchers in all of baseball, the prize trade acquisition by the Los Angeles Dodgers for their World Series run in 2017. Since then, he’s battled shoulder injuries and undergone surgery to his pitching elbow. He’s 32 years old now, and while his elite slider will keep his strikeout rate above 25%, you’re betting on health to match the production.
The good thing is that Darvish is going much later in drafts than he once did, but there’s just as good of a chance that he breaks on you as there is that he will return to the ace of old and offer number one starter fantasy production at a number three starter price. Given that, even drafting him as a third starter carries risk considering the other arms at his ADP you could draft instead (Eduardo Rodriguez, Kyle Hendricks, and Shane Bieber). For those seeking upside, one has to wonder if the younger Rodriguez and Bieber carry less risk, and Hendricks certainly fits the bill as a steady SP3, even if the upside isn’t there.
Nick Pivetta (PHI)
Although Pivetta teased a breakout last year thanks to swing-and-miss stuff and a monstrous 10.32 K/9, the home runs (17% career HR/FB) and less than stellar command will always make him a volatile asset. There’s no question Pivetta has electric stuff, and his walk rate improved to a respectable 2.8 BB/9, but he can’t seem to avoid the big inning. If he continues to leave too many pitches over the middle of the plate, he’s going to continue to have an ERA that hovers well above 4.00.
Pivetta’s fastball isn’t particularly effective, so he threw it less last year in favor of more effective sliders and curveballs. His improvement should be noted, but a 4.77 ERA and 1.30 WHIP hardly make him a reliable asset yet. The upside with Pivetta is immense, but until he demonstrates better command, drafting him will be an exercise of weighing risk versus reward.