6 Players to Buy/Sell (Fantasy Baseball)
If you invested heavily in high-end starting pitching this year, you may be struggling a bit out of the gate. Among the top-10 starters selected in fantasy drafts this spring, only Justin Verlander, Trevor Bauer, and Blake Snell have delivered as advertised for fantasy owners — and Snell is currently on the injured list, along with consensus number two pitcher Jacob deGrom. Meanwhile, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Aaron Nola, Gerrit Cole, and Noah Syndergaard all have ERAs of 4.45 or worse — in some cases, much worse.
I named Nola as a buy-low candidate in the last edition of this column to look at pitchers, but which other fantasy aces should you try to buy at a discount? Let’s take a look.
Players to Buy
Max Scherzer (SP – WAS)
Is it possible to buy-low on the best pitcher on the planet? It’s worth finding out! Scherzer is currently sporting a bloated 4.45 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, but his advanced metrics (2.23 FIP, 2.77 SIERA) indicate that he’s actually been just as good as ever. His 8.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the second best in baseball, but he’s been BABIPed to death — his .395 BABIP allowed is the single highest in the league, and his 63.5 percent left-on-base percentage is among the lowest.
Once Scherzer’s batted ball results normalize, he will again be the best pitcher in all of fantasy baseball, which essentially means that if you can acquire him for any pitcher on your roster, you should do it.
Gerrit Cole (SP – HOU)
Cole is another ace who should be tough to acquire, but perhaps you can convince the Cole owner in your league to spite trade him after he got obliterated for eight earned runs in Texas over the weekend. More level-headed fantasy managers will realize that there’s no shame in having an occasional blowup, particularly in a hitter’s paradise like Globe Life Park.
That horrendous outing shot Cole’s ERA all the way up to 5.22, but his peripherals suggest that his ERA should be closer to 2.80. His strikeout and walk rates are even a bit better than they were in his breakout 2018 season, but he has been victimized by an absurdly-low 47.6 percent strand rate, meaning that more than half of his baserunners have come around to score. That won’t last long.
Simply put, there is still every reason to believe that Cole is the top-tier fantasy ace he was in his first season in Houston, not the frustratingly inconsistent pitcher he was during his five seasons in Pittsburgh. If you can get him for anything less than his draft day price (ADP 26.8), it’s a bargain.
Noah Syndergaard (SP – NYM)
If you can’t manage to get your hands on Scherzer or Cole, Syndergaard would make for a heck of a consolation prize. The fireballing Mets right-hander currently has an ERA close to 6.00, but there is no reason for panic. Thor’s left-on-base percentage of 50.3 percent is the second-lowest among qualified starters behind Cole’s, and his BABIP and HR/FB rate allowed are both a bit inflated when compared to his career averages.
Syndergaard’s strikeout and walk rates are as good as ever, he’s still generating tons of ground balls, and he still has all the makings of a pitcher who can produce an ERA right around 3.00 when all is said and done. Thor’s injury history remains a concern — it’s what kept him out of the upper-echelon of fantasy aces in the first place — but his on-field performance shouldn’t be. If the Syndergaard owner in your league is worried about his unpleasant early-season numbers, it is a prime buying opportunity.
Players to Sell
Jose Berrios (SP – MIN)
If you take a quick glance at Berrios’ sparkling 2.97 ERA and 0.93 WHIP and factor in his highly-touted prospect pedigree, you could make a pretty convincing case that the 24-year old right-hander is emerging as the next top-tier fantasy ace. But a look under the hood casts doubt on the notion that Berrios is experiencing some kind of dramatic breakthrough.
Berrios’ strong surface numbers have been fueled by a .210 BABIP allowed that is among the lowest in baseball and a left-on-base percentage that is among the highest in the league. Meanwhile, his K/9 rate is down slightly from 2018 and his swinging strike rate is only marginally higher than last year. That helps explain why all of the advanced indicators of what his ERA should be — FIP, xFIP, and SIERRA — point to a high-threes/low-fours ERA like the one he’s had each of the last two seasons.
It’s true that Berrios is featuring his impressive curveball more frequently this season, but that simply isn’t enough to hang your hat on. If you can acquire Scherzer, Cole, or even Syndergaard for Berrios, it is a no-brainer in my book.
Marcus Stroman (SP – TOR)
Given his history of a subpar strikeout rate matched with iffy control, I’ve never quite understood the fantasy infatuation with Stroman. This is a player who tends to be overrated in fantasy leagues, particularly roto/categories formats where you’re looking for more than simply an innings eater. And with a 1.76 ERA to begin this year, Stroman is probably more overrated than ever right now.
The next time Stroman gives up a home run will be the first time this season. That’s obviously unsustainable, especially for a pitcher like Stroman that has had issues with the gopher ball in the past. It’s true that Stroman’s K/9 rate has risen to 8.51 this year, but his swinging strike rate hasn’t improved nearly so much, which suggests his K/9 is more likely to trend down towards his career mark of 7.31 than it is to get closer to a batter per inning. And Stroman is issuing more free passes than ever, walking at least four batters in a game twice already this season.
With nearly 700 career innings under his belt, we know what kind of a pitcher Stroman is — and it’s not the kind of pitcher you should be excited about rostering in standard mixed leagues. If someone in your league is drinking the Stroman Kool-Aid, you know what to do.
Max Fried (SP – ATL)
Fried has been a good story so far, but it’s one that is unlikely to have a happy ending for his fantasy owners unless he makes some major adjustments. Fried actually missed a lot of bats at both the minor and Major League levels last season, but he’s been thriving despite giving up a ton of contact this year. His .247 BABIP allowed, 5.0 percent HR/FB rate allowed, and 86.5 percent strand rate all point to a pitcher who’s been more lucky than good so far.
Every once in a while a pitcher succeeds for an entire season with a pitch-to-contact approach (see Mikolas, Miles), but the far more likely outcome is that Fried’s 6.23 K/9 rate and 9.2 percent swinging strike rate prove to be woefully inadequate for long-term success. And if Fried does hit a rough patch, the Braves have no shortage of appealing rotation options who will be ready to take his place.