Pitchers to Target in Deep Leagues (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
In order to qualify for this piece, a pitcher has to have ownership rates under 25% at Yahoo and ESPN. Occasionally, I’ll skirt the rules if a pitcher’s ownership falls under that threshold at one site and is a bit above it at the other. However, that’s not an issue in the season-opening edition, and only two of the ownership rates across the sites even reach double digits. Two of the pitchers highlighted below threw harder in their opener than they did last season, and one of them added a pitch to his arsenal. All three of the hurlers have pitched this year, and each has provided a reason — or reasons — to speculate on them in deeper leagues.
Matt Harvey (LAA): Yahoo – 13%, ESPN – 8%
Harvey’s first start of the year was nothing special, but it wasn’t a disaster either. The 30-year-old righty held the A’s to a couple of runs in six innings on four hits, three walks, and one strikeout. The lackluster strikeout total is disappointing, but don’t worry too much about the three walks. According to FanGraphs, he threw 70.8% of his first pitches for strikes, and his 50.6% Zone rate was up a little bit from his 49.7% in 2018. To put those numbers in perspective, last year’s league averages for F-Strike and Zone rate were 60.6% and 43.0%, respectively.
As for the lack of strikeouts, there are two factors that offer optimism. First, FanGraphs had his average four-seam velocity in the opener at 94.7 mph and his sinker averaging 95.1 mph. The four-seamer’s velo is in line with his average with the Reds (94.9 mph) last season, and his sinker’s velo went up from 93.8 to 95.1 mph. He started last year throwing significantly slower with the Mets, so it’s promising to see him picking up where he left off in regards to his cheddar.
Second, he cut back on his fastball usage in favor of his slider. Harvey threw his fastballs 52.8% of the time in the opener compared to 58.9% with the Reds in 2018, and he kicked his slider usage up from 23.5% with Cincinnati to 29.2% in his first start of 2019. Harvey’s slider is far and away his best pitch, per FanGraphs’ pitch values metrics. I wouldn’t advise starting him against lefty-heavy lineups, but he’s an intriguing streaming option against righty-heavy lineups in leagues as shallow as standard mixers. Harvey should be rostered in 14-team mixed leagues and deeper formats.
Lucas Giolito (CHW): Yahoo – 10%, ESPN – 7%
Giolito closed out a post-hype sleepers piece I penned in late February, and I specifically pointed out his changeup and slider as reasons to hold out hope for the once blue-chip prospect figuring it out. In his season premiere in Kansas City, he threw 99 pitches and turned to the slider 11 times and change 20 times. Giolito racked up four whiffs on each of those offerings, per Brooks Baseball. They were his bread-and-butter bat-missers last year, and he recorded two strikeouts on the change and three on the slider, per FanGraphs. The continued excellence of those two secondaries — even against Kansas City’s bad lineup — is extremely encouraging for those rolling the dice on Giolito, but that’s not where the story ends.
At this point, I’ve sufficiently buried the lede. Giolito threw his heater more than a full tick faster on average in his first start than he did last year. According to Brooks Baseball, Giolito’s four-seam fastball had an average velocity of 93.0 mph and his sinker averaged 92.8 mph last season. In Kansas City, the 24-year-old’s four-seamer averaged 94.1 mph and he didn’t throw any sinkers. With some extra oomph on his four-seamer, he coaxed six whiffs on 54 of them, and he struck out three batters with the pitch. He rounds out his repertoire with a curve, and while it’s not a swing-and-miss pitch, it gives him arsenal depth and induces grounders at a high rate.
Giolito put it all together in his first start, reaching the seventh with a no-hitter intact. Ultimately, he surrendered two runs on three hits, one walk, and eight strikeouts in 6.2 innings. He won’t be the last pitcher to have an excellent start against Kansas City’s dreadful lineup, but, as I’ve outlined, there was more to his first start than feasting on a cupcake. The young righty should be scooped up in 14-team mixed leagues and deeper, and pitcher-needy gamers in standard 12-team mixed leagues (namely those with deep benches) wouldn’t be making a rash move speculating on Giolito.
Frankie Montas (OAK): Yahoo – 4%, ESPN – 4%
Montas amassed a 3.88 ERA in 13 appearances (11 starts) across 65 innings last year, but his 4.60 xFIP and 4.86 SIERA as well as a 5.59 DRA, per Baseball Prospectus, all suggested he was rather lucky. The right-hander was mostly a two-pitch pitcher throwing his fastballs (four-seamer and sinker) 72.4% of the time and his slider 24.6% of the time, with his changeup lagging way behind at 3.0%. Predictably, left-handed batters creamed him to the tune of a .375 wOBA.
Still, it’s easy to dream on a guy with blazing heat (96.9 mph average four-seamer and 96.1 mph average sinker in 2018) as a starting foundation. Though his fastballs were clearly already explosive offerings, he averaged an extra tick of velocity on each of them in the opener. Having said that, it’s always wise to consider the potential of a hot gun. Regardless, velocity isn’t a problem for Montas. Furthermore, his four-seamer was a solid bat-misser with an 11.5% SwStr rate last year.
The only secondary pitch he threw with regularity last year, his slider, was his best put-away pitch with a 14.3 SwStr%. In order to make the switch from a lucky sub-4.00 ERA pitcher to a credible sub-4.00 ERA hurler, he’ll need to find an answer for left-handed batters. His changeup didn’t do the trick last year, but he’s added a splitter to his arsenal. FanGraphs credits him with throwing the pitch 19.5% of the time in his opener and tossing a changeup 2.6% of the time. Brooks Baseball, however, doesn’t have him throwing a change in his first start and assigns the splitter a 22.1% usage rate. I suspect Brooks Baseball is correct and there’s a classification error at FanGraphs.
With that in mind, Brooks had him throwing his new splitter 37.5% of the time to left-handed batters in his first start. He faced 10 left-handed batters, and he surrendered two doubles, one homer, and struck out two. No, that’s not good. However, he picked up four whiffs on the 15 splitters he threw to lefties. Maybe the splitter won’t be the answer for Montas keeping lefties in check, but the whiffs are something for him to build on. Additionally, more reps throwing it could help him turn the corner. Montas doesn’t need to be added in anything smaller than 16-team mixers, but he’s a worthy addition in leagues of that size and larger.