High-Risk, High-Reward Pitchers (Fantasy Baseball 2020)
Pitchers are inherently volatile. In the age of high velocity, it seems Tommy John surgery has become a rite 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 consternation — among fantasy baseball drafters and rankers alike.
The reason for this is simple. We all want Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale 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.
Last year, I identified Jack Flaherty, Luis Castillo, Yu Darvish, and Madison Bumgarner as high-reward but high-risk pitchers to consider in 2019 drafts, along with strong mentions for Eduardo Rodriguez and Shane Bieber. Castillo, Flaherty, and Bieber were highly rewarding, indeed, and all figure to get selected with confidence among the top-20 pitchers this year. Darvish delivered an elite second half for owners who stuck with him, and Bumgarner and Rodriguez each surpassed the 200-inning threshold with respectable ratios and over 200 strikeouts.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that it wasn’t all peaches and cream, as I also nominated German Marquez and Nick Pivetta as high-risk, high-reward arms in 2019. Pivetta washed out, and Marquez became the latest victim of Coors Field.
They don’t call it high-risk and high-reward for nothing.
For 2020, the following pitchers represent high-reward but high-risk pitchers on draft day.
Chris Paddack (SD)
Chris Paddack quickly saw his ADP rise last summer when the larger fantasy community caught on to his minor league numbers, and it was announced he would figure into the Padres’ rotation plans. He would go on to toss 140 innings with a solid 9.79 K/9 and 3.33 ERA. Much of his success centered around the effectiveness of his changeup.
However, a .405 xFIP revealed that Paddack’s mostly two-pitch mix would probably need a viable third pitch if he hoped to find sustained success in the Majors. His fastball lacks elite velocity, as it hovers around 94 mph, and hitters may be able to sit on the changeup now unless Paddack develops a third offering.
Keenly aware of this, Paddack reportedly spent the offseason trying to hone his curveball; however, those same sources also indicate he will be limited to 180 innings this year as well. At his current ADP (61.4, 19th starting pitcher drafted), you’re depending on that curveball being a hit and Paddack reaching that innings threshold. You will also need his changeup to maintain the kind of O-swing% you see modeled in the clip above.
Tyler Glasnow (TB)
Tyler Glasnow has teased fantasy owners for years, given his draft pedigree and stuff. Turns out, all it took was for Glasnow to escape Pittsburgh for him to realize his potential. With an ADP of 77.0 (22nd starting pitcher taken in drafts), Glasnow faces innings concerns much like Paddack.
In fact, Glasnow has never tossed more than 124 innings in his professional career, and that was back in 2014 for the Pirates’ High-A affiliate. Injuries played a role in all that, but owners taking Glasnow at his ADP as roughly a top-75 player will need him to produce the best possible outcome of his projections to deliver on his draft day cost, especially with 200 inning stalwarts like Jose Berrios and Zack Wheeler going after him.
Like Paddack, Glasnow also plans on adding a third pitch to his repertoire, as he will feature his changeup more after throwing it fewer than 5% of the time last year, and it’s a pitch that has produced a 13% career SwStr%. The inherent risk and limited track record seem like they have linked Paddack and Glasnow together, as their ADP suggests fantasy owners largely see them as similar assets with almost identical contextual factors surrounding their wide range of possible projections heading into this season.
Corey Kluber (TEX)
The curious case of Corey Kluber began in the second half of 2018 after a few seasons with a sub-3.oo ERA and a Cy Young Award. In 2019, Kluber suffered a fractured forearm and an oblique injury that essentially cost him all of last year aside from a horrendous April where he pitched to a 5.80 ERA. Kluber has seen his fastball velocity drop to alarming levels, and the peripherals have been trending downward for years now.
Kluber will turn 34 in April, and older pitchers who suddenly start getting hurt have a tendency to stay hurt until they eventually flame out. Kluber flashed league-winning stuff and command as recently as the first half of 2018, so it’s more than reasonable to expect a return to form as a productive pitcher.
Nobody is drafting Kluber as if he remains at his peak, but as a player taken within the top-100 overall, there’s a chance Kluber isn’t worth a top-30 pitcher price.
Lance Lynn (TEX)
Lance Lynn was a top-three pitcher based on WAR last year, and this came after reducing his sinker usage by 15.5%, ultimately throwing the pitch less than 18% of the time while leaning more heavily on a four-seam fastball. The results? Nearly a run shaved off his ERA and a career-high 10.63 K/9.
Lynn saw a precipitous drop in his GB% with the reduced sinker usage, going from an extreme ground ball pitcher in 2018 (49.7% GB%) to a below-average rate (40.3% GB%) while greater fastball deployment led to an increase in FB% (27.%1 to 38.3%). The recipe worked, as evidenced by a 3.83 SIERA that largely backs up the improved ERA.
As a result of Lynn’s success last year, his ADP has risen from going virtually undrafted in 2019 to getting selected inside the top-130 picks or so as the 36th starting pitcher off the board, on average. If Lynn remains committed to his pitch mix change and altered arsenal, it’s possible he’s worth the risk owners will have to take if they believe a pitcher can remake himself with sustainable gains at age 33.
Dinelson Lamet (SD)
Dinelson Lamet has been demonstrating otherworldly K/9 rates at all levels of his professional career. Last season, he posted a 3.41 ERA with 81 strikeouts across 58 innings, and the 3.44 xFIP backs up his success. Lamet’s 12.95 K/9 would have ranked third behind only Gerrit Cole and Chris Sale in 2019 — if he had enough innings to qualify.
Armed with elite velocity and a wipeout slider to go along with a curveball and sinker, Lamet has the stuff and makings of an ace. The biggest obstacle to his success, and what makes him a risky investment at his current ADP (134.4, inside the top-40 starting pitchers), is his troubling command. Lamet’s walk rate (3.70 in 2019) coupled with a tendency to serve up the long ball could easily derail his season. If he can limit the home runs allowed and reduce the number of free passes, Lamet’s ceiling is sky-high.