2017 Fantasy Baseball draft strategy: Hunt for aces begins with Carlos Martinez
If you're going to avoid investing in the early-round starting pitchers, Chris Towers has some ace-potential options for you.
If you look at the results of any mock draft we do with industry experts, chances are it’s going to look quite a bit different from the ones you do with your friends, and the biggest difference tends to be at starting pitcher. It’s not that experts don’t want aces, we just tend to be a bit more skeptical about investing heavy draft capital in them than the average fan.
I tend to take that strategy further than most, often waiting until the top-10 starters are off the board to even dip my toes into the pitching pool, and sometimes taking just one with my first eight or nine picks. It’s not that I don’t think the aces at the top of drafts are good, or that I think my ability to find breakouts is any better than anyone else’s. I just think all starters have a pretty high baseline level of volatility, and I would rather not pay up for that.
Of course, the irony of this approach is that, once I do grab my starting pitchers, I tend to have to steer into the curve that is starting pitcher volatility. I have to specifically target pitchers who might have never shown it for a full season, but who nonetheless have the potential to turn into aces. I don’t need to hit on a $2 pitcher who gives me $10 of value; I need on a $15 pitcher who gives me $40.
So, over the course of the next few days, I will be looking at five pitchers who won’t come with ace price points, but who could give you that kind of value if everything goes right. We’ll start with something of an known quantity, Carlos Martinez.
There’s a gap between how good certain metrics think Carlos Martinez has been, and how good anyone with a working pair of eyes who has ever watched him throw a baseball thinks he is.
By ERA, Martinez has been really good over the past two seasons, sporting a 3.02 mark that ranks 10th among 63 qualified starters in that span. However, his 3.42 FIP suggests he’s been the beneficiary of some good luck, and doesn’t quite belong among the best pitchers in the game. To highlight this distinction, I thought it would be interesting to compare Martinez to a pitcher nobody really considers an ace, even when things were going well for him:
Martinez was clearly the better pitcher, largely thanks to his strikeout rate, but overall, they aren’t far apart. The mystery pitcher is Martinez’s former teammate Shelby Miller, another pitcher who walked a few too many batters and didn’t strike out quite as many hitters as you would expect. The latter isn’t quite as big of an issue for Martinez, and gives him both a higher floor and ceiling than Miller, whose good luck finally caught up to him in a disastrous 2016 campaign. However, for a pitcher with pure stuff that is as intimidating as any in baseball, Martinez’s strikeout rates don’t quite blow you away.
In fact, he has basically been average in this regard for two of his three major-league seasons. In 2014, his strikeout rate of 21.8 percent was just ahead of the league average of 20.4 percent, and he was even closer in 2016 (21.5 percent, to 21.1 for the league). Despite featuring a fastball he can dial up to the high 90’s with movement, 2015 was the only season that saw Martinez record a strikeout rate well north of the average pitcher. Perhaps most shockingly, Martinez’s swinging strike rate dipped to just 9.4 percent in 2016, his first season below the league average.
However, Martinez has plenty going for him as he enters his age-25 season. He consistently racks up huge groundball numbers, which is why he has allowed just 28 homers combined in 60 starts over the last two seasons. He also held up well through the third time through the order in 2016, a sign that he has a strong repertoire. With career whiff rates of 19.9 percent and 17.2 percent on his changeup and slider, the numbers certainly back that up. Martinez is reportedly looking to add a curveball this spring, a slower pitch that will give batters a different look.
However, this is also a situation where, as many of my twitter followers like to say, you should just shut up, stop looking at the numbers, and just watch the man throw the ball:
Anyone who can do something like that has to have a little more upside than the numbers might otherwise indicate. Martinez clearly has ace stuff, and the strikeout numbers could follow very quickly. He has talked quite a bit about inducing weak, early contact to go deeper into games, and with his ability to rack up groundballs with his sinker and whiffs with his breaking pitches, he might be the rare pitcher who can pull off both.
I might not love Martinez at the start of the sixth round, where his current ADP lies. However, if I’m looking for a starter who might still have some room to grow, he’s a better bet in that range than the likes of Kyle Hendricks or Cole Hamels. If you’re avoiding a starting pitcher in the first five rounds or so, Martinez could be the high-upside guy to target.
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