2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: How the Pirates rotation — yes, those Pirates — could lead you to a title
The Pirates as a source of real sleeper upside for starting pitchers? Big changes make them potential Fantasy gold.
Over the past few years, the Pirates haven't been a team that has been particularly helpful for your Fantasy team's chances of winning a championship. Last season, no Pirates pitcher finished better than 279th in overall Rotisserie scoring; there hasn't been a single top 20 starting pitcher on the Pirates since Gerrit Cole in 2015, and only once since has a Pirates pitcher even finished in the top-100 overall.
In fact, if the Pirates have been known for anything over the past few years, it's how much better pitcher tend to perform once they leave. Cole made the leap to superstardom basically immediately upon going from Pittsburgh to Houston; Tyler Glasnow appears to have made a similar leap when he joined the Rays. In an era that is trending away from fastball-heavy arsenals, the Pirates have been stubbornly stuck in the past, leading baseball in percentage of fastballs thrown in three of the past four years, and they were second the other year.
That's all changing this year, and it could lead to one of the biggest market inefficiencies in Fantasy this draft season: Pirates pitchers. Specifically, Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer and Mitch Keller — some of my favorite late-round sleeper pitchers for 2020. This is a talented pitching staff, but talent has never been the problem for the Pirates — Glasnow and Cole were plenty talented before they left Pittsburgh. The problem has been that old-school approach, focused on creating contact rather than avoiding it.
The Pirates hired Oscar Marin to replace Ray Searage, and Marin promises to bring the Pirates into the present. Pirates players are already talking about what an effective job Marin has done in communicating how and why the team plans to introduce more advanced analytics into their approach.
"It's pretty much like, 'Here. This is what everybody else has. This is what they're going to look at, and this is how we analyze it. You can use it if you want.' It's knowledge that isn't forced," reliever Kyle Crick told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently. "I'm used to the lack of the knowledge."
What does that look like for each of the Pirates' late-round starters? Keller, the fresh-faced, recent-prospect of the bunch, has been candid in talking about how he figures his approach will change in 2020. Keller — who ranked in the 94th percentile by the ACES metric, just behind Mike Clevinger and just ahead of Chris Sale — was probably the biggest victim of the Pirates fastball-heavy approach in his MLB debut in 2019. Despite being blessed with elite fastball stuff, Keller got crushed when he threw the pitch, allowing a .461 batting average and .719 slugging percentage on fastballs in play. The problem? He was too predictable in his approach. That was one of the first things Marin talked to him about this offseason.
"I knew I threw a lot of fastballs, but I didn't really know the numbers to a 'T' or anything like that," Keller told MLB.com at the start of spring training. "But sitting down with Oscar and [bullpen coach Justin Meccage], they went over it this offseason and really dove deep into my usage, my splits to righties and lefties. It was pretty high on the fastball, which is probably one of the reasons my fastballs got hit around more than usual — because I was throwing it more than usual, and guys were just sitting on it."
Keller clearly has the stuff to thrive at the major-league level, and his slider and curveball were both weapons racking up big swinging strike rates with batting averages allowed on both around the Mendoza line. The key will be using those pitches more, as well as refining his changeup to lengthen his arsenal and help keep lefties off balance. However, he managed a 3.56 ERA in a league with an average ERA of 4.90 in the International League last season, so the ability is there. And, unlike with Glasnow or Cole, the Pirates finally seem armed with an approach to help Keller live up to his vast potential.
Keller is one of my favorite late-round sleepers — I snagged him for $1 in our recent H2H auction — but I'm making Musgrove and Archer priorities, too. And, in both of their cases, the turnaround might have started late last season.
Musgrove saw a significant increase in fastball velocity over his last five starts of the season, beginning with his start in Philadelphia on Aug. 26, when he averaged 93.8 mph, his highest of the season to date. Each subsequent start would improve on that, and he posted a 2.89 ERA with 32 strikeouts and only five walks in 28 innings over those final five starts. That was despite staying in the rotation all season for the first time in his major-league career.
Musgrove has carried that increased velocity over into his early spring starts, despite telling reporters Sunday he was dealing with some mild discomfort in his shoulder. He is also focusing on throwing the four-seamer up in the zone more often — and that's where whiffs live for the fastball, as The Athletic's Eno Sarris noted recently:
We'll have to keep an eye on how Musgrove's shoulder is feeling in his next few starts, but it doesn't seem like a concern right now — it wasn't an issue in Sunday's start against the Blue Jays. If Musgrove can sustain the velocity jump, it will only help his deep arsenal play up.
And as for Archer, I'm sure many of you groaned out loud when you saw his name come up. I mentioned that I was going to be writing about this trio on Twitter and had multiple people say they would never draft Archer again, which is just bad Fantasy management. It doesn't matter whether a specific player has hurt you in the past. All that matters is whether they have the chance to help you in the future. And in Archer's case, he definitely does.
Especially at his current cost, which is the 337th player drafted in early-March ADP. Archer ditched his ineffective sinker midway through 2019 and went back to being the mostly fastball/slider pitcher he was in his heyday in Tampa Bay. He still had an unsightly 4.65 ERA over his final 12 starts, but also got back to being an elite strikeout pitcher and lowered his HR/9 to a more manageable 1.35. And, despite the ugly ERA, his 3.83 FIP in that stretch suggests Archer already got back to being a useful Fantasy option.
Expect that approach to continue in 2020, with Marin emphasizing that Archer needs to pitch to his strengths. Archer's career got derailed by attempts to introduce various other pitches into his arsenal, most notably a sinker and curveball, but neither helped fix the underlying issues. Archer will likely continue to struggle with the long ball, leading to a worse ERA than you might otherwise hope for. However, if he can get back to being an elite strikeout pitcher who can go deep into games, you'll gladly take it. There's 250-plus strikeout potential here. Chase it.
So which sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Kenta Maeda's huge breakout last season, and find out.
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