Fantasy Baseball: Five pitching sleepers (plus a few more), using ACES

Editor's Note: Last week, we introduced Aaron Sauceda's ACES metric, a new way to assess pitchers by their stuff, and a new way to find Fantasy values or potential busts. Now, he's putting that metric to use to identify some late-round pitchers to target. To see all 32 pitchers this metric likes as late-round sleepers, visit SportsLine.com now, and use the offer code "SCORE" to get access for half off your first month.

It's late in the draft — the reserves rounds are about to start. Your palms are sweaty. Your guys are flying off the board. You're happy with the foundation of your pitching staff, but then again, so is everyone else with theirs. You're looking for your league-winning edge.

"Don't draft scared; draft skills," as high-stakes player and The Athletic contributor Matt Modica likes to say.

And there may be no better skill to bet on than a pitcher's ability to throw fast with movement and precision — particularly late in drafts. For that, let's turn to ACES, a sticky and predictive metric that we debuted last week. ACES grades the quality of a pitcher's raw stuff — velocity, movement and command. As expected, there were elite names at the top of the ACES list, but it was the others that really grabbed our imaginations.

Pairing ACES with projections and sticky skills metrics such as K-BB%, SIERA and DRA, perhaps we have the tools to place sharp bets on who has a chance to be this year's Blake Snell. Okay, maybe not Snell-level good, but pitchers emerge from late in drafts every year to produce as key contributors and then go 100-plus picks earlier the next season. Last year we saw pitchers go after pick 200 such as Patrick Corbin, Mike Clevinger, Miles Mikolas, Eduardo Rodriguez, Walker Buehler, Jack Flaherty … you get the point.

And that's where this really gets fun — identifying targets that other owners aren't pushing and shoving to get their hands on, sparking a bidding war that crushes any realistic shot of big profits.

So, who should we be betting on late in drafts this season? Who are the names to highlight when our boards start to thin out?

To identify those names, here's one cut at a rubric:

  • ADP after pick 200 (NOTE: used NFBC ADP — draft champions, 1/12/19 through 2/12/19, n = 32 drafts)
  • Top third arsenal as judged by ACES
  • Strong depth of arsenal to reduce times through the order penalty — at least three pitches thrown 10%+
  • Projected ERA below 4.75 by both Steamer and THE BAT — starting pitches projected over a 4.75 ERA are nearly two times more likely to be sent down or to the bullpen ("sucking risk"), according to research found in The Process

This leaves us with 32 names of varying intrigue (full list at the bottom) — Eno Sarris ($) recently touched on five of them that he really likes. Let's discuss a different set of five that I'll seek to be overweight on this draft season. I'd love to call them "sleepers," but in this information age, it's hard to call anyone that. Let's just hope that you can acquire them quietly without a fight, and that they — or even just one of them — give you a 10x return.

Here are my five, sorted by the ACES metric:

ZACH EFLIN, RHP, PHI (93rd ACES percentile, 333 ADP)

Let's start with the good — Zach Eflin has produced in the major leagues. Look at the tale of his two halves last season:

 

IP

ERA

FIP

xFIP

K-BB%

1st Half

69

3.15

3.04

3.81

19.0%

2nd Half

59

5.76

4.68

4.27

12.3%

Season

128

4.36

3.80

4.02

15.7%

He was good in the first half! He also struck out more batters than he had previously at any level. Perhaps this can help explain:

eflin.jpg

Eflin added nearly two ticks of velocity early last season — potentially due to finally addressing previous knee issues. Previous research found that each mph is worth roughly 0.25 ERA, so that helps explain Eflin's early season success.

However, he lost some of that as the season wore on, which is particularly concerning given that cold weather and early season ramp-up tend to suppress velocity when the season starts.

Based on research by Jeff Zimmerman, I try not to place the "injury prone" label on anyone, unless it's chronic. Still, one of the biggest predictors of future injury is past injury. Eflin struggled with oblique pain late last season and blisters earlier in the season. He also had shoulder surgery in 2017 and knee surgery in 2016. He's far from a perfect health bet.

But perhaps that — the oblique pain, in particular — helps explain his second half struggles and velocity dip?

On a positive note, there's also this:

Down the stretch in September, Eflin simplified his pitch mix by reducing usage of his curve and slider in favor of his changeup and cutter. In particular, curbing use of the curve for the changeup looks to be a positive shift. His curve rated in the bottom 30 percent by ACES, whiffs and grounders/popups while his change was well above average in those regards:

 

Fourseam

Sinker

Cutter

Curve

Slider

Change

Frequency

46%

12%

3%

5%

23%

11%

PERCENTILES:

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACES

94%

98%

94%

29%

82%

91%

Whiffs

74%

98%

15%

18%

38%

77%

GB+PU%

44%

42%

14%

22%

53%

62%

Public projections aren't crazy about Eflin, projecting him anywhere from a 4.24 to 4.60 ERA — that includes heavily regressing his home run rate closer to his lower velocity days, a move that I'm not sure is prudent. Rob Silver pointed out that PECOTA likes Eflin as its 42nd best starter per inning; he's currently going as the 93rd starting pitcher by ADP.

We haven't even mentioned the potential for his historically poor infield defense to improve. It's only one data point, but Statcast believes Eflin's BABIP on groundballs should have been anywhere from 20-50 points better with a Statcast "expected" ERA of 3.65.

Overall, Eflin has a profile I want to bet on — five pitches above the 80th percentile by ACES, with him potentially scrapping his worst one. Keep an eye on his health and pitch mix in spring training. While the public is fawning over his teammate, Nick Pivetta — justifiably so, I might add — you can scoop Eflin up nearly 200 picks later. Fade the grounder BABIP noise and bet on Eflin's stuff.

JONATHAN LOAISIGA, RHP, NYY (87th percentile, 536 ADP)

Similar to Eflin, Loaisiga has flashed skills at the big-league level. Look at this 2018 line:

IP

ERA

DRA

SIERA

K-BB%

K%

BB%

24.2

5.11

3.29

3.44

19.4%

30.6%

11.1%

Those skills didn't translate into immediate production in his short stint (5.11 ERA), which could have partially been due to a high .383 BABIP. Loaisiga didn't help matters with his walks, but dammit does he have stuff:

 

Fourseam

Curve

Change

Frequency

53%

35%

12%

PERCENTILES:

 

 

 

ACES

92%

91%

64%

Whiffs

43%

99%

99%

GB+PU%

98%

78%

100%

Sarris covered Loaisiga's arsenal ($) when he came up last June — he possesses a high-velocity fastball, above-average changeup and a potentially elite curveball, similar to Jacob deGrom's and Lance McCullers' curves. You could certainly be in worse company. His fourseam was elite at inducing grounders while his curve and changeup were elite at nearly everything.

Command doesn't seem to be a huge issue but walks and homers certainly were last season. We also only saw him at the major league level for 24 innings and that might be artificially keeping his velocity a tick higher. And, perhaps because of his smaller stature and previous injuries, he's a giant injury risk. Read any report about Loaisiga and it will rave about the stuff but caution you with his injury history.

Loaisiga made an appearance on Carson Cistulli's Fringe Five as a prospect of interest last season before being called up. He's also FanGraphs' Eric Longenhangen's and Kiley McDaniel's number two Yankees' prospect; they noted that "if evaluating purely on stuff, Loaisiga belongs in the overall Top 100 pretty easily." FanGraphs' Fantasy prospect contributor, Marc Hulet, ranked Loaisiga as his top Yankees prospect, saying he "has No. 2 starter potential." Projections peg him with a high 3's ERA and 25 percent-plus strikeout rate. By nearly every measure I can find, Loaisiga has the talent.

Of course, playing time remains a complete mystery — we haven't mentioned the elephant in the room yet: he doesn't have a spot in the rotation!

Still, those things tend to work themselves out. As it stands, the Sonny Gray trade may have cleared one more obstacle. You don't let talent like Loaisiga's go this late without loading up. At an ADP of 500-plus, the cost is virtually free while the upside is immense.

(Related: I like Loaisiga more than his teammate also on this list, Domingo German (75th percentile, 465 ADP), but for many similar reasons, I like German as well.)

CALEB SMITH, LHP, MIA (73rd percentile, 413 ADP)

Acquired alongside Garrett Cooper from the Yankees after the 2017 season, Smith flashed skills before a grade three lat strain sustained in June required season-ending shoulder surgery:

IP

ERA

DRA

SIERA

K-BB%

K%

BB%

77.1

4.19

4.05

4.08

16.9%

27.0%

10.1%

Those numbers may have looked slightly better had he not made his final start — 1.1 innings and two earned runs in Colorado — when he was potentially injured (his FIP decreases by nearly 20 points when removing it, from 3.96 to 3.79).

And Smith has stuff, particularly when you consider he's pitching from the left side — velocity-driven evaluations such as ACES tend to underrate lefties, who average a few mph less of velocity than righties:

 

Fourseam

Slider

Change

Frequency

59%

27%

14%

PERCENTILES:

 

 

 

ACES

87%

52%

53%

Whiffs

86%

61%

69%

GB+PU%

28%

53%

39%

His fourseam is above average — with a spin rate that ranked 19th among all MLB pitchers and fifth among lefties — and he pairs it with two average offerings by ACES that generate above-average whiffs. Also, it can't hurt to pitch half of your games in Marlins Park, a pitcher's haven by nearly every measure.

As part of his Quick Looks series last season, Jeff Zimmerman assessed Smith's arsenal as potentially top 50 among starting pitchers, in line with values of Luis Castillo and Rich Hill. Projections also like Smith, projecting him to finish with an ERA in the 3.96-4.01 range with a 24 percent strikeout rate, tidy numbers to be had after pick 400.

STEVEN MATZ, LHP, NYM (72nd percentile, 250 ADP)

One of these is not like the other — can you spot it?

Season

IP

ERA

DRA

SIERA

K-BB%

2015

36

2.27

3.62

3.63

16.1%

2016

132

3.40

3.34

3.51

17.9%

2017

67

6.08

6.03

4.71

9.7%

2018

154

3.97

3.62

4.10

14.4%

Matz underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, tore a lat muscle in 2015, had surgery on his throwing elbow to remove bone spurs in 2016 and struggled with elbow injuries in 2017, ultimately undergoing season-ending elbow surgery in August. He also spent time on the injured list in 2018 due to a strain in his throwing forearm.

Like Loaisiga, his injury profile makes him among the riskiest bets — even by pitching standards. But you could have said the same thing last season about his teammate, Zack Wheeler, who had the stuff (82nd percentile by ACES in 2017) but couldn't piece together the health. At this point in drafts, bet on skills.

Matz has skills and, as a lefty like Smith, may have underrated stuff by the ACES evaluation:

 

Sinker

Curve

Slider

Change

Frequency

60%

16%

8%

16%

PERCENTILES:

 

 

 

 

ACES

84%

76%

38%

84%

Whiffs

76%

69%

37%

48%

GB+PU%

30%

85%

91%

14%

He ranks 10th among lefties by ACES, ahead of more highly drafted southpaws like David Price, Kyle Freeland and Patrick Corbin. Projections think Matz can repeat his high 3's to low 4's ERA from last season with a similar 22-23 percent strikeout rate. Based on his stuff and potential clean bill of health, you can imagine a scenario where he gets back closer to his ERA estimators in the 3.60 range.

ROSS STRIPLING, RHP, LAD (66th percentile, 221 ADP)
Stripling is admittedly a bigger bet than the others on this list. He's the most expensive while also not having a firm rotation spot. He likely benefitted from his midseason transition into the starting rotation, allowing him to maintain some of his higher bullpen velocity.

As the season wore on, however, he lost some velocity— moving from 93 in March and April to 91 in August. Based on his splits in games that he started in the first and second halves, it's fair to wonder if the velocity downturn had an effect:

 

IP

ERA

FIP

xFIP

K-BB%

1st Half

80

2.36

2.85

2.63

25.9%

2nd Half

26

6.49

5.90

3.78

15.8%

Season

106

3.39

3.60

2.86

23.5%

Did the initial velocity bump help his skills play up? He also spent time on the injured list for toe and back injuries, creating an interesting conundrum — Did his performance suffer because he was hurt or did he get hurt because he was overextended as a starter?

Still, in the second half, aside from his wild 2.7 HR/9 — a potentially valid concern, particularly given Sarris' research that Dodger Stadium might actually be a hitter's paradise for HR — his skills remained intact as judged by his solid 15.8% K-BB%. And he was damn near historic in May! It's hard to fake your way to that level of production.

He's got stuff, too. Not only does he throw four pitches more than 10% of the time and three pitches more than 20% of the time, his arsenal is led by a nearly-plus pitch. Look at that curve:

 

Fourseam

Curve

Slider

Change

Frequency

42%

23%

24%

11%

PERCENTILES:

 

 

 

 

ACES

41%

93%

92%

22%

Whiffs

68%

87%

17%

75%

GB+PU%

23%

85%

77%

89%

And then there's this:

stripling.jpg

Could Stripling go the way of "McCullersing" — throwing his breaking pitch more than 40% of the time — like Lance McCullers and Patrick Corbin before him? He increased his curve usage each month — save for August when he only pitched 6 innings — and finished September throwing it nearly 30% of the time. The results weren't great (6.75 ERA) but it also came in a tiny sample (12 innings).

Based on cost and stuff, Stripling might be my least favorite of this bunch. But he's a way to get relatively cheap exposure to a Dodgers rotation that tends to see chaos every season while still producing quality innings. Although projections see him starting fewer  than half his games — creating a better projection than if he were solely starting — his projected line of a mid 3's ERA, sub-1.20 WHIP and 24 percent strikeout rate definitely plays.

If he's healthy and those injured list trips he made last season were the primary drivers behind his second half struggles — not the decrease in velocity— then watch out, particularly if he finds his way into the rotation earlier than expected and continues to lean on that curve.

(Update: Manager Dave Roberts indicated Wednesday that the Dodgers won't hold an open competition for any rotation spots in spring training, meaning Stripling will likely open the 2019 campaign in the bullpen, Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times reports.

Author's Note: That hasn't stopped the Dodgers from rotating arms in the rotation before.)

BONUS ROUND

Okay, maybe a couple more! This piece wouldn't be complete without at least a brief mention of these guys:

JOSH JAMES (97th percentile, 184 ADP)

 

Fourseam

Slider

Change

Frequency

60%

19%

21%

PERCENTILES:

 

 

 

ACES

97%

59%

98%

Whiffs

79%

33%

95%

GB+PU%

63%

41%

96%

Including James here is cheating — he doesn't quite qualify for this list based on his ADP and he'll be everyone's popular "sleeper" this draft season. But there's a strong reason for that!

Despite only pitching 23 innings for Houston last season, his arsenal flashed 97th percentile stuff during that time. His stuff really woke up last season after treatment for sleep apnea appeared to unlock fastball velocity pushing 97-98 mph. He also ranks among Carson Cistulli's all-time Fringe Five favorites. Houston's 2018 rotation has vacated three spots between Charlie Morton (signed with TB), Lance McCullers (injured – TJ) and Dallas Keuchel (free agent), and James is projected to grab one of them.

MICHAEL FULMER (90th percentile, 312 ADP)

 

Fourseam

Sinker

Slider

Change

Frequency

25%

35%

25%

14%

PERCENTILES:

 

 

 

 

ACES

80%

92%

96%

88%

Whiffs

96%

48%

70%

45%

GB+PU%

63%

26%

21%

85%

I know Eno discussed Fulmer as well, but I couldn't help it.

Fulmer posted a FIP of 3.76 and 3.67 in 2016 and 2017, respectively, but struggled in 2018 with both performance (4.52 FIP) and injuries (an oblique injured list stint followed by knee surgery that ended his season early).

However, he still has plus velocity on his fastballs (fourseam and sinker) and above average velocity, movement and command on his slider — not to mention his strong changeup. Add it all up and he has four pitches better than 75th percentile that he throws more than 10% of the time — three of which he throws more than 20% of the time.

Command might be a slight issue for Fulmer and he seemed to wear down as games went on last season, to the tune of a 6.30 FIP in his third time through the order. However, if he can put health issues behind him — with a 3.60 projected ERA, THE BAT is quite bullish — he could re-assert himself as a mixed league asset. Just don't expect wins to buoy his stock as Detroit projects to comfortably be a bottom five team.

FERNANDO ROMERO (77th percentile, 600 ADP)

Romero would have been listed in the honorable mentions if not for this bit of news, per MLB.com:

"Now that the Twins appear committed to using him as a reliever this season, he could become an immediate factor in the battle for the open closer's role."

Romero's ADP will certainly climb based on this news. He has interesting stuff that could play up in a reliever's role, which would also help his below-average-to-minus (bordering on minus-minus, in some cases) command:

 

Fourseam

Sinker

Slider

Change

Frequency

31%

32%

25%

12%

PERCENTILES:

 

 

 

 

ACES

63%

95%

41%

98%

Whiffs

86%

77%

51%

43%

GB+PU%

20%

92%

3%

85%

Then again, particularly with more progressive bullpen utilization across the league, the most skilled guys aren't always the ones getting the handshakes. Still, don't forget about Romero and his 77th percentile stuff in Minnesota's closer battle.

HONORABLE MENTIONS — WORTH FURTHER ASSESSMENT: Jordan Lyles (92nd ACES percentile, 685 ADP); Aaron Sanchez (90th, 371 ADP); Trevor Cahill (67th, 384 ADP)

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