Fantasy Baseball: Five pitching upgrades to make while watching the All-Star game

Looking to make a second-half run? Of course you are! Whether you are in dire straits and need to make up ground to get into the playoffs or just want to strengthen an already stacked squad, the All-Star break is the perfect time to take stock and make some improvements.

We went over five hitters primed to take a big step forward in the second half Wednesday, and now it's time to do the same with pitchers. These five don't quite have the same cachet or name value as the hitters, but they might have just as much potential to make a difference. Let's get to it.

It's hard to get a feel for where Fantasy players are on James Paxton right now. He had a 5.12 ERA in April, and then followed that up with an unbelievable run in May that saw him post a 1.67 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 43 innings. Since? There have been some big strikeout performances, but he has a 4.09 ERA in seven starts since June 1, a disappointing showing after he looked to be making the ace leap in May.

That leap is still happening, don't worry. Paxton's 3.49 overall ERA is still solid, but it doesn't tell the whole story. He's been one of the best strikeout artists in baseball, and he has the best SIERA and DRA of his career — and a top-10 mark in the majors in both. As shaky as he has been of late, Paxton has established himself as one of the premier pitchers in the game, but he might cost less than that.

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Jon Gray COL • SP • 55

Hey, we all love prospects, right? Jon Gray is in the minors, so … technically he counts?

It's been a bad season for Gray, obviously. The Rockies' presumptive ace stumbled to a 5.77 ERA before his demotion, with just one quality start in his last nine trips to the mound. But, he was better than that. We know he was better than that. Even accounting for how Coors inflates offense, Gray should have had better results than he did, with his 3.11 FIP a clear sign of that. Even allowing for the fact that Coors will probably keep him from ever reaching that mark, he had a 3.67 ERA with a 3.18 FIP last season, so we know he can be better than this. He'll be back soon, and you'll want him on your roster.

I took some heat on a recent episode of the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast for some Jameson Taillon-related hot takes, and I'll admit they were a little crazy — he's not better than Jose Berrios. But Taillon is better than you think he is.

His 3.91 ERA for the season is nothing to write home about, especially coming off a season with a 4.44 mark. However, he introduced a slider into his repertoire on May 27, and has been a different pitcher since. Just look at the splits:

First 10 starts, pre-slider: 4.56 ERA, 5.1 IP per start, 21.9 K%, 7.3 BB%, three starts with 10 or more swinging strikes
Past 8 starts, w/ slider: 3.29 ERA, 6.0 IP per start, 24.5 K%, 6.3 BB%, seven starts with 10 or more swinging strikes

The new pitch hasn't led to a huge increase in strikeouts, yet, but he is in the midst of the best eight-start stretch of his career in swinging strike rate, so those could be coming. He's also issuing fewer walks and generating more groundballs, and it's all led to a 3.09 FIP in that stretch, a top-ten mark. Taillon's always been a more talented pitcher than he's gotten credit for, but he's putting it all together in a fascinating way lately. I'm buying.

There were two versions of Joe Musgrove when he pitched for the Astros, the reliever and the starter. As a starter, Musgrove was pretty mediocre, throwing in the low 90s and sporting a below average strikeout rate in route to a 6.12 ERA and a trip to the bullpen. Once there, however, he was a different pitcher. His average fastball velocity jumped to 95.3 mph, and he struck out 25.8 percent of opposing hitters and had a 1.44 ERA. He was dominant as a reliever, and a disaster as a starter.

So far in 2018, he's been somewhere in the middle, but there are real signs that he's taken what he learned in the 'pen back with him into the rotation. His strikeout rate isn't anywhere close to where it was in the bullpen, but it's above average, and he's kept his average fastball velocity up at 94.2 mph, an above-average mark. He still has great control and a solid groundball rate, leading to a 3.38 DRA through eight starts.

Musgrove has the potential to be an above-average starter, and we're seeing flashes. The best part? Musgrove is RP eligible, and available in 55 percent of CBSSports.com leagues. Go get him.

Steven Matz has been getting good results all season, but he hasn't been a particularly good pitcher this year. A 4.23 SIERA paints a prettier pitcher than his 4.65 FIP, but any way you slice it, he's had some good luck. So, why am I touting Matz as a pitcher to target for the second half?

Because he's not the same guy he was earlier in the season lately. In fact, of late there are signs that he's more like the guy we were so excited about a few years ago, thanks to the return of an important weapon in his development: His slider. Matz ditched the pitch last season while dealing with elbow issues, and didn't throw any in his first five starts. He's only throwing it about 8 percent of the time since May, and though it didn't pay immediate dividends — Matz struck out just 15 batters in five May starts — we're starting to see better signs of late. He has a 3.07 ERA over his last seven starts since June 1, with a 21.8 percent strikeout rate and 7.7 percent walk rate, and a 3.65 FIP in that span backs up his improvements. As Matz gets more comfortable throwing the slider — his best swing-and-miss pitch both this season and for his career — it's not hard to see him getting even better. It's been a key for him in the past, and it's back. Maybe his current owner hasn't realized it yet. 

Fantasy Writer

Though he can be found covering three different sports depending on the time of year, there is one unifying theme in how Chris Towers approaches sports; "Where's the evidence?" It doesn't matter how outlandish... Full Bio

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