3 Veteran Pitchers Worth Targeting in Fantasy Baseball
The age of a player can rightfully dictate a lot about the outlook we give on their expected production for the upcoming season.
Youth is exciting, but chasing after the potential breakout season is a risky endeavor. There's risk in staring at the ceiling while overlooking what falling on the floor could look like.
Everyone's tolerance for taking on risk at the draft table will vary. However, we can all agree that trying to isolate value players throughout a season-long draft is a continual exercise. The age of players is one such ticket to finding some of those possible values in all spots along the draft board.
In that vein, here are three older pitchers, each over the age of 30, who can be productive fantasy assets in 2017.
Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers
Over the last nine years, Cole Hamels has proven himself to be among the most reliable starters in baseball. During that span, he's answered the bell for an average 31.8 starts and 210 2/3 innings per season.
The 2016 campaign was his first full season spent solely in the American League. And even though the results were mostly good, there are some oddities within the underlying numbers. Coupled with turning 33 years old in December, Hamels is currently ranked just outside the top-20 starting pitchers in the consensus rankings on Fantasy Pros . His ADP in early National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts is presently 19th among pitchers.
A review of last year shows Hamels posting a ground-ball rate of 49.6 percent, easily his highest rate since 2011 and good for 17th among qualified starters. His usage of the cutter was at a career-high 23 percent, up more than 8 percentage points from the prior season. Despite some changes in his pitch selection and batted-ball profile, Hamels once again posted a near-elite swinging strike rate of 12.2 percent, right in line with his 12.4 percent career figure.
However, there are a few things on the negative side of the ledger. Walks were up -- way up, in fact. After walking 5.5 percent of batters faced in 2013, Hamels saw his percentage of base on balls allowed jump to 7.1 percent each of the next two seasons. Last year, the rate of free passes ballooned up to 9.1 percent, 13th-highest among starters. Some of that may be due to Hamels adjusting to the American League, but whatever the reason, the increase in walks is an issue.
Perhaps the oddest occurrence for Hamels was the disappearance of pop-ups. At just 4.1 percent -- way off his career rate of 10.8 percent -- Hamels tied for second-smallest infield fly-ball rate among starters. In 2015, Hamels induced pop-ups at a rate that was the 14th-highest among starters.
Last year ended on an ugly note, unfortunately. After throwing a gem -- 8 innings, 2 hits, 8 strikeouts and no walks) against the Cleveland Indians on August 25th, Hamels owned a 2.67 ERA across 168 2/3 innings. Hamels was subsequently rocked by the Seattle Mariners in consecutive starts, and his year came to an end following an ugly postseason start -- 6 runs and 1 strikeout over 3 1/3 innings) against the Toronto Blue Jays. Over his final seven starts, a span of 35 1/3 innings, Hamels was taken for a 6.75 ERA.
Aside from a spiked walk rate, Hamels was successfully navigating his way through a new league until the final month. All of this while revamping his pitching arsenal, welcoming a new starting catcher in Jonathan Lucroy after an August 1st trade, and dealing with the sixth-ranked home ballpark for run production, according to ESPN's MLB Park Factors. Even though Hamels just squeaked by in reaching 200 innings and 200 strikeouts last year, it's an achievement that only eight others have accomplished each of the last two seasons.
John Lackey, Chicago Cubs
John Lackey is entering his age-38 season, coming off a career bests in strikeouts per nine innings (8.60) and swinging-strike rate (11.5 percent). Those stand in stark contrast to his career averages of 7.23 and 9.1, respectively. After posting his best ERA season (2.77) with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015, Lackey put together a solid 3.35 ERA as a member of the Chicago Cubs. During the postseason, he started Game 4 in all three series, but he was only asked to throw 13 total innings, posting a lackluster 4.85 ERA while still fanning a dozen batters.
The Cubs' historically elite defense allowed four of the team's starters to finish in the top eight of BABIP against. Lackey ranked sixth with a tidy .255 figure. Wrigley Field was indeed a friendly locale for him. Over 110 innings at Wrigley, Lackey compiled a 2.62 ERA and microscopic .201 batting average against.
On the road, opponents for picked up nearly 30 percentage points of batting average and tagged Lackey with a 4.37 ERA across 78 1/3 innings. However, a dozen of the 38 earned runs allowed while wearing the visiting gray uniform came in April. In other words, nearly 32 percent of Lackey's damage allowed on the road came in two of his first four starts of the year. From May through the end of the season, Lackey produced a 3.09 ERA over 25 total regular season starts, amounting to 163 innings.
Since missing all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery, Lackey has pitched nearly 794 innings with a 3.35 ERA, compared to a 4.10 ERA from 2002 to 2011. Even while aging very gracefully, Lackey managed to be the only Cubs qualified starter who didn't win 15 games. FantasyPros are ranking Lackey in the low 30s while NFBC drafters are clicking on his name after nearly 40 other starters are off the board.
J.A. Happ, Toronto Blue Jays
On the surface, there is very little reason to be interested in J.A. Happ, a pitcher entering his age-34 season with a career mark of 7.62 strikeouts per nine innings and having never reached the 200-inning plateau. In fact, he fanned a lowly 7.52 hitters per nine innings last season, and the Steamer projection system only likes him to whiff 7.67 batters per nine this season.
Thankfully, there's plenty of reason to believe the projection is wrong -- possibly very wrong.
That's because Happ has proven himself capable of spiking his strikeouts upward in a big way within a season. In 2015, the Mariners moved him to the Pittsburgh Pirates midseason, meaning tutelage from highly-respected pitching coach Ray Searage. Prior to the deal, Happ had only struck out a total of 82 batters in 2015 over 108 2/3 innings. Over his final 63 1/3 frames of the campaign, he raised the Jolly Roger often, going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA and 69 strikeouts -- more than one per inning during that span.
Last year was a highly successful northern reunion between Happ and the Jays, his employer from 2012 to 14. Happ threw a career-high 195 innings and was a 20-game winner with a 3.18 ERA. In his first 13 starts, Happ somehow only managed 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Then, starting with a visit to the Philadelphia Phillies, the team that drafted him back in 2004, Happ went on a tear. He won nine of his next 10 starts, putting together a 13-1 record with a 2.80 ERA and 8.8 punchouts per nine innings over the remainder of the regular season.
Despite throwing heat that only gets up in the low-90s, Happ is beating hitters by exploiting a very wide gap in the vertical movement between his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, as Eno Sarris masterfully outlines on FanGraphs.
Those are impressive skills and numbers, which are available late in drafts. Happ is going around pick 170 in NFBC drafts, just outside the top-40 starting pitchers. FantasyPros rankers have him buried in the mid-40's among starters, making him a pretty nice value pick.