Overlooked and Undervalued: Three Starting Pitchers Who Deserve Your Attention
In baseball, not every player is a home-run hitter, a defensive wizard, or a lightning quick base stealer. The thing is, most players don’t need to be.
What the hundreds of players who will never be named to an All-Star team get paid for is filling a role. Teams need players that make contact, have a patient eye, eat up innings on the mound, or any number of other non-glamorous, but necessary, attributes. Sure, these players often go rather unappreciated, but every team has them, and every team needs them.
This line of thinking applies to fantasy baseball as well. Over the course of such a long season, not every player you acquire (either through the draft, trades, or waivers) is going to be a stud. However, you don’t need them to be. The job of a good fantasy baseball general manager is to find enough solid, undervalued players to supplement the key-cogs of their fantasy roster. Sure, owning a five-tool weapon like Mike Trout or an ace like Yu Darvish is going to help lead you to fantasy glory, but so will rounding out your roster with solid players who will produce for you throughout the season. In this article, I’m going to go in depth about three overlooked starting pitchers, explain why they’re being neglected, and why they could fill a key role on your team.
Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox
Why He's Undervalued
Quintana was an unheralded prospect in the Yankees’ system who was picked up by the White Sox as a minor league free agent in 2011. He pitched well enough the following season to get a call up to the big leagues where he posted a 3.76 earned run average (ERA) over 22 starts, establishing himself as an important part of the Sox’s rotation. In 2013, he tossed 200 innings with a 3.51 ERA (3.82 FIP) and accumulated a strong 3.7 WAR.
You would think a player who pitched as well as Quintana did at just 24 years old last season would generate some significant buzz in fantasy circles. Quite the contrary, as he went undrafted on average in ESPN leagues, and is still owned in just 10.2% of leagues.
Part of the reason Quintana has been overlooked is due to the disaster that was the 2013 White Sox. Quintana won just nine games despite pitching a full season last year. There weren’t many wins to go around on the south side of Chicago last year, as the Sox stumbled to a putrid 63-99 record. Beyond the lack of wins and the Sox’s dreadful 2013 season, Quintana doesn’t have the high strikeout potential that many look for in sleepers. He posted a K/9 of just 5.35 in 2012, and while that improved to 7.38 in 2013, he’s not the type of power pitcher that gets fantasy players’ attentions. These factors, coupled with his complete lack of pedigree, has made Quintana easy to ignore.
Why He's Valuable
Those numbers look pretty solid, right? What probably jumps out at you most is his excellent 3.02 FIP thus far into 2014. While nobody should complain about a 3.61 ERA, the fact that Quintana may in fact be out pitching that ERA only lends strength to the argument for him being undervalued. His LOB% is 5.3% lower than his career mark, and considering he is inducing 5.0% more ground balls than last year, it seems possible that his LOB% can improve as the year progresses. On the downside, his line-drive percentage is up 3.9% from last year, and this is affecting his batting average on balls in play against him (BABIP). His BABIP stands at .310 in 2014 compared to a career .293 figure. Despite this rise in BABIP, his stats are pretty much a mirror image of last year.
As I mentioned early, Quintana is no power pitcher. But his K/9 has been above 7.00 in 2013 and 2014, and he has seemingly turned a corner since that figure was at 5.35 in 2012. So while nobody will be wowed by his strikeouts, he's essentially league average in that area. Additionally, he does an above average job limiting walks and has even improved a bit from last year to this year. If you aren’t going to punch out a lot of batters, it’s important to not be doling out free passes left and right, and this is something Quintana does well.
On the surface, something that seems like a point of worry for Quintana is his 6.9% HR/FB rate this year. That’s 3.0% less than his career mark, and his HR/9 number is almost half of what it was last year. While it’s certainly a positive to let up fewer home runs, it would seem that these numbers are bound to regress. However, his FB% has dropped drastically this year from 37.4% to 28.4% and coupled with his rise in ground ball rate, it appears Quintana is shifting towards becoming more of a ground ball pitcher. He’s throwing the same pitch types at essentially the same frequency this year as last, and his fly-ball rate against each pitch is down. Accounting for this change in fly-ball rate is his effort to keep the ball lower in the zone. This can be seen by viewing Quintana's "heatmap" courtesy of fanGraphs.
So after looking at the difference in his map from 2013 to 2014, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Quintana posts career lows in HR/FB rate and HR/9 as a result in this change of approach. His xFIP in 2014 is 3.37, and a factor of xFIP is adjusting a pitchers HR/FB rate to league average. Even if Quintana were to regresses closer to league average in that department (around 10%), he would still be outperforming his ERA.
Perhaps the biggest plus with Quintana comes with his durability. Through 403.2 big league innings, he has yet to hit the disabled list. At a time when pitchers are seemingly dropping like flies, a pitcher of his ability and durability should be owned in many more leagues.
Aaron Harang, Atlanta Braves
Why He's Undervalued
It’s quite easy to see why Harang was being totally ignored entering this season. He entered the year at age 35 coming off of an awful 2013 season where he posted a 5.40 ERA through 26 starts. Also, Harang only became a member of the Braves’ rotation through absolute necessity. Having lost Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen to injury, they had a desperate need for starters. Add in the fact that, like Quintana, he’s never been more than a mediocre strikeout pitcher, and it’s easy comprehend why he wasn’t on any draft boards.
The fact that he's still not owned in all leagues is a sign of disbelief by fantasy owners in his performance thus far. His ownership skyrocketed when he ripped off five consecutive starts allowing one or fewer earned runs, but plummeted back down when he got absolutely shellacked by the Marlins on April 30th. As it stands, he’s owned in 67.0% of ESPN leagues, a number that indicates to me that he is being vastly overlooked.
Why He's Valuable
Harang’s surface numbers are very good, but it’s his peripherals that show his performance isn’t a fluke. Evan Slavit did a great write up on Julio Teheran that incorporated some information on Harang’s 2014 performance. While it wasn’t an entirely glowing report on Harang, it’s important to remember that my goal isn’t to identify three All-Stars who are being overlooked because - news flash - those guys don’t exist.
Harang’s FIP and xFIP stand at an excellent 2.20 and 3.19, respectively. What accounts for the rather large difference between the two is that, as I explained earlier, xFIP adjusts a pitchers HR/FB rate to league average. While that isn't always fair - some pitchers have a lot of influence over their HR/FB rates - in Harang’s case, it's a necessary adjustment. His HR/FB rate is 2.9% in 2014 compared to 10.3% over the course of his career. The lowest number through any full season in his career was 6.3% in 2012, and even then that is double his mark this season. So it’s good to see that even when taking out the luck of his minuscule HR/FB rate, the advanced metrics still like him.
His BABIP this season in .331, well above his career .304 mark. This is despite a line-drive rate that falls right under his career figure, indicating that Harang may actually be a tad unlucky this season. When you’re unlucky and still rocking a 3.29 ERA, you get my attention.
A head-scratching area for Harang comes with his strikeouts. I said before that he’s just a mediocre strikeout pitcher, but he’s been borderline elite this season. As Evan mentioned in his analysis of Harang, his swing and miss rates have returned to above 10%, right around where they were in 2005-07 during his prime. Even then, Harang wasn’t striking out as many batters as he was this year. Color me pessimistic, but I refuse to believe Harang will maintain his strikeout pace. Even without the strikeouts though, he’s still valuable for the ERA and WHIP he will provide. Not to mention, he’s been a pretty durable starter over his past three seasons.
Ian Kennedy, San Diego Padres
Why He's Undervalued
Kennedy simply hasn't lived up to the promise he showed in 2011 when he posted a 2.88 ERA and 198 strikeouts over 222 innings. His 2012 numbers and advanced metrics showed he was pretty mediocre, and he struggled mightily in 2013. He battled with control issues last season, walking over one batter more per nine innings compared to his 2011 and 2012 seasons. Currently, Kennedy is in the midst of seeing his ownership rise, and is now owned in over 50% of leagues on ESPN. Still, he’s being too overlooked as he's considered a bit of a one-hit wonder in fantasy circles. Don’t let that senseless title fool you, because Kennedy can help you in 2014.
Why He's Valuable
The advanced metrics really like Kennedy this year. His FIP stands at 2.77, showing that perhaps he's actually pitching better than his 3.42 ERA would have you believe. He's cut his line-drive rate by 2.6% from last season, and it now stands at 20.7%, exactly his career average. Despite this, his BABIP is actually higher than it was last season (.295 vs. .307), something that I expect to change as the season progresses. His career mark of .285 may not be a realistic expectation, as that is weighed down by his .256 and .270 figures in 2010 and 2011, but his BABIP should certainly not sit any higher than it was last season.
Unlike the other two starters I’ve highlighted, Kennedy’s strikeout ability can be viewed as a plus. His career mark for K/9 is 8.05, a bit above league average. This season, his K/9 is a whopping 9.90. It’s unlikely he retains that number, as his swinging strike percentage is right around his career norm, but even when the strikeouts regress he’s still a plus in that area.
Part of Kennedy’s struggles last season came in his inability to command the strike zone. His BB/9 was obviously much higher in 2013 than it was in 2011, 2012, and 2014, and was a fair bit above his career 2.96 mark as well. His zone%, which is the percentage of pitchers thrown within the strike zone, was at his career lowest in 2013. He lost command of his arsenal last year, but he seems to have turned the corner this season.
What you have with Kennedy is a guy who out pitched his ability one season, disappointed people with unrealistic expectations the next, lost his normally good command the following year, and was written off. However, Kennedy has regained his command looks a lot more like the pitcher we saw in 2011 than the one we saw in 2013. It may not lead to a 2.88 ERA, but it means he’s certainly worth a spot on your fantasy squad.