MLB

Fantasy Baseball: Uncovering 2019's Blake Snell

Blake Snell was a late-round pick a year ago but seemingly came out of nowhere to win the American League Cy Young Award. Can that gem be unearthed this draft season?

As fantasy baseball draft season kicks into high gear, it's a great time to look at what went right and what went wrong a season ago.

Depending on the league you played in, it's pretty likely that if you owned Blake Snell, your season went ok. Commanding only an average draft position (ADP) of 156 in NFBC drafts, which put him as the SP51 (13th round in 12-team leagues), he returned massive value.

Using a similar lens, let's widen it a bit and try to look at pitchers with an ADP of 100 or greater who could blow up (in a good way) in 2019.

Recapping Snell's 2017 and 2018 Seasons

Last year, Snell had few equals on his way to winning the American League Cy Young Award, following up two bumpy seasons in 2016 and 2017 to start his professional career.

Season IP Wins Losses ERA K% BB% Sw Strk %
2016 89.0 6 8 3.54 24.4% 12.7% 10.9%
2017 129.3 5 7 4.04 21.8% 10.8% 10.8%
2018 180.7 21 5 1.89 31.6% 9.1% 15.1%

When we peek at Snell's 2017 season, it looks kind of ordinary without foreshadowing his future stud status. He posted an above-average swinging-strike rate (league average 10.2%) and a pretty average strikeout rate (league average 21.6%), so it seems difficult to predict where this came from.

However, some digging shows that Snell's breakout really started in the middle of the 2017 season. Peep his numbers below:

Split IP Wins Losses ERA K% BB% Sw Strk %
2017 Pre-ASB 52 0 5 4.85 19.2% 14.5% 8.8%
2017 Post-ASB 77.3 5 2 3.49 23.7% 8.0% 12.4%

Snell's overall numbers look murky, but that second half was straight beast mode. He elevated his strikeout rate, along with simultaneously harnessing his walk rate. It would be hard to predict Cy Young status, but those are now some juicy whiff and strikeout rates we saw after the Midsummer Classic.

Using those as our guard rails, what pitchers from last season should we identify for potential 2019 breakouts?

Finding Some Others That Fit the Mold

Let's apply Snell's second-half stats on those pitchers going 100 or later and apply the following filters:

Current ADP of 100 or greater
Strikeout Rate of 23% or greater in 2018
Walk Rate under 10% in 2018
Swinging-Strike Rate of 10% or greater in 2018

Of that, only five pitchers meet the threshholds set above, so we can narrow our talent pool pretty significantly. Let's examine each of those pitchers and see how they shape up.

Joey Lucchesi, SP, San Diego Padres

ADP: 206.79

In just his third professional season and first as a major leaguer, Joey Lucchesi was a solid performer in the San Diego Padres' rotation, starting 26 games and firing 130 innings on the season for a 4.08 ERA, 4.31 FIP, and the second-highest strikeout of this group at 26.5%.

Unfortunately, it wasn't all rosy. Lucchesi sported the highest hard-hit rate of the group (40.6%), and his biggest drawback is that he is basically a two-pitch pitcher, relying on a fastball and a change-up as we can see from last year's pitch mix, as he threw them a whopping 96% of the time.

While he looks to build on a solid rookie campaign, he doesn't look likely to make a jump like Snell did, per the Steamer projections on FanGraphs.

Source Starts IP ERA WHIP K% BB%
Steamer 29 169.0 3.78 1.27 23.9% 8.0%

Jon Gray, SP, Colorado Rockies

ADP: 198.97

One of the darlings of the advanced metrics era, Jon Gray continues to be a high strikeout upside pick but underwhelming in terms of his actual performance in the ratio categories like ERA and WHIP.

Demoted last season by the Colorado Rockies, Gray had a noisy campaign in 2018. While the strikeout rate remained strong (24.6%), and he posted the second-best swinging-strike rate (12.4%) in this group of five, Gray 's 5.12 ERA over 172 1/3 innings pitched was a bomb on fantasy staffs.

While it is easy to blame Coors Field for his poor performance, Gray actually pitched better in altitude last year. On the road is where he struggled -- he posted a 43.0% hard-hit rate over 84 1/3 innings, including a reduced 23.1% strikeout rate.

Perhaps that road blip is an anomaly, but factoring in the offensive prowess of Gray's home park, it's hard to project a pile of growth for Gray as well. He is certainly a solid source of whiffs, but be careful on his impact to your ratios. He has shown improvement in his walk rate (7.0% last year), but it's hard to imagine an NL Cy Young award for Gray to culminate the 2019 season.

Source Starts IP ERA WHIP K% BB%
Steamer 26 146.0 4.19 1.31 23.3% 7.4%

Andrew Heaney, SP, Los Angeles Angels

ADP: 173.78

This is a guy that you should really be targeting, despite a very rocky injury history, which is certainly deflating his draft-day cost. Overall numbers last year of a 4.15 ERA over 180 innings pitched, combined with a 24.0% strikeout rate and strong 6.0% walk rate, certainly catch your eye.

As he seemed to get his bearings underneath him, Andrew Heaney only get better and better. From July 1 on, spanning 16 starts, Heaney posted an impressive 6.13 innings per start (IPS) with a 4.32 ERA. Among starters that pitched 100 or more innings in 2018 (128), they averaged 5.65 IPS, so Heaney provides additional value by pitching deeper into games.

In addition, Heaney's 3.34 xFIP showed room for upward momentum, built on the foundation of a 25.5% strikeout rate and only a 5.2% walk rate. Heaney also posted a 12.6% swinging-strike rate over those final 16 starts, which bested Snell's post-All-Star break numbers in 2017. His curveball developed into a major weapon last year -- it garnered a 20.1% swinging-strike rate, which was higher than Aaron Nola's 2018 mark of 18.6%.

Heaney allowed 1.35 home runs per nine innings pitched (HR/9) a year ago, so if he can curb those long balls, up his curveball usage, continue to improve on his ground-ball rate (30.2% in 2017 to 41.2% in 2018), and most importantly, stay healthy, we could see a breakout looming.

Source Starts IP ERA WHIP K% BB%
Steamer 29 178.0 3.97 1.32 22.9% 6.7%

Nick Pivetta, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

ADP: 154.76

Nick Pivetta could be the draft-day darling of nearly every expert in 2019 and with good reason -- the Philadelphia Phillies righty posted a somewhat ugly 4.77 ERA last year over 32 starts and 164 innings.

Wait, what?

The tantalizing upside from Pivetta is rooted in a 27.1% strikeout rate and 12.0% swinging-strike rate a campaign ago that left fantasy owners thinking about some major growth potential. That poor ERA can't be pinned down to any one particular time period -- it was minimizing the blow-up start. Check out a few of these turns which inflated his 2018 ratios:

Date Opponent IP ER
June 29 WAS 1.7 7
August 19 NYM 3.7 6
September 26 COL 4.2 6

That ain't pretty and certainly can't be avoided or ignored as part of your ratios. If you were in the fantasy playoffs, that last stinker in Denver certainly hurt your championship dreams.

Keep in mind that Pivetta ranked 22nd among starters in strikeout rate and 26th in swinging-strike rate, putting him in the upper echelon of starting pitchers. His ERA was also a bit inflated with only a 69.0% strand rate (league average: 72.6%), so with a little bit of luck, and avoiding the occasional blow-up outing, Pivetta could climb his way up the fantasy ranks.

Source Starts IP ERA WHIP K% BB%
Steamer 30 163.0 4.03 1.26 25.4% 7.9%

Luis Castillo, SP, Cincinnati Reds

ADP: 114.41

Last season, going in the mid-70s of NFBC drafts, Luis Castillo was supposed to make the leap to elite starting pitcher after a 2017 season of a 3.12 ERA and 27.3% strikeout rate over 89 1/3 innings.

But his 2018, sadly enough, was an absolute disaster. While he finished with a mediocre 4.22 ERA over 169 2/3 innings pitched, it was the 5.49 ERA over 103 1/3 innings pitched pre-All-Star break that put a dent in fantasy seasons.

Giving up after the first portion of 2018 meant you missed a sparkling second half from the young hurler, which included a 2.44 ERA and 0.96 WHIP over 64 1/3 innings pitched, along with a 26.3% strikeout rate and 5.3% walk rate. So, what drove Castillo's surge?

Similar to Snell's breakout, Castillo ratcheted up the velocity in the second half of 2018, and that seemed to do wonders for him (courtesy of Brooks Baseball Data):

Now, it's hard to explain why the velocity jumped up so significantly, but it did -- and with superior results. He also threw a change-up with a 26.8% swinging-strike rate, paired with a slider with a 16.5% whiff rate.

If Castillo can package all three of these offerings together, it becomes obvious why drafters were so bullish on Castillo a season ago.

Source Starts IP ERA WHIP K% BB%
Steamer 29 173.0 4.00 1.26 23.4% 7.2%

The Price is Right

It's hard to predict anyone replicating what Blake Snell did a season ago. If you could, you'd have a lot of jellybeans in your piggyback playing this game of fake baseball teams. It is our job to try and find how we can forecast who could be the next in line, and several of these arms seem to possess some similarities to Blake Snell's back half of his 2017 season.

The first two arms highlighted -- Gray and Lucchesi -- don't look quite ready to make that next leap but certainly can be solid additions to your fantasy staffs. Of the remaining arms, Heaney, Pivetta, and Castillo all seemed poised for monster 2019 seasons. Can they do what Snell did? Maybe not, but they could provide some major bargains compared to their current cost, so peep their availability as you work your way through draft season.