Fantasy Baseball: 3 Overpriced Pitchers
The word overpriced is one that's often misinterpreted by emotionally invested fantasy gamers. What it doesn't mean is a player should be ripped-off of draft boards because they're terrible? What it does mean is a player is being selected notably earlier than they should be? Overpriced also works on a relative scale depending on where players are selected in drafts. The earlier in a draft a player is being selected, the greater the importance of each pick between where they're actually being selected and where they should be selected. In other words, the difference between being the sixth starting pitcher off the board and the 12th starter selected is greater than the difference between the 65th starting pitcher and 71st starting pitcher in average draft position (ADP) despite an identical six-spot gap.
Among the featured pitchers in this piece is one being selected as a top-10 starter who's put together back-to-back excellent seasons. However, those campaigns have drastically outperformed his ERA estimators and leave him outside of my top-10 ranked starters. Another starter who makes the cut is one whose ADP is within the top-25 starters but who is being selected 10 starting pitchers earlier than I believe he should be popped. Finally, a reliever who's being snapped up inside the top-25 relievers on average but ranks much lower in my ranks rounds out the trio of overpriced hurlers thrown under the spotlight in this space.
Jack Flaherty, SP, St. Louis Cardinals
ADP/SP Rank: 24.0, SP6
Jack Flaherty finished last year as the sixth-most valuable starting pitcher, according to FantasyPros value-based ranking valuation. Interestingly, his ADP landing him as the sixth starter off the board, per FantasyPros as of February 21, is identical to his finish in last year's rankings. Luck wasn't entirely to credit for Flaherty's excellent 2019.
Flaherty piled up 196 1/3 innings last year in which he spun a 2.75 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and struck out a whopping 29.9 percent of the batters he faced, according to FanGraphs. The young right-handed starter's gaudy strikeout rate was supported by a 13.7 swinging-strike percentage that was well above the league average of 11.1 percent. He also issued walks to only 7.1 percent of the batters he faced, easily below the league average of 8.5 percent. Flaherty did a number of very good things as the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals.
He also enjoyed some good fortune, and that's best reflected by his 3.68 Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) being nearly a full run higher than his actual 2.75 ERA. Among qualified pitchers last season, Flaherty owned the third-lowest Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) and batting average allowed at .242 and .190, respectively. In 2018, he held batters to a .257 BABIP and .198 batting average against. After two years of coughing up a low BABIP and low batting average against, it would be easy to buy into Flaherty possessing the ability to limit batting average. That's probably a mistake, though.
Flaherty's batted-ball data simply doesn't support the sub-.200 batting average coughed up. The Statcast data at Baseball Savant uses exit velocity and launch angle of each batted ball, as they explain, to assign a hit probability based on the outcomes of comparable historic balls in play. Among the statistics that data produces is Expected Batting Average. Last season, Flaherty's batted balls resulted in an Expected Batting Average of .217, 27 points higher than his actual batting average against per his FanGraphs player page.
Additionally, he wasn't able to suppress hits at this level in the minors. In 432 innings pitched in his minor league career, Flaherty yielded a .233 batting average and .304 BABIP. Speaking of his work in the minors, he totaled a 75.0 percent left-on-base percentage before reaching "The Show." Last season, he totaled an 83.3 percent left-on-base percentage that was well above the league average of 72.3 percent. The year before, Flaherty did an elite job of stranding runners, too, with a 79.3 percent left-on-base percentage that thumped the league average of 72.8 percent. Perhaps he's truly much better than his peers at stranding runners, but his work in the minors indicates some regression is likely.
Add it all up, and Flaherty's due to take a step back this year. The 24-year-old righty is very good, and gamers in keeper and dynasty leagues who have him on their rosters should be delighted. Having said that, Flaherty's total package lands him 11th among starting pitchers in my rankings. The 11th starting pitcher in ADP at FantasyPros currently is Blake Snell. The southpaw for the Tampa Bay Rays has an ADP of 35.5 -- 9.5 picks later than Flaherty's ADP. As it stands, Flaherty's overpriced. Although, if he falls into the early to mid-30s in drafts, he's certainly draftable.
Trevor Bauer, SP, Cincinnati Reds
ADP/SP Rank: 78.5, SP24
What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Trevor Bauer was coming off of a career year in which he spun a 2.21 ERA, 3.21 SIERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 30.8 percent strikeout rate in 175 1/3 innings. By all measures, it was an elite season. This year, he's coming off of a season that's more in line with his career work.
In 34 starts spanning 213.0 for the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds -- who acquired him last year at the trade deadline -- Bauer posted a 4.48 ERA, 4.14 SIERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 27.8 percent strikeout rate. Prior to Bauer's 2018 breakout, he'd made 132 appearances (123 starts) in which he totaled 728 2/3 innings recording a 4.36 ERA, 4.14 SIERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 22.6 percent strikeout rate.
Bauer first appeared in the majors in 2012, but he didn't really become a full-time big-leaguer until 2014. In his six full-time seasons in the majors, he's posted an ERA of 4.18 or higher five times. In short, Bauer's 2018 is the clear outlier.
However, Bauer's not the same pitcher he was when he first broke into the majors. He's slightly bumped up his average fastball velocity over the last two years and scaled back the pitch's usage in favor of a deep arsenal of secondary offerings. As a result of these changes, he's missed more bats. Prior to 2018, Bauer netted a swinging-strike percentage of 9.0 percent, per FanGraphs. In 2018, he kicked that number up to 13.3 percent. It slipped back a bit last year, but his swing-strike percentage remained elite at 12.2 percent.
Bauer's breakout 2018 is fresh enough in the memory of gamers that he's being drafted inside the top-25 starters. His ADP makes him a fringe SP2 or high-end SP3. I'm less bullish on his outlook and rank him 34th among starting pitchers. Last year's within his range of outcomes, too, and he finished 49th among starting pitchers in the value-based ranking metric at FantasyPros. As my personal ranking suggests, I'm predicting Bauer will pitch better than last year. An ERA in the upper threes or low fours with similar contributions in WHIP and strikeouts feels like a reasonable expectation.
Sean Doolittle, RP, Washington Nationals
ADP/SP Rank: 179.3, RP24
Drafting closers is already a crapshoot given the volatility of the gig, but Sean Doolittle brings more unnecessary risk to the table than gamers should be embracing for a top-25 reliever. Even at his best, Doolittle's never chewed up innings in bulk in the bullpen. The southpaw's bested 65 innings in a season only one time back in 2013 with 69 innings. He pitched 62.2 innings the following season in 2014, but he wasn't able to reach the 60-inning threshold again until last year. Even during his best years, his impact helping ERA and WHIP simply weren't as great as the other elite relievers who pitched more innings.
Now, it's debatable if he'll even be a helper in ERA or WHIP after he totaled a 4.05 ERA and 1.30 WHIP last year. Doolittle's 4.01 SIERA last year is almost identical to his 4.05 ERA, so he didn't just suffer from bad luck en route to posting an ERA north of four for the first time in his career. A look under the hood suggests he's declining.
He's highly reliant on his heater. He used his slider and changeup a combined 11.8 percent of the time last year, per FanGraphs, while throwing his fastball 88.2 percent of the time. He's thrown his heater 88.0 percent of the time in his career, and he's hovered around that range annually. Doolittle's fastball's average velocity peaked at 94.8 mph in 2016, and it's slowly dipped each season bottoming out at 93.5 mph last year.
More concerning than his fastball velocity drop is a huge slide in swinging-strike percentage that's probably correlated to losing more than a tick on his heater. From 2016 through 2018, Doolittle coaxed a swinging-strike percentage of 15.9 percent. Last year, that mark dropped to 12.1 percent. Fewer missed bats resulted in fewer punchouts. During the aforementioned three-year period before last season, Doolittle struck out an impressive 32.4 percent of the batters he faced. Last year, he fanned only 25.4 percent of them.
Gamers in need of saves could live with a ho-hum reliever if Doolittle were a lock to close, but that's not necessarily the case. The Washington Nationals traded for right-handed reliever Daniel Hudson on MLB trade deadline day -- July 31 -- last year. From August 1 through the end of the regular season, Doolittle saved six games and Hudson matched that total with six saves of his own. In the postseason, Doolittle saved two games and Hudson saved four.
Hudson's back with the Nationals this year after agreeing to a two-year contract in early January and 35-year-old righty Will Harris becomes the best reliever of the trio in Washington's bullpen after agreeing to a three-year deal to join the Nationals. Last season, he pitched to a 1.50 ERA for the Houston Astros in 68 relief appearances totaling 60 innings last season. As a member of Houston's bullpen from 2015 through 2019, Harris made 309 relief appearances in which he tossed 297 innings to the tune of a 2.36 ERA, 2.90 SIERA, and 0.99 WHIP. Harris also saved 20 games in his tenure with the Astros.
Doolittle's cost to draft is too rich for my blood. I have Doolittle ranked 41st among relievers, a stark contrast to his RP24 ADP. In fact, I'd prefer Harris outright to his lefty bullpen mate and he's considerably cheaper with an ADP of 423.0 as the 78th reliever off the board on average.