Fantasy Baseball: 3 Underpriced Pitchers
At the end of last month, I threw a wet blanket on a trio of pitchers who I highlighted as being overpriced hurlers. This go-round, I'm discussing three underpriced pitchers. Two of the starting pitchers below rank inside my top-10 starters yet have an average draft position (ADP) outside the top-15 starters, per FantasyPros as of March 2. The third starting pitcher rounding out this piece barely cracks the top-150 starters in ADP, but he's nestled nicely into the top-50 starters in my rankings.
Charlie Morton, SP, Tampa Bay Rays
ADP/SP Rank: 54.0/SP16
Charlie Morton's late-career breakout continued last year in his first campaign with the Tampa Bay Rays. The veteran right-handed starter had quality seasons as a ground-ball, pitch-to-contact starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he quietly reinvented himself in an extremely injury-shortened 2016 season with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Houston Astros saw enough in his four starts spanning 17 1/3 innings for the Phillies in 2016 to ink him to a deal prior to the 2017 season, and their investment in him paid off handsomely for two years.
Morton not only didn't skip a beat after signing with the Rays, he had his best season of his career with them in 2019. In 33 starts totaling 194 2/3 innings, he spun a 3.05 ERA, 3.54 Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA), and 1.08 WHIP. Morton also walked just 7.2 percent of the batters he faced, struck out a whopping 30.4 percent of them, kept the ball on the ground at a stellar 48.2 percent clip, and validated his gaudy strikeout rate with a career-high 12.9 percent swinging-strike percentage that ranked tied for the 14th-highest percentage among qualified pitchers in 2019, per FanGraphs. The veteran right-handed pitcher's work netted him the eighth spot among starting pitchers in FantasyPros' value-based ranking valuation last season.
After a top-10 finish among starters last year, I project him to repeat the feat again this year and have him ranked eighth at starting pitcher. Expanding upon Morton's late-career excellence, he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball since 2017. Among qualified pitchers over the last three years, Morton owns the 17th-lowest ERA (3.24), 14th-lowest SIERA (3.58), a tie for the 16th-lowest WHIP (1.14), a tie for the 16th-highest strikeout percentage (28.7 percent), and the 26th-highest swinging-strike percentage (12.0 percent).
The biggest knock on Morton is his checkered injury history preventing him from posting workhorse innings totals. Morton's eclipsed 150 innings in the majors in only four seasons. In the veteran's defense, he split time in the majors and minors from 2008 through 2010 and bested 150 innings when combining his work at both levels each of those seasons. Further, if you include some rehab work in 2017 (or his 23 1/3 innings pitched in the postseason that year), he's riding a three-season streak of besting 150 innings. There's no reason to expect a heightened risk of injury for Morton in 2020, and I expect another 180-plus innings of high-quality work this year. He's a staff ace.
Yu Darvish, SP, Chicago Cubs
ADP/SP Rank: 70.6/SP23
I'm not the first person at numberFire to toot Yu Darvish's horn this offseason. Colleague Jim Sannes has already sung his praises, with Austin Kas and Kenyatta Storin joining Jim on the bandwagon as you can read here. Add me to the numberFire pom-pom shakers for Darvish this year.
Darvish checks in as my 10th-ranked starting pitcher on the heels of an otherworldly finish to last year. Falling prey to recency bias can be dangerous, but Darvish's dramatic turnaround last year for the Chicago Cubs is supported by tangible changes. Jim previously noted pitch-mix changes, namely pointing out increased splitter usage starting on June 21. I'm going to change the time frame a bit and compare Darvish's work from before and after May 15.
In eight starts prior to that date, Darvish threw his fastball 45.9 percent of the time with an average velocity of 93.5 mph, according to FanGraphs. In 23 starts from May 15 through the end of the year, he threw his fastball just 31.3 percent of the time. In addition to using the pitch less often, though, he also threw it a full tick faster at an average velocity of 94.5 mph.
Darvish didn't just scale back his heater usage, either. He also dialed back his slider usage from 25.3 percent in his first eight starts to 11.1 percent in his final 23 starts. In favor of his heater and slider combination, Darvish bumped his usage of his cutter up from 20.3 percent to 39.3 percent, his curve from 3.9 percent to 8.1 percent, and his splitter from 4.0 percent to 9.4 percent. Darvish's revamped pitch mix resulted in eye-popping numbers.
In Darvish's 23 starts spanning 142.0 innings to close out his 2019 campaign, he twirled a 3.61 ERA, 3.03 SIERA, 0.94 WHIP, 4.1 percent walk rate, and 33.0 percent strikeout rate. The mouthwatering numbers fail to fully capture his dominance. The right-hander's plate discipline numbers were a thing of beauty.
During that stretch, he recorded a 36.3 percent outside-zone swing percentage, 65.1 percent zone-swing percentage, 65.4 percent first-strike percentage, and 13.7 percent swinging-strike percentage that all were more favorable than the league-average marks of 31.6 percent, 68.5 percent, 60.9 percent, and 11.1 percent, respectively. Simply put, Darvish enticed hitters to chase balls out of the strike zone and take strikes in the strike zone more often than the average pitcher during his blistering final four months, and he put himself ahead in the count with a first-pitch strike more often than his peers while netting empty swings at an elite percentage, too.
Drafters are currently selecting Darvish as a fringe SP2. He's criminally underrated and an SP1-caliber starter in leagues as shallow as 10-team mixed formats. Darvish is worth a top-50 pick.
Kyle Gibson, SP/RP, Texas Rangers
ADP/SP Rank: 341.5/SP144
Last year was a physically taxing one for Kyle Gibson. He reportedly contracted E. coli during a mission trip last offseason, and, in addition to throwing off his offseason conditioning program, it posed problems for him during the year. Gibson recently stated, "from the middle of June on, I shouldn't have been pitching." Now with the Texas Rangers after signing a three-year deal with them this offseason, he's regained strength following losing around 25 pounds during the 2019 season.
Despite the rough offseason, Gibson opened last year pitching at a high level before his production took a nosedive from the middle of June on. In 84.2 innings spread across 16 starts and five relief appearances to close out last year, Gibson was tattooed to the tune of a 5.85 ERA, 4.58 SIERA, and 1.69 WHIP. The brutal finish hides a promising start.
In his first 13 starts totaling 75.1 innings in 2019, Gibson spun a 3.70 ERA, 3.86 SIERA, 1.17 WHIP, and struck out 24.8 percent of the batters he faced while issuing a walk to just 5.5 percent of them -- considerably below his 8.4 percent walk rate in his career and previous career-low 7.5 percent walk rate set in 2014. Gibson's strong strikeout rate during that span was supported by a robust 13.8 percent swinging-strike percentage.
Gibson's a rare low-risk, high-reward option for gamers. He's barely being selected inside the top-350 players using the ADP data at FantasyPros. Turning to a different source, from February 2 through March 2, Gibson has a minimum draft selection of 276 and an ADP of 380.55 in NFBC leagues. I'd suggest pulling the trigger on Gibson inside the top-300 picks, and drafting him at his minimum pick of 276 isn't crazy. I have Gibson ranked 48th among starting pitchers.