Why Phil Hughes Is an Underrated Fantasy Baseball Option

Phil Hughes had a silly-good season in 2014; if he can duplicate that in 2015, he'd be a superb fantasy target at his current preseason ranking.

Phil Hughes's 2014 season looks like a typo. If he had walked 61 batters in 209.2 innings, he would have averaged 2.62 walks per nine innings. That seems realistic!

Instead, Hughes walked 16, which equates to 0.69 walks per nine. Dat ain't right, doe.

This helped Hughes finish as the 19th-highest scoring pitcher according to ESPN's standard scoring rules. That's not too shabby, and it makes him seem like a decent target for 2015.

Not so much. At least according to ESPN's rankings, which plunk Hughes down in 51st place in points leagues. Not exactly brimming with optimism in this department.

Does this mean that we are underrating Hughes as a fantasy asset? Or is Hughes due for a regression? Or is his team too blurgh to allow a higher rating? Let's take a look.

Sustainable Success

There were a lot of things that were dope about Hughes's turnaround. First, it's a feel-good story about the big prospect that bust in the majors and then figured something out. Second, it brought much-needed awareness that Hughes is actually a bearded, younger version of Quentin Tarantino. But most importantly, he had success that he can duplicate.

As numberFire's John Stolnis wrote back in December, Hughes did more than cut down on his walks in 2014. He also increased his ground-ball rate, something I'm sure the Yankees wished he had done while he was in New York. This, coupled with a move to the far more gravity-friendly Target Field, can explain a large portion of Hughes's breakout.

If we look at Dan Szymborski's ZiPS Projections for this year, they see the success as largely sustainable again. Hughes is projected to finish with a 3.53 ERA (as opposed to 3.52 in 2014) and a 3.12 fielding-independent pitching (FIP). This is coupled with a projected 7.91 strikeouts and 0.76 walks per nine innings. Basically, this projection system sees Hughes duplicating his 2014 season with a few minor drop-offs.

The Steamer projections aren't quite as optimistic about Hughes. They see his ERA and his FIP both going up to 3.87 this year with 7.50 strikeouts and 1.58 walks per nine innings. A big reason for the jump in his FIP is the increase in the walk totals that Steamer projects. If he can keep those walks down again, he should be able to exceed Steamer's projections and have another solid season.

Why Hughes is Being Bumped Down in Fantasy

Outside of people not believing Hughes's success is sustainable, there are a few other reasons Hughes is ranked so low this year. The first one would involve the number of hits he allowed this year, as ESPN deducts a point for every hit allowed.

In 2014, Hughes allowed 221 hits over 209.2 innings. Opposing batters had a .324 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against Hughes, which was above the league average of .295. The interesting thing about that is that a pitcher's BABIP against is largely influenced by luck and team defense. The Twins' defense was gross in 2015, and it doesn't look to be a whole lot better in 2015, so that won't help him a ton, but there might be a slight regression here in the luck department.

Let's play pretend here for a second. Let's say Hughes's BABIP against was at the league average of .295. If that had been the case, instead of allowing 221 hits last year, he would have allowed 202.7. That may not seem like a lot, but it would have bumped him up the scoring charts to either 15th or 16th depending on which side of 202 he landed. That's pretty significant when it comes to assessing Hughes for 2015.

Another reason Hughes is being down-played this year is the team on which he plays. Not only do they have a bad defense, but the Twins are just kind of rough in general.

The thing about Hughes is the only part of the Twins on which Hughes is dependent in fantasy terms is the defense, the hitting and, to a lesser extent, the bullpen. The defense is wretched, but the offense wasn't half bad in 2014. They finished seventh in the league in runs scored and third over the final half of the season.

The offense should come back to Earth a bit this year as guys like Danny Santana wouldn't be projected to duplicate their 2014 success. Even if they do regress, the team shouldn't be as big of a hinderance on Hughes as the rankings may believe.

If Hughes was able to win 16 games and lose 10 last year, I don't see why he can't do the same again. As long as the offense doesn't complete derail, it's realistic to expect production somewhere in the same wheelhouse for this department.

The final reason Hughes is ranked as low as he is, and the one I understand most, is his ceiling. With Phil Hughes, you basically know what you're going to get now. While that's great for the Twins, it's not so great for fantasy. At the later point in drafts, you want to look for guys with high upside. With Hughes, I'm not so sure that's obtainable.

Although he has the potential to see a down-tick in his hits allowed, there aren't a lot of statistical areas in which Hughes has upward mobility. His numbers were already top-notch in 2014, but they just don't translate into killer fantasy seasons without a lower ERA and a higher strikeout total. That might be asking a lot of Hughes.

Because people know the ceiling for Hughes, they may be more likely to go with a guy like Michael Wacha (who is ranked ahead of Hughes) who has a higher ceiling, though it comes with a much lower floor.

For me, personally, I love searching for high ceiling late, but I find players with a high floor super appealing. If you can get a guy like Hughes, who you know you'd be able to plug and play in any ten-team, four-starting pitcher format, as the 51st pitcher off the board, you have just pegged an extreme value.

Hughes is not the sexy pick that'll win you a fantasy season. What he can do, however, is provide you with dependability and depth that you won't find a whole lot of other places that late in the draft. Sure, you sacrifice one pick that has boom potential, but you also knock at least one bust out of the way.

Though Hughes's 2014 may have looked like a mis-print, his 2015 could look very similar. If you can get that version of Hughes on your fantasy roster, you will be sitting pretty. Even if Hughes sags off a bit this year, you really can't go wrong with taking him where he's currently rated.