5 Fantasy Baseball Pitchers to Target Based on Strikeout Rates

These five kings of the strikeout should be going earlier in 2016 drafts.

Baseball is a crazy game, especially for pitchers.

So much of a pitcher’s traditional fantasy numbers -- such as ERA, WHIP and wins -- rely on things outside of a pitcher’s control. A hanging curveball can result in a bomb or a routine out. A blooper could fall harmlessly into an infielder’s glove or drop down the line for a double. And a pitcher’s win-loss record is about as meaningful as a “thank you” from a child after their parents said “now what do we say.”

The Sabermetric wave around the turn of the century helped us realize how little pitchers control when it comes to batted balls.

Fortunately for hurlers, there is a safe place -- the strikeout.

Simply put: all chance is removed from the situation if the hitter doesn’t put the ball in play. The strikeout is one of the single most important statistics when trying to predict future success for a pitcher.

As Bill James, the Holy One of advanced statistics, wrote in his 1987 Baseball Abstract: “Among all of the hundreds of issues that I have studied in the ten years I have been doing this, the most definitive evidence I have ever found on any issue is the evidence that the career expectation for a strikeout pitcher is dramatically longer than it is for a control pitcher."

Of course, it’s baseball, and there are always exceptions. Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle have had really good careers despite never being masters of the whiff. However, most of the game’s best pitchers have been among the best at punching hitters out.

With that as our foundation, let’s look at five starting pitchers who have shown the ability to get hitters to swing and miss but, for various reasons, haven’t put up stellar fantasy statistics, making them attractive draft-day bargains this spring.

Tyson Ross, San Diego Padres

Tyson Ross is a mesmerizing and fascinating pitcher who probably deserves an entire piece to himself. Over the past three seasons, Ross has been among the best at delivering strikeouts and worst at limiting walks. In each of the past three seasons, he’s walked at least 3.17 hitters per nine innings (BB/9), including handing out an ugly 3.86 free passes per nine innings in 2015, the second-highest mark among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched last season.

The strikeouts, though. Ross fanned 9.73 hitters per nine innings (K/9) in 2015, throwing his wipeout slider 44.9 percent of the time on his way to an easy-on-the-eyes 3.15 xFIP. His K/9 rate ranked eighth among qualified starting pitchers, but he won just 10 games and posted the 21st-ranked ERA. lists his Average Draft Position (ADP) as the 25th-ranked starting pitcher. Although his ADP doesn’t reflect it, Ross is already one of the game’s top pitchers, and if he could find a way to cut down on his walks, he’d jump into the realm of the truly elite.

Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians

Cleveland has three of the game’s best strikeout pitchers in Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar, all of whom finished 2015 among the top 13 in K/9. Carrasco is still underrated, but he’s been one of our offseason darlings the past few months. Salazar, on the other hand, is flying under the radar a little bit.

Entering his age-26 season, Salazar is coming off a superb 2015 campaign. His 9.49 K/9 rate ranked 13th, and he posted a 3.48 xFIP. It wasn’t a one-year blip, either. Salazar actually fanned more hitters in 2014, sitting down 9.82 per nine innings, and it was his second straight season with an xFIP under 3.50. After posting a 34 percent groundball rate in 2014, that number jumped to 43.9 last season, another sign of future success. Salazar has all the makings of a star, but he’s just the 24th pitcher off the board, one spot in front of our old pal Ross.

Mike Fiers, Houston Astros

Mike Fiers is a poor man’s Ross. He can sit ‘em down, but he can walk ‘em, too. Fiers' 8.98 K/9 ranked 21st in 2015, but his clip of 3.19 BB/9 checked in 68th out of 89 qualified starters. In 404 big league innings, the man with a big-breaking curveball owns a shiny 9.09 K/9 rate.

While Fiers has a proven record of getting whiffs, his walk rate in 2015 was a career worst. He had never thrown more than 128 innings in a season before tossing 180 1/3 frames a year ago, but his previous career high for BB/9 was 2.54. If his walks return to his career norms, Fiers will be a steal as the 55th pitcher off the board.

Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs

Kyle Hendricks won eight games and finished with a 3.95 ERA last season, but he pitched a lot better than those numbers suggest. Hendricks showed as much improvement from 2014 to 2015 as any pitcher in the bigs. After posting a 5.27 K/9 rate and 3.92 xFIP in 2014, Hendricks put up a K/9 rate of 8.35 -- which ranked 31st -- and xFIP of 3.25, good enough for 20th, over 180 innings in 2015. He also limited extra-base hits with a superb 51.3 percent groundball rate.

Hendricks, 26, was done in by the long ball as his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB) of 12.4 percent came in 66th out of 89 starting pitchers. Hat tip to the craziness of baseball, because Hendricks’ HR/FB ratio was a miniscule 4.9 percent over 80 1/3 innings in 2014. A leveling out of his HR/FB ratio this season could lead to some nice numbers, especially for a guy with an ADP as the 63rd starting pitcher.

Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals

In truth, Carlos Martinez had his breakout last season, but with an ADP of 30th among starting pitchers, he’s still being undervalued. A year ago, in his first full season, Martinez was a fantasy stud, going 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA in 179 2/3 innings. His peripherals paint a pretty picture, too, with his 3.28 xFIP ranking 21st and his 54.4 percent groundball checking in eighth. To get my daily Snoop Dogg reference out of the way, Martinez is realer than real deal Holyfield. 

He was shutdown in September last season with an ailing shoulder, so maybe that’s the reason for the low ADP. It shouldn’t be a concern, though, as he didn’t require surgery and is expected to be fully healthy by Opening Day. Martinez, at age 24, has all the makings of an ace.