Pitching 3D: Tough Decisions, Outside the Top 50

Pitching 3D: Tough Decisions, Outside the Top 50

This article is part of our Pitching 3D series.

Once we get past the top 50 starting pitchers on the composite rankings at RotoWire, there is still considerable value to be mined from the quarry of starting pitchers.

In a standard 12-team mixed league, these are the players that bring up the back-end of a rotation, in which case I tend to lean towards the pitchers who offer high levels of risk/reward as opposed to those who have ratios that are reliably subpar. The reason for this approach is simple: the replacement value in a 12-team mixed is so high that I'm more willing to roll the dice. In deeper leagues or those with a mono format, the pitchers outside the top 50 might form the middle of a fantasy rotation, so I'm more inclined to lock down innings in that situation.

I'm going to take a slightly different approach this week – rather than breakdown a string of similarly-ranked players, I'm going to widen the lens to focus on pitchers that I think stand out among the crowded mess of arms that flood the back-half of drafts. For reference, at the time of this writing the last three starters in the top 50 were Jose Quintana, Wei-Yin Chen and Taijuan Walker. The intrigue gets thicker as we dive deeper into the pitcher pool, so let's travel further down the rabbit hole.

Let's begin with a handful of pitchers that are ranked a bit higher on my draft board than the composite rankings, since they'll likely be on a number of my fantasy teams this season.

(Ages are as of 4/3/15)

Carlos Rodon (SP54, LHP, age 23)
The fear of Rodon's walk rate has gotten out of hand. There's no doubt that he walked too many batters last season, but he also struck out a batter-per-inning in his first exposure to the highest level of competition, and he did so after basically skipping the minor leagues. He threw nearly 150 innings between the majors and minors, setting the southpaw up to throw at least 175 frames in 2016.

STAT 2015
IP 139.1
ERA 3.75
WHIP 1.44
K's 139
Wins 9

A couple of months ago, I covered many of my reasons for fawning over Rodon, but he stands as a good lesson in the season-to-season variation that is inherent to young players. Looking at the drafting habits of players – even experts – there is a prevailing tenancy to anchor too strongly to the previous season. Rodon was highly anticipated after going third overall in the 2014 draft, and though he was expected to move quickly, he was thrown up the ladder at a rocket's pace, pitching fewer than 35 innings of minor-league ball before being summoned to Chicago.

While his contemporaries were ironing out the wrinkles in the minors, Rodon was cutting his teeth at the highest level, and there are all sorts of reasons why he walked so many hitters. Regarding the 4.6 BB/9 of last season, I would chalk it up to development rather than anchor on the walk rate as an expectation of future performance. With his stable baseline of mechanics, killer breaking ball and plus velocity, I wouldn't be surprised if he improved his stats in every fantasy category this season. Rodon could be an SP3 wolf hiding in SP5 clothing.

Kenta Maeda (SP60, RHP, age 27)
It's actually his age-28 season, as Maeda's birthday is a week into the campaign. He's an interesting case, as the fantasy community often embraces the mystery of players from foreign leagues, especially with the recent success of international veterans. But while gamers seemed to be jumping over each other to acquire the services of Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka when they came to MLB, the enthusiasm for Maeda (who won Japan's version of the Cy Young in 2010 as well as 2015) has been lukewarm by comparison.

Here are his fantasy-relevant stats from the past three years in Japan:

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 206.1 187.0 175.2
ERA 2.09 2.60 2.10
WHIP 1.09 1.10 0.96
K's 175 161 158
Wins 15 11 15

The stats will undergo a translation in the majors, but with a low walk profile and a bevy of pitches in his bag, there's a good chance that he'll be able to keep the WHIP down as batters learn Maeda's repertoire. His stats in Japan were essentially on par with those of Tanaka, except that Maeda's K rate was a few points lower. The new Dodger had some flags arise in his medical evaluation, but he literally has every incentive to stay on the mound, with a contract that ties his compensation directly to starts and innings.

He's been compared most often to Hisashi Iwakuma among his countrymen, but they are very different pitchers in terms of approach and arsenal. Lazy comps aside, there is little to suggest that he won't be an effective pitcher, and there is a decent chance that he earns a boost in his first season stateside thanks to the novelty.

Andrew Cashner (SP69, RHP, age 29)
I was all about Cashner last season. He's one of the hardest-throwing starters in baseball, has crazy amounts of arm-side run to go with the elite velocity on his two-seamer, and he exhibits a stable delivery with an excellent blend of balance and power. He entered last season coming off consecutive seasons of strong ratios, had the stuff to encourage optimism that his strikeout rate would escalate and enjoyed playing in Petco Park for half of his starts each season.

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 184.2 123.1 175.0
ERA 4.34 2.55 3.09
WHIP 1.44 1.13 1.13
K's 165 93 128
Wins 6 5 10

Well, he upped the strikeouts. He also set a career-high in innings pitched, so there's that.

The damage to Cashner was worse than the ERA indicates, with an astounding 22 unearned runs that amounted to 5.41 runs allowed per nine. Most of his fantasy numbers cratered, and so has his fantasy stock. My own valuation of Cashner has dropped considerably as well, but all that really means is that I have to make a smaller investment in order to secure his services. Most of the pieces are there for Cashner to not only excel, but to potentially dominate, but his lack of a quality third pitch puts him at a severe disadvantage in the chess match with opposing hitters. A free agent next offseason, Cashner has one more chance to convince the San Diego faithful that the trade that brought him to town in exchange for Anthony Rizzo wasn't a total wash.

Now let's flip the script and look at the pitchers that are ranked lower on my board than in the composite ranks.

Jaime Garcia (SP52, LHP, age 29)
I just can't trust this guy. Part of it is mechanical, as Garcia has a history of inducing spine-tilt to manipulate a high arm slot, resulting in poor posture at release point. Such techniques have been associated with injury, so the fact that Garcia's medical record has more entries than a GPP tournament is merely another nail in the coffin.

Beyond that, the statistical track record is full of holes and his 2016 performance is like a box of chocolates.

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 129.2 43.2 55.1
ERA 2.43 4.12 3.58
WHIP 1.05 1.05 1.3
K's 97 39 43
Wins 10 3 1

The injuries have limited the southpaw to just 350 innings over the last four years combined, topping out at last season's 129.2. His walk rate is low but is a poor indicator of his command, as over-the-top pitchers have an easier time getting strikes from mistimed pitches.

Statistically, I just don't get the allure, as his ERA is volatile, his K's are low and he hasn't shown any ability to maintain health over even two-thirds of a season, let alone a full one. Counting on Garcia to make more than 20 starts is a dangerous game (he hasn't done that since 2011), and his fantasy margin of error is slim given the weak strikeout rate (7.1 K/9 over last four years). I can't even say where he's ranked on my board, just that I won't be owning him this season.

Aaron Nola (SP53, RHP, age 22)
I really like Nola as a real-life pitcher, and he has the type of profile that advances quickly and transitions easily, but with a ceiling that's a bit limited. That makes him very valuable to the Phillies, but there's a cloud of doubt hovering over his fantasy contributions for 2016.

Ranked just behind Garcia among starting pitchers, my pessimism for Nola has as much to do with context as it does the categorical nature of fantasy.

STAT 2015
IP 77.2
ERA 3.59
WHIP 1.20
K's 68
Wins 6

Playing for the Phillies will obviously deal a severe blow to the theoretical win total, but the other fantasy-relevant stats are suspect, as well. Nola struck out just 7.5 batters per nine innings in the minors, and it's hard to project much improvement with a fastball that averages less than 91 mph. He doesn't walk anyone, with just 1.5 BB/9 in the minors, but the bevy of strikes left him vulnerable to the skills of big-league hitters as well as the vagaries of balls in play. The high hit count off-sets the low walk rate to produce a decent WHIP, but the stat is volatile, and there's a non-zero chance that Nola finishes with disappointing stats in four fantasy categories.

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Doug Thorburn
Doug started writing for RotoWire in April of 2015. His work can be found elsewhere at Baseball Prospectus and RotoGrinders, and as the co-host of the Baseballholics Anonymous podcast. Thorburn's expertise lies on the mound, where he tackles the world of pitching with an emphasis on mechanical evaluation. He spent five years at the National Pitching Association working under pitching coach Tom House, where Thorburn ran the hi-speed motion analysis program in addition to serving as an instructor. Thorburn and House wrote the 2009 book, “Arm Action, Arm Path, and the Perfect Pitch: Building a Million Dollar Arm,” using data from hi-speed motion analysis to tackle conventional wisdom in baseball. His DraftKings ID is “Raising Aces”.
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