With all hitting positions in the books, it’s time to move to the mound. As was the case with my Outfield Dudes, these players are all going to be down a bit in Fantrax ADP. It doesn’t do you any good to have me tell you how great Chris Sale is (especially when it comes to kirigami). The aces will cost you plenty, and you’re just hoping they break even and don’t bust. The real profit comes from the players you’re taking in the middle-to-late rounds that provide excellent returns on your investment. Here are some starters I think will do that for you this year.
The First Dude – Lance McCullers, Jr.
Typically, I don’t draft pitchers with this much risk, but boy have I been sucked in by Lance McCullers, Jr. this spring. He has always lived off his devastating curveball, pairing it with a not-so-great changeup and two 94 MPH fastballs. However, this spring has been very encouraging for McCullers’ outlook; he has changed the grip on his two-seam fastball, which has made it a noticeably nastier pitch. He has also worked to improve his changeup, although the jury is a little more out on that pitch. There was also a start he made this spring in which he didn’t throw a single curveball, just to work on his other pitches and his location. If he can improve his two-seam, which had a .291 BAA in 2017, it won’t matter if the changeup still lags way behind. He’ll be able to turn over a lineup three times with those two pitches and a show-me change.
He also posted a career-best 3.03 BB/9 last year, although I’m not sure that’s entirely repeatable. One of the concerns with McCullers is his inefficiency, leading to a high pitch count early in starts and limiting his total innings. Perhaps with new confidence in his two-seam, he’ll pound the zone more frequently, as he had only a 43.5% zone% last year. One thing you can count on for sure is a strikeout rate that is among the league leaders — his 10.01 K/9 from 2017 ranked 18th among starters with at least 100 IP. Also, despite an elite 61.3% GB% (4th in MLB) and 28% hard contact allowed, McCullers was stuck with a .330 BABIP that led to a 4.25 ERA. His FIP and xFIP were 3.10 and 3.17, respectively, and he could very well produce those numbers this year. Put him on a World Series favorite, and the wins will be there, too. The only question is the health — and you can say that about any pitcher. As just the 36th SP off the board (127 overall), I’ll stomach the risk that comes with his ace upside. Preferably he’s your third starter behind two more stable options.
2018 Projection: 140 IP, 14 W, 165 K, 3.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
The Second Dude – Blake Snell
Ohhhh that Snell! Can’t you Snell that Snell? The Snell that surrounds you! Every single time I hear Blake Snell’s name that song pops into my head, and now I unleash that burden onto you. Long have I been a fan of Snell. He maintained more than a strikeout per inning throughout at nearly every stop throughout the minors, utilizing a slider, curveball, and changeup to carve up opposing batters. The only thing that was holding him back was his lack of control. He had a 4+ BB/9 at most stops in the minors, and last year his overall BB/9 was 4.11 … much too high.
However, if you break his season into halves, you see a much more promising picture. Snell made a move to the first base side of the rubber, and along with some other mechanical tweaks, also improved his curveball. Look at what those changes led to:
1H: 52 IP, 4.85 ERA, 7.79 K/9, 5.88 BB/9
2H: 77.1, 3.49 ERA, 8.61 K/9, 2.91 BB/9
His mechanical improvements led to the decline in walks, and the improved curveball along with it’s increased usage led to an increase in K%. These are tangible reasons for a young pitcher improving, not simply a positive sample size. His overall numbers mask these improvements, and he’s only the 57th SP off the board (206 overall). We’re on the Highway to Snell! I’m full of old rock references these days, it seems.
2018 Projection: 180 IP, 13 W, 185 K, 3.40 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
The Third Dude – Jordan Montgomery
Rather unexpectedly, Jordan Montgomery made 29 starts for the Yankees last year. He debuted well, with a 3.88 ERA, 8.34 BB/9, and 2.95 BB/9 over 155.1 innings. So why is he only being drafted as the 65th SP at 228 overall? Perhaps it was because the Yankees were expected to sign another starter, essentially bumping him from the rotation. Perhaps it was because he, unlike Snell, seemed less effective over the second half than the first. He recorded a 3.65 ERA over 91.1 first half innings, with just a 4.22 ERA over 64 IP over the second half. It’s worth noting that his 1H/2H FIP was 4.06/4.08, meaning he was more consistent than the surface ERA indicates.
I wouldn’t even blame Montgomery for wearing down over his first full MLB season at the tender age of 24. At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, he’s got the frame to pile up innings, and now with a full season under his belt, he could push 180. His 12.2% swinging strike rate points toward someone who can put up a strikeout per inning while his control remains solid. Also, he’s on the Yankees, as I might have mentioned, who will be very good in 2018. Wins are as fluky a stat as you can find, but you feel better betting on a pitcher on a good team than someone on, say, the Royals. He also limited batters to a 26.5% hard contact rate, which can lead to better than average BABIPs if he can keep it up.
2018 Projection: 180 IP, 15 W, 180 K, 4.00 ERA, 1.21 WHIP
The Fourth Dude – Patrick Corbin
I already wrote up Corbin in my Course Correction series, so I’ll keep this brief. If you want more on him, check out the article! The long story short here is that Corbin jacked up the use of his slider to over 35% over the second half of the season, and his ERA over those 88.1 IP was 3.26. Also, one thing that wasn’t confirmed when I wrote my prior words on Corbin was the installation of a humidor at Chase Field — something we now know is happening. That will only help his case this year, and I feel pretty good about him vastly outperforming this dirt cheap ADP of SP 66, 232 overall.
2018 Projection: 200 IP, 16 W, 190 K, 3.60 ERA, 1.30 WHIP
The Deep League Dude – Tyler Mahle
Tyler Mahle is someone who I wouldn’t have put on this list before the start of Spring Training, but injuries to Anthony DeSclafani and ineffectiveness from Robert Stephenson have opened the door for Mahle to crack the Reds rotation out of camp. Mahle isn’t a particularly high-ceiling starter, but we’re talking someone who is only going to be drafted in very deep leagues here, so we’re also just looking for someone we can roll out consistently without the worry of irrecoverable damage to our ratios.
Mahle walked 11 batters in his 20-inning stint with the Reds last year, but a quick glance at his minor league career ensures us those 20 innings were a fluke. Rarely has he ever exceeded two walks per nine, so he should make up for his lack of strikeouts with a decent WHIP. He’s been good at limiting home runs, which he’ll have to continue to do to find success at Great American Ballpark. More floor than ceiling here at SP 103/341 overall, but limiting free passes and homers should help Mahle find an element of success in 2018.
2018 Projection: 165 IP, 10 W, 140 K, 4.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP