If you didn’t manage to snag one of the top aces during draft season you were probably hanging your hopes on a few less heralded names that you were hoping to either improve or continue success from last year. And though only Clayton Kershaw of the big names has disappointed (Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber are largely doing exactly what we expected of them), these next few guys have made their fantasy teams that much better because of their lesser cost but top-tier results. If you ended up taking one of the quartet of Luis Severino, Aaron Nola, Gerrit Cole, or Stephen Strasburg as your ace, then you’re likely very happy with the results.
So let’s take a look at the next big four and determine whether these early results are the product of a hot start or if this is the new norm for these young hurlers.
Luis Severino – SP, New York Yankees
Luis Severino was a big target of mine in the offseason, even getting the very clever nickname as “The Fifth Beatle.”
Trendy monikers aside, he was going with the 32nd overall pick per Fantrax ADP and that put him behind names like Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, and Carlos Carrasco even though I valued him as the name that should be included with big four. Last season Severino put up ace-like numbers in 193.1 innings (2.98 ERA, 10.71 K/9, and 2.37 BB/9) and I was firmly in the camp that the trend was going to continue.
And continue it has, as Severino has logged 86 innings and put up a 2.20 ERA, 10.67 K/9, and 2.20 BB/9. He’s been the only real bright spot in that Yankees rotation and with Jordan Montgomery going down with Tommy John surgery, it’s going to be even more important for Luis Severino to continue his ascension into stardom.
The secondary metrics agree that what Luis Severino is doing is sustainable, with only a moderate regression in ERA coming, because his HR/FB rate is well-under half his career rate at 5.9%. It’s entirely possible that his new career rate is better, of course, so maybe it doesn’t jump back up to 14% and instead stays under 10%. If that’s the case his projection model needs to be reassessed.
ERA estimators for the rest of the year peg him as about what he did last year, hovering around a 3.00 ERA. What’s fascinating is that his Hard% is up from last year’s mark, so the argument could be made that he’s actually pitching with room to grow.
No matter what you expected out of Luis Severino, he’s more than earned his fantasy keep and you’re likely thrilled with him as your number one. He’s actually out-earned all but Max Scherzer of the big four this season per WAR (third overall for pitchers) and this time next year, he’ll be sitting pretty near the top of the starting pitching rankings.
Gerrit Cole – SP, Pittsburgh Pirates
I TOLD YOU SO.
That’s all I really want to say about Cole, but then again that would be depriving myself of getting the opportunity to talk about him once again in my column. In the preseason I compared Max Scherzer’s numbers through his age 26 season with those of Cole through his. For reference, here are those stats again:
Scherzer: 3.92 ERA, 1.305 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 3.1 BB/9
Cole: 3.50 ERA, 1.217 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9
Both of these guys are hard throwing righties who, at that point in their careers had not lived up to the hype of their pedigree. In his age 27 season Scherzer did live up to his name, posting 187.2 innings of 3.74 ERA baseball and striking out a then career-high 11.1 K/9. The following year brought out a 2.90 ERA, and thus, an ace was born.
Gerrit Cole was going as the 69th overall pick and 20th pitcher overall, which was right about where his value should be going into the season. Since the curtain dropped however, Cole has posted a 2.20 ERA, 12.78 K/9, and 2.20 BB/9. The secondary ERA metrics think he’s performed just about right as his FIP and xFIP sit at 2.55 and 2.61 respectively. He’s the number five pitcher on the board with 2.8 WAR earned this season.
So how has he done it? What changed?
His pitch mix. He has completely overhauled his pitch mix and is a completely different pitcher for it. He is throwing his fastball a career-low 54.8% of the time and has increased his slider and curve usage each five-plus percent. He’s also throwing his changeup back at his career five-percent mark which is down from 10% last year. The buying window is closing rapidly in a dynasty/keeper format, but if he has a bad start or two in a row you might try and jump on the other owner and make a trade.
It’s hard to argue with the results, and though there could be a correction period I think Gerrit Cole’s status as an ace is here to stay.
Aaron Nola – SP, Philadelphia Phillies
The least heralded of the names on this list, Aaron Nola has been putting up really good numbers since the beginning of last season. Last year saw an improvement over a terrible 2016 where he was hurt, and this year he’s been absolutely ace-like.
Going back to 2017, we saw Nola post an ERA above his estimators but still in positive territory at 3.54. The strikeouts hit a career-high of 9.86 (and were way above what was expected of him), and his command was on-point as always with a 2.07 BB/9. An inflated BABIP of .309 and continued health left me cautiously optimistic. He was going as the 18th pitcher off the board this year and I saw plenty of room for value.
Nola has not disappointed. His 2.4 WAR plants him firmly in the Top 10 for pitchers thanks to a markedly improved ERA of 2.18. The strikeouts are down a bit with his K/9 sitting at 8.50, but I think there’s room for improvement. If he finishes the season with a strikeout an inning I wouldn’t be surprised. The command is better than ever with a 2.07 BB/9, and everything points to Nola being healthy right now. If he continues at this pace, he’ll be right up there with the top tier of starters in next year’s drafts.
That said, he’s clearly outperforming his career marks in home runs allowed, so I’m a tad bit pessimistic that he continues this kind of performance. He’s only allowing a HR/9 of .46, and though he has mostly kept home runs in check throughout his career, that number is about half of his career rate. Even a slight regression back to career norms means he’s likely to fall into low-3.00 ERA territory, and though that’s still very valuable it isn’t quite this good.
Nola is a very valuable pitcher and should begin receiving the love he deserves. Enjoy the low level of hype he draws and just shrug your shoulders when people wonder how your pitching staff is doing so well.
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) June 1, 2018
Stephen Strasburg – SP, Washington Nationals
Stephen Strasburg is the most recognizable name on this list. He’s been the pitching equivalent of Bryce Harper in countless ways. He was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, and has had varying degrees of success since. Some people have labeled him “overrated” throughout the years, and based on his draft pick cost, there is an argument to be had. But as a starting pitcher I think it’s been far more success than failure for the young right-hander.
Following his Tommy John surgery in 2011, Strasburg posted 557.1 innings with a 3.10 ERA, 10.2 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9 from 2012-2014. He was the 14th best pitcher in the game during that period despite posting 75-100 less innings than his competition. He was an excellent pitcher on several fun Nationals teams and though you probably paid a high price for him, you largely received a return worthy of your investment.
Then in 2015 the injuries began to crop up again. His innings pitched total fell from 215 to 127.1. His ERA jumped into the mid-3.00s. The following season was only slightly better at 147.2 innings and a 3.60 ERA. 2017 saw a jump to 175.1 innings, but with it came a major improvement in the ERA category as his fell to 2.52. This season has been a steady one for the talented righty with 78.2 innings and a 3.20 ERA.
Though most people are likely a little disappointed with the ERA it does come with a few caveats. His 1.26 HR/9 is by far a career-high and he’s allowing 32.3% Hard Contact, also a career high. If you think those two will normalize, as I do, then you probably also think the ERA has a chance to even out. All of that aside, the most important thing I’ve seen out of Strasburg this season is health. He’s on pace for 210 innings, and could conceivably top his career high of 215. If he does that, then his price as the number five pitcher off the board might just pan out.
He will always have name value attached to him, so there’s likely going to always be a built-in cost. But if he can continue the ways of 2012-2014 now that injuries appear to be in the rear-view mirror he might just make it worthwhile.