5 Sleeper Picks for 2018 – Starting Pitchers

Inside Injuries

If you’re shopping for starting pitchers and need a few low cost, low risk options, we’ve got you covered. Here are five of our sleeper picks. Inside Injuries’ analytics show that all of these pitchers are a Low Injury Risk entering Spring Training, and they could be a great value.

5 Sleeper Picks- Starting Pitchers

Jeff Samardzija – SFG

Jeff Samardzija did not have a great time last year. He had the second highest ERA of his career, and he led the National League in losses. But there are several good things he did that would normally correlate more closely with success. He led the league in walk rate, with just 1.4 BB/9. He also had a decent home run rate of 1.3 HR/9. And finally, he was incredibly durable, leading the league in innings pitched.

A lot of what went wrong was not in Samardzija’s control. Part of the reason that he lost so many games was the fact that the offense couldn’t give him any run support. The Giants were 29th in runs scored last year. That shouldn’t repeat, however, as FanGraphs has the Giants projected as the 12th best offense for 2018, meaning Samardzija’s win-loss record should improve tremendously. Average Draft Position so far has Samardzija taken as the 50th pitcher off the board, but he should probably be taken around 25. If you can snag him as the 30th-40th pitcher taken, you’ve gotten a steal.

Marco Estrada – TOR

Estrada was another guy with a rough year. After an All Star campaign in 2016 when he had a 3.48 ERA and led the league in Hits/9 with 6.8, he saw his ERA balloon up to 4.98 and his Hits/9 grow to 9.0. He also had a bit of a home run spike with 1.5/9, from 1.2/9 in 2016, but so did everyone else in baseball.

But if you look at all his other stats, they are almost identical to his 2016 numbers. His K/9 was 8.5 (8.4 in 2016), his BB/9 was 3.4 (3.3 in 2016), his Soft/Medium/Hard contact line was actually slightly better at 21.4%/51.4%, 27.2% (21.1%/47.6%/31.3% in 2016).

Really it just seems he went out there and did the same thing but got different results. His Statcast xwOBA (expected weighted on base average) was almost identical as well: .296 in 2016, and .299 in 2017. But his actual wOBA was .283 in 2016 and .338 in 2017. So the truth is that his actual ability is somewhere between a 3.48 ERA and a 4.98 ERA, but I would bet it is sub-4.00. He is not a guy you would want to take early in the draft, but he should be a target for your 5th/6th starter (especially given his durability). Currently he is being taken as the 118th pitcher overall. That means you have a shot to pick this guy up off waivers as a non-drafted guy, in which case you have a likely steal on your hands. Durability of starting pitchers can’t be overlooked when finding late-round value picks.

Jameson Taillon – PIT

After the recent sell-off that the Pirates have had, Taillon very well may be the best player left on the squad. The former #2 overall pick is the team’s de facto ace, and he has had a couple of solid, if not dazzling years. Taillon wasn’t in his best form last year however, as he had a mid-season surgery to help cure a case of testicular cancer. The unfortunate (and isolated) illness likely hurt his numbers last year, but should not be a burden on him going forward. He is already back at a Low Injury Risk. On top of that his Health Performance Factor is Peak, which is as good as it gets. This indicates there aren’t any injury/health concerns that will hurt his performance.

Taillon has all the tools for success. While he doesn’t have filthy strikeout numbers or a crazy-low walk rate, he does have a pretty nasty sinker that keeps him at an elite ground-ball rate. Of the 119 starting pitchers with 200+ innings over the last two seasons, Taillon ranks 19th in ground-ball rate. Taillon is also another victim of inflated wOBA, having the 13th biggest difference between his Statcast expected wOBA and his actual wOBA. Taillon should at the very least be a league-average pitcher, and likely will be better. If everything comes together, he could easily be a top 25 pitcher. Yet, he has been the 72nd pitcher taken in drafts thus far this year. Owners should be able to pick Taillon up as a 4th/5th starter pretty easily, and he will be a bargain there.

Jon Gray – COL

I know what you’re thinking: a pitcher in Coors? No thanks. But the matter of the fact is that fantasy owners tend to overestimate the effect of Coors, and so the Rockies hitters are often overvalued, and the Rockies pitchers undervalued. Jon Gray has all the makings of an Ace. He has a 96 MPH heater that has touched 99, and a slider that ranks in the top 20% of starting pitchers by xwOBA. His curveball, while still developing, has a 43% K-rate. He has all the tools. Now it is just time to put them together for an elite season.

There is reason to believe that that elite season could be this year. First of all, if he had stayed healthy last year, he would have already had that elite season. If he had had 32 starts instead of 20, his stat line would have looked something like this: 16-6, 176 innings, 3.67 ERA, 180 Ks, 48 BBs, and 5.1 WAR. That would be an ace season, and would make him a top 10 pitcher, in the realm of Zack Greinke, Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, and Stephen Strasburg. And for this high upside player, you could draft him as the 58th overall pitcher assuming your draft is a typical one. Granted, Coors may keep Gray from being a #1 in most leagues, but he would be a solid #2 and a great #3. Right now he is being drafted like a #5. Grab that value.

Luiz Gohara – ATL

Luiz Gohara is the youngest player on this list. Last year, at the age of 20/21, he rocketed up the Braves minor league system, posting ERAs of 1.98, 2.60, and 3.31 in A+, AA, and AAA. And he got 5 solid starts at the Major League level in September. He didn’t have the results he would have liked, as he worked a 4.91 ERA in 29 innings, but his peripheral stats were off the charts. He had a 2.75 FIP in his brief showing, which is Strasburg- Scherzer-Kluber territory. Gohara also posted a 18.7% K-BB% in the Majors, which would have put him in the top 20% of qualified pitchers had he had enough innings, just above Jose Quintana and just below Aaron Nola. This wasn’t a fluke either, as he had rates of 19.9%, 19.4%, and 20.8% in his three minor league stops.

Most of Gohara’s struggles seemed to come from sequencing, as he had a very low 61.8% Left-on-Base%. His minor league average was around 75% last season, so it seems more of a fluke than a chronic issue. If there is one problem that you want to point out, it’s his batter splits. He kept lefties to a .105/.190/.158 slash line, with a 29% strikeout percentage, but righties hit .313/.360/.532 against him, with a 24% strikeout percentage. It is doubtful that the split will be that pronounced going forward, but it is something to watch.

Gohara is likely to have a floor of an average starter, but if he can work on those splits, his pure stuff could realistically have him knocking on ace status. Because of his youth and short track record, Gohara is being drafted very late, if at all, and he would be a good option for your last starting pitcher, as a relatively low risk, relatively high upside pitcher. Plus he’s healthy, making him a great sleeper pick.

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