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It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2022 or even drafting now. Teams still have a lot of work to do when the lockout concludes (hopefully sooner than later), but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2022 fantasy baseball season.
For the eighth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. After reviewing batting average sleepers last week, we will be looking at possible WHIP sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason once it resumes, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Fantasy managers, especially those new to the game, often have a bias toward ERA given that it’s the category most often quoted as we learn the game. Obviously, for 5x5 scoring leagues, WHIP is just as important, with some pitchers making a living on fantasy rosters for their WHIP contributions.
It’s simple enough to say that good control creates a WHIP asset for fantasy managers, but the table below is proof. The following table shows data from pitchers with at least 10 major league starts in the given year, proving just how important control is to finding pitchers who will help your WHIP.
Note: 2020 omitted due to small sample size.
Based on the yearly WHIP average at the bottom of the table, it’s clear that finding pitchers capable of producing sub-2.5 BB/9 is key when uncovering potential value for the category. With that fact in mind, here’s a rundown of eight names to track in 2022 for fantasy leagues of varying sizes.
Mixed League Sleepers
Zach Eflin, SP, Phillies
Eflin has gradually improved since his MLB arrival in 2016, going from a pitcher who pitched to contact to showing some ability to miss bats with an evolving repertoire. After posting a combined 4.7 K/9 in his first two MLB seasons over 22 starts, Eflin has a cumulative 8.3 K/9 in the last four seasons. He’s also done so maintaining elite control, with an outstanding career 2.2 BB/9 that was a career-best 1.4 BB/9 last season before season-ending knee surgery. It’s no coincidence Eflin has started to become a WHIP asset over the last two seasons, but there’s more meat left on the bone. Consider Eflin’s unlucky .344 BABIP in 2020 and .327 BABIP last season, showing that he should allow fewer baserunners if his luck evens out.
Unfortunately, Eflin was only able to make 18 starts last season due to a nagging knee injury that eventually required surgery in September. The surgery to repair the patellar tendon in his right knee has a 6-8 month recovery timetable, putting Eflin’s status in question to begin the season. That questionable status is reflected in his 428 ADP in NFBC leagues early this offseason. Still, Opening Day falls in that expected timetable, and the ERA metrics (3.68 FIP, 3.81 SIERA) are as encouraging as the great WHIP potential. There’s a lot of profit to be had if Eflin’s price doesn’t increase significantly.
Nick Lodolo, SP, Reds
Fantasy managers love to draft prospects, and Lodolo is an elite one. The seventh overall pick in the 2019 draft out of TCU has been everything the Reds could have hoped for when he has selected, with a 2.35 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 14.1 K/9, and 1.4 BB/9 in 21 minor league starts. Unfortunately, he was able to make only 13 starts last season due to a shoulder injury. It’s notable that three of those starts came at Triple-A, giving Lodolo a ramp to make it to the majors early in the 2022 season if he impresses in Spring Training.
The profile is one of a high floor and projectable success. Lodolo doesn’t have elite stuff, but he’s consistently posted a groundball rate above 50% and can spot the ball wherever he wants in the strike zone. If healthy, it’s a fair bet that we’ll see Lodolo before the All-Star break, and the great control should make his transition to the majors much easier. With the Reds moving on from Wade Miley, there’s a spot for Lodolo’s elite control to help sometime soon. His current ADP of 525 makes him an excellent flier.
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Bailey Ober, SP, Twins 279
Fantasy managers became very familiar with Ober in his 20 MLB starts last season. He wasn’t considered a top prospect prior to his promotion, but the control certainly qualifies as top-shelf. The Charleston alum had a career 1.2 BB/9 in the minors over nearly 200 innings, and he was able to carry that over to the majors with a 1.9 BB/9 in Minnesota. The control only got better as Ober got his feet wet, as he had a 1.2 BB/9 in 12 starts after the break to help him produce a 3.49 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. While lacking elite velocity, Ober has also been able to miss bats with the help of his great location and lanky 6-foot-9 frame, posting an excellent 9.4 K/9 in his rookie campaign.
The Twins find themselves in a mini rebuild after trading Jose Berrios and losing Kenta Maeda to injury, so Ober’s starting rotation spot is very secure entering the 2022 season. His extreme flyball rate and resulting 20 home runs allowed in only 92.1 innings last year makes the ERA somewhat variable, but Ober’s WHIP should make up for some of the risk. Even with a 279 ADP, there’s room for Ober to be a profitable value for fantasy managers.
Joe Ryan, SP, Twins
Ober isn’t the only exciting young control pitcher on the Twins starting staff. Ryan has similar strengths and upside after coming over from the Rays in the Nelson Cruz trade last year. He didn’t get as much time in the majors after playing for Team USA in the Summer Olympics, but Ryan was excellent in his five MLB starts with a 4.05 ERA and 0.79 WHIP, along with a 1.7 BB/9. That followed up an outstanding season at Triple-A in which Ryan had a 3.41 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and 1.6 BB/9 in 66 innings.
Like Ober, Ryan is an extreme flyball pitcher who lives more on the deception of his fastball than its velocity. He’s still been able to miss bats regularly as a pro with a career 13.0 K/9 in the minors. While he had a very small sample size of innings in the majors, it was enough to have confidence that the great control will hold. For fantasy managers, the bigger concern at this point is the price than the ability, as Ryan’s price is nearly 90 picks earlier (196) than Ober despite somewhat similar upside. He still has the ability to outproduce his ADP and become an elite WHIP option, in the process.
Single League Players
Roansy Contreras, SP, Pirates
After years of sub-par return in trades, the Pirates might have gotten one right. Contreras was the lead prospect in a four-player package for Jameson Taillon last year, and he had a breakout season between Double- and Triple-A with a 2.64 ERA, 12.7 K/9, and 2.0 BB/9 in 13 starts over 58 minor league innings last season. The right-hander was even rewarded with a late-season start for Pittsburgh, in which he was dominant over three scoreless innings.
Contreras’ stuff was eye opening in that one MLB start. His fastball averaged 96 mph, and his slider looked like a plus pitch. The increased velocity is what has made Contreras a suddenly-elite prospect, and he continued the momentum at the Arizona Fall League with 18/4 K/BB in 14 innings. While highly effective early in his minor league career with the Yankees, Contreras is now showing frontline starter potential and the possibility of breaking camp with the Pirates after last year’s MLB success and his elite control. His draft day price should be interesting if he continues to pitch well in Spring Training.
Bailey Falter, P, Phillies
Falter didn’t make much of a buzz in his rookie season, pitching mostly in relief with a 5.61 ERA in 33.2 innings. In other words, he did very little to help in fantasy leagues throwing primarily in middle relief for the Phillies. Looking beyond those results does show some upside, however, as Falter showed elite control (1.6 BB/9) with more than one strikeout per inning. His minor league track record shows a starting pitcher with similar ability, as a fifth-round pick out of high school in 2015 with a career sub-2.0 BB/9 in the minors. He’s also been excellent in the upper minors, including a 1.76 ERA and 44/8 K/BB over 30.2 innings at Triple-A Lehigh Valley last season.
Living primarily on a low-90’s fastball and slider, the lefty profiles well as a back of the rotation starter. He could serve in that role to start the year if Eflin isn’t recovered from knee surgery or another starter isn’t ready to begin the year. As we get closer to Spring Training, Falter could make for a nice WHIP stash in NL-only leagues.
Caleb Kilian, SP, Cubs
Back in 2012, the Cubs acquired a soft-tossing control pitcher named Kyle Hendricks from Texas in the Ryan Dempster trade. That under-the-radar prospect went on to become a key part of the Cubs starting rotation a few years later. Kilian could be following a similar path after he was acquired from the Giants in the Kris Bryant deal. The former eighth round pick out of Texas Tech doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he’s shown impeccable control as a pro. Pitching mostly at Double-A last year, Kilian had a 1.2 BB/9 in 100.1 innings, helping him produce a 2.42 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. He’s quickly become one of the better upper minors pitching prospects in a thin Cubs farm system, as a result.
The immediate goals of the Cubs are unclear, but it is clear that they need pitching help even after adding Wade Miley and Marcus Stroman this offseason. Kilian seems unlikely to help early in the year, but he has a path to get to the majors soon with a likely start to the season at Triple-A. His incredible control, along with a more than satisfactory 10.0 K/9, shows a pitcher who has a chance at immediate success in the majors.
Eli Morgan, SP, Guardians
Fans of the aforementioned Hendricks probably enjoy watching Morgan pitch. The soft-tosser broke in with Cleveland last season, making 18 starts with a mediocre 5.34 ERA in 89.1 innings. He threw strikes consistently with an 8.2 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9, but the long ball was a big problem as Morgan allowed 20 home runs with an extreme 51% groundball rate.
The flyballs are a problem for a pitcher with such little margin for error, as Morgan’s fastball averages only 90 mph and he’s never shown big strikeout numbers in the upper minors. However, Morgan also has the tools to be an effective MLB pitcher with a plus changeup that helped him settle in as a rookie, posting a 4.37 ERA and 1.18 WHIP over 13 starts after the All-Star break. The minor league track record is also very good, as Morgan had a career K/BB ratio above 4.00 along with a 2.5 BB/9 and 3.14 ERA. Cleveland’s track record for developing starting pitchers would seem to give Morgan an even higher ceiling than his sub-par fastball would indicate. Most likely, his value will be reserved to AL-only leagues in the short term as a WHIP helper, but we can’t rule out more upside down the line.