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Hidden Gems: Using Advanced Metrics to Pinpoint Fantasy Sleepers on the Mound

 

We’re optimistic that baseball is just around the corner, so we’re giving fantasy players an opportunity to get a jump on the competition by taking a data-driven look at which pitchers could be headed for a breakout shortened season.  

By: Bryan Holcomb and Micah Parshall

As we hope for baseball to return in some form of a season, thousands of fantasy players stand eager and more than ready to jump on this season’s top sleepers.

Should the owners and players come to an agreement, the season’s unique format could help produce all kinds of surprise performances – especially on the mound – as expanded rosters and the short season could lead to more opportunities. So, who do we expect to break out this season?

Using traditional statistics from the last three seasons, advanced pitch-tracking data and proprietary metrics such as Command+, Stats Perform’s advanced analytics and research groups have come together to select our favorite candidates to break out – or bounce back – in 2020.

Jose Urena throws during the ninth inning Sept. 14, 2019, in San Francisco.

Jose Urena, Miami Marlins

After a successful 2018 season, Urena took a moderate step back last year. He worked just 84.2 innings before hitting the 60-day IL with a back strain that kept him sidelined for most of the summer. When he was on the mound, however, he showed flashes of brilliance – even if the results weren’t great overall.

Urena’s fastball displays a lethal combination of velocity and command, averaging 95.9 mph and with a Command+ of 117.3. In 2019, there were 20 starters that averaged 95-plus mph on fastballs, including household names like Syndergaard, Cole, deGrom, and Clevinger. Of those 20 flamethrowers, nobody had a higher fastball Command+ than Urena. He’s leveraged that command to expand the zone with his heater, garnering a 37.5% chase rate last season – well above the league average of 27.9% on fastballs.

He pairs that fastball with a slider that gets hitters to whiff slightly more than average (102.7 Whiff+), especially against righties, who swing and miss 44.3% of the time against the pitch. When righties do make contact on the slider, they usually aren’t able to do very much with it. A 25.9% hard-hit rate has led to just a .383 slugging percentage against the pitch.

Though he’s always been known for his velocity, Urena’s command continues to improve, as evidenced by his declining walk rate. Factor in an effective slider and it’s only a matter of time before the 28-year-old puts it all together.

Tyler Mahle gets fist-bumps from teammates in the dugout after his pitching performance during a spring training game in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Tyler Mahle, Cincinnati Reds

Though he’s not projected to be in the five-man rotation, the Reds are considering going six deep during what figures to be a tightly condensed schedule. At the start of the 2019 season, Mahle tinkered with nearly his entire repertoire. He scrapped his old slider for a curveball with more depth at around the same velocity, transitioned from circle change to more of a split-change, and added a tight cutter. Those changes, along with a full season under pitching coach Derek Johnson, have Mahle on the verge of a major breakthrough.

Mahle’s fastball command has always been elite, and his 121.6 Command+ trailed only Kyle Hendricks in 2019 (minimum 1,000 fastballs). While his Whiff+ on fastballs dropped from 127.8 in 2018 to 102.4 last season, he found success when elevating the fastball. That was especially the case against lefties, who hit .192 with a 35.4% whiff rate against high heat.

Among pitchers to throw at least 100 splitters last season, Mahle’s split-change ranked second with a 117.3 Command+ behind only Masahiro Tanaka’s incredible 144.2. He’s been excellent at expanding the zone with the splitter as well, garnering a 44.1% chase rate (compared to the league average of 38.9%). Mahle’s curveball is also rated high – fifth in the majors with a 123.4 Command+ (min. 100 thrown).

With a plethora of talent in the rotation ahead of him to learn from, a willingness to develop pitches, and the Reds’ recent hiring of another great pitching mind in Driveline’s own Kyle Boddy, Mahle appears primed to have a breakout season.

Caleb Smith warms up prior to a spring training game in Jupiter, Fla.

Caleb Smith, Miami Marlins 

Much like his Miami teammate Urena, Smith relies primarily on his fastball and slider and has a propensity to miss bats across the board. While he doesn’t throw his fastball with as much velocity as Urena at an average of 91.6 mph, left-hander features above-average Command+ at 104.9.

Smith is able to take his fastball to the next level with extreme movement. Smith’s heater is among the best in baseball at missing bats, as his 130.3 Whiff+ ranks higher than the likes of Chris Paddack, Walker Buehler and Zack Wheeler. That high whiff rate allows him to use it as an excellent put-away pitch, and 49.4% of his strikeouts last season ended on fastballs.

Smith’s biggest issue has been keeping the ball in the park. Twenty of his NL-high 33 home runs allowed last year came off of his fastball. Much of that is due to his extreme fly ball tendencies. He threw 57.3% of his fastballs up in the zone, generating a 61.3% fly-ball rate. Among pitchers who had at least 100 fastballs put in play last season, only Colin Poche of the Tampa Bay Rays had a higher fly ball rate (63.4%).

Smith’s high home run rate could be cause for concern, but it is no secret that home runs were up around the league last season. His ability to generate outs at a high rate on his fastball, whether through fly balls or strikeouts, makes him a prime candidate to break out in 2020.

Jordan Lyles throws during practice in Surprise, Ariz.

Jordan Lyles, Texas Rangers

Entering his 11th big-league season, Lyles finally found his stride with the Brewers last season. He went 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and a .636 opponent OPS in his 11 starts with Milwaukee after a mediocre four months in Pittsburgh.

Lyles features above-average command on his main three pitches – fastball, curveball and cutter – using the fastball and cutter to induce fly ball outs while saving the curveball as a put-away pitch. He found good success with his four-seamer last season by keeping it high in the zone. Opposing batters hit just .239 against the pitch with a 33.4% chase rate. His ability to get swings and misses with the heater took improved in 2019, as he posted a 115.3 Whiff+.

Lyles’ transformation into a fly ball pitcher has generated good results overall, but he is giving up more home runs. That’s especially true with his fastball, which was hit out of the park 13 times last season after he allowed 12 homers on all pitch types in 2018. That’s a common problem among fly ball pitchers, but improvement in this area could lead to even greater success in a shortened 2020 season.

Kevin Gausman throws during a spring training game in Surprise, Ariz.

Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants

After starting the season in the Atlanta Braves’ minor league system while recovering from a sore shoulder, Gausman struggled with a 6.19 ERA over 16 starts before being placed on waivers. He was claimed by the Reds and finished the season as a reliever.

Although he pitched poorly in his second year with the Braves, there’s more to unpack here. His average fastball velocity decreased from 95 to 93.8 mph, which could be due to the shoulder soreness he experienced at the beginning of the season. Gausman also suffered from a career-worst .354 average on balls in play with Atlanta. His FIP during that time was 4.16, which also points to some bad luck.

Fast forward to 2020, where Gausman is projected to return to the rotation after signing a one-year deal with the San Francisco Giants. Although he took a step back in Command+ across the board last season, Gausman made big strides with his Whiff+ numbers. His fastball Whiff+ skyrocketed from 86.9 in 2018 to 120.3 in 2019. Gausman’s splitter also improved with a .212 opponent batting average, .298 slugging percentage and 51.3% chase rate. He posted a 158.4 Whiff+ with his splitter, second in MLB (min. 100 thrown) behind Matt Shoemaker (173.7).

Making the move to San Francisco should benefit Gausman, as Oracle Park traditionally has been one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in MLB. A healthy shoulder coupled with his major increase in Whiff+ last year should make Gausman a valuable addition to the Giants rotation.

HONORABLE MENTION

Sam Gaviglio, Toronto Blue Jays

Slotted as a middle reliever for the Blue Jays, Gaviglio saw a major jump in Whiff+ numbers on his slider in 2019 (108.3 to 118.2). His slider usage went from 28.6% in 2018 to 43.9% last year as well. There’s a reason for that as opponents had a .185 average, 41.3% chase rate and 37.5% whiff rate against the pitch last season. If Gaviglio can limit the home runs (11 in 2019) and maintain his above-average Command+ on three pitches, he should have a solid season ahead of him.

Zac Gallen, Arizona Diamondbacks

Gallen looks primed to work his way into the back end of the Diamondbacks rotation. Gallen was impressive in his 80 innings last season, finishing with above-average Command+ on all four pitch types and elite Whiff+ on his curveball (46.1% chase, 31.8% whiff) and changeup (47.4% chase, 40.3% whiff).

Griffin Canning, Los Angeles Angels

Angels fans feared the worst when Canning was shut down with right elbow discomfort the last month of the 2019 season. Angels fans got a scare again in February when Canning was once again shut down and scheduled for an MRI. After opting to go with PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections, Canning has once again avoided Tommy John surgery. When healthy, Canning had above-average command on all four of his pitches and elite Whiff+ on his slider (39.6% chase, 45.2% whiff).

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Lucas Haupt