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3 Surprising Bounceback Starting Pitcher Candidates For 2018

Bounceback starting pitchers
Photo Credit: Terry Foote

Everyone was hitting home runs last season. Giancarlo Stanton almost knocked out 60, yet, in terms of impressiveness, that feat almost pales in comparison to, say, Didi Gregorius breaking the 25 home run plateau or Scooter Gennett registering four in one night against St. Louis.

Still, while inflated power numbers are flashy and fun, they only tell one side of the story. What of the men standing 60 feet and six inches away from the batter’s box?

More than a few starting pitchers compiled 2017 seasons that they’d rather never speak of again (Justin Verlander will speak on their behalf, though), but of that group, three notable names are set to bounceback this summer and help your Fantasy squad.

Bounceback Starting Pitcher Candidates

Jeff Samardzija, SP, SF

Here’s a simple way to take an optimistic stance on Jeff Samardzija’s 2017 campaign: just start listing all the things he did really well.

Of the 58 pitchers to qualify last year, Samardzija walked the fewest opponents per nine innings (1.38); he recorded both his highest strikeout rate since 2012 (24.2%) and his most raw strikeouts since 2013 (205); and, for the fifth straight season, took the mound for 32-plus starts and over 200 innings.

In fact, only 10 pitchers could claim to be part of the 200 strikeouts and 200 innings club in 2017, with the lowest non-Samardzija NFBC ADP currently belonging to Carlos Martinez, going off the board at pick 53.6 (SP16) on average. Samardzija’s ADP is 136.9.

Now, that’s not to say the 33-year old’s draft stock isn’t somewhat justified. In a very Chris Archer-esque scenario, Samardzija has just been unable to rack up the surface stats that are generally outside his rather pristine control. Only Jason Hammel had a larger negative disparity between his ERA and FIP than the 0.81 runs that separated Samardzija’s 3.61 FIP from his far less digestible 4.42 ERA. In a seemingly career-spanning twist of fate, this led to very few wins for the 6’5 right-hander – only nine to be exact.

Again, this is nothing new for those who have followed Samardzija since his turn to full-time starter back in 2012. Over that span, 24 pitchers have started at least 170 games. None have collected fewer wins than Samardzija’s 56. Its at times like this that Samardzija must feel like a misunderstood genius moonlighting as an MIT janitor because, I can assure you, it’s not his fault. It’s not his fault.

Aside from banking on the normalization of his win expectancy and strand rate, your thought process on Samardzija in 2018 can really be swayed by how you feel about the San Francisco Giants as a whole. This is a team that scored the second-fewest runs in baseball a season ago and paired that run support paradise with a bottom five ranking in team defensive runs saved.

Samardzija specifically was one of only seven qualified pitchers to receive less than four runs of support per start. Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, though most definitely outside their primes, will help matters and despite the fact that questions in centerfield remain, you’d have to think whatever the solution, its a better option than the glut of players that contributed to a by far league-worst -32 DRS in 2017.

FanGraphs is projecting the Giants to go from 64 wins to a much more respectable 82 this season. Its impossible to say how many of those will fall into the lap of Jeff Samardzija, yet, if there’s any justice in the world, a handful will, and he’ll get back to returning value in 2018.

Kevin Gausman, SP, BAL

Any belief in Kevin Gausman’s 2018 prospects comes down to how you feel about small sample sizes and untapped potential. One would be hard-pressed to pitch worse than the then 26-year-old did to start last season, posting a robust 5.85 ERA in 97.0 innings before the All-Star break. That’s not to say Gausman didn’t have his accolades, though. He, Matt Moore, and Matt Cain were the only three pitchers to rank inside the Top-10 in both runs and walks surrendered. What an honor!

The second-half of the season told a much different story. Gausman pitched to a 3.41 ERA and struck out 96 batters over 89.2 innings. The latter half of that statistic is more important than usual. Despite obviously pitching better by even just the eye-test in August and September, Gausman’s success wasn’t without a few red flags – the biggest of which being a massive 85.4% strand rate, a figure that sat fifth-highest in baseball from July 11 on. However, a high strand rate can be justified through the all-powerful strikeout. So, the question must be asked, was Gausman’s 9.64 K/9 legitimate?

When dealing with samples that are under 100 innings, its generally nice to see a tangible change in a player’s makeup to suggest, beyond the statistics, that we’re dealing with something more than an anomaly. For Kevin Gausman truthers, this would be his splitter usage. The splitter is without a doubt Gausman’s best offering. Primarily used as his out pitch, opponents managed just a .361 slugging percentage off Gausman’s splitter in 2017, actually up significantly from an otherworldly .291 SLG% in 2016.

The pitch has also registered a whiff rate of over 21% in every season of Gausman’s career, so it’s no shock that when his strikeout numbers peaked late last season, his splitter usage was way up. Gausman went from throwing his splitter roughly 14% of the time in April and May to almost 23% of the time the remainder of the season – with July’s 27.5% usage standing out above the rest. Interestingly, though not quite as dynamic in its early season contrast, Gausman followed a similar usage pattern in 2016. For the record, his ERA also fell over a full run after All-Star in that campaign.

Whether his splitter usage early in the season is weather dependent or physiological is a much different debate, but, in theory, building off of his late-season success and throwing the pitch at a higher frequency earlier on should be in the cards. In a fascinating piece about pitching in the cold from back in 2016, Eno Sarris actually spoke on the matter to Gausman, who, like most pitchers, clearly prefers warmth. “I like to be sweaty even before I pick up the ball.” I guess let’s all hope for an unseasonably warm spring in Baltimore this year.

Aaron Sanchez, SP, TOR

Here’s a fun piece of pub trivia: Who had the lowest ERA in the American League in 2016? The answer is obviously Aaron Sanchez, as you are reading the section of this article under a sub-heading of his name, but doesn’t that seem like forever ago? Sanchez’s current NFBC ADP of 212.4 is not a reflection of that season, however. No, its a testament to a nightmarish and injury-plagued 2017, that saw the 225-year-oldmake multiple trips to the disabled list with fingernail issues and blisters.

Now, any sort of recurring injury with a pitcher’s throwing hand is cause for concern, yet Sanchez’s skill set is just so tantalizing at his current price point. Plus, unlike a lot of high-upside pitchers being drafted outside the Top-200, we’ve actually seen the ceiling of which so many like to attribute to the young phenom pitcher archetype. Maybe more important in this specific situation, we’ve also seen him pitch well this spring (just about the only time spring training performance holds any barring).

The fortunate news to come from an unfortunate situation is that unlike 2017, where you were drafting Sanchez following a break-out season, to bring back value at his ADP, all the right-hander has to do is stay healthy. Sure, that’s not without its question marks, but its a crucial distinction to make as, in a vacuum, health is far from Sanchez’s only red flag when it comes to fantasy.

The Marcus Stroman comparison is an easy one to make with Sanchez, however, as I showed just three weeks ago, I don’t often bring up Stroman in a positive light when it comes to fantasy baseball. Both have elite ground ball tendencies, an invaluable skill in real-life, yet not the primary thing you want in a draft pick.

Keeping the ball on the ground is an amazing trait in fantasy when combined with an above-average strikeout rate (see Luis Severino), but Sanchez’s 6.95 career K/9 as a starter is pretty underwhelming. It essentially makes him a ratios pitcher – not a title I’d confidently be handing to a pitcher who has famously struggled with walks most of his professional career.

Anyway, that’s again all beside the point. With most prospective owners likely scared away by his injury risk, Sanchez doesn’t need to do much to be a value in 2018 and he does have all the natural skills to do so much more. Just remember his limitations if the helium catches him in late March, following a good showing down in Florida.


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