Trade Targets: Strasburg, Leake and Odorizzi are Undervalued Pitchers
Here are some pitchers whose perceived value is less than their real value. Each of them is a solid trade target right now because you might be able to get them at a discount compared to what it will cost you in the offseason. These guys will be ranked highly on cheat sheets next Spring. Let’s dive right in…
Stephen Strasburg — Washington Nationals
9 Wins, 194 Ks in 163 innings, 3.53 ERA, 1.21 WHIP
Strasburg’s 3.53 ERA is easily the worst of his career and ranks him only 44th out of 93 qualifying starting pitchers in the majors. Is Strasburg really only a middle of the pack starting pitcher this year? Well, his 2.94 FIP is 16th in the league, his 2.51 xFIP is 3rd (behind only Kershaw and King Felix) and his 2.62 SIERA is 4th in baseball. You know how much I like K%-BB% and Strasburg’s is 5th in baseball at a stellar 23.2%, which is the best in his career for a full season. In fact, pretty much every one of Strasburg’s peripheral stats is better than his career averages. What does this mean? It means he has been pitching better than ever despite the fact that 26 starting pitchers are ranked higher than him in 5×5 roto leagues. Strasburg has a losing record again this year just like he did last year, but much of that is because the Nationals rarely score many runs behind him. His 4.42 runs per game of run support is 70th in the league this year. The Nationals’s below average Defensive Efficiency Rating of .700 is not doing Strasburg any favors either. His .336 BABIP is 40 points higher than his pre-2014 career average and is likely to come down as the season progresses. His ERA and WHIP will improve right along with his BABIP.
The advanced metrics indicate Strasburg’s ERA should be almost a run lower than it is right now. One note of caution is that he has been losing some velocity on his fastball, which has fallen from 95.5 MPH the last three years to 94.5 this year. Strasburg has been quoted as saying he now intentionally takes some heat off his pitches on occasion in an attempt to avoid injury so maybe the velocity drop isn’t too worrisome. His fastball may be slowing down a little bit but it is still the 6th fastest in the league among starting pitchers (behind Ventura, Richards, Eovaldi, Peralta and Wheeler). It certainly hasn’t affected his performance yet. Strasburg is one of the most elite pitchers in baseball but he has been overshadowed this year by the exploits of Clayton Kershaw, King Felix Hernandez, Johnny Cueto, Chris Sale, Masahiro Tanaka and others. Despite his run-of-the-mill ERA this year he is still one of the best 5 pitchers in the game. If you can acquire him in a trade without breaking the bank, do it! Verdict: Cy Young caliber pitcher, potential Hall of Famer. Strong trade target while his price is lower than in previous seasons.
Mike Leake — Cincinnati Reds
9 Wins, 129 Ks in 165 innings, 3.59 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
The soft-tossing Mike Leake doesn’t seem to have much in common with the fireballing Stephen Strasburg on the pitcher’s mound but their stars have crossed many times. For starters, they played together on the same youth traveling team when they were 11 years old — at least until Strasburg got kicked off the team for not being good enough and being too immature. Leake was the pint-sized catcher for that team. Leake has been quoted saying “Strasburg was overweight, pouty and used to cry.” Ouch. Here is a link to the team photo. Both of them ended up playing big-time college baseball in the Southwest at the same time, Leake at Arizona State with Ike Davis while Strasburg starred at San Diego State coached by Tony Gwynn. The athletic Leake was a two-way player in college and actually played every position except catcher. It shows because he fields his position very well, leading the league in fielding % in 2011 and leading the league in putouts in 2012, 2013 and so far in 2014. Similarly, Strasburg led the league in fielding % in 2013. Leake is also a good hitter. In fact, Leake’s .573 career OPS is second among all active pitchers behind only the .574 posted by former Reds teammate Travis Wood. Zack Greinke and Yovanni Gallardo are noted for their hitting but they come in 4th and 6th respectively. Strasburg is also a good hitting pitcher, coming in 20th with a .414 career OPS. Both Strasburg and Leake were even drafted only a few picks apart in the 2009 draft. Strasburg was of course taken 1st overall but then Leake was taken with the 8th pick in the 1st round in the same draft. Leake actually beat Strasburg to the majors because he skipped the minor leagues altogether, the 21st player in history to go straight to the majors after being drafted. He was the first player to skip the minors since Xavier Nady in 2000, and the first pitcher since Jim Abbot in 1989. Strasburg did play in the minor leagues, but not for long. He reached the majors just a couple months after Leake in 2010. So you can see that even though their pitching styles are different their careers show some remarkable similarities.
Leake doesn’t get much respect from fantasy baseball owners. His fastball averages a pedestrian 90.7 MPH and he doesn’t strike out that many batters, although he has bumped his strikeout rate up to a career high 7.01 batters per 9 innings this year. He doesn’t walk many either, which has allowed him to post a respectable 13.0% K%-BB% this year, up from 9.2% last year. He keeps the ball down in the zone, helping him yield a very good 2.15 GB/FB ratio which is also a career high and 10th best in the majors this year. That is important because it ensures he will not give up too many home runs in Great American Small Park. This is his 5th MLB season yet he is still only 26 years old. His career has been marked by smooth steady improvement in almost all of his peripheral stats year after year. His xFIP and SIERA are both 3.43 and indicate that he is a very solid starting pitcher for the Reds and your fantasy team. Leake has put up better than league average ERAs the last two years despite pitching in a ballpark that is a tough place for pitchers to succeed. He will be a free agent after next season and may end up moving to a much friendlier stadium to pitch in. Leake isn’t going to win any Cy Young Awards or rack up an impressive array of All Star selections, but he is a guy you can acquire cheaply and plug into your lineup confident in the notion that he will produce quality stats. His low effort delivery and agile athleticism make him less of an injury risk than most other pitchers. He is owned in only 46% of Yahoo leagues and 78% of CBS leagues (CBS leagues have larger rosters in default settings). Verdict: Top 50 Starting Pitcher moving forward. Steadily improving, young, reliable.
Jake Odorizzi — Tampa Bay Rays
9 Wins, 146 Ks in 129 innings, 3.82 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
Once considered a throw in when Wil Myers was traded from the Royals to the Rays for James Shields, Odorizzi has suddenly developed into a real fantasy asset in his own right. He failed to impress in brief tastes of the majors in 2012 and 2013, but after a poor April this year he has been magnificent. His season stats still look fairly pedestrian but that is due to his horrific month of April when he posted a woeful 6.85 ERA and 1.82 WHIP that pretty much erased him from the fantasy radar screen. It takes a lot of good innings to mitigate such a bad month from a pitcher’s season stat line but Odorizzi has made a strong effort to do just that. In his last 18 starts covering 102 innings, Odorizzi has put up a 3.00 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 10.59 K/9, 2.95 FIP and 3.39 xFIP. Obviously all of those are excellent. We are not looking at a small sample size fluke here. We are seeing definite, sustained improvement by a young pitcher coming into his own in the major leagues. Much of the improvement can be traced to his new split-fingered changeup that he throws on 25% of his pitches. Odorizzi is a fly ball pitcher, in fact he has the 2nd lowest ground ball % of any pitcher in the league behind only Chris Young of the Mariners. It is a bit of a red flag because giving up a lot of fly balls means giving up a lot of home runs in most cases. Somehow Odorizzi has been able to keep his HR/FB % down to 7.9%, which is 31st best in the league. Pitching in the Trop helps lessen his home run worries but it is an issue to keep an eye on nonetheless. Odorizzi’s 3.37 SIERA shows that he has pitched better than his 3.82 ERA indicates.
Despite having an average-at-best fastball of 90.5 MPH, Odorizzi has been able to rack up strikeouts at a superlative rate of 10.13 per 9 innings, which is the 6th best in baseball ahead of the likes of David Price, Felix Hernandez and Masahiro Tanaka. In fact, Odorizzi is the only member of the top 10 that we would not consider one of the most elite pitchers in baseball. If there is one stat that screams “ACE” it is K/9 and Jake Odorizzi is right there with the best of them in this key metric. Can he keep it up? Well, at 24 years old he is by far the youngest member of the group and also the softest tossing by a large margin. I doubt Odorizzi will continue to strike out batters at such a prolific rate but even if he drops back a couple notches he will still be well above average.
Odorizzi has been one of this year’s biggest breakouts. Remember last year when Corey Kluber, Sonny Gray and Tyson Ross snuck up on everybody? Those guys went from free pick ups off the waiver wire to highly rated studs on the fantasy pitching charts this season and Odorizzi is following the same path. Get him now before everyone else catches on to his true value. His current fantasy rankings and low ownership levels show that he likely can be acquired for a pretty low price. I would gladly pay that price to see if he can continue to flourish on my team. Verdict: The Real Deal. Top 40 fantasy starting pitcher at least with a chance to climb the list if he can keep doing what he is doing. Strong trade target while his price is low.
If you didn’t see them last week I evaluated some Unexpected Aces: Porcello, Duffy, Keuchel and Simon and the week prior I suggested these Unexpected Aces: Arrieta, Roark, Ross and Richards and prior to that another group of Trade Targets: 4 Starting Pitchers to Target and 1 to Avoid. Check those out for more advice on how to boost your pitching staff to championship caliber.
Are there any other pitchers or hitters you want to know about? Shoot me a comment below and I will give you my opinion.