2015 Starting Pitcher Bounce Backs

Bounceback Players LogoI have taken you through some bounce back candidates for each hitting group and probably only scratched the surface given how many guys came up far short of expectations in 2014.  For starting pitchers we are going to zero in on guys who many predicted would be top 30 pitching performers in 2014 yet ended up being ranked 60 and beyond per ESPN’s Player Rater.  Each pitcher highlighted in this write-up made 20-plus starts and exited the 2014 season with a clean bill of health.  In other words you won’t see the likes of Cliff Lee, Mike Minor, or Yu Darvish. However, you can find each of them in yesterday’s reveal of the Fantasy Assembly team’s composite rankings for the 2015 Top 75 Dynasty/Keeper Starting Pitchers.

Outside of the typical 5×5 pitching categories, I’m going to hone in on Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average (SIERA) as the future ERA predictor of choice for these evaluations.  SIERA seems to be the industry favored predictor of future pitching performance as it takes into account K, BB, and ground ball rates while nullifying luck, defense, and park factors.  Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) as well as K/BB, K%, LOB%, and velocity or repertoire changes will also be a prime focus when breaking down the underlying stats.  Ultimately, we are looking for guys who may see their ADP plummet from where they were a year ago but who can predictably be expected to bounce back. Who better to start with than this guy:

Justin Verlander (Tigers – 32 years old in February, 2015)
2014 Stat Line: 4.54 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 159 Ks, 15-12 record in 206 IP

No pitcher should see a bigger drop in ADP than Justin Verlander in 2015.  Verlander’s pitching performance since his Cy Young/MVP performance of 2011 resembles that of a sky diver without a parachute.  Somehow this must be the world balancing itself out against Verlander.  It’s like the world is telling him if he wants Kate Upton he has to pitch like Edwin Jackson.

In one of my bolder calls of 2014 I predicted that Homer Bailey would outpitch Verlander.  Well, I was technically right but I’m not exactly breaking out the happy dance over that one.  As mentioned above, Verlander has been in a statistical free fall for four straight years:

Year IP ERA WHIP Ks K/BB K% Fastball Velocity BABIP
2011 251 2.40 0.92 250 4.39 25.8% 95 .236
2012 238.1 2.64 1.06 239 3.98 25% 94.7 .273
2013 218 3.46 1.31 217 2.89 23.5% 94 .316
2014 206 4.54 1.40 159 2.45 17.8% 93.1 .317

As you can see, everything trends in the wrong direction. SIERA has Verlander pegged for a 4.17 ERA in 2015.  Justin Verlander’s fall from greatness looks quite similar to Tim Lincecum’s.  It would almost be easier if there was some sort of injury involved to help explain where everything went wrong.  Like Timmy-Jim though, Verlander simply doesn’t have it anymore and may never get it back.  Someone will take a chance on Verlander in every league but it will not be me.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals – 30 years old in September, 2015)
2014 Stat Line: 3.57 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 162 Ks and a 10-10 record in 158.2 IP

Gio Gonzalez more or less represented the starting point for where I began searching for bounce back candidates.  He rated an even 60 overall on ESPN’s Player Rater.  At first glance it seems that his numbers really aren’t that out of line with what we might expect.  The ERA of 3.57 is a little high for him but the 1.20 WHIP is impressive!  A look at his SIERA score of 3.43 suggests Gonzalez was only slightly unlucky in the ERA department.  Where he really came up short was that he only managed to post 10 wins in 2014 and fell short of his innings expectation due to DL time that likely cost him about five starts.

A small red flag for Gio can be seen in his fastball velocity that has dipped from 93.3 in 2012 to 92.1 this past season.  It isn’t a major drop in velocity but it should be noted that it has fallen three seasons in a row.  The stat that has me believing that there’s room for improvement in 2015 is his strand rate.  Gio typically has a strand rate (LOB%) greater than 75%.  In 2014, his strand rate checked in at 71%.  This strikes me as oddly low for a quality left-handed pitcher who happened to post a career best 2.89 K/BB rate to go along with his second highest K% of 24.8%.

In 2015 I would expect a slightly improved ERA as well as similar WHIP and K numbers.  While it was a shoulder issue that left him five starts short of a full season, a look at Gonzalez’s second half performance featuring an improved K/BB and WHIP as well as consistency across the board suggests he’s in good health going forward. He was the 81st player taken on average through 2014 ESPN drafts and I suspect he could be had after pick 120 in many 2015 drafts.  There’s no reason the Nationals’ number three rotation arm can’t be a value pick as your third starting pitcher for your 2015 fantasy rotations.

Gerrit Cole (Pirates – 25 years old in September, 2015)
2014 Stat Line: 3.65 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 138 Ks and an 11-5 record in 138 IP

Keeping things simple, I’ll just tell you that as far as the 2014 numbers are concerned, Gerrit Cole was the righty version of Gio Gonzalez.  The parallels can be seen in their similar ERA, WHIP, K%, and the fact that each missed time in 2014 with a minor injury.   Furthermore, like Gio Gonzalez, Cole also finished the season strong and heads into 2015 without any real lingering concerns.

Where they differ is in value.  Cole is five years younger and about to enter his third MLB season.  We know what the ceiling looks like for Gio Gonzalez but the sky is still the limit for Gerrit Cole.  Because of that, he’s likely to come in perhaps a little higher than his 100 ADP mark of 2014, limiting the value you could get by making him part of your 2015 rotations plans.

With a full season of health hopefully in store for Cole to go along with a 3.23 SIERA, good things should be in store for the Pirates’ ace in 2015 but you’re going to have to pay even money to own him.

Shelby Miller (Braves – Just turned 24 in October)
2014 Stat Line: 3.74 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 127 Ks and a 10-9 record in 183 IP

For starters, Shelby Miller’s SIERA came in at 4.60 off of his 2014 performance.  On that alone, I’m already planning to make Miller someone else’s problem in 2015.  As far as his recent trade to Atlanta is concerned, it seems like a lateral move.  Atlanta’s home park and defensive set up is comparable to the set up Miller had going for him in St. Louis.

If the SIERA score isn’t enough to deter you from giving Miller a look in 2015, maybe a huge drop in K% will entice you to stay away.  In 2013, Miller K’d 23.4% of the batters he faced.  That number fell all the way to 16.6% in 2014. His second half was noticeably better than his first and some of that has been attributed to the sinking fastball he supposedly picked up from Justin Masterson.  Why someone would go to Justin Masterson for advice when you share a locker room with Wainwright and YadiMo makes no sense to me.

I have no doubt Miller is in for a huge correction to his ADP in 2015.  Last year he came off the board 94th on average based on ESPN’s ADP data.  Even if he sneaks past the 200 mark in 2015 drafts, it’s going to be hard to click his name on draft day.  Enough about Miller, let’s move on to something more promising.

Zack Wheeler (Mets – 25 years old in May, 2015)
2014 Stat Line: 3.54 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 187 Ks, and an 11-11 record in 185.1 IP

Okay, so I wanted to get you to someone a lot more promising than Shelby Miller but the real lesson in this exercise is that there’s so much pitching to go around that there’s really no reason to take big risks.  Banking on Shelby Miller in 2015 is a big risk.  Taking a chance on Zack Wheeler on the other hand might have some merit but there are still red flags.

The SIERA score for Wheeler matched his actual ERA at 3.54.  For a guy who carried a 1.33 WHIP that’s pretty remarkable.  Just slight improvements to his .304 BABIP and 2.37 K/BB will go a long way to lowering his ERA even further.  Drafters kept their expectations of Wheeler in check during 2014 drafts as he had an ADP of 178.  I could see him slipping just beyond the 200 mark in some 2015 drafts and see him as a nice value if you could pair him with the right pitcher.  Wheeler would go really well if paired with someone like Doug Fister or Kyle Lohse.

Danny Salazar (Indians – 25 years old in January, 2015)
2014 Stat Line: 4.25 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 120 Ks and a 6-8 record in 110 IP

No, you did not click on a pre-2014 write-up.  Yes, we have been down this road before.  The format here is to show you a guy’s 2014 stat line and then break it down.  I have the stat line crossed out above because I really think it is a poor reflection of the overall growth Salazar exhibited from the start of the 2014 season to the end.

Salazar was sent packing after a first half 5.53 ERA, 1.62 WHIP performance.  Well, Salazar left as a boy and returned as a man.  His second half numbers featured a 3.50 ERA, 1.24 Whip, and the most impressive number of all was his 4.06 K/BB rate.  Now, I wouldn’t go anywhere near Salazar in leagues that count quality starts but he was able to make it through five innings in 9 of his final 12 starts.

This is what a low risk, high reward pitcher looks like.  I see Salazar exiting the 2015 draft season with an ADP around 250.  This is the perfect time of a draft to take a shot on a player and Salazar has as much upside as any starting pitcher selected late in the draft.

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