MLB DFS Strategy: Pitchers to Get Ahead of the Curve On
Analyzing skill sets is a big part of the daily fantasy baseball game and being able to identify solid talents before the masses catch on. In this article, Ricky Sanders has identified players who the public will not be on as much as they should be in the early-going of the 2020 season, and riding these pitchers should give fantasy owners an edge from the get-go particularly in guaranteed prize pool (GPP) tournaments contrarian plays are a core piece of MLB DFS strategy. Here are four pitchers that Ricky Sanders expects the DFS market to be a bit slow to adapt to.
Nate Pearson, Blue Jays
According to MLB Pipeline, Nate Pearson (TOR) is the third ranked pitching prospect in the league heading into 2020 but, in my opinion, he features the most exciting pure “stuff” of any prospect. Mackenzie Gore (SD) and Casey Mize (DET) are going to be the first names tossed out when discussed pitching prospects but the one with the most dominant, ace-like features is undoubtedly Pearson. Amongst the top 100 prospects ranked by Baseball America, Pearson was one of just five to average 97-plus mph on his fastball last year. In an article written by Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling, who is one of the Blue Jays’ top beat writers, wrote that Pearson literally has the tools to set all-time MLB velocity records. Pearson already has a pitch over 104mph recorded in-game and a 105mph pitch that has been recorded in a side session. By comparison, Aroldis Chapman owns the record for highest velocity on a pitch ever recorded at 105.8mph. Anyways, the point of Zwelling’s article is that Pearson can consistently hit the upper-90s with ease and he can do so without over-throwing. Scouts have been comparing him to Noah Syndergaard for some time now but combination of size and stuff feels more Stephen Strasburg-esque (WSH). The comparison also does not make sense since Pearson has not dealt with the glaring inability to hold runners issue that Syndergaard has struggled with his entire professional career. Due to the elite crop of other young pitchers, Pearson is not going to get the same hype as Strasburg once had despite his 146:32 K:BB ratio in 123.1 minor league innings. The lack of innings can be attributed to the team going easy on him last year following a forearm issue in 2017 and an oblique injury last year that cost him a month. After easing him for a full season, the team has already announced they will extend his inning limit further this year. At this point, Pearson is not a lock to make the initial rotation, but he will be worth playing from the second he steps on a Major League mound.
A.J. Puk, Athletics
Speaking of young prospects with electric arms, A.J. Puk (OAK) is the lesser-known (and touted) of the Athletics pitching prospects expected to start the season of the MLB roster, and he too averaged over 97mph on his fastball last year. Baseball America grades their prospects based on a scale from 20 to 80 and only eight pitchers averaged 60 grades or better last year: Pearson, Gore, Mize, Sixto Sanchez (MIA), Luis Medina (NYY), Grayson Rodriguez (BAL), Brailyn Marquez (CHC), Hunter Greene (CIN), Jesus Luzardo (OAK) and, you guessed it, Puk. Coming off Tommy John surgery in 2018, Puk threw just 36.2 total innings last year and struck out over 27.5-percent of hitters faced at every level. Strikeouts are the name of the game in daily fantasy and the team has already announced they will treat both Puk and Luzardo as starters this year (meaning they will begin the year in the rotation). In the past, Luzardo has had some minor command issues, posting BB rates of at least 8.8-percent in all his larger sample sizes (over 30.0 innings), but has done so while riding one of the nastiest pitches in baseball: his breaking ball. Amongst all pitches classified as curveballs by FanGraphs last year, none graded better on a per-pitch basis than Puk’s (min. 10 innings), and his slider, which he used much more often, graded similarly on per-pitch basis to the likes of Walker Buehler (LAD) and Zack Wheeler (PHI). The Oakland Coliseum depreciates strikeouts slightly but it also depreciates run production which showed in his underlying numbers a bit last year (3.39 FIP, 4.35 xFIP). Due to the ability to miss bats, he should be an $8,000-plus pitcher across the industry in no time, so he will be someone I look to target early and often while he remains relatively unknown.
Dinelson Lamet, Padres
Regardless of how long it takes Dinelson Lamet (SD) to put it all together, I will never be able to quit a pitcher inducing swinging strikes at a rate in the mid-teens and striking out hitters overall at a 30-plus percent rate. Comparatively to pre-Tommy John surgery, Lamet’s control actually improved last year, although that is not saying much since he still nearly walked opponents at a double-digit rate. His home park is amongst the most treacherous power parks for left-handed hitters (LHHs) and Lamet has struggled mightily in the split during his young MLB tenure (.346 wOBA allowed). Since the park inherently helps minimize his most glaring issue, it is mostly the walks that should worry those looking to roster him. On FanDuel (FD) specifically, where base-runners do not count against pitchers, Lamet was criminally under-appreciated quite often last year, and I expect that trend to continue early into this year. Assuming nothing changes and he does not improve his control at all, this is still a pitcher who warrants a near-$9,000 price point, and there is certainly room for improvement.
Griffin Canning, Angels
After being called up on Apr. 30 last year, Canning took the league by storm in the early-going, holding opponents to a .261 wOBA in May, but he did so with a 95.0-percent LOB rate, 1.88 BABIP and FIP/xFIPs in the mid-4.00s. In other words, even at his best, Canning still looked like a mere mortal as opposed to someone primed to cruise through their entire career. Over the entirety of the year, Canning yielded a 40-plus percent hard hit rate to both sides of the plate and he relied heavily on fly ball outs. Essentially, it is easy to see where the downside lies with Canning, but there is clear reason for optimism as well. In his MLB sample, Canning improved upon his minor league walk rates and he struck out 24-plus percent of hitters in all months but August (just an 11.0 inning sample) where he was dealing with an elbow issue. He had already started his offseason throwing in November so he looks primed to pitch his first full season in the big leagues this year. Furthermore, opponents posted just a .325 xSLG and .270 xwOBA against his slider which was a pitch he threw a whopping 29.1-perent of the team. By comparison, the league average xSLG against sliders was .361 last year and the average wOBA against sliders was .278. There seems to be legit room for him to improve the results of his oft-used pitch and that could propel his underlying Major League numbers closer to those in the minors.