2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: SP Sleepers

We are continuing the 6-part series on sleepers with Part 3: Starting Pitcher Sleepers. A player’s sleeper tag is based on his Average Draft Position in Mock Draft Central (MDC) and in National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) satellite leagues thus far (out of 32 drafts). The NFBC ADP gives you a more accurate view of where these players are likely to go in real drafts, although the MDC ADP is more commonly referred to. You can find the NFBC ADP data under the “Drafts” – “Average Position” tab on the main page here.  The difference between “sleepers” and “deep sleepers” is that the sleepers are guys who I project to be definite starters in even 12-team leagues, whereas the deep sleepers are more likely to be starters in 15-team leagues, or at least that’s all you should count on them for.  I can see a lot of them outproducing that value, but you can’t count on it.


SP Chris Sale (CWS) and SP Daniel Bard (BOS)
Neftali Feliz is the bigger name, but both Sale (especially) and Bard are better-equipped to make the transition from reliever to starter.  While Feliz struggled a bit last season (4.27 xFIP/7.8 K/9), Bard and Sale continued to grow.  For a much more detailed analysis of why Sale and Bard are great sleepers for 2012, check out my post on relievers converting to starters HERE.  The bottom line is that Sale and Bard should be very effective starters in 2012, while Feliz is a question mark and likely won’t have the same success this season.  Yet somehow, Feliz is being drafted around pick #172 in NFBC and #160 in MDC while Sale is going around pick #233 in both and Bard is going around pick #241 in both.  Take advantage of that.

SP Bud Norris – HOU
Norris is the definition of a sleeper candidate.  He plays for a bad team (Astros), has a lot of upside, a good strikeout rate, and many flaws.  He took a huge step forward in 2011, reducing his BB/9 from 4.51 to 3.39.  His LOB% and BABIP both normalized from their 2010 levels, though his HR/9 rate went up to 1.16.  His fastball velocity also lost 1 MPH on it from 2010, which may account, at least in part, for the dip in strikeout rate (9.25 K/9 in 2010 to 8.52 K/9 in 2011).  But if he traded 0.7 K/9 for vastly improved control, it’s well worth it.  The encouraging thing about Norris’ 2011 is that he ended up with a 3.77 ERA/1.33 WHIP despite giving up all those HRs… and it wasn’t due to an inflated LOB% or deflated BABIP.  In fact, his xFIP (3.73) and xERA (3.68) show that last year was no fluke – his skills backed up the results.  Wins will be hard to come by for Norris though, as his lack of efficiency (16.9 P/IP) will hinder his ability to pitch deep into games… plus he plays on likely the worst team in baseball.  The question is, Can Norris take the next step forward in 2012 to further reduce his BB/9 and HR/9 rates while maintaining a strong strikeout rate?  If he does that, he’ll be a HUGE draft day value… even without the Wins.  He’s going around pick #232 in MDC and #238 in NFBC – he’s one of my favorite later round targets.

SP Brandon McCarthy – OAK
In Oakland, McCarthy completely revamped his approach.  He now throws fastballs, sliders, and change-ups much less and started using a cutter 35.4% of the time.  As a result, he added 2 MPH to his 4-seam fastball (up to 91 MPH in 2011), limited HRs (0.58 HR/9), and went from being a fly ball pitcher (32.3% in 2011) to a groundball pitcher (46.7% in 2011).  He also exhibited insane control – 1.32 BB/9… if he can keep that up he’ll be a very good starter for years to come.  This transformation is legitimate, so look for it to continue in 2012, with room for growth at only 28 years-old.  He could certainly have better results once his 67.6% LOB% improves.  The only thing keeping him from being a top 40 starter at this point is his injury history, which is extensive.  He’s a constant injury-risk on draft day, and until he proves he can stay healthy he won’t be considered a top starter.  Still, for where he’s going in NFBC drafts (243rd) he doesn’t have to be a top starter, though if he stays healthy it’s likely he will be.  You won’t get him at a bargain price in MDC drafts though, where at pick #204 you’re taking on more risk that he stays healthy.

SP Scott Baker – MIN
Baker is in a similar situation to McCarthy.  If he stays healthy, he should be a very good starter in 2012.  While he’s not AS big of an injury risk as McCarthy though, he’s still pretty risky (he has only pitched 200 innings once in the last 5 seasons), and not quite as good of a pitcher.  Last season, Baker reminded us that he’s still a very good, undervalued pitcher.  Baker has superb control – around 2.2 BB/9 in each of the past 4 seasons.  However, the past 2 seasons he has also ramped up his strikeout rate – up to 8.2 K/9 in 2011.  He generates around a 10% swinging strike rate so it is possible for him to maintain an 8 K/9 strikeout rate.  Baker repeating his 2008 and 2011 seasons comes down to keeping his HR rate around 1 HR/9 while maintaining a high LOB% as he did in those 2 seasons.  That’s obviously not something you can count on, but he has a very solid skill set – superb control with a rising strikeout rate… all he needs is some luck and good health to have a breakout year in 2012.  Like McCarthy, you won’t be able to get Baker at a discount in MDC (#211), but in NFBC you can nab him around pick #244.

SP Gavin Floyd – CWS
Gavin Floyd hasn’t had an ERA under 4 since 2008, and it looks like he took a step back last year with a 4.37 ERA… so why is he a sleeper?  Because last year was actually a very good year for Floyd, skills-wise, as his career-best 1.16 WHIP shows.  The reason for the ERA jump in 2011 was his 67.7% LOB%, which he should easily improve upon.  In 2010, Floyd was undone by a .325 BABIP.  So bad luck aside, looking at 2011, Floyd’s control was fantastic – 2.1 BB/9 walk rate.  Looking at the 1st and 2nd half splits, Floyd’s BB/9 rate went from 2.4 BB/9 to 1.7 BB/9 while his K/9 went from 6.1 K/9 to 8 K/9.  However, a 2-year declining strikeout rate supplemented with a 2-year declining swinging strike rate is likely a sign that his K/9 will be closer to 7 than 8.  He’s also a very efficient pitcher, with a 15.5 P/IP rate in 2011.  If his  BABIP and LOB% normalize and he maintains his control gains from 2011, then you could be looking at an ERA/WHIP around 3.50/1.15… if he can regain his 50% groundball rate from 2010, then he could do even better.  You definitely shouldn’t draft him EXPECTING that, but he’s a great sleeper pick to breakout in 2012 for where you can take him.  He’s going around 239th in MDC, and even later in NFBC drafts – 257th.

SP Mark Buehrle – MIA
Pitchers don’t come any more predictable than Mark Buehrle – the guy is a metronome.  His peripherals were virtually identical over the last 5 seasons.  Though he’ll give up his fair share of hits, Buehrle is as reliable and efficient as they come – pitching over 200 innings every season for 11 straight seasons and pitching around 15-15.5 P/IP (15.3 P/IP in 2011), which is very efficient.  Now, Mark also has something else going for him – he’s leaving “The Cell” and heading to the NL (which automatically improves his expected ERA, WHIP, and K/9 rate), more specifically Miami – with its new pitcher-friendly stadium.  In Miami’s new stadium, the walls are further back in every part of the park (compared to Sun Life Stadium) except RF – which shouldn’t really affect a lefty anyways.  He’ll definitely give up fewer homers in Miami, as The Cell had the 5th highest Park Factor for HRs in 2011.  I’d expect an ERA around 3.35 and a WHIP of about 1.28.  If you can get strikeouts elsewhere, Buehrle makes a superb late round addition to fantasy squads.  Late is exactly where you can get him in NFBC leagues – he’s going around pick #310!  Once again, you can’t get him at quite as much of a bargain in MDC as he’s going around pick #239 there.

SP R.A. Dickey – NYM
R.A. Dickey is essentially Mark Buehrle with a slightly better expected WHIP (1.26) and strikeout rate (5.5 K/9 to Buehrle’s 5.2 K/9) and slightly worse expected ERA (3.50).  Dickey’s 2011 was basically a carbon-copy of 2010 with some variance obviously.  So what has transformed this knuckleballer from his 2008 self into his 2010-2011 self?  He had better control, more strikeouts, and more ground balls – a simple recipe for success.  He’s also incredibly efficient – 15 P/IP each of the last 2 seasons.  Yes, he’s 37 years-old, but he’s a knuckleballer… so age is pretty irrelevant until you hit age 45 or so.  There’s no reason to think he can’t do it again in 2012.  He’s another great value pick.  Dickey goes ahead of Buehrle in MDC drafts, around pick #228, but way after him in NFBC drafts – around pick #334.

SP Juan Nicasio – COL
Now for my favorite SP sleeper for 2012 – Juan Nicasio.  Nicasio was in the midst of a breakout rookie season when he fractured the vertebrae in his neck.  Amazingly, he pitched winter ball in the Dominican and looks ready to go now.  Even though it looked like the Rockies rushed him up from the minors after just 57 innings in AA, his peripherals and results in the majors backed up that decision.  Nicasio’s 46% groundball rate in his rookie season is a great sign, though he might need to even improve upon that in 2012 if he wants to continue to succeed in Coors, especially with an 11.4% HR/FB rate.  His 2.26 BB/9 rate combined with a 7.28 K/9 strikeout rate accompanied by a 94.1 MPH fastball make him a very attractive upside play.  I think he will improve on that strikeout rate in 2012.  Also look for that 70.5% LOB% to improve a bit as well.  At age 25, Nicasio is ready to take another step forward.  I have him down for a line of 3.65 ERA/1.27 WHIP/7.5 K/9.  The reason he’s my favorite sleeper is how incredibly late you can get him, especially given his talent and upside.  I think most fantasy owners are afraid to draft Colorado starters, and his neck injury likely intimidates them as well, but he looks healthy and proved last season that he can handle pitching in Coors.  He goes way after every other sleeper SP here – #280 in MDC and #363 in NFBC!  Yet I have him ranked between Floyd and Buehrle… and that’s conservative because he could easily be ranked above Floyd.  Make sure you’re drafting Nicasio to fill out your rotation in the late rounds because he will be an absolute STEAL.

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