Apparently, it's not just beauty that's in the eye of the beholder; fantasy value also fits nicely in that idiom.
Let me share with you a story from my longtime 14-team, mixed points-based league -- one that I reference occasionally in chats. In this league, teams can make trades freely, but in the event of an objectionable deal, we don't poll the league as a whole; we appoint at the draft a three-man "trade committee," the committee's job to rule on the relative fairness of any controversial deal in the event two or more owners raise an objection to it. I'm a member of this committee this season.
This league has seen a controversial deal or two, both in seasons past and this, but it was the strangest deal that became the first in 2011 to go to the committee:
Without looking up any facts, take a second and think about where you'd stand on that particular trade. What's your gut instinct on that one? Or, to steal that favorite-with-chatters-though-not-with-me phrase, is that trade fair in a vacuum?
Kinsler is a perennial fantasy favorite, having been selected fourth-highest at his position and 45th overall in ESPN live drafts (average draft position: 45.0). In this particular league, he was the fourth-most expensive second baseman and 44th-most expensive player overall ($23, league cap is $260).
Zimmermann, meanwhile, is 25 years old, has a Tommy John surgery on his résumé and all of 38 big league starts under his belt. He was the 60th starting pitcher and 236th starting pitcher off the board in ESPN drafts (ADP: 215.0), and in this league, he cost a mere $9, cheaper than 52 other starting pitchers.
Those are the perceptions. Now let's check the facts.
Kinsler seems like a fantasy stud, but in six big league seasons he has made six trips to the disabled list, each of them for an entirely different injury. His batting average varies wildly, in three of the past five years finishing at .280 or higher but twice ending up beneath .270, and this year he's hitting .235. And that bears out in a points league: In this particular league, he has finished the year with the 25th-, 14th-, fifth-, fourth- and 21st-most points among second basemen, working forward from 2006. This season he's eighth, despite having stayed healthy all year.
Zimmermann, meanwhile, might have nowhere near the track record of even a still-somewhat-young player like Kinsler, who just turned 29, but thanks to a 10-quality-start streak, has vaulted himself to 46th among starting pitchers in that league. The fact that resonates best: During a near-eight-week stretch from May 1-June 24, Zimmerman actually outscored Kinsler by 100 points in this league, 334-234.
Other than the obvious decision to approve the trade, I came to this realization: Kinsler is an overrated fantasy player, and Zimmermann is significantly underrated.
And that got me thinking: Who else is underrated in fantasy? Who are the pitchers who, despite outing after outing of valuable numbers, seem to suffer from unfair past perceptions? That's where today's column comes in.
Today, I present the five most underrated starting pitchers in fantasy. These are in no other order than how underrated I feel they are; and recognize, of course, that this is one man's opinion, so maybe the order changes in your particular league.
One thing a list like this can do: help identify bargain candidates on the trade market. Heck, some might even be free agents in your league!
Tim Stauffer, San Diego Padres: He was a favorite sleeper both of mine and many of the sabermetric minds out there in the preseason, and after a so-so start to the season that was somewhat matchups-driven (@STL, SF, CIN were his first three assignments), he has rattled off 10 quality starts in his past 13 turns. During that time, Stauffer's ERA is 2.79, WHIP 1.10 and he has averaged 8.04 strikeouts per nine innings, which I'd argue was his most surprising outcome of those three categories. He's owned in a mere 34.4 percent of ESPN leagues -- barely one out of every three! -- a number that has risen by nearly 9 percent since Monday (25.9 percent then) alone, and it should be obvious why he doesn't get a fair shake: He's a San Diego Padre. They're a .438 team and they've averaged 3.46 runs per game, which is bottom-five in the majors.
Owning Stauffer means living with so-so win potential, but if he's sound in the other three, isn't that what's important? Excellence breeds wins. Stauffer is excellent: His two-seam fastball and changeup are good enough to neutralize lefties, he commands them as well as anyone in the game and he uses them to generate grounders 56.7 percent of the time so far in 2011, which enhances his chances of keeping this up.
Jason Vargas, Seattle Mariners His is a similar problem to Stauffer's; he's on a Mariners team that provides even less run support (3.42 runs per game) than the Padres. That helps explain how he's available in even more ESPN leagues than Stauffer; he's only spoken for in 13.2 percent, down nearly 7 since Monday (20.1 percent). (Note: Remember that daily ownership percentages can swing by as much as 10 percent based upon distance from the pitcher's next starting assignment; streaming has an impact on these numbers.) Still, if you want to point to a reason for the Mariners' surprising early-season success, you should first look to Felix Hernandez, then Michael Pineda, but after that, you shouldn't wait any longer to heap praise upon Vargas. Did you know this guy is tied for third in the majors in shutouts (2), and has a 3.10 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 10 starts since May 1?
Vargas was profiled in last week's "60 Feet 6 Inches" for his increased use of the slider, but his progress warrants a second mention. He's got a pitching-friendly ballpark helping him, and while his upside isn't as great as Stauffer's, if you're choosy enough with his matchups, he'll be of help all year. Of lesser note in the same rotation: Doug Fister, owned in only 7.4 percent of ESPN leagues.
Scott Baker, Minnesota Twins: Many people will argue that Baker is the most underrated on this list, and I'd hardly disagree, but the fact that he's owned in 72.7 percent of ESPN leagues -- most of any of these pitchers -- has me thinking there's a growing amount of respect for the right-hander. Still, he's actually started in only 41.1 percent of ESPN leagues, a shockingly low number for a starting pitcher who places only nine spots lower than Zimmermann on our Player Rater. (Another streaming-affects-ownership note: At 41.1 percent, Baker is started in fewer leagues than fellow Wednesday starter Ricky Nolasco, who is active in 59.6 percent.) I've long been a Baker fan; I ranked him among my top 25 starters entering 2009, when all of his numbers were trending significantly upward. A shoulder problem derailed him that year and he never really regained his momentum in either 2009 or 2010, but a couple of things have since changed that have helped restore his fantasy stock: One, the arrival of Target Field, one of the worst homer-hitting venues in baseball, and two, a decrease in his fly-ball rate, which has dropped from 59.4 percent in 2009 to 42.9 so far this year. Baker's strikeout rate thus far is a career-best 8.42 per nine, so there's a lot of room for optimism.
Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians: Four consecutive quality starts resulting in three wins, a 0.61 ERA and 0.78 WHIP have his fantasy ownership percentage soaring, but at 53.9 percent of ESPN leagues, it's still a bit too low for such a skilled hurler. Carrasco might have started the year slowly, like Stauffer, but if you were patient with him -- or watchful of the wire if you dropped him -- you've been pleasantly rewarded since. Carrasco's strengths have been every bit as described when I touted his sleeper status in "30 Questions," and a developing changeup should only help improve his prospects against left-handed hitters, previously his greatest weakness. I said in March I thought Carrasco would top Indians starters in fantasy value. It's June, and he's already almost there.
Zimmermann: He's fifth on the list because he's also the hottest of the five and therefore increasing in stock, but that trade alone -- and I do respect the fact that owners in my mixed league would question his track record -- says all you need to know about his still-underrated status. Since May 1, he's sixth in the majors in ERA (2.08), 19th in WHIP (1.05) and 21st in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.79), and his talent backs it up. Remember, he was the No. 14 pitching prospect on Baseball America's Top 100 list entering his rookie year of 2009. There's only one thing to sweat with Zimmermann: a potential innings cap.
Any list of underrated players wouldn't be complete without a list of overrated players, right? These three get way too much credit:
Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati Reds: His career has gone somewhat the way of Oliver Perez's, meaning one exceptional season (2008) but nothing but disappointments in every other year. Even if you want to cut him a break due to August 2009 Tommy John surgery, the numbers simply aren't there in 26 starts since his return: 11 quality starts (42.3 percent!), 5.10 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 5.63 walks-per-nine ratio. He's a WHIP-killer, never having registered a number beneath 1.33 in the category. Volquez has a 4.43 ERA and 4.84 walks-per-nine in four starts since his minor league "refresher" stint, so it's not getting any better.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins: There have been so many Cy Young-caliber stretches during Liriano's brief big league career, but also so many horrendous cold spells, many of those outlasting the good ones. The perception is that he's a top-25 caliber starter; a 4.98 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 7.59 K's-per-nine in his 13 starts this season say otherwise. Point out his 2.96 ERA in eight starts since May 1, not to mention the two performances of a game score north of 80, if you wish. I'll point out that his Saturday outing was a momentum-killer. I'm not saying that Liriano is without value, rather that he's the scariest of the "top 25 in reputation" starters out there.
Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox: In his case the love is understandable, because we've got all those memories of his Cy Young days in San Diego. The problem is that Peavy is history; this White Sox edition is maybe 75 percent of the Padres version, if that. His White Sox stats: 27 games, 26 starts, 12 quality starts (46.2 percent), 4.14 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.78 K's per nine (9.04 as a Padre), four stints on the DL. There's value here, but it's closer to the level of matchups/streaming starter than one you want active every time out.
Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves: He missed 39 days with a strained left oblique, and upon his return didn't skip a beat, despite the Braves rushing him back to their rotation one rehab turn early due to the injury to fellow rotation-mate Tommy Hanson. In his past two starts, Beachy has a 1.50 ERA, has held opponents to a .167 batting average and has whiffed 20 in 12 innings. Two things have made him a breakout star: His slider, which has limited opponents to .180/.342/.238 rates in the 42 plate appearances that have ended with the pitch this year; and his ability to keep the ball down and away, limiting foes to .102/.170/.122 rates in the 53 PAs that ended on a pitch judged "down and outside." That's 23.5 percent of his plate appearances, incidentally, a fairly healthy number. If Beachy can keep that up, he's got top-25 starter potential, and there's an added benefit to his DL time: It greatly enhances his prospects of not needing an innings cap, being that the time off effectively served to keep his workload in check already.
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds: Had Cueto not missed the first 38 days of the season, might we not be looking at him differently today? Just for fun, let's project his performance to date to the full 80-game season the Reds have played thus far, and see where he might have ranked in some key categories: 9 wins (fifth), 14 quality starts (third), 71 K's (60th). Incidentally, among pitchers with 60-plus innings, his 1.63 ERA leads the majors and his 0.97 WHIP ranks eighth. Most notably, Cueto has answered a significant question addressed in our profile of him in the draft kit: "his ability to work deep into games; he averaged 5.99 innings per start in 2010 and made it into the seventh inning only nine times in 31 starts." This year, he has averaged 6.74 innings per start and has worked into the seventh or later in seven of his nine outings, an extraordinary number for a pitcher who missed so much time on the DL. The primary reason Cueto hasn't soared to top-20 fantasy starter status is the health risk, but he's got that kind of talent.
Ricky Romero, Toronto Blue Jays: He'd have been in my "underrated" list above if I believed he was underrated; but I think I might be the only one "underrating" him. Romero has his backers, and with good reason. He's 12th in the majors in ERA (2.74), 28th in WHIP (1.16) and 16th in strikeouts (96), and he has done it despite the black mark of being a member of the hitting-rich American League East. Here's what's to like about Romero: After fading miserably the second half of his rookie 2009 campaign, he was consistently successful his entire sophomore season of 2010, posting eight wins, a 3.75 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 14 second-half starts. Then, he took another step forward the first half of this year. Romero has understandably earned even more of my trust.
Derek Lowe, Atlanta Braves: In general, no one really expects Lowe to top the Player Rater, or to register any Cy Young votes, but this year's mediocre performance actually warrants some concern. There are two big reasons why: Mike Minor and Julio Teheran, two talented youngsters who are biding their time in Triple-A until a rotation spot opens up. Lowe has now gone three consecutive turns without a quality start, two of those assignments at Houston and at San Diego, both of those favorable on paper. That can't help but frustrate his fantasy owners. This isn't to say Lowe's rotation spot is in imminent jeopardy, and the $15 million he's still owed this and next year might keep the Braves more patient with him, but if you're looking for a "weak link" in Atlanta right now, he's your man.
Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles: The only rational explanation for his struggles is that he's not entirely healthy after missing the first two months of the season with a strained intercostal muscle, because a 6.85 ERA, 1.84 WHIP and zero quality starts in his first five appearances of 2011 is a performance that's completely out of whack with his skills. Two significant warning signs: His fastball velocity, once 91.5 mph on average in 2009, has slipped to 86.6 mph this season; and his ground-ball rate, although historically never high, has dropped to a frightening 21.5 percent. If you play in a keeper league and have the luxury of an extended bench to hold out hope, by all means keep Matusz reserved. In any other case, feel free to cut him.
Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers: You've probably heard the facts about his splits against the two New York teams, as he's 0-2 with an 11.45 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in three starts against the Mets and Yankees, compared to 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA and 0.90 WHOP in 12 starts against everyone else. Here's the problem with taking those as a positive evaluation of Ogando going forward: Two of those starts came in his past three turns, the one between it hardly extraordinary (5 IP, 5 H, 1 ER at Atlanta on June 19), and it's not like you could use it to justify matchups potential, because it's not like it's the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two of the game's most loaded offenses. The Mets? They're not an elite offense, not at all, so that performance should serve as a warning sign for Ogando, who might be hitting a wall.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.