Kings of Command for 2014

Finding potential breakout pitchers based on certain statistical criteria

Updated: February 26, 2014, 2:15 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft |

Buy skills, not roles.

Patrick Corbin provided evidence of this last season: One of 10 pitchers selected in this space one year ago, he went undrafted in ESPN leagues -- and cost just $2 in the annual League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) and $1 in Tout Wars NL-only experts leagues -- yet rewarded his owners with the 22nd-best season among pure starting pitchers, per our 2013 Player Rater.

Corbin's case was formulated upon nothing more than skills-based statistics, things like strikeout, walk and ground ball rates. He entered 2013 with a career 3.78 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in the minors, 4.54/1.33 in the majors; his Rotisserie contributions didn't move the needle.

But extracting his 2011 and 2012 performances in those skills-based statistics, there appeared to be something there:

Double-A (2011-12): 21.0 K%, 6.0 BB%, 3.48 K/BB, 45.1 GB%
Triple-A (2012): 24.2 K%, 6.6 BB%, 3.67 K/BB, 49.4 GB%
MLB (2012): 20.7 K%, 6.3 BB%, 3.30 K/BB, 46.0 GB%

The Corbin lesson is an important one: It teaches us that skills, specifically a pitcher's command, typically win out in time, and it's why when we're searching for bargains, it's not the primary Rotisserie numbers that count. Given the choice, a fantasy owner would be smarter to invest in command-based statistics, ones upon which a pitcher has the greatest control, such as strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, while tossing those Roto stats aside.

It's not a new lesson. Analysts like Ron Shandler, whose "LIMA Plan" (Low Investment Mound Aces) developed in the late 1990s shares similar traits, helped bring it to the mainstream many years ago. Newer statistical categories such as FIP, xFIP and SIERA were also founded primarily weighting these skills. In short, trust FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), not ERA.

This lesson is the reason that each spring I compile a list of pitchers who, thanks to meeting a specific set of command-based criteria, are attractive bargain candidates for the upcoming season. I call this list "Kings of Command." None of these players is picked for his past season's Rotisserie contributions; their win totals and ERAs are irrelevant to identifying their actual pitching skill.

This isn't to say every pitcher picked results in Corbin's level of success. There will be some annual swings and misses -- Octavio Dotel represents the extreme opposite end of last year's scale -- but bear in mind that the 2013 list resulted in eight "hits" (pitchers who not only beat their preseason ADP, but did so by a substantial margin). That's just the unpredictable nature of pitching; one untimely injury, for example, can ruin anyone's season.

Pitchers who qualify for inclusion meet each of the following five minimum baselines:

"Kings of Command" baseline numbers

Batters faced: 200 or more
Strikeout rate (K% of batters faced): 16 percent or more
Walk rate (BB% of batters faced): 8 percent or less
Command rate (K's per walk): 2.50 or more
Ground-ball rate (GB% of all balls in play): 42.5 percent or more

Last season, 678 pitchers appeared in a big league game, and of those, only 88 met all five criteria. That group included 13 of the top 20 pitchers on our Player Rater; the National League Cy Young winner (Clayton Kershaw); and the pitchers responsible for 446 of the 511 balloting points in that race (87.3 percent). Oddly, the American League fell more out of line with these criteria, an oddity I haven't seen in my 14 seasons writing this annual column: Cy Young winner Max Scherzer failed to meet the ground ball requirement, and only 171 of the 510 points in that race's balloting were earned by pitchers who qualified.

Well, that's why they call them anomalies.

Not one of these 2013 fantasy studs was selected for the list below; it'd serve no purpose. The point was to pick those who didn't excel on a Rotisserie basis, or who at least have a compelling amount of profit potential entering 2014. These pitchers compared favorably to the aforementioned standouts in these command categories, their skills hinting that better fortune lies ahead.

These "Kings of Command" are listed in alphabetical order, along with their statistics in the above categories, and a look at what they'd need to do in order to break through in 2014.

Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds

The lone holdover from last year's list, and a pitcher who has met the minimum requirements in each of his past three seasons (a feat that only 20 different pitchers have accomplished), Bailey also has another positive command-stats trend working in his favor: He has managed to improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio in every one of his seven big league seasons. His freshly signed six-year, $105 million extension might look exorbitant, considering he has only four more wins than losses and a 4.25 ERA in his career, but let's not forget that despite his experience, he's still only 27 years old, with plenty of productive years ahead.

What would spawn a breakout? Well, he kind of broke out last year, though with his skills growth, Bailey shouldn't have any trouble at least repeating -- if not exceeding -- his 2013 performance. And that year earned him the No. 20 spot on our Player Rater among pure starting pitchers, No. 31 among all pitchers and No. 90 among all players.

His chances of doing so? Frankly, his chances of a repeat are outstanding, and considering he had a 3.02 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in his final 13 starts of 2013, his odds of another step forward are at least decent.

Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles

Gausman's first year in the majors quickly went sour, and his fantasy owners -- at least those with lengthier memories -- might still have a bad taste on their tongues. He's the classic "top prospect tarnished by poor first impression" fantasy value pick; as colleague Eric Karabell eloquently put it, Gausman would've attracted more draft-day attention entering 2014 had he not reached the majors in 2013. Still, Gausman possesses the same high-90s fastball and splitter that gave him the look of a future front-of-a-rotation starter, he finished last season on a high note pitching out of the bullpen, and perhaps most importantly, he had a sparkling 4.85 K-to-walk ratio combined between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors in 2013. If he makes the team or winds up as a midseason call-up, it's possible he'll make his second impression count.

What would spawn a breakout? Well, he has to make the team, which is a mountain of an uphill climb, considering the Orioles have as many as eight other rotation candidates this spring. Doing that sounds simpler than it is: He needs to show the kind of fastball command he had as a reliever, not as a starter, while enjoying an overall lights-out spring.

His chances of doing so? They're long, considering the Orioles can buy additional service time by letting him start 2014 in Triple-A. Make no mistake, Gausman is an AL-only/deep-mixed stash and nothing more, but his odds of 2014 success are every bit as good as any of those who might debut this season, such as Archie Bradley, Noah Syndergaard or Kyle Zimmer.

Josh Johnson, San Diego Padres

If every cloud has its silver lining, Johnson's was that, among starters with at least 80 innings pitched in 2013, his ERA/FIP differential was the widest (+1.58). His xFIP -- FIP adjusted to normalize the home run component -- was also 3.58, 43rd out of the 149 starters to tally that many frames (meaning he placed in the upper third). Besides the obvious -- injuries -- Johnson ran into two problems: a penchant for the long ball, as he afforded 15 home runs in 81 1/3 innings; and a complete inability to pitch out of the stretch, as opponents batted .392/.446/.608 against him with men on base, significantly worse than his .251/.323/.362 career numbers in those situations. The move to the National League, and Petco Park, might ease the former. The latter was probably injury-related.

What would spawn a breakout? Some luck in the health department would go a long way. Beyond that, it might help if he could gain even one tick on his fastball; it averaged 94.7 mph in 2010, but 92.7 in 2013.

His chances of doing so? Better than you might think -- which is how he made the list -- considering he scored an $8 million guarantee for 2014 and passed his physical despite that awful 2013.

Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

Acquired in the 2010, three-team Jake Westbrook deadline deal, Kluber has significantly improved his stock in three years since. He developed a cutter late in 2011, and a two-seam fastball/sinker the following summer, and despite the new additions, he has made substantial gains in terms of his control: He walked 9.8 percent of the batters he faced in his career at the Triple-A level, but only 5.4 percent in the majors last year. That was what vaulted him into the "Kings of Command" class, and they hint that, health willing, a full year of Kluber could result in quite the fantasy bargain.

What would spawn a breakout? Merely staying healthy enough to approach 33 starts with 200-plus innings might do it, but what could really fuel a Kluber breakthrough would be further polish on his two-seamer. Remember, that's a pitch that can produce a high ground ball rate.

His chances of doing so? His odds of a major breakthrough might be the worst of anyone on the list, but his odds of a noticeable overall bump in fantasy value are actually pretty good, considering the Indians are surely committed to trying to extract a 33-start/200-inning year from him.

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers

Like Bailey, Porcello is another "younger-than-he-looks" pitcher and, again like Bailey, he was considered a top prospect at the time of his big league debut: Bailey was Keith Law's No. 5 pitching prospect (No. 9 overall) entering his rookie year of 2008, and Porcello was Law's No. 5 pitching prospect (No. 10 overall) entering his rookie year of 2009. Porcello also shares another Bailey trait: He has improved his K-to-walk ratio in every one of his five big league seasons. And while Porcello's 2013 fell considerably short of Bailey's, consider that he's already ahead of where Bailey was at a similar age, with his 4.32 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 3.38 K-to-walk ratio besting Bailey's 4.46, 1.37 and 2.50 during their age-24 seasons. It's sometimes easy to forget that Porcello is just 25 years old.

What would spawn a breakout? Continued growth, in one or both of two areas: addressing his lack of a dominating pitch to use against left-handed hitters, as they have .307/.358/.461 career rates against them; or further polish on his curveball, which is quietly developing into a put-'em-away pitch.

His chances of doing so? The latter has greater odds than the former, but Porcello's stepladder statistical pattern hints that the odds are good. He'll also come cheaply in fantasy leagues because of his five-year reputation as a member of the "streamer's class," and a volatile one at that. He might possess the largest amount of profit potential of anyone on this year's list.

Chad Qualls, Houston Astros

Qualls has endured his ups and downs in a 10-year big league career; he had a 2.81 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 2008 and a 2.61 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 2013, and in between them registered a 7.32-ERA season (2009) and a 4.88 ERA overall while changing teams six times. The Astros smartly, however, saw in his 2013 what fantasy owners should: A better-than-60 percent ground-ball rate fueled by a heavy sinker, narrowing platoon splits and increasing velocity, all of which make him a candidate to claim their wide-open closer role.

What would spawn a breakout? Winning the closer battle this spring, but if you've been listening to Astros manager Bo Porter, Qualls sure seems to fit: Porter told his team's official website that experience, balanced splits and an ability to induce weak balls are three traits he's seeking in his finisher.

His chances of doing so? Increasingly good, especially if Jesse Crain won't be available to the Astros before May,.

Robbie Ross, Texas Rangers

This will be the second consecutive spring training in which the Rangers have considered converting Ross from reliever to starter, except that this time they're seemingly more serious about it. Like C.J. Wilson four years earlier, Ross is a fastball-reliant left-hander with a track record of success against right-handed hitters; in two seasons of relief, he has posted FIPs right in line with those he had as a starter in the minors. He's a pitcher who should be particularly interesting to watch this spring.

What would spawn a breakout? It'd be nice if the Rangers went the Wilson route and taught Ross a cutter and/or two-seamer, the two pitches that made Wilson so successful with his transition. But even as is, Ross needs mostly the Rangers' trust in affording him patience as he adjusts.

His chances of doing so? They're long, but boy are they intriguing.

Tim Stauffer, San Diego Padres

Whether it's his injury history -- he has four DL stints in his big league career, two of them lasting longer than 100 games -- or something else, Stauffer never seems to get a fair shake in the Padres' rotation plans. He's ticketed for long relief to begin the season, though it's clear he has improving skills, skills that would play well in a starter's role. On 18 occasions last season, he threw 25 or more pitches in an outing; he had a 3.48 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in those games. He also set a career high with a 22.5 percent strikeout rate.

What would spawn a breakout? A commitment by the Padres to give him another chance as a starter, though his four- and two-seam fastball/curve/changeup arsenal certainly appears like it would play in the role.

His chances of doing so? Poor initially, as more than eight pitchers rate ahead of Stauffer in the Padres' preseason race for rotation spots, but considering several of those starters ahead of him are either injury risks or inexperienced, there's a realistic chance the Padres might need to call upon him in-season. It means Stauffer is less draft-day target than midseason pickup, but NL-only owners might want to speculate on him in the end game.

Nick Tepesch, Texas Rangers

Unfortunately, Tepesch's presence on the list provides a virtual guarantee that one of these picks won't work out; he's in direct competition with Ross for a rotation spot. While Tepesch's final 2013 numbers look unimpressive, bear in mind that he began the season with a 3.44 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 2.79 K-to-walk ratio in his first 10 big league starts. Elbow inflammation cost him two months and probably contributed to his poor finish, but he's healthy now and should be better with a year's experience under his belt.

What would spawn a breakout? Besides health, an improved changeup would go a long way toward balancing his wide platoon split, which is perhaps the greatest obstacle standing in his way of a breakthrough.

His chances of doing so? Good, but not great. Ross' 2014 statistical ceiling is probably higher; Tepesch might be the one the Rangers would trust with a larger volume of innings, however.

"Volume"/role-based selections

In addition to the nine names selected above, the following three pitchers are known fantasy commodities who excelled in either limited action or roles in 2013. Though their Rotisserie rates might not change much in 2014, they stand to gain considerable value thanks to either a workload bump or role promotion; in short they are pitchers whose qualification in these command categories suggests that scaling their 2013 stats to a full, 162-game season might be smart.

Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays

His 2013 season would've looked much more stellar had he not suffered the terrible misfortune of having been struck in the right ear by a line drive in the fifth inning of a June 15 start, resulting in a concussion that cost him 50 team games. Cobb's statistics -- both before and after the injury -- were outstanding, and if we scaled them on a per-game basis to account for the missed time, he'd have won 16 games and struck out 194 hitters to go with his 2.76 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, which would've ranked a qualified eighth and 22nd. And those numbers would've placed him either within or just outside the top 10 pitchers overall on the Player Rater.

Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates

He was a rookie sensation last season, and most remarkably, he met every one of the command criteria in the process, despite enduring the challenging adjustment to major league competition. By doing so, Cole became only the sixth rookie pitcher to qualify (minimum 100 innings pitched) in the 12 seasons (2002-13) for which FanGraphs has ground-ball data available, and be aware that three of the past rookies to do it were James Shields (2006), Brett Anderson (2009) and Madison Bumgarner (2010); Chris Archer and Hyun-Jin Ryu also did it last season. Cole's curve and slider only improved with time, a big plus as he enters his first full big league season, and there's every reason to believe he can repeat his rookie-year effort, but this time over a 33-start, 200-inning year.

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals

Rosenthal's numbers are the example of a limited role; he was a setup man for 5½ months of the 2013 season before finally graduating to closer in the regular season's final weeks and into the playoffs. As a committed closer, he's now a compelling candidate to be one of the top five in fantasy at his new craft, and there are no statistics more telling of his 2014 ceiling than these: In 2013, he became only the ninth relief pitcher in history to manage at least 100 K's with 20 or fewer walks in a single season; and he had an FIP (1.91) that was 0.72 lower than his ERA (2.63), showing that improved ratios are indeed possible.


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