In this week’s “By The Numbers,” the research will continue its focus on early preseason ADP and projections in part three of the “discount doppelganger” series: starting pitchers. The goal is to investigate the player pool in order to find similar player production at different opportunity costs. In other words, to find discount doppelgangers that could provide similar production to more expensive options at the same position.
It is important to note that this exercise will be geared towards standard 5x5 rotisserie scoring as a base. All hitters are measured by their projected output in Batting Average, Home Runs, Runs, RBI, and Stolen Bases. All pitchers (in next week’s article) are weighed by their projected output in ERA, WHIP, Strikeouts, Wins, and Saves.
Each pair of players discussed will feature a “premier option” and a “discount doppelgänger.” Typically there is a reason why a premier player is being drafted earlier than the discount alternative due to age, track record, or other variables. Keep in mind that premier players are not necessarily “overpriced,” and in fact, many have a fair draft cost. The discussion is more focused on discovering similar production profiles in regards to opportunity cost (which will be discussed).
In the article below, several projection systems will be used to demonstrate player value. These will include: ATC (created by Ariel Cohen) and The Bat X (created by Derek Carty. ADP will be provided by the NFBC due to their large sample size of early drafts.
Sandy Alcantara (ADP: 43) 191 IP 3.55 ERA 1.17 WHIP 182 K 8.62 K/9
Max Fried (ADP: 74) 178 IP 3.45 ERA 1.19 WHIP 174 K 8.81 K/9
The first comparison this week feels like a great time to remind the audience that this exercise is not meant to dissuade you from drafting the premium option, but to rather take a closer look at the relationship between ADP, projections, and opportunity cost. More often than not it is a great decision to possibly look into drafting each of the players discussed. That being said, let’s get into our first example.
Sandy Alcantara was a preseason darling in “By The Numbers” last season and his breakout did not come as a surprise to many analysts. The 26-year-old was one of only four starting pitchers last season to exceed 200 innings pitched, and he did it while making major strides forward in both approach and execution.
The Marlins ace showcased an improved slider that earned a 38.3 percent whiff rate with less horizontal break while tossing his changeup 23.5 percent of the time (up from 10.3 percent in 2020). Alcantara was able to combine his ground ball tendencies with a more strikeout-friendly plan of attack that resulted in career-best marks in K-BB percentage and ground ball rate.
If you are looking for a weak spot, you may be searching for a while. Alcantara delivered innings, strikeouts, and weak contact and seemed to get even more dominant as the summer went on last season. There is a clear path for a Cy Young award for the man with a "6+4+3=2" tattoo if the second half can be replicated over a full season.
Wait a second Matt, why would someone draft Fried over Alcantara after you said all of those nice things about Sandy? Again, that is not what this article series is about. By all means, draft Sandy Alcantara. The man is a stud ace who will be sure to deliver a solid fantasy season. The lesson to be learned here is that if you “like” Alcantara at cost (ADP), then you should “love” Max Fried.
Fried had his season derailed by hamstring and finger injuries, but upon his return the results were stellar. The 28-year-old had already posted a 2.25 ERA and 1.09 WHIP during the shortened 2020 season as a weak contact specialist. The primary issue, at least from a fantasy standpoint, was the lack of strikeouts. It should be noted that this perceived “shortcoming” had nothing to do with skill and everything to do with approach. Fried had plus breaking pitches in 2020, posting negative Run Value on both his slider and curveball with whiff rates near 30 percent.
Like Alcantara, Fried loves to induce ground balls. This comes at the expense of strikeouts, but both pitchers have managed to turn in a respectable K/9 and similar K-BB rates. Over 93 innings in the second half last season, Fried posted a 1.74 ERA with 86 strikeouts and 16 walks. This translated to a 24.5 percent strikeout rate, 51.5 percent ground ball rate, and a 0.85 WHIP.
If given a full and healthy season in 2022, Fried and Alcantara can reach 200 strikeouts while carrying a ground ball rate over 50 percent. Due to their approach, a “true ace” fantasy ceiling is capped somewhat. However, each pitcher has an incredibly safe floor with traits that make them elite contributors across the board in standard roto leagues. Fried just happens to be going a few rounds later.
Walker Buehler (ADP: 17) 190 IP 3.55 ERA 1.12 WHIP 197 K 9.30 K/9
Joe Musgrove (ADP: 77) 178 IP 3.63 ERA 1.17 WHIP 195 K 9.85 K/9
It may seem silly to fade a Cy Young caliber 27-year-old who just posted a 2.47 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, but here we are. Walker Buehler is an amazing pitcher who has a bright career ahead of him, but there are some red flags here to be concerned about. The Dodgers ace saw a steady decrease in velocity last season while also showing a downtick in strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate.
An expected ERA of 3.56 may point to a more realistic goal for the 2022 season, but I would still bet the under. Unfortunately, that may not be good enough for a second-round return on investment in the upcoming fantasy season. Buehler should still post steady volume and a healthy ground ball rate, but it may be prudent to invest in a discount doppelganger instead 60 picks later.
Joe Musgrove has been teasing a massive breakout for years. A move to San Diego and a full season in the sun proved to be the difference after the 29-year-old turned in 181 innings and 203 punchouts last season with a 3.18 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Musgrove posted an absurd 34 percent strikeout rate after May with a 15 percent swinging-strike rate, which would prove to be unsustainable down the stretch. However, the final results were obviously acceptable after a pitch mix change that favored breaking pitches over fastballs.
There did not seem to be any indication after June 21 (sticky substance ban) that Musgrove suffered from a lack of alternative substance, but rather a simple case of fatigue. In fact, Musgrove's spin rate actually increased (99th percentile fastball). It’s possible that his slow crawl to the finish was merely an endurance issue that could be built upon heading into 2022. If that is the case, Musgrove could be yet another Cy Young contender with the upside to lead the National League in strikeouts.
Luis Castillo (ADP: 92) 187 IP 3.87 ERA 1.29 WHIP 193 K 9.31 K/9
Eduard Rodriguez (ADP: 158) 180 IP 3.80 ERA 1.25 WHIP 189 K 9.43 K/9
Luis Castillo could not have had a worse start to the 2021 season. Speculation of his struggles varied between his response to pitching in cold weather to possibly tipping pitches to opposing hitters. However, the only thing that mattered was that the Reds ace carried a 7.22 ERA by the end of May and was considered a “cut candidate” by many fantasy managers.
The 29-year-old was able to turn things around in a huge way in the second half, posting a 2.73 ERA from June until the end of the regular season. The end result was a 3.98 ERA and 1.36 WHIP over 188 innings with 192 strikeouts. Castillo has always struggled to carry a low WHIP for most of his young career, but the rest of the surface stats were acceptable when added together.
The main takeaway from the right-hander's season should not be the stellar second half or the brutal first half, but rather his year-over-year track record. Luis Castillo is likely a mid-to-high three’s ERA pitcher who will struggle to keep runners off the basepaths. There is still value in the skills he can provide, but Castillo may not be worth the opportunity cost when compared to other options.
Eduardo Rodriguez is being drafted nearly 70 picks later and offers similar production according to ATC projections. The new Tigers southpaw posted a disappointing 4.74 ERA and 1.39 WHIP last season for the Red Sox, but with 185 strikeouts over 158 innings. However, there is far more intrigue than meets the eye. The 29-year-old actually turned in the best season of his career according to advanced metrics.
Rodriguez posted an O-Swing (percentage of pitches chased outside of the zone), Z-Contact (contact made on pitches within in the zone), and swinging-strike rate that were all superior to the league average. A 4.74 ERA was shadowed by a 3.47 expected ERA, 3.32 FIP, and 3.43 xFIP. Rodriguez has mostly underperformed his peripherals throughout his career, but the gasp is usually more modest between the two.
The left-hander was among the top of the league in opponent exit velocity (90th percentile) and hard-hit percentage (87th percentile), and should perform well in his new home for his 2022 campaign. A full season in the friendly confines of Comerica Park could translate into a career year for Rodriguez
Jack Flaherty (ADP: 76) 160 IP 3.70 ERA 1.16 WHIP 172 K 9.69 K/9
Sean Manaea (ADP: 149) 169 IP 3.75 ERA 1.17 WHIP 166 K 8.82 K/9
The next doppelgänger comparison is somewhat complicated due to uncertainty and variables beyond our control. Risk assessment combined with opportunity cost make a big difference between Jack Flaherty and Sean Manaea, but both pitchers are projected to produce similar fantasy value nearly 75 picks apart.
Flaherty was handled oddly during the 2020 season, missing significant time due to the Cardinals team-wide COVID issues. The right-hander was then held back upon his return rather than being utilized in the rotation immediately. Last season Flaherty did not seem to be showing any signs of rust early on, posting a 2.90 ERA and 1.03 WHIP during the first half. However, an oblique injury put the Cardinals ace on the sideline for over 10 weeks before a shoulder strain would send him back to the injured list several days later.
Whether or not a fantasy manager invests in Jack Flaherty is entirely dependent on his health. Walks are the only true weakness in the right-hander’s arsenal if healthy. Flaherty posted back-to-back 200-plus strikeout seasons in 2018 and 2019. These variables make projecting Flaherty very difficult but are impossible to ignore.
On the other side of the coin is Sean Manaea. The Oakland southpaw has gone through his own injury setbacks in the past, but unlike Flaherty is coming off a healthy and successful season. The 30-year-old posted a 3.91 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over 179 innings with 194 strikeouts. After what seemed like years on the road to a full recovery, Manaea boasted an uptick in fastball velocity that played up the rest of his arsenal.
The left-hander carried the highest swinging strike rate of his career (12.3 percent) in 2021 and the lowest Z-contact rate at 81.7 percent (league average 84.6). Most of the heavy lifting was achieved by Manaea’s changeup, which generated a negative 10 Run Value. From 2020 to 2021 the left-hander added 5.1 inches of horizontal break to the offering and 370 RPM of spin.
There is risk in drafting either Flaherty or Manaea this season, but both starting pitchers offer intriguing upside at cost. The question is how much you believe in either to produce the expected result weighed against the opportunity cost. It is likely a poor choice to gamble on both, but it may be more beneficial to take your chances with the discount doppelganger and invest an earlier draft pick on a safer option.
In Conclusion, Once Again
If you have one takeaway from this three-part article series, make it this: “Know the player pool.” The suggestions above are not meant to steer you away from certain players and towards another. The lesson is to think about opportunity cost and how to build a roster construction plan that will win you a fantasy championship.