It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2020 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2020 fantasy baseball season.
For the sixth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first installment of the series was batting average sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at possible WHIP sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Fantasy owners, especially those new to the game, often have a bias toward ERA given that it’s the category most often quoted as we learn the game. However, WHIP is just as important, with recent pitchers like Joe Musgrove and Miles Mikolas making a living on fantasy rosters for their WHIP contributions.
It’s simple enough to say that good control creates a WHIP asset for fantasy owners, but the table below is proof. The following table shows data from pitchers with at least 10 major league starts in the given year, proving just how important control is to finding pitchers who will help your WHIP.
Based on the yearly WHIP average at the bottom of the table, it’s clear that finding pitchers capable of producing sub-2.5 BB/9 is key when uncovering potential value for the category. With that fact in mind, here’s a rundown of eight names to track in 2020 for fantasy leagues of varying sizes.
Mixed League Sleepers
Randy Dobnak, Twins
Dobnak got some publicity upon his promotion last season for his side gig as an Uber driver, but he has the talent to focus on pitching full-time. He went undrafted out of Division II Alderson-Broaddus College in 2017 but has been getting professional hitters out ever since. His promotion to the majors was hard earned after posting a 2.07 ERA between three minor league levels last year over 135 innings, and he was even more effective for the Twins (1.59 ERA) before an ALDS meltdown. The positive features of Dobnak’s game have been exemplary control (1.8 BB/9 for his minor league career) and elite groundball rates last season. His groundball rate hovered around 60% in the minors last year and was a still strong 53% with Minnesota. Those strengths make up for his lack of an out-pitch, as Dobnak’s K/9 was just 7.3 in both the minors and with the Twins.
The Twins clearly aren’t counting on Dobnak as they enter 2020, as shown by Michael Pineda’s contract extension and the recent additions of Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. However, at the time of this writing, the team will need early-season fill-ins given Pineda’s PEDs suspension and Hill’s recovery from an elbow injury. If the team doesn’t make more pitching additions, Dobnak should have the inside track on a rotation spot entering spring training alongside fellow youngster and control artist Devin Smeltzer. The poor strikeout rate is usually a red flag for prospects, but Dobnak’s demonstrated ability to avoid walks and keep the ball in the park could be catalysts for his success in the majors as potentially a poor man’s Mike Soroka.
Brendan McKay, Rays
The fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, McKay had plenty of hype when he was promoted by the Rays in late June. He had rookie hiccups, disappointing with an ERA above 5.00, but the lefty’s underlying indicators show he wasn’t as bad as he seemed. McKay has shown elite command with a 7.36 K/BB ratio in 2018 and 5.67 K/BB ratio in the minors last year, and his control of the strike zone was still a major plus last year on the Rays with a 3.50 K/BB ratio (10.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9). For his minor league career, McKay has a sub-2.0 BB/9, showing major progress from college. The ERA metrics were also satisfactory (4.03 FIP, 4.17 SIERA) despite his troubles keeping the ball in the park. Certainly, the MLB hiccups were a different feeling for a pitcher who absolutely dominated in college at Louisville and through the minors (1.78 career ERA).
A two-way player, McKay’s future is clearly on the mound, and perhaps a full-time focus on pitching would do him some good after seeing 179 plate appearances in pro ball last year and 242 plate appearances in 2018. As we stand now, Tampa Bay’s starting rotation looks status quo from last season, led by a great threesome of Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow. McKay figures to be a factor behind those high-powered arms, in the mix with Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos for one of the team’s final two rotation spots. Regardless, the 24-year-old should get an opportunity to accumulate innings for the Rays after throwing 122.2 innings between the minors and majors last year and shows loads of potential to out-perform his current 255 ADP in NFBC leagues.
Jose Urquidy, Astros
Uquidy wasn’t high up on the prospect radar for the Astros before last season, struggling to miss bats after recovering from Tommy John surgery. That all changed with a velocity jump last year, as Urquidy’s K/9 went from 7.5 in 2018 to 11.7 in the minors during 2019. The fastball averaged 93 mph in the majors over nine appearances, brilliantly complemented by a very good changeup that he threw about a quarter of the time. After posting a great 1.8 BB/9 between Double- and Triple-A last year, Urquidy’s control in the majors over 41 innings was even better (1.5 BB/9), and he continued to miss bats with an 8.8 K/9. If you watched Houston’s run through the playoffs, you probably noticed that Urquidy remained very effective then with only one run allowed in 10 innings.
The only big concern for Urquidy at this point is the long ball, which will probably become a way of life for the extreme flyball pitcher as long as the ball is juiced. He allowed 15 home runs in only 70 innings at Triple-A Round Rock last year, and the home run issues continued in Houston. That’s a short-term concern that could lead to an ERA headache, but Urquidy has demonstrated that his stuff and pinpoint control will play in the majors. He currently slots in as Houston’s fourth starter, which also brings with it great opportunity for wins on what is still one of the game’s most complete squads.
Bryse Wilson, Braves
It’s much easier to forget about prospects in loaded farm systems. That’s probably one reason Wilson hasn’t received much attention lately because his profile shows a very safe MLB pitching prospect, if there is such a thing. Wilson has struggled in 27 MLB innings over the last two seasons, but we still need to put that performance in perspective given that Wilson just turned 22 before Christmas. The former fourth-round pick has been able to move so quickly up the minors in large part due to his great control, but Wilson’s pure stuff is also very good, with a fastball that averages 95 mph, and also a slider and change that show plus potential. Wilson has a career 2.3 BB/9 in the minors that was down to 1.9 BB/9 last year, and his 3.42 ERA in 121 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett last year shouldn’t be understated after the league adopted MLB’s juiced ball.
It’s probably not a question of if Wilson will put it all together in the majors but when? He figures to compete for the fifth starter spot entering spring training against the likes of Sean Newcomb and fellow prospects Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson. While the latter two pitchers were top five draft choices, Wilson has a strong argument as the most MLB-ready of the group given his control. Either way, the Braves seem likely to get significant contributions from all three youngsters in 2020 if they’re not traded, with Wilson being the most intriguing for WHIP purposes. He’s currently barely being drafted in the top 600 picks in NFBC leagues, but remains a very worthy flier in 15-plus team mixed leagues.
Single League Sleepers
Tyler Alexander, Tigers
Like most of Detroit’s pitching staff, Alexander was mediocre and unreliable when he got an opportunity last year. The former second-round pick made his MLB debut just before the All-Star break and finished the year with a 4.86 ERA between eight starts and five relief appearances. The ERA was even worse at Triple-A, sitting at 5.13 in 98.1 innings. However, if you’ve been reading this far, you can guess that Alexander’s control has been quite good, with a phenomenal 1.2 BB/9 in Detroit and also 1.5 BB/9 for his minor league career.
Alexander’s professional results since 2017 have been mixed, and his inability to miss bats is one reason. He has a mediocre 7.5 K/9 for his minor league career, and barely cracks 90 mph on his fastball, albeit as a lefty. He did start to show some ability to miss bats last year, however, with a 9.9 K/9 at Triple-A and 7.9 K/9 with the Tigers. The ERA metrics followed suit with a 4.15 FIP and 4.31 SIERA, and despite the small sample size of 53.2 innings, are a sign that he can stick around in the majors. It’s clear Alexander isn’t going to be a game-changer for fantasy owners with his middling stuff, but the ability to throw strikes is often all AL-only owners need for a rosterable commodity, especially in a spacious park like Comerica. The already elite control makes Alexander viable if he can crack the bottom of the Tigers rotation.
Josh Lindblom, Brewers
Lindblom has 147 innings of MLB experience with a 4.10 ERA, but he left MLB for a second stint in Korea in 2017. After serving mostly as a reliever in the States, he dominated as a starter during his Korean League comeback, particularly over the last two years going 35-7 with a 2.68 ERA and 1.7 BB/9. His control has gradually improved over the years, which he flashed briefly in four relief appearances with the Pirates in 2017.
The Brewers are apparently believers after giving the 32-year-old a three-year contract this offseason, and he fits into a crowded but deep group of Milwaukee swingmen heading into spring training. The relief experience might work against Lindblom in his attempt to win a rotation spot this spring, but regardless, he will be a nice fallback for innings in Milwaukee. The drastic control improvement that we’ve seen from Lindblom over the last few years is what should make him so interesting for NL-only owners in 2020, as a nice alternative in the Brewers pitching staff to the power pitcher (Brandon Woodruff) and groundball specialists (Adrian Houser, Brett Anderson).
Brent Suter, Brewers
Joining the aforementioned Lindblom in the Brewers starting rotation conversation is Suter, who returned late last season from Tommy John surgery. The Harvard alum’s successful return from injury over nine relief appearances (4-0, 15/1 K/BB and one earned run in 18.1 innings) should make the Brewers confident in Suter’s forthcoming contribution. It should come as no surprise based on Suter’s background that he gets by more on smarts and pitchability than pure stuff, as he’s never averaged even 88 mph on his fastball. Still, the lefty’s fastball-changeup combo has helped him produce a 3.63 ERA and 1.9 BB/9 over 223 MLB innings in four seasons.
Suter’s situation entering spring training in similar to Lindblom. He’s demonstrated success in a variety of roles, and regardless of which role he’s in when the Brewers break camp, Suter’s status on the team will be fluid. Expect some time both in long relief and the starting rotation, and Suter’s career 1.20 WHIP should be very enticing for fantasy owners, especially when he does get stints in the rotation.
Erik Swanson, Mariners
When the Mariners traded James Paxton to the Yankees last offseason, the headliner of their return was top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield. Though, it was Swanson, also included in the deal, who made the biggest contribution at the MLB level last season, albeit with a 5.74 ERA in 58 innings. If you’re looking for reason why the Yankees would use Swanson as trade bait, look no further than his 42% flyball rate and 2.6 HR/9 with the M’s last season. Simply put, the extreme flyball pitcher was a poor fit for Yankee Stadium, but the hope is that Safeco Field will help Swanson suppress some of his long ball issues. The good news is that his great control allows him to keep unnecessary runners off the base paths, with a 1.9 BB/9 during his MLB debut and a 2.3 BB/9 for his minor league career. The 26-year-old has also proven successful in the minors overall, with a career 3.49 ERA and 9.0 K/9 over six seasons.
For all the struggles Swanson had in Seattle, his WHIP was still a pleasant 1.17 WHIP as a direct result of his plus control. It’s also worth noting that Swanson found success during the second half of the season while pitching more often out of the bullpen, with a 3.04 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 28/7 K/BB over 26.2 innings. The hope now is that the success in the pen will build confidence in a possible move back to the rotation, where there is now ample opportunity behind Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi. At this point, Swanson is just a speculative play in AL-only leagues but one who could pay big dividends if the ability he showed during the second half transfers over to a starting role in 2020.