Perception weighs heavily in fantasy baseball.
There is perhaps no greater example than this: Tim Lincecum, who has two Cy Youngs on his career résumé, finds himself in the midst of a second consecutive disappointing season, ranking 92nd among starting pitchers on our Player Rater. Somehow, he remains a member of a roster in 86 percent of ESPN leagues.
Meanwhile, Chris Tillman, who has twice as many wins (8-4), an ERA three-quarters of a run lower (3.71-4.52), a lower WHIP (1.32-1.39) and only 20 fewer strikeouts (69-89) than Lincecum, finds himself a free agent in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues. Tillman ranks 42 spots higher among starters on the Player Rater.
The fantasy baseball market is hardly flawless, and such examples as these represent pitfalls … but also potential opportunities, such as with Tillman.
It's with that in mind that, this week, let's identify nine pitchers who fit a certain classification: "underrated, under-owned or unknown."
These are pitchers who are either widely owned in fantasy leagues, but whose perceived value doesn't do justice to their true value; pitchers who are owned in a puzzlingly low percentage of ESPN leagues; or pitchers who might not even be familiar names to the majority of owners.
Jarrod Parker, Oakland Athletics: Patience with Parker was preached in this space nine weeks ago, and nine is an appropriate number regarding the right-hander; he's now riding a streak of nine consecutive quality starts. But it's more telling statistically if we slice his season-to-date in half:
First 8 GS: 2 W, 3 QS, 6.86 ERA, 1.84 WHIP, 1.36 K/BB, 6.64 K/9, 4.87 BB/9
Next 8 GS: 4 W, 8 QS, 2.40 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 2.85 K/BB, 5.91 K/9, 2.08 BB/9
The reason Parker's walk rate in the second group is in bold is that it illustrates comparably improved control to what he showed the second half of last season, when he averaged 2.06 walks per nine. The 2012 version of Parker -- one who finished 42nd among starters on the Player Rater -- is back, and if you're worried at all about his 65 2/3-inning bump of 2012, consider this: The Athletics have limited him to an average of only 93.8 pitches per start, and in his brief career now he has thrown 100 or more pitches in only 17 of 46 starts. He has been brilliantly maintained and showed he could handle 200-plus frames last year.
Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians: This unheralded name acquired in the July 31, 2010, Jake Westbrook three-team trade has been a sneaky strikeout artist, his 68 strikeouts since joining the rotation April 28 ranking among the top 20 in baseball during that time span. Among pitchers with at least 10 starts, Kluber's 27 percent miss rate on opponents' swings is fifth best, and his 5.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks sixth. It's all thanks to both his slider, which has always been filthy (thrown 27 percent of the time, .211/.263/.317 career rates allowed), and the vast improvement he has made with his changeup, opponents managing an OPS more than 400 points lower against it this year (.407) than last (.868). Kluber should never be mistaken for a budding staff ace, but he's also not one of those throwaway fifth/spot starter types. Certainly I'd rather own him than John Lackey (owned in 40.6 percent of ESPN leagues), Wade Miley (34.7 percent) or Jason Marquis (29.9 percent), but Kluber remains a free agent in a larger percentage of leagues than all three (owned in 28.3 percent of leagues).
Drew Smyly, Detroit Tigers: If the Tigers don't trust Joaquin Benoit to close games for them long term -- they've openly questioned his durability in the past -- they might want to consider Smyly, their next-best bullpen arm, for the job. Though he fell short of meeting the column's requirements in 2012, he'd be eligible for "Kings of Command" inclusion based on his 2013 accomplishments to date, thanks to bumping his ground ball rate to 43.1 percent. He's also being used as more of a short reliever of late; five of his 18 appearances in April and May were of 40 or more pitches, but only one of his eight so far in June have been of that many. Manager Jim Leyland might strike you too much a traditionalist to ever consider using a left-hander to close, but remember that Phil Coke got a brief look last October and early this year … and Smyly, simply put, is a far superior reliever.
David Phelps, New York Yankees: With Ivan Nova pitching well in his return from the minors Sunday, and Michael Pineda (shoulder) on the comeback trail, the Yankees have critical decisions to make at the back end of their rotation. Why is it always assumed that Phelps will be the first to go? He has a 3.63 ERA in his 10 starts, but keep in mind that was accrued facing a schedule including seven games against teams that rank among the top 10 in baseball in runs scored. Phelps has passed most every test, and while it's valid to say that his experience as a long reliever might make him the most useful option of the bunch if restored to that role, he hasn't done anything to warrant removal from the rotation. It's a risk to assume he'll stick, but because it's widely assumed he'll be bumped, that might also mean you could scoop him up on the cheap.
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers: Remember him? Axford, written off a lost cause by fantasy owners in more than 80 percent of ESPN leagues, has quietly restored his stock as one of the game's most effective relievers. The reason no one has noticed: Jim Henderson and Francisco Rodriguez have been fine as fill-ins, rendering Axford a middle-relief afterthought. But if you're in position to speculate, consider how the three have fared since May 15:
Axford: Outs on 74% of batters faced, 0.00 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 2.57 K/BB
Henderson: Outs on 71% of batters faced, 3.72 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 2.50 K/BB
Rodriguez: Outs on 84% of batters faced, 0.59 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 5.33 K/BB
Axford is also the only one of the three to have afforded hitters a well-hit average (that's the percentage of his at-bats that resulted in hard contact) beneath the league average during that span; he has a .145 mark, compared to .151 for the majors as a whole. His ascent to the closer role isn't necessarily imminent, but in a bullpen where there's some debate as to who will close going forward -- Rodriguez now has his 300th career save and presumably Henderson is supposed to get all the chances -- Axford could soon re-enter the conversation.
Ricky Nolasco, Miami Marlins: Well, of course he's underrated; he's on a team that stinks! After four years of ERAs that vastly exceeded his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching score, a better indicator of a pitcher's true talent), Nolasco's ERA (3.68) this season has finally fallen in line with his FIP (3.55), and it comes at a convenient time. After all, he's a trade candidate because of his $11.5 million salary in the final year of his three-year deal this season, so the improvement has to be encouraging to his many suitors. Talk all you want about how Nolasco's numbers might dip once he's out of pitching-friendly Marlins Park. He actually has a higher ERA at home (4.06) than on the road (3.28), and besides, the venue hasn't been quite as pitching-friendly in 2013 as you might think.
Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals (currently in Triple-A Memphis): He's the one name on this list who isn't even in the majors, but Martinez's fantasy potential, as things stand today, might be greater than any other pitcher's currently in the minors … and yes, that includes fellow Memphis teammate Michael Wacha, himself a former Cardinal. Through six starts in Triple-A, Martinez has a 1.82 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 3.22 K-to-walk ratio, his latest a 7 2/3-shutout-inning masterpiece in which he was stretched out to 102 pitches. The Cardinals now have him up to a full-time starter's workload, conveniently at a time when they've demoted their fifth starter, Tyler Lyons, to Memphis. Though Joe Kelly will get the next chance in the role, Martinez might be ready to claim it for himself within the next few weeks. And as the No. 39 prospect overall on Keith Law's preseason rankings, Martinez indeed might make an instant impact.
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals: The one member of this list to be owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, Holland makes the cut from the "underrated" angle, meaning that he's an excellent trade target if you're seeking saves. Fantasy owners might still have memories of his near-collapse in April; he had back-to-back poor outings on April 6-7 and a 3.75 ERA, 1.67 WHIP and a 7-for-9 performance in the saves department in his first 13 appearances. In 16 games since, however, Holland is a perfect 9-for-9 in saves with a 0.56 ERA, 0.56 WHIP and 6.25 K-to-walk ratio. Any doubts about his fantasy value going forward should be directed at his team, which has won only 18 of its past 46 games, meaning that he might not consistently receive save chances. But in Holland's defense, he had 16 saves in the Royals' final 60 games of 2012, of which the Royals won 30. He is a potential top-10 fantasy closer, but there's a good chance the perception is he's only top-20.
Eric Stults, San Diego Padres: I'm sure you wanted to see Andrew Cashner here, but everyone seems to know who Cashner is. Stults is the one who is taking them more by surprise. Since the left-hander joined the Padres' rotation for good last Aug. 6, he has 13 wins, 16 quality starts, a 3.07 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 3.00 K-to-walk ratio. How is it that a pitcher whose fastball averaged 86.8 mph on average during that span has been so successful? Simple: superb control, indicated by his 1.93 walks-per-nine innings ratio; and a massive boost to his changeup, which is responsible for earning him 91 outs this season alone. Stults might always be subject to the occasional stinker as a pitch-to-contact pitcher, but thanks to Petco Park he has about the largest margin of error of anyone in that group. He might be the oddest name to see ranked among my top 75 starters, but I'd argue that with continued good fortune, he might be a top-50 option going forward.
'Call me out'
Puzzled by a certain ranking of mine below? Wondering why a pitcher of yours might have exceeded or fallen short of his preseason expectations?
In next week's "60 Feet 6 Inches," I'm devoting this space to your player questions. You can send me them via either Twitter (@SultanofStat) or Facebook (facebook.com/SultanofStat), with the subject or hashtag #Callmeout.
I'll address as many of your inquiries as possible next week in this space.
TOP 150 PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.