Prior to the 2012 season, Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey ranked just 76th among starting pitchers in our preseason rankings and went undrafted in many leagues last spring. He, of course, went on to finish the season as the No. 1 pitcher in fantasy baseball. While Dickey is obviously an extreme example, he wasn't the only hurler who made a significant impact on fantasy leagues last year despite receiving very little attention on draft day. Ryan Vogelsong ranked 85th in our preseason rankings and finished the year 30th among starting pitchers on the Player Rater, A.J. Burnett ranked 124th and finished 26th, and Kyle Lohse ranked 95th and finished 12th, just to name a few.
This happens every season, of course. We might not see a pitcher climb all the way to the No. 1 spot after going largely unnoticed in drafts this season, but there certainly will be many undrafted players who go on to be coveted fantasy commodities. In looking at starting pitchers who, according to our live draft results, are being drafted outside the top 75 at the position, here are three hurlers who have a very good chance at greatly exceeding their draft-day value in fantasy this season:
ESPN SP rank: 66
ESPN live drafts
• SPs: 79th/Overall: 229.4
• 26.1 percent ownership
I tagged Cobb as my starting pitcher sleeper this year, as did a couple of my ESPN colleagues, so his inclusion here shouldn't come as a surprise. Even so, the Rays hurler deserves more respect than he's getting, which, according to recent live draft data, isn't much.
While Cobb's numbers last season were solid, his performance didn't exactly move the needle in standard fantasy leagues. In 23 starts, he finished 11-9 with a 4.03 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 106 strikeouts in 136 1/3 innings, which ranked him 79th among starting pitchers on the Player Rater. All in all, it was a fairly forgettable performance from a fantasy perspective. The good news, though, is that there's more to look forward to from the 25-year-old in 2013.
Last season's 7.0 strikeout rate and 2.6 walk rate were strong. However, over 228 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, he sported a 9.6 K/9 rate, suggesting there's even more strikeout potential here. He already boosted his K/9 rate in the second half last year, going from 6.3 before the All-Star break to 7.5 after, so another step up in the strikeout department in 2013 wouldn't be a surprise.
Even more encouraging is how Cobb finished the 2012 season. In his last seven starts, he went 5-2 with a 2.49 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. Five of those seven starts came against playoff teams (the Rangers, Yankees, Orioles and A's), while the other two came against the Red Sox, certainly no slouch. It's a small sample size, sure, but it tells us two things: (1) He didn't fade late in the season despite amassing a career-high 177 2/3 innings between the majors and Triple-A; and (2) He was unfazed by pitching in the American League East, a good sign for a young pitcher. All told, he was 5-2 with a 2.77 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in eight starts last year against his AL East rivals.
Cobb's 58.8 ground ball percentage last season was the third-highest rate in baseball among hurlers with at least 130 innings (Trevor Cahill and Derek Lowe ranked first and second, respectively), and Tropicana Field is one of the game's most pitcher-friendly venues in terms of suppressing home runs (24th, according to Park Factors), runs (23rd) and hits (26th). So not only is there significant upside with Cobb, who is reportedly working on adding a cutter to his repertoire this spring, but he should have a high floor as well.
Finally, while we can all agree that spring training stats don't mean much most of the time, the fact the right-hander holds a 1.29 ERA with an 18-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 spring innings certainly does nothing to dampen his 2013 outlook. Truth be told, it only makes him more intriguing.
ESPN SP rank: 65
ESPN live drafts
• SPs: 80th/Overall: 229.5
• 64.8 percent ownership
If you weren't paying close attention, you probably missed what Estrada did in 2012. After all, he wasn't exactly a key cog in many fantasy pitching staffs. He finished the season with only five wins, a total that 151 pitchers surpassed, and he ranked just 63rd among starting pitchers on the Player Rater.
In 29 games (23 starts) with Milwaukee in 2012, Estrada posted a 3.64 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. That's all well and good, but that's not why the 29-year-old is here. He's here because he sported a 9.3 K/9 rate and a 1.9 BB/9 rate in those 29 outings. By themselves, those are elite marks. Together? Well, they're something special. Among pitchers with at least 130 innings, Estrada's 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the third-highest mark in baseball last year, behind only Cliff Lee and Kris Medlen. As a starter, Estrada's 5.3 K/BB ratio was even better. Over the past three seasons, only three starting pitchers (110 innings minimum) -- Lee, Roy Halladay and Dan Haren -- have posted a better K/BB ratio.
The improvement Estrada displayed over the second half last year is also noteworthy. He struggled with home runs in the first half, allowing 1.9 home runs per nine innings. However, he cut that to 0.7 after the All-Star break, as he surrendered just two gopherballs in August and September combined, and he generated more ground balls as the season went on. He also held a 2.92 ERA and 0.92 WHIP at home, which should ease any concerns over him calling the hitter-friendly Miller Park home.
While Estrada took a step to another level last year, keep in mind that he posted an 8.6 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 in 92 2/3 innings (mostly in relief) with the Brewers in 2011, so it's not as though last year's numbers came completely out of nowhere. In other words, there's reason to think the skills he showcased in 2012 are sustainable, even if common perception is that he doesn't possess top-of-the-rotation type stuff.
Of the three hurlers highlighted in this column, Estrada is the most popular; he's being drafted in more leagues than he's not. Nonetheless, this is still a guy who has shown top-level skills and can be drafted in the last couple of rounds in mixed leagues. That's a buying opportunity, folks.
ESPN SP rank: 108
ESPN live drafts
• SPs: 132nd/Overall: 260+
• 0.3 percent ownership
While Cobb and Estrada are at least getting attention in some drafts, Ramirez, who won only one game but posted a 3.36 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 2012, is getting almost no attention. But that's a good thing. For those looking to secure him in the final round or two, his anonymity is a positive.
Pinpoint control has long been the 22-year-old's calling card. Over 532 minor league innings, he sported a pristine 1.4 BB/9 mark. That skill has largely carried over to the big leagues, as Ramirez sported a 1.8 mark in 16 appearances (eight starts) with Seattle last year.
While Ramirez has never been a huge strikeout guy, he misses enough bats to matter (7.1 K/9 in the minors; 7.3 K/9 with the Mariners). He doesn't have an overpowering fastball (average velocity of 92.8 mph last year), but his changeup and slider help make up for it, as both graded out very well last year. In fact, according to fangraphs.com, both pitches ranked top-10 in baseball (50 innings minimum) in terms of runs saved per 100 pitches thrown. Simply put, despite his impeccable control, he's not merely a control artist.
Had Ramirez pitched enough innings to qualify (which isn't really fair, considering he came roughly 100 innings short, but bear with me), his 4.0 K/BB ratio would've ranked just outside the top five in baseball. And if we account only for Ramirez's time as a starter last season, his 5.1 K/BB is even more impressive. Yes, we are dealing with a small sample size here, which can often be misleading, but these numbers again correlate well with what he did in his minor league career (4.9 K/BB). Thus I'm inclined to believe they're real and repeatable, making him a vastly undervalued commodity on draft day.