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Alex Wood tops the list of buy-high fantasy pitchers

Alex Wood's fantasy value has been on the rise. Should you invest in him now anyway? Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

When it comes to pitching, almost anything is fair game on the trade market.

For one, pitchers accumulate fewer innings pitched than batters do plate appearances, and the smaller volume of statistics means quicker shifts in their two ratio categories (ERA, WHIP) than hitters' one (batting average). For another, injuries are constantly shuffling the deck on the pitching side, especially this season.

As of Monday afternoon, 44 of the original 150 pitchers assigned to the 30 major league teams' Opening Day rotations had made at least one trip to the disabled list. This counts neither repeat stints -- hello, Aaron Sanchez -- nor pitchers who were expected to occupy spots in their teams' rotations at some point in-season -- hello, Anthony DeSclafani -- so the number of actual starting-pitcher DL stints is even higher.

It's for this reason that labeling certain pitchers as "buy low" or "sell high" candidates is a fool's errand this season. The vast majority of pitchers don't seamlessly fit the description: Kevin Gausman, the No. 26 starting pitcher via ESPN ADP, has been immensely frustrating to his fantasy owners to date and hasn't offered enough room for optimism to warrant better than top-50 starter value in exchange (if that). Corey Kluber's back injury makes him a difficult trade target, and Masahiro Tanaka has become unexpectedly home run prone, with 10 allowed in his past four starts.

Flip things around and, considering the dearth of top-shelf pitchers these days, it actually makes a lot of sense to buy high on certain arms, at least if there's a data point to justify what the unexpectedly good are doing. Everyone is trying to find that unexpectedly poor early performer he/she can acquire from an unsuspecting trade partner -- it's a tired, old angle -- but with pitching strategy becoming ever more a patchwork process, why not take the hot starter and enjoy what he's doing while it lasts (especially if there's a justifiable reason it might last all year)?

So, in the theme of last week's buy-high hitter targets, in which Justin Smoak was the headliner, I present 2017's pitching equivalent: Alex Wood.

Wood's ESPN ownership percentage alone tells the story of how little fantasy owners think of him: 84.1 percent, and up 25 percent in the past week alone (so imagine how much lower it was a week or two ago). Like Smoak, Wood appears to be more of a recent pickup for his shallow-mixed owners, meaning that his perceived value couldn't be much lower. It also doesn't help that he has a checkered injury history, and his Los Angeles Dodgers have been quick to use the 10-day disabled list to shuffle their rotation at a moment's notice, threatening Wood's seasonal workload.

What stands out about Wood's performance, however, is his velocity: It's up significantly, and it has been up consistently since early in spring training. In his seven starts thus far, he has averaged 92.9 mph with his fastball, which looks an awful lot like his 92.2 mph average in his 35 career big league relief appearances entering the year. In fact, all seven of Wood's highest-average fastball velocities in a single start during his career coincide with his seven starts in 2017. Incidentally, Wood's average fastball velocity as a big league starter entering 2017 was a mere 89.7 mph (whether four- or two-seamer, depending upon your source).

Speaking of which, whether what Wood is throwing this season is a two- or four-seam fastball has influence on how critical his adjustments are. Brooks Baseball classifies it a four-seamer, while PitchF/X has it a two-seamer, and I'd tend to agree with the latter, considering Wood has a 67.6 percent ground ball rate this season, compared to 51.6 percent during his big league career to date. Wood's fastball alone has generated 16.5 percent more grounders this year compared to his career number, and two-seamers are known for their movement and increased likelihood of resulting in weaker contact and/or ground balls.

Wood's swinging-strike rate (total percentage of swings that were swings and misses) is a career-high 13.5 percent this season, compared to 10.2 percent for his career, and he has made significant strides against right-handed batters, limiting them to .189/.246/.245 rates and a .218 wOBA that is 89 points beneath his career number (.307). In short, his combination of balanced splits -- swing-and-miss stuff fueled in large part by his velocity uptick -- and extreme ground ball leaning make him a considerably more valuable pitcher than he has been in the recent past.

Wood's best season on the Player Rater was 2014, when he was 124th overall and 32nd among starting pitchers. That might be a tad generous a finishing point for him this season, as total starts/innings could come into question after his 2016 elbow debridement, but it's also not an unthinkable level to reach. Better yet: Should the Dodgers' DL shenanigans swing around to his turn on the shelf -- and, to be clear, it's that and not a more serious injury landing him there -- Wood might be an oh-so-easy pitcher to acquire then.

Besides Wood, here are a few other pitchers to consider buying at a value high point:

Bud Norris: No one -- this columnist included -- would've ever expected he'd take over the Angels' closer role this quickly in the year, if at all, but since his first opportunity on April 22, he's 8-for-9 in save chances with a 1.98 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 35.3 percent strikeout rate in 13 appearances. Norris looks good in the ninth-inning role, and he'll come especially cheap, considering he's still available in nearly 50 percent of ESPN leagues and was the replacement for a pitcher everyone thinks has clearly superior stuff, Cam Bedrosian.

Here's what you need to know about Norris' resurgence: This season, he has leaned more upon the cutter he tinkered with during his brief time with the Dodgers in 2016, throwing the pitch 36 percent of the time. That has finally given him a bona fide weapon to use against left-handed hitters, who have hit .273/.358/.456 against him in his career to date but have just .161/.278/.161 numbers so far against him this season. Add in a small uptick in fastball velocity, and Norris the closer looks like a much more complete fantasy option -- and one with staying power at that -- than the model of the past. There's a compelling case to be made for him keeping the role and saving 30-plus games.

Lance McCullers Jr.: You'll begin to hear questions about his workload in the coming weeks, after he threw just 89 innings in 2016 and never more than 157 2/3 in any previous season as a pro, and there's little doubt that the Houston Astros will do something to try to rein in his innings to save some of them for their inevitable postseason appearance.

Still, McCullers is far too talented to trade off in preparation for that -- even in a head-to-head league. For one, his curveball is absolutely filthy, producing 220 strikeouts since his May 18, 2015 big league debut, tied for eighth most by any pitcher's breaking ball (curveball or slider) since that date, despite his throwing noticeably fewer pitches than those ranked around him.

For another, McCullers' control is sharper this season; his 6.8 percent walk rate is easily his best in any full pro campaign to date, and he's generating an extremely high rate of ground balls (62.0 percent).

I'm not saying that McCullers will be afforded 200 regular-season innings or that he won't be skipped for you in a critical head-to-head playoff week, but his raw talent dictates he needs be kept on hand to enjoy the ride, bumpy or not.

Ivan Nova: He has a 14.7 percent strikeout rate, and pitchers who hit that many bats typically have difficulty maintaining sub-3.0 ERAs; only seven ERA-qualified pitchers did it in the 20 seasons preceding this one. Still, what pitching coach Ray Searage has done helping Nova make necessary adjustments to let his true talent shine through is extraordinary.

Most notable is Nova's minuscule walk rate: His 1.4 percent since his Aug. 1, 2016, trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates is easily the major leagues' best during that time span, and his seven total walks in his first 20 Pirates starts actually match the total number that Rick Porcello (who has the second-best walk rate since that same Aug. 1 date) has issued in his past five starts.

Nova calls one of the best pitchers' parks his home, has a ground ball rate that's better than 50 percent, and his pinpoint control makes him extremely likely to maintain mixed-league value all year. Perhaps he won't ever be a threat for a top-25 fantasy starter value point, but he easily belongs in the top 50 at the position and shouldn't cost much more than that in trade.