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Kings of Command for 2015

Corey Kluber emerged as a fantasy star in 2014; could Carlos Carrasco do the same in 2015? USA TODAY Sports

Pay for a proven ace. Or don't.

Using 2014 as an example: You could've spent a third-round pick on Adam Wainwright and gotten the fifth-best season by any pitcher, as judged by our Player Rater. Or ... you could've spent your final-round pick -- or perhaps even a mere waiver claim in season -- on Corey Kluber and gotten the fourth-best pitcher season, per our Player Rater.

Either strategy is legitimate, as is one that resides somewhere in between. As you peruse the many draft-strategy pieces in our 2015 draft kit, you'll come to learn this about pitching: There's a lot of it today and you can wait on drafting it if you wish, but if you do, make sure you have a sound strategy while doing so.

Ah, but how does one formulate said strategy?

Analyzing more meaningful metrics, while putting aside the more misleading Rotisserie statistics such as wins and ERA, is a good start. Such Rotisserie numbers don't tell the true story of a pitcher's talent; statistics that measure a pitcher's command do a better job. Frankly, you could put aside every one of the Rotisserie standard 5x5 categories and instead draft only from the chart of qualifiers at column's end, and you'd probably wind up with a better team.

Had you drafted only from the list of 88 qualifiers last year, you might've wound up with Wainwright -- he wasn't picked as one of the headline nine because, naturally, he was already a known commodity -- or you might've wound up with Kluber at a fraction of the cost ... and you'd have netted yourself the American League's Cy Young Award winner.

In the 14 years I've been writing this column -- 2015 represents the 15th such edition -- twice has one of its headline picks won a Cy Young award: Johan Santana in 2004 and now Kluber. They illustrate how substantial the possible reward, the "ceiling," if you will, of a command-based pitching pick.

Now, the pessimist might regard two Cy Youngs in 14 years as a high failure rate. The point, though, isn't to attempt to turn your proverbial penny into a cool million; it's to give yourself a low-risk staff with competitive upside. Kluber, and Santana before him, represent merely the high end of the spectrum.

There have been 153 such selections -- some years there were nine, some 10, some 13 (previously, it was titled "The Talented 13") -- and out of those, 73 earned at least 2 WAR (wins above replacement). To put 2 WAR into perspective, all 91 pitchers to accrue at least that much on-field value in 2014 finished among the Player Rater top 400, and the 20 pitchers to finish closest to 2 WAR averaged a No. 227 finish, which is within the "roster-worthy" tier in ESPN standard, 10-team mixed leagues, on said Player Rater. Incidentally, 41 selections earned at least 3.5 WAR, 11 of those in the past four seasons alone; no pitcher to earn 3.5 WAR or more in 2014 finished lower than 174th on the Player Rater.

There is a failure rate, though, as to any pitching strategy. To that end, 22 of the 153 picks finished with either negative WAR or missed the season in question, with Josh Johnson last season the second pitcher to fall into the latter group. But that shows that this group generally wouldn't have burned you, and, in all likelihood, would've given you a competitive staff at the fraction of the cost.

I call these headline picks my "Kings of Command," a group of pitchers who meet a specific set of command-based criteria and are attractive bargain candidates for the upcoming season due to misfortunes in the more prominent Rotisserie categories. This philosophy is hardly new; it is similar to those of other analysts, most notably Ron Shandler's "LIMA Plan" (Low Investment Mound Aces) developed in the late 1990s.

Pitchers who qualify for inclusion meet each of the following minimum baselines:

"Kings of Command" baseline numbers

Batters faced: 200 or more
Strikeout rate (percentage of batters faced): 16 percent or more
Walk rate (percentage of batters faced): eight percent or less
Command rate (K's per walk): 2.50 or more
Ground ball rate (percentage of all balls in play): 42.5 percent or more

Last season, 674 pitchers appeared in a big league game, and of those, only 91 met all five criteria. In addition to Kluber, that group included National League Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, plus the only other pitcher to get first-place votes in the Cy Young balloting, Felix Hernandez. It included the National League's rookie of the year, Jacob deGrom, and it included eight of the top nine pitchers on our 2014 Player Rater. Chris Sale was the top-nine pitcher who missed; he was one ground ball shy of qualification.

But it also included the following nine pitchers, none of whom experienced quite as much fanfare, and none of whom ranked among the top 45 pitchers on our Player Rater. These pitchers compared favorably to the aforementioned standouts in these command categories, their skills hinting that better fortune might lie ahead in 2015.

These "Kings of Command" are listed in alphabetical order, along with their statistics in the above categories and a look at what they'd need to do in order to break through this season.

Homer Bailey
Cincinnati Reds

TBF: 604 K%: 20.5 BB%: 7.5 K/BB: 2.76 GB%: 52.1 FIP: 3.93

In 15 seasons, no pitcher had ever made the list in three consecutive seasons ... until Bailey, this year. It's both an honor and a curse; it means the pitcher in question possesses underlying skills that could spawn an imminent breakout, but it also means said breakout has been "imminent" for that long. At what point does a fantasy owner stop waiting? The third year might be when many do; I'd argue no, it's not the correct time. Bailey, after all, posted a fifth straight year of 100-plus innings and a 2.5-plus K/BB ratio -- he's one of only 15 pitchers with an active streak at least that long -- and for the third consecutive season increased his ground ball rate, to 52.1 percent in 2014.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Frankly, health. Bailey succumbed to surgery on Sept. 5 to repair a tear in the flexor tendon in his right elbow. He had eight wins, 13 quality starts, a 3.17 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in his final 18 starts before the injury, after suffering absurdly bad luck on fly balls in April; 25 percent of them cleared the fence!

His chances of doing so? Good, if you believe reports that he was ahead of schedule and on a throwing program as of mid-January; Reds manager Bryan Price said then, though, that Bailey "may or may not be ready to hit the ground running" when spring training starts, per the Columbus Dispatch.

Carlos Carrasco
Cleveland Indians

TBF: 529 K%: 26.5 BB%: 5.5 K/BB: 4.83 GB%: 54.1 FIP: 2.44

Having finished 322nd among starting pitchers in 2013, Carrasco was one of the highest placing pitchers on our Player Rater in the year before he made this list. He did that, though, on the strength of a 1.73 relief ERA from May to July, then a 1.30 ERA and 78 K's in a 10-start stint to close the season. In short, fantasy owners didn't reap many benefits of his generous ranking, because he might not have earned their trust before September. Having made a key tweak to his delivery -- he pitched exclusively out of the stretch as a starter late in the year -- that resulted in a substantially more effective slider and changeup, he should now have their trust.

What would spawn a breakthrough? A full, healthy season in the Indians rotation. Everything he did en route to that 10-start outburst showed the kind of skills he'd need for a major breakthrough in 2015.

His chances of doing so? Good, being that he was capped at 118⅓ innings in 2013 and 134 in 2014 mostly because he was still working his way back from Sept. 14, 2011, Tommy John surgery, while also tasked with earning a more prominent role with the Indians' big-league club. Now, the kid gloves come off.

Gerrit Cole
Pittsburgh Pirates

TBF: 571 K%: 24.2 BB%: 7.0 K/BB: 3.45 GB%: 51.4 FIP: 3.23

He was the No. 1 pick overall in the 2011 amateur draft. He was Keith Law's No. 3 pitching prospect (and No. 10 overall) entering 2012 and No. 2 (eighth overall) entering 2013. He was the fifth highest-selected pitcher under the age of 25 in ESPN leagues last season (98th overall, No. 30 pitcher). And for the first time in his professional career, Cole might come at a relative discount after a 26-start season that included two disabled-list stints. He shouldn't: He finished last year with seven quality starts in his final eight after returning, a 3.44 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.32 K/9, with no underlying loss of velocity or his breaking pitches (curveball and slider).

What would spawn a breakthrough? Maintenance of his 95 mph fastball velocity and continued trust in his curve and slider. Oh, and health, yes, but let's also not forget he's still only 24 years old and without a checkered injury history.

His chances of doing so? Outstanding. Cole's top-shelf pitching skills are still there, bubbling beneath the surface.

Nathan Eovaldi
New York Yankees

TBF: 854 K%: 16.6 BB%: 5.0 K/BB: 3.30 GB%: 46.2 FIP: 3.37

For those who put the most stock in FIP (fielding independent pitching), know this: Among the 88 pitchers to qualify for the ERA title in 2014, Eovaldi's differential between his ERA and FIP was second highest on the ERA-greater-than-FIP side (plus-1.00), behind only Clay Buchholz (plus-1.33). That alone outlines his candidacy, but then there's this: He has thrown an fastball average of 95.2 mph since his Aug. 6, 2011, big league debut -- the sixth fastest such average (any with 2,000-plus thrown) since that date.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Eovaldi's fastball, despite its velocity, has generated misses when hitters swing at it three percent less often than the major league average (14.5, compared to 17.6), a surefire hint that he needs to give it some movement. It'd also help if he adjusted his pitch selection against left-handed batters, who had a weighted on-base average (wOBA) 32 points higher (.330) against him than right-handers did (.298) in 2014. One consideration is ditching his mediocre changeup -- a suggestion FanGraphs' Eno Sarris has made -- while relying more upon his four-seam fastball or slider against lefties. Whatever the choice, these should be Eovaldi's spring projects.

His chances of doing so? While they're seemingly hit or miss, consider that Eovaldi's new pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, did an outstanding job last season alone helping Dellin Betances, Brandon McCarthy and Michael Pineda make critical adjustments that led to varying degrees of success for each. Rothschild seemingly saw something fixable in McCarthy before his acquisition; might he have with Eovaldi, too?

T.J. House
Cleveland Indians

TBF: 429 K%: 18.6 BB%: 5.1 K/BB: 3.64 GB%: 62.5 FIP: 3.69

The Indians have a bevy of rotation candidates this spring, but with projected No. 4 starter Gavin Floyd no guarantee to stay healthy and Danny Salazar tasked with earning the No. 5 spot, House might have better-than-even odds of breaking camp as one of the team's starting five. He was surprisingly effective during a 2014 second-half run as the team's No. 5 starter, posting a 2.53 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 10 starts after having failed to crack any major prospect source's top-10 list entering the year. Though his future upside might be capped as that of a back-of-the-rotation starter, he has a good enough combination of two-seam fastball, slider and changeup that he could be a handy matchups candidate, or perhaps a useful late-round pick in AL-only formats.

What would spawn a breakthrough? He's the least likely of any of the nine pitchers on the list to enjoy a major one, but a "breakthrough" of any sort would result from a strong spring that lands him a committed rotation spot. Improving the effectiveness of his fastball -- opponents batted .338 against it -- would also help.

His chances of doing so? So-so. With Floyd and Salazar, the Indians are presumably aiming for higher ceilings; they will inevitably regard House as the "safe," fallback type.

Zach McAllister
Cleveland Indians

TBF: 377 K%: 19.6 BB%: 7.4 K/BB: 2.64 GB%: 43.6 FIP: 3.45

To be clear up front: He's one of the biggest Hail Mary picks in this column's history. McAllister has no clean path to the Indians rotation. Besides which, he hasn't been very good in that role in the past, with a career 4.44 ERA as a starter. He had a 2.77 ERA in seven late-season relief appearances for them in 2014, but again, he has no clean path to the closer role and its saves, which drive fantasy value. Still, he's an interesting AL-only, final-pick stash for this reason: After his Sept. 1 recall, his fastball averaged 95.3 mph and he generated a miss on 28 percent of hitters' swings -- including, interestingly, 95.1 and 20, respectively, in his Sept. 15 spot start -- compared to 92.2 and 15.9 in his 14 starts between April and July. Something changed with McAllister's approach during his August minor league stint; he was a decidedly more aggressive pitcher upon his return.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Consistency of his September approach, working with pitching coach Mickey Callaway, but also a definitive role. Is McAllister a fifth-start candidate? Or a seventh-inning guy?

His chances of doing so? Poor, again, because of the blocked paths. If the path is middle relief, though, there are other failed-starters-turned-elite-relievers to point to: Betances, Zach Britton and Wade Davis, to name three.

Jimmy Nelson
Milwaukee Brewers

TBF: 311 K%: 18.3 BB%: 6.1 K/BB: 3.00 GB%: 49.8 FIP: 3.78

He'd have been a sneakier pick before Jan. 19, when the Brewers traded Yovani Gallardo and freed up a rotation spot. Nelson is now the favorite to serve as the team's No. 5 starter despite his going just 6-for-12 in quality starts with a 4.93 ERA last season. Don't take those numbers too much to heart; counting both minor and major league contributions, he posted his best walk rate as a pro (6.9 percent) in 2014, and in his 13 career big league starts, he has a 50.0 percent ground ball rate. It's no wonder his career big league FIP (3.68) is nearly three-quarters of a run lower than his ERA (4.42).

What would spawn a breakthrough? The addition of a pitch against left-handers, now that a rotation spot is effectively his. Lefties (.335) have a wOBA 18 points higher against him than righties (.317) thus far in his career, and during his minor league career, Nelson afforded lefties an OPS nearly 100 points higher.

His chances of doing so? So-so. It's not as easy as saying, "develop a curveball or changeup," but monitor his progress during the spring.

Adam Ottavino
Colorado Rockies

TBF: 272 K%: 25.7 BB%: 5.9 K/BB: 4.38 GB%: 47.3 FIP: 3.10

Ottavino took one of the most overlooked steps forward among 2014 relievers. Only 22 had greater WAR after the All-Star break, and during that span, he shaved his righty/lefty wOBA split from 143 points (in the first half) to 45. He also enjoyed a two-plus mph bump in fastball velocity during the second half, another plus.

What would spawn a breakthrough? The Rockies recognizing that, frankly, Ottavino is a better pitcher than closer LaTroy Hawkins at this stage of their respective careers. It might take an in-season Hawkins meltdown for such a change to happen, but the closer "label" alone is what swings either pitcher's value.

His chances of doing so? Better than anyone might think. Hawkins enters 2014 aged 42, having declared it his final year, and 27-year-old Rex Brothers simply doesn't possess the command at this stage to be as effective a closer. I'm not a big believer in handcuffs; I do think Ottavino is one of the more essential ones, though that's probably more so in NL-only leagues.

Jose Quintana
Chicago White Sox

TBF: 830 K%: 21.4 BB%: 6.3 K/BB: 3.42 GB%: 46.3 FIP: 2.81

In three seasons as a big leaguer, Quintana has made incremental improvements in each, particularly his FIP: His went from 4.23 in 2012 to 3.82 in 2013 to 2.81 in 2014. He's the aggressive type, with one of the highest first-strike percentages in baseball last season, and he lacks anything in the way of a lefty/righty split. Still, Quintana might be the least likely of these nine candidates to make a significant upward move on the Player Rater; he lacks the kind of overwhelming stuff needed to make a major step forward. Then again, he's 25 ...

What would spawn a breakthrough? More fastball velocity? More polish on either his curveball, changeup or both? Not one of Quintana's pitches seems to be ace caliber, but rather above average, and he'd probably need to make some sort of mechanical adjustment to make a significant step forward at this point.

His chances of doing so? It could happen, but the appeal of Quintana is how little risk he carries comparative to the other names on this list. He's the most likely of the nine to finish within 10 spots of his 2014 Player Rater ranking (189th).

'Kings of Command' master list of qualifiers

Over the years, readers have requested the full list of pitchers who met all of the "Kings of Command" criteria. Listed below are the 93 pitchers who did so in 2014: