Kings of Command: Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman poised to break out in 2017

Marcus Stroman ground-ball tendencies provide a solid statistical floor, and he feels stronger in his second year back from his 2015 ACL injury. Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Wait on pitching, getting bargains later.

It's a piece of advice you'll hear often on these pages, and it's one of the staples of my own draft planning. What, though, constitutes a pitching bargain?

Most often, it means scouring the lower tiers of the pitching ranks for those who appeared to perform poorly in the most recent season, especially using traditional measures: wins, saves, ERA. Even in this information-driven era, many fantasy owners lean all too strongly upon surface, back-of-the-baseball-card numbers to make their decisions. We need to dig deeper to find whom the truly skilled pitchers are.

Individual pitcher performance is more volatile than hitting, partly due to smaller sample sizes. And for compelling evidence of the constant shrinking of those samples due to specialization of the game, consider that only 15 pitchers threw 200-plus innings in 2016, a modern-era low (excluding the 1981 and 1994 strike years). That makes them more susceptible to random variance. Defensive quality behind them, the running game and risk of injury also contribute, among other factors.

It's for this reason that fantasy owners should rely upon skills, indicated by a pitcher's command numbers, rather than past fantasy earnings. Pay for strikeouts, not wins. Pay for FIP, not ERA.

Pitchers who command the strike zone -- surrendering few free passes, inducing the most swings and misses and minimizing hard contact -- greatly increase their chances for success. This column annually identifies individuals who meet minimum baselines in each category: They're called "Kings of Command."

"Kings of Command" baseline numbers

Pitchers who qualify for inclusion meet each of the following minimum baselines from the 2016 season:

  • Total batters faced (TBF): 200 or more

  • Strikeout rate (K percentage of batters faced): 16 percent or more

  • Walk rate (BB percentage of batters faced): 8 percent or less

  • Command rate (K's per walk): 2.50 or more

  • Ground ball rate (GB percentage of all balls in play): 42.5 percent or more

Last season, 742 pitchers -- 720 of them traditional pitchers rather than position players filling in -- appeared in a big-league game, and of those, only 95 met all five criteria. Included among that group: American League Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello, AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, both leagues' ERA winners (Kyle Hendricks and Aaron Sanchez), 20-game winner J.A. Happ, relief ERA record-setter (0.54) Zach Britton, as well as each of the top 15 starting pitchers and three of the top four relief pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater.

That group, however, also included the following nine pitchers, none of whom attracted nearly the same amount of attention, and none of whom finished among the top 40 starting pitchers on the Player Rater. These pitchers compared favorably to the former group in these command categories, hinting at bad luck in 2016 and/or the prospect of greater things ahead for them in 2017.

These "Kings of Command" are listed in alphabetical order, along with their 2016 Player Rater finishes and their statistics in the aforementioned categories, as well as a look at what they'll need to do in order to break through this season.

Zach Davies, Milwaukee Brewers
2016 Player Rater: No. 54 SP, 682 TBF,
19.8 K percentage, 5.6 BB percentage, 3.55 K/BB, 46.5 GB percentage, 3.89 FIP

Acquired at the 2015 trade deadline for Gerardo Parra, Davies moved into the Brewers' rotation roughly four weeks later, but it wasn't until June of last season that he truly began making some noise in fantasy. Thanks to one of the game's more underrated changeups, he posted a 3.48 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 20 starts from June 1 forward, as well as a 4.61:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio that ranked 13th among qualifiers.

What would spawn a breakthrough? What made the difference for Davies last season was an increasing reliance upon a cutter while easing off his sinker, helping him lower his isolated power and well-hit average allowed to left-handers by 40 points in the aforementioned 20 starts, compared to the first 14 of his big-league career. With greater polish of that cutter, he might be able to take a significant step forward in 2017.

His chances of doing so? They're the weakest of the bunch, with Davies' range of outcomes probably the narrowest of any of this year's picks. He might be one of the year's easiest-to-judge matchup candidates.

Mike Foltynewicz, Atlanta Braves
2016 Player Rater: No. 86 SP, 525 TBF,
21.1 K percentage, 6.7 BB percentage, 3.17 K/BB, 42.6 GB percentage, 4.24 FIP

After struggling in his first three stints in the Braves' rotation -- May 1-June 14, 2015, July 29-Aug. 25, 2015, and May 2-30, 2016 -- Foltynewicz began to figure it out the fourth time around, posting a 3.68 second-half FIP that was easily better than anything he had showed to that point during his big-league career (his career FIP is 4.60). What changed was the performance of, and his confidence in, his changeup, as he threw it more than 9 percent of the time after the All-Star break, limiting left-handed hitters to a .231 batting average during that time span.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Continued growth with his changeup would help, but since that's now a viable pitch for Foltynewicz to use against lefties, it's stamina which represents his greater area of improvement. During the second half, Foltynewicz afforded a .380 batting average during his third or fourth trip through the opponent's lineup, worst among qualifiers.

His chances of doing so? Foltynewicz's 150 1/3 innings pitched between the majors and minors last season were his most since 2012's 152, so perhaps he'll be better equipped to pitch deeper into games this time around.

Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles
2016 Player Rater: No. 49 SP, 757 TBF,
23.0 K percentage, 6.2 BB percentage, 3.70 K/BB, 46.0 GB percentage, 4.10 FIP

A repeat selection and one who has now made three appearances on the past four lists, Gausman finally got an extended look in the Orioles' rotation last season. He was promoted April 25 and made 30 starts, only two of them on greater than five days' rest (11 games coming out of the All-Star break, and six on Sept. 27). Unsurprisingly, he thrived in his new opportunity, posting 10 quality starts, eight wins, a 3.10 ERA and 23.8 percent strikeout rate after the All-Star break. That coincided with slightly greater reliance upon his splitter (20 percent usage during that time span).

What would spawn a breakthrough? He's already promised a rotation spot, presumably serving as either the team's No. 2 or 3 starter, so an improvement in his walk rate would provide this answer. Gausman walked 7.3 percent of hitters faced after the All-Star break, but he'd truly thrive if he could bring that closer to the 5.4 percent rate he enjoyed between the 2015 and 2016 All-Star breaks.

His chances of doing so? Excellent, considering Gausman has typically enjoyed 6 percent walk rates or better in the minors and previous stints in the Orioles' rotation. He also had a 4.9 percent mark in his final nine starts of 2016.

Chad Kuhl, Pittsburgh Pirates
2016 Player Rater: No. 130 SP, 301 TBF,
17.6 K percentage, 6.6 BB percentage, 2.65 K/BB, 45.5 GB percentage, 3.95 FIP

Though he entered 2016 as a far lesser-regarded prospect than Tyler Glasnow -- Glasnow was Keith Law's No. 1 Pirates prospect, Kuhl 15th -- Kuhl actually beat Glasnow to Pittsburgh by 11 days and made 10 more starts (14-4). Kuhl's stuff pales in comparison to Glasnow's or Jameson Taillon's, but he was one of only 19 rookies to meet this column's qualifications, and in the process posted a fourth consecutive season with a walk rate better than 7 percent to begin his pro career. Kuhl's combination of control and ground-ball leaning makes him a lower risk than a typical pitcher.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Kuhl afforded .291/.358/.496 slash rates to left-handed hitters at the big-league level, so he'll either need to improve his changeup and rely upon it more heavily against that side, add some cutting action to his slider, or add another pitch to neutralize them -- perhaps a curveball.

His chances of doing so? His chances are among the weakest of the bunch, but it's not unthinkable that Kuhl could significantly advance as a member of Ray Searage's staff. Kuhl's advantage, though, is an elevated floor thanks to his control.

Sean Manaea, Oakland Athletics
2016 Player Rater: No. 62 SP, 594 TBF,
20.9 K percentage, 6.2 BB percentage, 3.35 K/BB, 45.5 GB percentage, 4.08 FIP

Fantasy owners who tuned out early to prepare for football (or basketball or hockey) late last season might've missed how good Manaea was down the stretch. He had eight quality starts in 12 second-half starts, and lumping in his one second-half relief appearance, his 2.67 ERA was ninth and 1.02 WHIP was seventh among qualifiers. What's more, he reined in what was an extreme righty/lefty split from the first half, as right-handers managed mere .229/.282/.390 rates against him after the All-Star break.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Manaea arguably has the least to do among this year's candidates to break through. He mostly needs to maintain his second-half form from Day 1, including the new grip he was using on his changeup, which explained a lot of his gains. It would also help, however, if the Athletics would afford him more than the 88.8 pitches per start he averaged in the second half.

His chances of doing so? Maintaining his second-half form shouldn't be difficult, though the Athletics might not be prepared to let him breeze past 100 pitches per start or 200 innings for the season quite yet.

Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
2016 Player Rater: No. 108 SP, 483 TBF,
25.1 K percentage, 6.0 BB percentage, 4.17 K/BB, 56.6 GB percentage, 3.08 FIP

For the first two months of last season, Nola was on track to be one of the year's biggest breakthrough stories, posting a 2.65 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 27.2 percent strikeout rate in his first 12 starts. He quickly unraveled thereafter, posting a 9.82 ERA in his next eight starts before his season abruptly ended in August due to a UCL sprain and low-grade flexor sprain. Though his poor finish ruined his final numbers, Nola's 3.08 FIP and 3.29 skill-interactive ERA both ranked ninth among the 142 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Greater health, as Nola has long exhibited exceptional control throughout the professional ranks, and his increased sinker reliance in 2016 made him a much more ground ball-oriented pitcher than he was in the minors. With his skill set -- when healthy -- his hot start was no surprise.

His chances of doing so? Health is often a guess, and Nola's spring is one of the more important ones in terms of earning back our trust. The .422 BABIP he had during his eight-start, season-concluding swoon, however, suggests that injuries almost entirely explained what was wrong with him.

James Paxton, Seattle Mariners 2016 Player Rater: No. 85 SP, 511 TBF,
22.9 K percentage, 4.7 BB percentage, 4.88 K/BB, 48.8 GB percentage, 2.80 FIP

When Paxton rejoined the Mariners last June 1, something had oddly changed: He had boosted his average fastball velocity by roughly 2 mph, averaging 97.4 mph with the pitch at the big league level compared to 95.5 mph for his big league career before that. He also threw it nearly 15 percent less often, with almost all of that funneled into greater reliance upon his cutter. In short, Paxton looked like a completely different pitcher, and his 2.69 FIP after the All-Star break ranked third best among qualifiers.

What would spawn a breakthrough? With Paxton, his limitations are almost always related to health. He landed on the disabled list in each of the past three seasons and has never made more than the 31 starts or pitched more than the 171 2/3 innings he had combined between the majors and minors last season.

His chances of doing so? It's difficult to envision Paxton exceeding 2016's pro-best workload, but pitchers do sometimes get lucky in that department. For that reason, he's as much of a risk/reward gamble as anyone on this year's list, with his best-case scenario competitive with almost any of the other eight pitchers.

Michael Pineda, New York Yankees 2016 Player Rater: No. 94 SP, 756 TBF,
27.4 K percentage, 7.0 BB percentage, 3.91 K/BB, 46.4 GB percentage, 3.80 FIP

The other holdover from last year's list, Pineda in 2016 was one of the supremely bizarre campaigns: His 4.82 ERA was fifth highest in history among pitchers who struck out at least 200 batters -- as an aside, Robbie Ray's 4.90 last season was third highest on that same list -- and his 3.30 xFIP was third best among qualified pitchers. Pineda seemed to do everything right -- throw strikes, miss a good number of bats, get ground balls a majority of the time he did hit bats -- but he was done in by his ballpark as well as a cut fastball that betrayed him all too often. Most importantly, though, he stayed healthy enough to make a career-high 32 starts.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Since Pineda can't control his ballpark's confines, greater fastball command is key, as he surrendered a .348 batting average, 17 home runs and hard contact more than 20 percent of the time with that pitch last season. Only three ERA-qualified pitchers had worse than his .449 wOBA with it.

His chances of doing so? They're actually weaker than they were a year ago, as the fastball point was made in last year's column, but the workload spike was encouraging. Pineda might need new surroundings in order to thrive, but with his skills, he has greater odds of a sub-4.00 ERA than the alternative.

Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays 2016 Player Rater: No. 67 SP, 855 TBF,
19.4 K percentage, 6.3 BB percentage, 3.07 K/BB, 61.1 GB percentage, 3.71 FIP

In 2015, Stroman managed a miraculous recovery from a torn ACL he sustained in early March to make seven encouraging starts, three of them in the postseason. Last season, he couldn't find the same feel for his sinker in the opening weeks, resulting in a ghastly 5.33 ERA. Stroman rebounded in the second half with 10 quality starts and a 3.42 ERA in 16 turns, and he admitted in January that his left knee felt much stronger now that he has logged a full year of action since his knee reconstruction. He's an extreme ground ball pitcher -- his 61 percent rate was easily the highest among ERA-qualified pitchers -- with good command, making him a much lower risk than his 2016 stats hint.

What would spawn a breakthrough? Frankly, the Stroman we saw during the season's final two months would practically guarantee one. During that time, he had a 22.9 percent strikeout rate, which was entirely out of character for him at the game's highest competitive level.

His chances of doing so? It's not unusual for an athlete to boost his performance in his second season after ACL surgery, and Stroman's own comments suggest he'll begin 2017 with greater confidence. He probably won't cost close to what he would've a year ago, but he's every bit as good a bet as he was then.

"Kings of Command" master list of qualifiers

Listed below, in their order of FIP (fielding independent pitching), are all 95 pitchers who met all of the "Kings of Command" criteria in 2016.