Finding sleepers in fantasy baseball is a process very similar to discovering them just as a fan and/or analyst of the game. Too often, we get caught up in the easily discernible numbers, like batting average, to say that a player is having a breakout season.
Thanks to enhanced metrics, as well as a deeper dig into stats, you can tell when a player is doing something different that is sustainable and who is in for a rude awakening as the season moves along.
As you look for ways to improve your fantasy team during the season, here are some tips that you can use to add talent without taking a huge risk.
Tip No. 1: Follow the BABIP
One of my favorite stats to use when trying to figure out whether a hitter is for real or not is batting average on balls in play (BABIP). It is a common sabermetric stat, but also one of the easiest for casual fans to follow.
If you don't know, BABIP is the average a player has on balls being hit into play. Basically, anything but a strikeout gets taken into account.
While there is a typical BABIP line that pitchers hover around (.300), hitters will vary depending on their skill set. But over the course of a career, BABIP starts to normalize, and you can tell when something is real and when it isn't.
For instance, Detroit's Torii Hunter is off to a blazing start this year at .355/.398/.473 and a .409 BABIP, 100 points higher than his career mark of .309.
Hunter is also doing this at the age of 37, when most players are clinging to life in Major League Baseball. Given his age, career-best batting average and insanely high BABIP without a significant change in his approach, the start isn't going to last.
On the other hand, Baltimore's Manny Machado is off to his own torrid start at .317/.359/.504 with a .364 BABIP. We could say that the 20-year-old won't sustain that kind of performance because the BABIP seems high.
But given Machado's age, talent and upside and lack of long-term history in the big leagues, this could be the level he hits at for a long, long time.
Machado was likely regarded as a sleeper entering this season because of his age, the fact he was one of the top prospects in baseball before getting called up last year and fact he was going to play everyday.
Now, as it turns out, Machado could reward those players who took a chance on him later in the draft with a superstar-level season.
Tip No. 2: Watch out for line-drive percentages
Line drives are the best measure to use when trying to figure out if a player, particularly one off to a slow start, is going to turn things around or is hitting the declining part of his career.
Like BABIP, it is a stat that stays relatively constant throughout the course of a player's career. Since line drives are the balls that most regularly turn into hits, and home runs, this is a huge part of evaluating an offensive player.
When Melky Cabrera played with the San Francisco Giants last year, a lot of analysts were surprised by the fact he was hitting .346 before getting suspended for 50 games due to a failed drug test.
Cabrera was also slugging a career-best .516. His BABIP was .379, 70 points higher than his career mark, yet he showed no signs of slowing down. Imagine if he hadn't gotten suspended and kept up that pace all year.
Not only would Cabrera have parlayed his big season into a huge contract but the fantasy expectations would have been high. He did get a nice deal with Toronto, signing for $16 million over two years.
But you could see that, because Cabrera's line-drive percentage last year was 20 percent, or just 0.3 percent above his career average, nothing about his swing or approach at the plate had changed.
Tip No. 3: Ignore the September success story
September can be a great month in Major League Baseball, with pennant and awards races coming down to the wire. But it is also the worst time of year to try and evaluate player performance.
Because rosters are expanded, teams are frequently calling up players from Triple-A, who really have no future in the big leagues but play them just to see if they can catch lightning in a bottle.
In doing so, big league pitchers are able to expose the holes in their game and rack up strikeouts, post a low ERA and WHIP, and put a few cheap wins under their belt.
On the flip side, hitters can get cheap home runs against pitchers with fringy stuff trying to prove they can have a future in Major League Baseball.
This isn't to say that all September performances should be thrown out, but you need at least some strong evidence beforehand that things are going to turn around.
A good test case is Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish. (Yes, I know he is a pitcher.) The right-hander came into the big leagues with a lot of hype, yet his command seemed to be off. He tried to nibble the corner too much, when he could get plenty of swings and misses by letting his natural movement do the trick.
Darvish turned things around in September with just seven walks and 39 strikeouts in 36.2 innings pitched. He was more confident with everything he threw and had no problem throwing the ball over the plate.
Fast forward to 2013, Darvish has racked up 58 strikeouts in 38.2 innings with just 23 hits allowed and 13 walks. But he is a rare example because his stuff was so good, and everyone expected him to be a No. 1 starter at some point.
Tip No. 1: Look at what the pitcher can control
Fantasy baseball drives me nuts because it emphasizes categories like wins, which is something that a pitcher has very little, if any, control over.
For example, Cliff Lee went a pedestrian 6-9 last year. A casual fantasy observer, as well as a lot of Cy Young voters, would assume that he had a disastrous season. Yet, by every other statistical measure, the lefty was one of the five-best starters in the National League.
Lee threw 211 innings, posted an ERA of 3.16, struck out 207 and walked just 28. How can any rational fan or analyst think that the former Cy Young winner didn't have what it takes to win games?
Since pitchers are so dependent on their lineup to score runs, wins and losses are always going to fluctuate from year to year. For the record, Lee won 17 games in 2011.
With the understanding that wins and losses are always going to be part of the fantasy equation, when you think about adding a pitcher to your roster, don't do it on the hopes that a team is going to score enough runs for him to get the almighty W in the box score.
Instead, the three most important stats to look for are ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. And in truth, ERA is not a proper measure of pitcher performance because it relies on defense.
A better measure of future ERA is fielding independent pitching (FIP) and expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP). Both stats take into account the things that a pitcher has direct control over (strikeouts, home runs and walks).
These are stats that are readily available and tell you more about how a pitcher performed than wins or even ERA. If you want to see which pitchers could have a breakout season, keep those numbers in mind when drafting or adding talent on the waiver wire.
Tip No. 2: Bet on the elite rookies
Because we live in a prospect age of baseball, where there is so much information about the top minor league players written every day, it is easy to say that a lot of them get overrated. Not everyone turns into a star nor do they all reach their ceiling.
That is especially true of pitching, which is the most volatile position on the field given the unusual nature of it. Throwing a baseball is something that we do all the time with our dad or brother in the backyard, but doing it 100 times in a game—throwing as hard as you can—puts incredible stress on your shoulder and elbow.
It can be a risk to gamble on top young pitchers, no matter how good we think they will be, because of the attrition rate.
Now, with all that said and your panic meter raised to 100, you should be more than happy to give the best of the best pitching prospects a roster spot without thinking twice.
I am not even talking about, say, Stephen Strasburg when he was brought up halfway through the 2010 season, because that is a no-brainer. I mean if you look at pitchers like St. Louis' Shelby Miller this year or Tampa Bay's Matt Moore in 2012.
Those two players have been among the most highly regarded pitching prospects of the last five years. They were both ranked in the top 10 of the Baseball America Top 100 list before the start of 2012
Moore was projected, by a lot of people, to win AL Rookie of the Year before last season started, thanks to his strong finish in 2011 and playoff performance. He started slow and needed a strong second half to recover, which he got.
Overall, he finished with a 3.81 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 177.1 innings. It was not great, but for a 23-year-old pitcher in his first full season, that's pretty good.
The key was the fact that Moore made a lot of adjustments, as evidenced by his 3.01 ERA after the All-Star break and 79 strikeouts in 77.2 innings.
Elite pitching prospects may not start out strong, because there will always be a period of adjustment, but if you give them the time to sort things out, things will turn around sooner rather than later.
But the key is, you have to be looking at the top-tier pitching prospects and follow their minor league careers. The Atlanta Braves Julio Teheran used to be among the elite crop because he had a plus fastball and plus-plus changeup.
As time went on, Teheran never developed the breaking ball everyone was hoping to see, and the command in the zone has really regressed, to the point where he can't even pitch in the back of the Braves' rotation.
Milwaukee's Wily Peralta has been a top-100 prospect, but that is due more to his pitchability, good sinking fastball, solid arsenal and command. He doesn't have the highest ceiling, meaning he has to be fine with a lot of his pitches to succeed, which he hasn't been so far.
Someone like Cincinnati's Tony Cingrani is a unique case study. Everywhere he has pitched, he has missed bats. The stuff isn't electric, with an above-average fastball, but it plays up because he hides the ball well in his delivery, and it jumps on hitters out of his hand.
But the bottom line is, if you get wind of a young pitcher highly regarded in the prospect world, make sure you snatch him up before he is gone.
Tip No. 3: Find the injured star
Since we just touched on injuries, we might as well dive a little bit deeper into it here. It doesn't matter who you are, or how invincible you seem, when you are a pitcher in Major League Baseball, at some point, you will get hurt.
Sure, there are some exceptions here and there. But in the grand scheme of things, it is going to happen.
As devastating as an injury to a pitcher can be—and we are talking serious injuries like Tommy John surgery not just a blister here and there—it can also be the best thing for your fantasy strategy.
Not only will it give everyone else in your league great trepidation about picking up the pitcher coming back but you can add depth at the top of your staff before you have to worry about taking him.
Like rookies, pitchers coming off an injury are going to need a window of opportunity to turn things around. No player can step right back in from Tommy John surgery and look like he hasn't missed a day.
Value is the key to winning any fantasy league. You need those stars at the top of the draft, but if you can hit on a few players in the latter rounds or on the waiver wire, it exponentially increases your chances of winning.
Don't be afraid or wary of adding a pitcher coming off a major injury, especially if they are still in their prime years. Given what we have seen from Tommy John patients in the last decade, the success rate is such that it is almost as if nothing changed.
For more fantasy advice, or all things baseball related, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.
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