And here we are. This is the last of my Sleepers, Breakouts, and Busts 1.0… for now. I usually start these columns by describing what the term "sleeper" means to me. It's hard for many players to be truly slept on nowadays. There are so many smart people out there not only watching baseball and playing Fantasy but consuming the content that comes along with it. Instead, a sleeper for me has become synonymous with undervalued.
Average draft position is live and I implore you all to go check it out. ADP should not be treated as bible but as a reference point. It's important to know where players are going in drafts so that you can figure out how to plan accordingly. "If I pass on an elite first baseman here, I know there are other viable options I can snag later on." That type of thing. Studying ADP and jumping in mock drafts allows you to find those under or overvalued players. Of course, like anything in this industry, it's all subjective. Just because a player is undervalued to me doesn't mean he will for somebody else. I'm currently in my fourth draft-and-hold league of the offseason and thus far these are the players I've found to be most undervalued at their current cost.
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I mentioned recently on a Fantasy Baseball Today that I thought Sean Manaea was "criminally undervalued". He's currently the SP46 off the board, finishing last season with a 3.91 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. The underlying numbers tell a different story for the unorthodox southpaw. Manaea posted a 20.3% K-BB rate to go along with a 3.62 SIERA, both metrics considered to be the truest descriptor of a pitcher's talent level. Both of those ranked 16th among qualified starting pitchers, better than Walker Buehler, Joe Musgrove and Max Fried.
But how did Manaea turn into this upgraded version of himself? He saw a pretty big jump in velocity across the board, raising each of his fastball and changeup by about two MPH. His curveball jumped a whole five MPH from 2020 to 2021! As a result, Manaea posted a career-high 12.3% swinging strike rate with a career-high 9.7 K/9. I think there's a chance he can be even better, too. There are lots of trade rumors floating around with the A's. We need him to go to a team that convinces Manaea to lower his sinker usage a tad and throw his changeup more. He throws the sinker 60% of the time, which is typically more than we'd like to see. Don't be afraid to target Manaea as your SP4 or SP5 in drafts.
Fun fact! 19 players hit 35-plus home runs last season. Joey Votto did so in the fewest games: 129. His .297 isolated power (SLG-BA) was a career-high in his age-37 season. We're talking about a future Hall-of-Famer! If you've followed Votto's career then you know he's a quirky dude. He's also a heck of a ballplayer. He has a feel for hitting that we don't see often. Ichiro used to always say he could have been a power hitter if he wanted to. I believe him. When you're that talented at hitting, it's almost a switch you can flip. I believe that's what we saw with Votto.
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Votto has maybe the best plate discipline I've ever seen. Last year he sacrificed some of that for power and it worked. It's all completely backed up by Statcast as well. Votto finished in the 92nd percentile or better in each of average exit velocity, max exit velocity, hard hit rate, xSLG, and barrel rate. Votto also finished as the 51st overall player in Roto and averaged 3.4 fantasy points per game, the same amount as Rafael Devers and Aaron Judge. I get that he's now 38 years old but he still plays in a fantastic hitter's park and has an ADP of 149.3. The cost is not prohibitive at all and he's only going this late because of his age. Take advantage.
This next one is package deal and you could argue they both deserve to be in a breakouts column. My only argument is that, as of today, we have questions about their respective roles. We'll file both of these under the "Freddy Peralta" category from a year. We didn't really know what to expect from Michael Kopech last season. He had Tommy John surgery back in 2018, missed all of 2019 and then opted out of the shortened 2020 season. Kopech went out in 2021 and did everything that was asked of him. He was a multi-inning reliever, setup man, fireman and he even started four games. Overall, he finished with a 3.50 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP with 103 strikeouts over 69.1 innings (13.4 K/9). The problem? The White Sox have already addressed his innings limitations and have stated they want him fresh for a deep October run. I would expect a pitcher who once again bounces between the bullpen and rotation but makes a lot more starts than he did in 2021. Let's say 100-120 innings with strong ratios and a ton of strikeouts, which probably makes him more valuable in a categories league.
His counterpart dons a different shade of socks over in Boston and is actually quite similar. Tanner Houck recorded one out less than Kopech in 2021. However, he did throw 21 innings in the minors, which bring his total to 90. Maybe that gives the Red Sox a little more hope that they can push him as a starter. In those 69 Major League innings, Houck posted a 3.52 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP with 87 strikeouts (11.4 K/9). He already has one of the best sliders in the game. The pitch generated a 16.2% swinging strike rate with a .159 batting average against. Don't believe me? Check out the clip below from Pitching Ninja. I know what you're thinking. That arm angle looked awfully familiar. Look no further than his teammate Chris Sale. Speaking of Sale, he's dealing with a stress fracture in his rib, which has opened up a rotation spot for Houck. I'm not sure Houck will remain in it all season but I do believe he will be there to start the year.
Tanner Houck is a finalist for the PitchingNinja Filthiest Slider of the Year Award. 🏆 pic.twitter.com/FlMOIsIVwI— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 16, 2021
Let's dig a little bit deeper, shall we? Lane Thomas won a lot of people Fantasy Baseball championships last year, including myself with the Tout Wars H2H Salary Cap league. Thomas was shipped over to the Nationals in exchange for Jon Lester just before the Trade Deadline. Why not? He's a former prospect who hasn't really been given a fair shake. Let's see what he's got. Well, he looked pretty damn good. In 45 games with the Nationals, Thomas hit .270 with seven home runs, 33 runs scored, four steals and an .853 OPS. The strikeouts were a tad high for a leadoff hitter but the 13% walk rate more than makes up for it.
Statcast also supported the Nationals stint as Thomas posted a 91.7 MPH average exit velocity to go along with a 48% hard hit rate. We've seen flashes from Thomas in the minors, too. Back in 2018, he hit .264 with 27 home runs and 17 steals. He didn't post many impressive batting averages in the minors but always showed a strong eye at the plate, which should keep him leading off ahead of Juan Soto and Josh Bell for the Nationals. As you might have guessed, Thomas is not a flawless player. He had massive splits last season batting .381 with an 1.103 OPS against lefties compared to .178 and .612 against righties. It's something he will need to improve to take his game to the next level. Since I wrote this back in February, Nationals manager Dave Martinez indicated that he prefers Cesar Hernandez to be the leadoff hitter for the team. As a result, Thomas has been batting sixth in spring training. It lowers the potential for counting stats early on but if Thomas performs like I think he can, he should move up the lineup.
You might not like this but I have another one of those "leap of faith" sleepers in the form of Jon Gray. Yep, a 30-year old starting pitcher who's posted a 4.59 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP in his career. The difference? He's finally out of Coors Field. Yes, I know he has a 4.65 career ERA on the road. The thing about pitching for the Rockies is that it almost has this unquantifiable effect on you. Not only do you have to battle pitching in the high altitude at Coors but you have to battle the hangover effect. Why do we always look to stream pitchers against the Rockies their first road series after a homestand? There's this lasting effect on the players' bodies that almost causes them to lag behind.
Enter Texas. Gray signed a four-year deal with the Rangers this offseason and, to this point, Globe Life Field has played more neutral, even favoring pitchers a bit. While Gray's numbers were lackluster last season, he leaned more into his best pitch, the slider. He threw it a career-high 38% of the time and generated an 18% swinging strike rate on the pitch. Gray's always done a great job at inducing ground balls and racking up strikeouts. He just has to keep the walks down and I think we'll see the best version of Gray in 2022.
Ladies and gentleman. Feast your eyes on "The Thing".
Alex Cobb presents…’The Thing' pic.twitter.com/WbcOzakdSj— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) April 13, 2021
That thing is a split-changeup hybrid thrown by Alex Cobb and it's filthy, having generated a 20% swinging strike rate or better in back-to-back seasons (okay, 2020 wasn't really a season). I know it feels like Cobb is always awful but he was actually more than serviceable in 2021, posting a 3.76 ERA with 98 strikeouts over 93.1 innings. He did that with a 53% ground ball rate and a career-high 11.2% swinging strike rate. Strikeouts? Check. Ground balls? Check. Control? Eh, he needs to work on it and I believe he will do just that with his new team the San Francisco Giants. Cobb joins a Giants organization that has recently done wonders with Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, and Alex Wood. There was no single place Cobb could have gone to improve his Fantasy stock more. He's struggled with health but if Cobb manages to stay on the mound, he could develop into a must-start option with an ADP near 300.
Save the best for last, right? You got it. I present you with a 29-year-old journeyman who played a career-high 63 games last season. No, it's not "Frankie Two Hits" but instead, Connor Joe. In those 63 games, Joe hit .285 with a .379 OBP and eight home runs. It may not seem overly impressive but he did so with a 12% walk rate and a 19% strikeout rate, displaying great plate discipline. The batting average looks legit, too, supported by a .283 expected batting average and a massive 28.4%-line drive rate. Look, if you hit line drives in Coors Field, good things are going to happen.
With plate discipline that strong, Joe was tasked with leading off in August. He did a fantastic job, leading off against both righties and lefties every game from August 8-September 3 last season. Since writing this back in February, the Rockies swapped Raimel Tapia for Randal Grichuk and we've had spring training lineups. It appears the team is set on Charlie Blackmon leading off but Joe should still have a ton of value if he's an everyday player batting fifth or sixth. I think there's a chance we could even see him move up the lineup against left-handed pitching. If he performs like he did with the team last season, Joe will provide excess value at his current ADP.