Breakout pitchers to draft in fantasy baseball

Although his 2019 stats were disastrous, Edwin Diaz still has all of the skills necessary for a 2020 turnaround. AP

Even in this age of analytics, it's not easy to assemble a quality fantasy pitching staff. Pitching workloads are in decline, and the advent of the "opener" is accelerating the death of the win and, alarmingly, the quality start. Consider that in each of the past three seasons working forward, only 58, 57 and 61 pitchers met the qualification threshold for an ERA title, with those easily the three lowest totals of the divisional era (starting in 1969). The 2019 season also saw starting pitchers average a record-low 5.18 innings per start -- a 3.5% reduction from 2018 alone and down 15.2% from 2014, or just five seasons prior. There were a total of 1,183 quality starts last season, which represented a drop of 621 from the league's 2014 total.

When it comes to pitching, perhaps there's a better title for these times: "The age of streaming." Ah, but how does one assemble a more matchups-based or even streak-oriented pitching staff? As pitching workloads decrease, so does the potential payoff from your draft-day investments, forcing a more discount-driven strategy -- especially at the lower tiers of your roster. You need to take more skills-driven chances at the draft table, while being sharper at identifying those waiver-wire gems.

That's where this column comes in. One way to identify such draft-day gems (not to mention learn the lessons necessary for in-season transaction success, as you'll see with some of the individual notes below) is to examine the numbers from previous seasons for pitchers whose traditional rotisserie statistics belie their skill sets. Wins, saves and ERA might be the measures in our beloved game, but the ability to miss bats, throw strikes and command the strike zone are the traits you truly want. Pitchers who exhibit an exemplary combination of the three tend to be set up for the greatest success, and those whose wins/saves/ERA were mediocre are often the ones most discounted.

They're my annual "Kings of Command," individuals who met an exclusive set of minimum statistical baselines exhibiting these skills.

Kings of Command baseline numbers

Pitchers who qualify for inclusion meet each of the following minimum baselines from the 2019 major league season. You'll see that these baselines have been adjusted since last year's column, to keep up with the ever-changing game. The aim here is to identify pitchers who perform ahead of the league's average in each.

Starting pitchers

Total batters faced (TBF): 200 or more
Swinging-strike rate (SwStrk%): 12.0% or more
First-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk%): 62.0% or more
Command rate (K's per walk or K/BB): 3.0 or more

Relief pitchers

Total batters faced (TBF): 100 or more
Swinging-strike rate (SwStrk%): 13.5% or more
First-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk%): 61.5% of more
Command rate (K's per walk or K/BB): 3.0 or more

In 2019, only 78 pitchers (36 starters and 42 relievers) met all of these criteria in either role. Included among that group were both Cy Young Award winners, Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander -- as well as the pitchers responsible for 923 of the 1,020 total Cy Young balloting points (or 90.5%), Trevor Hoffman relief award winner Josh Hader, each of the top four as well as 19 of the top 25 pitchers overall on our Player Rater, and each of the six highest-scoring as well as 12 of the 15 highest-scoring overall pitchers in terms of fantasy points.

The nine pitchers listed below also met these criteria, despite falling considerably short of the accomplishments of the rest of the bunch, whether on the field or in fantasy baseball leagues. They still compared favorably to this headline-grabbing group, however, signaling that even a small change or better luck might propel them to greatness in 2020.

These "Kings of Command" are listed in alphabetical order, along with their 2019 Player Rater finishes and fantasy point totals using ESPN's standard scoring system.

Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
2019 Player Rater: RP570/1,350th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 16 (RP388)

Why he's on here: Burnes' 2019 was, on the surface, hideous. Among 373 pitchers who faced at least 200 batters, his 8.82 ERA was third-worst. The seeds are here for something great, though, beginning with a slider that enjoyed a major league-best 36% swinging-strike rate (minimum 200 thrown). That pitch was largely behind his 12-strikeout, season-opening March 31 start. Burnes' four-seam fastball also ranked among the league's leading offerings in terms of spin rate.

How he could improve: Besides better health, as he spent two weeks on the IL with a shoulder issue in July, stronger command of said fastball would help. Burnes located too many four-seamers low in the strike zone, surrendering 8-of-17 home runs on pitches in the lower half. That's why he reported to spring training committed to changing his approach, and a strong Cactus League showing might again net him a rotation spot --and the higher ceiling that'll come with it.

Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
2019 Player Rater: RP36/226th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 226 (RP31)

Why he's on here: He was the No. 1 RP and No. 50 player overall selected (on average) last spring. After flopping to the tune of seven blown saves, a 5.59 ERA and 15 home runs allowed, he will be this year's poster boy for "going the cheap route" at the position. Diaz's draft stock has understandably plummeted, but don't overcorrect, considering he still had the fifth-best swinging strike rate (19.5%) as well as a well-above-league-average K:BB (4.50) and first-pitch strike rates (63.9%).

How he could improve: A return of his career-best 2018 control would help, but better luck might be all it takes for Diaz to reclaim his status as one of the league's premier closers. His 16.3% HR/FB rate in 2019 was eighth-highest among qualified relievers, not to mention nearly seven full percentage points higher than his 2016-18 combined number, while his .381 BABIP was second-highest among said relievers and 89 points higher than his 2016-18 number (.298).

Max Fried, Atlanta Braves
2019 Player Rater: SP23/145th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 349 (SP37)

Why he's on here: Injuries paved the way for Fried to claim a spot in Atlanta's 2019 Opening Day rotation. By year's end, he was one of only three ERA-qualified pitchers with at least 24% strikeout and 50% ground-ball rates plus an 8% walk rate or less, joining German Marquez and Stephen Strasburg in that exclusive company. Fried also showed one of the wider average velocity ranges with his four-seam fastball, as well as between his four-seam fastball and changeup, giving him a good array of pitches.

How he could improve: Keeping the ball down can only help his cause. Fried's 26.1% line-drive rate was 16th-highest among 61 ERA qualifiers, resulting in 75 of his 174 total hits allowed. That might ultimately be the best way to lower his 39% career Statcast hard-contact rate, dropping his HR rate back to the 0.66 per-nine-innings ratio it was at during his minor-league career. If Fried's command looks sharp during Grapefruit League play, he might be ready to take the leap to stardom.

Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants
2019 Player Rater: SP168/RP70/663rd overall
2019 fantasy point total: 116 (SP114/RP126)

Why he's on here: He'd have met the qualifications as both starter and reliever in 2019, had he faced 17 additional batters while in the latter role following his August waiver move to the Reds. By the way, he even met the reliever qualification thresholds we're using while working as a starter. Gausman's career-to-date production might be seen as a disappointment, but he showed a spark after said bullpen transition: 31.9% strikeout and 5.5% walk rates, plus a 94.5 mph average four-seam fastball velocity.

How he could improve: The Giants plan to use Gausman as a starter, but note their lack of a clear ninth-inning option. Whittling his pitch selection down to just his fastball/splitter made him a more dominating -- and intriguing -- force in short relief, but he'll call home the most pitching-friendly venue of his career (even with the fences moved in), if he's indeed locked into the rotation. The team at least hasn't been afraid to quickly shift starters into late-inning relief roles (see: Anderson, Shaun).

Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles Angels
2019 Player Rater: SP124/450th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 167 (SP110)

Why he's on here: Between IL stints, Heaney was one of the better-performing command artists of the past two seasons, one of only 15 who can boast at least 25% strikeout and 3.75 K:BB ratios and more than 40 starts. While his ERA+ (98) and FIP (4.21) might've been forgettable, he did sprinkle in signs of greatness, including back-to-back double-digit strikeout games in July 2018 as well as in both June and August 2019, or his 3.12 ERA over his first 10 starts of 2018.

How he could improve: Health, health, health, and oh, by the way, health. In those same two seasons, Heaney made three trips to the IL for a combined 98 days pf absence for elbow (twice) and shoulder issues. That's a problem for a pitcher with a 2016 Tommy John surgery on his résumé. Much of his path to success is obscured by the injury question, but it would also help if he could reduce his near-40% fly- ball rate, an oddity for a pitcher who relies upon a sinker as much as he does.

Joe Jimenez, Detroit Tigers
2019 Player Rater: RP66/338th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 80 (RP154)

Why he's on here: Wait, the Tigers, baseball's worst team (47 wins), needed a closer? Believe it, as Jimenez graduated into the role following the trade of Shane Greene, going 9-for-10 converting saves with a 3.06 ERA and 30.3% strikeout rate in 19 appearances. Equipped with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and slider, Jimenez was once considered one of the game's most intriguing future-closer candidates, but oddly, by the time he inherited the role he was seemingly completely forgotten.

How he could improve: A continuation of the much-improved control Jimenez showed in his new role would pay the largest dividends, as he walked only 7.9% of the batters he faced with a 70% first-pitch strike rate during that two-month stretch. He also failed to walk any of the final 35 batters he faced. Keeping the ball down might also help, as he had the sixth-highest fly-ball rate among qualified relievers. Even with no change in skills, Jimenez might sleepwalk his way to 25 saves and 85 strikeouts.

Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates
2019 Player Rater: SP266/1,196th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 25 (SP216)

Why he's on here: He faced 227 batters and had a 3.19 FIP in 2019, which was 13th-best among pitchers who made at least 10 starts (he made 11), yet had a 7.13 ERA, which was fourth-worst among that same group. Keller's minor-league prowess, though, supports his prospects toward a significant step forward in 2020, as he whiffed 25.5% of the hitters he faced with a 3.12 ERA in his career there and was widely regarded a top-10 starting pitching prospect at this time a year ago.

How he could improve: A reversal of Keller's miserable luck, as he had a .478 BABIP and a 59.6% LOB rate -- numbers that are unfathomably unfortunate. It would also help if he could cure his first-inning issues during his first taste of the majors. His ERA in the game's first frame is 10.64. He can also stand to improve the command of his fastball, considering opponents hit .461/.495/.719 against it. Keller is one of the most critical starters to watch during spring training.

German Marquez, Colorado Rockies
2019 Player Rater: SP52/170th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 340 (SP39)

Why he's on here: Evaluated in its entirety, Marquez's 2019 was a significant disappointment relative to the buzz that surrounded him entering the year, as he was selected (on average) 28th at his position and 110th overall in ESPN leagues. He began the year with a 3.48 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over his first 13 starts, but struggled to keep the ball down thereafter, allowing 20 homers and a .246 ISO in his final 15 outings, before succumbing to a tired arm in late August.

How he could improve: Getting out of Coors would be nice. However, among the realistic options is a return of the 52% HR-minimizing ground-ball rate he posted between the 2018 and 2019 All-Star breaks. Recapturing the feel for his filthy, whiff-generating slider alone might help as the pitch had a 22.2% swinging-strike rate in the aforementioned start to 2019, but only 16.9% thereafter. Just be sure not to set your high-end expectations at an ERA crown (or anything close to it).

Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates
2019 Player Rater:
SP58/180th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 288 (SP56)

Why he's on here: He seems to be scratching the surface of a major breakthrough every year, having made the 2017 list while also meeting the 2018 thresholds. Yet he's never cracked the top-50 starting pitchers on either the Player Rater or in fantasy points scored. Still, Musgrove has showed good incremental growth, his 170 1/3 innings in 2019 a professional high, while his 17 quality starts earned him a spot in the majors' top 25.

How he could improve: Musgrove has a considerable weakness, that being his struggles pitching from the stretch rather than the windup. In the past three seasons combined, he has surrendered a wOBA 35 points higher with men on base than with the bases empty, backed by strikeout and ground-ball rates more than 3% and 6% lower in those situations. One would think that's something coaching can fix, a trait that puts him on spring watch lists. However, after this many years it's a legitimate, potentially lasting question.

Kings of Command master list of qualifiers

Listed below, with starting pitchers on the left and relief pitchers on the right and in ascending order of their 2019 FIP, are all 78 pitchers who met all of the Kings of Command criteria in 2019.