The word "sleeper" doesn’t mean what it used to in fantasy terms. With so much information available, it’s difficult to find players who most people don’t know about. However, you can try to identify underappreciated players, whether they’re on the verge of breakouts or just not respected enough for what they already do. If you had done so last season with Rick Porcello, you'd still be celebrating your fantasy title, right?
The half dozen starting pitchers below are in the former group more than the latter, and they’re all being drafted outside the top 50 starters per NFBC ADP. I didn’t mean to build a southpaw-heavy fantasy sleeper staff – things just turned out that way.
James Paxton, Mariners
NFBC ADP: SP53, 198 overall
You know who threw harder than Paxton last season? Noah Syndergaard, the noted New York superhero. Nathan Eovaldi, who is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. And that’s it.
Paxton whiffed almost a batter per inning in 20 big-league starts, and among those with more than 100 innings, he ranked 35th in strikeout percentage (22.9) and 22nd in K-BB% (18.2). Paxton credits his new identity as a fireballer to a delivery tweak, but whatever the reason, we’re buying at this low ADP. Paxton’s FIP was a stellar 2.80, and a top-20 season is in play.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY SportsJoe Nicholson
Carlos Rodon, White Sox
NFBC ADP: SP54, 200 overall
Rodon’s second season on the South Side had its ups and downs. His stuff was evident, as he whiffed more than a batter per inning with a 23.5 K% (20th in MLB), and his control was vastly improved from 2015. Unfortunately, Rodon allowed an unacceptable 23 home runs in 165 innings, leading to a 4.04 ERA with a 1.39 WHIP. Which part of the package should we believe in?
I think it’s the stuff. Rodon posted a 3.45 ERA with a 1.22 WHIP over the second half of 2016, which could be more improvement than fluke for a guy who just turned 24. The upside here is significant.
Ray doesn’t possess the same kind of upside as some of the other guys listed here, and he allows too many walks and homers, but he sure does miss bats. He was second in K/9 last season (behind the late Jose Fernandez), and fifth in K% behind only Fernandez, Max Scherzer, Syndergaard and Justin Verlander. That’s elite company, and makes Ray a potential bargain at his ADP.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY SportsMatt Kartozian
Daniel Norris, Tigers
NFBC ADP: SP81, 303 overall
Norris had a strong finish in 2016, whiffing 38 batters against just eight walks in 29 2/3 innings over his final five starts. More interestingly, his average fastball velocity ticked up more than a full mile per hour from 2015 to 2016, and this FanGraphs article notes that his slider velocity took a huge leap thanks to a change in delivery. He’s always had big-time potential, right? Filling out your mixed-league staff with Norris is a low-risk gamble worth taking.
Getty ImagesJon Durr
Mike Foltynewicz, Braves
NFBC ADP: SP91, 328 overall
We’re taking a step down here, as Folty has been more potential than performance. Like the other pitchers on this page, he throws pretty hard. But he’s given up an awful 38 homers in 228 2/3 big-league innings, with a 4.92 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. At 25, is he going to get any better?
Foltynewicz might not even earn a rotation slot in Atlanta, and some have always thought that he’s a better fit as a reliever. However, over his final nine starts in 2016, Foltynewicz was 5-0 with a 3.88 ERA, 49 strikeouts, 14 walks and just five home runs allowed in 51 innings. Sure, that’s a small sample size. But at this ADP level, we’re not getting any safe bets.
USA TODAY SportsBrett Davis—USA TODAY Sports
Brandon Finnegan, Reds
NFBC ADP: SP97, 337 overall
Finnegan is the low man on the ADP totem pole here, but that’s OK. I wrote about him as one of our NL Central Players to Watch because of a dramatic second-half improvement in 2016. His strikeout rate went up and his control got better (though it still wasn’t very good), apparently thanks to a better changeup. You can consider Finnegan as the last man on your staff in 12-team leagues, and target him more if things get deeper.