Third-year starters often provide best bang for pitching bucks
Starting pitchers with 40-70 career starts often mature into reliable fantasy aces
Brandon Morrow set career highs in strikeouts, innings and wins last year
Madison Bumgarner has the stuff to lead the league in strikeouts this season
Not everyone can go out and run a marathon. Heck, less than one percent of humanity ever does, and those who do train vigorously for it.
This is the same reason we should wait until the third year for a pitcher to fulfill his fantasy potential. They have to build up to run that 33-start, six-month baseball marathon.
Sure, they can look great in spurts as rookies or even sophomores, but things tend to break down when you try to stretch players out over 200-plus innings before they have been conditioned to handle it. This ideal brings us to Part II of SI.com's series on finding breakthroughs before they happen: Third-year starting pitchers.
This fantasy draft day rule of thumb suggests pitchers with around 40-70 career starts -- starting pitchers roughly in their third season -- have survived the learning curve and are now primed to reach fantasy ace status. It is those arms, ones we might have yet to see through a full season, that can provide the best bang for their buck on draft day, finally getting a full season of starts (30-plus) and innings (200-plus).
Last year's list of third-year starting pitcher breakouts was more famine than feast, but it shouldn't discourage anyone from the believing in the notion fantasy aces are cultivated; they don't spontaneously appear from nowhere. For every Brett Anderson breakdown, there was an Ian Kennedy success story. Imagine having picked Kennedy late in your draft last year, only to watch him blossom into that (21-4)-2.88-1.09 monster. That's title-winning stuff right there.
The next Kennedy breakout or Doug Fister surprise is contained in the names below. Target third-year starting pitchers throughout your draft because they are ready to take off.
(A pitcher's position in the Top 10 here is not an actual ranking as much as a projected ability to outperform their draft position.)
Career starts: 71
Projected numbers: 14-9, 3.25, 225 K, 1.250 WHIP
Morrow set career highs last season with 30 starts, 179 1/3 innings, 203 strikeouts and 11 victories. Once he ticks up to 200-plus innings, he is going to smash all those numbers and do it with a career-low ERA and WHIP. It won't matter how many games you think he won't win with the marginal Blue Jays; he is going to be a fantasy ace. The strikeout rate alone is enough to consider him a breakthrough candidate. Having an arm capable of finally reaching 200 innings should make him a stud in the middle rounds.
Career starts: 71
Projected numbers: 16-8, 3.75, 165 K, 1.200 WHIP
Last season was supposed to be Hughes' second full season as a starter in the Yankees rotation. Instead, we should have waited a year. Assuming Hughes' shoulder is right -- judging by the Yankees' trade of A.J. Burnett for almost nothing more than salary relief, it is -- we should see another big year out of the 2010 18-game winner. Hughes is going to come cheaper than ever on draft day, too, and still get all that run support from that potent multimillion-dollar offense.
Career starts: 64
Projected numbers: 15-9, 3.75, 145 K, 1.300 WHIP
The Rays rotation oozes with dominance and potential. James Shields is coming off a career year. David Price is 27 and primed for a Cy Young run. Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore are loved by the fantasy masses who are sucked in by the potential of young arms. But it is Davis who provides the best value, assuming he holds off Jeff Niemann and spends the year in the Rays rotation. Davis might not even get picked in a standard league because he is lost behind those flashy arms, but he represents the ideal Low Investment Mound Ace on draft day.
Career starts: 48
Projected numbers: 14-10, 3.65, 145 K, 1.175 WHIP
Leake, who went straight from the draft to the major leagues out of spring 2010, has built up his innings in a textbook fashion. Assuming he is in the bolstered Reds rotation out of spring training -- and there should be little reason to think why he won't be -- Leake should be able to stretch out to 30 starts and 200 innings. More pitcher than thrower, Leake can minimize base runners because of great control and also become more efficient within the count. As he doesn't throw hard, he tends to get overlooked, but doing so would be a mistake this spring. He is even a lot better than we gave him credit for in those modest projections above.
Career starts: 4
Projected numbers: 17-10, 3.15, 185 K, 1.175 WHIP
Last year, everyone was jockeying Hudson and overlooked Kennedy. This spring, it is likely to be more the other way around. We probably still should be jockeying Hudson, although his innings jump to 222 is a warning sign, Verducci Effect style. The Tom Verducci Effect warns that young pitchers with more than a 40-inning increase from one year to the next can be at risk of injury. If Hudson can stay at that innings total without issue, his power stuff can make him a Top-15 fantasy ace, if not top 10.
Career starts: 49
Projected numbers: 13-10, 3.00, 165 K, 1.135 WHIP
Zimmermann is another example of someone overlooked behind his teammates. Stephen Strasburg is likely to be over-drafted on his immense potential; offseason acquisitions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson will generate their share of hype; and whoever wins the No. 5 spot between Chien-Ming Wang or John Lannan is going to need a big spring. It will be easy to forget about the 25-year-old Zimmermann, who is already a full year through his Tommy John surgery recovery -- unlike Strasburg -- and should be efficient enough with his low walk rate and dominant stuff to pitch deep into his games. It should be noted he has the lowest projected WHIP of any of the pitchers above him on this list.
Career starts: 68
Projected numbers: 11-13, 3.75, 200 K, 1.300 WHIP
Norris is a repeat on this list from a year ago, when he made significant strides into mixed-league fantasy viability. This will be his third full season and he is still under the 70 career starts plateau, so we should still expect continued improvement -- particularly since he is perfectly conditioned to top his career high of 186 innings from a year ago. If he reduces his troublesome walks and wasted pitches, he might even make a significant jump into the 220-inning range. The rebuilding Astros need an innings-eating horse and Norris has the makings of becoming that. He might not post a winning record or a great ERA or WHIP, but those strikeouts are going to come in bunches and maybe even somewhere close to a league-leading rate. Fantasy owners love strikeouts.
Career starts: 62
Projected numbers: 15-9, 3.50, 155 K, 1.300 WHIP
Harrison already made significant strides a year ago, but he remains in the 40-70 career start range and came with some big-time potential. He might not have a guaranteed spot in the Rangers' rotation behind Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis and converted relievers Neftali Felix and Alexi Ogando, but if Harrison starts he is going to come at a considerable valuable this spring. He can also pitch like a top-25 fantasy starter, even if he goes off the board after the top 75.
Career starts: 63
Projected numbers: 14-10, 3.85, 170 K, 1.350 WHIP
Holland is coming off a career year, like Harrison, but it seems more likely he has a rotation spot and fantasy owners value him more because of his 16 wins and 162 strikeouts. As the lone left-hander, he's a certainty in the Rangers rotation and a candidate for a lot of victories behind that potent offense. Holland nearly broke 200 innings a year ago, so while he can improve, the amount of improvement should be rated as highly as that of Harrison or another starter coming off around 180 innings.
Career starts: 52
Projected numbers: 14-10, 3.20, 210 K, 1.190 WHIP
Bumgarner is another one of those cases, like Price atop this list and Hudson in the middle, in which someone was expected to do a bit more than he did a year ago. While Bumgarner was solid in his first full season as a starter, he is capable of so much more. He has already reached the 200-inning mark, which can set him up to go up to 220 and perhaps lead the league in strikeouts (if one of his teammates, Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain, doesn't). Bumgarner will be a bit overlooked on his own staff, but his trajectory to date puts him on a pace for Cy Young candidacy.
If you're left bitter from the failures of this writer's Top 10 third-year starting pitcher disappointments last year, you might want to take a shot picking the arms you like yourself. Homer Bailey (78 starts), Tommy Hanson (77), Clay Buchholz (76) and Mat Latos (72) technically are no longer in the category, but they still can be much better than they showed a year ago.
Also, the following pitchers are also squarely in the third-year starting pitcher category (40-70 career starts) this year: Tim Stauffer (69), Andrew Miller (66), Brett Cecil (65), Jonathon Niese (64), Ryan Vogelsong (61), Felipe Paulino (54), Jhoulys Chacin (53), Brian Duesing (50), James McDonald (47) and Jake Arrieta (40). One of these could prove to be a Doug Fister-like pleasant late-round surprise.
If you are looking to get a jump on next year, or you might want to anticipate some early breakthroughs, these pitchers just missed making our list: Josh Tomlin (38 starts), Ivan Nova (34) and Mike Minor (23).
Pitching always tends to be a crapshoot in fantasy, so you might as well put your dollars on stocks with some potential to mature.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).
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