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There is a major difference between the top five pitchers in fantasy baseball -- Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, David Price -- and everyone else going into this season, but looking for pitchers amongst the field with fantasy ace potential can help us gain an advantage over our fellow owners.
A true fantasy ace is someone who can post a 2.75 ERA and 220 strikeouts while winning 17-20 games.
If you can forego drafting one of the expected fantasy aces in the first two rounds and still end up with one later, it will be a major coup for your fantasy team.
Obviously, there's nothing wrong with a staff that includes Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Jered Weaver, CC Sabathia or Zack Greinke. All five of those players are strong second-tier starters who are right below the top tier. But none of them is likely to move from their projected tier. All five have been who they are for several years with little deviation.
If you're looking for pitchers who can meet the qualifications of a "fantasy ace" this season, here are a few I would target:
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies (Yahoo! ADP: 37.8) - Lee won just six of his 30 starts last season, but he still had tremendous peripheral numbers -- a 3.16 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 207 strikeouts in 211 innings. He also posted a 2.44 ERA in his final 121 2/3 innings and is just one year removed from going 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 238 strikeouts in 232 2/3 innings.
Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers (ADP: 84.9) - From mid-July on, Scherzer was untouchable last season, fanning 106 batters in 85 1/3 innings and posting a 2.43 ERA. He struck out 125 batters over his first 102 1/3 innings but had a 4.84 ERA in that span because he was the unluckiest pitcher in baseball. He had a .363 BABIP, the worst in the majors in that span and had a HR/FB rate of 11.3, 14th worst and a disastrous number for a fly-ball pitcher. Scherzer finished the season with the lowest ball-in-play percentage, fourth-lowest contact percentage and third-highest swing-and-miss percentage in the MLB. Just think of what he can do with a full season of average luck on balls in play.
Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays (ADP: 89.1) - Moore had an up-and-down rookie season in which he went 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 177 1/3 innings, but the 23-year-old just oozes potential for so much more. The left- hander struggled with his control early last season and actually walked 4.7 batters per nine innings in his first 104 2/3 innings. But he had a 2.97 ERA and 76 strikeouts in his final 72 2/3 innings while walking 3.22 batters per nine innings in that span. The most encouraging thing about Moore is that batters had a difficult time getting wood on his pitches -- he was 10th in the majors in contact percentage and eighth in swing-and-miss percentage -- and when they did, it was weak contact -- he had the lowest line-drive percentage in baseball and was second in infield-fly percentage, extremely impressive for a fly ball pitcher (0.61 GB/FB).
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals (ADP: 54.6) - Wainwright had a 3.94 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but he also had some poor luck. He had a .315 BABIP and .678 LOB percentage, the fifth- worst in the MLB among qualified pitchers. His FIP was 3.10, 0.84 below his actual ERA. The right-hander also went 7-3 with a 3.27 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings over his final 13 starts. At his peak in 2009-10, Wainwright won 39 games with a 2.53 ERA and 425 strikeouts.
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