Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's common knowledge who the best fantasy pitchers are going into the 2011 season and names like Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia head almost every fantasy list.
But part of the fun in this game is uncovering hidden gems, like when you're the first in your league to recognize when a player is about to explode onto the scene. It also helps you win your league championship when you spend on low draft choices and get top results. And it's on the mound where it's the easiest to turn it around in one season and go from fantasy non-entity to star or superstar.
From 1955 through 1960 Los Angeles Dodgers Hall-of-Famer Sandy Koufax was 36-40 with an ERA of 4.10 and a WHIP of 1.428. The tide began to turn in 1961 and Koufax went 18-13 with an ERA of 3.52 and a 1.205 WHIP with a league- leading 269 strikeouts.
He became a full-blown superstar in the years from 1962 until he retired in 1966. In those five seasons he was 111-34 with an ERA of 1.95, a WHIP of 0.926 and 1,444 strikeouts.
Wouldn't you like to have been in a keeper league in 1961 and recognized when Koufax was about to turn it around?
Or more recently, Cliff Lee was just 5-8 in 2007 with an ERA of 6.29 and a WHIP of 1.521 - not fantasy-worthy. Then the following season the Indians' lefty figured out how to throw strikes, going from 36 walks in 97.1 innings to 34 walks in 223.1 innings. He posted an AL-best 22 wins in 2008 with a stunning ERA of 2.54 and a WHIP of just 1.110.
More recently, we can see the same type of improvement in Oakland righthander Trevor Cahill. In 2009, Cahill was 10-13 with an ERA of 4.63, WHIP of 1.44 and 3.63 walks per-nine-innings. Last year he became a fantasy sensation as an unknown, going 18-8 with an ERA of 2.97 and a WHIP of 1.11 while lowering his BB/9 to 2.88. And Cahill was likely a waiver-wire pickup, not even drafted, with his ADP (Average Draft Position) of 344.
Another surprise in 2010 was Toronto Blue Jays starter Shaun Marcum. After a mediocre 9-7 record in 2008 and missing all of 2009 due to recovery from Tommy John surgery, Marcum showed improved control of his pitches (BB/9 went from 2.97 to 1.98) and his won/loss record improved to 13-8. This previously unknown entity finished the season in the top-40 among pitchers.
One look at the improvement in Padres hurler Mat Latos' statistics and you can see why he was so efficient in 2010. His ERA went from 4.62 to 2.92, his WHIP from 1.30 to 1.08 and his BB/9 dropped from 4.09 to 2.44.
So now the question is, who will be this year's breakout star?
We're looking for a pitcher who has struggled with control problems, but has quality pitches in his repertoire and the ability to strikeout hitters.
One of my top candidates for 2011 is San Francisco's No. 4 starter Jonathan Sanchez. While Lincecum, Matt Cain and Barry Zito get more press, Sanchez could be the team's best fantasy value in 2011. He's currently a 10th-round selection (ADP 120) but if he continues to improve on his control, could be one of this year's bargains.
Sanchez led the majors in walks in 2010, but actually improved on his BB/9 ratio from 2009 (4.85 to 4.47). He lowered his ERA and WHIP at the same time while his strikeout total increased for the fourth consecutive season. Sanchez could be ready to arrive and a 10th-round pick might not be too much to pay for a big season.
Athletics starter Gio Gonzalez is another candidate. He arrived in the majors at the end of 2008 but wasn't ready for big-league hitters. The Miami-area native had struggled in 2009, but improved and again in 2010 his numbers are too high, but getting better.
His ERA has gone from 7.68-to-5.75-to-3.23 last season, his WHIP from 1.68- to-1.71-to-1.31 and his BB/9 has gone from 6.62-to-5.11-to-4.13 last season. His statistics should keep most fantasy owners away, but this could be the season he finally shows off his talent.
Cincinnati Reds starter Johnny Cueto could be a breakout star this season if he continues to improve. Since arriving with the Reds in 2008, the youngster has improved his ERA, WHIP and BB/9 innings in every season and has seen a corresponding improvement in his won/loss record from 9-14 to 11-11 and 12-7 last season. With an ADP of 216, if he stays on the same path, he'll be a huge bargain as an 18th-round selection.
The bottom line here is to look past the basic numbers. Don't just see what is, see what they could be. Only then will you find the next hidden gem.