Surprising Starters – AL

Do you want to be talked into drafting Joe Kelly? The answer is probably no but either way here are five surprising starters from the American League and their potential fantasy relevancy this year.

Joe Kelly, Bos

Joe Kelly hasn’t been all that great of a pitcher but he finished 2015 rather impressively and figures to be in the rotation for Boston this year. I’ve always been a bit of a Joe Kelly apologist but I think this might be the year that he puts it together.

The below chart shows Kelly’s month by month splits from Fangraphs. The important things to note are the FIP and xFIP by month.

Season Monthly IP K% BB% ERA FIP xFIP
2015 Mar/Apr 23.2 28.90% 8.30% 4.94 3.56 3.28
2015 May 30.1 12.30% 9.60% 6.53 5.05 4.69
2015 Jun 20.2 15.40% 9.90% 5.23 3.71 4.59
2015 Jul 8.2 19.50% 2.40% 8.31 6.83 4.03
2015 Aug 37 18.50% 7.30% 2.68 3.65 3.95
2015 Sept/Oct 14 23.00% 9.80% 3.86 3.78 3.69

Kelly had about 75 pretty good innings last year and then 60 pretty bad innings. In his good innings, he was able to generate Ks and his bad ones he wasn’t. Seems pretty easy. Kelly has always possessed the velocity needed to be a K guy but his fastballs just don’t move. It’s easy to time 95 straight versus 92 with some run.

We’re going to get a bit nerdy here. Fair warning.

We have to start with pitch usage as Kelly is overly reliant on his sinker.


The big takeaway here is the heavy sinker usage during the worst two months of Kelly’s 2015. As a starter, it’s not a great idea to throw one pitch at such a high rate (especially a hittable pitch). It’s not surprising that his best three months were the three that he relied on his sinker the least. As Kelly started to mix in some of his other pitches, in particular the slider and changeup, his results on the field improved. This isn’t surprising because his slider and changeup are harder to hit and generate more Ks than his fastballs.

Season Pitch Swing% Contact% SwStr%
2015 FT 40.10% 93.50% 2.60%
2015 FA 42.30% 86.40% 5.80%
2015 SL 49.30% 62.30% 18.60%
2015 CH 43.50% 69.30% 13.40%
2015 CU 32.60% 78.90% 6.90%
Total FT 43.30% 90.70% 4.00%
Total FA 41.70% 85.70% 6.00%
Total SL 47.50% 63.20% 17.50%
Total CH 45.70% 70.90% 13.30%
Total CU 39.40% 74.90% 9.90%

This chart shows that it’s easy to make contact on Kelly’s fastballs (Contact%) and that they don’t generate a lot of Ks (SwStr%). His off speed pitches have far different results which is why it’s promising to see that he worked them in more at the end of the season.

The below chart shows the percentage of fastballs versus off speed pitches per month in 2015.

  Fastball Off Speed
Mar/Apr 69.7733 30.2267
May 70.73609 29.26391
Jun 72.12276 27.87724
Jul 64.55696 35.44304
Aug 57.57072 42.42928
Sept/Oct 57.62082 42.37918

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kelly’s numbers improved in the last two months as his off speed usage increased.

I’m not overly confident that Kelly can show big time improvements but pitch selection is a great place to start. It will be very interesting to see how he mixes pitches to start 2016. If we see a bigger reliance on his slider and changeup, it could manifest into a good season. It’s definitely something to monitor in the early going.

Here is a reminder that Kelly throws straight heat.

Year Fourseam Sinker
2013 96.2 95.64
2014 95.82 95.41
2015 97.13 96.21


Michael Saunders, Tor

Michael Saunders, if healthy, could have a great season in Toronto. Unfortunately if healthy is the great qualifier with Saunders. He hasn’t played more than 130 MLB games since 2013 and even then he had injuries. I would be very surprised if he stole more than eight or nine bases this year, but he can provide value in HR, R and RBI at the very least. He’s always had power in his bat and was unlucky enough to play in Safeco during some of its worst stretches of power suppression. If he can make it to 130 games, 20 HRs is in play now that he’s in Toronto.

I think R and RBI are where Saunders can provide a lot of value. This shouldn’t come as a surprise but the Jays led the majors in runs out of the 7th batting spot last year, a spot in which Saunders figures to see the majority of his at bats. Batting directly behind Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Colabello should provide plenty of RBI chances as well.

I don’t think it’s very bold to say that Saunders will get hurt at some point this year so there has to be a backup plan. The situation is right for Saunders to finally provide some fantasy value though, so don’t shy away completely.


Jimmy Rollins, CWS

In a surprising move, it sounds like Rollins not only has the SS role for CWS, but he might bat 2nd in the order. In terms of real life baseball, this is an awful decision. Rollins hasn’t had an OBP above .330 since 2011 and it was .285 in 2015. This is a case where a bad move in real life is a great move for Rollin’s fantasy relevancy. Rollins still has power and speed (13 HR and 12 SB last year). I wouldn’t expect much more than that, but only three qualified SS went for double digits in both last year. Rollins will kill you in average so you have to supplement elsewhere. As long as he stays in the lineup he should chip in a good R total and might get a fair amount of RBI. At 37, I wouldn’t expect anything crazy out of Rollins, but if he actually does bat 2nd, he could provide value in the counting status at the very least.


Marlon Byrd, Cle

Byrd was a late signing but given the injuries and suspensions the Indians have already suffered, he should be the starting RF in Cleveland this year. Byrd isn’t very exciting but he can provide power. His last year with less than 20 HRs was 2011. He’s moving to a park that is below average in RH power, but he could still get to 20 HR with playing time. As I mentioned in my Ode to Yan Gomes, the Cleveland 2-4 hitters are all great OBP guys and Byrd figures to bat 5th or 6th. There could be a lot of RBI opportunities for Byrd. Outside of Joe Kelly, Marlon Byrd would be my favorite flyer among the guys on this list.


Tyler White, Hou

At this point, I feel comfortable saying that White will be the starting 3B for the Astros this year. As to what kind of production he will provide: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. ZiPS is giving White 10 HR, 54 R, 49 RBI, 1 SB and a .251 AVG over 456 PAs. All of that seems reasonable given his scouting reports and minor league statistics. In OBP leagues, White is someone I would actively try to draft. The one thing he’s always done is walk and that should continue in the majors. He might struggle initially but he should chip in a good OBP at the very least.


All charts via FanGraphs and Brooksbaseball. Picture via Brooksbaseball. Visit both, they are awesome.


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