Wednesday January 28th, 2015

To kick off our fantasy baseball preview, Michael Beller will profile certain players who may not fit as a breakout, sleeper or bust (all of which we'll discuss in our preview), but who will still make a major impact in fantasy baseball this season.

Let’s pretend for a second that you’re building an All-Star fantasy team for the last 10 years. Who would be the ace of your staff? CC Sabathia leads all pitchers in fWAR from 2005 through 2014, edging Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. They’d all be worthy choices, along with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

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Adam Wainwright may not be the ace of such a staff, given that he wasn’t a starting pitcher in the majors for the first few seasons of the timeframe, but he’d at least have to be considered for the rotation. Along with Kershaw, Hernandez and Greinke, he’s one of the few pitchers who could be in that rotation and is still pitching at a high level. However, last year’s peripheral stats suggest Wainwright’s days as a bona fide fantasy ace are fleeting, and that his production may not warrant his expected draft-day price.

It must first be stated that Wainwright had a great 2014, by most measures. He won 20 games, posted a 2.38 ERA, 2.88 FIP and 1.03 WHIP. Wainwright once again didn’t give hitters much of anything free, compiling a 5.6-percent walk rate, and he was one of the hardest pitchers to take deep, allowing just 10 home runs in 227 innings. No matter how you look at it, last season was another entry in the canon of Wainwright. It may have also given us the first signs that he was slipping as an elite fantasy pitcher.

In various measurable ways, Wainwright was never more hittable in his career than he was in 2014. His strikeout rate plunged to 19.9 percent, and he fanned barely more than seven batters per nine innings. It was his lowest total since 2008, the year before he became a true ace for the Cardinals. His swinging-strike rate fell to 8.8 percent, nearly a full percentage point worse than 2013. Strikeouts were easier to get all across the majors, and yet Wainwright fanned 179 batters in 227 innings. He had fewer than 200 strikeouts just one other time in the last five seasons, and in that year, he threw just 198 2/3 innings.

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There’s also reason to believe Wainwright was a touch on the lucky side in 2014. He enjoyed the fortune of a .267 BABIP, by far the lowest of his career, and 24 points lower than his career average. He did this despite a career-high 23.9-percent line-drive rate. Wainwright did get fewer ground balls -- which turn into hits more frequently than fly balls -- than usual (46.3-percent ground-ball rate last year, versus a career 48.9-percent ground-ball rate) but the higher line-drive rate and significantly decreased popup rate more than counterbalanced that drop. Wainwright’s expected BABIP was more than 40 points higher than his actual BABIP.

Recall, too, that part of the reason he remained so valuable last year was because he won 20 games. He has picked up at least 19 wins in four of the last five seasons, a reflection of how good the Cardinals have been in the first half of this decade. Still, we know how fickle pitcher wins can be. He can post the exact same numbers from last year and go 15-14 instead of 20-9. The five fewer wins, something he would have essentially no control over, would send his final ranking in traditional fantasy leagues tumbling.

This is not in any way a complete takedown of Wainwright. So long as he has that nasty cutter-curve combo at his disposal, he’s going to be a ruthlessly effective pitcher. It is, rather, a warning that his perceived value could very well exceed his actual return this year. Wainwright turned 33 years old last August. The list of pitcher who didn’t take a step back as they entered their mid-30s is noticeably short. His strikeouts declined sharply last year, and even if his other production remained flat, that alone curtails his fantasy value.

Steamer projects him to be worth 2.4 fWAR this season, yet by early average draft position numbers, he’s rubbing elbows with Yu Darvish (projected 4.3 fWAR) and Max Scherzer (3.9). Grabbing him at that price point looks like a serious landmine buried in the early rounds of fantasy drafts. Wainwright has been one of the best fantasy pitchers of the last 10 years, but he may finally be relegated to SP2 territory this season. Don’t let his real-life value to the Cardinals overstate his fantasy prospects.

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