Fantasy baseball: Finding the next Luis Gil, starter picks

Few people expected Luis Gil to be this good in 2024. Who might be the next unexpected MLB ace? Getty Images

"What do you think of Luis Gil?"

This is a question I've heard more than a few times this season, with the subtext being plainly obvious: "Please promise me, as a New York Yankees fan, that Gil is going to maintain this pace and inevitably help my team win the World Series."

Fantasy managers share similar feelings, hoping to capture their league's championship. Winning the championship is often driven by the least likely of breakthrough candidates. While we love the success that a pitcher such as Gil brings to our teams in the early weeks of a season, we crave a promise that he'll be able to keep up this pace.

Gil was rostered in only 4.1% of ESPN leagues back on Opening Day, mere days after he was named the Yankees' fill-in for the injured Gerrit Cole. He perfectly fits the definition of this unusual class of player: a final-pick flier and generally one selected in 15-plus-team mixed or AL-only leagues or, barring that, a pitcher whom fantasy managers were slow to add as they were perhaps unwilling to trust only a few solid, season-opening starts.

Gil's roster rate was still sub-15% heading into the final week of April, sub-25% until May 12 and sub-50% until May 18, so many fantasy managers didn't even get to reap the benefits of the first eight of his 10 starts.

At the same time, Gil's performance (an 18-win, 206-K pace) seems so obviously unsustainable that, even though he's now widely rostered (75.8% as of Tuesday), he's in danger of being entirely disappointing from this point forward. But is that actually true?

Lessons from recent history

Let's stroll through some similar examples of starting pitchers who got off to completely unexpected hot starts through a season's first two months. How might fantasy managers unearth future sleepers with Gil's prospective level of success? What should managers currently with Gil expect from him going forward?

Since 2000 (but excluding 2020), 18 pitchers met the following "Gil-like" set of criteria: At least eight starts by the end of May in the given year, at least 125 more fantasy points scored through the end of May than in the entirety of the previous season, and an ADP outside the top 250 overall players.

These 18 pitchers averaged 154.8 fantasy points and 10.1 starts in those hot-starting campaigns, within range of Gil's (164, 10) and Chicago White Sox LHP Garrett Crochet's (146, 11) 2024 numbers. Over the remainder of those past seasons, that group averaged another 186.4 fantasy points and 17.7 additional starts. To compare their points-per-start numbers, we're talking about an average of 15.3 points through the season's first two months and only 10.5 for the remainder of those seasons.

A full 17 of our 18 pitchers averaged fewer fantasy points per start over the final four months compared to the first two, with Luis Severino (2017) being the lone exception. That said, and in defense of Gil and/or Crochet maintaining at least a similar rest-of-year pace, Cliff Lee (2008, average of 15.1 fantasy points over 21 starts), Carlos Rodon (2021, 14.7 over 15), Freddy Peralta (2021, 13.5 over 17) and Kyle Wright (2022, 13.1 over 9) were all still plenty productive full-season pitchers in those hot-start campaigns.

It's a hit-or-miss sample, as is often the case with any pitcher study, but what was most interesting about this group was its level of durability over the course of the summer. The group averaged 100.8 IP over the season's final four months, which was only roughly 24 frames shy of the pace these arms were on through the end of May.

Additionally, there's a clear correlation between strikeout artists and the rest of the sample. The nine pitchers among this 18 who had at least a 25% K rate during the season's first two months had an average points-per-game drop of only 3.7 over the final four months, with an average point total of 211.2. Gil's strikeout rate thus far is 31.7%, and Crochet's is 32.3%. Those signals are as strong as any that fantasy managers should hold onto these pitchers rather than aggressively trade them away (although, of course, there's always a level of return for which it's worth making any deal).

Gil finds himself on pace for an entirely reasonable 163 IP, and Crochet is on track for a generous 187.5 IP. As these two are on teams with disparate playoff hopes, Crochet is the one much more likely to see his innings total reined in by mid-to-late summer.

How can we pinpoint future breakouts?

Unfortunately, sleeper-seeking isn't an exact science, which is entirely why the word sleeper's definition contains the critical ingredient "from whom you expected nothing." Perusing our list of 18, the group includes a variety of different pitching types, from late-blooming prospects (Edinson Volquez, Rodon, Peralta and Wright), to pitch-to-contact types who made adjustments in the given year (Gil Meche, Shaun Marcum, Jaime Garcia, Carlos Silva, Kyle Lohse, Tyler Chatwood).

It's those adjustments, be it a new pitch, an uptick in average fastball velocity, a change in delivery or a new stance on the pitching rubber, that should catch your eye each spring. This is why pitchers who fit these descriptions frequently grace the most preseason sleeper lists, and it's why they're the most compelling pitchers to watch in March.

A common thread from this group, however, was a noticeable increase in strikeout rate, although that generally reveals itself only after the season begins. Of our 18, 15 enjoyed at least a 2% boost in strikeout rate in the season's first two months, relative to their MLB career numbers entering the year in question. It's as strong a piece of evidence as any that you should scoop up pitchers who show a similar increase in the category in the early weeks of April, such as Gil or Crochet. The sooner you get to these prospective breakthroughs, the more likely you'll reap these six to eight weeks of elite, breakthrough stats.

Are there any soon-to-come breakthroughs to grab now?

Even with all that we've said about identifying potential breakouts before your drafts, that's not the only time of year that breakthroughs surface! Potentially elite arms can surface in rotations at any point. Keeping that in mind, here are three non-rookies who have both the stuff and the upcoming opportunity to perhaps put forth a 10-start-or-so hot stretch akin to Gil's or Crochet's early 2024 success.

Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays: Recently activated from the IL to continue his rehabilitation with Triple-A Durham -- a headache for fantasy managers since he's no longer IL-eligible -- Baz has the raw stuff, the pitcher-friendly home ballpark and the organizational reputation to deliver immediate production once the Rays deem him ready. His control has been shaky through his first six starts (18.6% walk rate) but, at his best, he's capable of averaging 97-plus mph with his fastball, pairing it with one of the better sliders in the game.

Gavin Williams, Cleveland Guardians: An elbow issue, which included an April setback during his rehab process, has delayed the start to his 2024, but he's now back on the recovery track and scheduled to make another start for Triple-A Columbus on Wednesday. Williams exhibited a strong combination of a 96 mph fastball and slider during a 16-start stint for the Guardians last year. So long as his velocity sticks, he has a skill set capable of delivering top-40 positional value.

Matt Manning, Detroit Tigers: Although he did enjoy a brief stint as the No. 5 starter while Kenta Maeda was recently sidelined, Manning is currently more regarded as Detroit's "27th man" for days (like today) when they have doubleheaders. Manning has exhibited a hint more fastball velocity this season, along with greater usage of a solid slider. He was the ninth overall pick of the 2016 draft and a top-30 overall prospect entering his 2021 rookie campaign. He could be a sneaky source of strikeouts if he can continue to improve said slider. Manning is also on pace for only 137.5 IP, so the Tigers will surely count on him to provide some rest for their younger rotational arms in the coming weeks.