If you’re reading this, it’s Thursday — Opening Day 2020. Drafts are pretty much done with and, if you still have one yet to go, holy shit, you’re giving me anxiety just thinking about it. I wrapped up my final NFBC draft this past Monday and, as I’ve become accustomed to since the onset of my 2020 draft season back in early March, I got yet another share of Adrian Houser. Now, if you read our 2020 Razzball Fantasy Baseball Staff Picks, you know I already made some bold predictions about Houser this season. Not only did I pick Houser to become the Most Valuable Fantasy Pitcher (MVFP), but I also tabbed him to win the NL Cy Young. Truthfully, I probably should have stopped at MVFP, because that alone would have demonstrated the statement I’m trying to make about Houser while increasing my chances of being correct. But I’m not here to toot my own horn and act like I know everything about fantasy baseball — I’m here to inform our readers and, if just one lucky soul added Houser as a result of my boldness, I believe I’ve succeeded in my mission.
But yes, I wanted to make a statement, because despite Grey ranking Houser far above consensus at No. 59 in his SP rankings, people are still sleeping on Houser. Truthfully, they aren’t just sleeping. Fantasy owners far and wide are full-on passed out on him at Thanksgiving like my Aunt Rajean back in 2017. Listen, I’m not the kind of fantasy owner who goes out and drafts a player he likes in every draft just because he wants shares. I won’t reach alarmingly over ADP just to get a player I have affection for. So to clarify, Houser is one of those rare players I have ended up owning in literally every league this season, like Brian Anderson of the Marlins — but it boils down to where he’s being valued in drafts and the fact that the underlying numbers are telling me that shouldn’t be the case. This draft season, Houser went off the board at No. 245 overall in terms of ADP, which equates to SP70. That is absolutely ludicrous. In my aforementioned final NFBC draft of 2020, I snagged Houser in the 21st round — pick No. 246. Some say it’s the poor Triple-A numbers he posted in 2018 that scares them. I think that’s bogus. I mean, who doesn’t love a guy with a strong track record of being able to puke and rally?
— Java EE Trainers (@jeetrainers) August 11, 2019
I haven’t seen someone puke and rally like Houser since Lady Gaga pulled it off mid-concert back in 2012. Seriously. Here’s what he did after hurling all over the infield, wiping some of last night’s roast beef off his lip and returning to the mound:
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 11, 2019
Not only is that kind of bounce-back impressive from a fraternity brother’s perspective, but it shows that he actually does have an above average arsenal, despite sporting below-league average spin rates. But, on top of his god-given ability to throw up his guts and quickly return to humming 96 MPH heaters with late life, there’s a lot of actual, data-driven reasons to like Houser this year. So let’s get to it.
Last season, Houser appeared in 35 games for the Brewers, 18 of which came as starts. He logged 111 1/3 total innings and finished with a 3.72 ERA (120 ERA+) and 1.24 WHIP with a 9.5 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. His 3.88 FIP suggests that the results were in all likelihood legit. Houser even allowed 10 fewer hits (101) than innings pitched. This all came with a .301 BABIP.
Before I dive deeper into Houser’s 2019 campaign, I want to revert back to something. There tends to be two schools of thought for not buying on his 2019 numbers: 1) his Triple-A track record is shit and 2) he was better in relief in 2019 than he was starting games. True, he was better in relief — but as you can see above, he has the ability to maintain velocity, command and movement late into games. If anything, Craig Counsell will limit exposing him through lineups a third time, which should help his bottom line production — but I don’t think that’s really even necessary. Also true, Houser wasn’t elite in Triple-A. In 2018, he pitched 52 innings and made 13 starts at the Minor Leagues’ top level, during which he was knocked around for a 5.19 ERA backed by a 5.03 FIP, although his park-adjusted xFIP sat a smidgen lower at 4.74. On top of that, he struggled to miss bats (6.4 K/9), which I don’t have much of answer for other than the fact that he’s since become much more of strikeout pitcher while working up-and-down with the fastball, and there’s no real argument from industry ‘perts’ on this one. At the bare minimum, most believe Houser to be a source of cheap K’s in 2020.
But, in that 2018 Triple-A season, Houser was tagged for a .357 BABIP. That’s .56 points higher than it was at the MLB level in 2019, where the fielding is superior. So was 2019 a statistical outlier? No, it actually wasn’t. Over the course of nine professional seasons (yes, nine years) , Houser’s career BABIP against is .299. I’m not even saying you have to expect that number to hover right at .300, but you certainly shouldn’t expect it to return to upwards of .350. Note: Steamer is projecting Houser for a .305 BABIP in 2020.
Another note on Houser’s poor Triple-A track record: in 2019, he pitched quite well there over the course of 21 1/3 innings. He started four games, notched a 1.27 ERA and recorded a 9.7 K/9. I chalk the 2018 Triple-A numbers up to a combination of a somewhat poor year exacerbated by some bad luck. Remember, this is a former second round MLB Draft pick we’re talking about. If he was just a couple years younger and his draft year was fresher in our minds, everyone would be discarding his bottom-line Triple-A numbers and searching for their own explanation as to why there’s still upside in him. Instead, it’s just me, and my friend Grey, who has never actually called me his friend, but I call him my friend because I don’t have a lot of friends and it makes me sound cool.
Now, let’s get to his 2018 and 2019 seasons in the Bigs. Here’s what I said back in that staff picks article while making my bold predictions on Houser: “Houser ranked in the top 9% in exit velocity against last year and top 13% in barrel %, just to name two of his sexier metrics – and the bottom line numbers weren’t bad either.” On top of those numbers, Houser also finished among the top 18% of pitchers in the following categories: xSLG (top 15%), xERA (top 15%) and xwOBA (top 18%). Those numbers came on the heels of a 2018 MLB season in which he pitched to a 3.29 ERA over 13 2/3 IP (all in relief) with a 3.75 FIP and 127 ERA+. That sample size is far too small, so consider this: of the 43 batted balls he gave up that year, just one of them was a barrel (2.3 barrel %). Finally, I’ll turn to what Grey wrote about Houser coming into the season: “He recorded a ton of weak contact and the launch angle (4.4) he elicits is hilarious. That was the 5th best in the majors. As you can imagine, everything he throws ends up hitting a worm, anthill or, even worse, a sand castle.”
So while his 3.72 ERA and 117 strikeouts across 111 1/3 frames last year was good, I think there’s room for plenty more, despite most projection models pinning Houser with a 4.00+ ERA and negative “regression.” With the uncertainty of the abbreviated 2020 campaign, I’m betting on a forward-thinking, analytically-driven organization like Milwaukee to capitalize and get the most out of their pitching staff. This could be the year we’re shocked by the next Corey Kluber or Dallas Keuchel-esque Cy Young Award winner.
Looking back on all the hard data I’ve provided, I understand if you’re still skeptical. A Cy Young Award winner? It’s a long shot. But if everyone made their preseason predictions on numbers alone, wouldn’t we all be picking the same players? Wouldn’t that eliminate the heart and soul of precisely what we all love about fantasy baseball? Wouldn’t that literally eliminate the purpose of pre-season picks altogether? The point is, you take all the raw data, the numbers, underlying metrics, projection models, and then with all of that information, you sprinkle in some degree of personal intuition.
I don’t, however, believe it is a long shot that Houser ends up being this years MVFP. With his ADP of No. 245 overall/SP70, I think that’s highly likely if he can just stay healthy. And remember, if he gets knocked around and posts a big ole barf bag of a performance for your team on a given start, he has proven he is able to blow up all over the infield, on his hands a knees, with some spittle still remaining on his upper lip, and get back up and dominate.
— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) August 11, 2019
Houser isn’t ever going to produce sexy spin rates that make you go wild, but he’s a hell of a lot better than this year’s SP70. Those playing in traditional formats need to scoop my boy Barf Bag up if you haven’t already. A healthy Houser will be this year’s MVFP.
As always, I’m happy to take this conversation into the comments section or on Twitter, where you can find me @WorldOfHobbs.