Cole Ragans, Kansas City Royals [608x342] - Copy
Cole Ragans, Kansas City Royals [608x342] - Copy (Credit: Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Anthony Richardson and Jonathan Taylor together is an exciting notion in Indianapolis

It's the eternal struggle in fantasy baseball: Gut versus projections.

Projections provide us a baseline from which we begin setting our expectations of a player. But no matter how complex, how detailed the projections system, numbers can't tell you everything about that player, his matchups or even his season ahead.

This is something with which I've struggled for years playing this game, debated endless times with fellow analysts and been asked about most often in my writing. Case in point: "How the heck is Cole Ragans projected for only 7.2 fantasy points against the Los Angeles Angels (referencing his most recent start last Saturday)?!"

Ragans is one of this year's strongest examples of why the gut -- call it personal opinion, selective sample sizes or the "eye test," if any makes it easier -- must come into play with fantasy baseball valuation. After a rigorous 2022-23 offseason training program, followed by a fresh start following a June 2023 trade to the Kansas City Royals, Ragans was very much a different pitcher than the one we witnessed even one year ago.

And yet, no matter how much I consider adjusting my projections to account for the unusual examples such as his, I remember that, all too often, it's the raw, initial projections that turn out the winners in the end. Never mess with the numbers too much.

With Ragans, bear in mind that his 2022 came before his velocity bump, and through the first half of 2023, he had a 5.15 ERA between the majors and minors (albeit mostly out of a completely different role as a reliever). Forecaster projections take the player's past two years' data, with a heavier weight on recent performance, into account. While that might seem unfair in Ragans' case, consider that his lengthier track record spawns some relevant questions, not the least of which centers upon volume. He totaled 124⅓ innings last season and has never in a single year exceeded the 134⅔ he threw in 2022, not to mention he showed signs of inconsistent control in the minors. For all the excitement surrounding Ragans this preseason, following his 12 brilliant, season-ending starts for the Royals (2.64 ERA, 31.1% K rate), there were limits to exactly how large a step forward he might take.

Strangely enough, Ragans isn't even the pitcher for whom the projections fall most seemingly out of line. Currently, an average projection for the left-hander is 7.8 fantasy points, and as we move forward, more of his statistical sample will cover his more recent, higher-caliber output. Ragans, thus far, is averaging 10.3 through nine starts.

Taking a stroll through current starters' projections, the following nine stand out as much greater outliers as far as year-to-date versus expected future performance. Today, let's take a closer look at why that is, and what to expect from each going forward.

Significantly outpitching their projections

Seth Lugo, SP, Royals: The No. 4-scoring pitcher, Lugo's fourth-ranked 90.2 left-on-base percentage tells you almost all you need to know about the gap between his performance and projections. Until his sparkling start, he shaped up as one of fantasy baseball's most underrated pitchers. Now, he's 79.7% rostered in ESPN leagues, but still very much the middle-of-a-fantasy-staff type that his 3.53 Statcast expected ERA reflects (that's a 62nd percentile number, for the record).

Shota Imanaga, SP, Chicago Cubs: He's the league leader in left-on-base percentage (93.0%). He has a high-spin fastball that, with its lower release point due to his 5-foot-10 height, is unusual and difficult for hitters to pick up. Make no mistake, though, that it's hitters' general unfamiliarity with Imanaga that has helped fuel his historic start. He has yet to face the same opponent twice during the regular season, with only the Los Angeles Dodgers (April 7, 13 fantasy points in a rain-shortened outing) and Seattle Mariners (April 13, 15) representing repeats when accounting for his spring training action, and U.S. teams hardly had extensive exposure to him for scouting purposes before his arrival here. For all the excitement surrounding Imanaga's start to his career, consider: 11 Japanese pitchers have made 20-plus starts during their debut seasons in the States. That group collectively had a 3.21 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 23.5% strikeout rate in their first eight starts, compared to 3.98/1.29/21.7% numbers the rest of the year. Imanaga's current pace of 175 innings seems reasonable, but expect closer to a 3.40 ERA with a K per inning going forward.

Tanner Houck, SP, Boston Red Sox: Projections don't like him because he doesn't get many strikeouts, his rate at 22.5% between the majors and minors since the beginning of 2022, but that number also belies his skills. Houck registered a better-than-league-average whiff rate last year and is on pace to do so this year, and his move to largely shelve his historically ineffective four-seam fastball while leaning more on his splitter and slider has helped him both improve his command and generate more ground balls. Houck can't possibly maintain his current ratios, but other than a louder question about his final innings total, his value seems Lugo-ish.

Dylan Cease, SP, San Diego Padres: He might be the most unfairly judged starter across all most prominent systems, but he does have a penchant for walks (10.3% career rate) and has the majors' second-lowest batting average on balls in play (.197), not to mention one of the widest wOBA-expected wOBA differentials (-.071). Cease has been one of the more fortunate pitchers, but he's also throwing his fastball more than a full mph faster this season while keeping the whiff rate on his slider over 40% for the fourth consecutive year. He's the one I'm most bullish on from this list.

Jared Jones, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates: Rookies are notoriously challenging to project -- due to the nature of minor league equivalencies -- and Jones' career minor league ERA without making said adjustments is 4.31. Still, he has 3.9% walk, 67.4% first-pitch strike and 56.9% zone rates that are out of character with his prior years, when his control was sporadic. Jones has a pretty narrow ERA-xERA gap (-0.40), so it's all about how much you believe in his improved control. I'm not yet sold.

Kutter Crawford, SP, Red Sox: The other Red Sox rotational breakthrough, Crawford, like Houck, lacks blazing strikeout-generating raw stuff but has made enough adjustments to his repertoire the past year-plus to have some staying power. He flew under the radar this preseason despite a 3.25 xERA in 2023; his number in that category is 3.06. Crawford is another high-spin, "rising" fastball type whose stuff is excellent for minimizing hard contact. His ERA is sure to rise, but he might come the closest of this bunch to matching his average fantasy points per start (13.9) the rest of the way.

Underperforming relative to their projections

Chris Bassitt, SP, Toronto Blue Jays: He's generally a beneath-league-average pitcher in terms of strikeout, ground-ball and Statcast Barrel rates, which isn't an attractive trifecta and can lead to inconsistency. Nevertheless, Bassitt has a diverse, eight-pitch repertoire, of which he has well above average command, and he has suffered from what has been a pretty unfavorable schedule (@TB, @HOU, SEA, NYY, @SD, LAD, KC, @PHI, offering few reprieves). He's a good trade target, especially since his limited ceiling will make him one of the more attainable acquisitions.

Logan Webb, SP, San Francisco Giants: He has outpitched his xERA by at least one-third of a run in each of the past three seasons, yet he has managed a 25% strikeout rate or better only once in his career (2021's 26.5%). Webb's numbers might not have the look of a second-in-the-Cy-Young-race pitcher -- yes, he was just that last year -- but his changeup and sinker are ground ball-generating machines and he has some of the best control in the game. Webb is also helped by his home being one of the game's best pitchers' parks, strengthening his chances at heating up to meet the loftier projections he has been getting.

Tanner Bibee. SP, Cleveland Guardians: Both his slider (34.7% whiff rate) and changeup (39.7%) have been excellent again, while his fastball has been hit unusually hard (.408 BAA and .441 BABIP!). That's something that should correct in the near future, and that Bibee successfully totaled 157⅓ frames last season suggests he might be able to pitch 180-plus as a big-league sophomore. He's another strong trade target who continues to fare well in the projections.