10 darkhorse fantasy pitching stat leaders

Paxton could pace AL in ERA, Walker could top NL in K's

10 darkhorse fantasy pitching stat leaders

The pitching leaderboard typically has several major surprises at the end of every season.

Prior to 2016, few foresaw Rick Porcello leading the American League in wins or Aaron Sanchez and Kyle Hendricks pacing their respective leagues in ERA.

Fantasy owners looking to stay ahead of the competition by finding this year's version of Porcello, Sanchez or Hendricks should consider the following 10 hurlers. Each pitcher is a darkhorse to lead the league in the category listed next to his name.

American League

ERA: James Paxton
This all hinges upon Paxton's ability to sustain the fastball velocity spike he enjoyed last season. His heater, already sitting at above average velocity, especially for a southpaw, jumped from the 94-95 mph range to nearly 97 mph. And while his strikeout rate surged, it still wasn't all that much higher than the league average. It would seem there is much room for further growth, especially considering every non-fastball pitch of his generated a SwStk% of at least 16.7 percent last year. His mix of grounders, strikeout ability, and good control, along with elite secondary stuff and strong velocity reminds me of Carlos Carrasco.

Paxton on being healthy in 2017

WHIP: Matt Shoemaker
After we all feared the worst for Shoemaker upon taking a liner to the head last year, he proved this spring that he was ready to roll by posting a 21/5 K/BB ratio in 17 innings. Last year, he essentially doubled the usage of his splitter beginning with his May 16 start and threw the pitch between 30 percent and 50 percent the majority of the rest of the season. Over his first six non-crazy-splitter-usage starts, he struck out a meager 13.8 percent of batters and posted a 1.91 WHIP. In his final 20 starts, his strikeout rate rocketed up to 23 percent, en route to a 1.10 WHIP. He's got the strikeout ability and the excellent control, while the Angels' defense figures to be fantastic, though almost entirely due to the presence of Andrelton Simmons.

Wins: Marcus Stroman
Strategy: Choose a starter on one of the top projected offenses -- the Astros, Orioles, Blue Jays or Red Sox. I cheated a bit here as Stroman is actually my pick for the second straight season, though he failed to even reach double-digits in wins last year. So let's try again. I still think that one of these years, and perhaps this one, his results match the quality of his stuff. Every non-fastball he threw last year yielded a double-digit SwStk%, yet he couldn't even push his strikeout rate above the 20 percent barrier. He proved he could pass 200 innings, so now he's just a small tweak or two away from a breakout. Backed by a high-powered Blue Jays offense, the wins could be flowing.

Strikeouts: Lance McCullers Jr.
I fear this isn't quite bold enough. The boldness here is actually health related, rather than performance related, but sadly I have no unique insight into the status of McCullers' various former ailments. His curve got swinging strikes nearly 21 percent of the time last year, and he threw it about one out of every two pitches. That's certainly taking the "throw your best pitch often" mantra I just made up to the extreme. If he can somehow manage to reach 200 innings, he has a real shot to lead the league here.

Hinch on the team's health

Saves: Sean Doolittle
If I named any good closer, would he be considered bold? So let's once again go with the same guy I went with last year, but this time Doolittle isn't actually entering the season as "the guy." Instead, the A's are supposedly going to mix and match, but that never actually happens. So I'm taking a chance on the best pitcher in the bullpen getting the first shot and never letting go.

National League

ERA: Aaron Nola
It seems pointless to type letters that don't eventually spell Clayton Kershaw, but that's what this fun little exercise requires me to do. Ground balls, strikeouts and avoidance of the base on balls. That's all we can ask a pitcher to do, and that's exactly what Nola did last year. But it led to a 4.78 ERA, thanks to an inflated BABIP and ridiculously low LOB%. Neither of those metrics should be as far from league average again, though admittedly Nola does need to induce more popups.

WHIP: Jacob deGrom
Reports coming out of Spring Training were that deGrom's velocity had returned, which could lead to a bounceback in strikeout rate. Surprisingly, his WHIP last year was a solid, albeit unspectacular 1.20, which means there's serious potential for improvement. He continues to display excellent control, though he will need to cross his fingers when the ball is put into play, because the Mets' defense figures to be shaky again.

Mets' rotation full of potential

Wins: Jon Gray
Rockies, Cubs, Nationals, Dodgers. Those four figure to be the top offenses in the NL, so it makes sense to find a starter from one of those teams. I'm typing this after Gray made his start, so I know he now has one less opportunity to lead the league in wins. But here's a guy that posted a SIERA nearly a full run below his ERA, no doubt partly due to Coors Field, though it was seemingly also due to a lack of bullpen support or ability to strand runners. Even with Coors' strikeout suppression magic, Gray has major punchout skills and the Rockies actually have a strong defensive unit.

Strikeouts: Taijuan Walker
Last week, I boldly predicted that Walker would post a sub-3.50 ERA. How can he do that? By leading the league in strikeouts, of course! He's already got the fastball, had the splitter until last year, and perhaps now will incorporate a slider. A move to the National League and facing the pitcher a couple of times a game should boost his strikeout rate. And now healthy, he could finally live up to his top tier potential we all know he has.

Saves: Raisel Iglesias
Yes, health is now a question mark, but performance shouldn't be. He's a high strikeout guy pitching in front of a good defense and part of the boldness here is that the Reds haven't actually announced a full-time closer. But alternative Michael Lorenzen pitched ahead of Iglesias in Monday's game, while Drew Storen is coming off a 5.23 ERA and showed decreased velocity during the spring as he allowed 10 runs in 6 2/3 innings. There aren't any obvious alternatives, so as long as Iglesias' elbow holds up, he should hold the job all season.

Iglesias gives health update

A version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.

Mike Podhorzer is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.