Fantasy Baseball Rankings – Starting Pitchers (Part 1)

Fantasy Baseball Rankings – Starting Pitchers (Part 1)

By: Kyle Brown (@CavghtLooking)

Cliff LeeWhen ranking starting pitchers for standard 5×5 leagues I only focus on strikeouts, WHIP, and ERA. Whether or not a pitcher has 10 wins or 15 wins largely comes down to chance. Obviously, a good pitcher on a good team will have more chances to earn victories than a pitcher on a bad team, but there are no guarantees when it comes to a pitcher’s win total. Not convinced? Just look at Cliff Lee’s 6-9 win/loss record from last season while playing for the 81-81 Phillies. Cole Hamels went 17-6 for the same team and the two had nearly identical stat lines. When it comes to ERA, I always make sure to check out a pitcher’s FIP and xFIP in conjunction with his earned run numbers. A pitcher’s ERA rarely tells the whole story, so the best strategy for determining true talent is to dive into stats like LOB%, BABIP (against), HR/FB% (allowed), BB/9, FIP and xFIP. Put these stats side-by-side with a pitcher’s “regular” statistics and you will have a better chance of accurately predicting a pitcher’s 2013 performance. For the starting pitchers I will rank 50 players in two parts.

Tier 1 – More Strikeouts Than A High School Prom

1.      Clayton Kershaw (229/1.02/2.53)

The difference between Kershaw and Verlander is infinitesimal. Clayton has posted sub-3 ERA numbers for four straight seasons and it has nothing to do with luck. He strikes out hitters with ease, keeps the ball from leaving the yard, and has grown out of his walk problems. Kershaw gets the edge over Verlander because he pitches in the weaker-hitting league and is more likely to have a lower ERA.

2.      Justin Verlander, Detroit (238/1.06/2.64)

Verlander is silly good. He has never had a significant injury and has perfect pitching mechanics. Verlander is going to strikeout a batter per inning for 220-240 innings (again). He is a pitcher without a flaw. 

3.      David Price, Tampa Bay (205/1.10/2.56)

If Bob Barker wasn’t dead I bet David Price would be his favorite athlete. I love how Price has developed his arsenal of pitches over the past few seasons. Pitch f/x data shows that Price has abandoned his slider in favor of a cutter and has gradually increased the use of his changeup. Despite altering his pitch selection, Price has maintained his status as an elite strikeout pitcher with great control, posting an 8.74 K/9 and a 2.52 BB/9 in 2012. In other words, the Price is right. 

4.      Felix Hernandez, Seattle (223/1.14/3.06)

King Felix is ranked below Price because I am concerned about his velocity and the recent whisperings of elbow problems that surfaced around the time of his contract signing. I do not like that Felix’s fastball velocity has dropped for three consecutive seasons, but despite the drop he posted career bests in K% and BB% in 2012. Has Felix found his velocity happy place or are all of the innings finally catching up with him? I’m not sure, but I am taking Price ahead of him.

5.      Stephen Strasburg, Washington (197/1.15/3.16)

Much like his teammate Harper, fantasy managers are drafting Strasburg too high this season. Strasburg’s talent is through the roof. However, given Strasburg’s TJ surgery and the innings cap he was on last season I don’t think he can be counted on for 210+ innings yet. In other words, I want to see Strasburg prove his durability in 2013 before I draft him above established horses like Price and Felix. That said, even if Strasburg only pitches 190 innings, he is going to provide a crazy amount of strikeouts (11.13 K/9 last season).

Tier 2 – Less Walks Than A Dead Dog

6.      Cole Hamels, Philadelphia (216/1.12/3.05)

Hamels has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball over the past three seasons. Still just 29, Hamels can be counted on for at least 200 innings, 200 strikeouts, and an ERA right around 3.00.

7.      Cliff Lee, Philadelphia (207/1.11/3.16)

The only reason Cliff Lee is ranked below Hamels is because of his age. That said, Lee is one of the few starters in baseball who can strikeout 200 hitters and keep his BB/9 well under 2.00. Lee’s K/BB was a ridiculous 7.39 last season. A deadly combination like that will continue to produce miniscule WHIP and ERA numbers. On top of that, Lee’s velocity is stable and he has never suffered a significant arm injury. Draft with confidence.

8.      Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco (191/1.11/3.37)

Bumgarner’s final month of 2012 was pretty awful. MadBum’s control vanished, his velocity dropped, and he gave away hits like candy canes on Christmas. Bumgarner followed up his last month with two terrible games in the playoffs before finally pulling it altogether and pitching a gem in the World Series. I’ve seen bizarre aberrations from Bumgarner before, like when he gave up 8 runs on 8 hits in a row to the Twins in 2011, so I think that the way 2012 ended can be attributed more to growing pains than anything else. At 23-years old, Bumgarner is just scratching the surface of his potential.

9.      Matt Cain, San Francisco (193/1.04/2.79)

Cain has put up elite ERA and WHIP numbers for the past three seasons and is going to continue that trend in 2013. The real question for prospective Cain owners is whether or not the increase in strikeouts Cain enjoyed last season is sustainable. The answer: if Cain continues to throw his slider 19% of the time, then yes. That said, Cain is going to be extremely effective even if he scales back the use of his slider to pre-2012 percentages.

10.  Zach Greinke, Los Angeles (200/1.20/3.48)

Zack GreinkeI really like Greinke playing for the NL side of Los Angeles. He is a good bet to have a K/9 at or above 8.5 for 200+ innings. His WHIP has always been around 1.20, but his high strikeout numbers keep him in the top-10. Greinke’s ADP over at is 86.9, making him the 16th pitcher selected in most drafts. Considering that Greinke is going to strikeout over 200 batters and have an ERA under 3.50, I don’t see why people are drafting question marks like R.A. Dickey and Kris Medlen ahead of him.  (Editor’s Note: this was written prior to the news of Greinke visiting a doctor due to irritation in his elbow.  That is some pretty scary news, but let’s not jump to conclusions until we know for sure whether the injury is serious.  However, this will certainly be a factor to consider if you are targeting Greinke on draft day).

Tier 3 – “Number Two!” “Yes, Captain?” “Warp…Eight”

11.  Adam Wainwright, St. Louis (184/1.25/3.94)

It took Wainwright some time to find his rhythm last season. Tommy John surgery will do that to a pitcher. Wainwright’s 8.34 K/9 was in line with his pre-surgery numbers and his second half ERA was just 3.28. Given the surgery, however, I don’t think he will pitch 230+ innings again. An ERA around 3.00 with close to 200 strikeouts is good enough for 11th overall.

12.  R.A. Dickey, Toronto (230/1.05/2.73)

R.A. Dickey is a headache. Will his knuckleball generate the same number of swings and misses in 2013 as it did in 2012? That question is nearly impossible to answer. I don’t think that Dickey is going to fall back to his sub-6 K/9 numbers from his previous seasons, but I also can’t see him repeating his ridiculous numbers from last year. Then again, nobody knows how a knuckleball is going to break. Not even the person who throws it.  (Editor’s Note: as a Mets fan who watched every one of Dickey’s starts in 2012, I flag Dickey as a real “bust” candidate because it is highly unlikely he will come close to replicating his historic Cy Young winning season).

13.  Gio Gonzalez, Washington (207/1.13/2.89)

In 2012, Gio enjoyed the typical boost in performance that a pitcher gets when he moves from the AL to the NL. Not having to pitch to a DH will always help a pitcher’s strikeout numbers, but some of the improvement can also be attributed to Gio’s increased fastball velocity. Gonzalez has increased the average speed of his fastball and decreased his BB% in every single season he has pitched. That is a truly remarkable feat. His 2013 numbers should be right in line with his stellar 2012 production.

14.  Max Scherzer, Detroit (231/1.27/3.74)

The only skill Max Scherzer lacks is endurance. He has never been able to reach the 200-inning mark, but after the barrage of strikeouts he bequeathed to fantasy owners last season I am willing to forgive his shortcomings. Regression logic tell us that Scherzer won’t punch out 11.08 per nine innings next year, but if his luck on balls in play stabilizes then he will provide excellent ratio numbers over his usual 190 innings. Surpassing 210 strikeouts this season should be no problem for Mad Max.

Tier 4 – If It Weren’t For You Meddling Kids

15.  James Shields, Kansas City (223/1.17/3.52)

Shields has punched out 448 batters over the last two seasons. He provides durability, exceptional control and a healthy dose of strikeouts. The move to Kansas City shouldn’t change any of that. I am expecting another 200K season, with a 3.50 ERA and a sub-1.20 WHIP.

16.  C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees (197/1.14/3.38)

Sabathia had bone spurs removed from his elbow in the offseason and the Yankees are planning to lighten his workload this year, but am I worried about his production? No. First of all, bone spurs are no big deal. Second, when the Yankees are in the middle of a playoff race they are going to do what they always do: lean on their star players. Sabathia might not pitch 230+ innings, but 215-220 should be no problem. Despite his size, I expect Sabathia to age like a fine wine (with a crooked baseball cap).

17.  Kris Medlen, Atlanta (120/0.91/1.57)

(Audible sigh) I wish I had picked up Kris Medlen last season. Instead, I had to watch other teams enjoy his historic stretch of production. His FIP doesn’t even indicate that he was exceptionally lucky last season. On top of that, Medlen’s K/9 actually increased after he became a starter, eclipsing the batter per inning mark. All of the stats indicate that what Medlen did last season was legitimate. However, given his experience is mostly as a reliever, it is unwise to think that Medlen will immediately turn into a 200-inning monster. That said, if he can approach anything close to his 2012 production over 170 innings, then Medlen is going to be an awesome pitcher in 2013.  (Editor’s Note: I did pick up Medlen late in the season when the Braves kept him in the bullpen and intimated he may not be moved into the rotation. So I dropped him. Then he moved into the starting rotation and was ultimately picked up by the team that knocked me out of the playoffs. Fail.)

18.  Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee (204/1.30/3.66)

Gallardo has struck out 200+ hitters for four straight seasons. The only other pitchers you can say that about are named Felix and Verlander. If Gallardo ever curtails his career 3.48 BB/9, then he would undoubtedly become a top-10 pitcher. However, until he does that he is going to saddle fantasy managers with high WHIPs and ERA numbers around 3.50.

19.  Mat Latos, Cincinnati (185/1.16/3.48)

It took Mat Latos some time to adjust to his new environment in Cincinnati, but after tinkering with his pitch selection he found a tremendous amount of success in the second half of 2012 (2.84 ERA in 104.2 innings). However, while Latos may be developing into a better real-life pitcher, his fantasy numbers are going in the wrong direction. Latos’ K/9 has dropped for three straight years and his FIP has slowly ticked upwards. It doesn’t look like Latos will ever be an elite strikeout pitcher, but that won’t keep him from being one of the top-20 pitchers in baseball for this year and the foreseeable future.

Tier 5 – Nothing Gold Can Stay

20.  Roy Halladay, Philadelphia (132/1.22/4.49)

Halladay is one of the most difficult pitchers to predict this season. On the one hand, Halladay has lost some velocity on his fastball and dealt with serious shoulder problems in 2012. On the other hand, the Doc has always been a groundball specialist and possesses an arsenal of pitches that should remain effective even if he loses a little zip. Halladay’s FIP was 3.69 last season, so I don’t think his decline is as severe as some people might think. It’s hard to believe, but the Doc’s best season ever was in 2011. Can he really have fallen that far? Finally, it’s a contract year for Roy, so I think it is reasonable to expect at least 210 innings, 185K, and an ERA under 3.30.

21.  Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox (192/1.14/3.05)

Haven’t you heard? With the way Sale throws the ball it’s a miracle that he isn’t dead yet. Seriously, until Sale actually goes down with a significant injury I am going to continue to think highly of him. Fire Sale struck out more than a batter per inning last year with a BB/9 of 2.39. If he does that over 200+ innings this year it is going to be hard to keep him out of the top-10 for 2014. The only reason I have him this low for 2013 is because he lacks experience. Pretty soon everyone will be shopping for Sale.   

22.  Jered Weaver, Los Angeles of Anaheim (142/1.02/2.81)

Managers who draft Weaver as a number one starter are grasping at the straws of his 2010 season when his K/9 was 9.35. Given the shoulder problems he experienced last season and the precipitous drop in strikeouts, I am very low on Weaver this year. His ADP on is 55.57, making him the 8th pitcher taken in most drafts. The ERA and WHIP have been good for three seasons, but I think Weaver’s wheels are about to fall off.

23.  Jordan Zimmermann, Washington (153/1.17/2.94)

Zimmermann’s second half K/9 was 8.33. In the final month of the season it was 8.83. Granted, the increase in strikeouts came with a higher ERA, but it’s good to know that Zimmermann has the potential to become more than a Mark Buerhle-type starter. If J-Zim can find a happy medium between his first-half control and his second-half strikeouts then he is going to rocket up the rankings.

24.  Matt Moore, Tampa Bay (175/1.35/3.81)

Matt Moore just oozes talent. Still just 24-years old, Moore’s rookie year only gave managers a taste of his true potential. Moore struggled with his control in 2012, but his BB/9 numbers in his minor league career indicate that he can improve upon his 4.11 mark from last season. It might not happen this year, but Moore is going to be the next starter, after Scherzer and Strasburg, to have a K/9 over 11.00 for a full season. The sky is the limit.

25.  Yu Darvish, Texas (221/1.28/3.90)

Yu DarvishYu’s stuff is from another planet. I love the 10.4 K/9 he brings to the table, but I hate the 4.19 BB/9. Darvish dramatically lowered his walks in his final 36.2 innings to 1.72 BB/9. I don’t think he is going to keep that up for a full season, but the increased control at the end of last year is encouraging. If it wasn’t for his success at the beginning and end of the season, Yu’s ERA would be closer to 5.00 than most managers are will to tolerate. You can count on Yu for strikeouts, everything else will be a work in progress.


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