Starters


Go Bold Or Go Home: Justin Masterson, Top-15 Pitcher

Among all qualified starters in baseball last season, only five pitchers threw 193 or more innings, struck out at least one batter per inning and had a SIERA of 3.32 or better.  Four were Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer; the fifth was Justin Masterson.  So by that metric, Masterson is actually a top-FIVE pitcher in the big leagues, so I not only proved my "top fifteen" point, I went above and beyond!  That was easy!  See you next week, folks!

.....okay, fine, it'll take more than some statistical cherry-picking to get the job done.  Fair enough.  There seems to be some inherent resistence to acknowledging Masterson as a top-tier fantasy pitcher, given his modest 218.80 average draft position (hat tip to Mock Draft Central) that ranks him as the only 56th-highest pitcher taken in this year's drafts.  Even if you don't agree with me that Masterson is on the verge of a major breakout, I think it's safe to say that there aren't 55 guys better than the Indians ace.

In fact, forget being 'on the verge,' it's possible Masterson took his big step forward last year.  Masterson has always been known as an elite groundball pitcher --- he led the league with a 58% ground ball rate in 2013 and he has the sixth-highest GBR of any pitcher in baseball over the last four seasons.  What changed Masterson's game last year, however, was his ability to miss bats.  Masterson had a career 7.1 K/9 over his first five seasons but he bumped that up to a career-best 9.1 K/9 in 2013.  In the Roto Authority starting pitcher rankings, Alex Steers McCrum even lumped Masterson into his group of "strikeout pitchers with too many walks." a designation that would've seemed unlikely a year ago.

There's a terrible pun coming in a few paragraphs, just so you know.  Be ready.

It seems like Masterson was able to goose his strikeout numbers by cutting back on the use of his sinker.  Masterson used his sinker a whopping 58.3% of the time in 2012, well above his career 44.5% mark, and it's perhaps no surprise that Masterson changed things up given how he struggled that season.  In 2013, however, the righty cut his sinker rate down to 49.4% and increased the use of his slider to 26.9%, by far the most Masterson has thrown the pitch in any of his four full Major League seasons.  If Masterson keeps the sinker in check, there's no reason he couldn't have another season of averaging at least one strikeout per inning. 

So that's the strikeouts accounted for, and Masterson should still get his fair share of wins given that the Tribe projects to be a pretty good team this season.  My only concern is that his ERA and WHIP could be slightly above what you'd want from the ace of a fantasy rotation.  Ideally you'd like a pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA and a sub-1.20 WHIP, but with Masterson it could be more likely that he'll post something in the neighborhood of a 3.30 ERA and a WHIP in the 1.20-1.30 range.  This comes with the territory of having an ace groundball pitcher and an infield defense that includes UZR/150 nightmares Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, not to mention the possibly-comic stylings of Carlos Santana as a regular third baseman.  Still, while grounders are still Masterson's bread and butter, his increased strikeout prowess will help him overcome his infield's miscues.

Seriously, it's one of the more obvious, no-creativity puns you could imagine when discussing Justin Masterson, so of course Mark can't help but make it.  Brace yourself.

Between the flaws of a poor infield defense and a too-high walk rate (his 3.54 BB/9 ranked a mediocre 73rd amongst all qualified starters), Masterson definitely has a few warts, but I have a couple more reasons why I think he'll end the year as a top-drawer fantasy starter.  Injury concerns aren't really a factor given how Masterson is averaging 199 innings over the last four years, plus there's the ever-popular "contract year" narrative.  The Tribe had been talking to Masterson about an extension but talks have fallen through, so it's very likely that the right-hander will test free agency next winter.  Not that Masterson isn't a motivated guy anyway, but he'll have all the more incentive to perform well, as he'll have a $100MM+ contract waiting for him if he duplicates last season's numbers in 2014.

As noted, Masterson is way off the radar of many fantasy owners, so even if you missed him in your draft, there's still a chance to acquire him in a trade before Opening Day.  If you have a promising but unproven arm like Zach Wheeler or Tony Cingriani (to name a couple of pitchers ahead of Masterson on the ADP list), I'd certainly see about unloading either for Masterson.  Your rival manager may think he's getting a steal in picking a hot young arm while you can sit back and take comfort in a more reliable option.

Are you ready?  Here it comes.

All things considered, owning Masterson could end up being a masterpiece of fantasy roster move.

...wow, could that have been shoehorned in any more?  Brutal.



RotoAuthority Unscripted: Your Aberrant Experts (Starter Rankings)

Aberrant, deviant, distorted...awesome. However you want to call it, the rankings we put up here at RotoAuthority aren't just a clone of every other expert on the planet. Sure, we agree on the top four hitters, and that Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish should be the first two pitchers off the draft board, but things start to change after that.

Last week, I wrote up where some of our biggest differences were at each hitting position, and today we'll take up starting pitchers. You can check out our whole SP rankings here. (Note: I thought about including relievers, but it just didn't seem that fruitful—the big differences at that position are when to take any relievers at all.)

And for your reference, check out all of RotoAuthority’s rankings: OutfieldCatcherFirst BaseThird BaseSecond BaseShortstopCloserMiddle and Corner Infield

Once again, ADP and the Expert Consensus come from FantasyPros.com, with data they glean from across the fantasy globe.

Matt Cain
RA Ranking: 14 ADP Rank: 18 Expert Consensus: 17

The ranking difference doesn’t quite tell the story here—the RA thinking is that Cain remains a high-level SP option, just after the truly elite. Though ADP and the Expert Consensus only slot him a few ranks lower, they suggest he belongs squarely in the middle of your number-two pitchers. Verdict: Small differences matter—trust RA.

Doug Fister
RA Ranking: 19 ADP Rank: 33 Expert Consensus: 33

We’re aggressive on Fister, but there's very little not to like about his new situation, moving to the NL most especially. Remember when Gio Gonzalez made the same transition? There was a big improvement in his strikeout rate. Our prediction is that Fister leapfrogs new teammate Jordan Zimmermann, and we’re willing to take him as our number two starter if need be. Of course, we may not need to, given his ADP, but games of fantasy chicken are another story altogether…. Verdict: Trust RA.

Jered Weaver
RA Ranking: 21 ADP Rank: 28 Expert Consensus: 31

Weaver went from overrated to underrated in the space of about a year. I’m inclined to think that he’s being punished for the fact that he hasn’t sustained that one season of elite strikeout production. Just because he isn’t missing bats, though, doesn’t mean that he hasn’t made a habit of overperforming his FIP and providing solid help in WHIP every year. Weaver is just the kind of pitcher that I like to use to balance out high-K, high-BB pitchers like Gio Gonzalez. Verdict: Expect to see Weaver on plenty of teams that contend in ERA, WHIP, and Wins—trust RA.

Hyun-jin Ryu
RA Ranking: 25 ADP Rank: 31 Expert Consensus: 30

Ryu is another guy who doesn’t dominate whiffs, but helps everywhere else. Playing for the Dodgers, he benefits from a good lineup and a friendly park—he’s got the factors you want for good luck. That and strong control, and the fact that he’s relatively young. I see a high floor with room for improvement in his second year stateside. Verdict: Trust RA

Gerrit Cole
RA Ranking: 27 ADP Rank: 21 Expert Consensus: 19

“Why do you hate Gerrit Cole?” asked, apparently, everyone. We don’t. It’s not that we love Cole less—just that we love others more. There’s always risk with young pitchers, and with Cole there’s also the risk that he doesn’t add the strikeouts that most are expecting—and there are a lot of enticing options between our ranking and that of the Experts. Still, he’s got seriously high reward, so the enthusiasm is understandable. Verdict: Go for it if you’re focused on upside. Otherwise, there are plenty of more proven pitchers available.

A.J. Burnett
RA Ranking: 28 ADP Rank: 48 Expert Consensus: 48

Most others seem to see in Burnett a guy who’s too old and had huge home/road splits—and now is leaving that favorable home behind. Me, I see a guy who pitched good and struck out far more batters than anyone else left on the board. There’s certainly downside here—serious downside—but the upside is the ace-level pitching he gave owners last year. The RA ranking is aggressive, but he’s an absolute steal at his ADP. Verdict: Target him between our rank and his ADP—he’s a risk worth taking.

Masahiro Tanaka
RA Ranking: 30 ADP Rank: 20 Expert Consensus: 27

The numbers above tell the story on Tanaka: experts (including RA) are cautiously interested—but every league seems to have someone who just can’t wait to take Tanaka. Verdict: The experts agree—be patient with Tanaka.

Hiroki Kuroda
RA Ranking: 37 ADP Rank: 49 Expert Consensus: 41

Another Japanese Yankee where RA and the Experts land nearly together—and far from ADP. There’s nothing terribly exciting about the dependable Kuroda, so it’s no wonder he’s lasting longer in drafts. That said, reliable pitchers are rare, and good for balancing out risks like his new teammate. Verdict: Trust RA (and the other Experts)

Matt Moore
RA Ranking: 49 ADP Rank: 32 Expert Consensus: 28

This is one strikeout source even I won’t touch. With huge walk rates and a year that started great but seemed to get worse every month, Moore seems to be made of red flags. There’s no way I’d consider taking him as early as the other Experts suggest. If that means I miss out on what he’ll do to my WHIP even if things go right, well that’s fine. Verdict: Moore is a time bomb at 28. Trust RA.

Rick Porcello
RA Ranking: 55 ADP Rank: 77 Expert Consensus: 71

Porcello is cemented into the rotation of one of baseball’s best teams, and he's ratcheted his strikeout rate up a bunch in 2013. He’s still younger than we think, since he came to the Majors at 20 years old and he could really put it all together this year. Even if he doesn’t, he ought to be a good source of Wins and ERA. Verdict: He’s got more upside than plenty of late-round pitchers, and a much, much higher floor. Trust RA.

Scott Kazmir
RA Ranking: 56 ADP Rank: 76 Expert Consensus: 72

Kazmir came back like lightning last year, with prodigious strikeouts and a FIP that suggested his 4.00+ ERA ought to come down. Now, he’s in a very favorable park, still playing for a contending team—this is a risk I like. Verdict: Trust RA.

John Lackey
RA Ranking: 61 ADP Rank: 80 Expert Consensus: 64

RA and the Experts are nearly 20 draft slots ahead of most on Lackey! Maybe most drafters didn’t notice that he really bounced back last year. I don’t know why drafters don't like him, but it's easy enough to see that he's well worth drafting. Verdict: Trust RA—and the Experts.

Chris Tillman
RA Ranking: 70 ADP Rank: 60 Expert Consensus: 58

Tillman was pretty lucky with his ERA last year, so I have some worries about what his 2014 will really look like. That said, he plays on a team with a good offense and misses bats, so there’s some useful upside here. If you think his ERA and WHIP will hold together, I can understand liking him more than we do. Verdict: You can feel OK about drafting him before me…but I’ll feel fine too.

Jonathon Niese
RA Ranking: 71 ADP Rank: 100 Expert Consensus: 84

RA and the Experts seem to have noticed what most drafters haven’t: Niese really regained form after I dropped him off all my fantasy teams returning from injury. In fact, he pitched like the top-40 starter that he was in 2012. You don’t have to be as aggressive as RA to get this guy on your team, but you definitely should. Verdict: Trust RA…but feel free to wait on him.

Alex Wood
RA Ranking: 73 ADP Rank: 62 Expert Consensus: 60

I’d like to excuse myself to say that we did this ranking before the Braves’ rotation got hit with injuries…but that’s not particularly true. Wood does seem to have more upside than our 73 ranking gives him credit for, though at this point in the draft, you’re sorting through which kind of risk/reward candidates you like. Verdict: Go ahead and move Wood up a little higher on your draft board. There are plenty of people less interesting than him.

 

 



Draft Round Battles: Miller Vs. Teheran

This week's draft battle features two 23-year-old right-handers who stand out as aces of the future, even while being somewhat underrated just because they happen to play for teams who churn out quality pitchers even more often than I churn out quality columns on a near-annual basis.  If Shelby Miller or Julio Teheran had come up in the systems of a somewhat pitching-bereft team, they'd probably get a *little* more hype just for being unique -- as members of the Cardinals and Braves, however, even some great arms tend to get a bit lost in the crowd.

That's not the only way that Miller and Teheran are similar.  If you look at their career numbers from 2012-13,* it makes you want to chew some Doublemint gum.  Miller gets a few more strikeouts, Teheran walks a few less batters and Teheran's ERA is a third of a run higher, a difference that I'd argue is negligible looking at their closer peripherals.

* Teheran debuted a year earlier than Miller and didn't pitch well in his 19 2/3 IP (three starts and two relief appearances in 2011).  Even though we're dealing with sample sizes anyway, I feel okay with not counting Teheran's veritable cup of coffee in the bigs as a 20-year-old.

So their career numbers are basically identical, they both have good defenses behind them and good lineups supporting them, and their average draft positions (142.52 for Teheran, 148.97 for Miller) are virtually identical according to Mock Draft Central's latest mock draft reports.  So how are you supposed to choose between the two?

This matchup is somewhat similar to the Chris Sale vs. Max Scherzer draft battle from a couple of weeks ago, when I called it for Scherzer with the logic that he'd likely have a big edge on wins since the Tigers should be much better than the White Sox in 2014.  Wins are a nebulous stat anyway, and they don't apply in our present battle since (as mentioned) Atlanta and St. Louis are projected to be awesome again this year.   Still, Scherzer also had an edge over Sale in strikeouts, and since Miller records more K's than Teheran, is that enough to put the Shelbyville Shark over the top?

Not in this case.  I'm swayed towards Teheran by a more glaring metric, namely home/away splits.  Teheran missed fewer bats on the road (6.1 K/9) than he has at Turner Field (9.5 K/9) over his career, but besides the K's, he basically the same pitcher no matter where he's throwing.  Miller's home/away strikeout totals are consistent, but everything else is off --- Miller has a 4.48 ERA and 2.33 K/BB in 86 1/3 career road innings, as opposed to a sterling 1.61 ERA and 4.04 K/BB in 100 2/3 IP at Busch Stadium.  Opposing batters have a .775 OPS against Miller in their ballparks and only a .542 OPS against him in St. Louis, while Teheran is more stable, holding batters to .688 OPS in Atlanta and a .724 OPS on the road.

Is this a small thing to nitpick about an otherwise excellent young hurler?  It sure is, gang!  Yet this is all it takes to make me prefer Teheran over Miller, by a tiny margin.  I'm happy starting Teheran anywhere, whereas if Miller was on my fantasy roster, I'd certainly think twice about starting him in a tough opposing ballpark.

A note about innings, since there's increased focus on Miller's arm strength after the Cardinals essentially sat him out for the entire postseason.  I'm not worried --- Miller's combined innings counts in the majors and minors aren't increasing by leaps and bounds and I fully expect he'd be able to throw at least another 173 IP in 2014 and probably a full postseason if (when?) the Cardinals make another deep playoff run.  The Braves, by the way, have been similarly cautious about Teheran's innings and given how Teheran was torched in his lone playoff start last year, we could well be sitting here asking "why'd Atlanta shut down Teheran?" had they made a longer run.

So yeah, even the innings-increase is just about the same with these guys.  Talk about identical; I'm seeing four Krustys here!



RotoAuthority Rankings 2014: Starting Pitchers

We've saved the best and--by far--the longest for last, so brace yourself and get ready to enjoy. As always, these rankings come as a product of the whole RotoAuthority team. In case you missed out on our previous rankings, there's still plenty of time to catch up:

OutfieldCatcherFirst BaseThird BaseSecond BaseShortstopCloserMiddle and Corner Infield

That last link will also link you to the spreadsheet version of our rankings for quick reference. And if you arent' feeling patient, here is  Download RA Starter Rankings. Or you can just scroll up and download it when you finish reading. Anyway, enough delay. On to the tiers.

Tier 1: Clayton Kershaw

1. Clayton Kershaw

Yeah, we named the whole tier after him. He does it all, and he's done it consistently, and he is the only pitcher you should consider with your first round pick.

 Tier 2: Yu Know Who (2nd-4th Rounds)

2. Yu Darvish

3. Adam Wainwright

4. Stephen Strasburg

5. Felix Hernandez

6. Cliff Lee

7. Max Scherzer

8. Justin Verlander

9. Chris Sale

10. Madison Bumgarner

11. Jose Fernandez

I can't honestly include anyone else in consideration for Darvish's spot behind Kershaw--the strikeouts are just too good, as is his offense. Wainwright is probably the better pitcher, and playing for the Cardinals makes him an easy second choice. Don't let either pitcher escape the second round.

Strasburg, Scherzer, Verlander, and Bumgarner all have an advantage over the rest of this tier by playing for good or decent offensive teams. (Don't believe me on the Giants? Check it out.) If you weight wins a little more, they'll all be on top. Verlander's track record makes him too good to pass up, despite last year's "struggles." Hernandez and Lee provide excellence you can depend on, while Sale and Fernandez may have the highest upside--but the most injury risk and the worst supporting cast.

Depending on how fast your league is to grab starters, these guys might all be gone by the second, or they might last till the fourth. After that, they become excellent value in nearly every format.

Tier 3: Almost Aces

12. David Price

13. Anibal Sanchez

14. Matt Cain

15. Zack Greinke

16. James Shields

17. Gio Gonzalez

Price and Greinke miss the top tier thanks to falling strikeout rates--which raise red flags for other performance falls. Sanchez was so dominant last year (and supported by peripherals), but he'll have to do it again to move up a tier. With his years of excellence, Cain deserves a mulligan for April 2013. Give him that, regress his HR/FB luck, and he's the same old awesome for a low price. You better bet he'll be on a lot of my teams this year. Shields is consistently very good, with a lower ceiling than other elite pitchers, but a higher floor. A great choice to pair with a riskier ace like Fernandez or Verlander. Gonzalez has a big strikeout advantage...but probably won't help you in WHIP. He's a great choice for anyone emphasizing the counting categories as strategy.

Tier 4: The Safety Net and an Injury Interlude

18. Homer Bailey

19. Doug Fister

20. Jordan Zimmermann

21. Jered Weaver

22. Mike Minor

23. Hisashi Iwakuma

24. Cole Hamels

25. Hyun-jin Ryu

26. Mat Latos

Bailey really broke out and I toyed with putting him a tier above, but I'd want more consistent health before I took him over anyone above. I expect Fister to surpass Zimmermann in strikeout rate and, therefore, fantasy value this year--but they should end up pretty similar. Weaver is a consistent overperformer of FIP, and a great source of WHIP. Good to pair with Gonzalez. Ryu already seems like a "consistently very good but never great" type...but he's only been in the MLB for a year and is younger than I am. (Which isn't saying as much as it used to....) With the exception of one really bad HR/FB rate, Latos has delivered four strong seasons in a row.

Minor and Iwakuma would be Tier 3 pitchers if not for their injuries. The lowered ranking is less about missing a couple April starts, and more about the possibility that two weeks turns to a month, to two months, to out for the season...yes, I get paranoid about players who are already injured. Speaking of which, Hamels would be a Tier 2 guy, easily, but his injury looks likely to keep him out at a month or so, with the dreaded "no timetable" phrase floating around. Ugh.

Tier 4 pitchers might last from the 4th through 7th rounds--when you should draft starters is very dependent on the market that develops in individual leagues on draft day.

Tier 5: Take a Risk

27. Gerrit Cole

28. A.J. Burnett

29. Shelby Miller

30. Masahiro Tanaka

31. Alex Cobb

32. Julio Teheran

33. Michael Wacha

34. Francisco Liriano

35. Danny Salazar

36. Jon Lester

37. Hiroki Kuroda

Most staffs should be drafting their third starter in this tier, and there are plenty of enticing options. Young guns like Cole, Miller, Wacha, Cobb, and Teheran offer tons of upside--as well as question marks. Will Cole bump his strikeouts as a sophomore? Why were the Cards so down on Miller late last year? And such.

How excited should you be about Tanaka? Well, his ceiling is probably as a Tier 2 or 3 pitcher and his floor...is still better than Kei Igawa. The only reason I'm not drafting him is that hype has super-inflated his price (check out the difference between his Yahoo! dollar value and average cost to see what I mean). Stay away in public leagues, but reaction to his hype could actually make him a value play for very competitive leagues.

Burnett is so old that...that he posted a 9.85 K/9 last year. I'll buy. Liriano is the most inconsistent player ever. True story. I'll roll the dice for the strikeouts, though. Salazar owes the Cleveland Propaganda Machine a big thank-you...wait, Cleveland doesn't have a propaganda machine? Then why is he not a sleeper? It's not fair, but you'll have to pay full price to get the phenom and his potential.

Lester and Kuroda are available for the risk-averse. Or better yet, pair them with any pitcher from this tier.

Tier 6: Now It's Real

38. Jeff Samardzija

39. Andrew Cashner

40. Tony Cingrani

41. Sonny Gray

42. Johnny Cueto

43. R.A. Dickey

44. CC Sabathia

45. Ervin Santana

46. Matt Garza

47. Patrick Corbin

48. Justin Masterson

49. Matt Moore

50. Dan Haren

51. Marco Estrada

52. C.J. Wilson

53. Lance Lynn

54. Tim Lincecum

Picking starters just stopped being easy. The difference between each slot on the rankings are small, and the margins of error in predictions are large. There are still intriguing options, but all come with downsides.

You can get anything you want in this tier. Strikeout pitchers with too many walks? Samardzija, Wilson, Masterson, and Lynn. Or Moore and Lincecum as the extreme examples. Cueto is hoping to make a full-season return from injury. One-time aces Sabathia and Haren have value to rebuild for contending squads. What will Dickey's knuckler do this year? Corbin already did his regression in last year's second half--and he was still good. Garza's health keeps him underrated, even when on the field. If Estrada's HR/FB rate normalizes, he could be very, very good...but he's never done that over a full season. Cingrani and Gray put up eye-popping numbers in limited time--how much can they sustain for the season? If Cashner adds strikeouts, he could rocket up the rankings by the end of the year. If not, he'll still be a dependably good sort of guy.

Tier 7: The Last Shallow Leaguers

55. Rick Porcello

56. Scott Kazmir

57. Corey Kluber

59. Ian Kennedy

59. Tim Hudson

60. Clay Buchholz

61. John Lackey

62. Bartolo Colon

63. Chris Archer

64. Ubaldo Jimenez

65. Jake Peavy

66. A.J. Griffin

67. Dan Straily

68. Kyle Lohse

69. Yovani Gallardo

70. Chris Tillman

71. Jonathon Niese

These pitchers are probably the last ones you'll need in very shallow leagues, though some will want to reach for one or two more, I suppose.

Porcello's strikeout rate made a big jump; if he can sustain it, he'll be a great value. It's worth remembering that he's still kind of young. Is Kazmir's return from the dead real? His peripherals say so, and his ERA ought to improve in Oakland. Kluber looked very interesting in limited time last year, with a nifty K/BB ratio. Kennedy is a great bounce-back candidate with San Diego. Hudson, Colon, and Lohse are good WHIP helpers. If Buchholz and Lackey can prove that last year's return to greatness was real, the Red Sox and fantasy owners will be very, very happy. Archer walks too many people, but has talent. So did Gallardo once, but who knows what's happening to his career after last year's debacle. Peavy is already injured...as usual. Griffin, Straily, and Tillman all benefited from a bit of apparent luck in the ERA-FIP department and may need luck again to be particularly relevant. Niese appeared to overcome injury at the end of the year and could be great value as a forgotten man.

Tier 8: All About Upside

72. Josh Johnson

73. Alex Wood

74. Tyson Ross

75. Ivan Nova

76. Taijuan Walker

77. Jose Quintana

78. Wade Miley

79. Drew Smyly

80. Zack Wheeler

Johnson was basically baseball's worst pitcher last year...but San Diego and talent are a great combination to resurrect a career. Wood was very good in his brief stint as a starter last year; the Braves will be counting on him. Ross was very impressive in a mixed role last year. Nova didn't manage a full season, but did pitch well for the Yanks. Walker would be higher, but he's facing an injury. Keep an eye on the prospect. Quintana was quietly very solid, but has a low ceiling. Miley lost a lot of control in his sophomore season; he'll be value if he gets it back. Smyly is an interesting converted reliever. Wheeler didn't impress as a rookie, but has the talent to improve.

Dry Your Tiers: Deep League Flyers

At some point, tiers and rankings cease to be useful. You're either looking for help in particular categories, or following particular strategies based on your risk/reward needs. So here are some different categories of potentially useful pitchers for deep leagues.

Prospects: Yordano Ventura, Kevin Gausman, Brett Oberholtzer, Tyler Skaggs, James Paxton, Archie Bradley, Jameson Taillon, Noah Syndergaard

Low-Upside Reliables: Trevor Cahill, Wei-Yin Chen, Bruce Chen, Jason Vargas, Mark Buehrle, Henderson Alvarez, Miguel Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Ricky Nolasco, Jhoulys Chacin, Charlie Morton, Roberto Hernandez, Scott Feldman, Brandon McCarthy, John Danks, Ross Detwiler, Freddy Garcia

Back From Injury: Scott Baker, Michael Pineda, Alexi Ogando, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Morrow, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis, Jaime Garcia, Brandon Beachy, Jenrry Mejia, Johan Santana, Shaun Marcum

Lucky Last Year: Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo, Travis Wood

Rebound Candidates: Phil Hughes, Josh Beckett, Ryan Vogelsong

Strikeout Sources: Hector Santiago, Felix Doubront, Bud Norris, Brad Peacock, Felipe Paulino, Edinson Volquez

Injury Stash: Derek Holland, Jarrod Parker, Jeremy Hellickson, Gavin Floyd

Got Some Upside: Jake Arrieta, Wily Peralta, Martin Perez, Dillon Gee, Eric Stults, Erasmo Ramirez, Zach McAllister, Tommy Milone, Nathan Eovaldi, Erik Johnson, Randall Delgado, Trevor Bauer

 Note: At publishing time, it appears that Brandon Beachy has a strong likelihood of needing Tommy John surgery. If that isn't necessary, keep tabs on his injury, but there isn't any way of knowing now when to draft him in that case.



Draft Round Battles: Scherzer Vs. Sale

As the late, great Gorilla Monsoon used to say, "six of one, half a dozen of the other."  Okay, I'm pretty sure that saying existed well before Monsoon used to bust it out on old pro wrestling broadcasts, but still, it's a pretty sound way of describing two virtually identical items, be they Hulk Hogan vs. the Ultimate Warrior or two AL Central star pitchers.

If you wait until the fifth round to draft your first starter, you're more than happy with Max Scherzer or Chris Sale as the ace of your fantasy rotation.  Scherzer has a 56.87 ADP on Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position reports, while Sale is projected to go only slightly later (a 57.8 ADP).  Since Sale has only been in the White Sox rotation for two years, let's check out how both men performed in 2012-13 as per the 5x5 stats and some other key metrics...

Sale: 3.06 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 28-22 record, 418 strikeouts, 406 1/3 IP, 4.31 K/BB rate, 3.22 FIP, 3.09 xFIP, 3.09 SIERA, 9.9 fWAR, 12.8 rWAR

Scherzer: 3.29 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 37-10 record, 471 strikeouts, 402 IP, 4.06 K/BB rate, 2.99 FIP, 3.19 xFIP, 2.98 SIERA, 11 fWAR, 10.8 rWAR

You have to call the 2012-13 race for Scherzer given his edges in strikeouts and wins.  The latter can be chalked up to team performance --- Scherzer was definitely helped by a strong Tigers squad, while Sale actually went only 11-14 last season thanks to the putrid White Sox lineup.  Since Detroit is expected to contend for the pennant again and the Sox will be thrilled with even a .500 record, Scherzer's wins edge will almost certainly continue.  Heck, he could even pick up more wins now that Joe Nathan is closing games instead of the revolving door of mediocre stoppers the Tigers have rolled out in recent years.

Looking at just the last two seasons limits Scherzer's case, as he put up decent-to-very good numbers from 2009-11 for the Diamondbacks and Tigers.  The knock on Scherzer in those years was that he was always just a step away from really getting it all together, but he was a perfectly solid #4 type of fantasy starter in those years.  He began racking up more strikeouts in 2012 to take a leap forward, and then got even better last season, culminating in the AL Cy Young Award.

I can raise just two minor red flags in regards to Scherzer's performance last year.  One is a .259 BABIP and the other is a career-low 7.6% home run rate in combination with a career-high 44.6% fly ball rate (only Oakland's A.J. Griffin had a higher fly ball rate among all qualified starters).  Scherzer was making them put it in the sky more often than ever in 2013, yet comparatively few of those balls left the park.  It wouldn't surprise me to see that stat correct itself closer to Scherzer's career norms in 2014, so his ERA could be due for a boost into the 3.15/3.20 range, which still isn't exactly anything to get worried about.

If Scherzer does regress just a bit, however, does that allow Sale room to even the score?  What we saw in 2013 was likely Scherzer at his peak, so now it's only a question if he can sustain it.  Sale, on the other hand, is only entering his age-25 season and still has room to grow.  He can't do anything about his win total but could his ERA, WHIP and strikeouts get even better? 

While it must be noted that Sale's first two seasons came out of the bullpen and Scherzer has over twice as many career innings, Sale's career 9.5 K/9 is actually higher than Scherzer's 9.4 career K/9.  Sale was clearly the better pitcher over his first two full seasons as a starter than Scherzer was in his first two full SP years, so it wouldn't be shocking to see him continue this upward trend.

This is one of those situations where I'm pretty confident that Sale will be the better pitcher than Scherzer in 2014 when we look back at the overall numbers and the advanced stats, yet in terms of pure 5x5 fantasy value, I still have to favor Scherzer.  Sale may have the lower ERA and WHIP, though not by a particularly large amount, while Scherzer should have a solid advantage in strikeouts and a potentially massive advantage in wins.  I hate putting this much stock in wins since they're such an arbitrary stat, but just looking at the difference in talent between the Tigers and White Sox rosters makes me pretty confident in saying that Scherzer will get more chances at earning the W's.

In this battle of six vs. half a dozen, it's too close to call, it's an even fight--but consider the Tigers' lineup to be like the ringside manager who illegally interferes behind the referee's back.  It might be a "miscarriage of justice" to ol' Gorilla Monsoon, but all's fair in love, war and fantasy baseball.  That's all Scherzer needs to claim this one.



How to Win 2014: ERA

In the old days, ERA was a pretty easy category to win. All it took was a team ERA in the mid-3.00's and you were set. Get an ace or two, some good relievers, and focus on strikeout pitchers decent enough to get you some wins, and you'd probably compete in ERA. Maybe even win. As a proxy for other all competitive leagues, the ERA leader in the MLBTR league rocked a 3.01 ERA. My 3.99 number was good for...last place. This ain't the '90's, that's for sure.

So, let us assume that the ERA's in your league are also likely to run from one end of the 3.00's to the other, and not get much worse (except in public free leagues when someone is bound to quit checking their team in mid-May) or better than that. The bar is high for success in ERA, which is probably why we're seeing higher ADP's for top starters, including a more-or-less-consensus that Clayton Kershaw belongs in the first round.

The category is, of course, notoriously luck-heavy, with park, defense, left-on-base rates, timing of hits and outs, and plain ol' random chance all playing parts. But there's a lot of skill going on too. As with any rate category, you can't force a win, not even by spending way too much of your budget trying to, but you can certainly put yourself in a good (or bad) position.

Let's take a look at last year's ERA leaders, with their FIP, and their ERA-FIP. We'll go back to using the top 12 players, for the potential anchor for each team in a standard league.

2013 ERA Leaders (min. 100 IP)*

 

Name

ERA

FIP

xFIP

WAR

ERA-FIP

1

Clay Buchholz

1.74

2.78

3.41

3.2

-1.04

2

Clayton Kershaw

1.83

2.39

2.88

6.5

-0.56

3

Jose Fernandez

2.19

2.73

3.08

4.2

-0.54

4

Anibal Sanchez

2.57

2.39

2.91

6.2

0.18

5

Zack Greinke

2.63

3.23

3.45

2.9

-0.6

6

Bartolo Colon

2.65

3.23

3.95

3.9

-0.58

7

Hisashi Iwakuma

2.66

3.44

3.28

4.2

-0.78

8

Alex Cobb

2.76

3.36

3.02

2.4

-0.6

9

Madison Bumgarner

2.77

3.05

3.32

3.7

-0.28

10

Yu Darvish

2.83

3.28

2.84

5

-0.45

11

Cliff Lee

2.87

2.82

2.78

5.1

0.05

12

Max Scherzer

2.9

2.74

3.16

6.4

0.16

*Excluding Matt Harvey, who won't be pitching this season.

A lot of the usual suspects here, though Buchholz and Cobb have yet to be full-season aces, while Colon's strikeout rate is so low he's difficult to play in mixed leagues.

One might have been tempted to peg Scherzer as a regression candidate, but he and Lee are the only ones on this list to post FIP's better than their ERA. Of course, Scherzer's xFIP tells a different story...I'll sum it up as, "he'll be good," and leave the particulars to others.

Read on, and beware: there will be many charts!

Continue reading "How to Win 2014: ERA" »



The Market Report: Starting Pitchers

The Market Report is a weekly analysis of player valuations in the fantasy marketplace in an effort to find undervalued commodities.

Just about every player has reported to camp at this point. Spring Training games will begin later this week. We really are getting close to Opening Day, I promise. Let's take a look at starting pitchers this week. As usual, ADP values are provided in parentheses.

Tier One

1. Clayton Kershaw (7)

2. Yu Darvish (17)

Tier Two

3. Max Scherzer (26)

4. Adam Wainwright (26)

5. Justin Verlander (35)

6. Stephen Strasburg (36)

Tier Three

7. Jose Fernandez (45)

8. Cliff Lee (48)

9. Madison Bumgarner (49)

10. Felix Hernandez (51)

Tier Four

11. Chris Sale (58)

12. Zack Greinke (63)

13. David Price (66)

14. Cole Hamels (71)

15. Jordan Zimmermann (75)

Tier Five

16.  Masahiro Tanaka (80)

17. Anibal Sanchez (83)

18. Matt Cain (87)

19. James Shields (91)

20. Hisashi Iwakuma (92)

21. Gerrit Cole (92)

Tier Six

22. Shelby Miller (99)

23. Kris Medlen (100)

24. Mike Minor (101)

25. Gio Gonzalez (104)

26. Matt Moore (105)

Tier Seven

27. Alex Cobb (111)

28. Homer Bailey (115)

29. Jon Lester (116)

30. Julio Teheran (116)

31. Michael Wacha (117)

32. Mat Latos (119)

Undervalued

Kris Medlen (ADP 100)

For a few years Medlen was left on the outside looking in at the Braves starting rotation, and fantasy owners had to wait patiently for the best sixth starter in baseball to earn his chance. Well, Medlen finally got that opportunity down the stretch in 2012, and he was simply brilliant, with a sparkling 1.57 ERA and 0.91 WHIP. Entering last season then, this looked like an overvalued commodity to me, as it appeared he was bound to take a significant step back. However, Medlen put together a solid campaign last year, posting a 3.11 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. At this point, I think it's safe to say that the right-hander ranks as a capable #2 starter in standard mixed leagues. While he may lack the upside of a hurler like Francisco Liriano due to a mediocre strikeout rate, Medlen has a high floor and makes for an excellent pick if paired with a dominant anchor like Yu Darvish or Max Scherzer.

Danny Salazar (ADP 145)

Yes, I know the hype is building on Salazar, and in a month his ADP may be inside the top 100. I'm normally one to zig when the fantasy community zags, and it's no secret that this young Indians fireballer ranks at the top of sleeper lists all over the place. At his current pricetag, though, I still think there's plenty of room for profit. With an average fastball velocity above 96 mph last year, Salazar was electric. He had a remarkable 30.8 K% while posting a 3.12 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP over 52 innings. Now there are some caveats here: Salazar has yet to prove he can handle the workload of a full season, and he's already had Tommy John surgery. Even so, skills like his shouldn't be available after Round 10. Barring injury, this is a fantasy ace in the making.

Doug Fister (ADP 172)

When Fister was dealt from Detroit to Washington, I assumed his market value would rise with the move to the National League. After all, moving from the AL to the NL can boost a pitcher's strikeout rate by a half a point. As we sit here in late-Februrary, though, Fister is still falling outside the top 150 in drafts. Yes, I know the strikeout rate won't be anything spectacular, but the new Nationals right-hander should be excellent in ERA and WHIP. Let's face it: Clayton Kershaw is the best bet to lead the NL in ERA again this year. Beyond Kershaw, however, here's a dark-horse candidate for the ERA crown available in Round 15.

Overvalued

Matt Moore (ADP 105)

While sabermetrics are mainstream at this point, it still sure seems like the fantasy community as a whole places some value in projecting the wins category. Otherwise, I can't really explain why Moore would be drafted ahead of other arms like Alex Cobb, Homer Bailey, and Michael Wacha. If we suddenly were to throw out the wins category as a contributor toward fantasy value, Moore would have been far outside the top 50 among pitchers last season. For two years in a row, he's markedly outperformed his peripherals with a career ERA at 3.55 yet a career SIERA at 4.11. While some sabermetricians might forecast steep regression, I think the Rays defense certainly is a factor at play there, so that trend may continue. The fact remains, however, that Moore has some very serious issues with control. Moreover, if you're going to draft a starting pitcher in the first ten rounds, you'd like to grab someone with a track record of durability; unfortunately, Moore missed a month last year with elbow soreness. Ultimately, my philosophy on drafting starting pitching is to group the arms in tiers and patiently wait for values to hopefully emerge. Given that injuries take place at a higher frequency among pitchers than hitters, it just doesn't make sense to me to select Moore at his current ADP with so many other viable alternatives. Avoid.



How to Win 2014: Wins

Wins aren’t exactly the trendiest category since the sabermetric revolution. Apparently, they don't tell us much about a player's "true talent," and they aren't very "predictive" of future performance. Things have come a long ways since Buzzie Bavasi let Nolan Ryan go for being "a .500 pitcher."

But we still include wins in this, our enlightened, statistical game. And we have to. Wins are what keep us in touch with real baseball, what keep us interested in the outcome of the real games. Play in a couple fantasy leagues, and you'll be watching the scores in half the day's games every day. Wins are exhilarating.

 And a bit frustrating. My favorite example of this is 2004, the year I had poor Kelvim Escobar when he was pitching for the Angels. Now, you may not remember, but Escobar was really good for a couple years there, and so were the Angels. They had one of the top-scoring offenses, and Escobar was a distinctly above-average fantasy pitcher. And he ended up with a record of 11-12. He was much better than teammate Bartolo Colon and pitched the same number of innings. Colon's record: 18-12. With an ERA over 5.00. Life just ain't fair.

 Fortunately, as in Runs Scored, there are controllable luck components to getting Wins, and there are legitimate skill components too. You can chase both.

 Living with Luck Dragons: Run Support

 The Escobar/Colon example I gave was so frustrating because those guys pitched for the same team, with the same hitters supposedly trying to score some runs. Thankfully, this is an extreme example: as best as we can predict, pitchers on the same team ought to get pretty much the same run support. (Except when the team changes its defensive lineup to help the pitcher with speed and defense outfielders, or a personal catcher who can't hit.)

 Get a good pitcher on a good offensive team and you've put yourself in a decent position for some Wins. A great pitcher with a great offense is obviously even better, but don't think the results are linear: Wins should be treated as having a wide possible spread because there are so many uncontrollable factors going into every game.

 Here are the top AL teams by projected Runs Scored/Game going into next season:

Angels 4.55
Rangers 4.52
Red Sox 4.51
Blue Jays 4.49
Tigers 4.44

If you're noticing that these teams look really similar to the list I posted last week...well, they are. The same thing that scores runs for hitters scores it for pitchers. Players with good teammates tend to benefit from what we term luck.

For the same reasons as last time, I'll include the top few NL offenses too: 

Rockies 4.51
Diamondbacks 4.23
Giants 4.20 
Cardinals 4.19
Braves 4.14

Standards are lower in NL (thanks a lot, letting pitchers bat), but that doen't mean that these teams aren't going to beat their competition. It's probably worth noting that the Rockies get their high number from their park more than their hitters--the D-Backs too, to a lesser extent.

Here are some teams that don't look like they'll score many runs:

In the AL, the Twins and White Sox stand below the crowd with just 4.06 and 4.04 RS/9, respectively. The Rays, Yankees, Mariners, and Astros form the next tier up, with between 4.20 and 4.24 RS/G.

In the NL, the Marlins are alone for horrible-ness, with just 3.65 predicted RS/G. Ouch. The Cubs, Phillies, Mets, and Padres are all projected between 3.84 and 3.89 RS/G. 

Real Skills: IP/G

The deeper into games you pitch, the more you'll win. It's pretty simple, actually, but pitching deep into the game is a skill worth having. Here are the starters with the highest innings per start from 2011-2013:

Name            

Cliff Lee

Wins

37

GS

93

IP

666.1

IP/GS

7.16

James Shields

44

100

705.2

7.05

Hisashi Iwakuma

23

49

345

7.04

Clayton Kershaw

51

99

697

7.04

Justin Verlander

54

101

707.2

7.00

CC Sabathia

48

93

648.1

6.97

Felix Hernandez

39

97

670

6.91

Cole Hamels

39

95

651.1

6.85

David Price

42

92

622

6.76

R.A. Dickey

42

99

667

6.74

Adam Wainwright

33

66

440.1

6.67

Jered Weaver

49

87

578.2

6.65

Doug Fister

35

89

586.2

6.59

Matt Cain

36

95

625.1

6.58

Yu Darvish

29

61

401

6.57 

This isn't perfect, as you can see from the Wins column above, but these deep-pitching guys give their teams a chance to hit the ball and score runs.

If your league happens to count up losses...well, pitching deep means more decisions. In 5x5, you don't care about the difference between a loss and a no-decision, but if your format does give a penalty for a loss, straight-up IP/GS may get you in some trouble. Usually, though, a Win is more benefit than a Loss is a problem.

Luck and Skill: Together Again

Here are some pitchers who rack up innings and pitch for teams that score runs. It's the closest thing to a magic formula that I can think of for wins--aside from, you know, just being a good pitcher.

Darvish, Cain, Weaver, Wainwright, Dickey and Verlander are the standouts from the list above.

Dropping beyond the very best of innings eaters, here are some more pitchers that also fit pretty well into the formula:

Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, Madison Bumgarner, C.J. Wilson, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, John Lackey, Tim Lincecum, and Mike Minor

All these guys averaged at least 6.0 IP/GS for the last three years, and play in one of the top five offenses in their league.

Are their wins a sure thing? Certainly not. But their skills combine well with those of their teammates to win ballgames for their teams and themselves.

Just in Case We Missed Something...

Like Runs Scored, Wins are an output stat. We've measured two of the biggest inputs for getting Wins, but there are more. We can't measure them all here, and most are only a tiny fraction of the Win anyway. So, for the sake of thoroughness, let's see the top winners from the last three years:

Name

Wins

Justin Verlander

54

Max Scherzer

52

Clayton Kershaw

51

Jered Weaver

49

CC Sabathia

48

Gio Gonzalez

48

Zack Greinke

46

C.J. Wilson

46

Yovani Gallardo

45

James Shields

44

Ian Kennedy

43

David Price

42

Madison Bumgarner

42

R.A. Dickey

42

Kyle Lohse

41

Hiroki Kuroda

40

Tim Hudson

40

There are a lot of repeat names here, which is probably a good sign: innings, teammates, and good luck seem to be the real keys of the Wins category. 

 Don't Forget the Bullpen

Nothing is worse than losing a lead because the relief blew it. Closers get all the fantasy press, but you can lose the Win any time after your starter gets the hook.

These are the bullpens that led baseball by WAR last year and didn’t face significant losses to their relief corps: Royals, Red Sox, Twins, A’s, Blue Jays, and Braves.

By ERA, they were: Braves, Royals, Pirates, Brewers, A’s, and Reds.

In addition, the Dodgers and Rays have added some impressive pieces. While the Rangers lost Joe Nathan (so I removed them from the above lists), they could have a seriously dominant ‘pen if Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria are both back from their injuries.

Targeted Streaming

If you're in daily league, choosing the occasional streamer is a great way to enhance your Wins. What I don't mean is what often happens: streaming two or more pitchers a day, racking up a ton of wins, and losing out in ERA and WHIP. Not worth it. (Or maybe, I guess.)

Assuming you want to compete in ERA and WHIP, though, choosing a decent pitcher with a great matchup off the waiver wire ought to help you out a lot in the Wins category, not to mention strikeouts. When you find a fringy late-round/$1 flyer type of guy floating down the wire with a start against the Twins or White Sox, the Cubs or the Marlins--go for it. Over the course of the season, especially in a Roto style league.

Check us back out next week, as we return to hitters and RBI.



How to Win 2014: WHIP

Your success in WHIP hangs by a thread, stands on a razor’s edge, and a bunch of other violence-threatening metaphors for the imminent likelihood of disaster. 

You’ve noticed by now that baseball has changed in the last few years, and fantasy baseball with it. Pitchers are dominating like the 90’s never happened. The league average (min. 100 IP) starter WHIP was 1.29. For fantasy-viable starters (taking the top 100 SP by FIP as a proxy) it was 1.22. In one competitive roto-style league I played in last year, the WHIP winner had a team number of 1.12—last place was 1.28, or pretty much MLB average. I swear that number would have been competitive just five years ago. 

Expanding out of just my personal experience, let’s say the range of likely team WHIP scores (from last year) was 1.10-1.30. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. Hence the menacing metaphors of my intro. By the way, you’ve got the same WHIP-related stress whether you play the game week-by-week in head-to-head formats or all year long in a roto format. If it seems like one bad WHIP guy can kill you…well, he can. Thank you bargain-priced Tim Lincecum.

WHIP is a tricky category, composed in equal parts of two very different aspects of pitching: walk allowance and hitting allowance. The first variable, walks, is highly correlated from one year to the next—hits allowed are a different story. So, to try to catch a little more signal than noise, let’s examine the WHIP leaders over the course of the last three years. 

WHIP 2011-13 (min. 200 IP)

 

Name

WHIP

1

Clayton Kershaw

0.97

2

Jered Weaver

1.05

3

Cliff Lee

1.05

4

Stephen Strasburg

1.07

5

Hisashi Iwakuma

1.07

6

Justin Verlander

1.09

7

Cole Hamels

1.09

8

Matt Cain

1.09

9

Kris Medlen

1.09

10

Chris Sale

1.10

11

Brandon Beachy

1.11

12

Marco Estrada

1.11

13

David Price

1.11

14

Madison Bumgarner

1.12

15

Johnny Cueto

1.13

16

A.J. Griffin

1.13

17

Jordan Zimmermann

1.13

18

Kyle Lohse

1.14

19

James Shields

1.15

20

Adam Wainwright

1.15

21

Jake Peavy

1.16

Check out the analysis below the fold….

Continue reading "How to Win 2014: WHIP" »


Full Story |  Comments (0) | Categories: How to Win | Starters | WHIP

Draft Round Battles: Nationals' SP Battle Royale

It's hard to have a fantasy draft without at least one position run.  I've written about this before on Roto Authority, but about 13-14 years ago, I was in a fantasy draft that saw the run on catchers take place in the very first round, giving us the spectacle of Darrin Fletcher and Todd Hundley as first-round draft picks.  No, this wasn't in a league with members of the extended Fletcher or Hundley families, so I can't explain it either.

The point is, while position runs are a known variable to plan for, "teammate runs" are a lesser-known phenomenon that occur with some regularity, yet they aren't commented upon since they don't really have the impact on draft strategy of a position run.  A teammate run, as you might guess, is when you have multiple players from one team taken in quick succession.  It's as if after the first player goes, the rest of the league thinks, "oh yeah, Team X is supposed to be pretty good this year.  Hmm, well, their second baseman and the second baseman I had queued up next are pretty similar, I guess, so let's go with the guy on the good team instead." 

Note that this isn't a smart tactic or a reasonable one, as "playing for a good team" is only a limited factor in gauging fantasy value.  Maybe you can chalk it up to our brains' natural inclination towards order -- we still have a mild tendency to group similar objects like teammates together, even in the disordered world of a fantasy draft.

Teammate runs aren't usually a big factor in fantasy drafting since, unless you're a real superfan who was looking to take your favorites, it doesn't really matter if several players from one club are taken since, obviously, most of these players are at different positions.  The only positions* where it could present an issue would be outfield and starting pitcher, and for this week's Draft Round Battle, we'll focus on three options from the Nationals' rotation.  Stephen Strasburg will obviously be the first Washington hurler taken, but who would you rather take between Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister?

* = and, possibly, relief pitcher in cases where a team is using a closer committee.  If one manager drafts one part of the committee, expect another committee member to be taken soon after.  You can also see teammate runs take place in leagues that counts holds; those leagues might've seen another Nationals "teammate run" last season when Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard went off the board in quick succession.

First, let's take the obligatory moment to gawk at the Nationals' rotation since, wow, there aren't many teams who can roll out a top four like that.  Now, with a tip of the cap to Fangraphs, let's break down how Fister, Gonzalez and Zimmermann have each performed over the last three seasons via the four relevant 5x5 categories and a few extra statistics...

Fister: 35 wins, 3.30 ERA (3.21 FIP, 3.48 xFIP, 3.54 SIERA), 1.19 WHIP, 6.78 K/9, 3.75 K/BB, 586 2/3 IP

Gonzalez: 48 wins, 3.12 ERA (3.29 FIP, 3.54 xFIP, 3.68 SIERA), 1.23 WHIP, 8.98 K/9, 2.45 K/BB, 597 IP

Zimmermann: 39 wins, 3.12 ERA (3.35 FIP, 3.67 xFIP, 3.74 SIERA), 1.13 WHIP, 6.91 K/9, 3.84 K/BB, 570 1/3 IP

The first thing you'll notice is that these guys are pretty similar pitchers.  Gonzalez and Zimmermann are outperforming their advanced metrics (particularly SIERA) more significantly than Fister is, and Fister and Zimmermann have better control than Gonzalez, but Gonzalez has a notable edge in strikeouts and wins.  Gonzalez also has the edge beyond the limits of my sample size -- I limited the sample to 2011-13 since Zimmermann has only been a full-time starter for three seasons.  Gonzalez, meanwhile, was impressive in 2010 (and Fister was pretty average).

All three men will have the same home ballpark advantage and the same solid lineup behind them, so predicting wins is a fool's errand even if that stat determined anything beyond a fantasy category.  ERA and WHIP are also essentially even, so that leaves strikeouts, making Gonzalez the clear favorite, right?

Well, over Zimmermann, yes.  Let me be clear, I fully expect Jordan Zimmermann to be a very good starter in 2014 and if he's the #2 starter in your rotation, you're in good shape.  My only beef is that he's evolving into more and more of a ground ball pitcher (his grounder rate has jumped by 4% in each of the last two seasons), which is making him a better pitcher overall in a real-world context but limits his fantasy value in terms of strikeouts.  Gonzalez has also improved his control since his wilder, younger days in Oakland but done so while still averaging just under a strikeout per inning over the last three seasons.

That's enough for me to give Gonzalez the slight nod to Zimmermann.  In terms of a pure "draft round battle," this is the decision that counts, as Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position report shows the Z-Man (102.68 ADP) slightly ahead of the Gio Dome (108.3 ADP).  Whatever the order, both guys are rated on roughly the same level, so if you're looking to anticipate a "teammate run," don't be surprised to see either Gonzalez or Zimmermann quickly follow the other around the ninth round of your fantasy draft.

This all being said, Fister might end up being the best pitcher of the trio.  Fister is currently projected to go a couple of rounds lower (135.54 ADP) though I wonder if the sleeper buzz will cause him to rise up the rankings.  Fister did, after all, post a higher WAR than either Gonzalez or Zimmermann from 2011-13, which caught me off-guard.  While he and Zimmermann are essentially the same pitcher in terms of low-strikeout grounder specialists, Fister is a step beyond when it comes to keeping the ball in the infield --- Fister's 54.3% GBR was the fourth-best of any qualified starter in baseball last season.

If Fister is only a slightly better version of Zimmermann and still lags behind Gonzalez in strikeouts, however, why should Fister be rated so highly?  In a word, potential.  Fister will get a regular diet of NL lineups for the first time, and moving from the Tigers' hands-of-stone defensive corps to the Nationals' infield* is a big boost for any ground-ball specialist.  As well, while Gonzalez and Zimmermann have enjoyed good BABIP luck over the last three years, Fister posted his strong 2013 numbers despite a .332 BABIP.  With the highest strand rate and lowest BABIP of the three since 2011, Fister's WAR edge could easily have been even greater.

* =  Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon are tremendous up the middle, Adam LaRoche has traditionally had a good first base glove before falling to a -2 UZR/150 last season, and all you can say about Ryan Zimmerman's collapse as a defensive player is that at least Zimmerman's -14.9 UZR/150 was still better than Miguel Cabrera's -19.9 UZR/150 at the hot corner in 2013.

Gonzalez would still be my pick of the trio, yet the canny manager might use Fister's under-the-radar status to his advantage.  Picture a ninth round where Gonzalez goes first, Zimmermann goes right after since the next manager is like, "oh yeah, Nationals pitchers.  Yeah, look at Zimmermann, 19 wins last year!  Boom, taking him!"  Then you can sit back in the weeds and collect Fister a few picks later.  Some of your fellow managers will be chirping you for making a so-called stretch, others will chide you for going on a teammate run, and a few won't say anything since they had Fister queued up themselves. 





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