Starters


What The Top Starters Have In Common

I looked at the top 20 starters being drafted (Masahiro Tanaka aside), and found a few basic thresholds most of them met in 2013.  I found that most struck out at least 21% of the batters they faced, walked fewer than 8%, and had an average fastball velocity of at least 91 miles per hour.

Only 19 additional pitchers met these criteria in 2013, excluding Matt Harvey.  I've listed them below, along with their draft ranking among SPs and a guess as to why they are not currently in the top 20.

  • Danny Salazar, Indians (45): Salazar was a rookie last year.  His 145 pro innings were a career-high, but the work he did in ten big league starts checks every box.  Salazar may also be slightly under the radar because he never appeared on a Baseball America top 100 prospects list, but as a 14th round pick he's getting decent respect in fantasy leagues.  The 24-year-old could be scary good in 2014 even with an innings cap.  I expect his hype to increase prior to draft day.
  • Kevin Gausman, Orioles (NR): Gausman came with a lot of hype but didn't have good results in his 47 2/3 big league innings as a rookie.  It's just a matter of when he puts it all together at the highest level.  Stash him away.
  • James Paxton, Mariners (NR): It's only a four start Major League sample, and the southpaw scuffled at Triple-A.  His talent is through the roof, but expect some ups and downs in 2014.
  • Homer Bailey, Reds (31): I'm not too sure why Bailey would last into the 11th round in many leagues.  He's put health concerns behind him, and I'd surely take him over Jon Lester.
  • Shelby Miller, Cardinals (22): Miller has only one full season under his belt, and the Cardinals notoriously backed off him in the postseason after he slipped quite a bit in the second half.  He feels fairly dangerous in the ninth round.
  • Derek Holland, Rangers (53): Holland's recent microfracture knee surgery will keep him out of action until midseason.  A few months into the season he might be a good DL stash. 
  • Michael Wacha, Cardinals (30): Wacha had a dominant postseason, but before that had only 64 2/3 big league innings under his belt.  Bailey, drafted around the same time, is a more proven commodity.
  • Corey Kluber, Indians (61): Kluber's 3.85 ERA wasn't amazing, and he hadn't done much prior to his 147 1/3 big league innings in 2013.  As you get past the 15th round, he's a solid sleeper.
  • Sonny Gray, Athletics (40): Gray checks off all the boxes but has only 64 regular season innings to his name.  As a 13th round pick, his price seems appropriate.
  • Josh Johnson, Padres (NR): A season lost to injuries and a 6.20 ERA will keep Johnson off many draft boards, but as yours winds down, take a chance to see if he can give you 25 good starts as a Padre. You've got little to lose.
  • Mat Latos, Reds (29):  Latos continues to be very good but not amazing.  I'd feel good about grabbing him in the 10th round as my second starter.
  • Scott Kazmir, Athletics (NR): Mostly out of the Majors since 2010, Kazmir burst back onto the scene with a 4.04 ERA in 158 innings for the Tribe.  A 3.50 ERA and lots of strikeouts could be around the corner, especially with Oakland.
  • Johnny Cueto, Reds (35): A lat strain limited Cueto to just 11 regular season starts, pushing hi to the 11th round this year.
  • Jenrry Mejia, Mets (NR): Mejia, 24, made five big league starts this year and only six more in the minors.  He had elbow problems all year, culminating in August surgery to remove a bone spur.  He's worth monitoring this spring.
  • Josh Beckett, Dodgers (NR): Beckett was limited to eight starts due to a groin strain and nerve irritation in his right hand and arm.  He had surgery in July and has a shot at the Dodgers' fifth starter job in 2014 assuming they don't sign Tanaka.  Like Josh Johnson, he's a good candidate to stash late if he looks good in spring.
  • Julio Teheran, Braves (33): Plenty of love for Teheran, who authored a breakout rookie campaign.  As an 11th round type, I think he's priced appropriately.
  • David Hale, Braves (NR): With only two starts for the Braves, Hale is here because of a tiny sample.  The 26-year-old didn't post great peripherals in the minors, and doesn't need to be on your radar.
  • Will Smith, Brewers (NR): Smith pitched mostly in relief for the Royals last year and was traded to the Brewers this winter.  Consider him a deep sleeper, one to keep an eye on if he earns a rotation spot.
  • Alex Cobb, Rays (27): Cobb was limited to 22 starts, suffering a concussion in June.  His control was a bit off upon his return, but his tenth round ADP is reasonable.

Will any of these pitchers be drafted in the top 20 a year from now?  Let us know your favorites in the comments.  


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Go Bold or Go Home: Masahiro Tanaka is the Next Great Fantasy Import

Yeah, I said it and I’ll say it again. The right-handed 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka might just be the truth and is baseball's next great import. Now I understand, as do most MLB front offices, the risk in paying top dollar for an unproven international free agent like Tanaka is huge. For the risk-taking fantasy drafter, a big time ace in the later rounds can deliver you a championship (consider the frequently undrafted Hyun-Jin Ryu in 2013 – 14 wins, 3.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.22 K/9). Other imports, such as Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara, and Hisashi Iwakuma, have recently rewarded owners and came at a great value when they first arrived. This year, Tanaka offers savvy drafters that same opportunity.

Masahiro Tanaka has the pedigree of a stud and his historical performance in Japan just reinforces the notion. Keep in mind that there has to be a reason that MLB teams are falling over themselves to sign him. In high school, he led his squad to a national championship and broke Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 2004 strikeout record. Over the last two seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, Tanaka has dominated the competition and set a worldwide professional baseball record by winning 26 consecutive games. In 2013, Tanaka went 24-0 (1.27 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 7.8 K/9) and even appeared once as a closer - in order to seal his team’s first Pacific League pennant.

Considered by many MLB scouts to be a top-of-the-line starter, five teams have jumped through all of the necessary hoops to bid on Tanaka’s services (including a one-time, nonrefundable $20 million fee just to submit a bid). According to Nikkan Sports, the Yankees, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, White Sox, and Cubs have all submitted offers (each for more than $15 million dollars per year) and are hoping for the best. While Tanaka’s agent has yet to confirm any specifics about which teams are courting his superstar, the entire baseball world is certain that Tanaka will have until January 24, 2014 at 5:00 pm to decide where he’ll go. Should he choose the Yankees or Diamondbacks, Tanaka will be heavily leaned upon as the foundation of a thin rotation. On the other hand, the Dodgers offer Masahiro Tanaka an opportunity to complete an already potent staff (see Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and the aforementioned Ryu). The White Sox and Cubs each offer uniquely the same thing – the chance to be the cornerstone and ace for a rebuilding Windy City franchise. It seems that if his heart were set on Chicago, he’d have his choice of American or National League.

While Tanaka may be immediately compared to Yu Darvish, that isn’t necessarily the best point for comparison because of the two pitcher’s differing styles. Darvish is a strikeout pitcher who wants everybody to swing and miss. Despite Tanaka’s high school strikeout record, he pitches to contact and prefers to force easy ground balls – only going for a strikeout when necessary. His approach may cause some early struggles because of Major League Baseball’s higher competition level, but expect him to adjust nicely and post a strong rookie season in America. While his 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA are unrealistic (even for a perennial all-star such as Justin Verlander), look for Tanaka to have a season slightly better than Hisashi Iwakuma when he first arrived.  While his number of wins will be subject to the offensive support of whichever team signs him, Tanaka can easily post a 2.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 8.0 K/9 in 2014. If he does and settles into the role of fantasy ace, you’ll be happy for taking him a round (or two) earlier than everybody else and if you’re in a keeper league, feel free to thank me in a few years.



How to Win 2014: Strikeouts

The Award-Winning* How to Win series is back this year, and starting with Strikeouts. We’ll tour each of the ten 5x5 categories over the course of the preseason to examine data about the category’s leaders, identify surprise players, and discuss various strategies for winning the category.

*I literally just gave myself an award. It is scribbled on a napkin and stuffed into my pocket. Feel free to extend congratulations in the comments.

Strikeouts are an easy category to win. It’s simple. Stream pitchers like crazy and rack up 50% more innings than the next best team. You’ll win. Guaranteed. You’ll probably win Wins, too. If you follow this simple strategy and don’t win…stream more pitchers until you’ve got it.

Article done. 

Unless, of course, you want to win (or at least compete) in WHIP and ERA, play with a transaction limit (do you?), or an innings cap, or make your roster changes weekly. So I guess there’s more work to do than that. 

Winning any category (or getting points from the stat, if that’s how you roll) depends heavily on your format, and I’m not just talking about the big, obvious stuff like roto scoring vs. head-to-head, or categories vs. points, or daily vs. weekly roster moves. Are your innings capped at 1500 or 1400? Are your transactions limited by week or month, all year, or not at all? How many players can you keep on your bench? All these things and more will change your focus on how to win Strikeouts.

That’s why I’m including 2013’s top 12 Strikeout leaders by three separate measurements: raw whiff totals, K/9, and K%. Each measurement has its uses. Why the top 12? Think of it as—potentially—each team’s best contributor in the category.

Total Strikeouts (min. 130 IP—like it matters here)

 

Player

SO

1

Yu Darvish

277

2

Max Scherzer

240

3

Clayton Kershaw

232

4

Chris Sale

226

5

Cliff Lee

222

6

Adam Wainwright

219

7

Justin Verlander

217

8

Felix Hernandez

216

9

Jeff Samardzija

214

10

A.J. Burnett

209

11

Anibal Sanchez

202

12

Cole Hamels

202

 The first thing we notice about these names and numbers is that there’s a pretty big difference between Darvish and anyone else. In fact, he’s almost as far away from Scherzer at number two, as he is from Hamels and Sanchez. If you want elite in Strikeouts, he’s in a class of his own, and he’s the only pitcher in baseball who appears to have a credible chance of cracking 300 like Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson.

Notice also that the difference between Darvish and the 12th spot on the list is roughly equivalent to the Strikeouts you’d get from a mid-level closer. That’s like getting a roster slot for free. 

Obviously, not everyone can draft Darvish, and there might be good reasons not to, (okay, probably not?) but the other guys on this list will provide some pretty serious value. While some are elite pitchers making more money per season than anyone else ever has, others are…well, maybe retiring. The point is that most elite Strikeout artists are simply amazing pitchers and come with similarly high draft or auction prices—but there are exceptions. 

Consider Burnett and Samardzija, as well as Hamels (whose stock may have fallen), and Sanchez (who might not be believed as an ace yet) from this list. Also consider some of these guys, all with 180 whiffs or more: Homer Bailey (if the hype isn’t too frenzied), Lance Lynn (if he keeps his job), Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Lincecum, and C.J. Wilson. Note that this isn’t just a list of the next guys sorted by Strikeouts, but a handful of non-elite pitchers who miss bats.

K/9 (min. 130 IP)

 

Player

K/9

1

Yu Darvish

11.89

2

Max Scherzer

10.08

3

Anibal Sanchez

9.99

4

A.J. Burnett

9.85

5

Jose Fernandez

9.75

6

Ubaldo Jimenez

9.56

7

Felix Hernandez

9.51

8

Chris Sale

9.49

9

Stephen Strasburg

9.39

10

Scott Kazmir

9.23

11

Francisco Liriano

9.11

12

Justin Masterson

9.09

Obviously, there’s a lot of repetition between this list and the last…but there are some key differences, and this is the measurement you’ll want to focus on in a roto style league with an innings cap. The lower your cap or the deeper your league, the more you’ll want to focus on the Strikeout rate over the raw total.

It’s interesting to note that a few more aces fall out of elite status by this measure. You can get serious production from apparently fringy guys by concentrating on K/9—though pitchers like Jimenez and Masterson may will harm you in WHIP.

Here are some more pitchers with quality K/9 rates that won’t be priced like an ace: Matt Moore (8.56), Alex Cobb (8.41), Corey Kluber (8.31), Hector Santiago (8.28), Ryan Dempster (8.25), Julio Teheran (8.24), Ian Kennedy (8.09).

Tony Cingrani (104.2 IP, 10.32 K/9), Tyson Ross (94, 9.29), Marco Estrada (123, 8.20), Todd Redmond (69.2, 9.35), Josh Johnson (81.1, 9,18), and Sonny Gray (60, 9.15) all helped out in Strikeouts despite limited time. Of course, they didn’t all help out in the other categories….

K% (min. 130 IP)

 

Player

K%

1

Yu Darvish

32.90%

2

Max Scherzer

28.70%

3

Jose Fernandez

27.50%

4

Anibal Sanchez

27.10%

5

Felix Hernandez

26.30%

6

Stephen Strasburg

26.10%

7

Chris Sale

26.10%

8

A.J. Burnett

26.10%

9

Clayton Kershaw

25.60%

10

Cliff Lee

25.30%

11

Ubaldo Jimenez

25.00%

12

Madison Bumgarner

24.80%

Yu stands very tall here again, overshadowing the fact that the difference between Scherzer and Fernandez is also very large. It’s clear that these two guys are the top Strikeout pitchers no matter the format…but you already knew that.

 

Kershaw, Lee, and Bumgarner crack this list but not K/9, and that tells us a little bit about the nature of K%, and the difference between the two stats. It’s subtle, but the difference between Strikeouts as a percentage of total batters faced, and Strikeouts per inning is important: pitchers with a K% better than their K/9 are getting more batters out in other ways and facing fewer batters. It means they get fewer whiffs…but it also means they put fewer hitters on base.

Clay Buchholz (23.1 K%), Mike Minor (22.1%), Hisashi Iwakuma (21.4%), Gerrit Cole (21.3%), Mat Latos (21.2%), and Chris Tillman (21.2%) all whiffed over 21% of their batters but had K/9 rates under 8.00. Unsurprisingly, all turned out pretty good results.

 Don’t Forget Relievers 

Below are the top Strikeout relievers, with closers omitted. You and I both know you’ll be ranking your closers based on how many whiffs they generate, and that the best ones won’t come cheap. All I’ll say on the matter is this: don’t waste a roster slot on a closer who doesn’t strike people out. 

In a lot of formats, there’s no room for non-closing relievers, I know. But for the formats in which you can use them, they can make a difference. Check out some of the top relievers for raw strikeouts. If you want your relievers to make a difference (in any format), you need them to generate the counting stats—an elite K/9 and K% is a given; the trick is pitching enough innings to matter. 

 

Player

SO

1

Cody Allen

88

2

A.J. Ramos

86

3

Josh Collmenter

85

4

Luke Hochevar

82

5

Steve Delabar

82

6

Charlie Furbush

80

7

Craig Stammen

79

8

Adam Ottavino

78

9

Jake McGee

75

10

David Carpenter

74

11

Oliver Perez

74

12

Kelvin Herrera

74

The best Strikeout artists seem to end up in the ninth, but these guys can help out fantasy teams under the radar. A lot of them aren’t even typical closers-in-waiting, which means you can nab your favorite one(s) with the last pick(s) of the draft. Reliever usage and performance is, of course, hugely variable, so consider this a starting point for padding the category, not a true guide to the next year’s highest Strikeout totals.

Differentiated Strategies

I said before that different formats require different strategies. Check out a few of your options.

Yahoo! Head-to-Head Style

Daily changes, shallow rosters, and no innings cap. In leagues like this, I’d try to get bulk strikeouts from a couple studs, and then focus on quality K% from two to four mid-rotation types (depending on what kind of funds you want to allocate to pitching). I’d finish it up in one of three ways: grab a couple high-risk guys with good K/9’s, find some high-volume relievers, or stream away with a roster spot or two.

Standard Roto

Daily changes and an innings cap—usually about 1500 IP. Every inning, every out counts. Figure you’re splitting your innings between five to seven starters in order to hit your limit. Concentrate on K% for balance and add relievers to improve ERA and WHIP, or lower-level starters with good K/9 for Wins.

Weekly Changes or Limited Transactions 

These situations throw streaming out the window, and they aren’t great for relieves either. Usually such leagues let you have a deep bench, so my usual strategy in this format is to draft two aces and a bunch of high K/9 arms and play the matchups.

If you do have a short bench in this format—or league with more than 12 teams—I’d emphasize risk mitigation and look for K% above everything else.

Check us out again next week, for a look at our first hitting category: the enigmatic Stolen Base.



Combing Triple-A Numbers For Starting Pitchers

Even in non-keeper leagues, it's important to be up on the game's top prospects, particularly those who are big league ready.  One sign of readiness is domination at the game's next-highest level, Triple-A, coupled with a strong scouting report.  After combing through the 2013 Triple-A numbers, here's a look at a slew of pitchers who appeared at the level.

  • Danny Salazar, Indians: Having made ten fantastic starts in the Majors, Salazar is no secret at this point.  But in many mixed leagues, you may be able to draft the 24-year-old around the 12th or 13th round.  The only reason to pump the brakes on the hard-throwing righty is that he set a career-high with 145 innings in 2013, making something around 175 his ceiling for 2014.  Salazar's big league excellence is backed up by his Triple-A numbers: 2.73 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 in 13 starts.
  • Tony Cingrani, Reds: Cingrani had even more big league success than Salazar, logging 104 2/3 innings with a 10.3 K/9.  His six Triple-A starts went equally well.  Similar to Salazar, Cingrani has never exceeded 146 innings, so keep your expectations reasonable.  It appears he can be had right around the same point in the draft as Salazar, so maybe we'll see the two in a future Draft Round Battle.
  • Tanner Roark, Nationals: Roark should be in a Spring Training competition for the fifth spot in the Nationals' rotation, along with Taylor Jordan and Ross Detwiler.  He made five starts for the big club last September, and four of them were strong.  Roark spent also spent time in the Nationals' bullpen.  At Triple-A, he worked in both roles as well, with a standout 1.71 BB/9 illustrating his strong command.  While Roark has never been regarded as much of a prospect, he worked from 92-94 miles per hour in his big league rotation stint, and could be something of a late bloomer at age 27.  That said, I see little potential for strikeouts, so those in standard mixed leagues can probably pass.
  • Will Smith, Brewers: Smith, a 24-year-old southpaw, was traded to the Brewers in December straight-up for a quality regular in Norichika Aoki.  Baseball America threw a back of the rotation projection on Smith a few years ago, and it does seem he'll compete for the Brewers' fifth starter job.  Smith had started 16 games for the Royals' big league club in 2012, and his first 11 games in Triple-A in 2013 were starts as well.  He posted a 3.55 ERA, 9.9 K/9, and 2.7 BB/9, but was moved to the bullpen because the Royals had a more pressing need there.  I think he could have some sneaky value if he earns a rotation spot with the Brewers in 2014.
  • Michael Wacha, Cardinals: Wacha needs little introduction, but I'll give you some background anyway.  The 19th overall pick in 2012, Wacha had a great spring in 2013 but opened the season at Triple-A.  He earned a call-up in late May, but was sent back down because Jake Westbrook was returning.  Wacha returned in August, solidfying his rotation spot in September before pitching quite well in four of his five postseason starts (winning the NLCS MVP).  Including the postseason, he has 95 1/3 Major League innings under his belt, yet is being drafted in many leagues as one of the 15 best starters in the game.  Current projections suggest an ERA in the 3.50-3.75 range, with a strikeout rate that could well dip below 8.0 per nine (it was 7.7 at Triple-A).  Like most people, I like Wacha, but I would not make him my #1 fantasy starter, nor would I draft him inside the first eight or nine rounds.
  • Burch Smith, Padres: Sleeper alert!  Smith, 24 in April, was knocked around in the Majors as a rookie in 2013.  In 18 starts at Double and Triple-A, however, he posted a 2.63 ERA, 9.9 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9.  He works around 92-93 and is a solid prospect.  The Padres quietly have strong rotation depth, however, so Smith is a name to stash away if and when one of Andrew Cashner, Josh Johnson, Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy, or Eric Stults gets hurt.
  • Kevin Gausman, Orioles: Gausman, the fourth overall pick in 2012, couldn't live up to the hype when he debuted May 23rd last year.  He was up and down in 2013, finishing the year in the Orioles' bullpen.  Gausman showed strong command at Triple-A, and is known for top of the rotation raw stuff.  He could be a nice post-hype sleeper if he lands a rotation spot in 2014.
  • Taijuan Walker, Mariners:  In 25 starts at the Double and Triple-A level last year, Walker posted a 2.93 ERA, 10.2 BB/9, and 3.6 BB/9.  He also made three decent starts with the big league club.  While he projects as a potential ace, I'm not convinced the control is there for a fantasy impact in 2014, especially after a 4.2 walk rate in Triple-A.
  • Tyler Thornburg, Brewers: Thornburg likely has the inside track on the Brewers' fifth starter job ahead of the aforementioned Will Smith.  The 25-year-old was absolutely battered in his first 12 starts at Triple-A in 2013, then made a couple appearances out of the Brewers' pen, then had three pretty good starts back in Triple-A, then bounced between the Brewers' pen and rotation.  As a big league starter, he posted a 1.47 ERA, 7.1 K/9, and 3.3 BB/9 in 43 innings.  It was only seven starts, and the 2.1 K/BB ratio doesn't inspire confidence even with that ERA.  I don't expect a fantasy impact in 2014.
  • Zack Wheeler, Mets:  What's the harm in grabbing Wheeler in the 18th round to see if he harnesses his ace stuff now that he has 100 big league innings under his belt?  Wheeler walked 3.5 per nine at Triple-A and 4.1 in the bigs, so the potential harm is damage to your WHIP if the free passes continue.
  • Yordano Ventura, Royals:  Ventura, like many of these hurlers, hasn't quite figured out how to limit free passes, with a 3.9 BB/9 at Triple-A.  I think you can wait on him. 
  • Jameson Taillon, Pirates:  The second overall pick in 2010, Taillon posted a 2.9 BB/9 at Double-A that rose to 3.9 at Triple-A.
  • Jarred Cosart, Astros:  Cosart earned a big league look despite an ugly 4.8 BB/9 at Triple-A, and that stayed the same in the Majors while his strikeout rate plummeted.  Hits didn't drop in, and he did keep the ball on the ground, resulting in a miraculous 1.95 ERA in the Majors.
  • Jake Odorizzi, Rays:  His work at Triple-A suggests he's ready: 3.33 ERA, 9.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 in 22 starts.  He was OK in a smattering of big league starts.  I can't quite picture mixed league impact.
  • Erik Johnson, White Sox:  The 24-year-old posted a 1.96 ERA across 24 starts at Double and Triple-A, with pretty good rates of 8.3 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9.  His five big league starts showed he still needs seasoning.
  • Chris Archer, Rays:  Even as a guy who finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting, Archer is still being drafted outside of the top 200.  He quietly wasn't that great at Triple-A, resulting in a pretty weak big league projection fantasy-wise.
  • Gerrit Cole, Pirates:  His 12 Triple-A starts last year were hardly inspiring, with a 6.2 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9.  In a reminder that guys with ace stuff can get better in the Majors sometimes, Cole posted a 7.7 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 in 19 big league starts.  He whiffed 39 batters in 32 innings in September.  Projection systems have his strikeout rate under 8 or even under 7 for 2014, but I'll take the over for the man drafted first overall in 2011.  Unfortunately, so will most fantasy baseballers, as Cole is being drafted around the eighth round.  That's no discount, but at least he reached 196 1/3 pro innings in 2013, suggesting he won't be held back by an innings cap.
  • Alex Wood, Braves:  Wood spent some time in the bullpen as a rookie, but also made 11 starts for the Braves.  He posted a 3.54 ERA, 8.7 K/9, and 3.5 BB/9 in those, allowing more than a hit per inning.  He mostly skipped Triple-A, so we don't have a lot of data in trying to determine what his control will be like in 2014.  The price to draft him remains low.
  • Sonny Gray, A's:  Gray, the 18th overall pick in 2011, posted a 3.42 ERA, 9.0 K/9, and 3.0 BB/9 in Triple-A, allowing nearly a hit per inning.  He improved upon all of those rates in 64 big league innings, posting a strong groundball rate as well.  I'm naturally suspicious of a guy who gets better in the Majors, though as noted above with Cole, it can happen and stick.  The price to draft Gray is low enough where it doesn't matter.
  • A few other players with big Triple-A strikeout rates to watch: Alex Torres of the Rays if he gets a crack at the rotation, Jake Arrieta of the Cubs, Drew Pomeranz of the A's, Michael Pineda of the Yankees, Danny Duffy of the Royals, and Allen Webster of the Red Sox.

Let's hear it in the comments: which of these starters will break out in 2014?

ADP data courtesy of the NFBC.


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Out of Left Field: Thanks for Nothing, Yovani Gallardo, and Other Stories

As far as I know, this is the real last round of the Out of Left Field miniseries, and today we’ll take a look at some of last year’s most disappointing starting pitchers and ask ourselves what they might do this year.

Check out the surprisingly good pitchers, as well as the good and bad surprises at the plate. 

Mark Polishuk wrote up why CC Sabathia is a bounce-back candidate, but what about all these other disappointments? Who’s coming back and who’s toast? 

R.A. Dickey wasn’t easy to predict going into 2013, but he sure was tantalizing. To be fair, I’m pretty sure the Blue Jays were more disappointed than his fantasy owners, but it was close. His strikeout rate dropped, walk rate jumped up, homer rate really jumped, and LOB% fell. It was a bad combination.

It would be easy to say that’s the way the knuckleball bounces, and it’s probably true to an extent. Pitch to pitch, start to start, season to season, it’s tough to know what to expect out of a knuckleballer. The good news (or bad, for your ERA) was that Dickey was able to throw 224.2 IP. It might not be reasonable to take 2013 as Dickey’s floor, and 2012 as his ceiling, but if it was, those innings would tell you that all he has to do is improve a little and be very valuable. Personally, I like to take a chance on guys that show they can pitch a lot of innings because those are the guys who are reliable in real baseball and have the most chance to work out problems. 

Is Dickey a great bounce-back guy for next year? No. I mean, who knows what’s gonna happen with that knuckler? But he’s likely to come at a nice big discount and retain sky-high upside. He’s one to watch and make a cautious bid on.

Matt Cain joined Tim Lincecum in the Disappointment All-Stars of the Giants rotation. (Though we half expected this from Lincecum, hence his absence from this article. Starting now.) But what really happened with Cain? 

Basically, he had a bad April and a bout of wildness in July. Check out his splits. You can also see that a lot of what happened was correlated with the luck-dependent LOB%: he put up a 61% in March/April (terrible) and 53.3% in July (even worse). The rest of the year, he was in the 70-85% range, which is everywhere from normal to good and probably where he’ll be going forward.

But don’t take my word for it (cue the Reading Rainbow theme song), check out these two articles from RotoGraphs, from November and last week.

Yovani Gallardo spent 2009-2012 looking like he was this close to taking the next step into fantasy stardom. I drafted him often in hopes of this, knowing that the downside of stagnancy was a K/9 hovering at around 9.00. That’s a very useful floor.

Well, he did take the next step, right through those floorboards. Confusing analogy? Maybe. More simply: Gallardo lost almost two full strikeouts per nine innings and pretty much all of his fantasy value.

He isn’t old, so maybe this isn’t the beginning of the end…but that is a big, big drop. Unless I hear some good explanation for why Gallardo lost those whiffs last year and why he’s getting them backing 2014, I’m staying a long way away. There are too many good pitchers out there to waste your time on a strikeout pitcher who doesn't strike people out.

Josh Johnson, what happened to you? You used to be so black and white: awesome or on the DL. In some ways, that made you safe: the worst you could do to my teams was to wait quietly on the DL. Then came last year and a 6.20 ERA. 

Johnson obviously struggles with health, and last year he struggled with homers too (1.66 HR/9 in 2013, 0.67 HR/9 in his career). Another red flag is that his strikeout rate dropped for three years in a row from his 2010 peak and 2012. Why they returned in 2013, I have no idea. What I do know, though, is that Johnson gets to go to San Diego to get himself figured out. He’s got talent, a great pitching environment, and a team that won’t be under pressure to toss him out of the rotation if he struggles at first. He’s chancy, but this is a great situation to take a chance on. 

Ian Kennedy is surprisingly consistent. Check out his xFIP numbers from the last four years: 4.10, 3.50, 4.13, 4.19. Now his K/9 in that same time: 7.79, 8.03, 8.08, 8.09. This isn’t a guy who went from great to terrible—this is a guy who’s decent and subject to luck. In 2011 he had very good luck (and the only outlier xFIP). In 2013, he had bad luck—and increased walks.

If he were staying in Arizona, this would be enough reason for me to leave Kennedy alone. But he’s not—in case you missed it because you were ignoring him all year because you dropped him off your fantasy team in frustration—he’s a Padre now. If he outperforms that consistently mediocre xFIP it won’t just be good luck, it’ll be park factor. He’s a great buy low candidate, and you can enjoy his consistent strikeouts too.

Jon Niese gave us two straight years of K/BB’s over 3.00, which planted him firmly on my Safe to Draft list. Yeah…no. In 2013, he posted a 2.19 K/BB, not exactly good or safe. He was pretty awful in the first couple months of the season and spent some time on the DL. I cut bait. Niese turned it around, striking seven more batters out in 66 second-half innings than in 77 first-half frames and—most importantly—allowing less than half as many walks. I’d say Niese’s short-term struggles are behind him and he looks like a solid pitcher for your fantasy rotation next year. 

Edwin Jackson was, like Niese, a relatively safe seeming pitcher, albeit for the back of a fantasy rotation. He’d give you some strikeouts and not hurt you bad in ERA and WHIP when you need some extra innings. But in 2013, his K/9 dropped by a full point (7.97 to 6.93). I can excuse the very bad luck that saw his ERA balloon to 4.98 (with a 3.79 FIP and 3.86 xFIP that were totally in line with his last few seasons), but not those lost whiffs. Plus, the Cubbies aren’t exactly winning him a bunch of ballgames. Jackson is safely waiver bait next year. But, you know, keep an eye on him…. 

Ryan Dempster might be losing his rotation slot, so I’m not going to pretend you should think of him as a quality sleeper. Also, his 4.57 ERA was not out of line with his 4.68 FIP or his 4.21 xFIP, and I’m pretty sure the Red Sox know that too. And they probably know that his 4.15 BB/9 has something to do with it. Dempster still struck out a healthy 8.25 batters per nine innings, but when you walk people like Aroldis Chapman, you should strike them out like him too. At 37, it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see Dempster declining, so don’t get too excited about his very nice 2012 coming back, even if he’s traded or otherwise slotted into the rotation.

Brandon McCarthy gave us two useful enough, low-inning seasons in a row before disappointing in the desert. He’s got great control (1.40 BB/9) and keeps the ball in the park (0.87 HR/9)…so why did he put up a 4.53 ERA? My worry is that he’s too hittable (just 5.07 K/9) for his environment. Maybe put him in a friendly park with a great defense and things would be different, but I don’t see this year working out much better than last year. There isn't enough upside here to offset the downside.


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Out of Left Field: Throw Me a Curveball

This week saw two great pitchers elected to the Hall of Fame, my childhood hero Tom Glavine and the inimitable Greg Maddux. Neither election was exactly a surprise. 

The pitchers we’ll encounter in this article, however, were surprises. Pleasant ones, too. What can we expect from them going forward? Let’s take a look, and keep in mind that whatever we think we know now, we’ll probably know more in a month or two. All of these are guys to keep checking in on until draft day. 

Anibal Sanchez was not supposed to be the second-best pitcher on his team, certainly not over Justin Verlander, but that’s exactly what happened. He ratcheted his K/9 up to 9.99 (a career high, and a nice improvement on a strikeout downturn in 2012), but that can’t be the whole story. He put up the best ERA and FIP of his life in a tough environment, and did it with a normal .307 BABIP against and a 78.2 LOB% that wasn’t far from his career average. Nothing here looks like smoke and mirrors.

I’d bid aggressively on Sanchez. The upside is a repeat or near repeat of 2013, and the probable downside is a repeat or near repeat of 2012—still a very good pitcher on a great team. It’s not often you get safety and upside in the same pitcher and don’t have to draft him in the first three rounds. 

Clay Buchholz was never this exciting before, even in 2010. And, well, I’m not that excited still. Yes, his FIP of 2.78 says good things about his 1.74 ERA, but his 3.41 xFIP doesn’t. His 7.98 K/9 is good but not elite, as is his 2.67 K/BB. What was truly elite was his 0.33 HR/9…which doesn’t seem like a repeatable number for anyone. 

Has Buchholz turned a corner? Yes. Will he be a good fantasy pitcher in 2014? Probably. But I don’t expect an ace-level performance. With chronic health concerns, a shiny ERA, and a sky-high Boston profile, he has the indicators of someone who will be overvalued on draft day. Pay for him as your number four starter or not at all. 

Ricky Nolasco was once one of my guys…I just knew his performance would catch up to his peripherals. Then in 2012 his peripherals finally fell to his performance level and I figured it was time to forget about ol’ Ricky.

Unfortunately, it’s still time to forget about ol’ Ricky, because going from pretty horrible to not bad isn’t that exciting, and his new situation isn’t going to do him any favors. Minnesota’s park will help offset the problems of switching leagues and facing DH’s…or it would if Nolasco’s 2013 weren’t already propped up by friendly parks. The Twins aren’t exactly elite hitters, so don’t expect a lot of wins. He’s a back-end fantasy starter at best, but the free press of a new contract is likely to have him higher than that on someone’s draft board. It shouldn’t be yours.

Ubaldo Jimenez is the sort of pitcher I need to be very, very careful with. I mean, just look at all those strikeouts (9.56 K/9). Who cares about those walks (3.94 BB/9), right? Yeah, Jimenez’s control is a red flag, but his resurgence still looks very real. In fact, when you look at his FIP, his strikeout rate, his walk rate, and his HR/9 rate, the only year that looks out of place in his stat line is his awful 2012. I think you can bid with confidence, especially if he lands in a favorable situation. But, don’t expect much in WHIP….

Patrick Corbin is likely to get dismissed as a first-half fluke, which is more or less fair. But not all that accurate. Yes, he declined in August and melted down in September, but he saw his BABIP skyrocket and his LOB% crater. I’m not going to argue that he’s the ace he masqueraded as in the first half, but I’m not writing him off either. He regressed to a pretty good overall mean for the season. With normally distributed luck (and perhaps less fatigue) he’s a good mid-rotation play for any fantasy squad.

Scott Kazmir may not be back from the dead, but his career is. I don’t know what happened or how, but you don’t put up a 9.23 K/9 and 2.68 K/BB by accident. Though his ERA was lousy at 4.04, his 3.51 FIP and 3.36 xFIP suggest he could do better. Oakland is a great place for him to do so, and he’s an excellent mid-round target for early-round fantasy value. 

Jhoulys Chacin wasn’t always a no-strikeouts, low-walks guy, but that’s what he transformed into last year. It made him a better pitcher, but not someone you want to give innings to in a capped format. It’s hard to survive any pitcher with a 5.75 strikeout rate, let alone one who pitches half his games in Coors. Head-to-head leagues are a different story though, especially if you’re savvy about using him on the road. You can expect a nice, low cost too, which is always cool.

Francisco Liriano, it’s good to see you again. It’s hard to believe that it was 2006 when Liriano burst onto the scene, but I guess it has. It’s been a long road of injuries and walks (with a great 2010) since then, but Liriano looks back. The walks got under control, the strikeouts still showed up, and his ERA, FIP, and xFIP were separated by no more than 0.20 points. He looks legit, and I’d totally draft him as my number three pitcher…maybe even number two. No, number three because of this cautionary tale: he was even better in 2010.

Travis Wood is not a person you want to draft next year. His 2013 K/9, BB/9 and BABIP are all pretty much the same as his 2012 numbers, but his ERA improved by a full point. Why? Probably because his HR/9 went from 1.44 to 0.81. That’s probably also why his FIP improved dramatically (but to a still-bad-for-fantasy 3.89) but his xFIP barely twitched, going from 4.62 to 4.50. Long story short, it took a lot of luck for Wood to be fantasy relevant last year, and it’ll take a lot of luck for him to do it again. 

Well, I’m out of space and time for surprise pitchers, so I guess you’ll just have to tune in next time for the final installment of Out of Left Field, in which I assess the pitching world’s 2013 disappointments. How could you miss a party that fun?


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A Look Back At My Top Five Starting Pitching Sleepers

In February last year, I provided an in-depth look at potential starting pitching sleepers for the upcoming season.  I suggested that the real sleepers don't come until pick #150 or later, and listed these guys as my top five:

  1. Lance Lynn
  2. Homer Bailey
  3. Tim Lincecum
  4. Jason Hammel
  5. Ivan Nova

Lynn increased his innings total by about 15%, and despite a mild drop in his strikeout rate, he still provided 198 Ks overall.  His strikeout total ranked 15th in baseball, a nice find for a guy being drafted in the 19th round last year.  Lynn also won a helpful 15 games.  However, he was a negative in ERA and WHIP, with 3.97 and 1.31 respectively.  Ultimately, he was a nice guy to have at the back of your rotation given his draft price.  There's not much out there in terms of mock drafts at this point, but I think Lynn's draft round will remain reasonable in 2014.  He still works at 92-93 and has yet to turn 27, so upside remains and he seems unappreciated.  If he finds a way to curb his walks against left-handed hitters, he could have a breakout year.

Bailey went in the 14th round last year because 2012 was the first time he exceeded 132 big league innings in a season, with 208.  Bailey quieted health concerns in 2013 by pitching 209 innings.  He also bumped his strikeout and groundball rates, becoming a top 20 fantasy starter.  I expect big things again from him in 2014, which would result in a huge free agent payday.  We'll have to see where Bailey's draft position falls to determine how much upside he has in fantasy, but he has all the traits of a strong #2 starter on your staff.

A 17th round pick, Lincecum's season resembled Lynn's with fewer wins.  He provided the expected 190 Ks, but not much else.  If his ERA drops back under 4.00 this year it wouldn't surprise me, but I find him unlikely to help your ratios.  Lynn has more upside.

Hammel was a bust, with 2012's strikeouts and groundballs disappearing.  As a 24th rounder, you didn't need to invest much to get him, but if you ran him out there for a few months, your ratios took a hit.  Currently a free agent, if Hammel lands in a comfy NL situation and/or with a good pitching coach, I'd snag him in the endgame and stash him on the bench to see how he looks.

Nova appeared to be a bust, getting optioned to Triple-A in late May.  Upon his return, he posted a 2.70 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 116 2/3 innings, solidifying his spot in the Yankees' rotation for 2014.  His groundball and walk rates were interesting, but a 6.94 K/9 since his return didn't do much for me.  His K rate was over 8 in June and July, but down to 6.1 thereafter.  I can definitely see a sub-4.00 ERA in 2014, but projections call for an unimpressive strikeout rate around 7.0.  You can't afford to have too many lower strikeout types in your rotation, especially if you have an innings cap.  I'll need to see his draft round after he posted a 3.10 ERA in a season abbreviated by a minors stint and a few injuries.


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RotoAuthority Unscripted: Good Heavens, I Have an Innings Limit

Nobody should be shocked by seeing their fantasy team run smack into their innings limit at this point of the season but that's exactly what happened to me last year. (This time around, I've been much more discipline: I've only used about 85% of my allocated innings thus far, but that's beside the point.)

Now, I don't write this to admonish more careful innings management over the course of the first five months of the season, nor do I intend to suggest the sort of roster planning that will see you sailing breezily under your limit with space to spare. (That's a good way to kill yourself in Wins and Strikeouts, for one thing.) Quite the contrary, I prefer to rack up a decent amount of starts over the early season, but that also is not the point to which I am meandering.

The point is this: if left on autopilot, all roto format fantasy teams will do one of two things over the course of the next month-and-a-week-or-so: blast through their innings limit and render each of their pitchers completely useless, or leave potential points on the table by missing the limit by a lot. Ugly scenarios, both. Fortunately, the situation is not without its attendant opportunities, which I will now discuss....

'Wait!' yells a chorus of disgruntled readers, 'I don't play in a roto format, I play some sort of head-to-head, and I don't have an innings limit--this article is gonna be totally useless for me. I'm going back to Notgraphs.com!'

Fair point. While those in the most need of late-season roster overhaul are probably in roto formats, those in head-to-head leagues can ask themselves this: are you winning pitching's rate stats more often, or the counting stats? By how much. The tactics I'll outline can be used to great effect in any category-specific format (and many points leagues too, I'll wager, but probably not mine) to provide balance to your team. Or, if you're losing all the pitching categories, unbalance you enough to snag a couple wins.

I must warn you, though, that if you have already abandoned your baseball teams for the glitzy world of fantasy football (or the equally popular fantasy cricket), than this article may not be of use to you.

For those of us with too many innings (often also called a need in ERA and WHIP)

(All others may feel free to skim quickly through the next sections.)

Step 1 
Drop your worst pitcher. Even if he's good. Don't even pick anyone up, just drop the worst guy. If you've got someone like Felix Doubront who might be good (or at least have potential) in wins and strikeouts but isn't likely to help much in WHIP or ERA, that's who you drop. Alternatively, you can drop whoever helps least in strikeouts, if you have multiple pitchers who do about the same things in ERA and WHIP. Right now, I'm making Rick Porcello that drop in one league, and I think he actually merits more than his 21% ownership.

Unless you're neck and neck with another owner that you know can use a pitcher you're considering dropping, don't worry about how good he might be. If you're flying towards an innings limit in a serious way, all but the best starters will probably hurt your team. 

Step 2
On the free agents list (don't use a waiver pick for this unless you have to), pick up the best relief pitcher available. Since losing innings means losing strikeouts, this really means pick up whoever has the most strikeouts or the best K/9 or K% or whichever measurement you want. Relief margins are pretty small and the luck factor is outrageous over the course of a month, so this doesn't need to be an exact science.

I'm picking up Paco Rodriguez, who has a 10.45 K/9, plus a 1.35 ERA and an 0.76 WHIP. Since the innings started piling up for me a long time ago in this league, that makes him my sixth reliever--and in that quantity, these guys can be a pretty serious force in strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. Too bad they only add up to about a closer and a half between them....

Step 3
If you're still a long way ahead of where you should be in innings, simply repeat steps one and two. In the example league above, I feel decent about how many innings I'll be pitching for the next couple weeks, but if I'm still ahead of the pace after the first week of September the likes of Doug Fister, Tim Lincecum, and Jeff Samardzija will be fighting for their roster life. 

Useful Relief Pitchers for Your Reference*

The following pitchers have K/9 rates over 10.00, FIP's of 3.00 or lower and are owned in 30% of Yahoo! leagues or fewer: 

Trevor Rosenthal
Cody Allen
David Robertson
Alex Torres
David Carpenter
Jordan Walden
Brett Cecil
Paco Rodriguez
Neal Cotts
Nate Jones

This list doesn't even include guys like LaTroy Hawkins (25% owned), who could plausibly be closing for the rest of the season, J.J. Putz (48% owned), who could get his closing job back, and Dane De La Rosa (12% owned) who may or may not be unseating Ernesto Frieri as the Angels' closer.

The 10.00 cutoff narrowly misses Drew Smyly (25% owned) and Luke Hochevar (just 3% owned), who have the extremely useful distinction of SP/RP eligibility. If and when your team runs out of RP and P slots for relievers, these guys will be quite the assets. If you don't get one of them, you may be stuck with Brian Matusz, which isn't terrible, I guess.

There are droves of other good and great relievers, out there, so if the aforementioned pitchers aren't to your liking, surely you'll find someone you do fancy.

Stop skimming here!

If you need to accumulate more innings for the sake of your Wins and Strikeouts

Choice 1
This option is for those who have trouble throughout their pitching staff and are not having much success in any starter-related category. 

Time to stream.

Not my favorite strategy, but if you're rolling into the last month with something like 700 IP used out of a 1500 maximum and you aren't killing your opponents in the rate stats, it's time to climb the standings in Wins and Strikeouts. How far our you are in the rate stats and how many points you can plausibly gain in the counting stats should determine how much you stream: anything from one pitcher a week to two per day might be appropriate.

When streaming, stream multiple days in advance. Chances are you aren't the only one with this tactic, especially in a public head-to-head league. The farther ahead you stream, the better options you'll have--and the worse that will be available to your opponent.

Option 2
If you're doing decently well in ERA and WHIP, don't sacrifice those hard earned points (or jeopardize categories you count on week-to-week) for the uncertain and possibly immoral benefits of streaming. 

Here you need to take a careful look at the pitchers available to you, with the goal basically being to go for the highest Wins/K's ceiling and the highest floor in ERA and WHIP. You're rate categories will dip a bit, so if there aren't any points to be gained in the counters, maybe you should just stand pat. In head-to-head, take it week by week, start by start.

Some Potentially Available and Yet Decent Starting Pitchers

I actually made a list of quite a few of these guys...and kept seeing more and more names. There are a lot surprisingly decent pitchers owned in 40% or fewer Yahoo! leagues. I'll let you crunch your own numbers and run your own risk/reward assessments, because options abound in all but the deepest leagues.



RotoAuthority League Update: Fantasy All-Stars, Pitchers Edition

The RotoAuthority League is a highly competitive 12-team fantasy baseball league run by Tim Dierkes. The settings consist of standard 5 X 5 Rotisserie scoring and 23-man lineups along with 3 bench spots. In an effort to keep owners interested as well as to infuse new blood into the league, the teams that finish below 8th place are kicked out of the league each year. The author of this column just hopes he’s not one of them.

In keeping with last week's theme, let's take a look at the fantasy All-Star pitchers in the RotoAuthority League. Once again, it's all about profit as opposed to overall production.

Hisashi Iwakuma

Owner: Philly Cheez

Investment: Free Agent Pickup

Current 5 X 5 Value: $26

The most profitable pitcher on the season went undrafted in many mixed leagues this spring. While Iwakuma did receive some preseason hype, it was rather difficult to figure out just what type of pitcher we had here. After all, he began last season as a reliever and was just brutal. Case in point, prior to the All-Star Break last year, he had a 4.84 ERA and 1.39 WHIP working mostly out of the bullpen. The Mariners then moved him into the rotation, and he broke out with a 2.50 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 15 starts after the break. It certainly is rare that a pitcher is more successful in the rotation than out of the bullpen; however, those who took a chance on Iwakuma have found a true ace. In fact, no pitcher has provided more value in the WHIP category. Iwakuma has now gone a full calendar year performing at an elite level, so this appears to be legitimate. It's worth pointing out that he was a tad injury-prone in Japan; even so, this is a top-15 starting pitcher going forward.

Clay Buchholz

Owner: Say It Ain't So Cano

Investment: Free Agent Pickup

Current 5 X 5 Value: $24

Another fantasy ace who went undrafted in the RotoAuthority League, Buchholz is more than simply rebounding from a disappointing 2012 campaign. In fact, only Clayton Kershaw has contributed more value in the ERA category. Just as surprising, though, is that Buchholz has provided significant production in the strikeout column. While he's posted pedestrian stikeout rates the past few seasons, Buchholz has witnessed a marked spike up to 8.64 K/9 this season. Accordingly, while he's certainly benefited from an 84.1 LOB%, Buchholz has made legitimate strides this year. So what's the fantasy forecast going forward? Given that he's currently on the DL, Buchholz is no longer a player to sell in redraft leagues. In keeper leagues this actually may be an optimal time to acquire him. Overall then, Buchholz may not be the Cy Young candidate that his surface stats suggest, but this is no longer merely a spot starter in Mixed Leagues.

Patrick Corbin

Owner: Say It Ain't So Cano

Investment: Free Agent Pickup

Current 5 X 5 Value: $24

Yet another waiver wire gem, Corbin continues to enjoy a truly spectacular season in Arizona. I'm already on record here, but I think this is more of a mirage than a legitimate breakout. It's simply remarkable how drastically Corbin's fortunes have changed given that his skills have remained rather stable. In fact, the strikeout rate is actually slightly down while the walk rate is a tad higher. The real difference here lies in the luck indicators, which all favor Corbin up to this point. That isn't to say that he's a complete fluke; no, these skills are worthy of ownership in mixed leagues. Still, this is a testament to the fact there's so much that's out of a pitcher's control. I still think the post-All Star Break won't be kind to Corbin. For those in keeper leagues especially, this is exactly the type of player on which to cash in those chips. 

Shelby Miller

Owner: Brewsterville Bruins

Investment: 22nd Round pick (Acquired via Trade)

Current 5 X 5 Value: $22

The likely NL Rookie of the Year Award winner, Miller has been nothing short of fantastic this season. Entering 2012 this was by all accounts a top prospect, but he struggled at AAA last year with a 4.74 ERA. Some scouts naturally soured on Miller after these poor results. In effect, for a player with such a high ceiling, he came very cheap this preseason. While another young pitcher in New York whom we'll discuss shortly seems to be getting most of the press, Miller has been virtually as good. There's very little to criticize in this skill set. Best of all for me, though, is the strikeout rate. In today's run environment, the statistics needed to finish near the top of the standings in the pitching categories continue to be more and more pristine. With more flamethrowers today, strikeout rate has steadily risen in the post-PED world. Simply put, it's tough to own more than one or two players with relatively low strikeout rates in Mixed Leagues. Well, Miller currently boasts the 8th-best K/9 among qualified starters, and two of those ahead of him are on the DL. Long story short, this is a fantasy ace for many years to come.

Ervin Santana

Owner: E-Z Sliders

Investment: Free Agent Pickup (Acquired via Trade)

Current 5 X 5 Value: $17

In 2008 the Ervin Santana enjoyed the top breakout performance among pitchers. Indeed, he was a borderline Cy Young candidate, as he posted a 6.0 f-WAR with a 77 FIP- over 219 innings. Over the past four years, however, he's basically been an average MLB starting pitcher, which equates to waiver wire fodder in mixed leagues. Royals GM Dayton Moore acquired the Big Erv early in the offseason, and it's looking great thus far. While Santana has certainly enhanced his own performance this season, the real benefit comes from pitching for the Royals. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. After all, the Royals lead all MLB teams in UZR this season. Meanwhile, you might think of the Angels as a slick-fielding club, but they're actually just 25th in UZR. As such, few pitchers improved their surroundings as much Santana did this offseason. Overall then, this  is a classic example that context is everything in this game we play, and defense continues to be overlooked as a critical factor to a pitcher's fantasy success.

Matt Harvey

Owner: E-Z Sliders

Investment: 10th Round pick

Current 5 X 5 Value: $26

Surprise, surprise, yes Mr. Harvey made the list of top pitching values. What more is there to say about this young stud? If there are still any doubters out there, this is completely legitimate. Harvey isn't a future fantasy ace; he's already a fantasy ace. His stuff is plain filty: he leads all qualified starting pitchers in fastball velocity, and his slider is just nasty.  I don't know what to else to say other than it pains me that I don't own him in any of my half-dozen keeper leagues. Sigh...

Bartolo Colon

Owner: UP

Investment: Free Agent Pickup

Current 5 X 5 Value: $16

Jeff Locke

Owner: Philly Cheez

Investment: Free Agent Pickup

Current 5 X 5 Value: $15

Justin Masterson

Owner: UP

Investment: Free Agent Pickup

Current 5 X 5 Value: $14

For brevity's sake, let's group these final top three pitching values together. The names don't matter; it's the larger point as to what trio this indicates about how fantasy owners should approach pitching going forward. Let's take a minute to recap how the fantasy landscape has changed the past decade. When DIPS theory was not yet mainstream, sabermetric nerds like myself could more easily find undervalued starting pitchers. Flash forward to today, though, and it's just not as easy. When one couples this reality that the average fantasy baseball manager is more informed with the fact that pitching continues to be more dominant, we just can't wait on pitching anymore.

Still, more so than in the case of hitters, pitchers have so much that this is out of their control. Due to the volatility of pitching performance then, it still makes sense to gamble on pitchers to fill out your staff in the endgame. Along those same lines, spend that FAAB money early and often on starting pitchers dispaying good skills in April, even in small sample sizes. In summary, gone are the days when a fantasy owner could hold out on starting pitching; however, there will always be tremendous pitching values that go undrafted in leagues due to the volatility of the position.



Draft Round Battles: Verlander Vs. Kershaw

There is definitely an argument to be made that Stephen Strasburg should be the first pitcher taken in your fantasy draft.  It's very possible that by October, Strasburg will have delivered a season that will make him the undisputed top starter for the 2014 drafts...but we're not there yet.

As Mock Draft Central's latest ADP report shows us, Strasburg is the consensus #3 pitcher taken while Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander are locked in a pitched (no pun intended) battle as the first starting pitcher selected.  Kershaw has the current edge with an 18.47 ADP and Verlander just behind at 22.85, making them the 17th- and 19th-drafted players overall.  So really, there's room for the pro-Strasburg camp within this draft battle --- even if some bold soul takes Strasburg as the first pitcher, you'll still be faced with the Kershaw vs. Verlander decision later on.

Neither ace is a wrong move.  Six of one, half a dozen of the other.  Some past draft battles have featured players who I felt were going to decline in 2013 or were at best risky, but in this case, you're getting a superstar no matter if you take the Claw or if you take JV.  In fact, I've taken both pitchers in a couple of different league drafts within the last week and I feel (knock on wood) I'm sitting pretty.  While I have a preference between the two aces, I never like to take the same guys in multiple leagues since that's just inviting bad karma in the form of a freak injury or drop in performance.  I had Matt Cain on all four of my fantasy teams last year and that worked out great, but what are the odds of that happening again?  Can't fight the universe, man.

So, Kershaw vs. Verlander.  Let's look at both men over the last four years, with a focus on the 5x5 stats.  WHIP is essentially equal and saves aren't an issue, unless the Tigers' closer situation gets so desperate that Jim Leyland just throws all caution to the wind and has Verlander in the bullpen during his rest days (it's either this or else Mike Ilitch funds a human cloning project to create a new Mike Henneman).  Anyway, let's stick to the other three universal pitcher stats...

Kershaw: 2.60 ERA, 147 ERA+, 874 strikeouts, 3.02 K/BB, 9.4 K/9, 56 wins, 1.09 WHIP

Verlander: 2.95 ERA, 144 ERA+, 977 strikeouts, 3.89 K/BB, 9.2 K/9, 78 wins, 1.076 WHIP

Strikeouts.  As noted, Leyland generally tends to pitch Verlander like he's a modern-day Old Hoss Radbourn, which is why Verlander has 117 more IP than Kershaw has over the last four seasons.  While they strike out batters at roughly the same rate, Verlander simply has more punchouts by sheer dint of the fact that he generally pitches deeper into games and thus has more opportunity to rack up the K's.  This is where the NL setting actually hurts Kershaw a bit since he is more apt to be lifted for a pinch-hitter in the late innings.       

ERA.  Verlander had a 3.45 ERA in 2009 and a 3.37 ERA in 2010, accounting for the 0.35 gap between he and Kershaw.  Of course, Verlander had some bad luck in those seasons --- he posted FIPs of 2.80 and 2.97, respectively, so his final ERA should've by all accounts been better.  As noted by the ERA+, both pitchers were virtually identical in this category all things being equal, and yet Kershaw gets the nod since your fantasy league doesn't track in could'ves and should'ves.  I also can't help but think Kershaw is helped by Dodger Stadium in keeping runs down in general, plus you wonder if the Tigers' horrid infield defense may catch up to Verlander this year.

Wins.  We sabermetric types can scoff at wins all we want, but they're still a big part of the fantasy game and Verlander's 78-56 edge in his category can't be ignored.  Part of that is luck, part is Detroit being a slightly better team than L.A. (by seven wins) over the last four seasons, part is due to Verlander pitching in the easier AL Central, and part could be due to the fact that the Tigers had Jose Valverde protecting those leads while the Dodgers shuffled through Jonathan Broxton, Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen and even a little bit of Ramon Troncoso at the end of games.  Of course, the shoe is on the other foot going into 2013 now that the Dodgers will have Brandon League and Jansen waiting in the wings, while the Tigers are rolling the dice with Bruce Rondon.

Does that mean Kershaw is in for more wins?  Not necessarily, since frankly, I think the Dodgers are in real trouble as a team this year.  Forget the World Series talk --- I'd be impressed if the team even finishes above .500 given all the injuries and major holes they have up and down their roster.  Detroit, meanwhile, is the big favorite in the AL Central and has a good chance of another deep playoff run.  You could be a lot more optimistic about the Dodgers' chances (or maybe the chances of the White Sox, Indians or Royals) than I, but in terms of sheer results, I see the Tigers being the better team, which might well translate to Verlander having the edge in the win column.  It's such a random category to predict but judging by past history, I've got to give Verlander the duke here.

Add it all up and that's a 2-1 lead for Verlander, making him my pick over Kershaw.  As I said before, either man would look great atop your fantasy rotation so if you prefer Kershaw, go for it.  It's basically a no-lose draft battle here, and unless either man signs a contract extension, maybe they'll battle again in the 2014-15 free agent market





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