Starters


How to Win: Wins

Wins are as mercurial a category as any you'll find in fantasy baseball. According to ancient sabermetric tradition, it was Storm Davis and his 19-win season in 1989 that helped us to realize that last year's wins don't tell us much about what kind of pitcher someone is. After all, Davis had pitched quite poorly that year and went on to have a terrible rest of his career. The flip side of the coin happened this year, with Cliff Lee and his paltry six wins. The Phils weren't as good as they had been recently, but come on, six wins? For a pitcher with a 7.39 K/BB and a 3.16 ERA? Something here isn't fair.

You were perfectly aware of this unfairness, of course, and you've been hoping to exploit it successfully for quite some time. Unfortunately, that's a little easier said than done. Last year was a pretty good year for pitchers winning a lot of games, so we'll take a look at the leader list, not because it's likely to tell us next year's biggest winners, but because it might give us a hint as to what type of pitchers might be giving us value in the category.

2012's Top Winners:

21 Wins: Gio Gonzalez
20 Wins: R.A. Dickey, David Price, Jered Weaver
19 Wins: Johnny Cueto
18 Wins: Matt Harrison, Lance Lynn
17 Wins: Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale
16 Wins: Matt Cain, Wade Miley, Hiroki Kuroda, Yu Darvish, A.J. Burnett, Madison Bumgarner, Kyle Lohse, Tim Hudson, Yovani Gallardo, Phil Hughes, Max Scherzer
15 Wins: CC Sabathia, James Shields, Ian Kennedy, Zack Greinke, Barry Zito, Stephen Strasburg
14 Wins: Clayton Kershaw, Clayton Richard, Jason Vargas, Mat Latos, Adam Wainwright, Ryan Vogelsong

As you can see, there are some wide disparities in skill, team quality, and pitcher type on this list, which is exactly what you would expect. The good news is that it can't be completely random; the majority of these names are guys you count on to be among the best pitchers in baseball.

Set those aces aside for a moment, along with guys like Sale and Miley who surprised us by pitching like them last year. What about the other guys, why are they here? Blind luck. Definitely some of it. But maybe a little more. Harrison, Lynn, Lohse, Kuroda, Hughes, Hudson, Zito, and Vogelsong all pitched for playoff teams last year. The three who didn't pitch for playoff teams all came from very pitcher-friendly parks: Burnett, Richard, and Vargas.

How much of this is signal and how much is noise? It's honestly hard to tell for sure. After all, Vargas was pitching for the same team as Felix Hernandez, and won one more game. We probably aren't going to be confused about which one is the better draft choice. All got several more wins than Edwin Jackson, even though he pitched for the best team in baseball. So it's definitely a noisy pattern, but it seems to make sense logically: great pitchers tend to get some of the higher win totals, and most of the other good win counts come from the ranks of the pretty good who play on good teams. Plus Barry Zito, for whom “pretty good” is a bit of a stretch.

Decent Pitcher, Good Offense

The goal here isn't to target the top aces out there, instead it's to find some mid-draft starters that might be extra helpful in wins. What they do in other categories is their business.

Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster (BOS); Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd (CHW); Anibal Sanchez (DET); Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton (LAA); Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes (NYY); Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando (TEX); Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson (TOR); Mike Minor, Paul Maholm (ATL); Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey (CIN); Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers (MIL); Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn (STL); Dan Haren (WAS); whoever ends up filling out the Dodgers' rotation.

Obviously there are quite a few pitchers who make it into this category. Some are sleepers for other reasons, and others have touched ace status before and could do it again. There are a wide variety of price tags that count as “mid-range” and I recommend getting a couple of them. You never know who next year's Matt Harrison or Lance Lynn could be. They could even do it again.

I'd also consider paying a little extra for those with shutdown bullpens. In case of a tie, consider pitchers from Atlanta, Washington, St. Louis, and the Yankees a little more highly than others.

Turning Signal Into Strategy

Quantity is the name of the game in Wins, just as it is in Strikeouts. Getting good pitchers won't be enough to take this category—you need lots of pitchers, pitching lots of innings to come away with the lead at the end of the year, or just to win it week to week. There are two basic routes you can go for this category: streaming and non.

Streaming (In Full and in Part)
If you really want to win this one, stream. Rotate as many starters as you can on and off your roster and soak up the joys of wins and whiffs. Your ERA and WHIP won't like you, but maybe you weren't going to do well in those categories anyways.

There are problems with streaming of course: unhappy commissioners and leaguemates, weekly instead of daily changes, limited roster moves, and innings limits. There's also the fact that most streamed pitchers are sort of bad (or really bad in a deep league) and likely to hurt you in ERA and WHIP disproportionately to how much they help you in Wins and Strikeouts. Plus, the more of your league that streams, the worse the options are for everyone. Given all those drawbacks, I don't like this strategy much. (Also, I don't think it's terribly fun, but that's for you to decide, I guess.) The only time I'd stream would be in a shallow head-to-head matchups league, which is what a lot of the public leagues out there are.

If full streaming isn't right for your team or your league, a sort of measured streaming might be. Isolate next week's best two-start option off the waiver wire and snatch him up. Keep him for the week and drop him after his second start for next week's top candidate. In most leagues, chances are this will be a pitcher on the fringe of being worth hanging onto, so he's probably decent. You can try padding your win total this way without hurting your ERA and WHIP too badly, especially if you get to play specific matchups. You can do this with two pitchers a week, I suppose, but any more than that and you're just streaming and subject to its downsides. I think this one is best for a head-to-head league.

If you play in a league with weekly changes, then you're already all over those two-start guys, sometimes weeks ahead of time. Keep on keeping on.

What if you don't stream?
There are a few options open to those who cannot or should not stream. First of all, in a head-to-head league, expect to lose to the streamers when you play them. Even if it's not really a good idea, these leagues always have some streamers. Against the others, though, and in any roto league with an innings cap, you still want to get ahead of the competition.

One thing you can do is bulk up on mid-draft pitchers. Don't just take one or two from the back end, but take three or four across multiple strata. What I normally do, is  grab two aces and then sit on starters for a long time. This strategy seems to work well in a number of contexts (especially my offense), but it can be a detriment in the wins column. By filling out your starting rotation a little earlier you can bring a few more wins in without hurting your rate stats. This strategy could have netted you guys like Harrison, Lohse, Kuroda, and Hughes last year. If it did, then you were probably pretty happy. Of course, it might also have gotten you Josh Beckett, Ted Lilly, John Danks, and Shaun Marcum, so maybe you weren't too enthused. If you do go this route, expect to play with a short hitting bench (or none at all, in a shallower league).

Pay extra for pitching. This one is simple, and it's the opposite of a strategy I suggested when talking about Runs Scored. Whether you're in an auction or a draft, you can always unbalance your team. In select leagues it might even be a good idea. If you think you can get all the hitting bargains, maybe you can afford to pay a little extra for a truly great pitching staff.

If you play standard roto, I definitely believe you should max out your IP. If you can get good pitching, do it. If you can get lots of it, do it. Once you've built up a good Wins total, trade a couple good starters near your deadline—trade 'em cheap if you have to—preferably for closers. Then, as you near your IP limit, start dropping starters in favor of the best relievers on the waiver wire. It won't be a game changer in the rate stats, but it won't hurt and it will let you tack on some strikeouts too.

A Few Final Words
There are a lot of things that go into a successful year in the Wins category, and only some of them are under your control. Complicating matters further, is the fact that slight changes in your league rules can make big differences in how to win, Wins. The strategies of your opponents will come heavily into play too. The good news is this: with a decent starting staff, you can probably expect to be near the middle of the pack in wins. Normal variations of luck could be enough to vault you up to the league leaders in the category, while paying attention to the waiver wire and the play of your own pitchers should be enough to keep a decent staff from foundering on luck alone.

If there was a category that I would give up trying to win it would be this one. Not that I would punt it—not by a long shot. But playing to win in this one is likely to leave you shorted in another category or three. Instead, I recommend aiming for that mid-pack ranking, and hoping to land near the top.  At the end of the day, though, someone who spent too much on the quantity of their pitching is probably going to win this one. I should know—I did exactly that last year.



Go Bold or Go Home: Max Scherzer is a Top 10 Starter

Raise your hand if you've said it before: "This is the year Max Scherzer puts it all together." That should cover just about everyone, right? Well don't worry, I'm not going to make that claim in this post. Because Scherzer has already put it all together, the face value numbers just didn't reflect that last season. But they will this year.

Scherzer led baseball in K% (29.4), K/9 (11.08) and SIERA (2.99) last season. He finished 10th in FIP (3.27), 11th in K/BB (3.85), and his average fastball velocity (94.2 mph) trailed only David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Justin Verlander and Matt Moore. Scherzer's 12.2 percent swinging-strike rate tied him for second in the Majors behind only Cole Hamels (12.9 percent). His contact rate on out-of-zone pitches and strikes were both roughly seven percent better than the league average.

Scherzer confounded hitters across the board, but his overall numbers were shrouded by a slow start and a pair of minor maladies that limited him to 187 2/3 innings. Those maladies include hamstring tightness leading up to the All-Star break and shoulder fatigue that caused his velocity to drop into the low 90s in his final three starts. The velocity drop sounds troubling, but Scherzer's velocity has performed similarly in the past without leading to major injury, mitigating the need for major concern. There's also the fact that in those three starts, he allowed four runs in 11 innings with 11 strikeouts. It's not as if when the velocity faded, Scherzer was torched by the opposition.

 Beyond that, there's the matter of Scherzer's defense. Yes, his infield defense will likely be horrid. Again. However, Scherzer is an extreme flyball pitcher. Detroit's primary right fielder last season was Brennan Boesch, who by all measures was a defensive travesty. Boesch was worth -8 runs according to The Fielding Bible and posted an even more unsightly -18.2 UZR/150. Detroit right fielders as a whole posted marks of -17 and -17.5 in those categories, respectively.

Boesch will be replaced by Torii Hunter. At 37 years of age, Hunter is clearly no longer the standout center fielder he was in his early years with Minnesota. However, advanced defensive metrics still love Hunter's glove in right field. The Fielding Bible rated Hunter at +15 runs, and UZR/150 agreed by doling out a generous +13.0 runs to Hunter's right field defense. If those numbers hold true, that's at least a 30-run swing for the Tigers in right field alone. Scherzer threw roughly 13 percent of Detroit's innings last season. Assuming a 30-run uptick in right field defense, Scherzer could expect to shave four runs off his ERA. That alone would have dropped his total to 3.54 instead of 3.74.

In left field, Tigers hurlers were unfairly subjected to 226 innings of Delmon Young "playing defense" -- which can be more accurately described as "breathing and occupying space while adding the occasional 360 for dramatic effect." Andy Dirks graded out well according to The Fielding Bible (+3 runs in 464 innings) but not so much according to UZR/150 (-13 runs). Either way, he's a marked upgrade over Young. If he's considered to be even a league-average glove in left field, Dirks will combine with a strong center fielder (Austin Jackson) and an elite defender in right (Hunter) to provide plenty of cushion for Scherzer's 41.5 percent flyball rate -- which ranked tenth among qualified starting pitchers.

Scherzer is currently going as the 21st starting pitcher off the board -- good for an average draft position of 102, per Mock Draft Central. A look at the pitchers separating him from the Top 10, however, reveals a host of red flags. Names like Jered Weaver (declining velocity/whiffs), Yu Darvish (awful command), Madison Bumgarner (brutal second half), Kris Medlen (no track record), R.A. Dickey (short track record, move to AL East), Roy Halladay (injuries) and Chris Sale (velocity drop, lack of track record) are all going ahead of Scherzer, but is that the right call?

Scherzer is a guaranteed strikeout monster. He's whiffed 9.3 hitters per nine innings in his career and is coming off of a ridiculous 11.1 K/9 in 2012. He plays in a fairly weak division (despite improvements to the Indians) with a potent offense behind him that should lead to plenty of wins. He's walked just 2.7 hitters per nine innings over the past two seasons, which should result in a solid WHIP if his BABIP regresses from last year's .333 toward his career .312.

Scherzer flashed the type of dominance of which he's capable from May 20 through season's end in 2013 by posting a 3.02 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 14 wins and 183 strikeouts in 146 innings. If he can shake the early-season doldrums that have plagued him throughout his career, he has all of the tools to be one of the game's best starters. That may be easier in 2013 than most seasons, as the Tigers have seven games against Houston, three against Seattle and ten against Minnesota in the season's first two months. As a whole, Scherzer's early schedule doesn't look terribly intimidating.

Perhaps the biggest mark against Scherzer is that he's never topped 200 innings in a Major League season, but he'd have pushed to do so had he remained healthy in the final weeks of 2012. He's averaged 193 frames over the past three seasons, and there's little reason to expect a drop-off in 2013. Rather, a step forward is more likely if he can get a strong start out of the gates.

Peripheral stats love Scherzer, and given the questions surrounding the second tier of starting pitchers, it's fair to say that the 28-year-old has a legitimate chance to soar through fantasy baseball's pitcher rankings this season. His 4.6 fWAR already ranked 14th among qualified starters, and given expected regression due to age or lack of stuff from some players ahead of him, everyone's favorite case of heterochromia iridum will finish the season among the ten best arms in fantasy baseball.



Finding This Year's Starting Pitching Sleepers

Of fantasy baseball's top 36 starting pitchers from 2012 (according to ESPN's Player Rater), 21 of them were drafted outside of the top 100 players (according to Mock Draft Central ADP data from March 2012).  That's a solid 58% of your number three or better fantasy starters, all drafted in the ninth round or later.  What do these guys have in common?  How can we identify them for 2013?

Low Strikeout Guys (Kyle Lohse, Wade Miley, R.A. Dickey, Jason Vargas, Johnny Cueto, Matt Harrison)

All of these pitchers had a K/9 at or below 6.1 in 2011.  It always stings to draft a guy like this, knowing he'll net you just 110-130 Ks and hurt your all-important K/9 in leagues with innings caps.  And since they don't miss bats, these pitchers are always at the mercy of hits allowed.  It's hard to trust strong ratios from these types, though Lohse and Harrison have now done it two years running.  Your best bet among low strikeout starters is to target someone who at least has the stuff for strikeouts and/or has done it in the past, such as Cueto heading into 2012.  Jeremy Hellickson, Ricky Romero, and Wandy Rodriguez are a few examples of pitchers who were players with low K/9s in 2012 who could rebound or take a step forward in that department.  If you're going to draft a low strikeout guy with no real K potential, at least aim for one with great control and a nice groundball rate, like Tim Hudson.

Old Guys (R.A. Dickey, Hiroki Kuroda, A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Ryan Vogelsong, Kyle Lohse)

Kuroda, in particular, had to have been going in the 15th round because he was 37 years old.  The others had additional issues, whereas Kuroda's biggest secondary concern was a move to the AL East.  Fantasy owners still don't trust him, as he's going in the 14th.  All of these players can still be had outside of the top 100 picks with the exception of Dickey, who at 91 still has one of the higher ADPs you'll see for a reigning Cy Young award winner.  I'd take a shot with him at that spot.

Bad Ratio Guys (A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Jason Vargas, Max Scherzer, Homer Bailey, Gio Gonzalez, Jonathon Niese)

In a league where only 70-odd starting pitchers are drafted, it's hard to feel good about taking someone coming off a season in which he had an ERA around five or a WHIP over 1.40.  Heck, Alex McCrum was just telling you that even a WHIP in the 1.20s isn't anything special these days.

That's where an ERA estimator like SIERA comes in.  Niese posted a tidy 3.42 SIERA against a 4.40 ERA in 2011, and sure enough, his ERA came down the following year.  Based on 2012 numbers, SIERA gives love to Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Jeff Samardzija, Alex Cobb, Dillon Gee, Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Pat Corbin, Carlos Villanueva, Edwin Jackson, and Ian Kennedy.  There are some very talented pitchers in that list who are going late in part because of ERAs around 4.00 in 2012.  SIERA didn't love the 2012 seasons from Jon Lester, Tim Lincecum, Mike Minor, or Derek Holland, but they're also intriguing bounceback or breakout candidates.  

Often a promising player can be on the cusp of fantasy greatness with improvement in one area, like Gio Gonzalez dropping his walk rate from 4.1 to 3.4 per nine in 2012.  Maybe this year we'll see better control from Edinson Volquez, Yu Darvish, Matt Moore, or Felix Doubront, taking them to the next level.

Guys Coming Back From Injuries (Jonathon Niese, Homer Bailey, Jake Peavy, Adam Wainwright, Jordan Zimmermann, Kris Medlen)

Niese missed time in 2011 due to an intercostal strain, so there was never a concern about his arm.  Peavy and Bailey were coming off much more serious issues entering 2012, so the fact that they held up comes as a surprise.  But as Wainwright, Zimmermann, and Medlen reminded us, full recovery from Tommy John surgery is commonplace.  Zimmermann's TJ procedure actually took place in August of '09, but entering the 2012 season he was still being drafted in the 11th round perhaps because of the innings cap he'd been under in '11.

Players returning from injury, carrying an injury-prone reputation, or just coming off an injury-shortened season that you may consider rolling the dice on for 2013 include C.J. Wilson, Doug Fister, Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson, Brett Anderson, Scott Baker, Derek Holland, Matt Garza, Josh Beckett, Tommy Hanson, Andrew Cashner, and Tommy John survivors Brandon Beachy (potential late June return), Cory Luebke (late May return), Daniel Hudson (July), and Felipe Paulino (July).

Unproven Guys (Ryan Vogelsong, Kris Medlen, Wade Miley, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, Chris Sale)

These six top 36 fantasy starters fell outside the top 100 players chosen heading into the 2012 season mostly because they lacked strong track records of big league success.  Some, such as Darvish and Sale, came with fantastic pedigrees, while a guy like Medlen wasn't supposed to be this good.  Medlen, Lynn, and even Sale weren't locks to hold down starting jobs in 2012.

For 2013, the unproven bracket includes Aroldis Chapman, Matt Harvey, Hisashi Iwakuma, Dylan Bundy, Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shelby Miller, Tyler Skaggs, and a host of others.  But beware: while Matt Moore was pretty good fantasy-wise in 2012, he was drafted before more proven commodities like Gio Gonzalez, Adam Wainwright, Jordan Zimmermann, and Max Scherzer, and that was a mistake.  I'm curious if hype will push Chapman down from his current 131 ADP to something closer to the 100 range.

Perhaps the real sleepers among starting pitchers don't come until the first 150 players are off the board.  Given that restriction, here are my top five for 2013:

  1. Lance Lynn.  Lynn throws hard, he's in his prime, and he got into better shape over the offseason.  I expect him to build upon his success from 2012, with the only threat being the Cardinals' rotation depth.
  2. Homer Bailey.  You can grab Bailey in the 14th round for a reason: no one knows if he can handle a 200 inning workload again.  But entering his age 27 season following a strong second half, I'll take my chances.
  3. Tim Lincecum.  I'll feel better about Timmy if just a little bit of that velocity comes back.  But to add value in the 17th round, Lincecum doesn't need to strike out 250 or win another Cy.  If he can provide those same 190 Ks with decent ratios, that would be acceptable in this draft position.
  4. Jason Hammel.  I believe that Hammel really did turn a corner last year with the O's.  Can he top the 180 inning mark for the first time?  Does it matter, when you grab him in the 24th round?
  5. Ivan Nova.  Most likely, you will be able to grab Nova for a bench spot, that's how down on him people are after a 7.05 ERA in the second half.  But the peripherals still looked good, and he should be entering his prime.


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How to Win: WHIP

It's time to WHIP your roster into shape. Let's WHIP up a great pitching staff. Who's the majority WHIP of your fantasy team? And as many other cliched puns on WHIP as you can think of. Now that we've gotten that out of our systems, we can all agree never to speak of this again.

Another thing we can agree on is this: WHIP is a great category. After all the team- and luck-dependencies of Runs Scored and ERA, WHIP should come as a breath of fresh air. It's not that there isn't any luck that goes into the process--there certainly is--but there isn't nearly as much of it. WHIP tells us a lot about a pitcher's true talent level, which is nice--we can trust it. The only downside is that everyone else can trust it and the opportunity to game this system is a lot less than it could be. The good news, though, is that we get to list 24 pitchers below, precisely because we can expect most of them to be among the league leaders. To give you a little extra edge, the minimum IP for these guys is just 120, so maybe some of them will have slipped through the cracks of your opponents' preparation. 

 2012's Top 24

1. Kris Medlen                       0.91
2. Jered Weaver                   1.02
2. Clayton Kershaw             1.02
4. Matt Cain                            1.04
5. R.A. Dickey                        1.05
6. Justin Verlander              1.06
7. Kyle Lohse                          1.09
8. Jake Peavy                          1.10
8. David Price                          1.10
10. Madison Bumgarner     1.11
10. Cliff Lee                              1.11
10. Brandon Morrow           1.11
13. Cole Hamels                     1.12
14. Gio Gonzalez                    1.13
15. Chris Sale                          1.14
15. CC Sabathia                      1.14
15. Marco Estrada                1.14
15. Felix Hernandez            1.14
19. Mike Minor                      1.15
19. Stephen Strasburg         1.15
21. Mat Latos                         1.16
22. Hiroki Kuroda               1.17
22. James Shields                1.17
22. Jordan Zimmermann 1.17
22. Johnny Cueto                1.17
22. Mark Buehrle                 1.17
22. Jon Niese                        1.17 

Did you notice the freebies? Thanks to the miracle of rounding, a six-way tie brought us to 27 names. Lucky us. By the way, when I searched for pitchers who threw at least 120 innings, I got 121 entries. The worst WHIP belonged to Ricky Romero--an ugly 1.67. More usefully, perhaps, the median number is 1.27 and is shared by many; the 2012 average was 1.31. Interestingly, as recently as 2009, the league average was 1.39. So don't be too impressed with WHIP's in the 20's. Baseball isn't the same game as it was half a decade ago, and you get to have higher expectations from your pitchers.

WHIP comes from two places, obviously enough: walks allowed and hits allowed. A pitcher with a consistently low WHIP probably keeps both of them pretty far down, most of the time. That said, one is much easier to control than another, and it is, you guessed it, that walk rate. Who's keeping their walks down? Let's see:

BB/9 

1. Cliff Lee                                1.19

2. Bartolo Colon                      1.36

3. Blake Beavan                       1.42

4. Kris Medlen                         1.50

5. Bronson Arroyo                  1.56

6. Joe Blanton                         1.60

7. Scott Diamond                    1.61

8. Kyle Lohse                           1.62

9. Tommy Milone                   1.71

9. Wade Miley                         1.71

10. Clayton Richard              1.73

11. Mark Buehrle                    1.78

12. Tommy Hunter                1.82

13. Marco Estrada                 1.89

14. Dan Haren                       1.94

15. Jordan Zimmermann    1.98

15. CC Sabathia                      1.98

Of these pitchers (all those under the arbitrary milestone of 2.00/9 with at least 120 IP), most had helpful WHIP's. Some had very helpful numbers. A couple were...not so helpful: Beavan, Blanton, and Richard were barely better than average (for their inning count), while Milone and Haren were both worse than average. For Haren, it seems to be related to his injury issues last year. For Blanton, it seems to be that he's chronically too hittable. The others could have had similar issues, or they just could have gotten a few bad bounces on balls in play.

A couple more names stand out to me on this list: check out Zimmermann and Sabathia riding the end of it. Right now, they are the 23rd and 20th starters off the board at MockDraftCentral, giving both triple-digit ADP's. Keeping their walks down and pitching in front of powerful offenses seems like a recipe for more success than they're being given credit for. 

Miley's presence here is also interesting. When I see a young starter have surprising Big League success, I'm usually a little hesitant. Usually someone like that has great stuff, no idea how to harness it, and the league will figure him out by his second season. A good red flag for a guy like that is, of course, his walk rate. Miley's kind of the opposite, and that makes him interesting. Especially for this category.

I'd also like to use this opportunity to plug Marco Estrada. Again. Look how good he is! 

 Good WHIP, Lousy ERA

If WHIP and ERA are siblings, WHIP is the quiet, studious one and ERA is the high-drama, high-energy one. Guess which one gets more attention? Guess which one we'll vote Most Likely to Succeed in the end? A pitcher with a great ERA will never fly under the radar. Even Joe Morgan will notice. Someone with a good or great WHIP, but a mediocre or lousy ERA might just escape some notice. Not only that, but just about anyone is more likely to underperform their true talent in ERA than overperform it in WHIP. Peavy, Bumgarner, Sabathia, and Estrada all had top-20 WHIP's, but ERA's in the 3.30's. Mike Minor was right there with them in WHIP, but sported a 4.16 ERA.

Some more pitchers on the WHIP leaderboard but closer to the middle of the pack in ERA include: Latos, Kuroda, Shields, Buehrle, Niese, Jason Vargas, Miley, Doug Fister, Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, and Travis Wood.

After Wood, we start getting past WHIP's of 1.20 and into the territory where both numbers are in the middle of the pack. To make a real mark in team WHIP, a pitcher has to be very good indeed, because the median is so low.

A Few Final Words 

The best thing you can do for your team WHIP is to be aggressive when you bid or draft. Jump an extra dollar or an extra round on one of those pitchers with a helpful WHIP, even if they came with a marginal ERA last year. The band of successful pitchers in this category is pretty small. As pitching has gotten better in the last couple years, so have the numbers required to win your fantasy league. Because WHIP is so (relatively) predictable, I suggest aiming high and getting multiple good-to-great WHIP starters, and peppering your staff with relievers who get saves or strikeouts and--quietly--don't walk anyone. 



Draft Round Battles: Roy Halladay Vs. Kris Medlen

A legendary workhorse who finally broke down against a pitcher who returned from injury and produced spectacular results.  We know what Roy Halladay and Kris Medlen did in 2012, but now let's examine how these NL East rivals project for 2013 and who is the better fantasy bet.

The early returns don't favor the veteran.  Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position chart indicates that Medlen has a 68.41 ADP, which ranks him 16th amongst starting pitchers and 66th amongst all players.  Halladay, meanwhile, has an 81.17 ADP, ranking him 21st amongst SP and 81st overall.

Halladay's drop is quite precipitous considering his Cooperstown-worthy track record and the fact that he was the top pitcher taken* in many 2012 fantasy drafts.  It's not a surprise, however, given the optics of a 35-year-old pitcher posting the highest full-season ERA (4.49) of his career and spending six weeks on the DL with a shoulder injury.  After averaging 236 IP over the last six seasons, it's fair to wonder if this workload has caught up with Halladay and he can no longer be counted upon to produce ace-level numbers.

* = And, in one of my leagues last year, the FIRST OVERALL PICK.  I kid you not.  Now, our league tracks complete games as a stat and having Halladay on your roster usually clinches you first- or second-place in that category all by himself but still, my buddy Dave's bold choice of Halladay was a real bombshell.  Five points to Dave for creating a lot of draft day chaos, and minus 50 points to Dave for...well, Halladay's loss in form basically torpedoing his team.  

As Halladay fell, however, Medlen rose.  After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 and missing virtually all of the 2011 season, Medlen was eased back into regular pitching duties in the Braves' bullpen in 2012 and then inserted into the starting rotation in July.  The results were astounding: Medlen posted an 0.97 ERA in 12 regular season starts, with 84 strikeouts (against 10 walks) in 83 2/3 IP and a perfect 12-0 record.  Had Medlen contributed a bit more at the plate, he basically would've been a real-life Steve Nebraska, which I think we can all agree is a decent upgrade over Jair Jurrjens.

A great half-season, however, is still just a half-season.  What Medlen did over the last two-plus months of 2012 is essentially what Halladay did for seven full seasons from 2005-11.  Mock Draft Central's numbers notwithstanding, is Medlen really a better fantasy option than Halladay?  Removing ERA from the equation, let's look at some of the two pitchers' secondary numbers from 2012...

Halladay: 156 1/3 IP, 7.6 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 3.67 K/BB, 3.62 SIERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.60 xFIP, .301 BABIP

Medlen: 138 IP, 7.8 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 5.22 K/BB, 2.85 SIERA, 2.42 FIP, 3.29 xFIP, .261 BABIP

While Halladay didn't pitch as badly as you might think last year, there were still some warning signs.  Looking at Fangraphs' numbers from last season, Halladay only had a 44.7% groundball rate (well below his career average of 54.4%) and he lost 1.8 mph on his cutter.  Halladay's ability to keep the ball on the ground and his cutter (which he threw 41.7% of the time in 2012) are his bread and butter, so if he's losing his edge in either category, that's a big red flag.

Of course, this is kind of the crux of the argument between these two pitchers.  With Halladay we have loads of data to see how 2012 compares to his past results; with Medlen, we have basically none, as he didn't even become a full-time starting pitcher until July 31 of last year.  Medlen only made 26 minor league starts out of 105 career appearances in the minors, so we extrapolate much from his farm numbers (2.55 ERA, 10.3 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 over 240 1/3 minor league IP) other than generally agreeing that he looks like a pretty good pitcher.  How that translates over a full season in the Braves' rotation or how it translates to Medlen's fantasy ranking, however, is anyone's guess.

It's a tough call on either pitcher and frankly, I'm not sure I'd go with either if you have other good options available in the sixth or seventh round.  Looking at the ADP list, the four pitchers in between Medlen and Halladay (Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, CC Sabathia and Chris Sale) all seem like stronger choices to me for 2013, Sabathia's injuries notwithstanding. 

Between just Halladay and Medlen, however, I can't help but think that Halladay is the safer choice.  Call it a bit of a homer pick from the guy who lives in Toronto, but provided that Halladay's shoulder problem was just a blip in a long history of durability, I think we'll see Halladay put up another very strong campaign.  Medlen may still be good in 2013 but unless he's turned a gigantic corner and is on the way to a Hall of Fame career, he's going to come back to earth.  Granted, "regressing" from a sub-1.00 ERA leaves a lot of comfortable wiggle room but I'd rather not draft a guy guaranteed for regression ahead of a guy who I feel will bounce back and pitch like his old self.

After all, nobody ever erred in believing in Halladay, right Dave?



Go Bold or Go Home: Draft Marco Estrada--Or Else

A part of me didn't want to write this article. Not because I don't believe in Marco Estrada, just the opposite. It's because I play against my own father in two leagues, and I know he reads this site. So go ahead dad, steal him from me, for the good of the readers.

Why am I so excited about Estrada? Is it because I have an unnatural appreciation for Brewers pitchers who pitch less than a full season? To be fair, I do like his rotation-mates Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers--and I'm willing to think about Wily Peralta and Chris Narveson. But Estrada is better than those guys, and he's better than literally most of the pitchers getting drafted ahead of him. Check out his stats from last year (forgetting his meaningless W-L record): 

23 GS, 138.1 IP, 143 SO, 3.64 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 1.14 WHIP

All of that is nice stuff in low innings, especially those whiffs; they translate to a nifty 9.30 K/9. For all those strikeouts, the righty doesn't cook with as much gas as you might think; his fastball averages just over 90mph. It's hard to care so much, though, when you see his control: he posted a sterling 1.89 BB/9, or just 29 walks all season.

That brings us to his best attribute: that ratio of strikeouts to walks. Lots of strikeouts is a great recipe for success. Very few walks is too. Combining them makes you very hard to beat. Estrada does it with an eye-opening 4.93 K/BB rate. Take a second look: 4.93. For pitches with 100 IP or more, only Cliff Lee, Colby Lewis, and Kris Medlen were better--and Estrada gets the most strikeouts of the bunch. Actually, of all nine pitchers with at least 100 IP and a K/BB of 4.00 or better, only Stephen Strasburg had a higher K/9.

This is a very impressive stat, and all the more so since past K/BB is such a good predictor of future overall performance (except in the case of Joe Blanton, but they can't all be winners). A bit of anecdotal evidence: I remember in 2004 when this pitcher came out of a tortured injury history to post a 4.00 K/9 and a 1.88 BB/9. Those numbers popped out then as much as they do now, so I drafted him. He turned out to be Chris Carpenter, and the next year he made his place among baseball's top pitchers. I'm not saying I'm sure Estrada will do the same, but I am saying I wouldn't be surprised if he did.

Maybe he'll make the jump to ace next year and maybe he won't. He isn't terribly young (age 30 season coming up), but all he has to do is stay the same for 180 IP or so and he'll be extremely valuable. Especially at his current Average Draft Position.

Mock drafters are nabbing him in only 36.1% of drafts, at 226.4--that places him near the end of the 18th round. The highest he's been drafted at all is at 192--leading off the 16th. I'd happily grab him several rounds higher. Consider some of the pitchers being drafted ahead of him: A.J. Griffin, Ricky Romero, Phil Hughes, Trever Bauer, James McDonald, Jeremy Hellickson, Trevor Cahill, lesser-but-still-good-teammate Mike Fiers, maybe-relieving Alexi Ogando, probably-starting-in-the-minors Dylan Bundy, half a season of Brandon Beachy, and the duct-taped together Scott Baker. There are more, but you get the idea. A lot of those pitchers are higher risk or lower reward than Estrada. Actually, most are both and I'd happily take Estrada over any of them.

Estrada's ADP makes him the 71st pitcher taken and I have to scroll way up the list before I get to a place where I'd rather have most--still not all--of the pitchers being taken over him. It's probably somewhere around the 40th pitcher taken. There are still some before that point that I wouldn't draft, and a few behind it that I'd take over Estrada, but that's about where the quality starts going up. Pitcher number 40 happens to be Tim Lincecum at the moment, an enigma of his own. Overall, that gives him an ADP of 148.32--good for a spot in the 12th round. Adding a round to account for the fact that I think I can get a good deal, that means I'm targeting Marco Estrada in the 13th. And if his ADP goes up, I might be jumping on him even earlier.

There are reasons to doubt, I suppose. Most importantly, Estrada's low innings total was the highest of his career, so one worries how things will go when stretched over a full season. But if it weren't for those worries, you wouldn't be able to get Estrada in the 13th round, let alone the 18th. You'd be drafting him in the fourth of fifth.

There aren't many lists in fantasy baseball more different than the pitchers that show up around Estrada when you search him by K/BB--Lee, Medlen, CC Sabathia, R.A. Dickey, Cole Hamels--and those that you can find when searching him by ADP--Romero, Griffin, Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson, Josh Beckett, and even Carpenter, in a cruel irony. His performance puts him with elite pitchers, his price tag with innings-eaters and retreads. That's what I call a bargain.

 I wanted to make a list of other targets similar to Estrada, but there really aren't any. His K/BB is far ahead of others who have good ones. His K/9 is far better than most other pitchers with his kind of control. So get him on your team. Whatever he costs, I'll bet you he's a bargain.



How to Win: Strikeouts

Last Week on How to Win, I discussed a category in which I did particularly well last year: Stolen Bases. We'll do the same this week, with Strikeouts, before we go on to the categories in which I need to improve as much as anyone else: all the others.

Quick Overview
I love me some strikeouts. Last year, my fifth place Silver League team ran away with this category (so yeah, my other categories had some rough times). Part of that might have been amassing enough innings to eclipse our 1500 max a little early (and that after dumping every starter but David Price at some point in September), but that wasn't the whole story. Volume is half the story, though, the rest comes in the rate. Below we'll examine both halves of a winning strategy--and how going overboard isn't necessarily great for your ERA and WHIP.

2012's Top 24

1. Justin Verlander               239
2. Max Scherzer                     231
3. R.A. Dickey                         230
4. Clayton Kershaw               229
5. Felix Hernandez                223
5. James Shields                     223 
7. Yu Darvish                           221
8. Cole Hamels                        216
9. Gio Gonzalez                        207 
9. Cliff Lee                                 207
11. David Price                         205
12. Yovani Gallardo                204
13. Zack Greinke                      200
14. CC Sabathia                        197
14. Stephen Strasburg            197
16. Jake Peavy                           194
17. Matt Cain                            193
18. Chris Sale                            192
19. Madison Bumgarner        191
20. Tim Lincecum                    190
21. Ian Kennedy                       187
22. Mat Latos                            185
23. Adam Wainwright            184
24. A.J. Burnett                        180
24. Lance Lynn                        180
24. Jeff Samardzija                 180 

Most of baseball's best pitchers show up on this list and it's easy to say that the best way to help yourself in strikeouts is to get at least two of these guys. That's what I was trying to do when I drafted Price and Dan Haren. The only reason it worked out, of course, is because I soon flipped Haren for Scherzer, among others. So there was a bit of good luck. None of the rest of these guys made it onto my team, though, leaving me with a need fore a little more creativity.

High K/9 Pitchers
Not every pitcher on the list above put up huge K/9 numbers, but all had good ones--in fact, only Peavy, Cain, and Latos were under 8 K/9 and all three sat in the 7.90's. Of course, not every pitcher with a high strikeout rate pitches enough to make it onto this leaderboard. Getting those guys (and hopefully for longer stints in 2013) is a great way to patch up a fantasy rotation with a bunch of strikeouts. The way I figure, is that if I have to have some non-aces on my team, they better be handy with the whiffs. Here are a few pitchers who missed the cut when it came to innings last year but might still pad your K's next year. Everyone below pitched at least 100 innings last year and struck out at least eight batters per nine IP.

Francisco Liriano        9.59
Mike Fiers                      9.52
Felix Doubront             9.34
Marco Estrada              9.30
J.A. Happ                       8.96
Matt Moore                    8.88
Bud Norris                      8.82
Carlos Villanueva         8.76
Jason Hammel             8.62
Edinson Volquez          8.57
Jake Arrieta                   8.56
Johan Santana             8.54
Erik Bedard                    8.45
Matt Garza                     8.33
Tommy Hanson           8.30
Ivan Nova                      8.08 

As you can see, results and potential fantasy value vary wildly on this list, from the misery that was Francisco Liriano, to the health-restricted performences of Santana, Hammel, and Garza, and to the late callups of Fiers and Estrada. There are a lot of ways to get a lot of strikeouts when you're pitching, without making it to the leaderboard. (To be fair, Moore and Volquez literally just missed the cut.) It might be worth noting that my own team featured Estrada, Doubront, and Villanueva from among this group.

Not only are these players interesting draft targets (from a strikeout perspective anyway, your ERA and WHIP stats certainly cringe at some of them), you can utilize 2013's versions of them, whoever they might end up being. Of course, several of these were mid-season surprises, so there's no real knowing which injury replacements might come up and help your fantasy team as much as their real team. Here's a couple fairly drowsy sleepers, though: Chris Narveson and Scott Baker. The Brewers and Cubs are both linked to more than one name on this list, which tells me how they feel about pitchers who can get strikeouts, and both Narveson and Baker have generated their share of whiffs during their oft-interrupted stays in the Majors. Don't forget about stashable pitchers coming back from injury part way through the season, like Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke, and Danny Duffy.

High IP 
There's another route you can go, though, and this one's group of pitchers is somewhat less volatile than the group above. Finding pitchers who pitch a lot, whether they have high strikeout rates or not, can let you rack up strikeouts in bulk. This option is much better for those in head-to-head leagues, however, since heaping on the innings can hurt you badly when you start facing the IP cap. The nice thing, though, is that pitchers that teams entrust with tall innings counts year after year are usually a bit better than average, and (seemingly) much healthier--though obvious exceptions will apply. Here are the last three years' top innings eaters not found on the previous lists. All have pitched at least 600 innings since 2010.

Dan Haren                    650
Jared Weaver                648.2
Roy Halladay                640.2
C.J. Wilson                   629.2
Ervin Santana               629.1
Tim Hudson                  622.2
Hiroki Kuroda              618
Mark Buehrle                618
Bronson Arroyo            616.2
Ricky Romero               616
Jason Vargas               611
Jon Lester                     605
Trevor Cahill                604.1
Justin Masterson        602.1

Some of these guys fell off the list above--and out of fantasy's most valuable pitchers--last year through injuries, like Halladay, or a mysterious plunge in K/9 rate, like Weaver. Others, though, just don't generate that many strikeouts in a per inning basis. They can all be pencilled in for 200 IP, though, which means that they'll be of some help in those strikeouts.

It also seems worth noting that Edwin Jackson just missed being part of this group, with 598.2 IP, and he just missed the High K/9 group, with a 7.97 mark. To me, that makes him a really useful asset.

 
Relievers
Relief pitchers are a great way to pad your strikeout totals if you're worried about an innings limit. They get a lot more bang for their buck with their high rates than all but the best starters. Though they don't add a huge amount in raw total, using two or three in concert can be a sort of cobbled-together ace, Frankenstein-style. Of course, they eat up more roster spots than starters and tend to make small (or catastrophic) impacts on your rate stats without helping much at all in wins or, unless they're actual closers, saves. Since everybody's going to be snatching up closers, good or not, we'll only look at relievers not projected to close in 2013, regardless of what they used to do.

Antonio Bastardo        14.02
Ernesto Frieri               13.36 
Jim Henderson            13.21
David Hernandez        12.91
Steve Delabar                12.55
David Robertson          12.02
Tim Collins                    12.01
Jake McGee                   11.87
Jake Diekman              11.52
Jeremy Horst                11.49
Louis Coleman             11.47
Alex Hinshaw              11.44
Sean Doolittle               11.41
Andrew Miller              11.48
Joel Peralta                   11.38
Jesse Crain                    11.35
Alberto Cabrera            11.22
Wade Davis                   11.13

I made 11.13 the cutoff point, since that was Stephen Strasburg's mark last year--the best of any starter. The list goes on and on, though. Anyone on this list--or among the next large number of names with even a hint of the occasional save bears watching. Those at the very top of the list might deserve drafting even if they end up with no saves or wins at all.

(I don't know if Frieri or Ryan Madson will be closing for the Halos, so I'll include him here just in case.)

A Few Last Words
There are a lot of ways to go about succeeding in the strikeout category. One nice thing, is that, like steals, whiffs seem often to be available on the waiver wire. There are a number of less-than-excellent pitchers who rack up strikeouts and they can help your team if used right. Plus, real teams are always excited to call up a hard-throwing prospect and they can light up the real and fantasy baseball worlds long enough to help your team, even if they end up fizzling out. I do recommend a staff ace (actually, I try for two) who strikes people out in a big way. Think of Stephen Strasburg as a power/speed threat but for pitchers. If you play in a league with an IP cap, I'd avoid the innings-eaters altogether. If you don't, however--and especially if your league has barriers against streaming--I'd grab several. Strikeouts come from all kinds of places, and mixing several sources is always a good way to go. 



Go Bold or Go Home: Stephen Strasburg is the New Pedro Martinez

Stephen Strasburg is the new Pedro? What do I mean by that? Simply this: back in the day, Pedro was worth a first round pick, sometimes the first pick, and no other pitcher was all that close. I'm talking about Pedro before he threw Don Zimmer to the ground by the head, before he headhunted unsuspecting Devil Rays. I'm talking 1999-2001 Pedro, that's who Strasburg can be. Don't let him slip through your fingers in the first round, and whatever you do, don't waste a pick on some other pitcher instead.

As far as I can guess, there are three possible responses to this idea, and I'll deal with each one in turn.

1. Duh.
Fair enough, you're already on the Strasburg bandwagon. Go win your league. Better yet, finish reading this article just to be more sure.

2. But pitchers NEVER belong in the first round!
Never is such a scary word to throw around, but usually I agree with this idea. Whenever someone in my league nabs a starter in the first round, I always get excited, thinking they've wasted their pick. There are a couple reasons for this to usually be true, but they don't hold water this year.

The biggest reason is that pitchers are risky, moreso than position players and thus should not be given a first round pick. The problem with that this year is that there are an unusually rare amount of risky players on the first-rounder suspect list. Players like Matt Kemp (ADP 4.43) and Joey Votto (8.60) who missed significant portions of last season are there, not to mention garden variety injury risks like Carlos Gonzalez (9.75). On top of that, players like Justin Upton (15.07) and Adrian Gonzalez (32.16) who we counted on last year to provide big impacts failed to do so. Other first rounders that we've grown accustomed to seeing have dropped out of the top slots after injury marred (or ruined) seasons include Jose Bautista (14.11) , Troy Tulowitzki (16.15), and Evan Longoria (32.59). Someone has to take those spots over, but there's a lot more risk in the first round than there is in most years. So maybe taking a pitcher isn't so bad.

Along with the higher risk of some of the best potential first rounders this year, I think it's fair to say that, outside of the top four or five, the actual quality of this year's potential first rounders is lower than usual. A lot of those first round picks are providing the same (or nearly the same) value as players that can be found in the second round. Like Albert Pujols (7.18)? Try Prince Fielder (14.48). Like Carlos Gonzalez (9.75)? Try Adam Jones (25.41). Let's face it--a lot of first round picks are looking a lot like second round picks this year.

 The rule against taking a starter in the first round is a good one. This year just happens to be a great year to break it.

3. Strasburg isn't even the best pitcher in baseball, let alone as much better as Pedro Martinez was ten years ago! Give me Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander instead.

In all fairness, yes Strasburg is, for all it matters for your fantasy draft. In all but one respect, Strasburg is significantly better than Kershaw or Verlander than they are better than the others. That is to say, Kershaw and Verlander are great, but not very much greater than these pitchers: Cliff Lee, David Price, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Jared Weaver, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and others, in no particular order.

For the time being, I'm prepared to ignore any argument made that Kershaw will win more games in the shiny new Dodgers, or that Verlander will on the Tigers. Washington is a good team, and their offense will be good enough to keep Strasburg in plenty of games. With normal luck, he should be among the league's leaders in wins. Too bad you never know when someone will get normal luck with wins and when he won't. So call that one even, or insufficiently predictable.

The difference is in the strikeouts. Those of you who followed me in last year's Silver League Updates, will know that I love my strikeouts. So I'm admitting that bias. But they're a category, and they're decent at giving us information about two more categories (ERA and WHIP, obviously). We can learn even more when we add walks to the equation. Let's see how Strasburg (ADP 23.77) stacks up with the three pitchers being drafted before him: Kershaw (12.64), Verlander (15.56), and Price (23.59). Just for fun, let's check out the next three pitchers after him too: Lee (30.67), Hernandez (35.10), and Yu Darvish (36.95).

Here they are in K/9:

Strasburg    11.13
Darvish        10.40
Kershaw       9.05
Verlander    9.03
Lee                 8.83
Price              8.74
Hernandez  8.65

 All seven put up great numbers, but only Darvish came within two strikeouts per nine innings of Strasburg's total. And Darvish put up an ugly 4.19 BB/9 rate that didn't exactly help his ERA or WHIP.

Maybe you prefer K%, fair enough. How about this list:

Strasburg       30.2%
Darvish           27.1%
Kershaw         25.4%
Verlander      25.0%
Price                24.5%
Lee                   24.4%
Hernandez    23.8%

If anything, Strasburg looks even better here, blasting the competition out of the water. (In all fairness, Max Scherzer looks pretty good here too, at 29.4%.)

What about K/BB, then? That's the one that gives a really good indication of next year's ERA and (especially) WHIP. (Spoiler alert: Cliff Lee reigns supreme.)

Lee                   7.39
Strasburg      4.10
Verlander     3.98
Hernandez    3.98
Kershaw        3.63
Price               3.47
Darvish          2.48

Two names stand out here as outliers. In fact, Lee's rate is more than 2.5 BB/9 better than the second best pitcher by this measure, none other than Joe Blanton. Yeah, him. (Sleeper? Maybe...) The other outlier, of course, is Darvish. So here's more confirmation not to take him over Strasburg, or anywhere near the other six pitchers on this list, if you were thinking about it. 

That leaves us with five names, and, once again, Strasburg is on top. But maybe he's striking out so many batters that he can walk a few too many and still look good. Maybe a lousy walk rate could take his ERA and WHIP down like Darvish's did.

Or maybe not: his walk rate sat at 2.71 last year. Five of the other six pitchers we compared him too had better rates, but not by a huge amount. Discounting Lee's ridiculous number (1.10!), King Felix was the best, with a 2.17 BB/9 rate. Price, Verlander, and Kershaw all fell in between.

This has been a lot of stats, but it boils down to a pretty simple point: Strasburg's strikeouts are significantly better than his competition for the top pitcher in (fantasy) baseball. It isn't even close. His walk numbers are similar to the competition, and not different enough to give them significant value over him. Other factors, like his team, just aren't as big of a deal.

The only reason I can see to take Verlander or Kershaw or anyone else over Strasburg is their experience, which is really just cover for the fact that we're comfortable taking those guys off the board first. I don't think you'll find very many people willing to say inexperience is going to cause Stephen Strasburg any trouble in the near future. As a rookie, Strasburg wasn't a normal phenom. As fantasy's best pitcher, he isn't any more normal. The difference between him and the next best pitchers is noticeably bigger than the difference between them and all the other ace pitchers.

By the way, looking at last year's data is kind of like assuming that Strasburg has peaked in his age-24 season, and that he doesn't have room to improve for next year. How often do great 24-year-olds not become better 25-year-olds?

Between the higher risk and lower quality in this year's top position players and Strasburg's own dominance over his competition there is a lot of reason to reach for him. Like Pedro Martinez before him, Strasburg is worth a pick in the middle of the first round in a way that no pitcher has been in a long time. Next year, this idea won't make it into an article like Go Bold or Go Home because everyone will agree. Get ahead of the game.



The Best Fantasy Starting Pitcher Of 2012

Two weeks ago we voted on the best non-Mike Trout fantasy position player of the season, with Yoenis Cespedes beating Todd Frazier and Bryce Harper by no small margin. The Athletics' outfielder has contributed in all five traditional scoring categories, so it wasn't the most difficult choice.

The crop of rookie starting pitchers is surprisingly strong, strong enough that preseason top megaprospect Matt Moore won't even garner much Rookie of the Year consideration. The left-hander hasn't been bad by any means, but expectations were (unrealistically?) high. Matt Harvey had as good a big league debut as anyone, but he was unable to accumulate a meaningful amount of innings. Wei-Yin Chen had a fine first season in MLB, but he basically a league average producer. With all due respect to Mike Fiers (only 121 1/3 innings) and Lance Lynn (technically not a rookie due to service time), here are the three best fantasy starting pitchers of the year...

Yu Darvish | Rangers | 16 W | 3.90 ERA | 214 K | 1.27 WHIP | 184 2/3 IP

I don't love the idea that veterans of the Japanese league are considered rookies, but the rules say they are and that's all that matters. The 26-year-old Darvish has lived up to the hype this year, particularly of late. He owns the third highest strikeout rate (10.4 K/9) among qualified starters and has pitched to a 2.13 ERA with a 60/14 K/BB in his last seven starts (50 2/3 innings). His early-season walk problems -- 5.05 BB/9 as late as mid-August -- have been assuaged, bringing his WHIP down to respectable levels. The ERA is still dangerously close to the 4.08 league average, however.

Wade Miley | Diamondbacks | 16 W | 3.32 ERA | 134 K | 1.20 WHIP | 187 IP

Few teams can match the upper level pitching depth that Arizona has, but it was 25-year-old Miley who broke out of the Trevor Bauer/Tyler Skaggs/Patrick Corbin crop to became an impact pitcher as a freshman. The southpaw ranks 21st out of 91 qualified starters in ERA, though his strikeout rate (6.5 K/9) hardly stands out. Miley came into the season with relatively little hype and has exceeded all expectations, even earning a trip to the All-Star Game. In a world where pitcher wins and ERA are so important, he reigns supreme among rookies.

Jarrod Parker | Athletics | 12 W | 3.44 ERA | 134 K | 1.26 WHIP | 175 1/3 IP

Parker, 23, was another one of those high-end pitching prospects in the D'Backs system before they traded him to Oakland in the Trevor Cahill deal before the season. He stepped into the rotation in late-April and carried a flat 3.00 ERA into late-July. August wasn't very kind (4.71 ERA), but Parker has since rebounded in September (2.31 ERA). He doesn't have the one or two real standout categories to his credit like Darvish (strikeouts) or Miley (wins and ERA), but he has been a rock solid contributor in all non-save scoring categories. It's worth noting that his teammates share some of the blame on the low win total, as Parker has left a game either tied or trailing despite allowing two runs or fewer on seven occasions.



Orioles Give Bundy A Late Season Promotion

The Orioles are right in the thick of the AL East race, and last month they decided to bolster their roster by calling up infielder Manny Machado. He hasn't been great in his 153 plate appearance sample (.264/.276/.426 with four homers), but he has solidified what was an ugly third base situation. Baltimore took things one step further yesterday, calling up right-hander Dylan Bundy to pitch out of the bullpen during the final two weeks of the season. Monday's marathon 18-inning game against the Mariners stretched the Orioles bullpen thin, prompting the call-up.

At just 19 years old and one year removed from being drafted out of high school, Bundy is the youngest pitcher on a big league roster at the moment. He is the game's top pitching prospect and arguably the best prospect in baseball overall, regardless of position. Baseball America had him in the top spot of their midseason top 50 while ESPN's Keith Law had him second behind only Jurickson Profar in his midseason top 25 (Insider req'd). Bundy's minor league numbers are off-the-charts good, including a 2.08 ERA in 103 2/3 innings while climbing three levels from Low Class-A to Double-A. He struck out 119 (10.3 K/9) and walked just 28 (2.4 BB/9) while surrendering only 67 total hits and six homers. The scouting report backs up the performance as well. From Baseball America's preseason subscriber-only scouting report...

Tick off everything scouts want in an ace, and Bundy has it. Fastball? He pitches at 94-98 mph and touches 100 with his fourseamer, which features explosive life. He also uses a low-90s two-seamer to get groundballs and also has a cutter in the same range that essentially gives him a third plus fastball. Complementary pitches? In addition to his cutter, his upper-70s curveball already grades as a plus pitch, and he shows good feel for a solid changeup. Mechanics? Bundy is a great athlete with good body control, so his mechanics are clean and balanced and he repeats his delivery well. That should give him good command, and he also shows a great feel for his craft.

Bundy has yet to appear in a game with Baltimore (hey, it's only been one day) and it's very unclear how the Orioles will use him going forward. Manager Buck Showalter hinted that the right-hander was going to be the first out of the bullpen last night, but instead he turned to his core relievers like Darren O'Day and Pedro Strop in the tight game. Given where we are in the season, how Showalter uses Bundy is going to be the driving force behind the youngster's fantasy usefulness. If he's not going to pitch, he's not worth a roster spot. It's that simple. Despite his age, he has the potential to be absolutely dominant in short bursts (one or two or three innings at a time) out of the bullpen, enough so that he will have fantasy value despite a presumed lack of saves. We just don't know how often we're going to see him.

Long-term, Bundy is one of the top keeper pitching prospects in baseball. In the short-term though, it's tough to consider him worth a roster spot in fantasy crunch time. The Orioles have a great bullpen and a lot of established relievers that will get the call ahead of him, so his usage figures to be too sporadic to count on. You're definitely better off keeping a reliever, even just a strong setup man, who you know is going to pitch down the stretch. Bundy is a great young pitcher and will be a fantasy factor for years to come, but his time is not now. Enjoy his appearances as fan, but don't put yourself in a position to obsess over them fantasy-wise.




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