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March 8, 2010

Fantasy Focus

AL Starting Pitchers

by Marc Normandin

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Starting pitching is one of the key components of your fantasy team. Drafting the right pitchers consistently is a skill that helps separate league winners from the rest of the pack, but that's not the same as drafting the same pitchers to win all of the time. It's a volatile position with lots of turnover—it wasn't so long ago that Scott Kazmir was considered an ace in the making or a great source of strikeouts, and now he is neither of those things, and he's not even a Ray anymore. Everyone just knew that Cliff Lee couldn't repeat his 2008 campaign in 2009—unless you were paying attention to the things you needed to pay attention to. Many people thought Daisuke Matsuzaka was a shoo-in as an ace due to his win total and his ERA in 2008, Knowing when to pass or bid on these types of pitchers helps you make the informed decisions you need in order to build the perfect fantasy pitching staff.

As for the previous rankings in the series, check out first basemen, second basemen, third basemenshortstops, catchers, left fielders, right fielders, center fielders, and the combined outfielder rankings. Now, here are the changes to this year's ranking system:

  • Players are no longer ranked by number (the 1-20 system). Instead, I am implementing a tiered system using stars (five stars is the best, one is the lesser of your options). These stars are equal across positions to make comparisons between them easier—for example, there are three five-star first basemen, but there may be more or fewer than that at other positions—if it comes to it, the first player at a position may be a four-star option. You can derive positional scarcity from the number of four- and five-star players available and make decisions from there. Players are loosely ordered within tiers, with my first preference to my last.

  • Last year, I covered 60 starting pitchers total, which was still a lot relative to what I did at other positions but nowhere near enough. This time around, like with the other positions, I'm covering exponentially more. Just from the American League, I'm covering 71 pitchers. I looked at the depth charts and took the starting five for every team, then added some of the spot starters (who, in some cases, are currently injured or rehabbing pitchers, or are potential mid-season promotion candidates) to the list. Generally, those added with fewer innings are going to be ranked in lower tiers because they can't produce as much for you, but I wanted to at least have them here so they were in mind on draft day for you. If anyone you are curious about is missing, chances are good they were projected for a meager number of innings on the season, but if you have any questions, I'll be glad to answer them in the comments.

I've included your standard fantasy categories—IP, ERA, WHIP, SO, and wins—but I've also tossed a few other numbers in: HR/9 and K/BB ratio. K/BB should give you a quick reference for comparing pitchers easily, and HR/9 should help you determine the appropriate level of nervousness or relief when it comes to someone with iffier stat lines towards the middle and back end of this list.

I still ranked pitchers in a loosely ordered list, as I did with the other positions, but I'll let you in on the trade secret of the day: when all else failed, I went with strikeouts (mostly talking about three-stars and below on that one). That's just my personal preference, so if you, within your own draft, have a need besides strikeouts, please rearrange said players in such a way that benefits your team.

Five-Star Starters


Pitcher   		 IP	 ERA	WHIP	HR/9	 SO	K/BB	Wins
Justin Verlander	205	3.49	1.20	 1.0	213	 3.4	 14
Zack Greinke		205	3.16	1.17	 0.8	210	 4.0	 15
Jon Lester		199	3.36	1.21	 0.9	198	 3.2	 15
CC Sabathia		204	3.72	1.22	 1.1	184	 3.2	 15	
Felix Hernandez		206	3.34	1.22	 0.9	185	 2.8	 14
Josh Beckett		198	3.48	1.18	 1.0	182	 3.5	 15
Javier Vazquez		198	3.66	1.19	 1.2	190	 3.7	 14
Cliff Lee		196	3.50	1.19	 1.0	144	 3.3	 13

Whoa, hold on now. I'm not just going to put Verlander above Greinke without giving you some sort of explanation. Please save the bludgeoning and the icy stares for after you hear me out. Greinke had a fantastic 2009 season, but he was also lucky that the Royals defense didn't cause him more problems. That defense is not going to be markedly better, and I think that Greinke's ERA will sit around the area projected above, or maybe closer to where Verlander sits. The wins are also not a guarantee given the problems with his club, despite how good he is. Of course I would want Greinke on my club, but if you give me the choice, I would take Verlander first. Detroit was ninth in Defensive Efficiency last season, and the Royals were last. Even if Detroit falls back a bit and the Royals improve, there is still going to be a huge gap. I think the two pitchers are basically equal in talent, so I'm picking the starter from the better team with the better defense.

Lester is not as good as either of the first two, but he's pretty close, and he's on the best team of the trio with what should be an excellent defensive unit behind him. There's nothing wrong with ending up with him rather than the two above, especially since this is fantasy and wins count. Sabathia may end up with the highest ERA of the group because of his home park's tendency to let homers fly, but he's got everything else the pitchers above him have, along with the cushion of pitching for a competing club.

Hernandez is excellent and has a great Mariners defense behind him. Beckett is on the Red Sox and is one of the AL's premier starters, but I have a bit less faith in him going forward than Lester. Vazquez will have to deal with leaving a league and park that helped him avoid the homer issue, but otherwise the expectations are that he will be great once again. Lee doesn't have the strikeouts of these other starters, but he'll put up the same numbers otherwise. He's a bit miscast as a high-four and a low-five, but there's still a large gap in between him and the next guy on the list, so here he is.

Four-Star Starters


Pitcher			 IP	 ERA	WHIP	HR/9	 SO	K/BB	Wins
Matt Garza		186	3.78	1.29	 1.0	164	 2.4	 13
James Shields		203	3.73	1.22	 1.1	160	 3.3	 14
Jake Peavy		174	3.76	1.26	 1.2	175	 2.9	 11
Max Scherzer		186	3.56	1.24	 1.0	193	 2.9	 13
Brett Anderson		167	3.93	1.26	 1.1	138	 2.8	 10
Clay Buchholz		156	3.98	1.32	 1.0	130	 2.2	 10
Rich Harden		168	3.77	1.29	 1.1	190	 2.7	 11
John Lackey		190	3.66	1.23	 1.0	151	 3.1	 14
A.J. Burnett		187	4.35	1.40	 1.3	177	 2.2	 12
Scott Baker		187	3.99	1.26	 1.1	153	 3.2	 12
Jered Weaver		188	4.18	1.32	 1.2	156	 2.7	 11

Garza and Shields are similar production-wise, but I like Garza a bit better for the strikeouts he'll provide. Peavy is no longer an elite option thanks to leaving Petco Park for US Cellular Field, but as long as his ankle is healthy—and Will Carroll says it is—then he should still be one of the better pitchers on the board. I worry about the homers and his velocity loss over the past few seasons, but it's not at a high-risk level yet. If Scherzer can pitch upwards of 200 innings, he should be a beast; I worry a little about reaching 200 innings, but not so much that I've punished him in the rankings. Anderson's second half in 2009 is the real deal—expect a full season of that. His PECOTA forecast isn't nearly optimistic enough.

I'm a big believer in Buchholz—he changed his approach sometime around late July or early August, attacking hitters more consistently and not nibbling so much, like his teammate Matsuzaka so often did (with poor results for both pitchers). Now that Buchholz is a bit more confident in the way he puts away hitters, expect a big year out of him—yes, as good as Lackey, who is ranked just a smidge beneath him due to switching parks. Harden is a personal preference here, so if you knock him down a tier, I understand—the strikeouts and ERA he may post for you, even over 140 innings, could be a huge boost if drafted at the right time or for the right price.

Burnett will get you strikeouts, but whether his WHIP or ERA is also valuable is another story. Being with the Yankees means he should pick up winsm though, and given how good he is when he's on, it may be worth it to grab him. He's a lot like Lackey, despite the differing forecasts. Baker may not whiff as many hitters as some of the guys above him, but he's going to pick up wins, keep guys off base, and strike out enough hitters to help while posting a useful ERA. Weaver is down a little lower than you may expect due to the Angels losing some offense, as well as my not being entirely sure I believe his 2009 season.

Three-Star Starters


Pitcher       		 IP	 ERA	WHIP	HR/9	 SO	K/BB	Wins
John Danks		188	4.06	1.33	 1.1	153	 2.3	 11
Gavin Floyd		184	4.05	1.30	 1.1	155	 2.5	 11
Justin Masterson	158	4.04	1.39	 0.8	137	 2.0	 10
Francisco Liriano	151	4.60	1.42	 1.1	132	 2.2	  9
David Price		154	4.04	1.34	 1.1	127	 2.1	 10
Wade Davis		161	4.15	1.36	 1.1	130	 1.9	 10
Colby Lewis		161	3.80	1.20	 1.1	150	 3.9	 11
Daisuke Matsuzaka	142	4.29	1.44	 1.1	128	 1.9	  9
Joba Chamberlain	138	4.44	1.41	 1.3	127	 2.2	  9
Scott Kazmir		172	4.43	1.38	 1.2	148	 2.3	 10
Jeff Niemann		147	4.09	1.34	 1.0	110	 2.2	  9
Mark Buehrle		189	4.44	1.35	 1.2	108	 2.2	 10
Andy Pettitte		180	4.86	1.46	 1.3	132	 1.8	 10
Ervin Santana		165	4.48	1.37	 1.3	138	 2.7	  9
Gil Meche		163	4.48	1.45	 0.9	126	 1.9	  9
Brandon Morrow		123	4.56	1.49	 1.1	107	 1.7	  6
Dallas Braden		162	4.14	1.33	 1.0	100	 1.9	  9
Ryan Rowland-Smith	153	3.48	1.28	 0.5	84	 2.4	  6
Rick Porcello		149	4.75	1.45	 1.1	80	 1.6	  8
Brian Matusz		146	4.45	1.41	 1.2	120	 2.2	  9
Justin Duchscherer	120	3.63	1.27	 1.0	75	 1.9	  8

Danks is a red light and Floyd is a yellow, though Will Carroll says Danks is just barely red, so I don't mind tossing them together. Neither is a star—Floyd has pitched worse than this ranking in the past—but when you see the rest of the third tier this will make more sense. Masterson is going to get plenty of outs, but not enough of them may be via strikeout for your fantasy liking, and it's not like he's putting up a Roy Halladay-esque ERA to go with it. Plenty of uses, though.

I'm guessing Liriano will be better than last year because he's further removed from Tommy John surgery, but if some of that velocity doesn’t come back, I'm going to regret this ranking. Price pitched better as the year went on. He won't be an ace in 2010, but he'll take another step towards becoming the pitcher we think he can be. Davis is almost guaranteed a rotation spot at this junction, and though he's not as celebrated as Price, he's more than capable of helping out your roster.

Lewis is a bit of a wild card here, as he has come back from Japan where he put up some stellar stats. PECOTA has done a lot of Japanese translations in the past, and Lewis' projection looks pretty optimistic, so he's worth a shot at draft time. Who knows, maybe he'll outperform the ranking and you'll have yourself a bonus stud, or maybe he'll pitch to this perceived value and you'll get what you expected. Dice-K is not the ace many thought he was following 2008, not that anyone should have expected him to be based on that. Thanks to being shamed into keeping in shape and accepting criticism following a dismal 2009, things are looking up for 2010—especially with that new Sox D. Chamberlain would rank higher if he was guaranteed close to 200 innings.

Kazmir is not what he once was—don't be fooled into thinking his Angels ERA is what you should expect. Niemann may have a hard time keeping up last year's production if he keeps throwing fastballs 120 percent of the time, but he shouldn't be bad, and that's why he's here. I'm sure Buehrle will throw 60 scoreless innings and a perfect game or two because I have him in the three-star tier, so I'm not going to say anything he can use against me later.

Pettitte's biggest asset at this stage is pitching for the Yankees. He's not going to win you any leagues with his ERA or whiffs. Santana has plenty of upside if he comes back healthy and effective, but there's still no guarantee 2008 was a true indication of his talent either, so 2010 is kind of a show-me year from a fantasy perspective. I worry about Meche's health thanks to this red light—otherwise, I would have him higher.

I like Morrow a bit better than that forecast, though the defense in Toronto scares me. Braden isn't that special, but a solid D and a pitcher's park makes him worth a look. Rowland-Smith is a decent arm—his ERA, thanks to his park and defense, will make you happy. I have high hopes for Porcello in the future, but I'm not sold on that future being 2010 just yet. Matusz was impressive in his debut last year, and though I don't expect a stellar campaign this year, he's worth a three-star rating for sure. Duchscherer would rank a bit loftier were he not an injury risk, but chances are good he hurt himself even while I was typing this, so let's move on.

Two-Star Starters


Pitcher       		 IP	 ERA	WHIP	HR/9	 SO	K/BB	Wins
Ian Snell		172	4.45	1.46	 1.0	124	 1.5	  9
Kyle Davies		162	4.84	1.53	 1.0	114	 1.6	  8
Kevin Slowey		133	4.26	1.29	 1.2	107	 3.8	  8
Scott Feldman		163	4.62	1.43	 1.2	101	 1.6	  9
Armando Galarraga	144	4.70	1.47	 1.2	101	 1.6	  8
Vin Mazzaro		150	4.41	1.41	 1.1	 99	 1.7	  8
Nick Blackburn		184	4.66	1.37	 1.1	 94	 2.2	 10
Trevor Cahill		157	4.46	1.43	 1.1	 93	 1.4	  8
Carl Pavano		128	4.88	1.39	 1.3	 91	 3.0	  7
Joel Pineiro		177	4.71	1.33	 1.2	 87	 2.6	  9
Freddy Garcia            73     4.71    1.39     1.4     50      2.1      4
Andy Sonnanstine	110	4.63	1.36	 1.1	 69	 2.2	  6
Ben Sheets		 99	4.47	1.38	 1.2	 60	 1.8	  5

PECOTA likes Snell for a rebound. Citing the same park and defense I've mentioned a few timesm I'll bite as far as a late pick goes. Davies has the same problems that Meche and Greinke have as far as the supporting cast, but without the benefit of being Meche or Greinke. Slowey, Galarraga, and Feldman won't hurt you, but none are going to do much for any of your stats, either. These are guys you use to bulk up your innings or wins, and that's about it. Mazzaro isn't listed in Oakland's rotation, but he's got a ton of innings as a spot guy—mostly thanks to Duchscherer being around. Blackburn might pick up more innings than anyone else in this tier, but that doesn’t mean he's any better than the rest.

Cahill, like many of the A's young starters, could pitch his way out of this tier, but he hasn't done so yet. Carl Pavano suffers from a chronic case of being Carl Pavano. Pineiro won't like the AL as much as the NL—remember that on draft day. Garcia could pitch more than that, but like Blackburn, is that any reason to get excited? Sonnanstine may not have a job all year, but he's a decent enough for padding your innings if he does. Sheets could rocket up the tiers if he's healthy all year, but I'll worry about that when he's on the mound.

One-Star Starters


Pitcher      		 IP	 ERA	WHIP	HR/9	 SO	K/BB	Wins
Marc Rzepczynski	131	4.71	1.49	 1.1	119	 1.9	  6
Luke Hochevar		171	4.81	1.45	 1.0	118	 2.0	  8
Ricky Romero		150	5.04	1.56	 1.2	118	 1.7	  7
Chris Tillman		134	4.60	1.42	 1.3	110	 2.2	  8
Kevin Millwood		173	4.66	1.44	 1.2	109	 1.8	 10
Jeremy Guthrie		177	4.53	1.37	 1.3	107	 2.0	 10
Brian Bannister		166	4.71	1.42	 0.9	104	 1.9	 10
Derek Holland		131	4.75	1.43	 1.2	104	 2.1	  7
Joe Saunders		170	4.83	1.45	 1.3	 99	 1.7	  9
Fausto Carmona		152	4.80	1.51	 0.9	 97	 1.5	  8
Scott Richmond		121	4.96	1.46	 1.3	 97	 2.1	  6
Tommy Hunter		150	4.87	1.43	 1.3	 94	 1.9	  8
Brett Cecil		125	5.03	1.51	 1.2	 93	 1.8	  7
David Huff		146	4.77	1.47	 1.0	 92	 1.8	  8
Brandon McCarthy	113	4.59	1.41	 1.2	 81	 1.8	  7
Brad Bergesen		149	4.52	1.37	 1.2	 77	 1.8	  9
Aaron Laffey		136	5.13	1.59	 0.9	 72	 1.2	  7
Jeremy Sowers		115	4.82	1.49	 0.9	 55	 1.3	  6

These pitchers have enough problems of their own creation, like a lack of strikeouts, trouble keeping the ball in the park, issues with walks —but they also have to deal with poor defenses, or teams that aren’t going to help them win many games. If you're in an AL-only league, you may have to take a look at some of these guys, but generally you're not going to want much to do with any of them on draft day. If someone like Rzepczynski pitches himself into another tier, or Guthrie has one of his better years, you can deal with that via free agency or waivers rather than wasting a draft pick or auction dollars on them.

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