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February 25, 2014

Fantasy Tiered Rankings

Starting Pitchers

by Paul Sporer

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To read the previous articles in this series, follow the links below:

Today, our positional tier rankings series continues with a look at starting pitching.

Players at each position are divided into five tiers, represented by a numerical star rating. For starters, I added a sixth for the two guys who are a cut above and going in the first two rounds of most drafts. Five-star players are the studs at their respective position. In general, they are the players that will be nabbed in the first couple of rounds of the draft, and they'll fetch auction bids in excess of $30. Four-star players are a cut below the studs at the position. They will also be early-round selections, and they are projected to be worth more than $20 in most cases. Three-star players are the last tier in which players are projected to provide double-digit dollar value in auctions, and two-star players are projected to earn single digits in dollar value in auctions. One-star players are late round sleepers and roster placeholders. The positional tiers aren't simply a regurgitation of last year’s values but rather try to offer some insights into what we expect will happen in 2014.

Six Star

The leaders of their respective leagues, you could see this pair go in the first round of a deeper (15-plus team) league, but both will certainly gone by the completion of round two. Kershaw is going as high as the fifth pick overall, a move I support.

We haven’t seen anyone reach 290 strikeouts since Randy Johnson did so in 2004. Darvish set a nine-year high in the MLB with his 277 last year and he could make a realistic push for 290 or even 300 in 2014. If Kershaw shows that he's actually human and somehow gets saddled with an ERA in the upper-2.00s or heaven forbid the lower-3.00s, then Darvish could wind up as most valuable arm in the game.

Five Star

The ace pool is deep this year and given the glut of similar offensive talent from the second to fifth rounds, these standout arms become a lot more appealing in those earlier rounds. It’s the same reason that Kershaw has such viability in the early first round. If you’re not putting yourself behind the eight ball on offense by selecting an early pitcher, then you might as well get the elite mound talent.

Even with the core muscle surgery, Verlander is already throwing and appears on track for the start of the season. Scherzer is the defending AL Cy Young winner, but I still favor Verlander ever-so-slightly. Verlander fixed his mid-season issues to close brilliantly in the regular season and playoffs. Throw in track record and he jumps his teammate by a small margin. I certainly wouldn’t argue with one over the other, but my preference leans to JV.

Hernandez and Price are kind of the forgotten studs of the group, insofar as you can be forgotten or overlooked when included in this grouping. The concerns over Hernandez’s dropping velocity seem to ignore the fact that his other pitches just keep getting better while his strikeout rate has held steady or pushed upward yearly since 2007 with K/9 and has essentially done the same in strikeout percentage save a negligible 0.2 percent dip from 2010 to 2011.

Price was unreal after returning from injury last year (2.53 ERA in 131 2/3 IP) and while his velocity also took a sharp downturn in 2013, his fastball was still an excellent pitch last year with ninth-best OPS against at .656. The league average was .759.

Five-Star Value Pick: Justin Verlander
He’s going nearly 20 picks later than Scherzer and a full round after Wainwright currently making him a great buy right now. When he proves healthy enough to make his Grapefruit League outings without incident, his price will likely start to climb back upward, so pounce now while the gettin’ is good.

Four Star

Cole morphed into a stud before our very eyes last year. He had to find his footing a bit upon arrival and underwhelmed with just 11 strikeouts in his first four starts, but he posted a 24.2 percent rate in his final three months of the season, including a filthy 31.2 percent mark in September—dominance that carried over into a pair of playoff starts against the Cardinals. He lacks the track record of the guys behind him, but I’m betting big on the former no. 1 overall pick in his first full season.

Hamels was pushed out of the five-star group with some shoulder trouble, but we have to be careful not to overreact to his or other stories that trickle out during the spring. Even with him slated to miss a couple starts at the outset, Hamels can still put up a top-flight season in 30-32 starts. Hopefully the injury news creates a bigger scare than necessary and makes for a great buying opportunity on one of the game’s best. Latos also has some early injury news pushing down his value a bit, but he isn’t expected to miss any time because of it, so I don’t bump him down at all.

There are a lot of newcomers to the upper reaches of the pitching pool, but Sanchez, Bailey, Zimmermann, Cobb, Fister, Cashner, and Ryu have the talent to be front-end starters for your fantasy rotation. We’ve seen the brilliance in full force from Sanchez, Zimmermann, Cobb (stopped only by injury), and even Ryu in his MLB debut last year, while Bailey, Fister, and Cashner have yet to display their best work. Nonetheless, their futures are all very bright.

Four-Star Value Pick: Hyun-jin Ryu
I was really impressed with Ryu’s debut. Not only did he put up 192 innings of 3.00 ERA work, but he also got better as the season wore on with a 2.57 ERA in his final 11 starts with a 1.06 WHIP and 7.3 K:BB ratio over 70 innings. He keeps the ball down, limits walks, and he’s still just 27 years old—lots to like here.

Three Star

There is a lot to digest here, as this is a thick tier and obviously I can’t touch on everyone in this space. The Atlanta trio moved from the back of the fourth to the top of the third tier as their McCann-to-Gattis (or Doumit, like he’s any better) penalty behind the dish. I don’t want to overrate something like that, but McCann is unquestionably a better catcher than Gattis in all facets and it has to be taken into account on some level.

I was a massive Iwakuma fan last year so I was thrilled to reap the benefits of his excellent season. This slotting isn’t really influenced by the finger injury news (which has subsequently been downgraded, making my point that I discussed re: Hamels), but rather because even though I still think he’s very good, I’d be really surprised by another mid-2.00s ERA effort. The 82 percent LOB rate in his MLB career is a bit outsized. Even a dip back to 76-77 percent would still be elite (league average is 72 percent), but it would definitely bump his ERA.

I’m not ready to end Sabathia’s career after one down season. I understand the factors working against him, but I’m willing to bet on him making the necessary adjustments and getting back to the served us in the fantasy game so well for the 12 years prior to 2013.

Early drafts are wildly pumping up the values of many youngsters over established, high-quality arms. Wacha is the most egregious of these with an ADP in the top 20 among starting pitchers. That’s just insane. We don’t even know how trustworthy his third pitch is at this point. While his curveball was better in the playoffs than the regular season, I need more than eight plate appearances to trust it. With his current valuation, there is zero upside. He has to either be a stud or he fails to live up to his pick.

Salazar and Gray are also being a bit overrated, though not as egregiously as Wacha. I’m a big fan of both, particularly Gray, but I can’t chase these two after 52 and 64 innings, respectively, ahead of far more established arms with equal or higher ceilings. Salazar has a bit of a home run issue which can tarnish an ERA even if it only crops up in a handful of starts, while Gray share Wacha’s third-pitch issue, having thrown his changeup just six percent of the time. And unlike Wacha, he didn’t showcase it more often in the playoffs (4.8% usage in two starts against Detroit).

Three-Star Value Pick: Corey Kluber
This is another guy I’m planting my flag with, though I’m not alone within the industry unfortunately. Kluber showed obscene secondary stuff with a 527 OPS on his slider, curveball, and changeup combined, which put him in the class with Scherzer (524) and Sale (526), not to mention just ahead of Greinke (539).

Two Star

There is still plenty of upside to be mined in this two-star tier. We’ve seen the upside from Buchholz, albeit in limited samples. Ross is rising as a chic sleeper after an excellent summer last year, not to mention a park that can cover some mistakes when they crop up. Hughes is finally out of Yankee Stadium, Perez is a former uber-prospect who enjoyed a solid rookie campaign, and Kazmir tries to carry his rebirth over a full season.

Milwaukee’s entire rotation made it in here and while none of them are unmitigated studs, the entire quintet is solid and the Brewers could be better than many expect. Estrada and Peralta do carry some alluring upside, too.

A lot of these names won’t draw the attention of the room, but a healthy Haren and Hudson can be great assets in the middle of a rotation while Colon and Quintana are on opposite sides of the age spectrum, but both provide significant and underrated value.

Two-Star Value Pick: Rick Porcello
If his skills had remained stagnant from 2012 to 2013, I wouldn’t be as excited about the young phenom (yes, he’s still young despite five full seasons in the majors), but he drastically improved his strikeout rate from 13.7 to 19.3 percent and continued to add to his elite ground-ball rate (career-high 55.3 percent), both of which are masked by a paltry 0.27 improvement in ERA. The skills growth is only part of the story, though, as the Tigers reshuffled virtually their entire infield defense, turning it from a major flaw to a legitimate force, and Porcello stands to be the prime benefactor given that heavy ground-ball lean.

One Star

Youth with something to prove, arms needing to prove health, and ho-hum solid-but-unspectacular arms populate the one-stars, creating an interesting mixed bag. I don’t think it’s outlandish to think that at least one of these guys will have a star turn in 2014. Of course, identifying that exact pitcher is the trick, but also the fun of this game.

One-Star Value Pick: Nathan Eovaldi
I’ve been an Eovaldi fan going back to his Dodger days. We need to see more consistency from the young righty, as well as the refinement of some of his secondary stuff. The slider in strong, but the curve and change are lagging. Still, he has elite velocity and one swing-and-miss breaking ball to build on.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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