February 25, 2016
Fantasy Tiered Rankings
Starting Pitchers, Part One: 1-55
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. 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 $20. 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 $15-20 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 2016.
We retained last year's roster requirements for the positional tier series. Dollar values come from this year’s PFM using a 15-team, standard 5x5 scoring format, with 23-man rosters and the following positions: C (2) 1B (1) 2B (1) 3B (1) SS (1) CI (1) MI (1) OF (5) UT (1) P (9). The minimum bid for players is $1, and, as we did last year, we'll allocate $80 of a $260 budget to pitchers. The PFM is customizable, so if your league uses a different format you can adjust it to match your league settings and see how it impacts players’ dollar values.
Kershaw wasn’t even the best pitcher in NL-only fantasy leagues in 2015, but no serious argument would consider pushing him down below any other arm in the league come draft day. His combined 2013-2015 earnings of $109 beat Scherzer—the runner-up—by $34. Kershaw’s sub-2.00 ERA streak came to an end but there is no better pitching bet in fantasy than Kersh.
The pitcher who ended Kershaw’s reign of Cy Young awards isn’t exactly being painted as a fluke, but some are pointing to Arrieta’s BABIP and strand rate, and screaming regression. It is highly unlikely that Arrieta posts another 1.77 ERA, but since 2014 his DRA and FIP both sit at 2.32. His WARP since 2014 is 12.1, which is good for second in Major League Baseball over that time frame. Don’t pay Arrieta for the second half of 2015 alone, but don’t ignore the fact that he has been pitching at an elite level for two full seasons.
The trend to draft starting pitching early in expert league drafts continued this year. 14 pitchers were taken with the first 47 picks in last week’s LABR mixed draft, which was up from 11 pitchers in 2015. While it would be fair to argue that several of these pitchers won’t come close to Kershaw or Scherzer and thus don’t belong in the five-star tier, the rankings above reflect the realities of the market more than the specifics of valuation.
Every year, there is at least one pitcher our fantasy staff rankings in the five-star tier who the PFM loathes. This year that pitcher is Strasburg. His raw numbers certainly put him up there with the rest of the pitchers in the five-star tier, but PECOTA only foresees 156 innings from the former no. 1 pick. A more significant issue for Strasburg buyers is that his 3.67 DRA since 2013 speaks more to a mid-tier starter than it does to a fantasy ace. The potential alone makes Strasburg worth a gamble to some degree, but it is hard to recommend chasing him into the top 10.
After a lot of handwringing about Matt Harvey’s innings total in August, the Mets and Harvey collectively threw caution to the wind and let him go full bore. Including the postseason, Harvey tossed 216 innings in 2016, the highest amount ever for a pitcher in his first full season after Tommy John surgery. While this could be cause for concern, the number of pitches Harvey threw in his first year post-surgery was lower than for many pitchers who have undergone the procedure. The Mets are saying that Harvey will not be under any innings restrictions in 2016, so if he takes a step forward the way some pitchers have in their second year, Harvey could be a top-five arm.
There is plenty of concern about Greinke’s fantasy stock plummeting due to the move from Dodger Stadium to Chase Field, but while Greinke won’t duplicate his 1.66 ERA, he should still post an ERA between 2.50 and 3.00 with his skills. Greinke plays as a five-star pitcher regardless of the venue.
Five-Star Value Pick: David Price
Last spring, the smart money was on Wainwright not making it through 150 innings due to an arthroscopic procedure. The smart money was right for the wrong reason, as it was a ruptured Achilles tendon that knocked Waino out of commission during his fourth start of the 2015 campaign. Somehow, Wainwright made it back to pitch in relief in late September and in three playoff appearances for the Cardinals. He’s back in the rotation this year, with the bonus of almost a full season’s worth of rest for his arm.
The four-star tier is where you look for pitchers who could provide top-tier value at a moderate discount. Arrieta and Cole were last year’s candidates: pitchers who were being taken 7-8 rounds deep in drafts but who had top-tier potential. This year’s risers based on early ADP are Cleveland teammates Carrasco and Salazar. Carrasco’s ERA suffered mostly because of an uncharacteristic spike in home runs; if he can keep the ball in the park in 2016, he can match his ace potential. Salazar’s peripherals don’t quite match his teammate’s, but only a subpar September kept him from producing $20-plus in AL-only value.
The other side of this coin is that the four-star tier is where your biggest busts typically reside. As much as I liked Keuchel last year, it’s hard for a pitcher with his strikeout ceiling to put up elite numbers for two consecutive seasons. Archer put up a 4.61 ERA in his last 12 starts while his walk rate spiked. He should be fine but this is at least worth monitoring. Felix should bounce back, but he is coming off a season in which he put up his worst ERA, FIP, and DRA since 2008. His velocity and batted ball data were fairly consistent from 2014 to 2015, so while his 2014 ERA was likely fluky, his 2015 ERA may not be indicative either.
Four-Star Value Pick: Johnny Cueto
The three-star tier comprises the pitchers our staff ranked 26th to 55th, so there is bound to be some diversity in terms of what PECOTA projects versus how our staff ranks them. The three Yankees in this tier are a great example of this phenomenon. PECOTA sees Tanaka and Pineda as the second and third best pitchers in this tier, and a simple PFM dollar ranking would place them firmly in the four-star tier. Severino’s projection makes him look like a two-star pitcher. Our rankings suggest caution due to innings concerns for Tanaka and Pineda but look at Severino and see more than merely a simple regression to his DRA.
Iglesias was everyone’s sleeper in November; naturally, this means that he’s being over-drafted in February. Iglesias has shutdown, top-of-the-rotation stuff when he is on his game, but with all of 131 professional innings under his belt, it isn’t fair to expect Iglesias to pitch at an elite level every five days. Conditioning and holding up to the strain of a full major league season is something Iglesias worked on during the 2015 campaign, and if he can sustain his late season gains of keeping the ball in the park, an ERA close to a 3.50 is a possibility.
My favorite commodity to pluck from this tier is a boring workhorse who will throw 180 solid innings and is being drafted lower than he should be. Lackey isn’t likely to put up another sub 3.00 ERA, but I’ll take a 3.50 ERA or lower and 160-plus strikeouts from a mid-tier draft pick every day of the week.
If you could guarantee fantasy owners that he would pitch 180 innings, Martinez would easily slide into the four-star tier. If you’ve followed Martinez’s career to this point, you would know that guaranteeing this would be as useful as me guaranteeing that I will never make another awful pun on Twitter ever again. The shallower the league, the better the play Martinez is. Grabbing him in a deeper mixed like LABR could leave your rotation with a big gap sooner rather than later.
If you’re in a keeper league and looking for pitchers who might take a big step forward in 2016, Carlos Rodon and Taijuan Walker are the plays to make. Rodon’s second half progress is overstated by an ERA that matches neither his FIP nor his DRA, but the dip in his walk rate in the second half is encouraging. There is still work to be done, but with one of the best tutors in the game the leap forward could come sooner rather than later. As is the case with Rodon, Walker has oodles of potential but still hasn’t quite been able to harness it consistently as a pro. I prefer Rodon’s long-term ceiling and value in real life, but in fantasy Walker’s home park gives him a bit of an advantage if you’re simply drafting for this year. The drop in Walker’s walk rate last year is encouraging.
Three-Star Value Pick: Gio Gonzalez