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May 25, 2016

Updating the Tiers

Starting Pitchers

by Mike Gianella

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Welcome, to Baseball Prospectus’ first (or at least first time in a long time) in-season rankings update to our preseason positional tiers article. As we did during the preseason, players at each position will be divided into five tiers, represented by a “star” rating. In addition, unlike with the preseason “star” ratings, these lists can also be viewed as a straight ranking.

Five-star players are the studs at their position. In general, they are the players who will provide first or second round draft value and will be worth $30 or more in auction formats. Four-star players are a cut below the studs at the position. They will earn more than $20 in auction formats. 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 the types of players who provide back end roster value. The positional tiers aren't simply a regurgitation of what has happened year-to-date but rather try to offer some insights into what we expect will happen the rest of 2016.

If you are wondering why a specific player isn’t listed, please note that in many cases players in the one-star tier and players who are not ranked are interchangeable.

The rankings above assume a 15-team, standard 5x5 Roto 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). Position eligibility is based on either 20 games at the position last year or five games this year.

Monday: Catcher, First Base, Second Base
Tuesday: Shortstop, Third Base, Outfield
Today: Starting Pitcher, Relief Pitcher

Five Star
1) Clayton Kershaw
2) Jake Arrieta
3) Chris Sale
4) Madison Bumgarner
5) Max Scherzer
6) Noah Syndergaard
7) Stephen Strasburg
8) David Price
9) Zack Greinke
10) Jon Lester
11) Gerrit Cole
12) Jacob deGrom

It’s fair to say in real life that no pitcher compares to Kershaw, but in fantasy the gap between the top two is a little closer than you might expect. Arrieta’s higher win potential combined with a superior defense behind him make the translation from cFIP to fantasy much closer than you might expect. In the last calendar year, Kershaw has out-earned Arrieta $48 to $43 in 15-team mixed. Sale is a distant third at $31 (not including last night’s game).

In reality, Sale is comparable to Arrieta. In fantasy, the differences between the AL and the NL in terms of quality of competition and facing the pitcher versus facing the DH push Sale down below the top two. Something to watch for with Sale and the rest of the White Sox staff is the team’s defense. Our defensive efficiency metric had the White Sox ranked 28th in the majors in 2015; this year the Sox are 5th. It could be a blip on the radar, but is certainly worth monitoring as the season progresses. Sale also misses out on the super elite ranking because of a non-elite whiff rate. This is what we in the fantasy industry call “quibbling.”

In LABR Mixed, 16 of the top 48 picks this spring were starting pitchers. Currently, seven of those pitchers reside in the Top 16 year-to-date. Reliability of the best arms in the pool has been sold by many fantasy analysts as a constant, but while Scherzer, Bumgarner, and Strasburg have been great investments thus far, the majority of starting pitchers taken in the top 50 in LABR have not delivered.

Despite a terrible ERA to start the season, most of the indicators say that there is little if anything to worry about with David Price going forward. Dustin Pedroia said he noticed a mechanical flaw in Price’s delivery and in Price’s last two starts the results have been demonstrably better. Price wasn’t a pitcher anyone should have been worrying about anyway, and thanks to an impressive 11.39 K/9 the Boston hurler has been producing fringe mixed-league value despite the poor ERA and WHIP. Positive results are likely to continue.

Lester always seems like he is overrated or doesn’t belong in the top tier, but all he has done since signing with the Cubs is post a 3.18 ERA, a 1.114 WHIP, and 259 strikeouts across 260 1/3 innings. Like the rest of the Cubs’ staff, Lester gets the benefit of a stellar defense behind him, not that Lester is a pitch-to-contact arm who needs a great deal of help. Many are surprised by Lester because he isn’t viewed as a big strikeout arm, but he is only one of 15 pitchers in the last calendar year who has whiffed 200 or more batters as a starting pitcher. Lester is a good trade target if you need a lower level ace but don’t want to pay the going rate for one of the elite arms in this tier.

deGrom’s drop in velocity and strikeouts make him seem like an obvious candidate to get booted into the four-star tier. It wouldn’t be radical to knock him down a peg, but deGrom’s fastball speed has been trending upward for most of the season. He is about half a mile below where he was in April of 2015.

Five-Star Value Pick: Zack Greinke
After a rough April, Greinke has returned to near-elite levels, with a 3.33 ERA and 3.14 FIP so far in May. Greinke’s K/9 and BB/9 are already nearly identical to what he did in 2015. The caveat from this spring about pitching at Chase Field applies, but otherwise Greinke is likely to be the same elite pitcher he has been for the last couple of seasons.

Four Star
13) Johnny Cueto
14) Jose Fernandez
15) Corey Kluber
16) Danny Salazar
17) Jose Quintana
18) Felix Hernandez
19) Carlos Carrasco
20) John Lackey
21) Jaime Garcia
22) Aaron Nola
23) Masahiro Tanaka
24) Taijuan Walker
25) Dallas Keuchel
26) Carlos Martinez
27) Jordan Zimmermann
28) Rich Hill
29) Cole Hamels
30) Francisco Liriano
31) Matt Harvey


If I had supreme confidence in Jose Fernandez tossing 200 pain-free innings, he would easily slide into the middle of the five-star tier. The skills are elite, but Fernandez has averaged fewer than six innings per start thus far and while the Marlins haven’t formally announced any innings limits it doesn’t seem likely that they will ride him like other teams ride their aces. Fernandez’s high walk rate year-to-date is also worth monitoring, but isn’t a long-term concern.

The four-star tier is an odd mix of pitchers whose stock has fallen since Opening Day along with some fast risers where we quickly have to decide how viable their performances are. If you slept on Arrieta and Cole last year and waited for their performances to normalize, you missed the boat. This year, Quintana, Nola, and Hill offer opportunity and uncertainty. This is particularly true in the case of Nola and Hill. Nola’s improved usage of his secondary offerings has quickly moved him up the chain, while Hill has sustained his health and built a legitimate foundation of value off of his ridiculous curve.

On the other hand, there are arms in this tier who could be ranked much lower based on their performance year-to-date. Keuchel was mentioned in this space this spring as a potential regression candidate, but no one would have expected him to put up a 5.92 ERA and 1.59 WHIP 10 starts into the season. Kluber has righted the ship somewhat, but with an ERA of 3.61 since the beginning of 2015 the stats in fantasy have not matched the elite skill level. The biggest question mark in this tier, however, has to be Harvey. By placing him here and not moving him down further, a statement is being made that he should bounce back somewhat, even if this bounce back isn’t going to be to a peak level of performance.

Four-Star Value Pick: Rich Hill
Laugh all you want at Hill’s inclusion in this tier, but all he has done in his last 86 2/3 innings since return from injury is post 101 strikeouts with a sub-2.00 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP. I’m as worried about Hill’s sustainability and injury risk as anyone else, but at some point a knee jerk wariness has to surrender to the reality that Hill is pitching at an elite level. He is being used as a spot starter in some 12-team mixers; he should be viewed as an auto start in every format going forward.

Three-Star tier
32) Jeff Samardzija
33) Chris Archer
34) Steven Matz
35) Vincent Velasquez
36) Yu Darvish
37) Marcus Stroman
38) Drew Smyly
39) Kenta Maeda
40) Marco Estrada
41) Kyle Hendricks
42) Hisashi Iwakuma
43) Justin Verlander
44) Jason Hammel
45) Michael Wacha
46) Wei-Yin Chen
47) Gio Gonzalez
48) James Shields
49) Julio Teheran
50) Joe Ross
51) J.A. Happ
52) Ian Kennedy
53) Edinson Volquez
54) Yordano Ventura
55) Jake Odorizzi
56) Nate Karns
57) Carlos Rodon
58) Alex Wood
59) Tanner Roark
60) Chris Tillman
61) Josh Tomlin

The rankings are an academic exercise to begin with, but once you venture down into the three-star tier there is a great deal of variability. Kennedy, Volquez, and Ventura are excellent examples of this. In terms of 2016 performance, it isn’t even close and Kennedy has outpaced Volquez and particularly Ventura significantly. As has been pointed out in this space in this past, these rankings are less about what a player has done to date and more about what we expect going forward. On the other hand, it is dangerous to go too far in the other direction and ignore what someone like Kennedy has done because we don’t like the results.

Rodon may seem to be ranked too low, but thus far the results have been extremely underwhelming. Rodon can go through stretches where he pitches like an elite SP1, but he is a 23-year-old pitcher with only 228 1/3 professional innings under his belt, with most of these coming at the major league level. The walk rate is down for Rodon but he is giving up home runs at an alarming rate, particularly for a pitcher who has close to a 50 percent ground ball rate. Rodon could shoot up these rankings easily and be a four-star pitcher, but it is difficult to keep pushing him up in redraft rankings based on his career thus far.

I am always wary of pitchers like Estrada but at some point results must be taken into account. Over his last 200 1/3 innings Estrada has a 2.88 ERA and a 1.013 WHIP. Tomlin and Happ fit this mold to a lesser degree. The stuff isn’t overwhelming, but at some point you have to credit pitchers for their results.

Your guess on Yu Darvish is as good as mine. I had him ranked in the three-star tier prior to the start of the season so it would be silly to move him down when he has not even tossed a major league inning in 2016. He has five-star talent if everything breaks right, but Tommy John recovery is neither guaranteed nor linear. This ranking feels like a copout. Either Darvish will pitch to an elite level of performance or he will struggle in the early going and not produce this kind of value.

I was sorely tempted to rank Matz and Velasquez in the four-star tier, but I would like to see more than a combined 185 2/3 major-league innings from the duo before I push them any higher toward the fantasy firmament. He hasn’t exactly been erratic, but Velasquez has four starts where he hasn’t allowed a run and another five where he has a combined 5.47 ERA. The larger concern from a valuation point is that outside of Velasquez’s gem against the Padres on April 14 he hasn’t pitched past the sixth inning. Matz’s results are tarnished by a terrible start against the Marlins on extended rest. He has been absurdly great since then, with a 1.35 ERA and 42 whiffs in 40 innings. Health concerns keep me from pushing him up more aggressively into the four-star tier, as elbow soreness isn’t something you want to hear.

Three-Star Value Pick: James Shields
After a down year in 2015, Shields has quietly gone back to being a mid-rotation fantasy workhorse who checks off all of the boxes in what you are looking for from a mid-tier fantasy starter. Lots of innings? Check: Shields has thrown 202 or more innings since 2007. Fair amount of strikeouts? Check. He isn’t up at his career high levels of last year but Shields is a nearly lock for 180 whiffs this year. Petco is playing like a pitchers’ park once again and Shields will benefit.

Two Star
62) Drew Pomeranz
63) Collin McHugh
64) Kevin Gausman
65) Jimmy Nelson
66) Adam Conley
67) Tyson Ross
68) Lance McCullers
69) Steven Wright
70) Hector Santiago
71) Rick Porcello
72) Mike Leake
73) Jerad Eickhoff
74) Mike Fiers
75) Scott Kazmir
76) Jesse Hahn
77) Aaron Sanchez
78) Patrick Corbin
79) Michael Pineda
80) Luis Severino

The two-star tier is an odd repository for three types of pitchers: 1) those off to fast starts I don’t believe in just yet, 2) pitchers off to slow starts who I don’t want to dismiss entirely, and 3) young pitchers with room for growth. As I said in the preseason, who you want to pluck out of this group likely depends on where you are in the standings and how much risk you want or need to take. To that end, while the raw results haven’t quite been there yet, I still like Eickhoff as an upside play. He’s only a matchup arm in shallower formats, but he has only allowed more than three earned runs in one start this year.

On stats alone Pomeranz should be an easy three-star selection (at least) but it is fair to be wary of a pitcher who hasn’t thrown more than 100 major-league innings in a single season. The breakout is being driven less by any kind of sustainable change in Pomeranz’s game and more by an unsustainable 14 percent lineout rate that doesn’t jibe with his overall batted ball data. Yes, Pomeranz is generating a lot of swings and misses, but this still does not speak to a sub-2.00 ERA. Add a high walk rate to this and you have a pitcher who is certainly capable but not nearly as great as the numbers year-to-date would have you believe.

Rick Porcello is a viable major league pitcher. It is extremely unlikely that this most recent hot streak is the portent of the breakout that everyone has been touting for the last five years. This is also a fantasy ranking, not a real life ranking. I’d take Porcello over most of the pitchers on this list in real life; in fantasy, I’m not rushing to pick up a guy who doesn’t have overpowering stuff, pitches half of his games in Fenway, and has to face strong AL East lineups in unfavorable AL East parks a disproportionate number of times. Porcello is solid, but it’s just as likely he puts up a 4.00 ERA the rest of the way as he does a 3.30 ERA. He will likely land somewhere in the middle.

McCullers has as much if not more upside than anyone in this group, but two major league starts don’t tell us much of anything and thus far his command is a mess and he’s getting hit fairly hard (despite not allowing a home run yet). His velocity is down a little bit from 2015. With a clean bill of health, I wouldn’t care. Given the recent shoulder woes, color me somewhat concerned.

Two-Star Value Pick: Adam Conley
A 4.15 ERA, 1.43 WHIP pitcher looks like he belongs in the one-star tier, not floating around near the top of the two-star tier. I see a pitcher with a fair amount of upside who strikes out nearly a batter an inning, keeps the ball in the park, and has been dominant in almost half of his starts, including seven and two thirds innings of no hit ball against the Brewers. The command is going to be the issue, and likely the things that keeps him from pushing past this tier in the near future. Keep in mind, though, that these rankings are an exercise in trying to pin down future results, not merely a look at past performance.

One Star
81) Sonny Gray
82) Raisel Iglesias
83) Nick Tropeano
84) R.A. Dickey
85) Matt Wisler
86) Jeremy Hellickson
87) Matt Andriese
88) Eduardo Rodriguez
89) Tyler Chatwood
90) Wade Miley
91) Trevor Bauer
92) Bartolo Colon
93) Nathan Eovaldi
94) Rubby de la Rosa
95) Mat Latos
96) A.J. Griffin
97) Andrew Cashner
98) Juan Nicasio
99) Matt Moore
100) Zack Wheeler
101) Doug Fister

With the exception of the injury cases, we’re firmly in mono league territory here. Hellickson is putting up the best strikeout rates of his career and although he isn’t in the Velasquez/Nola/Eickhoff class, he has also benefited from the Philadelphia arms resurgence. Hellickson has returned to using a cutter he briefly toyed with when he was with the Rays but the key to his relative success thus far has been working more off of the curve and change, which helps to offset a fastball that doesn’t top 90 mph on average. Helly is in the most favorable park and division he has occupied in his entire career and could see decent real life results in deeper leagues as a result.

Initially, Andriese appeared to be a short-term replacement in Tampa but he could push his way into regular duty. His extremely low whiff rate makes him a significant risk in anything but AL-only and the high contact rates and batted ball profile suggest a good deal of correction is coming.

Tropeano profiled as a deep-league starter who would benefit from pitching half of his games in Anaheim, but thus far in 21 major-league outings he has carried over most of his strikeouts from the minors. The challenge is pushing the walk rate and home run rates down so that he is more than either just a home streamer or a product of a pitchers’ park. The stuff still speaks more to a back end starting option as opposed to a 2016 breakout, but fly-ball pitchers can hide their deficiencies in Anaheim more than in other venues.

Mat Latos went from being a quality starter to a terrible starter to a sudden surprise back to a subpar starter, all in the matter of a year and a half. The goodwill of a fast start this season has evaporated, and with a strikeout rate below five even the White Sox solid defense isn’t going to save him from being more than a fourth or fifth starter in AL-only. What is mystifying about Latos’ profile is that where he looked like he had a lot of bad luck in 2015, this year he has been the beneficiary of a lot of good luck. Latos is strictly a wins play because of the good baseball team he has playing behind him, and is a tire fire waiting to happen in fantasy

One-Star Value Pick: Zack Wheeler
T
his is completely a speculation play on my part. I have no idea what Wheeler will do when he joins the Mets—or how much value he will have. But he is a free agent in a significant number of mixed leagues, and could easily surpass the value of most of the pitchers in this tier simply by showing up and taking this turn. His rehabilitation assignment starts next month.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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