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March 5, 2013

Pre-Season Positional Rankings

Top 80 Fantasy Starting Pitchers, Part One: 1-40

by Paul Sporer

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The Baseball Prospectus fantasy team has been rolling out its positional rankings over the past couple of weeks, and will conclude the process next week. Each team member assigned to cover a position will create an initial top 15 (more for outfielders and starting pitchers) on his own. He will then send that list to the rest of the team for discussion, at which point we will debate the rankings, both in terms of each player’s specific placement and the merits on which he was included in the top 15. This back-and-forth debate will yield the final list, which will be presented by the original author with notes on the pertinent players. We encourage you to bring your opinions into the fray using the comment section below.

Here are the previous rankings lists:

Catchers
First Basemen
Second Basemen
Shortstops
Third Basemen
Outfielders: Part 1
Outfielders: Part 2

Today, we leave the position players behind and move on to starting pitchers. You’ll find our top 40 hurlers below, and the second set, featuring those ranked 41-80, will follow on Friday.

The comments, which follow the top 40 list, will be more detailed after the top 20, since you don’t need as much insight on the relatively surefire aces around which you can build your staff in the early rounds. You will, however, want to know why you might want to let those aces get drafted early, and then build your rotation around several of the possible bargains in the second half of this batch.

To kick things off, here’s the list…

  1. Justin Verlander, DET
  2. David Price, TBR
  3. Clayton Kershaw, LAD
  4. Stephen Strasburg, WAS
  5. Felix Hernandez, SEA
  6. Cole Hamels, PHI
  7. Cliff Lee, PHI
  8. Adam Wainwright, STL
  9. Yu Darvish, TEX
  10. R.A. Dickey, TOR
  11. Matt Cain, SFG
  12. CC Sabathia, NYY
  13. Madison Bumgarner, SFG
  14. Roy Halladay, PHI
  15. Zack Greinke, LAD
  16. Jered Weaver, LAA
  17. Jordan Zimmermann, WAS
  18. Johnny Cueto, CIN
  19. James Shields, KCR
  20. Gio Gonzalez, WAS
  21. Max Scherzer, DET
  22. Mat Latos, CIN
  23. Matt Moore, TBR
  24. Chris Sale, CHW
  25. Dan Haren, WAS
  26. Doug Fister, DET
  27. Josh Johnson, TOR
  28. Jeff Samardzija, CHC
  29. Jake Peavy, CHW
  30. Anibal Sanchez, DET
  31. Ian Kennedy, ARI
  32. Yovani Gallardo, MIL
  33. Tim Lincecum, SFG
  34. Lance Lynn, STL
  35. Kris Medlen, ATL
  36. Brandon Morrow, TOR
  37. Brett Anderson, OAK
  38. Josh Beckett, LAD
  39. A.J. Burnett, PIT
  40. Jon Lester, BOS

Notes: 

  1. Simply putting up elite numbers is impressive enough, but doing it over as many innings as Verlander does each year is nearly impossible, which is why the Tigers ace remains the top dog. Remember when Ichiro Suzuki not only put up a .372 average, but did so in a league-leading 704 at-bats? The fantasy impact was tremendous, and that quantity element is often overlooked.
     
  2. Price’s continued improvement on the road has fueled his rise into the elite ranks and led to his Cy Young award campaign last year.
     
  3. How is Kershaw only 25 years old? That seems unfair. Let me take this opportunity to point out how small the gap is between the top four pitchers. If you prefer Kershaw to Verlander or think that Strasburg is ready to vault over both of them, you’re not taking an outlandish position. The four-player top tier is fairly well defined, but the order within it is up for debate.
     
  4. Strasburg’s excellence was evident by any measure, or by simply watching him for a few innings, but it was driven home by the fact that he was a top-20 pitcher last year despite being limited to just 159 innings. His ratios and strikeouts mitigated the innings gap between him and the workhorses ranked above and just below on this list.
     
  5. Hernandez’s transformation from thrower to pitcher has allowed him to remain elite, even as his fastball velocity has steadily ticked down.
     
  6. Hamels may not get the attention that his headline-hogging rotation-mates command, but he just keeps piling up outstanding seasons.
     
  7. I’m eager to see how much Lee’s six-win campaign impacts his draft-day value in my leagues this year. It changes nothing for me, but I’ll gladly accept any discount.
     
  8. Wainwright may have had the best immediate return from Tommy John surgery ever, as his skills seemed entirely intact from his incredible 2010. The only thing that kept the ratios from matching was a handful of implosions that probably were nothing more than bumps in the road.
     
  9. Darvish pitched almost exactly as I expected him to in 2012, enduring occasional struggles with incredible pure stuff. He should take a step forward in 2013.
     
  10. Moving to the American League isn’t great news for Dickey, but the East division isn’t as powerful as it once was, especially with the Yankees aging and the Red Sox slowly working their way back into competition. Of course, if he pitches as well as he did last year, even the ’27 Yankees wouldn’t stand much of a chance.
     
  11. Cain’s style has defied ERA indicators like FIP for years, so if you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’s safe to stop worrying now.
     
  12. Sabathia logged fewer than 33 starts for the first time since 2006, yet still had a 200-inning gem of a year. When you consider his track record and the fact that he plays for the highest-profile team in the game, the big lefty is easily the most overlooked ace out there.
     
  13. Bumgarner’s 39 percent slider usage in 2012 is worrisome, as it’s a pitch that can lead to arm trouble, but it was nice to see him bounce back in the World Series after struggling down the stretch. Our own Doug Thorburn says his mechanics are strong, too, which alleviates at least some of the concern regarding the slider workload.
     
  14. One of the bigger errors the fantasy community continually makes is overreacting to the events of the previous year. They’re important, but they don’t erase everything that came before them. Halladay—even at 36—has earned the benefit of the doubt, after four straight sub-2.80 ERA seasons. I’m trusting that he is healthy and ready to dominate again.
     
  15. On the other end of the ERA-indicator spectrum from Cain is Greinke. The first-year Dodger’s indicators are always remarkable, but he struggles to match them because of a handful of uncharacteristic implosions each year. Since 2010, Greinke has allowed six or more earned runs 13 times, the fifth-highest total in the league.
     
  16. Weaver’s 26 percent strikeout rate from 2010 is an outlier that he is unlikely to duplicate, but even if it ticks back down to 20 percent, he’ll still be a fantasy stud. Most of Weaver’s value comes from his elite ERA and WHIP.
     
  17. Zimmermann went fewer than six innings just six times last year, and the first start in which he failed to reach that benchmark did not come until August 4. He was lifted before the end of the fifth inning only once, on September 1. That kind of consistency is very appealing in a field rife with uncertainty and risk.
     
  18. Cueto’s transformation into a ground-ball pitcher has mitigated the effects of his hitter-friendly home park in back-to-back excellent seasons.
     
  19. Shields’ last two years are his only ones with a sub-4.25 ERA on the road. He might miss the Rays’ airtight defense even more than the offense-stifling dome.
     
  20. Walks and home runs are the quickest routes to failure. Gonzalez has typically prevented the latter so that he could live with the former and still put up a sub-3.00 ERA. When a 9.3 percent walk rate is your career best, you’ve still got work to do.
     
  21. Can we dispel the myth that Scherzer had a bad first half once and for all? He wasn’t an ace in May and June, but it was a poor April that kept his ERA just short of 5.00 through June. From May 1 on, he had a 3.14 ERA in 163 innings. Scherzer’s 4.04 ERA in May was his second-worst, but it came with a 1.18 WHIP and a season-best 6.4 K:BB. He had a bad month, not a bad half.
     
  22. Latos is a big April away from another ace season. He was actually terrible in April during his breakout 2010, but managed to outrun that 6.20 ERA the rest of the way. He hasn’t been able to completely erase the damage of his 4.98 and 5.97 April ERAs the last two years, though. Latos’ 3.47 and 3.48 ERAs aren’t exactly a drag; they just aren’t on the level of the 2.92 effort he delivered in 2010. There’s still some growth left in this 25-year old arm.
     
  23. I’m so surprised that 19 innings in 2011 didn’t turn out to be indicative of what Moore would do during his rookie season. So surprised. I bit, too, so the sarcasm is partly directed inward. What we did see was a guy who was getting it as the season wore on. Selective endpoints abound, but starting with his Memorial Day duel against Sale, Moore ripped off a 17-start run of 2.88 ERA work before tiring a bit in September. A little more durability could go a long way.
     
  24. Repeating an 80 percent strand rate will be Sale’s biggest challenge in 2013. In fact, I’m betting against it—especially his 86 percent mark at home. The Shaggy lookalike doesn’t need to get injured to fall back from his 2012 pace. Simple regression will leave him with a good-but-not-great line.
     
  25. Similar to Halladay, Haren’s history of awesomeness can’t be erased by an injury-marred season, especially since we saw the Haren of old down the stretch. In his last eight starts, he posted a 2.81 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 8.2 K:BB ratio in 48 innings. It is simple math: Healthy Haren = Awesome Haren.  
     
  26. Fister proved that the post-trade strikeout gains weren’t just favorable competition, but a new level of excellence. The same injury to the left side of his ribcage cost him all of April and another two-week stint in June. It looked like it was causing issues again in early July, until the well-timed All-Star break gave him a breather. He dominated from then on, with a 2.67 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 101 innings. He now has a 2.95 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 232 innings since joining the Tigers.
     
  27. Can we get back-to-back full seasons from Johnson? That’s always the question with the Marlin-turned-Blue Jay. He’s got the stuff to hold up in the American League without a hitch, so it is really just the health piece that should worry you on draft day.
     
  28. The Cubs couldn’t have planned a better season for Samardzija in his transition to the rotation. He has excellent stuff that held up brilliantly all year, save for an ugly spell in June, when he was tinkering too much. I love his upside, but tempered my excitement only because his résumé is relatively short.
     
  29. Some great component skills in 2010-2011 finally translated for Peavy in 2012, as he got his groove back with runners on base. In 2011, he had a vomit-inducing 955 OPS against in those situations, but he cut it to 721 last year, significantly closer to his 695 career mark.
     
  30. Sanchez sputtered a bit when he first got to Detroit, but he closed the regular season with an eight-start run of 2.15 ERA and 0.98 WHIP ball in 54 innings. And, he followed that up with amazing work in the playoffs, during which he logged a 1.77 ERA over three starts. After struggling with shoulder trouble in 2008-2009, including surgery to repair a torn labrum, Sanchez has avoided the disabled list in three consecutive seasons.
     
  31. Kennedy’s skills have been essentially the same for three years, with his home-run rate largely determining his ERA. Pay for a 3.70-4.00 ERA and take anything better—like 2011’s 2.88 effort, which was fueled by a 0.7 HR/9—as icing on the cake.
     
  32. Gallardo, like Kennedy, has known and present limitations—most notably, his control. He also has a bit of a home-run problem himself. Those two issues put a ceiling on just how good he can be, and barring improvement in at least one of those departments, his ceiling is limited to “very good,” not “great.”
     
  33. Lincecum’s durability actually became a fantasy hindrance last year, as cautiously hopeful owners were left watching 5.00+ ERA work for much of 2012. Gobs upon gobs of talent and two Cy Young awards earn him the benefit of the doubt for at least another year. Don’t panic.
     
  34. Like Samardzija, Lynn had one pronounced blip, but was otherwise brilliant in his transfer from the bullpen to the rotation. Of course, Lynn was a part-time starter in 2011 and full-time starter as recently as 2010, so the transition wasn’t quite as challenging as those undergone by his counterparts on both sides of Chicago.
     
  35. It was 12 starts, folks. Medlen should be a perfectly fine asset in 2013 with a mid-to-high 3.00s ERA, a good WHIP, and some strikeouts. However, he is currently being drafted as someone ready to post 200 innings of 3.00-or-better ERA performance. The burden on him to succeed as a top-100 pick is incredible, and there is no real reason to believe he can fulfill those expectations.
     
  36. We now enter our “if they can just stay healthy” phase, as Morrow teases and tantalizes on a yearly basis, first with elite skills but unspectacular results and then the reverse last year. Always in fewer than 180 innings, though. Man, if he could just stay healthy!
     
  37. Anderson has the IHCJSH tag even more than Morrow, as his innings continue to slide after a peak of 175 in his rookie year (2009). He hasn’t compiled more than 112 frames since then, but the 3.20 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 3.0 K:BB in 231 innings from 2010-2012 portend greatness if he can keep his arm in order.
     
  38. Beckett’s ranking isn’t based solely on his seven starts with the Dodgers. Rather, it is a reflection of his overall talent, because even as his results faltered in Boston, he maintained strong component skills. I think this change of scenery plays out well over a full year in a more relaxed, Los Angeles environment.
     
  39. Burnett’s resurgence could be a blueprint for Beckett’s, as he transitioned out of a rabid environment to a friendlier one in all aspects, on and off the field. Even at 36, there is no reason Burnett can’t continue to excel. The degree of difficulty on his 3.51 ERA was a 20 on the 1-10 scale, since he had to chisel down from the May 2 disaster that saw him give up 12 earned runs in just 2 2/3 innings.
     
  40. Lester is our final entrant in the “track record earns a pass” portion of the top 40. Well, he’s also the final overall entrant in the top 40, but you get the point. The skills are in place, so I’m betting that a new regime helmed by a familiar face—former pitching coach-turned-manager John Farrell—can bring back the good Lester. 

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

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