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January 17, 2010

Fantasy Focus

Starting Pitcher Rankings Review, Part 1

by Marc Normandin

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Now that we have finished with the position player reviews, it's time to take a look at my 2009 rankings for starting pitchers. We're going to change the formatting a little here, since there are so many more of them than position players-what you will see is their 2009 PECOTA forecast, and I'll mention the actual 2009 statistics that are relevant in the text itself.

Just to save the commenters who have to answer this question each time out, this is a review of my 2009 rankings. If a player is not listed here, it is not because I don't like them for 2010. For one reason or another, they were omitted from 2009, which is especially true if someone was a surprise in 2009, but I am just reviewing the actual rankings from last year, not setting up the new ones.

Before diving in to the rankings, I also want to start some discussion about what it is we should do about the lists themselves. Should the format change? Should it stay the same? Would you prefer something like star ratings and tiers, like those that Kevin Goldstein uses in his Top 11 Prospects list, or do you want to retain the basic 1-20 ranking system? For that matter, are 20 players at each position enough? Let's get all of these ideas out in the open now so that there's plenty of time to accommodate requests by the time ranking season rolls around. That way, I provide you with the service you ask for, and still have time to do the things I plan on doing for you outside of that. Reply in the comments, ask me in chats, e-mail me, or talk to me via Twitter (@Marc_Normandin) over the next few months with your thoughts; I may not respond to all of you, but I will keep track of your replies for the purposes of 2010's rankings.

 
Rank Name             Team       W   IP     SO  WHIP   ERA  Beta
 1.  Tim Lincecum     Giants    13  206.0  220  1.19  3.25  1.06
 2.  CC Sabathia      Yankees   16  231.0  201  1.19  3.43  0.95
 3.  Johan Santana    Mets      15  216.0  200  1.14  3.14  0.97
 4.  Josh Beckett     Red Sox   13  190.2  167  1.21  3.72  0.95
 5.  Dan Haren        D'backs   14  210.1  189  1.16  3.53  0.92
 6.  Brandon Webb     D'backs   14  212.0  168  1.24  3.29  0.80
 7.  Cole Hamels      Phillies  13  193.0  171  1.19  3.65  1.11
 8.  Chad Billinsgley Dodgers   12  181.2  175  1.31  3.55  0.99
 9.  Cliff Lee        Indians   12  192.0  135  1.32  4.21  1.03
10.  Ricky Nolasco    Marlins   11  176.0  146  1.24  3.93  1.12

Lincecum and Sabathia were everything you would expect from the pitchers ranked as high as they were-they picked up plenty of wins, strikeouts, and innings, while Lincecum also outpaced his PECOTA forecasted ERA by three-fourths of a run. Johan Santana was the first disappointment among the elite, as he picked up just 166 2/3 innings thanks to elbow issues that included bone chips and a minor surgery. When he was on the mound, he was very effective, though he did post his lowest strikeout rate since 2001 and his highest walk rate since 2003, along with 1.1 homers per nine.

Josh Beckett crossed the 200-inning threshold and just missed 200 strikeouts, and once again performed seemingly independently of the Red Sox defense-in 2008, when the Red Sox had one of the best Defensive Efficiencies in the game, Beckett's BABIP sat at .327. This year, with the Sox posting one of the worst Defensive Efficiencies, he finished at a much more normal .302. In fantasy terms, he was a total win, though, thanks to notching 17 W's, whiffing plenty of hitters and posting an ERA in the high threes.

Haren's full-season numbers don't tell the whole story. He posted an ERA of 2.01 and went 9-5 in the first half, tossing 130 innings over 18 starts while allowing 12 homers (0.8 per nine), and an opponent batting average of .189. He also struck out 129 batters while walking just 16 (a K/BB rate of 8.1, which is eye-poppingly good). The ridiculousness did not last, as Haren tossed 99 1/3 innings over 15 starts in the second half, with a 5-5 record, 4.62 ERA, 1.4 HR/9, and a K/BB rate of 4.3 (still great, but not at the level of his first half). He also lasted for about two outs fewer per game, going 6 2/3 per start rather than the nearly 7 1/3 average of the first half. For his career, his numbers are worse in the second half-he has a career 4.33 ERA in the second half, despite putting up some wonderful fantasy campaigns.

Teammate Brandon Webb dropped from being one of the most reliable fantasy starters in the game to a guy who tossed just four innings on the year thanks to shoulder issues. Tough to evaluate him based on that.

Hamels' ERA and innings total may have disappointed you after his monster 2008, but take a look at the work Matt Swartz did breaking down the two seasons. It's much more informative than what I can present to you in this short space.

Billingsley had his strikeout rate fall and his homers and walks both go up, but since his BABIP fell closer to the average, his season ended up being less disappointing than you would imagine. His ERA was just over 4.00, but this was the second-best season of his career.

Cliff Lee started the year out poorly for a short spell, much like his former teammate CC Sabathia did for the Indians in 2008. The similarities don't end there, either, as once Lee picked himself up and returned to form, he was dealt, making him the second Cy Young winner in a row to find himself on a plane to a different club midseason. I'm pretty pleased with this one, as PECOTA saw him as a much different pitcher, but thanks to some research by myself and Eric Seidman the year prior, I had a pretty good feeling he would warrant this placement.

Nolasco's season was a mess, and what makes it worse is that he didn't pitch anywhere near as poorly as the numbers indicate. He struck out 9.5 batters per nine, walked 2.1, posted a WHIP of 1.25, gave up 1.1 homers per nine, threw 185 innings despite a minor-league stint and his issues… the list goes on, as far as positive accomplishments go. But Nolasco had a BABIP of .336 and stranded just 61 percent of his baserunners, giving him an ERA of 5.06. Regardless of which adjusted ERA system you look at, you're going to see a number that's a far cry from that 5.06. There's some bad luck here, but by the time the rankings come up, I'll dig a bit deeper and see if he pitched that much differently from the stretch (opponents hit .222/.254/.351 against him from the windup, .317/.361/.562 with runners on).


Rank Name             Team       W   IP     SO  WHIP   ERA  Beta 
11.  Roy Halladay     Jays      13  194.0  140  1.23  3.58  1.16
12.  Jon Lester       Red Sox   10  162.0  114  1.44  4.45  1.09
13.  Jake Peavy       Padres    12  177.0  173  1.18  3.17  1.06
14.  Roy Oswalt       Astros    12  193.0  146  1.23  3.59  1.06
15.  Javier Vazquez   Braves    13  198.0  188  1.21  3.58  1.07
16.  Rich Harden      Cubs      13  182.2  235  1.12  3.04  1.00
17.  Felix Hernandez  Mariners  12  192.2  170  1.34  3.81  1.13
18.  Ervin Santana    Angels    13  198.1  173  1.26  3.88  1.13
19.  Zack Greinke     Royals    12  192.1  164  1.29  3.96  1.14
20.  Derek Lowe       Braves    11  175.2  114  1.28  3.70  0.90

Halladay is a great pitcher for fantasy, but had been better in real life since the lack of strikeouts doesn't matter as much as being in a league where the way you earn outs is what counts. He posted a season almost identical to 2008, though, so heading into next year, I'll have to give him credit for the strikeouts he is once again earning, especially with the switch to the NL.

Jon Lester is another ranking I'm happy about, as PECOTA didn't have a ton of faith in him replicating his performance exactly. Lester actually performed even better than in 2008, despite his defense's best efforts to keep that from happening. His .323 BABIP hides the fact that Lester was one of the most dominant pitchers in the entire game, with 10 whiffs per nine, 2.8 walks per nine, and home-run rate under one per nine.

I didn't rank Peavy in the top 10 thanks to some drops in his velocity and his pitching for the Padres, which would keep his win total down. He ended up pitching fine on a rate basis, but logged just 101 1/3 innings thanks to injuries that shelved him for much of the year. He's going to need a total reevaluation, though, between the league switch and moving to a park where fly balls are not a pitcher's friend.

Roy Oswalt struggled with homers for part of 2008, but he came back strong to finish the year with very Oswaltian numbers. His 2009 season was pretty similar to the end result of that, though his ERA ended up sitting over 4.00 at year's end, and he didn't toss 200 innings. If his back is healthy in 2010, there's no reason to think he can't pitch well yet again.

I thought moving Javier Vazquez to the NL and Atlanta would be a blessing for his stats, as he had always pitched in hitter-friendly arenas that dulled the edge of his unadjusted numbers. He took even my optimistic expectations as an insult, though, and blew most of the league's pitcher seasons away. I'm still trying to figure out if I underestimated just how much of a positive effect the NL and Atlanta were going to have on him, or if this was just one of those perfect storm seasons we see with pitchers sometimes, the kind that are tough to predict.

Rich Harden threw about the same number of innings that he did in 2008, but without the delicious ERA. You still had the benefit of all of those strikeouts-171 in 141 innings is just plain awesome-but, sadly, his homer rate (1.5 per nine) and unintentional walk rate (4.0 per nine) put a damper on things. If he's going to post an ERA in the threes with 170-180 strikeouts, you can put up with the 150 innings in either Roto or head-to-head. The ERA above four makes it a little tougher to swallow, at least at this early spot in the draft.

Everyone, let's take a minute to appreciate just how good Felix Hernandez is. He bumped up his strikeout rate, lowered his walk rate and homer rate, threw well over 200 innings and, though he was assisted by a markedly improved defense behind him, the assist was more like icing on the proverbial cake rather than the fluffy baked good itself. I'll be pleased to rank him much higher than this for 2010, thanks to this campaign.

Remember when we all got excited about Ervin Santana, because he finally pitched well during both home and road starts, and all of the potential he had shown over the years finally resulted in a wonderful little season? That all feels very far away after a 2009 that saw him lose strikeouts, add walks and homers, and throw just 139 2/3 innings due to injuries and ineffectiveness. I'm not too upset about this ranking since injuries were a big part of the problem, but let's hope that 2008 was less of a blip than it looks like at this moment.

Here's what I said about Greinke heading into 2009:

Zack Greinke has returned from his past issues to become one of the best young pitchers in the game. If he was starting for a team with a better defense and offense, he'd be ranked higher, but pitching against two opponents at once makes things more difficult.

Kansas City's defense was predictably awful. Greinke was unpredictably fantastic. Expecting another 2.16 ERA out of him in 2010 would be foolish, of course, but he's certainly moved himself out of that "potentially great" area and right into one of the league's current elite.

Derek Lowe didn't work out quite like I thought he would in Atlanta, as his already low-for-fantasy punch outs dropped, and he allowed an uncharacteristically high BABIP. He was better than his ERA indicates, but not by so much that ranking him 20th of all the starters is justified.

All things considered, the top 20 didn't come out so bad. I had a few misfires, but also went against the PECOTA grain on a few pitchers and came away in the right. There are 40 more of these pitchers to go through, and we'll have them (and the entire review series) completed within the week, meaning we can get a move on to the actual 2010 rankings.

Related Content:  Fantasy Tiers

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