We can comfortably say two things about major-league starting pitchers in 2015: (1) they were less effective at preventing runs than the previous two years; and (2) they were simultaneously more dominant on the mound.
Breaking these two seemingly contradictory statements down a bit, starting pitchers posted a collective 4.10 ERA and 4.03 FIP, both of which were markedly worse than in 2013 and 2014. Yet their average walk rate is still the lowest (7.1 percent) it has been since The Strike in 1994, and starters compiled the highest average collective strikeout rate (19.5 percent) in the recorded history of the game. Lastly, the league-average ground-ball rate for starting pitchers reached 45.2 percent, which is the highest mark since Baseball Info Solutions began collecting that sort of data in 2002.
How did starting pitchers allow more runs, despite objectively getting better in many ways? The league-wide HR:FB rate against starters jumped dramatically to 11.6 percent, which is the second-highest mark since 2002. In our offseason fantasy previews, we’ve noted that offensive power numbers increased. This is further evidence of that. It could be that starting pitchers somehow collectively made more mistakes within the zone, which resulted in more #dingers, but it’s much more likely that it’s just random fluctuation and that we’ll see the league-wide power numbers regress a bit.
In other words, on a superficial and macro level, one can make the argument that 2016 will once again be The Year of the Pitcher—which means more thinkpieces on lowering the mound, bringing in the fences in pitcher-friendly parks, and all that kinda jazz.
THE LEAGUE BREAKOUTS
One of my favorite pitchers heading into the 2015 season, Carlos Carrasco, is once again poised to breakout, yet he pretty much already did. His season-long 3.63 ERA masked a brilliant second half, in which he struck out 32.5 percent of the batters he faced and posted a 2.99 ERA. In fact, his 68 cFIP from last year ranks fourth-best amongst all starters who tossed 100-plus innings. So, yeah, we could be talking about him as a top-10 starter at the end of the upcoming campaign; however, fantasy owners have noticed. After all, we all love strong second halves when preparing for the upcoming season, right? He’s currently being drafted as the 16th-overall starter, ahead of guys like Chris Archer and Felix Hernandez.
Could this be Michael Pineda’s year? He’s a fantasy owner’s dream, in many ways. He throws hard, strikes out almost a batter per inning, has one of the lowest walk rates in baseball, and keeps the ball on the ground. His ugly 4.37 ERA runs a sharp knife through that beautiful canvas, however, and turns what should be a prized asset into a story of what-could-have-been. It should be noted that his 77 cFIP is just as good as those of Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole, and Madison Bumgarner. He should be brilliant. Yet we’re all scratching our heads and wondering if the 6-foot-7 righty is around the zone too much to be effective at the major-league level. Considering the fact that he’s currently going 47th-overall, though, you can be sure that I’m going to taking that gamble in multiple leagues in 2016. Better Pineda than Raisel Iglesias at 40th overall, right?
In the National League, the breakout guy could be one of the forgotten pieces of the Diamondbacks’ rotation, lefty Patrick Corbin. He returned after a year-plus layoff and hit the ground running, posting a 3.60 ERA in 16 starts. The best part was that his average velocity maintained the increase that carried him in 2013, while his offspeed pitches actually trended upward even more.
Any post-surgery anxieties should largely be alleviated with that type of data. He showed no rustiness in terms of his command, and his swinging-strike rate was almost identical to his pre-surgery numbers—10.8 percent to 10.7 percent, respectively. Corbin is currently going outside the top 50 starters and will be backed by one of the better offenses in the National League. It could be a productive season for the overlooked southpaw.
There are some other candidates, of course. Martin Perez is too often passed over in fantasy leagues. His 59.9 percent groundball rate should help him keep the ball in the yard, while his strikeout rate could jump if he regains his pre-surgery velocity that he showed in 2013. Jimmy Nelson still posted a double-digit swinging-strike rate last year and showed flashes of mid-rotation production. I also have a hard time believing the Pittsburgh Pirates will keep Jameson Taillon in the minors for too long, given their current starting staff that features Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong. He’s too good, and at 142nd overall in winter drafts, he’s dramatically undervalued. And I’ll never stop loving Jarrod Parker.
THE STRATEGY IN MIXED LEAGUES
There are two schools of thought when it comes to drafting starters in fantasy, especially in deeper mixed leagues. Some avoid spending on top-tier starters, due to the inherent injury risk among pitchers. Others want to secure the studs while they’re available, as the elite pitchers are better enough than the second or third tiers to make the investment worthwhile. I’ve historically erred on the former side, but not necessarily due to the injury risk—mostly because I believe starters are overvalued on draft day. This year, a total of 18 starters are being drafted in the top-50 overall, while only 12 starters were top-50 fantasy players in 2015. The math consistently doesn’t add up.
The biggest difference for me this year is that fewer and fewer “surprises” are cracking the top-20 starter list. Last year, Marco Estrada and John Lackey snuck their way into the back end of the top-20, but aside from that, it’s the usual suspects. Increasingly, amongst high-end starting pitchers, I’m being convinced that you’re getting what you pay for, and the elite pitchers are getting even better than they have historically been.
There does appear to be a dip in ADP between the starters drafted in the top-50-overall picks (18) and the next 50 picks (just nine), so the prevailing strategy appears to be “go big or wait.” This could present an opportunity to grab a mid-tier option you love while others shift their focus to bats in the middle rounds—such as Shelby Miller, Jordan Zimmermann, or even Steven Matz. However, the admitted unattractiveness of those arms, meaning they have obvious warts that could significantly impact their 2016 end-of-season value, could mean that the consensus strategy does have some merit—go big, or wait.
In the later rounds, it does appear that fantasy owners have a chance to grab sneaky value. Hector Santiago is going 93rd overall, yet was the 50th-best fantasy starter a year ago in ESPN leagues. Jason Hammel was a top-40 starter and yet is going outside the current top-60, and he’ll be pitching for one of the best teams in the National League. Erasmo Ramirez and Edinson Volquez are outside the top 80, yet were top-50 arms a year ago. Again, not exciting, but fantasy owners often get caught up with “upside” late in the drafts and undervalue steady arms that can really anchor fantasy rotations. I’d much rather have Santiago at no. 93 than someone like Jose Berrios at no. 67. I recognize this is a function of getting older, but you can’t build a fantasy team off nothing but upside. You gotta grab the uninspiring pieces, just like big-league organizations do—the Chris Youngs, the Gio Gonzalezes, the Edinson Volquezes, the Nathan Karnses. It’s just about mitigating downside, if possible.
THE LONG-TERM OUTLOOK
Major League Baseball has a bevvy of young studs atop big-league rotations. Guys like Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, Chris Archer, etc. aren’t going anywhere, barring injury.
With a few exceptions, those should be the cream of the crop for the next half-decade. Lucas Giolito and Julio Urias are special, with guys like Alex Reyes and Tyler Glasnow not being too far behind, but the minors isn’t loaded with a next generation of guys who can displace the current fantasy elite. In other words, don’t get too cute and target a bunch of arms in the BP Top 101 to prepare for the future. Grab a few select guys, but really target the young studs already in the majors. A guy like Chris Archer is just 27 years old and should be incredibly productive for the next four or five years. It’s important to not get sidetracked by “the next big thing” while ignoring the gems that have already been unearthed.
Among the top dynasty pitching prospects, though, Giolito and Urias stand above the crowd. They should be near untouchable in dynasty leagues—with the normal “unless you’re overwhelmed by an offer” caveat—but the next tier is complicated. Alex Reyes has off-the-field issues that must be handled before he makes the jump to the Cardinals’ staff. Tyler Glasnow is overpowering on the mound and has a massive ceiling, but it’s unclear whether he can command the baseball enough to be anything more than a right-handed Matt Moore. Jeff Hoffman has the Coors Virus with which to deal, while Jose Berrios seems to have the repertoire of a solid mid-rotation starter, rather than a borderline ace. Even Blake Snell, who is one of the best arms in the minors, is realistically an SP3 in fantasy circles, according to our own Bret Sayre.
Suffice it to say: For the long-term outlook for starting pitchers, it’s probably going to be more of the same, rather than anything markedly different.
THE CLOSING HAIKU
Say it with me now:
Kershaw had lowest cFIP
and DRA. He’s still king.