And with that, we leave the safe, comfortable warm glow of the hitters for the cold, terrifying chaos theory of pitcher prediction. As with last year, I’m going to focus on non-standard formats that count walks and those that swap out Wins for quality starts. Bat Signal data continues to point to those two formats as the most popular alternatives to traditional 5×5 scoring categories, and I happen to play in leagues that use both as a matter of preference. Of course, if you have questions about how other league setups may or may not impact particular hurlers relative to their standard tiered rankings, feel free to ask away in the comments.
In case you missed any of the previous articles in this series, you can find those here:
And finally, before you continue I’d advise you to check out Mike Gianella’s two-part standard league rankings (Part I is here, Part II is here) for reference, as all of the valuation notes below are based off of those standard league rankings.
As noted, this section also more broadly applies to points formats that penalize walks or value them in any way relative to strikeouts. It is, if I may state the obvious, an impressive thing to overcome an abundance of walks and succeed at the major-league level. It is not, however, a generally sustainable method of sustaining that success. Starting pitchers with poor control tend to populate the lower ranks for the sheer fact that their WHIP liability places a lower ceiling on the value production to begin with, and that’s before we factor in the ERA risk of giving up free base runners. But while the downward movement is more minimal in this format, there exists a not-insignificant segment of the pitching population that survives, nay even thrives, on the premise of now allowing free passes. Sure, they may give up a whole bunch of contact and end up with an inflated WHIP anyway, but in leagues that reward control they add discernable value that would be otherwise obscured by the cold authoritarianism of standard scoring systems.
Noah Syndergaard, NYM – On the one hand, the strikeout-to-walk ratio Syndergaard posted in his first 150 big-league innings was significantly better than any he’d posted in any stretch of innings that big in his professional career. On the other, nothing in his performance particularly screams of likely regression, and anything comparable to his 11th-best showing last season would be enough to easily push him into the top tier alongside teammate Jacob deGrom. He gained some separation by throwing more changeups and introducing a Warthen Slider down the stretch to bump his already-excellent whiff rate into elite territory, and the possibility of those sequencing gains holding over a longer sample further solidifies Thor among the top arms in walk leagues. Standard: High-Four Stars, Walks: Low-Five Stars
Michael Pineda, NYY – Pineda has shown elite control ever since returning from his shoulder injury, and his 7.4 strikeouts for every walk last year was the second-best rate among starters, trailing only Max Scherzer. That fueled a top-15 cFIP and solid DRA, both of which belied his mediocre ERA and pedestrian Win total. The exquisite control (combined with his proclivity to whiff nearly a batter an inning) nudges him up the border of being a top-25 starter in leagues that count walks. Standard: High-Three Stars, Walks: Low-Four Stars
Aaron Nola, PHI – Exquisite control has been the hallmark of Nola’s professional career to date, averaging as he did just a walk and a half-per-nine in his brief time in the minors. That number spiked a bit in his first look at big league hitters, but as a guy who strikes out enough hitters to create some separation, Nola still posted one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios of any rookie starter. Given the pedigree and performance, despite his youth he offers one of the safer SP4 paths to a ratio of more than four whiffs to every walk. Standard: High-Two Stars, Walks: Low-Three Stars
Phil Hughes, MIN – Hughes crashed and burned under the weight of a heavily regressed contact profile in 2015, so much so that he failed to land in our top 125 options for the year after returning a whopping two bucks of mixed league value. In leagues that count walks, however, there remains plenty of reason to continue investing in Hughes as a quality back-end piece. His nearly six strikeouts-per-walk rated seventh among all starters, and that was with a cratered strikeout rate driven by swing-and-miss numbers the likes of which his curveball’s never seen. The smart-money bet on some positive movement there leaves him with some upside to rebound further, and his innings with so few walks hold particular value in points formats. Standard: Zero Stars, Walks: Low-Two Stars.
Others: There isn’t enough room at the inn to bump Hisashi Iwakuma up much higher in our rankings, but he should be considered a rock-solid SP3 option any league that counts walks, and he pushes SP2 territory if the format’s deep enough…Figuring out where to slot in fully mature Japanese pitchers making the jump from the NPB is always tricky, and Kenta Maeda is no exception. He’s worth getting a little more aggressive than his high-two star standard slot in leagues that count walks, however, as his control has been above-average throughout his career to date and he’ll be throwing to last year’s MVP of pitch framing in Los Angeles…If you happen to play in an NL-only league that scores walks you, my friend, already have all the cover you need to enjoy rostering Bartolo Colon and his elite strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Sonny Gray, OAK – Gray actually managed to cut into some of his mediocre walk rate last year, though it came at the expense of a handful of whiffs, and ultimately left his relative rate better, if only marginally so. Gray’s numbers are bad in Walks leagues; there’s still plenty to like about the profile, from the stellar groundball rate and park context on down. But his strikeout-to-walk ratio continues to meddle in the “meh” aisle, and that drags down the top-end ceiling down enough to knock him down into the top of the three-star bucket. Standard: Four Stars, Walks: High-Three Stars
Tyson Ross, SDG – Ross really struggled to harness his control all year, yet he still managed to widen the gap between his whiffs and walks just by striking out a ton more guys. His ultimate fantasy production hinged almost entirely on those extra whiffs—hrecorded the 13th-highest strikeout value adjustment—as his poor WHIP and lack of win karma capped him at just $12 of return. He makes for a similar roll of the dice as an SP2 in standard formats this year, but in leagues that penalize walks there’s just too much risk here to go nuts with your investment. A walks-per-nine rate pushing four is too rich for my blood at his current price point. Standard: Low-Four Stars, Walks: Three Stars
Garrett Richards, LAA – Richards’ fastball command wandered all around major-league strike zones—not to mention outside them—last season, as he gave back a tick of fastball velocity and surrendered a bunch of additional hard contact. He also issued a bunch of extra free passes, and coupled with a downtick in whiffs it left him with a wholly unremarkable spread. His strikeout-to-walk ratio barely clipped the 30th percentile, and factoring in the associated WHIP risk inherent to any further slippage, he makes for a dodgier SP3 proposition. Standard: High-Three Stars, Walks: Low-Three Stars
Francisco Liriano, PIT – You know what you’re getting when you draft Liriano at this point, and walks are a not-small part of the package. He toned down the free passes last year after letting them spiral to the brink of control in 2014, and his arsenal overhaul in favor of a two-seamer helped him coax enough double plays out of his opposition to limit the topline damage. His whiff rates are outstanding for standard formats, easily enough to offset a good deal of the WHIP risk. But the walks eat significantly into the strikeout tally in formats that penalize the former, and Liriano tumbles down the three-star ladder. Standard: High-Three Stars, Walks: Low-Three Stars.
Others: I still don’t entirely know what to make of Michael Wacha. His ERA outpaced his DRA by over half a run, and his 103 cFIP, while nice, was good for just 69th among starters. He’s an even bigger mystery in strikeout-to-walk leagues, where his middling ratio doesn’t help his cause. He doesn’t tumble too far, but he’s not quite a borderline top-25 option anymore, either…Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran posted identical ratios of 171 strikeouts to 73 walks last year, and promptly tied for 109th among 80-inning starters. Not great, Bob…Gio Gonzalez is a two-star option in Walks leagues, though the fall isn’t necessarily precipitous enough to warrant a huge downgrade…In spite of countless hours of tinkering and overhauling and fixing and finagling, Trevor Bauer still walks just a ton of hitters. And he’s old enough now to where he’s not young enough to write off his lack of progress in refining his command. His inconsistency leaves him in the top half of the first tier in standard leagues, but in those that penalize walks he’s not worth more than a late-game flyer in the deepest of formats.
This is one of my favorite jumps out of the standard-league box, as it allows for much more accurate and useful pitcher value projections when we remove the roulette table of Wins from the equation. Streaming becomes that much more difficult when Joe Kelly’s eight straight Wins turn into sporadic quality starts, and a sizeable chunk of starting pitcher value creation—wins, after all, account for 25 percent of starter value in a standard format—is now much more reflective of true talent (or at least truer talent) than the relative randomness of Wins would otherwise suggest.
The quest to identify risks and potential rewards in this format comes down to a cross-check of innings-per-start and pitches-per-inning rates, along with the percentage of quality starts a pitcher has thrown over the past couple seasons and a look at whose value was distorted by win totals that didn’t jive with their QS production.
Jose Quintana, CHW – Every year somebody has to be the guy that just can’t ever buy a win, and the championship belt currently resides on Mr. Quintana’s mantle. Quintana’s 25 quality starts in 32 turns worked out to the sixth-best rate of any starting pitcher, and his 16 QS-W set the pace. He worked 6.44 innings in an average start, and that rate checked in around the 70th percentile for pitchers who threw at least 80 innings last year. Quintana has been a model of consistency over the past three seasons, but judging by his current ADP (he’s the 45th starter off the board) his paltry nine dollar return in standard mixed leagues last year may be obscuring just how solid the 27-year-old has been. Standard: Low-Three Stars, QS: High-Three Stars
John Lackey, CHC – There may not have been a quieter top-20 season than Lackey’s last year, but his $18 mixed league return came in spite of his suffering some of the worst Win karma of any starting pitcher last year. His QS rate was fifth-best overall, and his 13 QS-W mark rated as the third-largest margin of any starter. He was the fourth-most efficient pitcher on a pitches-per-inning basis, throwing fewer pitches than Hector Santiago on the year while racking up 38 more innings. Last year’s efficiency marked a next level for the veteran, but even pricing in some regression this is one of the true horses in the National League, and his value jumps significantly with the cost-certainty of his QS production. Standard: Low-Three Stars, QS: High-Three Stars
Wei-Yin Chen, MIA – If I’d been a man who’d drawn an assignment for our Starting Pitchers to Target piece, I may just have chosen Chen in a standard league and I definitely would’ve in a quality start league. I wrote glowingly about Chen’s migration to South Beach after he signed with the Fish, and in QS leagues his particular skill set takes on additional value. Throughout his four seasons now he’s shown an ability to limit damage through the middle innings, and last year he held hitters to their lowest OPS when he went through an order for the third time. The league switch and defensive upgrade should combine to boost his innings-per-start totals, and he’ll make for an especially nice mid-rotation starter in QS formats. Standard: Low-Three Stars, QS: High-Three Stars
Jaime Garcia, STL – Garcia would rank significantly higher on our tiered list if he could just stay on the mound, but the extreme injury risk puts a big dent in his value. The risk balance shifts a little bit further in his favor in QS play, however. When healthy—there’s the disclaimer—he was one of the most efficient starters in the majors last year. That helped feed a top-10 QS rate, and it positions him for some leeway in your draft strategy. Standard: High-Two Stars, QS: Low-Three Stars
Others: For what it was worth—and it was probably worth the difference to being the first- or second-most valuable pitcher—Clayton Kershaw’s eleven QS-W were tied for the fifth-most of any starter, despite his third-best QS rate and league-leading innings-per-game. He’s really good…There was nothing wrong with Corey Kluber last year, just some poor first-half defense behind him and a bunch of bum luck in the Win department…For a long time last season it was Shelby Miller that wore the title belt, but he ultimately didn’t feel the wrath of lady luck in quite as acute a form. Miller’s QS rate was good, but not elite like Quintana’s, and he failed to work quite as deep into games. He’s already a firm three-star option, and there isn’t a ton of need for adjustment beyond that… Collin McHugh was paid out appropriately in Wins for the quality starts he made, so from a raw value standpoint his 2015 numbers didn’t change much in a QS league. But it’s worth noting that his 21 quality turns were tied for the 16th-best total...Two names for AL-only managers to keep a close eye on this spring are Scott Feldman and Cody Anderson. Feldman figures to battle Mike Fiers for the fifth slot in Houston, and last year he posted two quality starts for every one “unpleasant” turn, a year after turning in a near-70 percent rate. And Anderson was the third-most efficient pitcher on a pitches-per-inning basis last year, though that was due mostly to his inability to strike anyone one. Still, if he can match his weak groundball contact profile from a year ago he can stick around to rack up a bunch of quality starts at the back end of Cleveland’s rotation.
Michael Pineda, NYY – Where Pineda was an asset in walk leagues on account of his stellar control, he projects as more of a liability in a switch to Quality Starts. He struggled to consistently work deeply into games while maintaining effectiveness last year. He failed to log six innings a start, in part because hitters squared him up to the tune of a .538 slugging percentage in their third looks. His 44 percent QS rate was down alongside the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Rubby de la Rosa, and Jeremy Hellickson, taking a bit out of the value his 12 Wins helped create. Standard: High-Three Stars, QS: Low-Three Stars
Yordano Ventura, KCR – Ventura was solid as a quality starter in 2014, but his second tour of the league was a much tougher slog. He has now averaged south of six innings a start in 60 big league turns, and his pitch efficiency checked in exactly 100th among starters who logged at least 80 innings last year. The Royals project for a solid bullpen once again, which offers standard leaguers a bit of a reprieve in terms of Win protection, but that’s cold comfort in QS leagues. He got crushed as his command wavered deeper into games, and until he shows an ability to maintain his stuff with greater consistency he’s a riskier investment in these formats. Standard: Low-Three Stars, QS: Two Stars
Gio Gonzalez, WAS – Gio’s average innings-per-start has declined for five straight years now, culminating most recently with last year’s mark just south of five and two-thirds. That effort was good for just 127th out of the 159 starters with 80 innings, and his pitches-per-inning efficiency was even worse. That’s not a good sign for a starter who also traded in strikeouts to increase his groundball rate, ostensibly in an effort to reverse those inefficient trend lines. Every hitter basically turned into A.J. Pollack once they got a look at Gonzalez for the third time in a game, and given his steady regression in terms of innings-eating his margin for value creation is that much thinner in QS formats. Standard: Low-Three Stars, QS: Two Stars
Jason Hammel, CHC – Hammel’s season was difficult to make much sense of last year, as his 91 cFIP paired with the largest DRA discrepancy this side of Rick Porcello among ostensibly league-average (or better) starters. He threw less innings than any other starter who took the ball his 31 times, though it should be noted that his performance through the middle innings checked out okay on paper. This is where the Joe Maddon Effect comes into play, however, as the skipper’s quick hook and strategic deployment for third trips through a lineup saved some face. Hammel’s mere 12 quality starts in 31 tries don’t look particularly out of line with his usage patterns, and given the same situation heading into 2016 he makes for a poorer back-end investment in QS leagues. Standard: Two Stars, QS: High-One Star
Others: Carlos Rodon actually showed well in his rookie season, logging a QS in 70 percent of his turns last year. He was quite wasteful on a per-inning basis, however, tying for the fourth-worst rate of pitch efficiency…Raisel Iglesias’ monster month of August has him perched as one of the more popular breakout gambits of draft season to date, but it’s worth noting that his innings-per-start even with that run included barely scraped the 40th percentile. Some risk should already be built into his standard league price given the Reds’ impending terribleness, but the jump to a QS format certainly does him no favors…Yes things got better for Nathan Eovaldi as the season wore on, but one area where he struggled to improve much was in working deeply into games. Even during his solid final two months he completed six innings just three times in 11 starts, and his overall QS and IP/GS rates were abysmal…Yovani Gallardo wasn’t a good option before he signed with Baltimore, he’s certainly not a better one after signing there, and he’s even worse in QS league. He lasted less than five and two-thirds a start in 2015, good for 140th among starters with at least 80 innings…Another guy who shouldn’t be on your radar even if you just can’t ever seem to get enough of that good stuff is Joe Kelly. Maybe the stuff was so good last year, and that’s the reason why no other starter in baseball threw more pitches in an average inning than Kelly. He was just showing off his good stuff! Don’t be like Joe Kelly and fall in love with Joe Kelly’s good stuff, especially not in QS leagues.