Now that we’re almost finished with all that needs to be done at the offensive positions, it’s time to turn toward pitching, and we’ll begin with the starters. Today you’ll get the first 30 starting pitchers in my rankings along with commentary, and later this week you will also get another article on the next 30. I did these rankings a bit differently than I had with the offensive players; forecasts for pitching need a few more tweaks than hitting projections.

For example, when pitchers continue to pitch through injuries (or try to come back from one), they may have a poorer season than if they had been healthy, which can make their projection lower than it should be since PECOTA doesn’t know how to deal with an injury. There are a few obvious ones in that category (Jon Lester, Cliff Lee). There are also cases where a pitcher finally became healthy and turned a corner, but PECOTA obviously works with more than just last year’s data (think Ricky Nolasco, or Matt Garza), so things may not be as optimistic as they should be at the weighted-mean level.

Also, what is valuable in fantasy baseball is much different than what is valuable in real baseball, so some mental adjustments need to be made. Finally, PECOTA is rather conservative when it comes to pitcher win totals, and another mental adjustment is needed there as well. I don’t think Tim Lincecum will be held to 13 wins, which is why you see him ranked where he is.

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

I had Lincecum down as the top starter before Santana’s elbow troubles popped up (and then magically disappeared again). Those 13 wins are a combination of PECOTA’s take on the Giants and its generally conservative nature when it comes to assigning pitchers wins; he led the majors in SNLVAR last year with 8.6, and if the Giants ride him like they did last year, he’ll rack up more innings and punchouts than he’s forecasted for as well. Sabathia is the other freak at the top of the list, and for the same reasons; he’s going to pitch a lot of innings, and he’s going to dominate in the strikeout category. Being on the Yankees should also help him be near the league lead in wins, unless they start popping multiple replacement-level players into the lineup again.

Johan Santana being third on this list is not an insult to him; I think he’s just a tad behind where Lincecum and Sabathia are, especially if he has any elbow problems that might limit both his innings and his value. Speaking of injuries, Josh Beckett pitched through parts of 2008 while he was hurt; once he came back and his velocity was working again, he looked good. Keep an eye on his radar gun during spring training, because if his velocity starts to dip at any point, you can forget about my ranking him fourth.

Dan Haren and Brandon Webb are both excellent pitchers; I think Webb is the better starter, but for fantasy purposes, Haren is going to get more strikeouts, and he’s a little less reliant on the Diamondbacks‘ defense than Webb is. Cole Hamels had his coming-out party with the general public last year thanks to the Phillies’ World Series run, so he may be drafted a little early in some leagues due to the sudden swell in popularity. He’s still one of the best in the game, though.

Chad Billingsley had a slight uptick in strikeouts last season while keeping his walks at a reasonable level for the second straight year. Better use of his secondary stuff has helped him turn into a monster starter; having Manny Ramirez helping with the offense for a full year should help Billingsley’s win totals as well. Cliff Lee’s story is a little too involved to fit into this small space; check out his Player Profile from late 2008 instead. I’m convinced that he’s one of the best starters in baseball, even if he isn’t a perennial Cy Young candidate.

Ricky Nolasco is another who deserves a lot of attention; those of you who have already bought and read Baseball Prospectus 2009 know this, but “from June 15 onward, Nolasco whiffed over a batter per inning while holding his walks to one per nine, a 140 1/3 IP stretch of dominance that no pitcher in 2008 can claim.” He was basically Sabathia Lite for more than half of the season, after the effects from his bone spurs and elbow inflammation became things of the past. My one concern is that he might have another injury (or one that’s recurring), but his peripherals are fantastic.

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

If you put a gun to my head and made me choose one starter to pitch an important game, I’d be tempted to pick Roy Halladay. Fantasy baseball isn’t real baseball though, so despite his excellent ERA, WHIP, and win totals, the lack of strikeouts cuts into his value when you compare him to the fantasy elite. He’s still a great pick though, and one that will allow you to take chances on more one-dimensional strikeout guys in the later rounds. Jon Lester will be much better than that projection in 2009; his velocity and command came around, and he was considered the Sox ace for much of the year. As long as he maintains the command that he discovered last year, expect that WHIP to be lower, and expect more strikeouts.

Jake Peavy is still in San Diego, which is great for his rate stats, but not so great for his win total. Even with Peavy losing some mileage on his fastball, he’s a great pick given his strikeout rate and home park. Roy Oswalt went through what we can kindly call a “rough stretch” during the beginning of last year. It seemed like every other pitch ended up in the stands. He ended up dropping the homer issues though, and finished the season with just under one home run per nine, instead of the abysmal rates he flirted with early on.

The most significant stumbling block to Javier Vazquez’s being an ace pitcher is his problem with the long ball, and has left homer-happy US Cellular behind and is now in the weaker National League. Whereas the White Sox‘s home park boosted bombs by nearly 13 percent from both sides of the plate, Vazquez is now in Atlanta, where homers are very slightly depressed. His ERA should have been closer to 3.74 to begin with last year, according to FIP, so combine that with the league and park switch, and you have your answer as to why PECOTA is so giddy about him.

If Rich Harden is healthy (don’t laugh, he survived last year, didn’t he?), then he’s going to be amazing. PECOTA has him down to whiff 11.6 batters per nine, which is something you just don’t see in starter projections very often. I don’t know where that projected inning total is coming from, but he has an enormous amount of value, even in leagues that use raw K totals instead of K/9, and that’s if he just manages to throw 120-130 innings. Last season Felix Hernandez gave up more fly balls than we’re accustomed to seeing from him, but if that turns into a trend, all is not bleak. The Mariners may have the second best outfield defense in the league with Endy Chavez, Franklin Gutierrez, and Ichiro Suzuki out there; as long as those fly balls don’t leave the park, King Felix will be just fine.

This ranking of Ervin Santana assumes that he’s healthy. Obviously, if his sprained MCL keeps him out for a significant period of time, you’re not going to want him at this spot. Keep an eye on injury reports to see how the Angels handle this. 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. Derek Lowe was a great fit for Los Angeles; the one offensive item that was inflated there was homers, which is the one thing that Lowe, as a severe ground-ball pitcher, does not allow. He’s now in a neutral park in Atlanta, but if he displays the kind of control that he had last year, it will hardly matter where he’s pitching.

Rank Name             Team       W   IP     SO  WHIP   ERA  Beta
21.  Joba Chamberlain Yankees    9  124.0  133  1.24  3.09  0.98
22.  A.J. Burnett     Yankees   13  197.0  178  1.32  3.82  1.08
23.  Scott Kazmir     Rays      11  166.0  164  1.29  3.90  1.25
24.  Matt Garza       Rays       9  151.1  111  1.39  4.46  1.07
25.  Max Scherzer     D'backs   10  158.0  168  1.28  3.77  0.89
26.  Yovani Gallardo  Brewers    5   84.0   84  1.30  3.73  1.08
27.  Brett Myers      Phillies  12  179.1  158  1.27  3.87  0.90
28.  Matt Cain        Giants    11  190.2  168  1.31  3.94  1.06
29.  John Lackey      Angels    12  182.2  139  1.31  3.92  1.06
30.  James Shields    Rays      12  183.1  135  1.25  3.92  1.06

This projection has Joba Chamberlain as a starter/reliever hybrid; bump up the innings and the ERA, and hope that he stays healthy enough to warrant the ranking. A.J. Burnett’s forecast is promising, and you have the added bonus in fantasy of not having to overpay him by millions of dollars to get his production. If you could guarantee that Kazmir would throw 200 innings and drop his walk rate, I would probably boost him up into the top 10; if you’re feeling lucky, then go for it. I’m a little more cautious with my first few starter picks though, since I don’t make them often (instead loading up on hitting early).

Matt Garza’s projection is a bit misleading, because he’s a seriously talented pitcher. After that shouting match with Dioner Navarro ended up with Garza seeing a sports psychologist, his numbers changed, as did his style: he whiffed 7.1 hitters per nine, dropped his walks to 2.6 per nine (which was a great sign, since he had not found his minor league control while in the majors up to that point). He improved against right-handers as well last year during this time period, and the only real downside is that he was a bit inconsistent. We’ll see if he makes another leap forward this year in his age-25 season.

What can I say? I’m a total sucker for strikeouts, and it looks as if Max Scherzer is going to generate them in spades. He whiffed 10.6 hitters per nine last year during his seven starts and nine relief appearances; though he may start the season on the DL (the Diamondbacks won’t need a fifth starter until the middle of April), that shouldn’t dissuade you from picking up one of the most exciting young pitchers around. PECOTA’s low innings forecast is a result of Gallardo’s limited time in the majors, as well as his freak injury from last year. The important thing to note is his K/9 (9.0) as well as his low ERA.

After sticking him in the bullpen, the Phillies realized that Adam Eaton was probably not the answer to their championship woes, so Brett Myers was allowed back into the rotation. The home-run issues make him a volatile pick (he allowed 1.4 per nine last year), but if he can get back to where he was before, he’ll be a better pitcher. PECOTA seems to think that he can, and while I’m a little more skeptical, I can’t think of any reason why it wold be impossible for him to do so. I feel like this is going to be one ranking that I regret a few months from now.

Matt Cain is no longer the ace out in San Francisco, but he’s still a great pitcher to have around. I might not be as pleased with all of the fly balls he allows in another park, but he plays in front of quality outfielders and in a park that depresses offense. John Lackey and James Shields have very similar projections, which is interesting given they have different styles of pitching. Lackey’s fastball is in the low 90s, and he uses breaking pitches to complement his heater. Shields also averages around 90 mph with his fastball, but he’s a great pitcher due to his ability to change speeds and throw a cutter. Both of them get a lot of hitters to swing and miss out of the zone, but Lackey attacks the strike zone more often early on. Both of them are great picks for fantasy, though not among the game’s elite.