2014 Fantasy Baseball: 5×5 Starting Pitcher Rankings
With time being of the essence, and a vacation on the horizon for this guy, I’ve jumped ahead to the rankings that have brought home the proverbial bacon for me the last two seasons. Without trying to sound like I’m gloating, I’ve been money ranking starting pitchers in consecutive years, and the numbers back that up in 2012 and 2013 . So with that in mind, it’s time to roll them out and highlight a handful of pitchers I’ve ranked much differently than my peers and explain my rationale in straying from the pack. And in order to nip this question in the bud, I’ve opted to rank 102 pitchers because I included Carlos Martinez and Drew Smyly as starters despite the fact they’ll open the year only relief pitcher eligible at some fantasy baseball host sites.
*Expert consensus is current as of March 16
1- Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
2- Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
3- Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
4- Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
5- Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
6- Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
7- Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers
8- Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates
9- Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
10- Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
11- Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins
12-Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
13- Anibal Sanchez, Detroit Tigers
14- Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds
15- Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
16- Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers
17- David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
18- Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves
19- Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians
20- Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics
21- James Shields, Kansas City Royals
22- Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
23- Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves
24- Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds
25- Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
26- Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals
27- Hiroki Kuroda, New York Yankees
28- A.J. Burnett, Philadelphia Phillies
29- Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals
30- Doug Fister, Washington Nationals
31- Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres
32- Hyun-Jin Ryu, Los Angeles Dodgers
33- Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates
34- Mashiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
35- Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays
36- Scott Kazmir, Oakland Athletics
37- Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
38- Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks
39- CC Sabathia, New York Yankees
40- Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs
41- Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners
42- Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels
43- Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
44- Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox
45- Tyson Ross, San Diego Padres
46- Martin Perez, Texas Rangers
47- Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
48- Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals
49- Matt Garza, Milwaukee Brewers
50- John Lackey, Boston Red Sox
51- Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
52- R.A. Dickey, Toronto Blue Jays
53- Ervin Santana, Atlanta Braves
54- Ubaldo Jimenez, Baltimore Orioles
55- Marco Estrada, Milwaukee Brewers
56- Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
57- Ivan Nova, New York Yankees
58-Dan Haren, Los Angeles Dodgers
59- Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals
60- Ian Kennedy, San Diego Padres
61- Zack Wheeler, New York Mets
62- Alex Wood, Atlanta Braves
63- Josh Johnson, San Diego Padres
64- Tony Cingrani, Cincinnati Reds
65- Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians
66- C.J. Wilson, Los Angeles Angels
67- Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks
68- Tim Hudson, San Francisco Giants
69- Bartolo Colon, New York Mets
70- Jon Niese, New York Mets
71- Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles
72- Yordano Ventura, Kansas City Royals
73- Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals
74- Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners
75- Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
76- Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
77- Dan Straily, Oakland Athletics
78- Jake Peavy, Boston Red Sox
79- Drew Smyly, Detroit Tigers
80- Kyle Lohse, Milwaukee Brewers
81- Michael Pineda, New York Yankees
82- Wade Miley, Arizona Diamondbacks
83- Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers
84- Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox
85- Ricky Nolasco, Minnesota Twins
86- Scott Feldman, Houston Astros
87- Travis Wood, Chicago Cubs
88- Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles
89- Brett Anderson, Colorado Rockies
90- Eddie Butler, Colorado Rockies
91- Brad Peacock, Houston Astros
92- Dillon Gee, New York Mets
93- Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers
94- Garrett Richards, Los Angeles Angels
95- Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Dodgers
96- Nathan Eovaldi, Miami Marlins
97- Tyler Skaggs, Los Angeles Angels
98- Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays
99- Jarrod Parker, Oakland Athletics
100- Erik Johnson, Chicago White Sox
101- Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
102- A.J. Griffin, Oakland Athletics
Ranked significantly higher than the expert consensus
Gerrit Cole- My Rank: 8, Expert Consensus: 20
No matter how you slice it up, this is an ace from both a fantasy and reality perspective. He’s a large man that is built to log innings and including his two postseason starts, he totaled 196.1 innings pitched last year. The scouting reports have been favorable for some time now, and his electric stuff helped him go atop the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft. The 23-year old stud throws a fourseam fastball that averaged 96.99 MPH, and he trailed only Nathan Eovaldi in average fourseam fastball velocity, and that was by just .01 MPH according the PITCHf/x leaderboard at Baseball Prospectus. No one bested Cole’s average velocity of 96.39 MPH on his sinker, though, and the velocity he throws both fastballs with is truly special.
Cole’s not just out there trying to break bottles at the carnival, he also throws a pair of sick breaking balls (curveball and slider) and a changeup. As he became comfortable at the major league level in his rookie season, Cole began hinting at his upside by mixing in more of his secondary pitches. In the second-half of last season he pitched 75.2 innings and posted a 2.85 ERA, 1.10 WHIP with a 2.26 BB/9 and 8.92 K/9. He was an absolute monster in his last five regular season starts in September totaling 32 innings in which he posted a sizzling 1.69 ERA and 1.06 WHIP with walk and strikeout rates of 2.81 BB/9 and 10.97 K/9. As if those numbers aren’t enough to love, Cole is also adept at coaxing worm burners, doing so on 49.1 percent of his batted balls according to FanGraphs. The cherry on top is that Cole calls pitcher friendly PNC Park home.
Danny Salazar- My Rank 19, Expert Consensus: 38
The biggest knock on Salazar, and it’s a relatively big knock, is that he’s never demonstrated he can handle a full-season’s workload. Last year he set a new career high in innings pitched with 149 if you include the postseason. The 24-year old already has a Tommy John surgery on his resume, but the Indians have indicated he won’t have any restrictions and is expected to make at least 30 starts this year. I would be wary of investing heavily in keeper or dynasty leagues in Salazar because of durability concerns, but in yearly leagues I’d be happy to invest in his electric arm.
My ranking builds in the expectation of him falling short of 200 innings pitched, but 175-185 would be plenty enough for him to reach 200 strikeouts with a top notch ERA and WHIP. Salazar’s lowest strikeout rate at any level last year (he pitched in Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors) was 11.25 K/9 in the Show. He’s unlikely to repeat that rate, but hold off on regressing it too far. Salazar started batters off with a first pitch strike 67.3 percent of the time, seven percent better than the league average according to FanGraphs, and he was in the strike zone more than the league average starter, and batters could do little about him pummeling the strike zone making contact with just 79 percent of those pitches (league average was 87 percent). Not only did Salazar beat hitters when he challenged them, he also was able to get them to chase out of the strike zone at a well above average rate (38.2 percent chase rate for Salazar and 31.0 percent league average). In short, Salazar is awesome, and it becomes much easier drafting skills and gambling on health when those starters aren’t expected to be your team’s fantasy ace. If you want to start gambling on something, keep it to a casino uk rather than your health.
Sonny Gray- My Rank: 20, Expert Consensus: 37
Gray put a forgettable 2012 season behind him, and shined brightly last year. He was very good in the hitter’s haven known as the Pacific Coast League, and he was even better once he was promoted to the parent club. The rookie did everything I look for from a starting pitcher, posting a low walk rate, 2.85 BB/9, missing bats, 9.15 K/9, and keeping the ball on the ground at a high rate, 53.6 percent groundball rate (his walk, strikeout and groundball rates are as a starter according to FanGraphs, and they don’t include his two relief appearances). Gray isn’t built like a workhorse, checking in under six foot tall, but he had no problem piling up innings last year when he totaled 185.1 including two postseason starts. Two-hundred-plus innings are in the offing for the guy that’s expected to be the A’s Opening Day starter.
Scott Kazmir- My Rank: 36, Expert Consensus: 73
Gray’s new teammate got himself a nice payday this offseason after putting together a remarkable bounce back campaign with the Indians last year. Kazmir’s story has been told many times, so I won’t rehash it here, but as good as his 2013 season was, his 2014 season has the potential to be better. The southpaw struck out better than a batter per inning while posting the lowest walk rate of his big league career (2.68 BB/9). The once burgeoning young southpaw for the Devil Rays was a hard throwing, bat missing, effectively wild pitcher in his earlier years. Last season he was more of a pitcher than a thrower, but he found ticks on his heater that had been missing for sometime, and he was throwing his hardest down the stretch.
The A’s prized offseason acquisition has all the goodies in his arsenal to retire opposing hitters. Brooks Baseball credits him with throwing a fourseam fastball and sinker that both averaged over 92 mph by September, a changeup that featured more than 10 mph of separation from his heaters, a slider, curveball, and cutter. After a modest first-half, Kazmir was excellent in the second-half pitching 72.0 innings to the tune of a 3.38 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with a walk rate of 2.13 BB/9 and a strikeout rate of 10.25 K/9. He got knocked around hard by right-handed batters as they hit .274/.339/.455 against him, but with a devastating changeup and a few breaking pitches in his tool belt, I expect him to improve substantially against them this season. Any gains would be huge for him since he’s already dynamite against lefties. Left-handed batters hit a paltry .225/.251/.321 against him. My lone concern with Kazmir is that he’ll be separated from Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, a guy that worked wonders with Ubaldo Jimenez as well, but there is too much to like here for me to let that fly in the ointment deter me from ranking Kazmir among my top-40 starting pitchers.
Tyson Ross- My Rank: 45, Expert Consensus: 77
Last year I loved hard throwing Padres starter Andrew Cashner due to his big heater, friendly ballpark, and his solid numbers in the handful of starts the team gave him after he spent much of the year in the team’s bullpen. This year the Padres hope Ross is their latest success story making the full-time transition to starting. The biggest difference is that Ross already has more experience as a starter at this stage of the conversion than Cashner did. He didn’t do much to standout while with the A’s, but in 16 starts in his first season with the Padres last year he threw 94.0 innings and had a 3.06 ERA and 1.10 WHIP with a gaudy 55.6 percent groundball rate, a healthy 9.29 K/9, and a respectable walk rate of 3.19 BB/9. Ross’s strand rate wasn’t exceptionally high, his BABIP wasn’t all that flukishly low, and his HR/FB rate wasn’t crazy low either. Penciling him in for his starter’s rates over the course of a full season is way too optimistic for my liking, but even with a touch of regression, we’ll be calling Ross the boss at season’s end.
Martin Perez- My Rank: 46, Expert Consensus: 87
It’s really easy to fall out of love with a prospect when they fail to deliver on their promise immediately. After a few seasons of stumbling and falling short of his lofty expectations in the upper minors, Perez stepped up to the challenge at the major league level. The two things he did best last year was limit free passes, 2.68 BB/9, and keep the ball on the ground, 48.1 percent groundball rate. However, he didn’t strike out batters at a high rate, 6.08 K/9, and that makes him an easy guy to overlook. Don’t make that mistake, though, as there are reasons to believe he’ll make a big step forward in striking out batters this year.
The biggest indicator that more strikeouts are on the horizon is his swinging strike rate of 9.8 percent according to FanGraphs, a mark that is 0.5 percent higher than the league average. The league average strikeout rate was 7.57 K/9, a mark that Perez should approach this year even if little changes in his approach and repertoire. His changeup is his swing-and-miss pitch, and it’s an offering that should help the southpaw continue to neutralize right-handed batters at an acceptable level. His breaking pitches were lackluster last year, and he is working on a cutter this spring to supplement them. If any of his breaking balls, curveball, slider or cutter, take a step forward in development, Perez will have a chance to really shine. I’m optimistic one of them will, and I think the floor is high enough with the present version of Perez to justify gambling on him.
Brad Peacock- My Rank: 91, Expert Consensus: 140
A perfect example of a pitcher benefiting from the development of a breaking ball is Peacock. He was dreadful in the first-half last year, and he was ultimately demoted to Triple-A, where he continued to work on and refine his slider. The numbers suggest the work paid off as Peacock posted a 3.64 ERA and 1.18 WHIP with a passable walk rate of 3.31 BB/9 and a very good strikeout rate of 8.94 K/9 in 54.1 innings in the second-half of last season. His slider jumped in average velocity from just over 82-83 mph in May and June last year to 86-87 mph in August and September last year according to the PITCHf/x data available at Brooks Baseball, and he went from missing no bats with it, literally, to generating whiff percentages of 20.0 percent in August and 18.75 percent in September. Furthermore, his curveball whiff percentage rose substantially as well. His changeup stinks, there is no getting around that, but if his advancements with the breaking ball stick, he’ll have a shot to pitch near the level he did in the second-half last year.
Ranked significantly lower than the expert consensus
Adam Wainwright- My Rank: 10, Expert Consensus: 3
Wainwright was superb last season, but this is a new year, and when including his postseason work he threw 276.2 innings last year. That’s an extraordinaire amount of work, and it came just two years after a lost season due to Tommy John surgery. I’m not one to prognosticate injury, and I have him ranked in my top-10 so I obviously really like Waino still, but the heavy workload concerns me. Factor in that I simply can’t see him coming close to repeating his uberstingy walk rate of 1.30 BB/9 (he had never posted a walk rate below 2.0 BB/9 in the majors prior to last year), and you have a guy that looks more like a top-10 starter than a top-5 starter to me.
Stephen Strasburg- My Rank: 12, Expert Consensus: 6
I tipped my hand a bit in my Danny Salazar write-up, but I feel much more comfortable gambling on the health of a number two or three starter than an ace. Strasburg is an elite pitcher when he’s on the hill, but is this really the year he cracks the 200 innings pitched threshold? He’ll need to if he’s going to reach the expert consensus ranking of six, especially if his strikeout rate remains at the 9.39 K/9 he posted last year as opposed to something closer to his career rate of 10.44 K/9. I simply don’t think he stays healthy enough to best 200 innings pitched. Last year he was on the disabled list with a shoulder strain, he was scratched from a September start with forearm tightness, he had offseason elbow surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow, and he has a Tommy John surgery in his rear view mirror. Let someone else chase the dream of Strasburg morphing into a workhorse.
Matt Moore- My Rank: 47, Expert Consensus: 29
Oh Moore, my man-crush on you was so strong. Alas, Moore has some changes to make before he garners interest from me again. The biggest change that would serve the 24-year old well would be getting ahead of hitters. Throwing a first pitch strike was a coin-flip for Moore last year, almost exactly with a 50.9 percent first pitch strike rate. That rate was bad, like nearly 10 percent worse than the league average bad, and nearly 10 percent worse than his 2011 and 2012 marks. Moore isn’t fooling hitters when he goes out of the strike zone, as they really aren’t expanding and chasing that often (28.0 percent chase rate which is three percent below the league average). Another concerning stat on Moore’s FanGraphs’ page is a swinging strike rate of 9.5 percent last season, just 0.2 percent above the league average, and down more than two percent from 2012. Seeing his fastball lose a couple ticks on the radar gun probably didn’t help matters. Moore is cognizant that having those miles-per-hour back would be beneficial, and he got back to the offseason workout program that served him well from 2010-2012 after a partaking in a different one last offseason. Is there upside in gambling on Moore? Absolutely, but for now, he’s too erratic for me to gamble on and rank as high as my peers are.
Shelby Miller- My Rank: 48, Expert Consensus: 26
In his rookie season, Miller was brilliant. He got off to a hot start leaning heavily on a very good heater, but his second-half dip in strikeout rate from 9.63 K/9 to 7.47 K/9 and his rise in walk rate from 2.49 BB/9 to 3.67 BB/9 suggests the league might have adjusted to the young Texan. The PITCHf/x leaderboard at Baseball Prospectus indicate that Miller’s whiff/swing percentage on his fourseam fastball was the 14th best among starting pitchers that threw a minimum of 200. The problem is, neither his changeup or curveball missed many bats. Among starting pitchers that threw a minimum of 100 changeups, Miller’s whiff/swing percentage ranked 105 out of a 141 qualified pitchers, and his curveball ranked 93 out of 104 in whiff/swing percentage when the threshold is bumped back up to a minimum of 200 pitches thrown. Expect his strikeout rate to look a lot more like the second-half rate than the first-half one unless he sharpens his changeup or curveball up a great deal.
Tony Cingrani- My Rank: 64, Expert Consensus: 39
Mark my words, Cingrani’s smoke and mirrors show is going to come to an end this year. I was tempted to rank him lower, and I still might before Fantasy Pros deadline for final ranking submissions. This southpaw’s strikeout rates in the upper minors and majors don’t match up with his stuff, and they’re largely a product of deception. His fourseam fastball’s average velocity last year was 91.74 mph, but it dipped below 91 mph in August and September. Cingrani’s fastball velocity is fine, especially since he’s a left-handed starter, but it doesn’t warrant him throwing the pitch as often as he does. The Reds starter threw his fourseam fastball almost 82 percent of the time last year, and Brooks Baseball had his whiff rate on the pitch at 11.63. Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboard featured Cingrani’s fourseam fastball whiff/swing percentage in 12th place among fourseam fastballs thrown a minimum of 200 times by a starting pitcher (going forward, all ranks should be assumed to be among starting pitchers with the minimum number of pitches thrown continuing to be referenced).
Madison Bumgarner posted a higher whiff/swing percentage with a fourseam fastball that had a lower average velocity than Cingrani, so it’s possible the Reds starter could maintain a strong whiff/swing percentage on the pitch, but the odds aren’t good. Among the many differences between the two southpaws, Bumgarner has secondary pitches that he’s willing to throw to keep hitters honest, and Cingrani doesn’t. His rarely used changeup had the fourth worst whiff/swing percentage with a minimum of 100 pitches thrown. On a positive note, Cingrani’s whiff/swing percentage on his slider ranked 36th. However, the sample was just 92 pitches, and if he doesn’t use the pitch it doesn’t matter how capable of missing bats it is. Much like with his slider, Cingrani’s curveball ranks highly in whiff/swing percentage, second behind Josh Lindblom to be exact, but he threw only 91 of them. Entering the 2013 season, both Baseball America’s and Baseball Prospectus’s prospect write-ups for Cingrani indicated his slider was a fringe pitch that needed work. Neither report made mention of a curveball, but both lauded his changeup and referred to it as a plus pitch. The changeup didn’t play like a plus pitch last year, and until he throws the slider and curveball more often, Cingrani can expect to go through some growing pains as hitters cheat on his fastball.