*Since I’ve just recently realized how much time I’ve wasted with my starting rotation columns, I am now taking a more general approach to my fantasy starting pitcher posts due to time constraints. This should come as a convenience for those to read up, especially if you or someone you plan on informing has yet to start their fantasy baseball draft. Every pitching staff in the Major Leagues will be covered this week, most likely within the span of the next couple of days, which means I will provide as much info and research into as many pitchers as I can without over-analyzing players one-by-one the way I have in recent articles.*
The way I’m going to evaluate my “Fly or Die” candidates is simple: the ones I think you should draft will be split up between the “studs” the “cruisers” (or, in other words, the reliable ones who’s numbers will remain consistent with their career norms and are much better for it), the “upsiders” (those young arms who put together ace-like numbers last season and could very well do it again), and the “sleepers.” They will make up this entire article. Conversely, the ones I don’t think you should draft will be split between the “duds”, the “bruisers” (A.K.A. those guys who suck year in and year out yet you keep drafting because they look good in their uniforms or something) and the “let it go”s (in reference to the movie Frozen, of course.) Those guys will be in Part 2 of this column.
Also, remember that I am covering these guys under the assumption that you are drafting in a standard, 8-12 team sized ESPN league, as I will be in the coming weeks.
Although I prefer to start off most of my articles with a brief introduction, I don’t believe traditional essay writing will help anyone win a fantasy league. Just like David Price on a good day, I’m going right after the topic at hand, with nibbling coming at a premium. No bias. No extra points for face recognition. No sympathy for guys who performed in the past and suck now. Just numbers. Good old-fashioned, computer-evaluated, on-field-generated, enthusiast-studied numbers. With conclusions.
Let’s get to it.
My “Fly” Candidates
There’s very little I have to say about the guys in this list. They’re all strikeout artists capable of dishing out well over 200 innings and carry a penchant for limiting both walks and homeruns at an elite rate. If you want a championship fantasy team, you must draft at least one of the guys here, or you’re already screwed.
Particular Pitchers You Should Definitely Consider Drafting:
- My San Diego Padres Starting Rotation column already covers why I’m so high on Tyson Ross this year. In short, he has a great three-pitch arsenal with an excellent batted ball profile and a near-elite strikeout rate. Hardly any signs of regression or doubt for another outstanding season, in my opinion
- Alex Cobb is perhaps the closest thing to a “sure thing” on the mound these days. He’s got fantastic lefty-righty splits, pitches exceptionally well everywhere, and has the distinct advantage of striking out batters at an above-average rate (21.9% K rate last season) while at the same time emitting more groundballs than almost anyone else in the game. Both his injury history and potentially low run support from his team’s offense keeps him from reaching that “stud” nomination for me, but he’s still a vastly impressive arm and an asset in every league.
- Hyun-Jin Ryu and Hishashi Iwakuma have been so consistently good, people never talk about them. That’s part of the reason why I consider them “cruisers” despite truly being fantasy “sleepers” and another reason why I’m also very high on them in 2015. From K/BB ratio to HR prevention, both guys have continued to shine year-in and year-out. And since they’re both capable of inducing groundballs at a rate above 50%, they have every chance in the world to finish with sub-3 ERAs a piece. These two should be ranked as top-20 starters, and besides their injury woes last year, I fail to see why not.
- Dallas Keuchel wasn’t even drafted in standard leagues last season. I don’t even think most AL-Only leagues saw him get picked up off the waiver wire. But now he sits atop the likes of top-20 starting pitchers in my “cruiser” list. He would very well be one of my “upsiders” since 2014 was his first fantasy relevant campaign, but he had a great 2013 under the surface as well (90 xFIP-, 3.58 SIERRA), despite the ugly ERA (5.15) and strand rate (68.1%). His numbers show little signs of deviation from what they looked liked in 2014, however, which means what we saw then is what we’re most likely to get now. And that’s a beautiful thing. Sign me up for another 200+ innings, 3-4 more complete games, low-3 ERA, and 1.10 WHIP. Who cares if his K rate is below-average when he’s pounding the zone with authority? (2.16 BB/9 in 2014) The groundball master finally got his luck turned around in both ERA and WHIP, and that disastrous 17.5 HR/FB rate disappeared the minute Keuchel decided to drop his curveball entirely. He’s all about his two-seamer and slider, and if he uses them the same way he did a year ago, there’s absolutely no way he doesn’t beat every single pessimistic projection betting for a sharp regression. Keuchel’s finally figured it out, and I’m almost certain he’ll be making a lot of people beg for his draft price to stay down come season’s end.
Obviously, the quality of the arms presented in my “cruisers” list descends ever so slowly going down, yet I personally feel like each guy up here is capable of serving the same purpose: to be a reliable workhorse who you could start with confidence practically every fifth day. For example, even though I no longer view Adam Wainwright as a bona-fide #1 starter in fantasy doesn’t mean he no longer carries significant value; are we supposed to just forget about how he just finished his fourth campaign in five years with 220+ innings pitched and a sub-3 ERA? The downside of drafting most of these guys, however, is the risk of paying too much for their consistency. Wainwright, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmerman and James Shields are all top-20 starting pitchers ranked within the 39-69 range in ESPN standard league drafts. That’s plenty expensive, if you ask me. And even though the surface stats from last season help make a valid case for where they stack up, there are about ten other guys I could think of off the top of my head who have similar all-around numbers with more strikeouts in even fewer innings and starts. Nonetheless, these guys are practically innings-eaters who help your ratios way more often than they could ever hurt them. Just don’t go completely out of your way to acquire them, especially when your alternatives are:
Particular Pitchers You Should Definitely Consider Drafting:
- Jacob DeGrom is plenty legit. I wrote about him this past September, and here’s the conclusion I made about him then, verbatim: “nearly all of deGrom’s advanced stats for each one of his pitches are identical to those of former Royals great Zack Greinke. And you don’t need a reality check to know how great that guy is. Dynasty league owners have stepped upon a pot of gold, while everyone else better start rushing to the waiver wire (available in over 41% of ESPN leagues) and cashing in before the bank’s closed and the word is out.” Well, the word is out now; he’s currently ranked within the overall top-100 in all ESPN standard league draft boards. DeGrom has everything going for him, and it’s because of his stuff and his almost overnight pitching adjustments that allows me to conduct an “upsiders” list that helps prove my point about not reaching for top-20 arms because of guys like him. Even if he experiences the expected regression most breakout starters face the year after, that shouldn’t keep anyone from picking him up on draft day – he’ll still be every bit worth the price of admission.
- I’m particularly worried about Jake Arrieta repeating his 2014 performance, because he relied very, very heavily on his slider (29.4% usage rate), and overused breaking pitches tend to cause shoulder and elbow problems that eventually lead to season-ending injuries (like Tommy John, for example). Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be, because I’ve recently read a few articles about how he’s manipulated the grip on the baseball to throw either sliders and cutters depending on the count. In fantasy, that doesn’t make him any more valuable, but it also quietly means that Arrieta may have perhaps found a way to throw this nasty, disgusting, should-be illegal pitch with less effort than one could imagine. Which means that he probably won’t face all those aforementioned shoulder and elbow ailments. If that is indeed the case, Jake Arrieta WILL repeat his 2014 performance. Maybe that 0.29 HR/9 rate will rise like it should, but other than that Arrieta’s season prior screams, shrieks and shouts “elite” across the board – from K/BB ratio to batted ball profile. With newfound control, he’s become one of the game’s nastiest arms, and has every single advanced stat, sabermetric and peripheral database backing that up. There’s quite literally no starting pitcher I’d recommend reaching for more than him.
- Alex Wood and Jose Quintana are awfully underrated. The former has high-9 K-upside with improving command (2.36 BB/9 last season, way down from his 4.15 clip in 2013), an amazing groundball/fly ball ratio, and an even more amazing place to call home in Turner Field. Besides the home ballpark and the K-upside stuff, Quintana’s a very similar case, especially in the “walks allowed” department. Both guys are my sleeper picks to break the top-25 at the end of the season, at the very least. Wood no longer has to worry about job security since the Braves have freed up a starting spot for him (FINALLY!!!), so his 2.78 ERA and 8.95 K/9 in 2014 could go a very long way for prospective owners over a span of, say, 200+ innings. His newly discovered knuckle-curve and it’s ever-rising 15.3% swinging strike rate are one of many things that support said notion. Quintana’s just quietly been getting better. His K-BB ratio has been on the rise, and his SIERRA dropped to a career-low 3.50 in 2014. If he had 2013’s strand rate, he’d easily finish with a 2.75-2.80 ERA, and even though his WHIP may hurt his fantasy value a bit (1.24 in 2014) he eats up more than enough innings and gets more than enough strikeouts to offset that. This dude, pitching in Cellular Field, deserves a whole lot more love than he’s been getting.
- After missing the end of last season due to a patellar tendon issue in his left knee, Garrett Richards seems poised to be ready for baseball sometime in April of this year, which makes drafting him at his current value (#104) a far less volatile investment than you think. That’s great news, because Richards is on of the best pitchers on this particular list. His surface and advance stats are absolutely jaw-dropping, and his increased command has allowed him to strike out batters at an awesome clip (8.75 K/9 in 2014). His groundball rate (50.9%) somewhat justifies the absurdly low HR/FB rate (3.9%, lowest in baseball), and I have little doubt in him keeping the ball in the seats any less than 6% going forward. He’s also really good at limiting solid contact, with a .264 BABIP and Major League-leading .261 opp. slugging percentage. With one of the dirtiest sliders in the game (43.8% K rate, 17.4% SwStr) and slash rates all trending in the right direction, Garrett Richards’s upside is so bright, it’s blinding. Buy, buy, buy.
Particular Players You Should Definitely Consider Drafting:
- The Minnesota Twins couldn’t have more sleepers this year, and Phil Hughes is just another example of why you could wait to stack up in any particular position at the end of fantasy drafts. I could go over his historical 2014, where he set the MLB record in strikeout-to-walk rate (which, to put into perspective, meant he finished the season with as many wins as walks allowed), but that’s not even the fully story here; Hughes completely retooled his repertoire. He stopped throwing sliders, threw more knuckle-curves, and started using his cutter again (which is one of the game’s best, according to it’s 32.4% K rate and 71 opp. wRC). Get this: hitters combined to put up a miniscule .606 OPS against those three offerings! With a 90% usage rate amongst that trio of pitches, it’s easy to see why Hughes suddenly became so good with the Twins, as his 3.65 ERA and 1.13 WHIP were both career-highs as a result. His 2.65 FIP and 3.18 xFIP are so juicy I’d go as far as to say that Hughes will be twice as good in 2015 as he was a year ago. You owe it to yourself to steal this gem off the draft board.
- Jake Odorizzi had an insane amount of bad luck on the road last season, with a 6.32 ERA and a 5.39 FIP that was driven by a 15.7% HR/FB rate and an even more unrealistic .347 BABIP. Owners probably figured that he simply cannot pitch away from the Trop, but there wasn’t anyone less unlucky on the road in all of baseball. You should see his fantastic home splits (2.62 ERA, 2.63 FIP) and egregious strikeout potential (9.32 K/9) as upside, because there’s no way Odorizzi will ever perform that poorly again in road starts, especially since: A) all of his advanced stats (besides the ERA estimators) are near-exact carbon copies, C) the inclusion of his newly discovered split-change helped sharpen his lefty-righty splits to the point where he actually performed better against left-handed hitters than right-handed ones, and B) most Major League starters couldn’t hold down a 2+ HR/9 rate in a 80-90 innings pitched span if they tried. I’d love to sneak away with this guy at the bottom of my pitching staff.
- I wanted so bad to see Drew Hutchison break out in 2014 that I picked him up off the waiver wire in mid-July with the hopes that his extremely bad luck would dissipate into a magical stretch run. Suffice to say, it never happened, with his ERA finishing somwhere close to 4.50. But that doesn’t mean Hutchison can’t put it all together this year. Remember that he posted a 8.92 K/9, 15.8% K-BB rate and 3.59 SIERRA in 2014; all of which is more than enough proof that whatever the hell happened to his ERA and WHIP was perhaps a big, season-long fluke. At 24 years old, he’s got a shit-ton of upside, and his best years are well ahead of him. Hell, his breakout could even happen this year. Fingers crossed!
- James Paxton has had one helluva start to his Major League career, with a 2.66 ERA and 3.43 xFIP through his first 17 starts. Backed by a solid Mariners defense and one of the best groundball rates in baseball, I’d be willing to wait decades for Paxton’s strikeout rate (career 7.35 K/9) to catch up with his batted ball profile. His herky-jerky overhand delivery may have contributed to him missing so much time last season due to injuries, but you gotta overlook such concerns when he’s the 123rd ranked starting pitcher (391st overall) in standard ESPN draft boards. There’s literally no risk in taking him in the last round, and his upside has me seeing him stand amongst the elite in a matter of years. If Paxton can stay healthy, pitch 180 or so innings, and learn to throw something other than his fastball (71.4% usage rate!!) He will most certainly wind up becoming a top-40 starting pitcher at the end of the year.
- Ditto for Taijuan Walker, who’s just about locked up his spot in Seattle’s starting rotation with his strong Spring Training performance. Those who paid close attention to him in the minors understand exactly where I’m coming from here, as the hard-throwing, uncle Charlie-wielding right-hander was supposed to have his Stephen Strasburg breakout already. With only 8 Major League starts under his belt, it’s tough to make a conclusive statement on his career 2.89 ERA and 3.28 FIP, but what I can come up with is the fact that his brief experience is merely a taste of what’s to come. Also, he’s been working on getting more control of his curveball (a pitch that hitters batted .074 against last season), so that he could eventually throw it more frequently to complement his zippy fastball. He’s got plenty of time to truly find himself, but I personally believe that he’s worth a look in most leagues right now because his stuff is so good. I’m sure you already know he’s gonna be great once he both assimilates to the Big Leagues and understands his arsenal. Since his draft price is nonexistent, there’s nothing to lose if you’re willing to bet on 2015 being “the year” for him.
- I’m going to wrap up Part 1 with some super quick looks at Drew Pomeranz, Shane Greene, Henderson Alvarez, and Noah Syndergaard. If Pomeranz wins a spot in the Oakland Athletics’s starting rotation in Spring Training, I probably won’t expect him to go any longer than 150 innings pitched (career-high is 96.2 IP with Colorado back in 2012). Chances are he will, since his ST performance has been exceptional, and that means he’ll provide some sneaky K-upside with relatively solid ratios.
- Just like Pomeranz, Shane Greene probably won’t throw for a lot of innings with Detroit as the projected 5th starter, and with a potential innings limit hanging over him (don’t quote me on that, since I’m basically speculating via his minor league IP totals). However, he’s also just as good a bet to rack up more Ks than innings pitched, with a mid-to-high 3 ERA and a decent WHIP.
- Henderson Alvarez couldn’t strike out Will Ferrell if his life depended on it, but the spacious Marlins Park and a sparkling groundball rate led him to a neat 2.65 ERA and 1.24 WHIP last season. Relative to starters within his draft range, he eats innings for breakfast (187 IP in 30 starts), and devours weak contact for lunch (3.70 SIERRA). Because he’s very good at keeping the ball in the park, he’s the type of FIP-beating contact specialist you should be on board with in regards to completing your starting rotation.
- With a little more luck, Noah Syndergaard would’ve had an outstanding AAA campaign last season, and his strikeout skills have remained dominant throughout all minor league levels. Because of the way minor league contracts work in regards to full-season service time, He may be someone you’d be better off stashing later in May than drafting late in March, since the Mets probably won’t let him loose in the Majors until then. In any event, he should be a lock in their rotation whenever he’s called up, and I think he’ll be pretty good initially. On top of that, Zack Wheeler is under the knife by way of Tommy John Surgery, and Dillon Gee is their fifth starter as of this writing. I couldn’t spell this out any more frankly than I already have.