Top 100 fantasy starting pitchers for 2011by Jeffrey Gross
January 14, 2011
Other 2011 fantasy rankings by position:
Catcher || First Base || Second Base || Shortstop || Third Base || Corner and Middle Infield || Outfield
To remind everyone: These rankings are based on position eligibility. Players who are eligible at multiple positions will be ranked in comparison with others at each relevant position. You will also note asterisks next to the names of certain players. These indicate health risks. Health concerns have been taken into consideration, as have expected talent and expected playing time to yield expected production.
Position eligibility and evaluation criteria for these rankings are explained here. The "O" in front of ERA, WHIP and K/9 stands for Oliver-projected*.
*Oliver's 2011 projections have been updated since I wrote down all of the prospective pitching statistics for my pitcher rankings. Due to the sheer volume of time it would take to update my positional rankings for pitchers, I am going to keep the Oliver 2011 category listed as is. Most of the projections are essentially similar, but for the most up to date projections, subscribe to THT Forecasts by clicking here. If you are unsure of whether to subscribe to THT Forecasts, you can read about why I love THT Forecasts by clicking here
Rank Name Team oERA oWHIP oK/9 1 Roy Halladay Phillies 3.32 1.13 7.2 2 Tim Lincecum Giants 3.27 1.21 10.0 3 Felix Hernandez Mariners 3.35 1.23 7.7 4 Adam Wainwright* Cardinals 3.27 1.17 8.0 5 Josh Johnson Marlins 3.40 1.22 7.9 6 Cliff Lee Phillies 3.34 1.15 6.9 7 C.C. Sabathia Yankees 3.59 1.24 7.4 8 Jon Lester Red Sox 3.74 1.25 8.6 9 Dan Haren Angels 3.68 1.19 8.3 10 Zack Greinke Brewers 3.49 1.21 8.3 11 Justin Verlander Tigers 3.67 1.28 8.8 12 Chris Carpenter Cardinals 3.49 1.20 6.5 13 Francisco Liriano Twins 4.18 1.37 8.4 14 Cole Hamels Phillies 3.78 1.23 8.1 15 Max Scherzer Tigers 3.77 1.27 9.0 16 Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 3.33 1.26 9.2 17 Mat Latos Padres 3.37 1.18 8.4 18 Jered Weaver Angels 3.77 1.25 8.3 19 Tommy Hanson Braves 3.41 1.19 8.3 20 Ubaldo Jimenez Rockies 3.35 1.25 8.5 21 Yovani Gallardo Brewers 3.93 1.36 9.1 22 Roy Oswalt Phillies 3.56 1.20 7.2 23 Ricky Nolasco Marlins 4.09 1.26 7.9 24 Jeremy Hellickson Rays 3.72 1.22 8.5 25 Shaun Marcum Brewers 3.82 1.24 7.0 26 Chad Billingsley Dodgers 3.94 1.35 7.9 27 David Price Rays 3.86 1.32 7.6 28 Hiroki Kuroda Dodgers 3.64 1.24 6.2 29 Colby Lewis Rangers 3.33 1.16 8.4 30 Brett Anderson Athletics 3.87 1.27 7.1 31 Madison Bumgarner Giants 3.51 1.21 6.9 32 Ted Lilly Dodgers 3.67 1.18 7.4 33 Jhoulys Chacin Rockies 3.60 1.27 8.0 34 Wandy Rodriguez Astros 4.00 1.33 7.6 35 Josh Beckett Red Sox 4.26 1.31 7.9 36 Phil Hughes Yankees 3.87 1.29 7.7 37 Daniel Hudson Diamondbacks 3.94 1.26 8.4 38 Matt Cain Giants 3.78 1.27 7.4 39 Ian Kennedy Diamondbacks 3.92 1.29 7.7 40 Ryan Dempster Cubs 4.02 1.34 7.7 41 Gavin Floyd White Sox 4.07 1.33 6.8 42 Jaime Garcia Cardinals 3.86 1.34 7.3 43 Brandon Webb* Rangers 3.86 1.31 6.8 44 Ricky Romero Blue Jays 4.59 1.49 6.7 45 Tim Hudson Braves 3.92 1.32 5.4 46 Jordan Zimmerman Nationals 4.20 1.32 7.7 47 Gio Gonzalez Athletics 4.40 1.46 8.4 48 Travis Wood Reds 3.69 1.27 7.3 49 John Danks White Sox 3.79 1.29 6.8 50 Matt Garza Cubs 4.15 1.33 6.9 51 Clay Buchholz Red Sox 3.78 1.32 6.8 52 Scott Baker Twins 4.37 1.32 7.2 53 Brian Matusz Orioles 3.89 1.29 7.9 54 Marc Rzepczynski Blue Jays 4.40 1.44 7.8 55 Trevor Cahill Athletics 4.00 1.31 5.9 56 C.J. Wilson Rangers 3.91 1.36 7.5 57 James Shields Rays 4.62 1.37 7.1 58 Kyle Drabek Blue Jays 4.10 1.37 6.8 59 Jason Hammel Rockies 4.21 1.34 6.8 60 Wade Davis Rays 4.36 1.41 6.7 61 Dallas Braden Athletics 4.18 1.34 5.7 62 Jonathan Sanchez Giants 4.19 1.39 9.3 63 Jorge de la Rosa Rockies 4.07 1.35 8.8 64 Brandon Morrow Blue Jays 4.26 1.41 8.7 65 Javier Vazquez* Marlins 4.16 1.31 7.7 66 Carlos Zambrano* Cubs 4.06 1.41 7.2 67 Jake Peavy* White Sox 3.86 1.29 8.0 68 Derek Holland Rangers 4.12 1.33 7.3 69 Brett Myers* Astros 4.24 1.35 7.0 70 Johan Santana* Mets 3.82 1.27 7.0 71 Rich Harden* Athletics 4.36 1.40 9.2 72 Kevin Slowey* Twins 4.47 1.30 6.8 73 Johnny Cueto Reds 4.33 1.35 6.9 74 Justin Masterson Indians 4.43 1.44 7.0 75 Edinson Volquez Reds 4.15 1.40 8.5 76 Ervin Santana Angels 4.50 1.37 7.1 77 Bud Norris Astros 4.57 1.47 8.3 78 Randy Wells Cubs 4.12 1.36 6.2 79 Tom Gorzelanny Cubs 4.34 1.45 7.5 80 Jair Jurrjens Braves 4.12 1.37 6.5 81 Aaron Harang Padres 4.81 1.44 6.9 82 Bronson Arroyo Reds 3.97 1.28 5.4 83 Edwin Jackson White Sox 4.45 1.42 6.9 84 Chris Young* FA 4.82 1.50 6.7 85 Homer Bailey Reds 4.43 1.45 7.4 86 Joel Pineiro Angels 4.10 1.29 4.9 87 Daisuke Matsuzaka Red Sox 4.46 1.44 7.5 88 Rick Porcello Tigers 4.19 1.34 5.1 89 Anibal Sanchez Marlins 4.10 1.40 6.8 90 Derek Lowe Braves 4.25 1.39 5.6 91 Carl Pavano Twins 4.52 1.34 5.2 92 Mike Leake Reds 3.52 1.21 7.5 93 Mike Pelfrey Mets 4.62 1.46 5.1 94 R.A. Dickey Mets 4.26 1.38 5.1 95 John Lackey Red Sox 4.37 1.36 6.5 96 Hisanori Takahashi Angels 4.12 1.34 7.3 97 Clayton Richard Padres 4.37 1.43 6.3 98 Jeff Niemann Rays 4.30 1.37 6.5 99 Joe Blanton Phillies 4.72 1.42 6.3 100 Chris Tillman Orioles 4.28 1.39 7.1*Assuming health, which means assuming the amount of health I expect from them (which in the case of Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy, Javier Vazquez, Johan Santana, and Carlos Zambrano, is a guessing game at best), and being tendered a contract.
This list is massive to say the least. I recommend digesting it in parts, and thus, beyond the intro, I have broken my analysis down by tiers of 10. A hundred starting pitchers seems like a lot of names to rank, and to be frank the bottom 30-40 ranked pitchers are mostly dart throws. Nonetheless, I tried my best to accurately index my perceived values and so many names are included here to help distill the "top talents" for those participating in AL/NL-only leagues that require digging into a deeper pool.
Absent from this list are several names which could provide useful fantasy value in 2011—in particular Stephen Strasburg, Justin Duchscherer, Mike Minor (uncertain role and P.T., though clearly talented), and Kris Medlen. The Duke's health is a perpetual question mark, and hence his value is impossible to gauge, but he is solid when healthy. The other two will be returning from Tommy John surgery mid-to-late season and could provide 30-40 valuable innings. That might not seem like much from a starting pitcher, but employing either's services would be the equivalent of rostering an elite reliever for most of the season. Chris Sale might also prove valuable as a Sean Marshall-like swingman for the South Siders. I have no clue how the White Sox plan to use Sale, however, or whether he'll be on the major league roster to open the season. Because of this, he is unranked, but should be kept on your radar as draft day approaches.
Likewise, unranked pitchers Erik Bedard (4.45 oERA, 1.42 oWHIP, 7.70 oK/9), Chien-Ming Wang (4.52 oERA, 1.45 oWHIP, 5.20 oK/9), Andy Pettitte (4.29 ERA, 1.39 oWHIP, 6.40 oK/9) and Andrew Cashner (4.15 oERA, 1.41 oWHIP, 7.60 oK/9) could prove valuable depending on how their respective teams use them, whether they remain healthy, and whether they play big league ball in 2011. These are names to keep an eye on. I have intentionally omitted Cardinal Jake Westbrook (4.42 oERA, 1.39 oWHIP, 5.60 oK/9) because he offers little-to-no upside in fantasy or real life—he's a fourth or fifth starter and innings eater, no more —and because he made me look like an idiot for predicting he would sign with the Rockies.
Aroldis Chapman is also unranked because the Reds plan to keep him in the bullpen next season. Look for him on the relief pitcher rankings.
Of the pitchers ranked above, some of my favorite names likely to turn a 2011 fantasy profit—that is to say, they outproduce their cost/average draft position—include Max Scherzer, Mat Latos, Tommy Hanson, Ricky Nolasco, Colby Lewis, Jeremy Hellickson, Jhoulys Chacin, Josh Beckett, Shaun Marcum, Daniel Hudson, Gavin Floyd, Ian Kennedy, Gio Gonzelz, Traviz Wood, Brian Matusz, and Marc Rzepcynski. I even expect stud pitchers Tim Lincecum and Dan Haren to be relatively underrated heading into the draft.
Below I have broken down pitchers by tiers, focusing on pitcher picks likely to turn a fantasy profit or, in the case of early-round, top-tiered picks, guys likely to give you the best dollar value for your investment.
Tier 1: Starters ranked No. 1-10
While the top 10 names here are all universally accepted "safe pick" fantasy studs, not all will provide you with a good value for the upcoming fantasy season. Between luck and random events, even the best and most talented pitchers rarely end up being the most valuable. and thus you want to hedge risk and downside against upside and cost. Roy Halladay is going in round one, like it or not. Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and likely Josh Johnson will be off the board before pick 30. While these guys are bona fide studs, they are going to cost upwards of $35 or your first/second round pick. Even though the talent gap between these names and lower names in this tier like Jon Lester or Zack Greinke, who I recently profiled here, might be noticeable, the cost gap is significantly lower, increasing the potential return rate.
To win a fantasy league, you need to produce not the best stats, but the most balanced and above-average team. Accordingly, you do not need to sink high funds or your first overall pick, a potential five-category hitter, into a four-category pitcher like Halladay. At least, you shouldn't do so unless you plan to gamble the rest of your starting staff with $1 fliers. Hence, "settling" is the best way to acquire a pitcher from this tier. Aim for Lester, Greinke or Haren in the fifth round, rather than Felix in the early second.
Among names on this list, I particularly like Greinke and Lincecum to provide the highest value per dollars invested. Lincecum is coming off his worst major league season, has seen his velocity decline over the past several seasons, and had a horrible regression in control last year. He also burned a lot of fantasy owners with a god-awful August line (7.82 ERA, 1.82 WHIP, 27-to-13 K/BB ratio over 25.1 IP) that he more than made up for in September (1.94 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 52-to-8 K/BB over 41.2 IP). It was Lincecum's worst season since his rookie year: He pitched "only" 212.1 innings of 3.43 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 9.79 K/9, 3.22 BB/9 baseball.
Still, beneath that nonetheless solid surface, Lincecum posted elite peripherals: a 3.21 xFIP (No. 5 among 92 qualified pitchers, on par with Wainwright and Johnson), a 3.15 FIP (No. 15) and a 3.46 tERA (No. 21). If that's a down year, then sign me up. Lincecum will not come cheaply—he is inevitably off the board by the first few picks of round three—but this is probably the cheapest Lincecum will ever go for in a fantasy baseball draft while he is in his prime. It's a better deal than paying a higher cost for Felix or Halladay when he's at least as good as them with plenty of strikeout upside to spare.
Likewise, Greinke and Haren should come at tremendous values. Each are being drafted in the 50th overall range in mock drafts I have participated in, which is not "profitable," but cheap enough to break-even, which is what you look for in your early round draft picks who anchor the team. Surprisingly, Greinke and Haren are being drafted after other solid, but less talented pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Carpenter, David Price and Yovani Gallardo. That seems criminal in my mind.
Even more criminal is Mock Draft Central's (MDC) current average draft position rankings. Wainwright is indexed at No. 55, behind all the above names. Even with the elbow concerns, that's too low, and if that is the case on draft day for whatever reason, you pounce a full round earlier (fourth) and laugh at your opponents.
Tier 2: Starters ranked No. 11-20
Names No. 11 through 20 on this list have high ceilings but are less proven and offer more risk than their No. 1 through 10 counterparts. Each of these names could easily be top 10 by season end, but they could also be lower. From Carpenter's lack of strikeouts and health problems and Francisco Liriano's up-and-down past and injury history to Clayton Kershaw's walk rate/flyball rate to Mat Latos' limited sample, each of these has some perceivable flaw that is easily outweighed by upside. (Carpenter's been a top flight ERA/WHIP/Wins starter when healthy. Liriano, if healthy and back to form, might be one of baseball's five best starting pitchers, Kershaw's strikeouts are elite, and Latos does everything right and plays in the perfect park (Petco) in front of a projected average-or-better defensive posture.)
I doubt that any "brand names" in this tier, including Carpenter, Justin Verlander and Jiminez, will be on the board by pick number 60. Likewise, last year's most underrated pitching asset, Cole Hamels, is likely to go pretty high in 2011. Weaver might be a break-even pick, as his "brand name" and perpetual peripheral over-performance downside is likely to be outweighed by legitimate improvements in his pitching approach, detailed here.
Of the remaining names on this list, I particularly like Liriano, Scherzer, Latos and Hanson, in that order, as the most valuable picks of the tier. But hey, call me a sucker for strikeout upside.
Before his Tommy John surgery in 2007, Liriano was just ridiculous: 121 innings of 2.16 ERA, 2.55 FIP, 2.35 xFIP, 201-to-32 K/BB. On his road to recovery, 2008 was a sign of hope, but 2009 (5.80 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 1.88 K/BB, 4.87 FIP, 4.55 xFIP, 4.86 tERA) made many abandon hope. His ADP entering the season was ridiculously low for a potential bounce-back candidate, with Yahoo ranking him past No. 900, and he paid off for those who gambled on him, tossing 191.2 innings of 3.62 ERA, 14 win, 201-to-58 K/BB baseball with a solid 1.26 WHIP. Those numbers are strong, but a .340 BABIP on the season indicates room for improvement, while a look below the surface shows Liriano returning to his pre-Tommy John surgery form last year.
In 2010, Liriano posted a 2.66 FIP (No. 3 among 92 qualified starters last season), a 3.06 xFIP (No. 2, behind Halladay's 2.92 mark), and a 2.93 tERA (tied with King Felix and Wainwright as one of only seven qualified pitchers who posted a tERA below 3.00). Perhaps I want to outbid myself in my fantasy leagues, as most of my league mates read my articles, but Liriano is going to be my ace target for 2011.
If not Liriano, why not Scherzer? Despite a rough start to the season, he was almost uncountably filthy after a brief minor league stint in May. The former first-round pick posted an insane 2.47 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and a 96-to-35 K/BB ratio in the second half (102 innings). Oliver likes Scherzer's K/9 to sit right at 9.0 next season, which is entirely feasible given his 23 percent strikeout rate last season. Scherzer is another strong fantasy ace target and his ADP is somehow 205 right now on Mock Draft Central. Crazy, right?
Hanson and Latos are also good gambles with substantial upside and relatively low downside. We all know what Hanson's minor league numbers look like and he showed a good ability to whiff hitters in 2009 (8.18 K/9) that somewhat eluded him in 2010 (7.68 K/9). Still, Hanson showed improved control last season (2.49 BB/9, from a 3.24 mark in 2009) and Oliver expects a rebound in the whiffs (expected 8.3 K/9 mark) next season. Hanson should provide a solid season akin to what he did in 2010, albeit with more strikeouts, and given his improved control, that is worth gambling on.
Latos also offers substantial upside. His fastball averages about 94 mph and he commands it well (2.44 BB/9 last season). He also induces a lot of swings-and-misses (9.21 K/9 last season, 11 percent swinging strike rate) while inducing a decent number of ground balls (44.7 percent mark in 2010). Petco is the place to pitch, and for this talented pitcher, it makes his upside that much better.
Tier 3: Starters ranked No. 21-30
Of this tier of pitchers, Ricky Nolasco is my clear "underrated guy." I've been called a fool repeatedly over the past two seasons for continuously putting heavy stock into Nolasco's numbers, but he is a pitching talent of the highest order, primed for a breakout.
Nolasco has underperformed based on his talent over the past two seasons. In 2009, Nolasco posted a 5.06 ERA, but a 3.35 FIP, 3.28 xFIP, and a 3.83 tERA. His strikeout rate (24.8 percent) was superior and although he was seemingly prone to the long ball despite a neutral GB/FB ratio, he limited hitters from becoming baserunners to the extent within his control (2.14 BB/9). What killed Nolasco in 2009 was poor luck, plain and simple. His left on base rate was 61 percent (the major league average was around 72 percent) and his BABIP-against was an inflated .336.
Last season was no kinder to Nolasco. His BABIP-against remained high at .328, and while his LOB percentage normalized, his homer per fly ball rate spiked at 12.4 percent. Nolasco continued to limit free passes in 2010, walking only 1.88 guys per nine ) and throwing a first pitch strike to essentially two out of every three batters. His swinging strike rate increased from 10.3 percent in 2009 to 10.5 in 2010, but his strikeout rate (22.1 percent) and K/9 (8.39) dipped slightly. I expect a rebound in strikeouts, still strong in 2010, in 2011.
Despite these strong peripherals in 2010, Nolasco's surface stats unimpressed and his season was cut short by injury. Despite a 3.55 xFIP, 3.86 FIP, and 4.06 tERA (inflated by the HR/FB percentage), Nolasco's ERA was well below league average at 4.51. Nolasco has been progressing well enough back from his injury that the penny-pinching Marlins offered him a three-year contract ($26.5 million). That is a positive sign that he will be ready to go full throttle by spring training.
Many have given up on Nolasco by now, burned by two under-performing seasons. His ERAs have been ugly, but his BABIP-inflated WHIPs have still been strong, at 1.25 in 2009 and 1.28 in 2010. While Nolasco might be a Javier Vazquez in his prime, perpetually underperforming, we all know how amazing Vazquez's numbers looked when his surface stats did match his peripherals in 2007 and 2009. Nolasco deserves a chance, is likely to end the season as a top 20 pitcher, and should be bid upon accordingly.
The remainder of the names in this tier seem almost as risky as Nolasco, but offer more downside. Gallardo has elite strikeouts and solid groundball tendencies, but his control is poor and his WHIP is far from elite. As I tweeted on THT Fantasy a couple of weeks ago, the average ERA of a starter with a BB/9 greater than 4.00 over the past three seasons is 4.51. Of the 32 starters (minimum 150 innings) with BB/9s greater than 4.00 over this time frame, only Edinson Volquez, Rich Harden, Clayton Kershaw, C.J. Wilson, Carlos Zambrano and Gallardo have posted ERAs below 4.00.
Most of these pitchers' ERAs are in the upper 3's and the downside is more than apparent. This is not to say that pitchers like Gallardo are not valuable, but they offer appreciable risk to go with their upside. Gallardo is being drafted within the first five rounds according to MDC. That is way too high for the amount of risk he offers, irrespective of upside. While you can't win a draft in the first few rounds, you certainly can lose it by stomaching too much risk.
Other names in this tier include Roy Oswalt (solid ratios, questionable strikeouts, and the concern that Citizens Bank Ballpark is the most home run inflating in baseball), Shaun Marcum (I love him, but he does not throw even 90 mph, is a flyball pitcher, and is only one year removed from serious injury), Chad Billingsley (his K/BB ratio keeps him from being unquestionably elite), David Price (Billingsley, only with fewer ground balls and pitching in the AL East), Hiroki Kuroda (strong ratios and solid strikeouts, but a perpetual injury risk playing in front of a poor defense), Colby Lewis (he carried my fantasy staff in 2010, but I have questions about his groundball rate and home ballpark effects), Brett Anderson (a young Roy Oswalt-type with strikeout upside pitching in spacious Oakland, but plagued by injuries over his first two major league seasons), and Jeremy Hellickson (a top 20-capable pitching talent who is likely going to see his innings limited (170 max?), even in light of the Matt Garza trade to Chicago, to help build arm strength and mitigate health risks, especially given the Rays' pitching depth. Re-enter Andy Sonnanstine?).
Tier 4: Starters ranked No. 31-40
Matt Cain ranked 38? Yeah, that's right. I hate Matt Cain. I wish I could justify slotting him even lower, but I can't. Cain has poor control, gives up too many fly balls, and has seen his strikeout talents and induced-whiffs decline each of the past several seasons. His mid-4's xFIPs seem like a ticking time bomb, waiting to screw someone over. Do not even try to cite Cain's 2.46 BB/9 last season. Walk rates can be lucky and Cain's F-Strike% (both for 2010 and his career), one of the largest components of future walk rates, does not support the "improved control" theory.
This tier is riddled with guys who are getting drafted ridiculously late in mocks according to MDC's ADP data. Each has some higher risk than the previous tier, but offers at least one elite skill and much more upside than downside. For example, Jhoulys Chacin has control problems and pitches at Coors Field, but he induces an incredible number of ground balls and struck out 23.7 percent of batters he faced last season. He is one of my favorite 2011 pitchers.
Madison Bumgarner is also in this list. He's been very up-and-down in both the majors and minors, but finished 2010 strong. His minor league numbers indicate strikeout upside, but let's see where the velocity registers in 2011 before we crown him with top-25 potential.
Josh Beckett offers injury risk, "can't pitch at home" (according to most analysis), and gives up a ton of fly balls. Still, Beckett has good control, strikes out a lot of batters, even in the AL East, and still throws 94-plus mph consistently. You know you want him, despite the tendency to underperform his peripherals.
I detailed Ted Lilly last month, so to avoid redundant rhetoric, just note his final expected line: 196 innings of 3.94 ERA, 174 strikeouts, 1.15 WHIP baseball.
Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy are two other names I really like for 2011. As dueling No. 2 starter types for the Diamondbacks, they are not Scherzer and Haren good, but solid arms nonetheless. Both probably give up way too many fly balls for Chase Field, particularly Kennedy, but strong strikeout rates and respectable control, particularly on the part of Kennedy, will keep their numbers strong.
Tier 5: Starters ranked No. 41-50
Once you reach pitcher No. 40 (Ryan Dempster), the upside of the available pitchers starts being limited to mostly three of the four starter categories. WHIP becomes particularly scarce here, though some of the injury-prone players in this tier (particularly Brandon Webb) could offer WHIP upside if you can stomach the injury risks. Likewise, Tim Hudson offers WHIP upside, but his lack of strikeouts is a real turn-off. I do not particularly believe in his WHIP either, but I have perpetually been wrong about it.
Most of the names in this tier are groundball pitchers with strikeout upside (Hudson excepted), capable of logging a high 3's ERA. Floyd offers a high seven or low eight K/9 and some win opportunity with the reinvigorated White Sox lineup, while Jaime Garcia is a former top prospect who is finally staying healthy and is capable of above average strikeout totals. Ricky Romero and Gio Gonzalez had breakout years in 2010, but their control rates remain a mystery for the future. If they can continue to limit the walks, both pitchers should outperform their ranking on this list in 2011. Likewise, Travis Wood flashed a lot of potential in 2010, but his innings were of a small sample size and more major league data is needed before I can comfortably rank him higher.
Jordan Zimmerman is the wild card of this tier. On one hand, 2011 will be one more year removed from Tommy John surgery and he came back from surgery well in 2010, striking out 20 percent of the batters he faced, while walking only 10 (2.70 K/BB ratio). His velocity is also around where it was in 2009. Zimmerman could easily strike out 140-plus batters if given 150 or more innings next season, while posing a respectable WHIP and mid-to-high 3 ERA. Keep him on your radar on draft day, as his ADP is beyond 200 at this point.
Tier 6: Starters ranked No. 51-60
Tier 6 is where risk starts to settle in with upside. Pitchers like Clay Buchholz and Trevor Cahill have minor league numbers that show clear strikeout upside and offer strong groundball rates at the major league level, but the potential has not materialized beyond BABIP-induced luck. Both Cahill and Buchholz posted sub-3 ERAs in 2010 and will likely be overvalued in 2011. If neither steps forward in the strikeout department, owners will be disappointed. These two pitchers represent negative fantasy assets in my mind, their value (due to groundball rates) being much higher in real life than fantasy.
Wade Davis is a lot like Cahill in terms of strikeout upside with BABIP-induced luck last season, but he offers a lower groundball rate and plays in the AL East rather than spacious Oakland.
I like Marc Rzepczynski, aka The Repo Man, a lot in terms of what he can do (high strikeouts, decent WHIP, sub-4 ERA), but the Blue Jays have shown little faith in his abilities. Whether he has fantasy value next season will hinge largely upon whether he breaks camp as the Blue Jays' No. 4 starter behind Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Ricky Romero. He is the second most talented Jays pitcher in my view.
C.J. Wilson is another groundball machine with poor control, but I question his strikeout abilities. His transition from reliever to starter came with a huge whiff rate tumble (from 10.2 percent in 2009 to 6.7 percent in 2010). His K/9 remained above average despite being below average in whiff-inducement last season. Additionally, only Jonathan Sanchez (96) walked more batters than Wilson's 93 free passes. Considering the arm stress of going from 73.2 innings in 2009 to 204 innings in 2010 at age 30, a lot of question marks surround Wilson's 2011 potential.
My favorite two names in this tier are Matusz and James Shields. I repeatedly mentioned last year that Matusz was giving up way too many flyballs for an AL East pitcher whose home ballpark inflates the homers-per-fly ball rate by 19 percent and for not striking out enough hitters, despite strong control. Matusz, however, finished the season strong and improved his whiffs toward season end. As one of the minors' top prospects prior to 2010, Matusz could take that leap forward next season, despite underwhelming first-half numbers. I always regret not taking Tim Lincecum in 2008 because of his 2007 performance (I ignored his minor league track), and while Matusz is no Lincecum, he could finish top 30-40 among starting pitchers next season and cost you a mere flier in shallower leagues.
Like Ricky Nolasco, Shields could provide owners with a lot of value after underperforming his statistics in 2010. A WHIP machine in 2007 and 2008, Shields took a slight step back in 2009 with slightly regressed (but still elite) control (2.13 BB/9) and some poor BABIP-against luck (.317 mark). Last season saw Shields greatly improve his whiff talent, with a career-best 8.28 K/9. Shields' xWHIP for last season is barely under 1.20, which shows that he has a lot of room for luck-correction in 2011. Still, Shield has seen his whiff rate fall each of the past two seasons and he posted a career best K/9 despite a career low swinging strike rate. He is not without risk.
Garza also ranks in this tier with his move to the NL (previously ranked in the low 60s on the Rays), but that does not mean that I like him. This is just a recognizance that he continuously outperforms his peripherals. He, like new teammate Zambrano, has not posted an ERA of 4.00 over the past three seasons. However, Garza is not a special pitcher, by any metric. Garza does not strike batters out (K/9 of 6.6 or lower in two of the past three seasons). He has a 4.17 career tERA, 4.45 career xFIP, 4.26 career FIP, and his career ERA is essentially 4.00 on the dot (3.97). He has average control at best (career 3.17 BB/9) that has improved of late, I suppose, being below league average in two of the past three seasons (but 3.50 in 2009). Garza throws hard (career 93.3 mph fastball), but he has also become an increasingly flyball-oriented pitcher.
If Garza continues to outperform his peripherals, he might make a decent fourth or fifth starting pitcher for someone's fantasy roster, but he's not a top target. Thanks to his high infield-fly induction rate, Garza's defense independent expected WHIP for the Cubs (using 2008-2010 data) is somewhere between 1.30 and 1.36. Garza is a lock to be drafted well above what he is going to be worth. His brand-name cost, as it did for the Cubs in real life, will easily outweigh his production.
Tier 7: Starters ranked No. 61-70
If you draft a pitcher from tier 7, you'd better have a WHIP anchor. These are pitchers without control, but with strikeout upside. Jonathan Sanchez, Brandon Morrow, and Jorge de La Rosa all have 200-strikeout potential, but will likely post WHIPs north of 1.35. Zambrano has never posted an ERA of 4.00 or higher, but his xFIP has been consistently in the mid-4's range each of the last four seasons. While Zambrano has rekindled his strikeouts over the past two seasons, his improved control of recent memory has gone out the window. That would be all fine if Zambrano were inducing groundballs over half of the time like he was in 2003 and 2004, but he is not.
There are also a handful of injury-prone names in this list. Outside Zambrano, who has not logged 190 innings since 2007, Brett Myers, Harden, Johan Santana and Javier Vazquez all present appreciable innings risks. Santana is set to start the season on the disabled list, has not been an elite peripheral pitcher (or struck out a good number of batters) since 2007, and has had season-ending surgery each of the past two years. Likewise, Rich Harden (moved down two spots, and hence a tier, in my rankings update) is Rich Harden, has always had control issues, and while the flyball-prone pitcher is back in spacious Oakland where he started his career, he had issues striking guys out last year when healthy. Oliver expects a K/9 rebound, but who knows how many innings Harden can last next season.
Vazquez is a particular pitcher of concern. He's getting old and while he's been a healthy workhorse before 2010, pitching 2,163 innings over the past 10 years may have taken its toll on Vazquez's arm. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs gave a detailed explanation of why Vazquez's past form is probably not returning.
There's also Brett Myers, whose velocity has eroded in recent years. He could be better than his rank, but again, this is Brett Myers we're talking about. I do not trust him as a source of innings, strikeouts, WHIP or ERA, but hey, I said the same thing last year. Take that cop-out analysis for what it's worth.
Tier 8: Starters ranked No. 71-80
Tier 8 is when pitchers largely thin out into two-category "hole fillers" and spot starters, rather than reliable staff mainstays. There is a lot of risk in this tier, and these players' peripherals should be closely monitored if you roster them.
Some may question my low rankings of Reds Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez. Cueto is ranked this low because his ever-declining and below-average F-Strike percentage does not inspire confidence in a sustained walk rate of quality (2.71 BB/9 in 2010) going forward. Additionally, while Cueto's above-average swing-and-miss rate (career 9 percent) inspires hope for improved strikeouts in the future, his K/9 is nonetheless lackluster (below 7.0 in each of the past two seasons), while his neutral flyball tendencies are hardly inspiring at the Great American Ballpark (1.19 HR/FB index).
Volquez, on the other hand, seems to offer more downside risk than upside hope. While his post-Tommy John surgery velocity is strong (93.6 mph fastball in 2010 is on par with his career rate), he lacks control (career 4.68 BB/9) and was not particularly sharp last season (5.03 BB/9). While Volquez is an elite source of strikeouts (career 8.69 K/9) and a good source of ground balls (career 46 percent rate), his lack of command over his electric 3.5 pitch mix (he rarely throws that slider these days) could give owners a heart attack. Volquez is not recommended for head-to-head leagues, where consistency is the key to winning, but even Rotisserie owners might want to spot start him for strikeouts and wins rather than toss him out regularly every five days.
Other questionable names on this list are Drabek and Ervin Santana. The former is one of baseball's premier pitching prospects, but his major league equivalent numbers in the upper minors do not inspire a higher ranking yet and he will have to take a few steps forward in his game before proving he belongs in the upper tier of starting pitcher rankings. Santana, on the other hand, shows signs of being less than what he used to be. While he had a nice fantasy season last year, returning from performance limiting injuries in 2009 (17 wins, 3.92 ERA, 1.32 WHIP in 2010), his peripherals looked more like his pre-2008 numbers and in light of his career averages, 2008 may have been the fluke, not the step forward. Santana is a wild card in my view, worth a flier, but my expectations for him are tempered. Oliver seems to concur.
Of the other names in this tier, Bud Norris is likely a good spot start or stream option for periodic strikeouts, while Justin Masterson shows top-of-the-rotation potential mixed in with an absolute inability to deal with lefty batters. Kevin Slowey was once a high-potential guy, but nowadays is just a WHIP stabilizer due to an overwhelming diet of fly balls and ever-eroding groundball rate that cannot be offset by either his elite career walk rate of 1.50 BB/9 or strong control (4.57 career K/BB). Oh, and I do not believe in Jair Jurrjens one bit. His peripherals indicate a likely line that is hardly fantasy-useful.
Tier 9: Starters ranked No. 81-90
The names on this list not only contribute in only one or two fantasy categories, but they start hurting you in others. Joel Pineiro might contribute some ERA/WHIP upside, but will kill your strikeout rate, which can be crippling in innings-capped leagues. Daisuke Matsuzaka Anibal Sanchez and Edwin Jackson are likely good for a few strikeouts and wins, but they will destroy your ERA/WHIP in the process. Chris Young is outside Petco, where the super majority of his fantasy-useful numbers came from. Unless Young signs with the Mets, you might want to avoid him except when he plays in those spacious ballparks. Derek Lowe and Carl Pavano might provide average ERAs and some wins, but they will, like Pineiro, kill your strikeout rate.
Two names on this list stand out as potential bounce-back candidates and are the ideal targets if you must reach for this tier: former Red Aaron Harang and current Red Homer Bailey. Harang is now pitching in spacious Petco, which is ideal for his flyball-heavy style. No longer capable of being abused by Dusty Baker, Harang could bounce back to his high-seven strikeout form and end up a top 50 or better starter. His arm might also be useless, given the abuse Baker infamously dealt to it in 2008. Harang is not ranked higher, despite his upside, because 2009 and 2010 showed us the downside that modern Harang is capable of. Still, his 2006-2007 potential gives us a glimmer of hope.
Baily is another interesting name, as a former top prospect. Bailey has seen both his strikeout talent and walk rate erode as he rose through the upper minors and while his strikeout (8.26 K/9) and walk numbers (3.30 BB/9) were strong in 2010, (3.91 xFIP), Oliver does not believe the 24-year old will sustain them in 2011. Given Bailey's pre-2010 struggles with higher level batters between the majors and Triple-A and the limited sample (109 innings) that 2010 gave us, I am proceeding cautiously with him. Bailey could end the season much higher than his ranking, but I would not place too much money in his risky stock.
Tier 10: Starters ranked No. 91-100
Here, we find the dregs—guys who might be useful if the fates smile kindly upon them. I do not like any of the names in this tier, but some have a relatively recent record of success that could re-emerge next season. I find the likelihood remote.
John Lackey was once a very useful starter, but his peripherals have been eroding for a few seasons now and 2010 saw him collapse. At age 33, there is little upside left in Lackey's stock. Likewise, Joe Blanton has always been a Carl Pavano-type pitcher who had a great 2008, but has not shown himself capable of repetition. His below-average strikeout rate is hardly offset by a solid walk rate, while neutral flyball tendencies tend not to play well in baseball's most home-run exaggerating ballpark. I suppose Felipe Paulino's strikeout potential might be useful for a few turns, but do you really want to take that gamble?
Oliver seems to like Mike Leake, but he skipped the minors and did not flash much whiff tendency in the majors last season (5.92 K/9). His groundball rate (50.2 percent) and walk rate (3.19 BB/9) were strong and average, which is nice for a guy who is barely 23, but he is going to have to show that he is capable of something more than the the 4.23 ERA, 4.31 xFIP, and 1.50 WHIP he posted in 138.1 major league innings last season before I rank him higher. xWHIP 2.0 believes that Leake's performance was worth a 1.29 WHIP last season, while Quick xWHIP thinks it more akin to 1.40. Leake posted a .319 BABIP-against last season, and since he skipped the minors, there is much uncertainty surrounding his "true talent" line. Keep Leake in mind as the season progresses, but he should not be on your roster following your league's draft.
I hope this behemoth of a post was useful. If you have questions, comments or criticisms, about the above analysis or regarding any players in particular, please post them in the comments below and I will respond the best I can. Tune in next week, for the final set of preseason rankings—relief pitchers.
Jeffrey Gross is an attorney (and die-hard Cubs fan) who currently resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he also reviews tasty adult beverages as part of a side project titled "saBEERmetrics." He previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at saBEERmetrics AT gmail DOT com.
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