As the deepest position in fantasy baseball, drafters can get a little lazy when evaluating pitchers. There’s young talent everywhere – you just pick and choose which articles to believe and draft their sleepers, right?
Well, not exactly. The wealth of statistics out there regarding pitching and projection systems does not allow for complacency. You owe it to yourself to at least run through those and convince yourself which guys are studs and duds.
The easiest way to accomplish this is to find the pitcher rankings you are most comfortable with and separate them by tiers. Analyzing pitchers by tiers is much less daunting and easier on you come draft day. If you plan to draft 10 pitchers, create 10 tiers and attempt to draft a pitcher from each section as your draft progresses.
Which brings me to my next point – I would advise drafters to separate their starting pitching rankings from the rest of their rankings (hitters/relievers). The less clutter you have, the better. What I do is have my tiered pitching rankings printed out and an Excel sheet with hitter rankings. That way, I can draft pitching as I see tiers start to crumble and load up on offense otherwise.
To assist in your quest to group your pitchers, let’s check out the starting pitcher preview for 2017.
2017 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Preview
Where does the top tier end?
A popular draft strategy is to ensure that your pitching staff has at least one ‘ace’. Just how deep does that top tier actually run?
There are 10 starters that are definitely worthy of acing a staff. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer are certainly No. 1 and No. 2 in drafts. You can order Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Corey Kluber, and Chris Sale however you’d like from No. 3 to No. 6. Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Johnny Cueto, and Jake Arrieta should also be solid SP1 caliber pitchers.
The next group of guys have injury history, but definitely have the ability to be a No. 1 for a staff. Stephen Strasburg and Yu Darvish are walking injuries the past few years. I won’t be drafting these guys in the fourth round or earlier. However, Carlos Carrasco and Jacob deGrom should warrant attention. Each were having phenomenal seasons until their post-all star break injuries.
Finally, we have a few pitchers who are expected to regress to the mean in a good or bad way. Starting with the positive regression, Chris Archer and David Price are elite pitchers who had down seasons. I am more than willing to draft these guys as an ace in the fifth round. On the other hand, Kyle Hendricks is expected to backtrack big time (not his fault, 2.15 ERA is hard to improve). I’m actually not averse to drafting him as my SP1 either, but I can’t help but compare him to Dallas Keuchel in 2016 drafts.
Can Statcast data for pitchers help the casual fantasy player?
Yes, of course! You can’t have too many statistics!
I wanted to bring this up though for when you are doing evaluation of pitchers. It’s easy (and mostly effective) to back-check a pitcher’s ERA with FIP and xFIP. However, those don’t tell the full story as I have been learning. For example, here are the numbers posted by Carlos Martinez over the past two seasons:
How the hell did Martinez lower his WHIP despite a sharp decline in strikeouts and a slight increase in walks? Well, when you look at the Statcast leaderboard for 2015 and 2016, he was in the top 20 in Barrels/PA and average exit velocity allowed among starters. His ability to force ground balls and limit the lasers hit off of him is a proven commodity. He adds those strikeouts back from 2015 and you’ve got an SP1 for SP2 value.
The point here is to put a little extra effort than just doing a FIP/xFIP analysis. It just might change your opinion on some pitchers with historically bad underlying metrics.
Where’s the “honey hole” for upcoming starters in the draft?
When I do my pitching tiers, I find myself drifting in and out of the position based on who I am high on. There’s always a tier of pitchers that I nosedive into for two or three guys in the middle rounds. I call this the “honey hole” and it’s where I usually find the underrated or rising options.
This year, the honey hole for me is the SP50 to SP60 range – there’s something for everyone! James Paxton and Matt Shoemaker will be regulars on my teams in 2017. You have guys whose K-BB% would indicate improvement like Drew Smyly, Michael Pineda, and Robbie Ray. There’s a couple of young guns with good upside in Carlos Rodon and Sean Manaea. A couple of bounce back options exist with Joe Ross and Adam Wainwright.
If this group doesn’t float your boat, do your research as mentioned in the intro to find yours! It makes drafting that much easier and more fun to know when you want to hit the pitching heavy.
Will playoff contenders find their answers in the 5th rotation spot?
A few teams expected to make the playoffs still have questions at the back end of their rotation. It’s not for lack of options. Here’s how they shake out:
- Red Sox: There’s a battle between three solid arms for two slots. Drew Pomeranz pitched very well (before going to Boston). Steven Wright should also be given a fair shot after he proved his worth in 150+ IP. The dark horse here is Eduardo Rodriguez, who still has the great upside. I would bet on Wright and Pomeranz, but both have injury histories so E-Rod should see plenty of run.
- Dodgers: Ah, the LA hospital staff. Alex Wood is filthy, but he’s coming off an arm injury that caused him to sit out most of 2016. Brandon McCarthy is attempting to return from multiple injuries during 2015-2016. Scott Kazmir had that dreaded Thoracic Spine Inflammation toward the end of last season. These guys are certainly important, as the rest of the staff has injury history too. I’m interested in drafting Alex Wood as a last round flier, but otherwise count me out.
- Mets: Forgotten talent Zack Wheeler is a year and a half removed from TJS and should be ready to return. Remember, the Mets kept declining offers at the trade deadline that included Wheeler. They are anxious for him to return and do his thing. Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellmen are the potential replacements if Wheeler has his innings limited by a move to the bullpen.
Guessing on which guy snags a 5th starter role may seem like a tedious task. However, just remember that this time last year, the aforementioned Kyle Hendricks was fighting for a role in the starting rotation for the Cubs. 190 innings of 2.15 ERA later…
Player on the Rise
Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
Pitchers coming off UCL sprains aren’t normally pitchers that I like to target. However, in the case of Nola, I will be using that stigma against him to my advantage.
Nola was absolutely rolling through 12 games last year. He was looking like the steal of 2016 drafts with knee-bending movement leading to an uptick in strikeouts. Then July happened and wrecked his season. After his 20th and final start, we are alerted that he was pitching through elbow soreness.
They played it safe from there, sitting him for the rest of the season. I’m thinking that his elbow pain began a little earlier than they’re telling us, hence the graphic. (By the way, notice the stability of the FIP and xFIP…)
All signs point up for Nola. By the time the season starts, he will have been rested for eight months. His strikeout rate and groundball rate both showed improvement last year. His FIP/xFIP were both an outstanding 3.08. Even if you average out the ERA/FIP/xFIP, you will get something like a 3.50 to 3.60.
If he gives you a 3.50 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in the 17th round, the return on value is fantastic. That’s a solid floor for an SP3, let alone an SP5.The reward easily outweighs the risk here and he won’t let you down in the middle of your fantasy staff.
Player on the Decline
Jake Odorizzi, Tampa Bay Rays
Last year, Odorizzi was considered a young gun on the rise. This preseason, people just look at him as an innings eater with SP4 status. What’s causing the decline in ADP in 2017 drafts?
Well, he regressed in just about every category last year. His ERA/FIP/xFIP each went up about half a run. His walk rate saw a steady increase while his strikeouts stayed about the same. He allowed 12% of his fly balls to leave the park, up from 9% in 2015. The natural instinct of the fantasy player says to stay away due to all of these factors moving in the wrong direction.
Odorizzi isn’t necessarily a must-have player, but I don’t believe his draft stock should plummet like it did. He is still 26 years old and in a good ballpark. The low BABIP is normal for him considering the flyball rate and the prowess of his outfield to track them down. The main thing I like about him is the durability – the Rays did a great job of building up his endurance. He pitched 140 innings in three straight minor league seasons from 2011-2013. In his next three major league seasons through 2016, he has had at least 28 starts.
The floor that Odorizzi presents to give you 28+ starts of 3.75 ERA and 1.20 WHIP is a calming presence to have in a fantasy staff. He feels like a poor man’s Jose Quintana or Julio Teheran to me. That plays well if you plan on drafting high upside starters before or after him.
Player on the Horizon
Jharel Cotton, Oakland Athletics
Cotton was the major return for the A’s in the deal that sent Rich Hill to the Dodgers. During his five major league starts in September, he made Oakland look pretty damn smart. A 2.15 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and a 17.0 K-BB% will make any GM feel like the smartest guy in the league.
It’s a small sample size and obviously he can’t keep that up, but let’s talk about his value in the late rounds of a draft. His K/BB ratio should stay stagnant considering his minor league averages. The BABIP is going to shoot up from 0.198, but I believe he can be below league average in that category. He is a flyball pitcher by trade, but that plays well in Oakland. Anywhere from a 3.75 to 4.00 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP is a reasonable projection.
At worst, he becomes a streaming option in mixed leagues. For comparison, Jerad Eickhoff and Taijuan Walker have similar profiles to Cotton. Walker is taken on average 35 picks sooner. Eickhoff is taken 65 picks earlier! Choose wisely and reap the benefits.
Player to Avoid
Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers
The days of Cole Hamels as an SP1 or SP2 in fantasy drafts are quickly approaching its doom. How soon, you ask? Well, I don’t want to find out. I would rather someone else draft him and find out for themselves.
Just as with Odorizzi, the stats show many areas where he regressed in 2016. His walk rate skyrocketed to a career high 9.1% while his K% decreased. He posted a career high 14.0% HR/FB rate. His FIP/xFIP shot up to career worsts at 3.98 and 3.85. Everything but the 3.32 ERA showed how bad his season was by Hamels’ normal standards.
However, fantasy owners are still taking him among the top 20 starting pitchers. That’s ludicrous! You would want to miss a breakout from Danny Duffy or Aaron Sanchez in order to draft a name value guy on the downturn of his career? Don’t fall victim to the rankings here.
Be sure to check out the rest of the 2017 Fantasy Baseball Position Previews.