A starting pitcher is easy to find. Ace starting pitchers are a little tougher to find. There are plenty of pitchers waiting to become aces in this group.
Other positions: Catcher (10-1), First Base (20-11), (10-1), Second Base (15-11), (10-1), Shortstops (15-11), (10-1), Third Base (20-11), (10-1), Outfield (50-21), (20-11), (10-1), Starting Pitcher (50-21)
I love pitchers, and starting pitchers to be more specific. Much like a quarterback in football, a starting pitcher is the anchor and has to control the game. They need to pitch with extreme precision, and one small mistake could flip the game upside down. This tier of starting pitchers is great. There are some veterans looking to bounce back and some young pitchers ready to make their claim as a superstar.
I use a couple of different of criteria when developing my rankings. I look at their 2015 performance, where they finished on the Player Rater, their career performance and if this past season was an outlier, their surroundings (lineup support) and where I think they project this season. Some of it may be subjective, especially the projections, but I try to keep it in line with other fantasy sites.
The stats I use for pitchers are wins (which are hard to predict), ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and walks. I know there are leagues, including mine, that use quality starts instead of wins, and every league should. Quality starts are a better predictor of a pitcher’s skill as it does not rely on the team’s offense to score enough runs to win. I will try to keep wins for the majority that use ESPN standard five categories.
Here are the starting pitchers I rank 20 to 11.
Next: No. 20: Johnny Cueto
The San Francisco Giants did their best to compete with their divisional rivals. They signed Samardzija and Johnny Cueto in this offseason. Cueto spent seven and a half years with the Cincinnati Reds and the second half of 2015 with the Kansas City Royals. Cueto goes back to the National League where he had most, if not all, of his success.
In his 13 starts with the Royals, he went 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA, 1.451 WHIP and 6.2 K/9. He made 19 starts with the Reds in 2015. He had a 2.62 ERA, 0.934 WHIP and 8.3 K/9. His ground ball rate was roughly the same and his fly ball rate went down with the Royals. However, his HR/FB rate went up by over two percent.
I wrote about the move to San Fran and how it affects his fantasy value here. I thought he was a top-10 starting pitcher, but that is clearly not the case now. I think he is a good No. 2 pitcher. I expect a 14-9, 2.70 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 168 strikeouts line.
Next: No. 19: Felix Hernandez
Felix Hernandez has been a mainstay in the top 10 of starting pitchers for years. He had six straight years of over 200 innings and 200 strikeouts from 2009 to 2014. Last year, however, was a bit of a decline. He posted a 3.53 ERA, 1.180 WHIP and 191 strikeouts in 31 starts. He finished as the No. 16 starting pitcher on the Player Rater.
Back in August, I wrote about The King’s reign being over. His K/9 went down almost a full strikeout while his BB/9 went up 0.84 walks. His ground ball, fly ball and line drive rates were almost identical, but his HR/FB rate went up five percent. He allowed 23 home runs last season, the most since 2006.
There is some upside to drafting Hernandez this season. He still has good command of his off-speed stuff. The Seattle Marines have also improved the defense in the outfield with their recent signings. I don’t think he should be drafted as a top-10 starter, but he could easily finish there.
Next: No. 18: Stephen Strasburg
Talk about someone with a lot of hype. Stephen Strasburg came into the league with the hype train going at full speed. Whether it’s been injuries or something else, Strasburg hasn’t become that ace pitcher many thought he would be. After a career season in 2014, he fell back down in 2015. He finished as the No. 32 starting pitcher on the Player Rater. In 23 starts, he had a 3.46 ERA, 1.107 WHIP, 11.0 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9.
He missed some time last year after dealing with an oblique injury. After his return, Strasburg showed signs of top-five material. In his final 10 starts, he posted a 6-2 record with a 1.90 ERA, 0.754 WHIP and 92 strikeouts.
He had a better strikeout rate and kept his walk rate at five percent. His ground ball rate dropped three percent while his fly ball rate rose three percent. He threw his fastball more than 60 percent of the time. When he throws as hard as he does, I don’t blame him.
Strasburg has shown signs of being a top pitcher, but also signs of being a big risk. I said that this is the last season that he draftable as a No. 1 pitcher. I project a 14-8, 3.00 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 215 strikeouts line.
Next: No. 17: Sonny Gray
The Oakland Athletics finished last in the American League West. They don’t have enough pieces to contend in that tough division. However, Sonny Gray is one of the few bright spots on this team. He finished third in the AL Cy Young Voting and No. 12 among starting pitchers on the Player Rater.
I wrote about Gray being a top-five starting pitcher this season. His 2015 seasons prove that he could do it. In 31 starts, he went 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA, 1.082 WHIP, 7.3 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9. He made two fewer starts, 11 fewer innings, but posted better stats. But looking deeper, Gray got pretty lucky in his outings.
There were some stats that Gray saw a decline in, but it didn’t affect his overall performance. He had a decline in his ground ball rate and rise in his fly ball rate. He gave up just two more home runs last season. Opposing batters made a more hard hit contact with the ball. He left about one percent more of his pitches over the strike zone.
Gray has pitched better than his FIP over the last two seasons, so some sort of regression is to be expected. I project a 14-10 record with a 3.20 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 177 strikeouts in 33 starts.
Next: No. 16: Noah Syndergaard
I can’t get enough of that hair.
Noah Syndergaard is the second of four New York Mets pitchers in my rankings. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about Syndergaard being an ace in waiting. The Mets have three potential aces in their rotation, and they’ve done a great job developing them.
He made 24 starts in his rookie season. He finished with a 3.24 ERA, 1.047 WHIP, 10.0 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. He was the No. 26 starting pitcher on the Player Rater. He was able to throw batters off with his 97 MPH fastball and then catch them with a high-80s change up, which was the cause of his 12.2 swinging strike percentage.
Though, it’s not all flowers and sunshine. He allowed opposing batters to have a .279 BABIP. He also allowed a ridiculous 19 home runs, 14.3 HR/FB percentage and 33.6 fly ball rate. This is the result of being primarily a fastball pitcher. As a borderline top-15 pitcher, he should finish with a 13-8 record, 3.05 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 201 strikeouts.
Next: No. 15: Jose Fernandez
Jose Fernandez has made a combined 47 starts in his career. His 2014 season was cut short due to needing Tommy John surgery. He returned to the team on July 2, 2015. In his first start, he allowed three runs over six innings while striking out six. He finished the season with a 6-1 record, 2.92 ERA, 1.160 WHIP, 11.0 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9.
It’s hard to analyze and compare Fernandez’s stats over the last couple of seasons. It would be easier if he made at least 15 starts in 2014 and 2015, but that’s not the case. He allowed a lot more line drives last year. His ground ball and fly ball rates dropped.
To cut back on damaging the elbow more, Fernandez has been using more off-speed stuff and is limiting his fastball usage. Even if he is healthy, I don’t expect him to pitch more than 180 innings this season. It’s hard to use an early pick on a pitcher who won’t get close to 200 innings. I wrote about his 2016 projections here.
He pitches in a division with bad offenses, three of the teams finished in the bottom half in batting average. I rank him in my top 20 because of his talent, but the innings limit has me wanting to push him down in my rankings. Draft with caution.
Next: No. 14: Zack Greinke
Zack Greinke begins the 2016 season on his fifth team. For a pitcher with his skills, I’m surprised the number is that high. Greinke signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks in early December. My colleague Brad Kelly wrote about the signing and the fantasy fallout from the move.
In his third season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Greinke finished second in the National Leagu Cy Young voting and second among starting pitchers on the Player Rater. He went 19-3 (best win percentage in a full season) with a 1.66 ERA, 0.844 WHIP, 8.1 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9 in 32 starts.
Greinke is playing in the same division, which helps him greatly. He’s familiar with the ball parks and the opposing batters, save for a few new players. As the ace of the rotation, I expect him to reach 15 wins with a 2.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 104 strikeouts. The Diamondbacks actually outscored the Dodgers last season, so the run support isn’t going anywhere.
Greinke will likely go earlier than projected, which isn’t bad thinking, but I think he’s better off as a SP2 in standard leagues.
Next: No. 13: Chris Archer
Chris Archer was not expected to become the Tampa Bay Rays No. 1 pitcher. But with injuries to Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly, that’s exactly what happened. As a result, he posted Cy Young-worthy numbers. He was the No. 13 starting pitcher on the Player Rater. He finished with a 3.23 ERA, 1.137 WHIP, 10.7 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 in 34 starts.
Archer threw a ridiculous 252 strikeouts, second-most in the American League and fourth overall. This was the result of a dominant fastball and mixing in a slider and change up. He saw a three-percent increase in his swinging strike and O-Swing percentages. His first-pitch strike percentage went up seven percent, too.
Archer was drafted in the 15th round as a middle rotation guy. Anyone who selected him was blessed with top-10 talent. He will finish as a top-10 starting pitcher. I wrote that Archer could finish the season as the AL strikeouts leader. He may not have the wins, but a 14-10, 3.20 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 240 strikeouts line is nothing to scoff at.
Next: No. 12: Carlos Carrasco
This isn’t a bold statement, but I wrote about Carlos Carrasco being a top-20 starting pitcher this season. I know, I really went out on a limb there. He was the 15th-best pitcher last season and will be right there again this year. In 30 starts, he went 14-12 with a 3.63 ERA, 1.073 WHIP and 216 strikeouts. Who would have thought the Cleveland Indians would be lucky enough to have Salazar, Carrasco and the next guy on the list?
He is a little over three years removed from Tommy John surgery. That seems to be a theme between these pitchers, huh? He had a 29.6 strikeout and 5.9 walk rate. Carrasco induced ground balls 51.2 percent of the time, 18th-best in the league. However, his HR/FB rate went up six percent and allowed 18 home runs.
While some of the sabremetrics don’t tilt in Carrasco’s favor, I expect a regression to the mean this season. He was tied for the largest gap between his ERA and his FIP. The Indians defense has improved, so you should see the ERA and WHIP drop a little. I projected a 13-9, 3.35 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 205 strikeouts season for Carrasco.
Next: No. 11: Corey Kluber
Corey Kluber had his breakout season in 2014. He had a 2.44 ERA, 1.095 WHIP and 269 strikeouts. He entered the 2015 season as a third-round pick. Unfortunately for those owners who jumped on the Kluber bandwagon, they were left disappointed. He went 9-16 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.054 WHIP (not bad) and 245 strikeouts.
He had a six-percent drop in his ground ball rate and five-percent increase in his fly ball rate. His HR/FB rate went up three percent, as he allowed 22 home runs throughout the season. He allowed hitters to make harder contact with the ball, 55.2 medium and 27.0 hard hit rates.
There are some good signs for Kluber. He had a 2.97 FIP, so with a full season of Francisco Lindor and a more consistent defense behind him, he should pitch closer to his 2014 season than his 2015 one. The American League Central is not the best-hitting division, so Kluber should fair well. I projected a 14-10, 2.99 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 228 strikeouts season for him in this article.
Next: Wrap Up
This group of pitchers are lights out. Low ERAs and WHIP and high strikeout totals. A lot of them also have one thing in common. Tommy John surgery. While it doesn’t look like an issue, it is something to keep an eye on. It may affect how hard they throw or how long they last in a game (i.e. Fernandez on an innings limit).
There are a few pitchers from this list I am keeping a keen eye on. One of them being Greinke. I want to see how he pitches with the Diamondbacks now that he’s the ace of a rotation again. Will the pressure get to him or does he settle in nicely?
I’m also watching Strasburg. Is he ever going to be the Clayton Kershaw-type that puts up lights out numbers every start? I don’t think so, but there’s still hope. Syndergaard is the third guy I’m watching. Does the suffer a setback due to the “sophomore slump” or is he confident enough to have a great season?
I would love to have most of these guys on my fantasy team. While I’m not a fan of the wins category, all of these pitchers can give you quality starts nine out of 10 times.
It’s hard to mess this group of starting pitchers up. I may have been able to move one of them up into the my top 10, but that would have meant moving someone down, and I just couldn’t do that. How does my second tier rank? Is there someone I overrated or underrated? Let me know in the comments.
My top-10 starting pitchers will be available later this week.