Finding pitching is easy. Finding an ace starting pitcher is difficult. This top-10 list makes it easy and shows you the aces of the 2016 season.
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), (20-11)
Starting pitching could be a difficult position to draft. Some owners like to wait on starters and load up on power hitters for the first couple of rounds. That is good on the surface, but having a rotation based around third-tier pitchers could be dangerous in the long-term. I wouldn’t draft a starting pitcher in the first couple of rounds, but grabbing one in round three or four is ideal. Here are the top-10 pitchers you should look for early in drafts.
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.
So, let’s get to it.
In October, I wrote about Dallas Keuchel as a possible top-three pitcher heading into this season. He won the American League Cy Young as a 20-game winner. He ended the season with a 2.48 ERA, 1.017 WHIP and 216 strikeouts in 232 innings. He was the fifth-best starting pitcher on the Player Rater.
He had decent numbers in his previous seasons, but 2015 saw a big jump across the board. He had a 8.38 K/9 and 1.98 BB/9. He induced fewer ground balls, but his fly ball rate didn’t increase by much. However, his HR/FB ratio went up by four percent.
Keuchel incorporated more pitches during the 2015 season. His fastball usage went down over one percent while he increased his cut fastball percentage. As a result, his swinging strike percentage went up 1.3 percent.
In my early rankings, I had Keuchel as my No. 5 starting pitcher. Now, with a little more analyzing, he comes in at No. 10. I don’t think he can repeat his sub-2.50 ERA. The AL West is a good hitting division. I expect a little rise in the ERA, around 2.85. He is still worth a top-30 pick.
Man, these New York Mets pitchers have some nice hair.
Jacob deGrom finished the 2015 as the ninth-best starting pitcher, and that’s where he comes in this year. In 30 starts, he went 14-8 with a 2.54 ERA, 0.979 WHIP and 205 strikeouts.
deGrom increased his K/9 and lowered his BB/9. He struck out batters 27.3 percent of the time and waked batters just 5.1 percent. He saw a decline in his ground ball and fly ball rates, but it didn’t affect his ERA and WHIP much. He will need to improve that this season if he wants to move up in the rankings.
In a short sample size, it’s hard to imagine deGrom declining greatly. He has a good mix of pitches, but may use his fastball a little too much, 61.8 percent. His ERA and FIP (2.70) were pretty close, so a decline in his ratio stats shouldn’t be expected.
The Mets have an amazing rotation. The fourth Mets pitcher is next on the list. You can’t go wrong with either. I think deGrom will finish in the top 10 again with a 14-9 record, 2.80 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 210 strikeouts.
The fourth and final Mets starting pitcher. Matt Harvey was the No. 10 pitcher on the Player Rater. After missing the whole 2014 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He came back on April 9 and allowed no runs in six innings while striking out nine. He finished the season with a 13-8 record, 2.71 ERA, 1.019 WHIP and 188 strikeouts in 189.1 innings.
He struggled a bit in the first couple months of the season, but everything clicked in August. While that may be a little too late for some, it helped many other owners. He walked six batters in 56.1 innings from that point though the rest of the regular season.
Despite the lack in strikeouts, he had a 24.9 strikeout rate and 4.9 walk rate. One of 11 starters to finish with at least a 20 percent difference between his strikeout and walk rates. He had a four percent increase in his fly ball rate and 5.1 percent increase in his HR/FB rate.
His fastball was around the same speed, but his change up rose by more than 1 MPH. He was still able to have an 11.6 swinging strike percentage.
He’s put the injury behind him and you should, too. Harvey ended the season strong and will be a top-five contender throughout the year. I project a 14-8 record, 2.75 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 210 strikeouts in 31 starts.
At the beginning of the year, I asked if Gerrit Cole‘s 2015 season was a fluke. From 2014 to 2015, he made 10 more starts and posted a 2.60 ERA, 1.091 WHIP and 202 strikeouts. He was the No. 8 starting pitcher on the Player Rater.
Cole had a similar strikeout rate, but dropped his walk rate by 1.7 percent. His ground ball and fly ball rates dropped. His HR/FB rate decreased by over two percent. Opposing batters spread the ball around, 33.7, 40.3 and 26.0 pull, center and opposite field percentages, respectively.
He increased his usage of his fastball a bit, but greatly increased his slider usage by 9.1 percent. His swinging strike percentage went up. However, his in and out of the zone contact rates were very similar, which seems to be the theme of his career so far.
Cole is listed as No. 2 on the Pittsburgh Pirates depth chart. By the end of the season, he will be the top guy. I project him to go 15-10 with a 3.15 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 200 strikeouts.
Madison Bumgarner was the MVP of the San Francisco Giants playoff run in 2014. He followed that up with an all-star season. He won another 18 games with a 2.93 ERA, 1.008 WHIP and 234 strikeouts. His WHIP and strikeout totals were both career highs. He was the seventh-best pitcher last year.
He also posted career bests in his strikeout and walk rates, 26.9 and 4.5 percent, respectively. His ground ball rate dropped, but his fly ball and HR/FB rates stayed the same. He used his fastball more and kept the velocity the same from 2014 to 2015. He used his slider less and curve ball more. He had another career high with his 12.5 swinging strike percentage.
It’s amazing to see that Bumgarner is only 26 years old. It feels like he’s been around for longer. His arm is durable and continues to improve. Mad-Bum could easily move up into the top five, with top-three potential. I don’t think he’ll reach 18 wins again, but 17 isn’t bad.
He’ll go 17-10 with a 2.74 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 230 strikeouts.
Remaining in the American League East helps David Price‘s value. He’s familiar with the ballparks, lineup and weather. In 11 starts with the Toronto Blue Jays last season, he went 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA, 1.009 WHIP and 87 strikeouts. Mixed with his 21 starts with the Detroit Tigers, he had a 2.45 ERA and 1.076 WHIP to end the season.
Price saw a 1.6 percent drop in his strikeout rate and 1.5 percent increase in his walk rate. He did lower his ground ball, fly ball and HR/FB rates. Those numbers surprised me based on him pitching in the AL Central and East throughout the season.
With age, Price has been using his change up a lot more. It went from 16.8 percent in 2013 to 22.7 percent in 2015. His fastball velocity actually rose my 1 MPH. His 11.9 swinging strike percentage was the highest in his career.
My colleague Brad Kelly also wrote about the value Price has with his new team. In 11 career starts at Fenway Park, Price has a 6-1 record, 1.95 ERA and 0.946 WHIP. He has a career 3.17 ERA against AL East opponents. Pitching a full season in this dangerous division could see an increase in his ratio stats. Regardless, he should still be a top-five starting pitcher.
Chris Sale had a down year in some aspects, but posted career highs in others. He made 31 starts and went 13-11 with a 3.41 ERA, 1.088 WHIP and 274 strikeouts. He was third in the majors and first in the American League in strikeouts while posting a lowly 1.8 BB/9. So, can he put it all together and become a consistent superstar?
He improved his ground ball and fly ball rates. However, he had a 12.5 HR/FB ratio.
Sale was not as bad as the numbers indicate. He had a 2.73 FIP, which is where is ERA should have been, if not a little lower. He is primarily a three-pitch pitcher, but doesn’t throw his fastball a lot. He used his slider and change up a combined 47.5 percent of the time.
The issue with Sale is the team he plays for. The Chicago White Sox play in a very hitter-friendly park. However, the offense doesn’t seem to be able to score any runs. They finished last in the American League and 28th overall in runs scored, 622. Luckily the team made improvements on both sides of the ball to help Sale and the rest of the pitching staff.
I expect him to get back to his 2014 numbers. 2.98 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 260 strikeouts should do the trick.
Jake Arrieta‘s time with the Baltimore Orioles wasn’t good to say the least. He finally showed was baseball experts and fantasy owners have been waiting for in 2014. He then gave us a big encore with his 2015 performance. He was the best pitcher in the league, finishing with a 22-6 record, 1.77 ERA, 0.865 WHIP and 236 strikeouts.
I wrote that he’s a top-five starting pitcher for this season. That should be a given. The question should be is if he’s a top-three pitcher. He had a 21.6 percent differential between his strikeout and walk rates. He induced a ground ball 56.2 percent of the time, T-4th in the league.
Arrieta completely revamped his pitch usage. He increased his fastball usage by about three percent and his cut fastball by one percent. The use of the hard breaking pitches contributed to the 11.1 swinging strike percentage.
It’s rare for a starter to post back-to-back seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA. That’s why I don’t think Arrieta will do it. Wins are near impossible to predict, but with the success the Chicago Cubs offense has had, it’s safe to chalk up at least 15 wins. I project a 2.60 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 215 strikeouts.
This picture is from when Max Scherzer threw his no-hitter against the Mets. I was at this game. I was rooting for it, even though I went with my Mets-fan dad.
After five years with the Detroit Tigers, he did very well in his first season with the Washington Nationals. Facing a pitcher or pinch hitter three times a game will definitely help, but his season is more of a testament to who Scherzer is. He went 14-12 with a 2.79 ERA, 0.918 WHIP and 276 strikeouts.
He had a 30.7 strikeout rate, third in the league, with a 3.8 walk rate. His fly ball rate was above 40 percent again and his HR/FB rate was at 10.5 percent. However, batters were also swinging at everything in sight. He had a 15.3 swinging strike percentage and a 71.3 first pitch strike percentage, second and first in the league.
Like some of the other pitchers on this list, Scherzer doesn’t have the wins total that stands out. Though, every other stat makes Scherzer a top-three pitcher in all leagues. He will be 15-9 with a 2.78 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 250 strikeouts.
Who else was it going to be?
I wrote if Clayton Kershaw was still the No. 1 pitcher in the league. Last season wasn’t the best year in his career, but he still warrants being the first pitcher drafted. He went 16-7 with a 2.13 ERA, 0.881 WHIP and 301 strikeouts.
He led all qualified MLB starters in SIERA, FIP, xFIP and many other stats. His HR/FB was above 10 percent for the first time since his 2008 rookie season. But allowing 15 home runs out of 163 hits is not too shabby. His strikeout percentage was above 30 percent for the second straight season.
To continue listing the amazing stats, Kershaw’s ground ball rate was at or above 50 percent for the second straight season. He had a 15.9 swinging strike percentage and a 68.2 first pitch strike percentage. Simply put, Kershaw will get the advantage early.
While he is the No. 1 preseason pitcher, I have a small feeling he won’t finish the season in the same spot. He will be drafted in the first round, and rightfully so, but I would wait for someone named earlier in the list. He will go 19-6 with a 2.10 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 270 strikeouts.
I bet the names didn’t surprise you, and the order didn’t either. Starting pitching is the most valuable position in today’s baseball. Pitchers are striking out batters at an alarming rate. There are some batters crushing 40-plus home runs, but more pitchers are striking out more than 250 batters.
One pitcher that I’m watching is Sale. The main reason is that I drafted him on my team. I want to see if he can lower his fly ball rate, especially at home. Another pitcher is Price. I’m a New York Yankees fan, so seeing Price still in the AL East does not make me a happy camper. I hope he struggles, for personal reasons, but I don’t think that will happen.
The big question is that will someone pitch well enough to supplant Kershaw as the No. 1 starting pitcher next season? Only time will tell.
Well that’s it. Did I overrate or underrate anyone? What does your top 10 look like? Let me know in the comments.
The next, and final, position rankings will be relief pitchers. The relief pitchers ranks 30-21 will be posted soon. And then, Opening Day.