Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings – Roto

Max Scherzer

Starting pitcher rankings are always interesting because there is generally a much higher level of disagreement than with hitters. Beyond Kershaw, most tiers could be rearranged in a variety of different ways and still seem plausible. Much of this is because the overall approach to the position is equally if not more important than views on individual players. I known for me personally, there are two factors that heavily influence how I rank my pitchers.

First, I always value quality over quantity. This may seem simple, but let me explain. If I really like a pitcher’s talent or situation, I’m not going to downgrade him significantly just because he’s injury prone or has an innings limit. To give an example I’d much rather take 120 above average innings from Lance McCullers and fill the rest with streamers than settle for 200 mediocre frames from James Shields. Now part of this is because I have a lot of confidence in my ability to find usable guys on the waiver wire, but it’s also because streaming becomes a lot easier in the latter months of the season. Come late August and especially September, many teams are calling up prospects or resting key players and many lineups are nowhere near as strong as they were at the start of the season.

Second, I place very little emphasis on wins. I generally play in leagues that use quality starts instead so that’s a factor here, but even excluding that, I simply believe that there’s a great deal of unpredictability when attempting to project wins. When exactly a middle reliever or closer will blow a lead is largely random and the same goes for an offense suddenly getting hot or cold. Sure good pitchers on good teams have the best chance at winning games, but keep in mind that aces generally face-off against other aces and that’s a mitigating factor to some extent.

As for a specific draft strategy, I generally try to grab an ace from my top 15 and then selectively target a couple guys I’m high on from the fourth and fifth tiers. I don’t mind taking a second highly ranked pitcher if one begins to fall, but I’m a firm believer that there is far more quality pitching than hitting available in the later rounds. And now that you’ve heard my entire philosophy on the position, let’s get to the rankings!

C    1B    2B    SS    3B    OF    SP    RP

Tier 1 (The Unmatched)

  1. Clayton Kershaw (LAD)

After debuting the “unmatched” tier in my outfield rankings, I’m going right back to it here with Kershaw. It’s rare to see a pitcher ranked this high, but his combination of upside and consistency is unparalleled. According to FantasyPros ADP data Kershaw is currently going fourth overall on Yahoo, NFBC and RTSports so there is an obvious industry consensus. However, while I agree with this value, I personally wouldn’t take him this high in a snake draft.

My reasoning for avoiding Kershaw in the top half of the first round is based solely on roster construction. Specifically, I like my teams a lot more when I spend my first two picks on hitters and wait to grab a mid-tier pitcher from the elite group in the third round.

Tier 2 (The Elite)

  1. Max Scherzer (WAS)
  2. Jake Arrieta (CHC)
  3. Chris Sale (CWS)
  4. Madison Bumgarner (SF)
  5. Jacob DeGrom (NYM)
  6. Jose Fernandez (MIA)
  7. David Price (BOS)
  8. Zach Greinke (ARZ)
  9. Corey Kluber (CLE)
  10. Gerrit Cole (PIT)
  11. Matt Harvey (NYM)
  12. Stephen Strasburg (WAS)
  13. Dallas Keuchel (HOU)
  14. Chris Archer (TB)
  15. Felix Hernandez (SEA)
  16. Noah Syndergaard (NYM)
  17. Carlos Carrasco (CLE)

Having 17 players in the second tier is certainly not ideal, but there was really no logical way for me to break this group down. While the difference between Scherzer/Arrieta and Syndergaard/Carrasco is substantial, the pitchers in the 6-13 range are all so close that there’s no obvious place to insert a divide. Basically I have no strong preference as to any of the guys ranked between DeGrom and Strasburg. And as such I will let the room start the run on this group and be perfectly comfortable taking whoever falls to me.

Also, I think it’s important to note that Keuchel’s K/9 last season was significantly higher than his career rate. I still have confidence that he’s going to be a top 10-15 SP, but it’s something to keep in mind when assembling the rest of your staff.

Tier 3 (The Near Elite)

  1. Sonny Gray (OAK)
  2. Johnny Cueto (SF)
  3. Jon Lester (CHC)
  4. Cole Hamels (TEX)
  5. Adam Wainwright (STL)
  6. Danny Salazar (CLE)
  7. Tyson Ross (SD)
  8. Garrett Richards (LAA)
  9. Carlos Martinez (STL)

While the majority of these pitchers don’t have elite upside, I can easily see a couple of these guys finishing inside the top 15. Personally I don’t like waiting this long to grab my ace, but it’s not the end of the world if you miss out on the previous tier and decide to grab a pair of options from this group instead. Gray was terrific last season and his mediocre k rate is my only concern when drafting him. Cueto and Hamels would probably be ranked even higher if they remained in Cincinnati and Philadelphia respectively, but both pitchers still have clear talent. Cueto is an obvious risk given how poorly he played after getting traded, though it’s difficult to overstate the benefit of his new situation.

I invested heavily in Ross and Richards last year and both are extremely consistent options that rarely have destructive outings. That said, control is a major issue for these pitchers and it can certainly limit their upside. For Ross especially, it’s the main reason why he struggles to pitch late into games and has an inflated WHIP. Lastly, Martinez is a real breakout candidate for me. He was dominant for long stretches last season and his numbers would look a lot better if he didn’t get fatigued and eventually shut down. That’s obviously a big “if”, but he still managed to throw 180 innings so I expect he will hold up better down the stretch in 2016.

Tier 4 (The Solid Starters)

  1. Michael Wacha (STL)
  2. Masahiro Tanaka (NYY)
  3. Francisco Liriano (PIT)
  4. Marcus Stroman (TOR)
  5. Jordan Zimmerman (DET)
  6. Yu Darvish (TEX)
  7. Lance McCullers (HOU)
  8. Steven Matz (NYM)
  9. Jake Odorizzi (TB)
  10. Raisel Iglesias (CIN)

Although I named this tier the “solid starters” it’s perhaps more accurate to describe it as a risk/reward group. Tanaka, Stroman and Darvish all have injury concerns while McCullers, Matz and Iglesias have a combined 256.2 career major league innings between them. I’m probably much higher on the unproven youngsters than most, but at this point I’m willing to bet on talent and hope the rest falls into place. I’m hoping Iglesias gets overlooked based on his ERA from last season because there’s really a lot to like here. He had a very good WHIP and the three consecutive double-digit strikeout outings he had in August/September were a sign of his potential upside

On the flip side, Stroman and Zimmerman are a pair of pitchers I’m going to fade. Although I like Stroman’s stuff, his division and ballpark scare me. Further, his mediocre k rate limits his upside. Zimmerman is in a similar position and I expect the move from the NL East to the AL Central to negatively impact his stats.

Tier 5 (The Unspectacular)

  1. James Shields (SD)
  2. Taijuan Walker (SEA)
  3. Jose Quintana (CWS)
  4. Michael Pineda (NYY)
  5. Carlos Rodon (CWS)
  6. Scott Kazmir (LAD)
  7. Justin Verlander (DET)
  8. Gio Gonzalez (WAS)
  9. Shelby Miller (ARZ)
  10. Collin McHugh (HOU)
  11. Jeff Samardzija (SF)
  12. John Lackey (CHC)
  13. Luis Severino (NYY)
  14. Hisashi Iwakuma (SEA)
  15. Patrick Corbin (ARZ)
  16. Julio Teheran (ATL)
  17. Yordano Ventura (KC)

Calling this group “unspectacular” needs context, as these pitchers are all viable 3/4 starters for your fantasy team. Still, I don’t view the majority of these guys as having top 25 upside so I wanted that to be made clear. There’s a wide range of options in this tier based on age, skill set and environment so I think the easiest way to approach this is for me to pick out a couple guys who stand out to me as either good or bad values.

Walker, Rodon and Corbin are the pitchers I’m most interested in. Rodon has elite stuff and control issues are the only thing that’s holding him back from becoming a top tier option. Another year of development should help that and if he can drop his WHIP down even into the 1.25-1.30 range that should make him a top 30 pitcher. It’s easy to forget how good Corbin looked in the first half of 2013, but that’s really the last time he was at full strength. Now that he’s back healthy, I’m optimistic he’ll return to form in 2016.

Conversely, Shields and Pineda are a pair of brand names I’m generally trying to avoid this year. Although “Big Game James” is virtually a lock for another 200-plus inning season, the quality of those innings is no longer what it once was. His ERA and WHIP in 2015 were the highest they’ve been in five years and while moving to the NL did improve his strikeout rate, Petco is no longer an extreme pitcher’s park. Similarly, Pineda took some big steps backwards last year after an encouraging end to 2014. He still has great control, but he proved to be quite hittable and plays in a stadium that won’t do him any favors.

Tier 6 (The Streamers)

  1. Drew Smyly (TB)
  2. Jaime Garcia (STL)
  3. Eduardo Rodriguez (BOS)
  4. Kenta Maeda (LAD)
  5. Mike Fiers (HOU)
  6. Wei-Yin Chen (MIA)
  7. Jimmy Nelson (MIL)
  8. Jason Hammel (CHC)
  9. Aaron Nola (PHI)
  10. Alex Wood (LAD)
  11. Andrew Cashner (SD)

I don’t actually expect to see many guys from this group on the waiver wire in competitive leagues so the streamers label is simply meant to indicate that these are match-up plays. Smyly and Garcia are two pitchers I’m high on and both could be top 40 options if they remain healthy. Rodriguez is also a candidate to outperform his ADP as his 2015 line was disproportionately influenced by a pair of disastrous outings. He finished the season strong, allowing only one run in five of his last seven starts and should continue to develop in 2016. Finally, Chen was already a serviceable option when in Baltimore and the move to the NL East should help his stats across the board.

Tier 7 (The Leftovers)

  1. Andrew Heaney (LAA)
  2. Kevin Gausman (BAL)
  3. Trevor Bauer (CLE)
  4. Mike Leake (SF)
  5. Anibal Sanchez (DET)
  6. Marco Estrada (TOR)
  7. Anthony DeSclafani (CIN)
  8. Nathan Eovaldi (NYY)
  9. Joe Ross (WAS)
  10. Rich Hill (OAK)

Though several of these pitchers will get drafted in the majority of leagues, very few of them have much upside or stability. Gausman and Bauer have each received some hype, but neither has been able to put it together for an extended stretch. Leake, Estrada and DeSclafani could provide decent ratios, though none of them are strikeout pitchers and the last two play in extreme hitter parks. On a more positive note, Ross was impressive as a rookie last season and plays in a weak division so he’s someone I would target in the later rounds. Similarly, Hill came out of nowhere to strike out 10 in three of his four 2015 outings so he’s also certainly worth a gamble.

And if you’re looking for points rankings, you can find those here

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