Positional Breakdown Preview – Starting Pitchers
As fantasy baseball draft season is now going full bore, let’s go position by position and analyze some of the players we expect to exceed or underperform compared to their draft slots. Rather than writing up one sleepers & busts article, we’re going to give you some sleepers and potential busts at every position. Here’s a full look at our Starting Pitcher Rankings for 2012.
Starting Pitchers To Watch
As I did with the relievers and Tom did with the outfielders, there are simply too many guys for us to profile the Top 100 or anything like that. We’ll focus on the elite few who should go in the first few rounds before tossing in a few sleepers and busts.
True Aces: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee
- There’s some debate about whether Verlander, Kershaw, or Halladay should be the top pitcher off the board. To be honest, there really isn’t a wrong answer. While Halladay has the longest track record, Verlander and Kershaw both strike out far more hitters. Verlander and Kershaw each won Cy Young awards last season. Verlander took home an MVP trophy, while all Kershaw could settle for was the pitching triple crown in the NL. All three will go in the first 20 picks, and you’ll get a bona fide ace if you take them.
- Lincecum and Lee fall a touch shy of the top three. Lincecum will likely carry a WHIP that’s a bit high for an ace, but he’ll make up for it by taking a shot at the strikeout title. Lee will do the opposite, as he figures to fall a touch shy of the 200 strikeout mark, but he’ll keep a WHIP around 1.10.
- CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez fall just a little shy of hitting this group. They’re legit number one starters, but there are really only a handful of aces. CC posts nice strikeout numbers and huge win totals, but his ratios won’t carry you like the top guys can. Felix’s wart is no fault of his own, as the Mariners just don’t support him (or anyone) offensively.
Movers In The Top 50
Daniel Hudson – Final 2011 Ranking – 24, Projected 2012 – 18
Hudson pitched to contact a bit more last season, but the results were every bit as good as his rookie showing in Arizona. While Hudson’s ERA jumped from 2.45 in 2010 to 3.49 last season, most of it was because he wasn’t quite as lucky as he was in 2010. His BABIP jumped from an unsustainable .241 to a rate in the league average range (.295), which pretty much accounted for the rise in his ERA and WHIP (1.00 to 1.20). FIP tells us that he was actually a touch better last season (3.28) than he was in 2010 (3.38). I see a slight bump in his strikeout rate, and I see his WHIP and ERA coming down just a little bit. The important thing about last season is that he showed he’s for real.
Mat Latos – Final 2011 Ranking – 30, Projected 2012 – 13
Hey… I’m not the only one who generally considers wins a worthless stat. Still, they carry a category of their own in fantasy. The fact of the matter is that Latos had very similar rate stats to, say (let’s go on the really high end and use an example that’s a bit odd given the context) Felix Hernandez. Felix and Latos each had a 3.47 ERA last season. Latos actually had the superior WHIP (1.18 to Felix’s 1.22) and K/9 (8.57 to Felix’s 8.55). The two major differences were a higher workload for Felix, which did lead to a 37 strikeout advantage and five more wins for Felix – I told you this was odd given the context. Hernandez finished 13th in our final SP rankings for 2011. Latos finished 30th. He’s going to get a lot more support in Cincinnati, and his ratios aren’t going to get hurt too much.
Cory Luebke – Final 2011 Ranking – 42, Projected 2012 – 21
Luebke’s finish in our rankings last season was all about him starting the year in the bullpen. He pitched just 139+ innings, which drastically hurt his numbers in both the counting categories and the impact that his stellar ratios had on roto teams. We went with a fairly conservative 180 inning projection for this season, but we still believe in him as a 170+ strikeout guy with terrific ratios. The win total should match his performance a bit more this season, as the Padres offense should improve a bit.
Jordan Zimmermann – Final 2011 Ranking – 56, Projected 2012 – 27
While it’s difficult to project Zimmermann to match his 3.18 ERA from a year ago, his FIP tells us he was actually slightly better (3.16). Zimmermann has two things in his favor entering 2012 that he didn’t have last season.
- He won’t get shut down at 160 innings…. that will be Stephen Strasburg this year
- He’s got his first full season since TJ surgery under his belt. Zimmermann fanned more than a batter an inning as a rookie. He fanned 7.84 per 9 innings in his late season return in 2010. He was under 7.00 last season, finishing at 6.92 K/9. Expect an uptick in strikeout production.
Sale is one of several relievers that will be moving to the rotation in 2012. We like him more than Neftali Feliz and Daniel Bard (who appears headed back to the bullpen anyway) for a couple of reasons:
- There’s a lot more rotation depth in both Boston (see above) and Texas. There’s little chance Sale gets shipped back to the bullpen. The Rangers are committed to Feliz as a starter, but the Rangers have as many as six other guys that would look just fine in the rotation.
- I trust Sale’s command/control and injury history more than Feliz. Based on what I’ve seen out of Feliz, his stuff will play far better out of the bullpen than it will as a starter. Sale will be the workhorse of the bunch, and while he doesn’t have quite the depth in his arsenal of pitches than Feliz does, I like his slider and changeup better than Feliz’s secondary offerings.
So many fantasy owners love to grab the rookie with monster upside that they often overlook some guys who have shown what they can do. Harrison struggled to adjust to the majors from 2008-2010, but he really took a huge step forward last season, going 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA , a 1.28 WHIP, and 126 strikeouts in 185 innings. By no means is Harrison going to win your fantasy league for you, but if you’re deciding between him and a back end starter who could be a middle of the rotation type, why not grab the stable production? I don’t think we’re ever going to see huge strikeout production, but he’ll continue to be average in the category. The ERA and WHIP are pretty repeatable based on his components, and the Rangers are going to score a ton of runs for him again.
Milone is among my favorite deep league options for 2012. Milone has never had elite stuff… in fact, you could question whether his pure stuff is above average. The fastball isn’t great, topping off in the high 80s. His secondary stuff all has good movement, but it isn’t overpowering. What Milone does do exceptionally well is command his pitches. He almost never issues free passes (1.31 BB/9 in 2010… 0.97 in AAA last season) and keeps the ball down in the zone (0.55 HR/9 in the past three years in the minors). Toss him on a good defensive ballclub (check) in a park that favors pitchers (check) and Milone could well be the best rookie starter in 2012. No offense to Matt Moore.
I don’t put a lot of stock in spring stats. Still, Liriano is attacking the zone so far this spring, which was easily his biggest issue last season. Liriano not only struggled with walks (5.02 BB/9 last year), but his complete lack of control did a number on his chase rate last season. This makes sense, of course. Why would guys chase pitches out of the zone if Liriano can’t find the plate? By attacking the zone and finding his control, Liriano could take full advantage of one of the filthiest arsenals in the big leagues with a huge strikeout rate and vast improvements to both his ERA and WHIP. I’m not 100% sold (again…. it’s spring training), but Liriano could bring a huge reward if he pitches to his potential.
We can all agree that Johnson posts some of the most dominant numbers in baseball when he’s on the mound. However, he’s coming off of a campaign that saw him pitch just 60 innings before being shut down with a shoulder injury. The fact of the matter is that Johnson has made more than 30 starts just once in his six year career, topping the 157 inning mark just twice. If he has another injury-plagued season in 2012, we can officially start making comparisons to Rich Harden and Mark Prior. Would I take a shot after the fifteenth round? Of course. Would I recommend making him one of your top three starters and investing a meaningful pick on him? Absolutely not. He’s just too risky.
This has less to do with the loss of velocity during the spring than his simple landing spot. Pineda will get a lot more run support in New York than he would have in Seattle, but he’s going to be awfully difficult to trust in Yankee Stadium (and the AL East) unless he can develop his changeup enough to keep lefties honest. The fastball-slider combo and the short porch in right field could be a scary combination for Pineda as he faces a higher percentage of better and more selective hitters. If you’re expecting a big strikeout rate, an ERA in the 4.00 range, and a WHIP in the 1.25 range, Pineda could be your guy. If you’re thinking he takes a big step forward, you’re liable to be disappointed.
Fister took a huge step forward in 2011, getting ahead in the count to induce weak contact frequently. There’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll use the same approach, which has worked well for him throughout his career. The problem is that the Tigers may field the worst defense in the history of the game. An infield that includes Prince Fielder, Ryan Raburn, and Miguel Cabrera (at 3b) isn’t going to get to nearly as many balls as last season’s squad did. Outside of Austin Jackson, the outfield defense figures to be a bit porous as well. Fister’s ERA will be over 4.00 in 2012.