2017 Fantasy Baseball draft strategy: Can you make a case for Madison Bumgarner as the No. 1 SP?

We did our starting pitcher preview on Thursday’s episode of the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast, just as news of David Price’s potentially (probably?) problematic elbow came down, which leads to even more questions about the starting pitching position than usual. 

Pitchers are the hardest position in baseball to predict in any given year, not just because they are more injury-prone than hitters, but also because so much of their results are out of their control. Wins are subject to the whims of the offense and bullpen, and run prevention depends to a large extent on the players surrounding a pitcher. We’re even learning more and more how much influence the catcher has on simple balls and strikes. 

This is, of course, why we tend to de-prioritize pitching at the top of the draft, and that is even more true this season than in years past. With Clayton Kershaw coming off an injury-marred season and Max Scherzer dealing with a fractured knuckle on his throwing hand, the upper tier at the position is starting to look pretty iffy.

Which brings me to a question one of our podcast listeners posed recently, via Twitter:

I initially dismissed the question out of hand by saying that it’s hard to make a case, given that Kershaw and Scherzer are just better pitchers. However, given their injury concerns, I wanted to see if there was a case to be made for Bumgarner at the top of the starting pitching rankings. (Thanks for the content idea, Matthew!)

The top industry consensus on the top three starting pitchers is pretty clear, and our internal rankings reflect that: Kershaw, then Scherzer, then Bumgarner. The one exception being Heath, who has moved Scherzer down to No. 4 in light of his injury. Kershaw’s the harder one to make an argument for slotting behind Bumgarner, so we’ll shelve him for a minute and focus on whether Bumgarner should top Scherzer.

Scherzer is a dominant pitcher in his own right, but he isn’t in Kershaw’s class when it comes to either run prevention or keeping runners off the bases. He’s been pretty close to Bumgarner’s equal in ERA and WHIP over the last four seasons, but it’s close enough that you can’t really give a serious edge to either of them in terms of expectations this season. 

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What typically pushes Scherzer into his own mini-tier behind Kershaw and ahead of the rest of the crop at the position is strikeout rate and his durability. Bumgarner is nearly Scherzer’s equal, having thrown 28 fewer innings over the last four seasons, but riding a six-season 200-inning streak that even Scherzer can’t match. However, Scherzer does typically have a pretty significant edge in strikeouts, and it isn’t just because of his ability to rack up innings. He is typically about one strikeout per nine innings ahead of Bumgarner here.

This one is close enough that, if you’re drafting today, in early March, it is perfectly reasonable to consider Bumgarner over Scherzer. All other things being equal, Scherzer’s sustained elite performance as a strikeout pitcher pushes him ahead of Bumgarner. However, as long as he is still experiencing discomfort in his pitching hand -- even experimenting with an adjusted fastball grip to compensate for it -- all other things aren’t equal. 

Alright, so we’ve gotten Bumgarner up to the No. 2 spot at starting pitcher. Getting him past Kershaw would take a lot more work. As good as Bumgarner is, Kershaw is on an entirely different plane, having posted a 1.88 ERA and 0.857 WHIP over the past four seasons. That’s an ERA nearly a full run lower than Bumgarner’s 2.88 mark, while the WHIP gap comes out to .182. That’s roughly the difference between Bumgarner in 2016 and Jason Hammel or Jeff Samardzija.

Even taking into account the injury concerns surrounding Kershaw, he returned from his back injury and posted a 2.75 ERA with 56 strikeouts and only six walks in 52 1/3 innings of work, including the postseason. It’s hard to argue he really dealt with any lingering effects from the back injury given the way he pitched upon his return.

There really isn’t any argument to be made for anyone besides Kershaw as the No. 1 starting pitcher, unless you’re simply predicting an injury for him. Back injuries are tricky, and tend to linger, but this still feels like an overreaction, given how he pitched upon his return in 2016.

You can make an argument for avoiding Kershaw at his current ADP, which is No. 6 overall at FantasyPros.com. You can make an argument for Bumgarner sliding ahead of Scherzer as the starter to target in the second round, thanks to his combination of apparent safety and upside.

However, with an era-adjusted ERA+ of 194 over the last four seasons, Kershaw compares favorably with the best stretches for guys like Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, putting him on the shortlist of best pitchers ever at the age of 28. Even with Kershaw’s injury issues, he’s still the obvious No. 1 guy. 

Fantasy Writer

Though he can be found covering three different sports depending on the time of year, there is one unifying theme in how Chris Towers approaches sports; "Where's the evidence?" It doesn't matter how outlandish... Full Bio

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