Starting pitcher tiers for Draft Day 2014
Get ready for a whole mess of names.
Starting pitcher is just one position, but in a way, it's half the game. A haphazard approach to it could condemn you to a last-place finish, as many have learned the hard way.
But respecting it is different from prioritizing it on Draft Day. After all, the goal isn't to avoid last place, but to win. And to win, you have to set your team apart at as many positions as possible.
Tiers are designed to deliver the most efficient draft possible by
using player rankings to reveal the distribution of talent at each
position. A new tier begins whenever the next player down in the
rankings has a vastly different projected outcome from the one
preceding him. Reducing a position to five or six tiers instead of
30 or more individuals gives you a blueprint to follow as your
league's draft unfolds. Naturally, the position to target is the one
whose active tier is closest to completion. -- SW
Around the infield especially, the only time to do that is the early rounds. If you ignore the tiers at second base, third base and shortstop to build a top-of-the-line pitching staff, you not only forfeit a potential advantage there, but you put yourself at a disadvantage by settling for whatever's left at those positions.
But won't the advantage you gain at starting pitcher make up for it? See, that's where it gets tricky.
The sheer number of starting pitchers ensures more breakouts at the position than any other. The nature of the position, too, predisposes it to breakouts, with injuries and unexpected regression creating more possibility for turnover.
Now obviously, more starting pitchers are available because more are needed. Most leagues require a minimum of five per team, with some owners opting for more to take advantage of two-start weeks. But get this: Having more to choose from grants you the freedom to choose. You get to play favorites at the position with the most breakouts to offer.
You see where I'm going with this?
Target the right starting pitchers, and you can have the best of both worlds, getting the production of an early-rounder, but with a stacked lineup to boot.
With this many names, it's not like you won't have your chances.
The Near-Elite: David Price , Matt Cain , James Shields , Zack Greinke , Anibal Sanchez
The Next-Best Things: Jordan Zimmermann , Homer Bailey , Gio Gonzalez , Alex Cobb , Jered Weaver , Julio Teheran , Mat Latos , Gerrit Cole , Michael Wacha , Shelby Miller , Masahiro Tanaka , Tony Cingrani , Matt Moore , Cole Hamels , Mike Minor , Hisashi Iwakuma
The Fallback Options: Francisco Liriano , Sonny Gray , Jon Lester , Marco Estrada , Johnny Cueto , Zack Wheeler , Justin Masterson , Danny Salazar , Ubaldo Jimenez , Jeff Samardzija , Andrew Cashner , Lance Lynn , Clay Buchholz , Hyun-Jin Ryu , C.J. Wilson , Chris Tillman
The Last Resorts: R.A. Dickey , Scott Kazmir , Hiroki Kuroda , CC Sabathia , Tim Lincecum , A.J. Burnett , Doug Fister , Chris Archer , Alex Wood *, Corey Kluber , Ervin Santana , Yordano Ventura , Taijuan Walker , John Lackey , Matt Garza , Yovani Gallardo , Jake Peavy , Drew Smyly *, Dan Straily , Jose Quintana , Michael Pineda , Dan Haren , Tyson Ross *, Ivan Nova
Strictly Late-Rounders: Tanner Scheppers *, Hector Santiago *, Martin Perez , Kyle Lohse , Wade Miley , Travis Wood , Dillon Gee , A.J. Griffin , Brandon Morrow , Charlie Morton , Bartolo Colon , Tim Hudson , Jonathon Niese
The Leftovers: Ricky Nolasco , Mike Leake , Tyler Skaggs , Felix Doubront , Wily Peralta , Erik Johnson , Rick Porcello , James Paxton , Jake Odorizzi , Bronson Arroyo , Jarred Cosart , Josh Johnson , Jhoulys Chacin , Archie Bradley , Ian Kennedy , Garrett Richards *, Brett Anderson *, Jason Vargas , Nathan Eovaldi , Tanner Roark , Joe Kelly *, Carlos Martinez *, Kevin Gausman *, Robbie Ross *, Noah Syndergaard , Jameson Taillon , Drew Hutchison , Brad Peacock , Josh Beckett , Mark Buehrle , Scott Feldman , Miguel Gonzalez , Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez , Chad Billingsley , Derek Holland , Henderson Alvarez , Brandon Workman *, David Phelps *, Trevor Cahill , Wei-Yin Chen , Tommy Milone , Matt Harrison , Danny Duffy , Tyler Thornburg , Bruce Chen *
Of course, the starting pitcher landscape has changed enough in recent years that a staff full of threes and fours may not measure up in standard mixed leagues, so just to safeguard against the worst-case scenario of your middle-rounders all performing like middle-rounders, drafting one (and only one) of The Elite isn't the worst idea. It's a large enough tier that you probably won't have to choose between Bumgarner and Sale until Round 4 or 5. Depending on how you've addressed the significantly weaker shortstop and third base positions by that point in the draft, a true ace may prove to be a luxury you can't afford, but I've made it work enough times myself to vouch for it under the right circumstances.
If you end up being the one owner to miss out on those 11, you still have a five-pitcher safety net in The Near-Elite, who some in the industry actually include with the first tier. They have their drawbacks, though -- Price and Greinke with their inconsistent strikeout rates and Sanchez with his inconsistent everything else. That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see any of them in the Cy Young conversation at season's end. Price gets those strikeouts back up, and he's basically Bumgarner, provided he gets better run support than he did last year (law of averages says he will).
Ah yes, run support ... yet another reason why you shouldn't invest too heavily in starting pitchers. Win-loss record has a huge say in a pitcher's performance in Rotisserie and especially Head-to-Head leagues, yet it's mostly beyond his control, making it a product of luck. Investing in luck is the definition of gambling, and Fantasy owners who win consistently know better than to gamble in the early rounds. They also know better than to assess a pitcher on last year's win-loss record, instead focusing on the numbers within his control, such as strikeouts and WHIP. Innings are also critical, if for no other reason than the influence they have on win-loss record. The deeper a pitcher goes in a game, the longer his offense has to give him a lead and the shorter his bullpen has to blow it.
But getting back to the subject at hand ... The Elite and The Near-Elite. If you land one, great. You're protected against disaster and don't have too much ground to make up at the position. If not, though, you still have a chance to find an ace or two among the The Next-Best Things.
That's the tier that makes up the bulk of my staff in more leagues than not. It consists both of pitchers who have been aces in the past and are still young enough and good enough to get back there (such as Gonzalez, Weaver and Iwakuma) and of pitchers who have shown ace potential but have yet to completely establish themselves (such as Cole, Wacha, Moore, Teheran, Miller and Cingrani). Tanaka is the wild card in all of this, with no one really knowing what to expect as he transitions from Japan -- where he had emerged as the best pitcher -- to the U.S. But given the mostly optimistic scouting reports so far, I have no reservations about grabbing him as my second or third starter. Something between Darvish and Kuroda would suit me just fine at that point.
Even some of The Fallback Options could end up delivering high-end production. Gray and Salazar are on the same level as Cole and Wacha in some people's minds, though I think both have a little something more to prove. Masterson had 195 strikeouts last year -- and that was with him pitching out of the bullpen in September because of an oblique injury. Jimenez appeared to recapture his ace form with a 1.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 13 second-half starts. Estrada has a 3.36 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings in his last 29 starts, spanning two seasons. Granted, none are as safe as the pitchers a tier ahead of them, and expecting a best-case scenario from any of them is dangerous. But I'd be content to have any of The Fallback Options as my No. 3 starter and thrilled to have one as my No. 4.
It's not so far-fetched, really. You could go until Round 8 or 9 without drafting a starting pitcher and still assemble a top four of something like Teheran, Cingrani, Tanaka and Estrada. And imagine the offense that would go along with it.
The Last Resorts is kind of a misnomer at this position. Most have the potential to be steady contributors in mixed leagues. They just lack the upside to be anything more. Chances are you'll have filled out your starting five before dipping into this tier, but one or two of them wouldn't really set you back at all, which again says something about the position's depth.
Because some formats go deeper into the starting pitcher pool than others, I decided to add a tier, Strictly Late-Rounders, to prevent a notable few from getting lost in the The Leftovers. Pitchers like Perez and Morrow offer something in the way of upside while pitchers like Lohse and Hudson are sure to work their way onto mixed-league rosters by season's end.
The pitchers with an asterisk (*) next to their names are eligible at relief pitcher. Some are also eligible at starting pitcher, but others -- like Smyly, Scheppers and Ross -- aren't just yet. Because you'd be drafting them for what they could do as starters, though, I prefer to tier them that way, leaving the relief pitcher tiers strictly for closers.