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2013 Draft Prep: Starting pitcher tiers

by | Data Analyst
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I recently laid out my tiers for position players, but those tiers were not really complete without adding those for starting pitchers. Owners can go several rounds before drafting a reliever, but starting pitchers are viable as early as the first round, so scarcity of starters within tiers is something that needs to be monitored over the entirety of a draft.

For those unfamiliar with drafting by tiers, the basic idea is that you cluster players within a position together by their expected level of Fantasy value, and then those clusters are separated where there is a discernable dropoff. When a given tier is starting to empty out, that's a warning sign to owners that they should consider addressing their next pitching slot as opposed to other positions where there may be plenty of comparable players still available. These tiers for starting pitchers are largely based on my projections for their Head-to-Head value, but pitchers whom I expect to have a substantially different value in Rotisserie were adjusted accordingly into a higher or lower tier.

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In organizing starters into tiers, I found that there is a small and distinct elite consisting of three pitchers: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander and David Price. While many owners like to wait a few rounds before addressing their pitching needs, the dropoff from the top three to the second tier should at least provide a reason to strongly consider taking a starter within the first two rounds. Beyond the elite, there are six more tiers that cover the viable starter options for owners in standard mixed leagues. I went a little deeper, listing an eighth tier that includes some late-round fliers and deeper mixed league options.

In addition to listing the occupants of each tier and offering some analysis of why certain pitchers reside there, I have singled out pitchers in most of the tiers who are worth extra consideration because of their strikeout prowess. Many different skills, including control, ground ball tendencies and ability to strand runners, factor into a pitcher's Fantasy value, but strikeouts are an especially important indicator of Fantasy success. Not only are strikeouts a category in standard formats, but K-rates tend to be relatively stable from year to year.

There may be no crying in baseball, but I'm ready to release these tiers. Step by step, we'll work our way from the Big Three to the endgame options.

First tier: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, David Price

The elite is a nice, compact trio. While Verlander is practically a lock to log the most innings, Kershaw edged him in ERA and WHIP last year and could do so again in 2013. He even has a shot to overtake him in strikeouts. Price is likely to lag behind the two aces, but given his surging ground ball rate and pitcher-friendly home park, he should keep his ERA far enough below 3.00 to distance himself from the second tier.

Second tier: CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Jered Weaver, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Cain, R.A. Dickey, James Shields, Adam Wainwright

Each of the pitchers in this tier is a cut below the elite, but all are viable as aces in standard mixed leagues. Nearly to a man, these starters are strong bets to be among the major league ERA and WHIP leaders. Shields is the most likely exception (projected 3.40 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), but he is enough of a workhorse that he can compensate with a high innings count, which in turn, can help to pad his win and strikeout totals.

K-Factor: We have projected Strasburg to have the highest K/9 rate in the majors, so why doesn't he belong in the first tier? It's largely a matter of innings. While he won't have an innings limit this year, it may be a stretch to expect him to make the jump from last season's 159 1/3 innings to the 220 or so he would need to be on a par with Kershaw, Verlander and Price. Also, those three starters (especially Kershaw and Price) have established their ability to strand runners at an extremely high rate, so Strasburg may lag a bit behind them in ERA.

Third tier: Madison Bumgarner, Yovani Gallardo, Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, Gio Gonzalez, Roy Halladay, Ian Kennedy, Jake Peavy, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, Mat Latos

The Tiers Approach to Draft Day
Tiering is a method of doctoring positional rankings so that players of similar value are bundled into groups. A new group begins whenever the next player down in the rankings has a vastly different projected outcome from the player 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. -- Scott White

Scott's tiers: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP

Bumgarner leads off this tier, and those who have noted how he sliced his WHIP from 1.21 to 1.11 last year may wonder why he didn't make the second tier cut. It's no knock against Bumgarner, but he could be a little lighter on strikeouts than several of the second-tier starters, and his .282 BABIP (and subsequently his WHIP) from a year ago should rise just enough to put him in a different tier. Cueto and Halladay are likely to have even fewer strikeouts than Bumgarner, and Kennedy, Peavy and Latos could all have ERAs north of 3.50 because of the risk of a high home run rate.

K-Factor: Gallardo, Gonzalez, Darvish and Scherzer all have strikeout rates that make them potential second-tier starters, but each also has an Achilles' heel that makes them too risky to draft as such. Gallardo is too prone to issuing walks, and while Gonzalez improved in that respect last season, he is still too wild to include among the likes of Lee and Cain. Darvish's inconsistent control and Scherzer's penchant for allowing hits on balls in play (.316 career BABIP) relegate them to the third tier. Chris Sale may have the best overall skill set of this group, but it's not clear if he will be able to accumulate the innings needed to belong in the second tier.

Fourth tier: C.J. Wilson, Josh Johnson, Kris Medlen, Jeff Samardzija, Hiroki Kuroda, Doug Fister, Dan Haren,Jordan Zimmermann, Brandon Morrow, Matt Moore, Matt Garza

As we enter the fourth tier, pitchers poised to get 200-plus strikeouts become more of a novelty. Wilson, Johnson, Medlen, Haren and Zimmermann aren't slouches in the strikeout category, but they lag just far enough behind most of the higher-tiered pitchers to need a category of their own. However, with the exception of Wilson, each has good control, so they deserve to be among the top 40 starters in Fantasy. So does Wilson, given that he has been consistently able to keep the ball in the park. Kuroda and Fister are notable outliers as mediocre strikeout pitchers, but their extreme stinginess with walks gains them entry into this club.

K-Factor: Garza, Morrow and Moore should all post strikeout rates that could catapult them into the third tier, but each is a risk to come up short in innings. Garza will be starting the season possibly a full month late due to a strained lat, and he could probably be drafted among the fifth tier pitchers, as owners may be scared off by his health status. Morrow has never pitched as many as 180 innings in a season, and Moore average just over 5 2/3 innings per start as a rookie last year. The biggest factor holding Samardzija back (though it impacts Garza, too) is the potential for low run support. Only Josh Johnson received less run support among qualifying starting pitchers last season, and it's not as if the Cubs built a juggernaut offense this offseason.

Fifth tier: Homer Bailey, Jonathon Niese, Mike Minor, Phil Hughes, Shaun Marcum

With just five members, this isn't much of a tier, but these pitchers sport a common profile that doesn't quite fit in the fourth tier. Each of the quintet is slightly better-than-average in getting strikeouts and, aside from Bailey, they're just a little above average in avoiding walks, but none stands out in any particular way. Also, with the possible exception of Niese, each is a mild ERA risk due to a history of high home run rates. If you want to take a risk with one of the pitchers from this group, Marcum could be a pleasant surprise. Now with the Mets, this will be the first time that he will get to pitch for a team that doesn't play home games in a homer-friendly stadium.

Sixth tier: Wei-Yin Chen, Clay Buchholz, Kyle Lohse, Mike Fiers, Tommy Milone, Wade Miley, Andy Pettitte, Anibal Sanchez, A.J. Burnett, Ryan Vogelsong, Paul Maholm, Ryan Dempster, Jaime Garcia, Trevor Cahill, Marco Estrada, Lance Lynn, Brett Anderson

In our sixth tier, we get our first sight of some true contact pitchers. Most of this tier consists of starters who are likely to put up strikeout rates close to the major league average, but Buchholz, Miley and Maholm typify pitchers who make up for a lack of strikeouts by excelling in some other area. Whether Buchholz (low BABIP), Miley (low walk rate) or Maholm (low home run rate) can continue to have success by unorthodox methods is far from a sure thing, so they represent a higher level of risk than most of the pitchers from the previous tiers. The same holds true for Lohse, who not only has to show skeptics that he can approximate last season's level of performance but also still has to find a team who will add him to their rotation.

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K-Factor: Burnett and Dempster had nice bounceback seasons in 2012, and if they can come close to repeating last year's numbers, both will be deserving of a promotion to a higher tier. However, with both pitchers settling into their mid-30s, it is more realistic to expect some decline. Neither should hurt their owners in the strikeout category, but walks and possibly home runs could wind up eroding their value. Fiers, Estrada and Lynn may also need to have their tickets punched for a higher ranking, but a limited track record and relative lack of experience makes them a gamble to take prior to this tier. If Fiers fails to avoid homers as well as he did last year, or if Estrada and Lynn revert to the lower strikeout rates from their minor league careers, they may not deliver much value for a middle-round pick in standard mixed leagues.

Seventh tier: Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, Chad Billingsley, Matt Harrison, Gavin Floyd, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wandy Rodriguez, Jon Lester, A.J. Griffin, Bronson Arroyo, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Jarrod Parker, Vance Worley, Jason Vargas, Brandon McCarthy, Matt Harvey, Jason Hammel, Hyun-Jin Ryu, James McDonald, Dillon Gee, Tim Lincecum

These starters are your best late-round options in standard mixed leagues. Some will look to the past successes of Lincecum and Lester and draft them much earlier, but owners who do so take the risk of getting a repeat performance. You could make the same claim for Adam Wainwright, whom I have in the second tier despite last season's 3.94 ERA. I differentiate between him and Lincecum and Lester, because Wainwright's rate stats (i.e., K/9, BB/9, ground ball rate) were as good as ever, while Lester (declining K/9) and Lincecum (increasing BB/9) decreased in value due to changes in their skill profiles. Similarly, owners may see the upside in Griffin, Parker and Harvey and choose to take them before less glamorous types like Maholm and Garcia. If Griffin repeats last year's success, Parker builds on his strong final month from last season or Harvey continues to thrive despite a high walk rate, they will likely be more valuable than many of the sixth-tier pitchers, but you might also get stuck with a young hurler going through sophomore season growing pains. How you treat them depends on your willingness to take on risk in the latter portions of the draft.

K-Factor: As disappointing as his 2012 season was overall, Lincecum could still be counted on for strikeouts, so there's little risk in drafting him late if that's all you're really looking for from him. Worley, Hammel and McDonald could also pay off as late-round picks, though each poses his own set of risks. Worley is coming back from surgery to remove a loose body and a bone spur in his elbow, Hammel has to prove that his right knee is sound after last season's surgery, and McDonald needs to show consistency as his Jekyll-and-Hyde performance from a year ago.

Eighth tier: Scott Diamond, Bartolo Colon, Edwin Jackson, Derek Holland, Ervin Santana, John Danks, Josh Beckett, Justin Masterson, Tommy Hanson, Johan Santana, Bud Norris

This final tier is comprised of starters who could help owners in deeper mixed leagues, and each could be worth a pickup in standard mixed leagues if they get their seasons off on the right foot. Diamond and Colon (once he returns from his suspension for a positive test for testosterone) are actually solid options for owners in points leagues due to their efficiency, and the others on this list could be worthwhile in all mixed league formats, though each poses either a health or consistency risk. Ervin Santana, Beckett, Masterson and Hanson are the first pitchers to target within this group, as each is just one season removed from being a viable standard mixed league option.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Al Melchior at @almelccbs . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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