This should be fun.
You know how offense has been declining steadily across the league over the last few years, with strikeout rates continuing to rise as the need for power becomes all the more dire? Well, you can imagine what it's done to the starting pitcher landscape.
If the standard for an ace is 200 innings, 8.0 strikeouts per nine and a 1.15 WHIP, there are about 30 aces to be had in Fantasy and another 20 or so pitchers on the verge of becoming aces. Perhaps that means our standard for ace needs to change, but a meaningful change, something like an assured 215 innings with more than a strikeout per, reduces the list to such a small number that it gives the appearance of a shortage where there clearly is none.
Whether that makes the top tier more or less of a priority on Draft Day, the bottom line is there are a ton of good pitchers out there, enough that there's no need to hold your breath with Justin Verlander again or trust that Homer Bailey bounces back all the way from elbow surgery to deliver a mid-threes ERA ... enough that whatever's wrong with Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Wacha or Garrett Richards you can wait until the middle rounds to figure out ... enough that you shouldn't have to go chasing wins with a Lance Lynn or Jered Weaver type.
None of them are in the top 36 because none of them are as valuable as you may perceive them to be. Not unless you're inclined to believe that what Jake Arrieta, Carlos Carrasco, Jacob deGrom, Collin McHugh and Matt Shoemaker did over the last two-thirds of the season was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
In my experience, the smoke usually clears after that length of time, and the mirrors usually ... corrode or something.
Top 12 starting pitchers for 2015:
1. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
2. Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners
3. Chris Sale, SP, White Sox
4. David Price, SP, Tigers
5. Max Scherzer, SP, Tigers
6. Corey Kluber, SP, Indians
7. Johnny Cueto, SP, Reds
8. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals
9. Yu Darvish, SP, Rangers
10. Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants
11. Adam Wainwright, SP, Cardinals
12. Jon Lester, SP, Athletics
Before we get to the Arrietas and Carrascos of the world, let's first look at the mainstays who actually performed up to their usual standards in 2014. Only one of these 12 is a newcomer to Fantasy prominence, but no one would suggest Kluber was anything less than elite in 2014. His 2.35 FIP led the AL, meaning his peripherals backed up his performance. But of course, his 10.3 strikeouts to 1.9 walks per nine innings could have told you that.
I might actually prefer Kluber to Scherzer if not for his unhealthy jump in innings in 2014, when he had about 75 more than in 2014. Scherzer's walk and home run rates aren't quite as sharp as Kluber's, but he's a 250-strikeout guy who's shown he can maintain an ace workload from year to year. Hard to knock him, really.
As for the four ahead of them, Kershaw at No. 1 was the only easy call. He's led the majors in ERA four straight years, the NL in WHIP four straight years and set career bests in both, as well as strikeout rate and walk rate, in 2014. And of course, he has plenty of hardware to show for it. In terms of Head-to-Head points per game, the gap between him and Hernandez was bigger than the gap between Hernandez and anyone else on this list.
And by list, I mean the top 36, not just the top 12.
Hernandez and Sale are the only other two pitchers who I could see making a serious run at a sub-2.00 ERA, and of course, they have the strikeout rates you'd want from an ace. Hernandez gets the edge because of durability.
Cueto and Lester aren't exactly newcomers to the elite tier, but after slipping in the rankings in recent years, both made big leaps in 2014. Cueto was actually No. 1 in total Fantasy points, so this ranking treats him with some degree of skepticism. I hate to knock anyone with a 2.25 ERA and 0.96 WHIP -- and of course, seventh overall still acknowledges he's very, very good -- but much of his value came from his NL-leading 243 2/3 innings pitched, which could be especially tough for him to repeat given his injury history. Plus, his FIP wasn't in the same category as the rest of these 12. FIP isn't the end-all, be-all of player evaluation, of course -- no singular stat is -- but given the leap Cueto made, that's a pretty big duck to have out of row.
But hey, I like him more than Lester, and I have nothing but good things to say about him. The strikeout rate was back, the walk rate was lower than ever, and at age 30, it's not like he's particularly close to his decline phase. Between them are the overpowering but annoyingly inconsistent Strasburg and Darvish and their foil, Bumgarner, who is consistently just shy of Cy Young-worthy. He's like this generation's Jimmy Key.
... And one other pitcher, the only one other than Kluber here who might raise an eyebrow or two (depending how many you have), but for the opposite reason. Wainwright started the All-Star game and looked like he might get screwed out of a Cy Young by the superhuman Kershaw for much of the year, but his second half was thwarted by an on-again, off-again elbow issue that also popped up during the postseason. He says its not the same kind of pain that led to his Tommy John surgery in 2011 and probably knows best as far as that goes, but he's 33 and has a crapload of innings on his arm. Given his declining velocity and strikeout rate, I'd be wary of drafting him as my ace.
But not totally opposed to it.
Next 12 starting pitchers for 2015:
13. Zack Greinke, SP, Dodgers
14. Cole Hamels, SP, Phillies
15. Matt Harvey, SP, Mets
16. Julio Teheran, SP, Braves
17. Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Nationals
18. Jeff Samardzija, SP, Athletics
19. Jake Arrieta, SP, Cubs
20. Alex Wood, SP/RP, Braves
21. Carlos Carrasco, SP/RP, Indians
22. James Shields, SP, Royals
23. Sonny Gray, SP, Athletics
24. Cliff Lee, SP, Phillies
If the line denoting the first tier is after Kluber (which is debatable, of course; it might be after Wainwright ... or yet to come), the line for the second tier is probably after Harvey. He's a risk coming off Tommy John surgery, but he was so clearly an ace before the procedure and will have had so long to recover by the start of 2015 (a full year and a half -- how novel!) that I'm willing to throw caution to the wind.
Teheran feels like he belongs in that tier and certainly has the potential of an ace, but the strikeouts came and went for him, resulting in the second-lowest rate of any pitcher up to this point in the rankings, behind only Wainwright. His ranking isn't as much a tribute to what he did as an acknowledgement he should get better at age 24.
The position really gets interesting after Zimmermann, where we first encounter some of those partial-season breakouts I mentioned earlier. Arrieta, Wood and Carrasco all came about their rotation spots differently but all delivered ace numbers with them. Arrieta was probably the most convincing of the three since he had both the longevity and the stuff. But Wood's funky delivery made his numbers just as impressive, and Carrasco was pushing 100 on the radar gun (with excellent control!). For the short time he started, he was a threat to go seven with double-digit strikeouts every time out. Both are also eligible at relief pitcher, making them gods in Head-to-Head points leagues.
Some may scoff at me ranking Samardzija ahead of them since his name has been synonymous with disappointment in Fantasy, but those same people probably tuned out in August. He didn't have any better luck in wins and losses with the Athletics than the Cubs, but it clearly was just a matter of luck. He went eight innings in three of his final seven starts and seven in the other four, striking out 56 while walking only three in 52 innings. That's acedom, folks. Looking at his final ratios, he seems to have found a happy medium between groundouts and strikeouts after struggling to figure out what kind of pitcher want to be. The right marriage of those two will translate to any ballpark.
As similar as their 2014 seasons were, ranking Gray this far behind Teheran feels wrong, but I perceive Teheran as having more upside. Gray may have maxed out his potential as a Shields type -- an innings eater who won't have the strikeout rate or WHIP to lead your staff but who won't give you much cause to complain about him either. Shields gets the edge here for safety reasons. Gray got a big bump in innings after his rookie season.
Lee at 24 underscores just how much talent is available at the position. He was top-five coming into 2014, a lock for ace numbers virtually every year. But after a slow start revealed an elbow injury and a brief comeback attempt ended with him sitting out the final two months, you have to ask yourself how much you're willing to gamble on a bounce-back season. I'd put his chances of one at better than not, but would I invest more than a seventh- or eighth-round pick on a 36-year-old coming off a mysterious elbow injury for a team with dark days ahead? Yeah ... probably not.
Next 12 starting pitchers for 2015:
25. Tyson Ross, SP, Padres
26. Jacob deGrom, SP, Mets
27. Alex Cobb, SP, Rays
28. Hisashi Iwakuma, SP, Mariners
29. Phil Hughes, SP, Twins
30. Hyun-Jin Ryu, SP, Dodgers
31. Gerrit Cole, SP, Pirates
32. Matt Shoemaker, SP, Angels
33. Collin McHugh, SP, Astros
34. Doug Fister, SP, Nationals
35. Scott Kazmir, SP, Athletics
36. Gio Gonzalez, SP, Nationals
Ross is also a victim of excess. For a good 14-start stretch from mid-June to early September, he looked like an ace with a 1.93 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings and may not be far from earning that distinction. But his control isn't on par with most of the pitchers ahead of him, and of course, he has a Padres problem.
Another tier drop follows, which makes ranking deGrom next easier to justify. It's a gamble slotting him ahead of Cobb and Iwakuma, who entered 2014 ranked even higher than this and didn't entirely disappoint. And in some ways, the distinction between deGrom and Shoemaker and McHugh feels wrong since they all rose from obscurity together. But deGrom is the one with the 97 mph fastball of the group, and his best starts -- a couple of double-digit strikeout efforts stand out -- were better. We have more assurance he's something special while Shoemaker and McHugh still require some imagination.
If it sounds like I'm pooh-poohing them, that's not my intention. They're my top 36, for crying out. I believe, and so should you. But you might as well protect yourself when a Cobb or Iwakuma is still available.
Or Hughes or Ryu, for that matter. Neither had quite the strikeout rate of Shoemaker or McHugh, but both have more of a pedigree to back up their performance. And both had some incredible ratios in their own right. In setting an MLB record for strikeout-to-walk ratio and cutting his home run rate from the previous year in half, Hughes finished with a FIP about a run lower than his ERA, which suggests he actually suffered from bad luck even in putting together the best season of his career. Scary thought.
Cole is the one indulgence I allowed myself in these 36. I project him to take a big step forward in his third season. The ability is obviously there, and like Samardzija, he seemed to find the happy medium between groundouts and strikeouts in 2014, punching out 10.3 batters per nine innings in eight starts after returning from a lat injury.
Rounding out the top 36 are three pitchers whose ceilings almost assuredly put them out of the running for acedom. That description may seem overly harsh for Gonzalez. His 21 wins in 2012 gave him the appearance of an ace, and his ratios were about the same in 2014 as always. It's just that six-inning pitchers don't cut it like they used to, no matter how many strikeouts they get. Fister is on the other end of the spectrum, getting the innings without the strikeouts, which doesn't give him the world's greatest FIP. But everyone wanted to see him take a step forward in a weaker league with a better defense behind him, and he did exactly that. I'm not going to nitpick. As for Kazmir, he was so dominant over the first four months that he deserves a pass for the last two, especially since he hadn't pitched that many innings in years.
In addition to the several I mentioned already -- Verlander, Bailey, Tanaka (so scary), Wacha, Richards, Lynn and Weaver -- the omissions from the top 36 are notable and many, but the most painful for me was Mike Fiers. Separating him from Carrasco was like breaking up brothers. Both were late-season heroes with numbers nobody saw coming. But Fiers, of course, isn't eligible at relief pitcher, and for as good as he was in his 10 starts, he wasn't quite Carrasco with all the double-digit strikeout games. He relies more on deception than stuff, which has the makings of disaster if scouting catches up to it. I'm not expecting a repeat of his epic 2013 collapse -- I'd be thrilled to land Fiers outside of the top 36 myself -- but we can't just pretend it didn't happen either.