There was a time not too long ago when you could go without a high-end starting pitcher in Fantasy. The position was thin at the top and had a high turnover rate, so by investing heavily in it, you were not only exposing yourself to needless risk but also paying for numbers you could possibly recoup in later rounds. It was an inefficient way to draft, regardless of what the tiers said, and I traditionally used this space to convince you as much.
But the position has gotten better in recent years -- deeper, particularly on the high end -- making a wait-for-the-middle-rounds-and-hope-for-the-best sort of approach a good way to get lapped in terms of production.
With the depth now concentrated at the top, the position offers enough high-end options for every team to have several but still a finite number overall. In other words, you need good starting pitching because you can't afford to be the only one without it.
And whenever you're looking to keep pace at a position, you'll want to have tiers in hand.
(Players with an asterisk next to their names are also (or perhaps only) eligible at relief pitcher but are projected to start this year.)
The Unmatched: Clayton Kershaw
The Elite: Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, David Price, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Johnny Cueto, Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish, Madison Bumgarner
The Near-Elite: Adam Wainwright, Jon Lester, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Matt Harvey, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, Julio Teheran, Jake Arrieta, Alex Wood*, Carlos Carrasco*
The Next-Best Things: James Shields, Sonny Gray, Cliff Lee, Tyson Ross, Jacob deGrom, Alex Cobb, Hisashi Iwakuma, Phil Hughes, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Gerrit Cole, Collin McHugh, Matt Shoemaker, Mike Fiers, Masahiro Tanaka, Garrett Richards, Gio Gonzalez, Lance Lynn, Jered Weaver, Marcus Stroman, Michael Wacha
The Fallback Options: Scott Kazmir, Doug Fister, Michael Pineda, Anibal Sanchez, Jose Quintana, Chris Archer, Zack Wheeler, Yordano Ventura, Justin Verlander, Ian Kennedy, Dallas Keuchel, Francisco Liriano, Andrew Cashner, Jose Fernandez, Mat Latos, Mike Minor
The Last Resorts: James Paxton, Drew Smyly, Homer Bailey, Matt Cain, Jake Odorizzi, Kevin Gausman, Derek Holland, Rick Porcello, Shelby Miller, Danny Duffy, Taijuan Walker, Drew Pomeranz*
Strictly Late-Rounders: Jason Hammel, Tony Cingrani, Drew Hutchison, Henderson Alvarez, Ervin Santana, Kyle Lohse, Chris Tillman, Wily Peralta, John Lackey, Jesse Hahn, Brandon McCarthy, Carlos Martinez*, Trevor Bauer, Kyle Hendricks, Mike Leake, R.A. Dickey, Jimmy Nelson, Shane Greene, Andrew Heaney
The Leftovers: Matt Garza, Jake Peavy, Yovani Gallardo, CC Sabathia, C.J. Wilson, Tanner Roark, A.J. Burnett, Danny Salazar, Edinson Volquez, Wei-Yin Chen, Wade Miley, Jonathon Niese, Tim Hudson, Bartolo Colon, Alfredo Simon, Mark Buehrle, Justin Masterson, Nathan Eovaldi, Dillon Gee, Rubby De La Rosa, Clay Buchholz, Vance Worley, Josh Collmenter, Brett Anderson
OK, so it's deeper, but does that make starting pitcher any less risky? Well, it's still not especially predictable considering Arrieta, Carrasco, deGrom, Hughes, McHugh, Shoemaker, Fiers, Richards and Stroman are all Next-Best Things or better and none of them were on anybody's radar at this time a year ago. But among The Elite, the only newcomers from last year are Kluber and Cueto, who weren't exactly nobodies before then, demonstrating a level of continuity that most positions couldn't match these days.
That's a testament to the way the game has changed. It's not like the league only did away with steroids, after all. The list of banned substance is vast, and I have a theory that some of those substances allowed hitters to continue playing at a high level even when they weren't at their best physically. Now that those substances are no longer an option, they still play through nagging injuries, but their numbers suffer. And more often than not, we never find out why.
It's just another reason to make starting pitching more of a priority in the early rounds. These days, the early round hitters are about as much of a gamble.
But of course, usable starting pitchers are still prevalent in the middle rounds, which isn't necessarily true of hitters, so you wouldn't want to go overboard for pitching early, condemning you to the worst starting lineup in the league. I'm not even saying you have to get one of The Elite. Often, it turns out that way because it's the most logical pick you could make, going by the tiers, in Round 3, but if that's your last chance to get a first-tier outfielder (let's say Yasiel Puig fell or something), maybe you choose to go that route instead.
Ideally, you'll have at least two pitchers by the end of The Near-Elite, regardless if they came from that tier of the two before it. Yes, I added a tier to the top of the position, making The Near-Elite technically third, but I thought Kershaw deserved special distinction. Every year, there's one starting pitcher who gets drafted in the first round just because, well, somebody has to take one eventually, but Kershaw actually deserves it. He should go off the board no later than the sixth overall pick.
As with every other position, The Next-Best Things mark the last of the must-start options at the position, which isn't to say the players below them won't start in your league or shouldn't start in your league. In fact, at a position as deep as this one, it's still an impressive list of names. But they may have bigger questions surrounding them heading into the season, such as Pineda, Verlander or Minor, or they may have clear limits to their upside, such as Fister, Keuchel or Liriano.
It doesn't mean I wouldn't be thrilled to draft some of them, as my Sleepers and Breakouts columns can attest. Still, with no fewer than 41 pitchers rated as Next-Best Things or better, forming a starting five from those top tiers isn't too tall of a task in a 12-team league, especially since Fantasy owners at large don't seem to be as high on McHugh, Shoemaker, Fiers and Richards as I am, often letting them fall to Round 13 and beyond.
Obviously, to form that starting five, you'll have to take more than just one pitcher from the same tier, meaning you can't always wait until the end of a tier to select one. But we've already been over this with the outfielders. You take a starting pitcher either when the tiers don't give you an obvious pick elsewhere or when starting pitcher itself is the obvious position to pick.
If you don't get five starting pitchers rated Next-Best Things or better, it's not the end of the world. It should be something you happen into by following the tiers, not something you extend yourself to do. You wouldn't want to sacrifice hitting in the process. It's much harder to make up ground at those positions in the middle-to-late rounds.
The Fallback Options, as we've already discussed, still have plenty to offer, so you should do fine with one of them as your fifth starting pitcher. I might make up for the lack of quality with quantity, loading up on three or four of them and The Last Resorts, who offer plenty of upside themselves in the form of Smyly, Cain, Gausman and others.
Notice I added another tier second from the end. Yup, the position is so deep that even some of the lower-end guys are too good to lump with The Leftovers, so pitchers like Hammel, Cingrani, Hahn and McCarthy are instead Strictly Late-Rounders. And that's precisely how I'd draft them. Maybe I won't get a chance to because I have too many arms by then as it is, but the point is you should never reach a stage in the draft when you can't find a starting pitcher you like.
The position is still deep in breakout potential, and you'll want to take advantage of that where you can. The difference now is you can't afford as many misses as in years past.