I will be going over my current top 25 starters for fantasy baseball. This list uses some advanced statistics to provide evidence. For those that do not know these stats, I recommed you head over to the FanGraphs Glossary. You can also comment; I will be happy to explain the stats in general. Personally, I prefer tiers to rankings because between a certain range (it could be 1-3, or 1-10), players are relatively similar and equal in value. At the same time, I also added rankings based on tiers if you prefer that.
- Clayton Kershaw: He’s simply the best. He had 301 strikeouts this year and the first to reach that mark since Randy Johnson. Nothing more needs to be said. He’s as consistent as they come and he’s a workhorse. Over the past three seasons, Kershaw has had a 1.91 ERA. He’s striking out more batters every year and getting more whiffs than ever. His elite groundball rate and home run suppression should allow him to continue being the best pitcher in the major leagues.
- Jake Arrieta: Over the past two seasons, Arrieta ranks second in both ERA, FIP, and third in xFIP. Arrieta’s second half 0.75 ERA is the greatest second half ERA in history. We can’t expect Arrieta to be as great as he was in 2015, but we can expect him to continue being a top pitcher in the Majors. After being moved from the Orioles, Arrieta came to Chicago throwing his cutter close to 30% of the time quickly becoming his best pitch. Arrieta was always known to have a good cutter; he just wasn’t allowed to use it in Baltimore over fears of injury. The biggest difference Arrieta made from the moment the season started in 2014 and his second half is changing his repertoire to induce more groundballs. He had the second highest groundball percentage after Brett Anderson. Over the course of the full season, it would still be second ahead of known groundball artists Dallas Keuchel and Tyson Ross. The biggest reason as to why he induced more groundballs is the greater sinker usage. He used the sinker close to 50% of the time in the second half. By September, Arrieta had all but abandoned the fastball, throwing changeups more often. By putting more grounders in play, Arrieta took advantage of a strong Cubs defence. Jake’s BABIP and strand rate both scream regression; however, some of that may be offset by his high groundball rate if he manages to maintain it. Perhaps Arrieta began pitching to contact; his soft contact% was up 6% from the first half. Almost all his pitches were inducing more groundballs than ever before indicating a change in pitching strategy. Another interesting point about Arrieta: His curveball and sinker both have very similar vertical release points. With a 14 MPH difference between the two, that bodes well for Jake. Arrieta will continue striking batters out at a high rate as well and all seems well for Jake as he attempts to back up his Cy Young.
- Max Scherzer: Scherzer had another phenomenal season. Scherzer had a career high 2.79 ERA with a 2.77 FIP. Scherzer’s first season in the NL saw him cut his walk rate by just over 3%. This, combined with a .268 BABIP led Scherzer to a 0.92 WHIP. The BABIP should be expected to rise but Scherzer should still retain the gains in his control. Scherzer tinkered with his horizontal release point leading to a gain of 1.4 MPH on his fastball. Scherzer pounded the strike zone on the first pitch getting the advantage 70% of the time. Scherzer’s increased control and elite whiff rates combined to put up a career year. Scherzer will no doubt be a force to be reckoned with again this season.
- Chris Sale: The 6-6 lefty from Lakeland, Florida had an interesting year to say the least. Sale started the season on a tumultuous note evidenced by his 5.32 ERA in April (though 3.32 FIP). In June, no batter could escape the wrath of Sale as he struck out almost 40% of batters he faced. He was a video game. His 1.83 ERA that month was great. His FIP was a pristine 0.95. Yes it was a small sample size, but Chris Sale had one of the most dominant months of the season. By the time the second half of the season came along, Sale had some bad luck. The .361 BABIP was highest amongst qualified pitchers and was 11th in HR/FB. The Condor’s FIP at 2.73, XFIP 2.60, and SIERA at 2.52 all indicate he should have had a better fortune. The big lefty gained 0.7 MPH on his two-seam fastball over the course of the season. One issue with Chris is how many innings he will pitch. Nevertheless, Sale should be in for another big year. The White Sox defence has improved somewhat, and that should help Sale.
- Jacob DeGrom: Well what can you say about DeGrom? He improved in almost every facet of the game. He improved his walk rate by 2.5% and his strikeout rate went up by 1.8% joining an elite group of pitchers. He threw more first pitch strikes and had more whiffs on his curve and changeup. Another reason for the higher strikeout rate was the increase in fastball velocity by 1.4 MPH. DeGrom managed to get more batters chasing pitches outside the zone. His HR/FB was about league average. Heading into the 2016 season, aside from poor luck, DeGrom should have no problem having another great year. He should eclipse the 200 inning mark all while being his awesome self.
- Zack Greinke: Greinke stayed true to his word and chased the most money by going to Arizona. Greinke is coming off a phenomenal season as he was nominated for the Cy Young. Every start was amazing, and Greinke was a force to be reckoned with. Greinke had the lowest ERA (1.66) since Maddux and the fifth lowest since 1920. Greinke is known for being one of the smartest players in the game, and it seems his intelligence was strong. Zack upped his strikeout rate as the season went on. His BABIP at .229 definitely should regress closer to his career average as should his strand rate. Greinke pitched mighty well, but he also had some good fortune to go along with it. Greinke heads to Arizona where the defence is strong and the offence is plenty. Greinke should keep up close to his second half strikeout rate that was amongst the best. His swinging strike rate was at 12%. That was better than Gerrit Cole, Arrieta, and by .1%, David Price. Greinke can still get whiffs with the best of ‘em. Zack has great command of his pitches. Greinke had one of the best changeups in the league as it got both whiffs and one of the highest groundball rates. I’m not expecting Greinke to be as excellent as he was last year, but I do expect a strong performance.
- Stephen Strasburg: In the second half, Strasburg was arguably a top 3 pitcher. Easily top five. He was 3rd in ERA and FIP as well as 1st in xFIP and SIERA. Strasburg had a league high 37.4% strikeout rate supported by his 14.6% swinging strike rate. Stephen relied more on curve this year than his changeup. Strasburg has a unique changeup. It is fast, hovering at 88 MPH, and it induces groundballs at a high rate as well as whiffs. The changeup was not quite as effective and that may be the reason Strasburg went to the curveball more often. The curve was Strasburg’s best pitch in 2013. After reducing its usage in 2014, Strasburg has begun trusting the pitch more in an effort to have a true off-speed offering that could aid his fastball. Strasburg’s first half was bad; he had an elevated BABIP and a depressed left on base %. He was injured for some time as well. Second half Strasburg represents his ceiling. Heading into a contract year, there’s a lot to like about Strasburg and he was top five upside.
- Corey Kluber: After winning the AL Cy Young in 2014, Corey Kluber didn’t do a good job defending his title. With a 3.50 ERA, Kluber wasn’t quite what fantasy owners were expecting. The positive about his 2015 line: Kluber’s FIP (2.97), xFIP(3.05), and SIERA(2.98) all point towards Kluber having a better season. For the first half of the season, Kluber had an inflated BABIP but pitched to a 2.83 ERA. During the second half, Kluber had a below average BABIP and struggled with a 4.15 ERA. One of the biggest differences between his 2014 and 2015 campaigns was the reduction in groundballs put into play. Every pitch but the sinker had better groundball rates than in 2015. Part of Kluber’s post all-star game adjustments included using the sinker less and relying more on the fastball. He used the fastball almost double as much as the first half of the season. In August and September Kluber gave up more home runs than usual evidenced by his 15.2% HR/FB in those months. On the plus side, the cutter, changeup (seldom used), and fastball (seldom used) saw an increase in whiffs. Kluber might just be boom or bust heading into 2016. After a breakout in 2014 (you could argue 2013), Kluber showed two sides of him. At the very least, Kluber will provide you with a lot of strikeouts with his 28% strikeout percentage over the past two seasons.
- David Price: David Price is coming off a career season with the Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays where he put up a combined 6.4 WAR. Price’s 2.45 ERA ranked 4th in the majors and his 2.78 FIP ranked 8th. For the second straight season, David Price had a groundball percentage below his career average of 44%. During his time with the Blue Jays, it actually was just a percentage point shy of his career average. The lefty from Murfreesboro, Tennessee changed his pitch mix quite a bit. The fastball was thrown more often at the expense of the sinker. By September, Price was using fastball less, and the cutter more often, throwing it harder than ever before leading to success especially in the whiff department. Price continued utilizing his changeup more often, throwing it harder and with more movement getting more whiffs. Price can still throw the fastball hard averaging 94 MPH.Price has shown continued development as he ages featuring new and refined pitches. 2015 wasn’t all roses however. Price saw an uptick in walk rate. The concern here isn’t too high as he was excellent and we should expect it to dip slightly. Price also benefitted from a strand rate slightly higher than his career average. Price has spent the vast majority of his career in the AL East. There may be some bumps along the way (no pitcher is safe from the Blue Birds), but he should be able to have another strong season.
- Carlos Carrasco: Over the past two seasons, pitchers with at least 300 innings, Carrasco is fifth in FIP, 4th in xFIP, and 3rd in SIERA. Some more information on his dominance? Well Carrasco is fifth in strikeout percentage and 29th in walk percentage (still very good). Carrasco’s first half was marred by a high BABIP and a low strand rate. These two factors led to an ERA just over 4. As the Cleveland Indians defence improved with the callup of Francisco Lindor, so did Carrasco’s game as his BABIP fell. During the second half, Carrasco’s strikeout rate was at 32.5%. That’s Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale territory. Carrasco combines his elite strikeout and walk rates with an impressive 52% groundball rate. Carrasco has a full repertoire throwing five pitches: Fourseam and two seam fastballs, the slider, curve, and changeup all to varying degrees. Carrasco has made concerted efforts to improving his two seamer and threw it with more confidence. At the same time, as the slider wasn’t as effective, Carrasco looked to the changeup more often with success. The biggest thing holding back Carrasco might be the amount of innings he pitches. If he can cross the 200 inning mark, he could be more valuable. Carrasco should have a big 2016 in store and his average draft position won’t be quite as high as other aces.
- Jose Fernandez: Fernandez came back from Tommy John and looked like he didn’t miss a beat. Fernandez has top five upside in terms of pitcher ranks so he could be a valuable reach. When players return from Tommy John, usually they suffer from control problems. Matt Harvey avoided it, and in his limited innings, Fernandez looked to avoid it as well. His strikeout rate was near Max Scherzer’s and his 2.34 FIP in 50 innings was within the top ten. Scherzer came back with slighty more velocity. In this small sample size, we should take a few things with a grain of salt. The batted ball line was much different than his career averages. The line drive rate approached 29% (abnormally high) and his groundball percentage was below league and Fernandez’s average. Fernandez suffered from an inflated BABIP before he was shutdown. We can expect an above average ERA and a healthy amount of strikeouts. An area of concern will be the innings limit as he pitches his first full year after Tommy John surgery. Realistically, we should expect 180 and that might just be what limits his fantasy value. Fernandez has Chris Sale upside but don’t draft him believing he will pitch 200+ innings.
- Chris Archer: I think we all hope after Archer retires he becomes a commentator. Dude is very knowledgeable and would be a fun person to listen to. Archer had another strong year. There is lots to like as he struck out batters at an elite rate and cut down his walk rate. Archer threw more first pitch strikes, allowing him to gain the advantage against the batter. He posted an above average groundball rate for the third consecutive season. Archer relies primarily on his four seam fastball and his slider. The slider usage is up around 40% so there is an inherent injury risk with Archer but he has stayed healthy for the most part. Archer should have another strong year on the Tampa Bay Rays.
- Madison Bumgarner: MadBum is another pitcher coming off a career year. He upped his strikeout rate and reduced his walk rate. His 2.93 ERA was supported by a 2.87 FIP. He had a career high in whiff percentage and batters made less contact outside the zone than before. Left handed batters swung and missed more often leading to a higher swinging strike rate for Bumgarner as well as lower contact. An area of concern is Bumgarner trading groundballs for line drives. We can expect both to regress towards career norms. Perhaps this was due to Bumgarner throwing more four seam fastballs than the two seam. All in all, Madison has a full repertoire of pitches he can go to whether ahead or behind the count. Bumgarner looks to be another stud heading into the 2016 season.
- Matt Harvey: The Dark Knight caused quite the ruckus in September over innings limits. It was a strange situation indeed as he pitched his first season since undergoing Tommy John surgery. Over his career, Harvey has had a below average BABIP. It’s too early to call whether or not he is a pitcher that has some BABIP reducing tendencies, but it is a good sign. Harvey was below average compared to his career in the strikeout department; however, Harvey threw first pitch strikes the fifth most in the MLB and in that group, only Scherzer had a higher swinging strike rate. This bodes well for Harvey’s future strikeout potential. The Dark Knight has a full arsenal of weapons with a four seam, slider, curve, and changeup. The fastball is his best pitch as it gets an above average amount of whiffs and a decent groundball rate. The rest of his pitches are all considered above average. The full arsenal lends itself well to pitchers and is generally a sign of a good pitcher. Sequencing might be the most important factor at this stage. Harvey is ace material and should be in for another solid year.
- Felix Hernandez: King Felix is coming off a year he would likely forget, as would many Hernandez owners. In a season where he saw his strikeouts plummet, and his walks soar, 2015 was not kind. The biggest culprit for Felix was an abnormal amount of home runs. His career HR/FB is 10.6%. 2015 had an inflated 15.3% mark. He gave up 1.03 home runs/9, while his career mark is 0.73. The main culprits were the fastball, slider, and sinker all of which had around double the home runs when compared to his career average. We can expect him to revert back to career norms. I would also expect the strikeout percentage to hover around 23%, which is good but not great. His walk rate should improve back to somewhere in the 5% range. Felix’s batted ball profile was pretty much the same as 2014 when he added an elite groundball rate. Hernandez’s curveball was rated the best by FanGraphs pitch values. Hernandez, long known for his changeup, seemed to have lost some trust in the pitch as it has not gotten as many whiffs for two consecutive seasons (Down 3% in 2014, 5% in 2015). King Felix will look to rebound as he heads into 2016. Expectations should be similar to his 2012 season where he had a 3.06 ERA and 2.84 FIP.
- Gerrit Cole: Cole had a big year for the Pirates as he eclipsed the 200 inning mark for the first time in his career. His 2.60 ERA and equally fantastic 2.66 FIP showcase just how good he is. The former first overall pick cut his walk rate by almost 2% while maintaing a strong groundball rate. Cole posted a below average HR/FB so he could very well see a couple more home runs next season. Cole reduced his curveball usage and opted for the slider more often. Cole has been getting more whiffs on his slider than curve since 2014 so it may be no surprise Cole went to the curve less. By FanGraphs pitch values, Cole had the second best fastball in the game. Cole is the Pirates ace and at 25, he may not be done growing as a pitcher.
- Noah Syndergaard: I gotta say Noah Syndergaard has one of the best names in the league. He is affectionately known as Thor and the towering 23 year old from Asgard, er I mean Mansfield, Texas, wasted no time making his mark on the big leagues. As a 23 year old, Thor posted a 3.24 ERA with an incredible 27.5% strikeout rate. Let’s put that into prospective. Syndergaard pitched 150 innings last season. There were only five pitchers who pitched at least 150 innings, with a higher strikeouts/9 in the league and of that group, only 1 with a better walk rate than Syndergaard. Thor’s FIP at 3.24, xFIP and SIERA at 2.91, and 2.95 respectively, were dynamite. Syndergaard averaged 96.5 MPH on his fastball making it one of the best in the league. His fast changeup provided an above average whiff rate as well as an elite groundball rate for the pitch. Thor has an exciting future. He has ace potential and has all the makings of an elite pitcher. The Mets will closely monitor his arm all season long making it unlikely he reaches the 200 innings pitched mark which limits his value. He still should be superb.
- Dallas Keuchel: The reigning AL CY Young Award winner finds his place at 18 on my current list. Keuchel is primarily a control artist that pitches to contact. He had the lowest hard contact allowed as well as the third highest soft contact. His groundball rate the past two seasons has been above 60% making it one of the best in the league. Last season saw Keuchel add another element: strikeouts. Dallas had a first half ERA at 2.23 but a second half ERA at 2.85. One of the reasons might be the decrease in first pitch strikes in the second half. Not only that, but his groundball rate fell six percent. At the same time, Keuchel saw a 6% uptick in strikeout percentage. If Keuchel can keep his high strikeout rate and elite groundball rate, he could be a gem. I personally don’t think he can. Keuchel may find batters laying off on outside pitches and not chasing. Eno Sarris of FanGraphs had an interesting article on Keuchel throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone. All in all, Keuchel should provide a good ERA. He’s beaten his FIP the past two seasons. Keuchel had a .269 BABIP. His career average is .295. It will likely regress closer to his career mark next season likely playing a small role in raising his ERA. The strikeouts may most likely be a combination of 2014 and 2015, which isn’t bad, but it limits his upside.
- Jon Lester: Jon Lester’s first season as a Cub would be considered successful. His fWAR was the third highest of his career. While Lester had a 3.34 ERA, his 2.92 FIP, 3.06 xFIP, and 3.19 SIERA all represent Lester having a better season than what his ERA indicated. Part of the blame goes to the depressed strand rate, around 3% lower than his career norm. In 2013 and 2014, Lester saw his groundball rate decrease by almost 7%. He managed to raise it close to 7%. This is attributed to the sinker and four seam fastball both seeing a rise in groundballs. Lester didn’t have any dominating pitches, but all were effective to varying degrees. This four-pitch arsenal lends itself well to continuing Lester’s success. Lester threw fewer pitches in the zone and opponents made less contact outside the zone. His fastball velocity was up half a mile and nothing really looks out of place. Lester should have another solid year for the Cubs. He is 32, and that does carry some risk. At the end of the day, Lester will provide a solid line and doesn’t have any health issues.
- Danny Salazar: Salazar had a breakout year as he pitched 185 innings with a 3.45 ERA. His FIP, xFIP, and SIERA were all good as he posted a very good strikeout rate. He showed the fine control he’s had since his major league debut, and the 15th highest swinging strike percentage sandwiched in between David Price and Matt Harvey. Salazar upped his groundball rate by ten percent to league average. Part of his success came from not throwing the fastball more than two-thirds the time. As he diversified his arsenal, Salazar saw greater success. Salazar may well be a pitcher that always has trouble with the long ball. His 12.4% HR/FB was above league average and 1.12 HR/9 was 21st amongst qualified pitchers. The long ball has long been Salazar’s problem. The increase in groundball rate suggests an altered approach to help mitigate damages. Lastly, Salazar saw a 6% decrease in strikeouts between the first and second half. Both the slider and the two seam fastball saw a reduction in whiffs. The two seam stood steady, however, the slider had varying degrees of vertical movement. While there are some red flags, there are also many positive signs from Salazar’s 2015 campaign. He should pitch similar to last season, and may see small improvements if he can throw some additional first pitch strikes.
- Cole Hamels: For the sixth straight season, Hamels crossed the 200 innings pitched mark. He posted his highest strikeouts per nine innings since 2010 and the second highest swinging strike percentage of his career. Hamels gained 0.3 MPH on his fastball, and now has two straight seasons of increasing fastball velocity. A career high in whiff percentage on the curveball made Hamels throw the pitch the most since 2008. If he can keep these gains, Hamels will have two legitimate secondary pitches in addition to his fastballs and cutter. Speaking of fastballs, the two seam was a new pitch giving Hamels a full arsenal. Hamels 2015 peripherals and career averages point towards a better ERA. Hamels enters 2016 as the Rangers ace, and he will be expected to continue his great career.
- Masahiro Tanaka: Tanaka had some injury concerns at the outset of 2015 but he managed to pitch in 24 games after not opting for surgery. He provided a good line with a 3.51 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 154 innings. Tanaka enters 2016 with potential for improvement. He could reach the 200 innings mark while providing an above average strikeout rate. Tanaka had a below average BABIP hovering around .240. While it didn’t lead to much success, Tanaka’s real enemy was the home run as he gave up 1.46 HR/9. Tanaka has a full arsenal: a 92 MPH fastball, a sinker, an above average cutter and splitter, with the slider and curve being his off-speed offerings. Tanaka saw his swinging strike rate fall that led to his strikeout rate falling as well. Tanaka has decent upside and he may very well end up being a bargain based on current average draft positions.
- Sonny Gray: 200 innings, a career 2.88 ERA, a groundball % in the early to mid 50s, and a four pitch mix, what more could you want? Well, some more strikeouts would be nice. Gray is a really interesting pitcher. In his past two seasons, there are only seven pitchers who have outperformed their FIP to the magnitude Gray has. The group has below average BABIPs. Gray also made gains in the walk department and had the highest swinging strike percentage of his young career. But then you go back to the peripherals that don’t support his ERA, and if the ERA craters to something closer to 3.5 than 2.5, you don’t have much strikeout upside. Gray carries a certain risk that cannot be offset by a large amount of strikeouts. I think I am staying away.
- Drew Smyly: Smyly came back from injury and pitched to the tune of a 3.11 ERA with a bunch of strikeouts supported by a higher whiff percentage. The ERA was inflated due to a high strand rate and we should expect some regression there. Smyly’s FIP at 3.91 was high, but his xFIP and SIERA (3.47, 3.25) both aligned closer to his ERA. In 2014, Smyly had a 3.24 ERA with his peripherals in the mid 3s. Amongst pitchers with 150 IP in 2014, Smyly had the highest infield fly ball percentage and the same trend continued in 2015. These are easy outs which Smyly made look easy. With a full season, Smyly should be able to sniff out some of his control issues he had after injury and continue getting strikeouts at an above league average clip. I expect him to have a low-mid 3s ERA. I’m a believer in Smyly, and really almost any pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays rotation.
- Michael Pineda: Pineda pitched the most amount of innings since his rookie 2011 season with the Mariners. Pineda has been injured multiple times in his career, and he was unable to keep away from the disabled list in August of this year. Just like Tulowitzki, Pineda presents an inherent injury risk. Pineda’s ERA was an ugly 4.37, but he was second in ERA – FIP(3.34) differential. His xFIP at 2.95 and SIERA at 3.09 both show us Pineda’s potential. Pineda had a .332 BABIP way above league average and his strand rate was very low (68.6%). Pineda was unlucky as well with the long ball exemplified by his 14.7% HR/FB. Pineda’s induced groundballs at above league average, which is almost always a good sign. As the season progressed, Pineda saw his strikeout rate plummet. It was still above league average and his swinging strike rate makes me believe he may be in for something slightly higher. Pineda’s miniscule walk rate was third best in the MLB (min. 150 innings pitched) showcasing he still has his elite control he had demonstrated previously. Pineda could end up as a top 20 fantasy starter in 2016. Throwing more first pitch strikes and mainting his groundball rate will help him achieve that mark. Pineda may get injured, but his peripherals all point towards a top 25 pitcher option.
This concludes my current top 25 fantasy starting pitchers heading into the 2016 season. A lot can change between now and March; perhaps with more digging one may find new information that can supplant another. Looking at the list, the biggest surprise to me was Madison Bumgarner being outside the top ten and Sonny Gray outside the top 20. With that said, these are my early top 25 pitcher rankings. I plan on going up to at least fifty but I’m not sure when. I hope you enjoyed the piece, and hope we can start a discussion.