The fantasy baseball season is almost in full swing as Yahoo will be opening up registration tomorrow. With the top 25 starters out of the way, let’s move onto the top 50. I will be going over my current top 50 starters for fantasy baseball. This list uses some advanced statistics to provide evidence. For those that do not know these stats, I recommend 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. Let’s get onto it!
Tier 5 -This tier is a continuation from the top 25.
26. Tyson Ross: Over the past three seasons (2013-2015), only 10 pitchers have a better ERA than Ross, only 11 have a better FIP, and only 12 have a better xFIP and SIERA. There have been eight pitchers with a better strikeout percentage and only one, Dallas Keuchel, with a higher groundball percentage. The issue with Ross is his control. Over the same period, Ross has the fourth highest walk percentage. It has been increasing every year since 2013. As a result, Ross hurts you in leagues counting walks in addition to the standard WHIP. Now, there are positive signs from his second half: He trimmed his walk percentage by 11.6% to 8.9%. For Ross to become a top 20 pitcher, he will have to improve upon that second half walk rate. There is a lot to like about Ross but those control issues present a risk. With his slider usage above 40%, Ross faces a greater likelihood of injury. Nevertheless, Ross continues to pile up strikeouts using two pitches and has been one of the better pitchers in the game over the past three seasons.
27. Francisco Liriano: Liriano and Tyson Ross have many similarities. Both have similar walk and strikeout rates, both throw a similar amount of first pitch strikes and have around the same swinging strike percentage. Since being a Pirate full time, Liriano has a 3.32 ERA and a 3.23 FIP. Ray Searage worked some kind of magic with Liriano. He pitched the most innings since 2010 and showed growth in the control department. He continues to have an above average groundball rate, Liriano’s slider is one of the best in the game as it generates an elite amount of whiffs. Liriano should continue to have an ERA around 3.32 and get many strikeouts. He was a top 25 pitcher last year, and he has the tools to do it again.
28. Marcus Stroman: HDMH! Height Doesn’t Measure Heart! Stroman is a positive force in the Jays locker room and it’s his optimistic nature that allows him to compete as hard as he does. Stroman wasn’t suppose to be back in September last year, but he made it and pitched well. 2014 provides the best look at Stroman; elite groundball induction with fine control and command of his pitches. Speaking of pitches, Stroman can throw six pitches, and here is a great article by Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs on the matter. His second half 2014 FIP was 2.43 with an xFIP of 2.96 all while having a below average strand rate. One of the most intriguing aspects of Stroman is his minor league strikeout rates. At every level of the minors, Stroman showed he could strikeout batters at a high rate exemplified by his K/9 never dropping below a K/9 of 10. (min. 30 innings). Stroman combines a very good group of pitches with strong command. With only 157.2 innings, Stroman still has lots of room to grow. He should provide a good ERA and WHIP, and any growth in strikeouts will be welcome.
29. Garrett Richards: Richards struggled for much of 2015 ending up with a 3.65 ERA but a 3.86 FIP. Strikeouts dropped, walks rose, as well as losing almost a full mile on his fastball. Still, there were some positive signs as his groundball percentage, already above average, returned to 2013 levels. With defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons now at shortstop, Richards will benefit from better infield defense. Moreover, Richards threw more first pitch strikes in addition to getting more whiffs. His strikeouts neared return in the second half. Richards can still throw hard (95.7 MPH), gets lots of groundballs, and is a year removed from his breakout campaign. Richards is a prime bounce back candidate who will look to get back on track in 2016.
30. Johnny Cueto: Cueto was having another fine season before he imploded once he joined the Kansas City Royals. He ended up with a large sum of money from the San Francisco Giants to add onto his World Series victory. Cueto has consistently outperformed his FIP over the years leading me to believe he will do it again. Cueto is more of a pitch to contact than a flamethrower. Cueto’s strikeout rate peaked in 2014 and we shouldn’t expect him to be a strong contributor in that department again. Cueto should be able to hold a good ERA and WHIP with the Giants. He posted the best walk rate of his career and he still has one of the better fastballs in the game. Cueto was pitching right in line with his career line before Kansas, likely an anomaly, and I think he continues to do the same for over 200 innings in 2016.
31. Jeff Samardzija: Samardzija’s 2015 season was horrendous as he pitched to an ERA close to 5 with his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA each ranging from 4.18-4.31. He saw a decrease in strikeouts and an increase in walks. His groundball rate around 47% from 2012-2014, decreased to 39% resulting in a lot more flyballs. Batters made more contact off Samardzija and he found himself throwing fewer first pitch strikes. It was a disaster. While he did give up more home runs, his HR/FB is right around his career average. Samardzija opted to throw the sinker less and go with the cut fastball more often. If only we could blame the cuter and solely the cutter, this would be a whole lot easier. The cutter was arguably his best pitch. Samardzija’s splitter was amongst the best in 2013 as it had a whiffs/swings approaching 50%. That’s really good. Since 2013, his splitter has been getting fewer whiffs. After the peak in 2013, Samardzija pitched it with a 1.5 inches of more horizontal movement almost the same as the fastball. In 2014, Samardzija had a 44.56% whiffs/swings making it a good pitch in that regard. Perhaps 2015 was an anomaly. His slider had reduced effectiveness, fewer swings and misses, but I would trust it to return back to its previous effectiveness based on history.
Is there any reason for optimism for Samardzija? Well he went to the Giants, which should limit some flyball damage. Dave Righetti, the pitching coach is one of the better individuals at his craft. Moreover, Samardzija’s velocity stayed steady. With a few adjustments, Samardzija can return closer to his 2014 performance. He has shown he can effectively throw a two-seam fastball, a splitter, slider, and now a cutter. With a depressed strand rate and an pitching in front of a better defence, it’s likely Samardzija bounces back. I believe 2015 was an outlier for Jeff, and he should have some strikeouts return and pitch to a mid 3s ERA.
32. Justin Verlander: There might not be a more intriguing player this year than Justin Verlander. After two years of showing decline, Verlander came back and pitched better than most expected. His first half was only 30 innings but had an ERA and FIP over 5. Just over 100 innings were thrown in the second half leading to a 2.80 ERA and a 2.81 FIP. His K/9 was above average and is his walk rate was amazing. Maybe, just maybe Justin Verlander figured it out. Verlander’s xFIP was at 3.79 right at his career average during the second half. The most intriguing aspect of Verlander was his batted ball profile. He managed to induce more flyballs than ever before and less groundballs. Throughout the season, there were only four pitchers with a higher percentage of flyballs. Extreme flyball pitchers generally have lower BABIPs and that explains part of Verlander’s approach. Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs recently created an ERA estimator metric called kwERA. It attempts to factor in the direction and type of contact in addition to strikeouts, walks, and homeruns. xFIP undervalues both high and low flyball pitchers. I mentioned Verlander’s xFIP above at 3.79, his kwERA was 3.28 during the second half. He also had the 6th lowest hard hit percentage in the second half. Verlander pitched the fastball high and away leading to more weak contact generation. There’s a chance Verlander figured it out. Ignoring the first 30 innings, his season was pretty good. He showed good control, the strikeouts improved, and he may have changed his approach. Verlander will be a risky pick, but it could very well pay off.
33. Jose Quintana: Quintana is one of the most underrated players in baseball. Over the past three years, Quintana is ninth in WAR, 25th in ERA, and 17th in FIP. Quintana has pitched at least 200 innings over the past three seasons while relying mostly on his fastball and curve. He strikes out batters at an average rate but has very good control. He had a career high .327 BABIP last year. That will likely decrease as the Chicago White Sox have improved their defence somewhat. Quintana provides consistency at the position and all indications are another strong season.
34. Jake Odorizzi: Odorizzi will be entering his third full season after pitching just under 170 innings the past two seasons combined. A 2.30 ERA in the first half was not supported by peripherals, as he returned to his 2014 state with a 4.34 ERA. His FIP at 3 in the first half and 4.19 in the second half suggest he should be around a mid 3s ERA pitcher. Odorizzi’s first half saw him striking out fewer batters than the previous season, but showed gains in control (1.97 BB/9). His second half saw the opposite as he struck out more batters but walked more batters. There is a lot to like about Jake as he continues to put it all together. His batted ball profile in the first half showed his groundball percentage increase but in the second half, he returned to an above average flyball percentage. This can be attributed to Odorizzi using his fastball more often in the second half, which leads me to my next point. Odorizzi is still developing a breaking pitch. He uses his four-seam fastball around half the time, and for good reason as it ranks in the top 20 over the past two years based on FanGraphs Pitch Values. His split finger fastball increased in whiffs this past year. He mixes his pitches well. Odorizzi is working on enhancing his curveball that would give him a full repertoire. Odorizzi doesn’t have strong control or a large velocity, but he gets the job done. A healthy amount of strikeouts with a mid 3s ERA are a good possibility for Jake. He might just break out further though if he can figure it all out.
35. Wei-Yin Chen: Chen will be pitching for the Marlins this year after spending his entire career with the Orioles. He had a career season with a 3.34 ERA. He has been close to or outperformed his FIP in each year. Chen relies on solid command and pitches to contact similar to Dallas Keuchel. Over the past two years, Chen is 17th in soft contact hit percentage. (Insert article on Chen’s batted ball speed). Chen should see a small uptick in strikeouts. His above average groundball percentage and throwing first pitch strikes at an elite level should be welcome news. By pitching half of his games at Marlins park, Chen might be able to suppress some of those home runs that have plagued him throughout his career. Chen should have a somewhere in between the last two. He’s a safe option.
36. Yu Darvish: Darvish will be coming off Tommy John Surgery. Generally pitchers don’t come back as effective early on. Some never make it back to their previous level. The 29-year-old Darvish has been very good early on in his career. He’s arguably been the best starter at getting strikeouts, and had improved his control in every season. The biggest concern is how Darvish will pitch after injury and any potential innings limits. Darvish is likely back around mid May, which does hamper his value. He’s got good upside for where he will likely be going in drafts, and could turn out to be a value pick.
37. Adam Wainwright: Adam Wainwright missed the majority of the 2015 season due to injury. He looks to return to his former workhorse self. With Lance Lynn out for the year, Wainwright will be looked upon to fill the void. A career 2.98 ERA and 2.38 in 2014, Wainwright gets it done with strong control and command of his pitches. He gets lots of grounders. Wainwright will provide a decent ERA and WHIP, just don’t count on him to strike out a lot of batters. His strikeout rate peaked in 2010. Wainwright will be 34 for the majority of the season and coming off injury. There is some risk here making it perhaps a better option to move toward a safer pitcher with a similar profile.
38. Raisel Iglesias: Iglesias pitched 95 innings with a 4.00 ERA in his first major league season. Many have been hyping Raisel as a sleeper candidate, but he’s already too well known at this point. Iglesias pitched to a 3.58 FIP, 3.21 xFIP and a beautiful 3.26 SIERA. That’s pretty damn impressive for a rookie. His 9.82 K/9 would rank 11th amongst pitchers with at least 90 innings, and he showed solid control with a 2.64 BB/9. An above average groundball rate, as well as three good pitches, Iglesias has all the makings of a good pitcher. The biggest question mark with Raisel will be the innings limit. I can’t see him surpassing 180, closer to 160 seems more likely. He also posted a 13.2% HR/FB which is concerning. We will need more innings to get a more accurate picture, but Iglesias has the stuff to be a good pitcher.
39. Joe Ross: Ross pitched well in his 75ish innings. A 3.64 ERA with good peripherals suggest Ross has potential to become a top 30 pitcher just like his brother Tyson. Ross, while being six years younger, has exhibited better control than his brother ever did. This isn’t just a small sample size thing as Joe had a good BB/9 throughout his minor league career. Ross had a swinging strike percentage hovering close to 12% signifying he can maintain and potentially exceed last season’s 8.10 K/9. Amongst pitchers with 70 innings pitched, Ross was 18th in swinging strike percentage. Moreover, Ross managed an elite number of whiffs with his slider. His sinker was very good at inducing groundballs. At the same time, Ross lacks a pitch to use against left-handed batters. The changeup is still a work in progress. Ross has a lot of upside heading into 2016. He will be cheaper than a guy like Raisel Iglesias and might just put up similar numbers.
40. Yordano Ventura: The bad news is Yordano Ventura had a higher ERA than last season. The good news is that his FIP and xFIP were similar, and his SIERA was also better. But there was more good news: His strikeouts increased, his walks slightly decreased, and his groundball percentage went up. Ventura threw his hard curveball more often and for good reason as it induced elite number of whiffs. The curve, along with his 96 MPH fastball gives him two strong pitches and a decent changeup. Yordano looks to have the stuff to pitch to the tune of a 3.00 ERA, although something in the mid 3s is more likely. Ventura might not put it together, but he seems like an upside play.
41. Taijuan Walker: Walker didn’t have a good season. Part of that was due to the inflated HR/FB %. Another part was due to him being only 22 and it was his first full big league season. His peripherals indicate he should have had a better fortune. His strand rate wasn’t just below average. It was one of the worst. But for a 23 year old, a 2.12 BB/9 is really good. Walker has drawn comparisons to his teammate King Felix who had a similar year in 2006. Felix was better a year later, but didn’t truly breakout until 2008. Both have had a similar career trajectory, and both pitch the changeup at around 88 MPH. What will help Walker is to continue developing that curveball giving him a true offspeed pitch. His fastball is very good getting above average swings and misses. Taijuan Walker is a sleeper candidate heading into the 2016 season, in part to his above average velocity, control, strikeout ability, and will have another audition at being King Felix’s successor as ace of the Seattle Mariners.
42. Patrick Corbin: Corbin only pitched 85 innings, but he did pitch them well. A 3.35 FIP while having a career high strikeout rate to go along with his career best 1.80 BB/9; Corbin showed a lot of promise. While his four-seam and sinker both got similar swinging strikes, the changeup (not used as frequently) and slider both saw a reduction. The slider was still above average however. The biggest area of concern will be how many innings the Diamondbacks will allow Corbin to pitch. Corbin pitched well coming of Tommy John, with above average groundball rate, Corbin will have to get ahead of the count more often for sustained success.
43. Carlos Martinez: Martinez is expected to be back sometime in April if not at the start of the season. For the second consecutive season, Martinez had a FIP under 3.21 and a SIERA around 3.45. His 3.01 ERA was well earned as he upped his strikeouts and reduced giving the free pass. He threw more first pitch strikes and got batters to groundout more often. One of the knocks on Martinez heading into 2015 was the lack of a pitch to throw to left-handed batters. Martinez’s changeup was elite at generating whiffs and groundballs. Martinez added some extra drop, almost two times as more drop than 2014. He also got the pitch to run a bit more. These refinements to the changeup gives Carlos a third pitch. Furthermore, the horizontal release point on the fastball, slider, and changeup was virtually the same making it more difficult for the batter to identify what pitch was coming based on arm angle. Martinez has three legitimate pitches and showed much growth in his game. It unknown how much the shoulder will affect him early on, but based on what he’s done, he’s looking like a solid pitcher.
44. James Shields: Shields, like Samardzija, had a rough first year with his new team. An ERA approaching 4 and a FIP in the mid 4s, well, that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence to be a top 35 pitcher. At the same time, Shields set a career high in strikeout percentage led by his career high in swinging strike percentage. This will likely decrease next year slightly but he still should provide a fair amount of strikeouts. The other thing a pitcher can control is walks and did Shields ever give the free pass. He set a career high in walk percentage and like strikeouts, we should see a decrease in this department next season. The final thing a pitcher can control is home runs and this where the crux of the issue lies with Shields. He had a 17.6% HR/FB, the highest in the league, way above his career average of 11.7% and his xFIP was at 3.70. This should regress closer to his career average and help shields return to being a mid 3s pitcher with his fair share of strikeouts. One area of concern is Shields losing about 1.5 MPH off of his fastball. If he continues to lose velocity next year, there may be a reason to abandon ship.
45. Hisashi Iwakuma: Hisashi Iwakuma: Iwakuma has a career 3.17 ERA (3.53 over the past two years) and good peripherals to go with it. League average strikeouts with strong control and a very good groundball rate are a way to describe Iwakuma. That’s basically it. Iwakuma has a high floor, and you pretty much get what you expect. The failed physical with the Dodgers does bring up some question; it will be interesting to see how he does in Spring Training.
46. Scott Kazmir: Kazmir has pitched over 500 innings the past three seasons. Kazmir had a career high 3.10 ERA but FIP at 3.98, xFIP at 4.14, and SIERA at 4.10 all did not like him. His strikeout percentage went down slightly and he gave more free passes this season as well. Kazmir’s ERA hinged on a BABIP 26 points below his career average. At the same time, Kazmir will be pitching in the NL, which means a slight boost in ERA and strikeouts. That will likely keep his ERA in the mid 3s while posting a respectable WHIP and allow him to have more strikeouts. For more reference, see his 2014 and tack on a few more strikeouts.
47. Lance McCullers: Lance McCullers had a good rookie year pitching 125 innings with a 3.22 ERA. A similar FIP and an xFIP and SIERA at 3.50 and 3.57 is a good sign from the rookie. McCullers had an impressive strikeout percentage approaching 25% and around average control. An above average groundball percentage and a league average HR/FB shows that Lance had some good things going for him. The curveball was absolutely devastating to opposing batters. It had the second highest pitch value after Felix Hernandez’s curve. It had the 30th highest whiffs/swing and the 11th highest groundball rate. His fastball averaged 94.5 MPH. He had crazy home and away splits. In the second half, his ERA ballooned due to home runs. His xFIP though, was around 3.50, which I feel where his ERA will end up around in 2016.
48. Gio Gonzalez: Gonzalez saw his ERA rise for the fourth consecutive year and the highest of his career (min. 100 innings). Yet Gonzalez posted the third best FIP of his career that was almost the same as last seasons’. Gonzalez has seen his strikeouts decline since 2012 as well and his velocity stayed steady this year after falling in 2013 and 2014. Gonzalez is still having control issues. Based on player aging curves, Gonzalez should be able to improve his control slightly. Gio saw an increase in groundballs with three of his pitches inducing a higher groundball rate. This will likely regress to his career average. Gonzalez had a career high .341 BABIP, the main driver of his ERA. Like the grounder rate, the BABIP should rebound closer to his career mark. What’s interesting is that in 2014, he had a very similar line with a somewhat better ERA but around the same FIP as 2015. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary in 2014. Expectations should be 2014 with around 180 innings and an above average strikeout rate.
49. Jordan Zimmermann: After four seasons of an ERA below 3.25, Zimmermann picked a bad time to put up a 3.66 ERA. His FIP supported his ERA and his strikeouts and walks returned to his career averages after peaking in 2014. It really was something: he threw first pitch strikes at a rate close to his career average, and his swinging strike percentage returned to the same place. Zimmermann’s fastball velocity went down by 0.7 MPH and he threw the curve slightly harder than before, leading to a higher swinging strike percentage for the pitch as it was above average for the first time in his career. Still, with a move to the American League, Zimmermann will likely pitch a season similar to last year.
50. Carlos Rodon: The third overall pick in the 2014 Amateur Draft had an up and down first season. He finished with a 3.75 ERA and a 3.87 FIP. His xFIP and SIERA were both over four. He had a fine May, a horrendous June and July, but a very good August and September. Rodon had an impressive strikeout rate but a not so impressive walk rate. He did manage to tone it down a bit (5.56 BB/9 in first half, 3.70 in second half). His second half is most indicative of what we have because of his BABIP and LD% being closer to league average. Rodon also exhibited an above average groundball percentage. Rodon’s slider is already one of the best as evidenced by his whiff %. Rodon was absolutely killed by righties and he needs to further develop his change. In a small sample size, there is some reason for excitement. Rodon had the 14th highest whiffs/swings with the change and was 15th in grounders. Small sample size though. Rodon needs to develop that pitch to handle the platoon advantage that decimated him in his rookie year. There may be some hesitancy to put Rodon in the top fifty: In his final nine starts, Rodon had a 2.28 ERA, albeit a 3.84 FIP, but there’s reason to be excited.
This concludes my current top 50 starters. 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 was James Shields and Patrick Corbin outside the top 40. Carlos Martinez could see himself catapult into the top 35. Verlander is still a tough one to predict. The changes he made give reason for optimism. I hope you enjoyed the piece. If you have any question or comments, please do not hesitate.