Starting Pitcher Rankings 2017: Top 25

Pitchers are as volatile as they come. Sometimes you know what you’re getting due to sheer consistency. Other times you think a pitcher will pitch one way but they end up taking the road that causes one despair. They aren’t easy to evaluate nor are they easy to project. Pitcher’s are key to not only MLB success, but also fantasy success. Here’s a look into the top 25 fantasy pitchers heading into 2017. If you are unfamiliar with any of the terminology, I’d suggest heading here or replying in the comments.

Tier 1:

  1. Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers): Let’s start off with a chart to capture Kershaw’s dominance.

    top-starters-since-2012
    Kershaw Stands Alone

Need I say more? The biggest issue with Kershaw is his back. It should be good to go but it’s a back injury. Kershaw being the only pitcher in this tier speaks volumes to his sustained excellence.

Tier 2

  1. Noah Syndergaard (New York Mets): Since entering the league, the towering 23-year-old from Asgard, er I mean Mansfield, Texas, has wasted no time making his mark on the big leagues. Syndergaard has the second best FIP and third best SIERA since becoming a major league pitcher. His fastball averages 98 MPH (99 MPH perceived velocity!) with good rising action. Syndergaard throws first pitch strikes at a high clip and owns a 14.4% swinging strike rate that tied for the second best in the league among qualified pitchers. The scary thing about Thor is his crazy arsenal. He has four above average pitches in terms of whiffs rates and groundball rates. Not only that, he’s a good contact manager whose average flyball + line drive exit velocity is a mile below league average. Syndergaard can do it all. There is undoubtedly a health concern with Thor. Noah’s been an amazing pitcher since making it to the big leagues.
  1. Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals): Mad Max has pitched the second highest number of innings over the past three years with an elite 2.96 ERA and 2.95 FIP making Scherzer one of the most dependable pitchers in the game. With a 30% strikeout rate over the same period, Scherzer is a strikeout artist. A couple of red flags from this season include a .255 BABIP, well below his career .294 and a strand rate just over 81%. Scherzer’s FIP- was his highest since 2012 and his flyball rate climbed for the third straight season which adds to his home run issue. Still, we’re trusting Scherzer’s skills here as he posted the best swinging strike rate in the league. Being a workhorse, Scherzer will rack up plenty of strikeouts, thus adding a higher floor.
  1. Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants): MadBum is another elite, dependable pitcher. He’s had four straight seasons with an ERA under 3 and has had an increasing strikeout rate for five straight seasons.  Bumgarner’s four-seam fastball was 1.3 MPH slower than the year before. This will be a key area to watch for during spring training. Moreover, Bumgarner also had his highest xFIP- and SIERA since 2012. Like Scherzer, Bumgarner has a strong history of results and his peripherals are still better than the vast majority of the league.

Tier 3

  1. Yu Darvish (Texas Rangers): Darvish returned from injury and pitched quite well. With a strikeout percentage greater than 30, a career best fastball velocity, and an improved walk rate, Darvish was at his dominant self. In 645 MLB innings, Darvish owns a 3.29 ERA and a 3.15 FIP. The fastball is good as it gets more rise than average making it splendid for pop-ups or strikeouts. The real gem in Darvish’s arsenal is his curveball. It’s a slow curve that gets more fade and drop relative to the rest of the league leading to more swinging strikes and an elite groundball rate. Darvish also mixes in a strong slider and a good cut-fastball. All of this gives Darvish one of the better repertoires in baseball to attack batters. Then you factor the small deviation in his release points for his pitches which adds to deception. Darvish managed 100 innings post-surgery; he should be fine for 200+ innings. He’s posted a strikeout percentage greater than 30% in each of his last three seasons. I think Darvish will have a season like 2013; good ERA with a tonne of strikeouts. There is lots to like in Darvish’s profile from the high strikeouts to being a good contact manager. He’s primed to be the AL’s top fantasy starter.
  1. Jake Arrieta (Chicago Cubs): Arrieta had an interesting year. Both his ERA and FIP were tied for 13th best this season but neither were as good as his previous two seasons. Arrieta’s walk rate jumped up 4 percentage points; batters stopped swinging at Arrieta’s outside pitches. I would expect the walk rate to be something in between 2015 and 2016. Only two pitchers have a superior batting average on balls in play than Arrieta in recent history (3 years) showing that Arrieta is a good contact manager. In addition, exit velocity on both flyballs + linedrives and groundballs were both below league average. Playing in front of a strong Cubs defence certainly helps as does a strong Cubs offence that should lead lots of wins (in theory). Arrieta was the only starter last season with a walk rate over 3 but a WHIP below 1.10 (min. 140 IP). Arrieta’s strong contact management + great strikeout rate will lead to a fantastic 2017 for the Farmington, Missouri native.
arrieat-chart
Only Arrieta Had a WHIP Below 1.10 & BB.9 Over 3 (min. 140 IP)
  1. Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals): Taking Strasburg as your tenth pitcher requires a leap of faith that he will reach at least 190 or more innings. Strasburg has excellent stuff, no question, but his health certainly is. He’s the Stanton of pitchers: Powerful ability hampered by consistent injuries. He has only pitched over 200 innings once in his career and hasn’t gone over 150 in either of the last two seasons. Strasburg’s injury was a flexor pronator mass (basically it affects wrist and fingers when throwing a ball). There was no damage to the UCL and assuming the injury is healed (is expected to be) then Strasburg should start the year fine. Stephen does a lot of things well: He strikes out batters at an elite rate, his walk rate in his career has been very good, he throws plenty of first pitch strikes and his fastball routinely touches 95 MPH. It’s been reported that Strasburg will throw fewer sliders next season to limit damage on his elbow, a pitch he threw quite a bit for the first-time last year. It’s unclear which pitch he will gravitate toward. Strasburg’s changeup is one of the best in the game; elite at generating groundballs and getting swings and misses. He could turn to the curve; a pitch that gains more fade and drop than the average pitcher, in addition to being one of the higher velocity curves. Strasburg has an excellent repertoire any way you cut it. Ultimately, one’s valuation of Strasburg comes down to his health. I think you can see where I’m betting.

  1. Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox): The Red Sox ace makes the move from Chicago to Boston. Sale has been one of the premier pitchers over the past few years. The Condor saw an uptick in FIP- and xFIP- to go along with decreasing strikeouts, first pitch strikes, and swinging strikes. Sale’s BABIP was below his career mark and his HR/FB was right in line with his career. Two Seam Fastball velocity dropped to 93 MPH, the lowest since 2013. There’s a lot to like about Sale’s repertoire. The slider gains good movement as does the sinker. Sale’s changeup fade and drop is consistent with his career making it likely it induces more whiffs this season. The AL East will not be easy for Sale; however, he has fantastic skills and a great track record of success. The dip in velocity and relatively below par peripherals (for Sale’s standards) hesitate me to rank him higher. He will be a workhorse and should rack up an ample number of strikeouts.
  1. Justin Verlander (Detroit Tigers): Verlander’s renaissance has been one of the better baseball stories over the past couple years. Thought to be done, Verlander posted his best season since 2012. The Tigers ace saw his fastball velocity rise by a mile and his slider velocity by 2 miles. Moreover, his success was also partly due to above average contact management skills. This is key as Verlander has a flyball rate nearing 50%. In 2015, Verlander had an average exit velocity off flyballs of 87.8 MPH. In 2016, that mark increased to 90.9 MPH, right around league average. Verlander lives a bit on the edge, similar to Marco Estrada when it comes to flyballs. To counteract this, Verlander induced more swinging strikes. Verlander’s fastball had his highest single season swinging strike rate for his career. Moreover, Verlander’s slider underwent its own sort of renaissance over the past two years. Simply, the pitch fades less than it used to, but rises more. Couple that in with it moving at 88 MPH, Verlander’s breaking pitch is very good. Batters had a wRC+ of 33 on that pitch (55 for career). Age is always a concern for players. At 34, JV is no different. A loss in velocity could be detrimental. I think Verlander has sufficient swing and miss stuff and the ability to limit hard contact that he can be a fantasy ace once again this season.
  1. Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians): Kluber’s a tough one to project. For some reason, Kluber still throws his four-seam fastball. It’s a horrendous pitch. Kluber’s slider and curve are among the best in the business. He ought to use the four-seam pitch less and go more with his breaking stuff. It’s no coincidence his best year remains the one where the four-seam pitch usage was less than 4%. The good news is that his four-seamer usage diminished as the season progressed. Moving on, Kluber maintains an elite first pitch strike and swinging strike rate. His K-BB% is also one of the best in the business. This past season, Kluber was aided slightly by a generous .271 BABIP. In addition, he posted the second highest SIERA and xFIP of his career. At the end of the day there are 2 pitchers since 2014 to post a superior FIP, 5 with a more impressive SIERA, and 9 with a better ERA. Kluber’s a fantasy ace, no question.
  1. Jon Lester (Chicago Cubs): Lester had a fantastic season posting the best ERA of his career. Lester’s batted ball profile wasn’t much different than his career averages. He continued to rely more on his four-seam fastball, a trend that started in 2013. Lester struck out batters at a solid rate but saw a small uptick in walk rate. The big difference between the 2016 version of Lester and past years was luck. He posted a .256 BABIP and had the highest left on base percentage among qualified pitchers. Part of the BABIP and beneficial sequencing can be attributed to the Cubs elite defence, however he is more likely to regress to career averages. Lester does a lot of things right: Throws a healthy amount of first pitch strikes, solid swinging strike rate, solid K-BB%, and a very good repertoire. We’re looking at a pitcher who is likely to pitch to a 3.40 ERA as opposed to the 2.44 he posted this past year.
  1. Chris Archer (Tampa Bay Rays): 2016 is the exception not the rule for Chris Archer. From 2013-2015, Archer posted a 3.26 ERA and 3.45 FIP, much better than his 2016 4.02 ERA and 3.81 FIP. Only Kershaw and Scherzer own a higher strikeout rate over the past two seasons. One of the subtler developments, the drop on Archer’s changeup was league average for the first time in his career. Its usage increased almost double from 2015. If he’s to continue trusting the change, that would give Archer three pitches of varying effectiveness. Archer features one of the best sliders in the game and should be able to rack up a solid 2017 campaign with plenty of strikeouts.

    chris_archer_interviews_wade_davis_for_espn-_11-1-2015_22788947925
    Chris Archer (left) Interviews Wade Davis (right)
  1. David Price (Boston Red Sox): Price was quite the headache for owners last year. He finished the year with a mile of velocity lost, his worst ERA- since 2011, and worst FIP- since 2009. It was a strange season. Price’s K-BB looks good, as does his ability to induce whiffs and throw strikes. In regards to batting average on balls in play, Price’s was 21 points higher than his career average. The craziest thing about his season: Price’s pull percentage went up 11 points! That was the highest single season increase in percentage of balls in play pulled in history (Batted Ball data began in 2002…)! That explains some of Price’s 1.17 HR/9, the second highest mark of his career, and abnormal BABIP. He let up more pulled flyballs (BAD!) while pulled groundballs decreased (BAD!). Difficult to ascertain why this occurred as it could be related to several issues such as skills erosion, organization philosophy, bad luck, or a combination. The Red Sox pitcher posted his best Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA) of his career which serves as a proxy for command. Price will continue to be a workhorse, rack up a high number of strikeouts while maintaining a good walk rate to keep the WHIP down. I’d expect fewer pulled balls and better contact management given his history. The underlying numbers illustrate Price is still a good pitcher.
  1. Johnny Cueto: Cueto attacked batters on the first pitch tying with Kyle Hendricks to have the best first pitch strike rate among qualified pitchers. Cueto will enter 2017 having posted an ERA below three for 5 of his past 6 seasons and the third best since 2012. Cueto’s a workhorse; he’s pitching 212 or more innings in his last four full seasons. I think we can expect a lightly higher ERA but more of the same from Cueto despite him losing a mile of fastball velocity. Cueto has been one of the league’s best contact managers for several years which has allowed him to outperform his FIP consistently. For whatever reason, Cueto is a worse pitcher during the second half (2.93 ERA in first half, 3.67 in second half). While he still should be good, just be aware that there is a potential sell high opportunity available.
  1. Carlos Carrasco: It comes down to trusting Carrasco’s skills. Despite a 3.32 ERA and 3.72 FIP, Carrasco’s 2016 season wasn’t what I expected. He took a step back in strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and threw considerably fewer first pitch strikes. He had a 3.44 SIERA which is great as it would’ve been eight best had Carrasco qualified. The big concern with Carrasco was both his change and curve inducing fewer whiffs. Even so, Carrasco has one helluva an arsenal with three strong breaking pitches to go along with a fastball that hits 94 MPH. Is this the year Carrasco puts it all together? The filthy stuff with good health? There are some signs that don’t look good and others that suggest he can be a top ten pitcher. Only time will tell. Becoming a top fantasy starter could be as simple as pitching 210+ innings.
  1. Jacob DeGrom (New York Mets): DeGrom’s the one pitcher I could see rising to the top ten. DeGrom has been one of the best pitchers over the past three years ranking fourth in ERA and fifth in FIP among qualified pitchers. DeGrom’s 9.15 K/9 is good for 15th over the same time frame. The 28-year-old mixes four pitches with four different velocities. The big question with DeGrom will be how he comes back from his elbow injury although he should be good to go at the start of the season. In 2016, DeGrom saw a rise in FIP- and induced fewer swinging strikes. He also threw a full mile and a half slower than 2015, the second highest velocity loss (min. 100 innings in both 2015 and 2016). The big caveat however is that his perceived velocity was 95 MPH. While his velocity was still slower than past years, it was still fantastic. DeGrom’s high injury risk and shaky peripherals are concerning. If he manages to find additional velocity in the spring and things are looking good, I could very well see myself vaulting him a few spots higher.
  1. Kyle Hendricks (Chicago Cubs): One of the league’s best contact managers, Hendricks had a Cy Young worthy season for the Cubs finishing with a 2.15 ERA in 188 innings. It’s fair to be skeptical of Hendricks and it is unlikely he repeats such a good season. He was aided by a low BABIP and a high strand rate. Part of this is his own skills, and another part is the strong Cubs defence. Even so, Hendricks peripherals were in line with his career. For the second consecutive season, he posted an elite walk rate with improving swing and miss stuff. Hendricks was one of ten pitchers to post a K/9 over 8 with a WHIP below 1.10, and a FIP less than 3.5. Nobody should expect a repeat of 2016 rather trust that Hendricks will pitch close to or slightly under his career 3.29 FIP.
  1. Zack Greinke (Arizona Diamondbacks): You didn’t even have to have your expectations in check to be greatly disappointed by Zack Greinke last season. The ERA and FIP both jumped up to his highest since 2005 and the strikeouts went down while the walks went up. The four-seam fastball just wasn’t there. Greinke’s fastball in past years has been good; key at setting up other pitches or being the finishing touch on a sequence. It couldn’t strike batters out and opposing batters mashed, posting a .403 wOBA (career .320). It’s not fully explained by velocity as it dipped only half a mile. Movement wise, the “rising” action was good but it was a bit more straight than usual. However, the horizontal movement was similar to 2015. Maybe it was as simple as poor commanding of pitches. Like Price above, it’s perplexing. Greinke, among regular starters, had the fifth highest CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average), a proxy for command. The big issue: he was killed once players got on base (.351 wOBA). Look at the chart of where his fastball was with a base-runner on (right) and off (left). Inability to get the fastball where he needed it with runners on cost Greinke quite a bit.

    Here’s how he’s done in the past with runners on. greinke-men-onThis was quite abnormal for him which makes me believe he will be able to sniff this issue out. There are encouraging signs that Greinke can return to being a good starter in fantasy (real life too I guess). Foremost, Greinke’s swinging strike rate was well within his normal. Moreover, Greinke threw a greater percentage of first pitch strikes than he ever has before. There was no big change in pitch mix and his batted ball profile was in line with his career. He suffered a shoulder injury which could have contributed to a poor 2016 showing. Greinke’s a pitcher who hasn’t relied too much on stuff. The biggest issue for him in 2016 was command after a runner was on base, an issue that had not cropped up in great propensity before. The Diamondbacks ace had a rough ride in his first year; the second should be much better.

  1. Carlos Martinez (St. Louis Cardinals): Since the Cardinals ace began trusting his changeup more in 2015, he’s posted an ERA of 3.03. Like Strasburg and Felix Hernandez, Martinez throws a hard changeup that is fantastic at creating whiffs and inducing groundballs. It gets lots of fade and drop making it a potent pitch. Martinez’s fastball also hovers around 95 MPH. Martinez’s FIP- and xFIP- were both similar compared to 2015. Until he manages to improve control, it’s unlikely Martinez gets much better from here on out. A pitcher providing 200 IP + 190 strikeouts with a low-mid 3 ERA? Sign me up.

Tier 4

  1. Rich Hill: Since 2015, only Clayton Kershaw has a better ERA among starters with 130 innings pitched. Hill, a fastball-curveball pitcher, has elite underlying numbers and a fantastic strikeout rate. Hill’s fastball is good at generating whiffs because Hill can get it to fade and rise much more than league average. That’s not to mention the dangers of his curveball. It is unlikely he maintains such a sterling ERA because his HR/FB% was well below league average. Hill’s approach at the mound and two pitch dominance should put him in the conversation as one of the best pitchers when healthy. When Healthy. There does come an injury risk with the soon to be 37-year-old making his valuation more difficult. Essentially, give me quality!
  1. James Paxton (Seattle Mariners): I went into greater detail on Paxton here and here. Among pitchers with 100 innings pitched, Paxton had the fifth best FIP-, 17th best SIERA, and 21st best strikeout-walk percentage. Changes to his mechanics and increased velocity played pivotal roles in Paxton being a strong starter. Betting on Paxton also means betting on good health.
  1. Lance McCullers (Houston Astros): McCullers has one of the dirtiest curves in the league. Since his debut, McCullers has the 17th best ERA and 13th best FIP among pitchers with 200 innings pitched. The righty struggles with getting the ball into the zone, seen by having the 8th highest BB/9. The Tampa, Florida native however features one of the league’s best strikeout rates.
    cullers
    SP Strikeouts and Walk Rate with FIP (min 200 IP)

    There’s also a health concern as he had shoulder and elbow injuries last year. Furthermore, throwing the curveball as much as he does is an inherent injury factor. The skills to be a fantasy ace are there, as are the signs he could go down to injury or just not get the ball enough into the zone. He hurts in WHIP while making up for it in strikeouts. He doesn’t need to become a control artist, getting his walk rate per nine closer to his rookie year mark of 3.08 is both doable and plausible. McCullers is young and has amassed a pretty good, though limited, resume.

  1. Masahiro Tanaka (New York Yankees): Since his arrival to the MLB, Tanaka is sixth in ERA in the AL. Tanaka throws one of the best splitters in the league. Tanaka’s upside is limited by his home run rate (career 14% HR/FB) and average strikeout rate. With a minuscule walk rate, however; Tanaka comes with a solid WHIP offsetting some strikeout losses. Speaking of strikeouts, Tanaka still sported a swinging strike rate near 11%, He’s a good choice to pair with a high strikeout reliever. Tanaka’s a good pitcher to target within the top 25 pitchers.
  1. Jose Quintana: Consistency is the name of the game for Quintana. The White Sox ace has a career 3.41 ERA and 3.47 FIP. In the past four seasons, Quintana has pitched 200+ innings and has had an ERA below 3.52 each time. He’s not a strikeout artist; Quintana gets the job done through solid contact management and good pitch mixing. 2016 wasn’t all roses and sunshine for Jose though. xFIP and SIERA were both over 4 for the first time since 2012 and he induced fewer groundballs + swinging strikes. Quintana has a strong track record of success. The lack of strikeouts limit his upside but his floor is undeniable.
  1. Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh Pirates): Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, his BABIP should be higher than average because he throws two hard pitches so often. Even so, a .345 BABIP is way too high and largely the byproduct of owning the sixth worst line drive rate (min. 100 IP). The Pirates ace’s walk rate returned to diminished while inducing fewer strikeouts. His slider was off leaving him with only a fastball. The slider dropped less staying higher in the zone making it better for batters to make good contact. In addition, Cole dealt with two injuries. The Pirates pitcher 2016 results were hurt by poor luck but also poor pitching. With an off-season of rest and time to evaluate, I think Cole will have a better 2016. Cole owns a career 3.23 ERA and a 2.98 FIP; he’s sufficiently shown he’s a good pitcher.

For the most part, the ranks and tiers are fairly static. There may be some movement based on how Spring Training goes. Jacob DeGrom remains the toughest one to project; it ultimately will come down to how March goes with his health and velocity. At fourth tier, it becomes much more difficult as the range of ability diminishes. This concludes the top 25 starters for 2017. You can read the Top 50 here.

 

Stats from: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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