Starting Pitcher Rankings 2017: Top 50

Welcome back to the Starting Pitcher Rankings for 2017. The top 25 can be found here. From 26-50 (and a bit after that), it’s incredibly close. At some point, it’s like splitting hairs. I think that by the end of the third tier, most of the dependable players with consistency are gone. A distinct drop-off you could say. There are young pitchers looking to make a lasting mark such as Fulmer and Taillon. Other times there are veterans with multiple question marks like Kuechel or Gray. If you are unfamiliar with any of the terminology, I’d suggest heading here or replying in the comments.

  1. Danny Salazar (Cleveland Indians): Salazar’s walk rate shot up to 11% after it was 7% the year before. One possible explanation is that batters reduced their rate of swings on pitches outside of the zone. Still, Salazar maintained an impressive 27% strikeout rate and induced swinging strikes on 11% of pitches. Salazar’s peripherals were in line with his career marks. Given his past walk rate has been good and his 2016 season was decent by his standards, I’m expecting big things from Salazar.
  1. Cole Hamels (Texas Rangers): It’s difficult to placate a value on the Rangers starter. Hamels is on the decline and a low 4 ERA is possible. Last season saw his FIP- rise for the third straight season as well as his SIERA. The strikeouts remained strong but his walk rate was the highest of his career. The Rangers pitcher had a lower first pitch strike rate but did manage to pitch 200+ innings for the eighth time in his career. Despite these warning signs, Hamels has shown growth. Since becoming a Ranger, Hamels pull percentage increased for groundballs (GOOD!). Hamels found a two seamer in 2015 and it has only gotten better with more experience. In addition, Hamels formerly elite changeup is not what it once was. Instead, Hamels has gotten better movement and results from his curveball. Furthermore, Hamel’s swinging strikeout rate was consistent with his career indicating he should once again flirt with 200 strikeouts. On one hand, we see a pitcher with some skills diminishing. On the other, we see a pitcher adapting. I lean towards the latter.

    hamels-pulled-gb
    Cole Hamels Pulled Groundball% By Year
  1. Danny Duffy (Kansas City Royals): Duffy’s breakout year at 27 saw him post a top ten K-BB% and average almost 95 MPH on the fastball. Due to his extension in his throwing motion, his fastball plays more like a 96 MPH heater which is ridiculous for a lefty. Duffy threw more first pitch strikes, induced more whiffs, and had a rock solid 3.53 SIERA. On the downside, Duffy’s strand rate was the fifth highest. Two pitchers finished the season with a higher hard hit contact rate than Duffy. Duffy’s plus plus fastball velocity and high rising action lead to above average strikeout rates and pop-up rates on those pitches. I think Duffy is a good pitcher although I’m not optimistic he will enjoy his 2016 success.
  1. Kenta Maeda: Maeda had a fantastic start to his MLB career posting an 88 ERA- and FIP-. Among qualified pitchers, Maeda posted the 14th best K-BB% and 12th best swinging strike rate. Maeda throws five pitches to varying degrees with three of them being solid at generating both whiffs and groundballs. Maeda is very good at managing contact which is what leads him to success. Maeda’s repertoire is good and he has a good foundation of peripherals. Some will be wary of a pitcher who has only had 175 MLB innings and a 90 MPH fastball but it is important to remember he performed well because of good pitch location, pitch mix, and strikeouts.

Tier 5

  1. Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays): Despite a 4.37 ERA, Stroman pitched well indicated by a strong 3.41 xFIP and 3.62 SIERA. Stroman was incredibly unlucky with balls in play sporting one of the worst strand rates in baseball. His 16.5% HR/FB ratio was also much higher than league average. Stroman maintained one of the best groundball rates and increased his swinging strike rate. I think this is the year where his skills come together; the strikeouts increase while maintaining a strong groundball rate. The Blue Jays pitcher increased his slider and cutter usage as the season progressed while decreasing usage of the sinker. He couldn’t get as good a “feel” for his sinker which was getting rocked. He adjusted his approach and finished with an improved xFIP-. In the minors, Stroman showcased an impressive ability to obtain strikeouts. With an improved swinging strike rate last year, he’s got a good shot at an above average strikeout rate. Stroman is a fantastic pick for a breakout candidate this season.

    pitcher-lucks
    Marcus Stroman Was Fairly Unlucky
  1. Aaron Nola (Philadelphia Phillies): I went into greater detail on Nola here. Nola’s got a super curveball and is adept at commanding and controlling his pitches.  Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Nola had the 12th highest BABIP and the second worst Left on Base percentage. Key for him is health. Keep an eye out for his velocity during Spring Training.
  1. Michael Fulmer (Detroit Tigers): The AL Rookie of the year no doubt enjoyed a good year. The peripherals; however, did not match the ERA. Fulmer was lucky with balls in play (.268 BABIP) and had a 79% strand rate. He exhibited good control and the swinging strike rate was positive despite showing an average number of strikeouts per nine innings. The fastball is more straight, which means more home run prone, but it does get more rise than your average fastball leading to easy pop outs or strikeouts. It has good velocity as well. Key for success with the fastball is good command which Fulmer showed in his rookie year. Furthermore, Fulmer went to the changeup more often as the season wore on. It’s a good pitch that features good foundations for swinging strikes and managed to induce quite a lot of groundballs. Those two pitches combined with a already effective slider give Fulmer three good pitches. Fulmer’s minor league numbers hint at greater strikeout upside. Despite some good fortune in 2016, Fulmer’s owns a nice repertoire with good command which I believe will lead Fulmer to greater heights.

  1. Jameson Taillon (Pittsburgh Pirates): Taillon pitched 104 innings and they were exceptional for a rookie resulting in a 3.38 ERA. Taillon showcased strong control, the same type he showed in the minors. Taillon’s throws four pitches to varying degrees of movement and success. The two-seam fastball and curve were both very good at inducing groundballs and the fourseam induced many popups. Given the average rise on the fourseam, it is unlikely it gets as many popups next season. Even so, the overall fastball is good and the curveball is beautiful. For Taillon to continue his ascent into an ace, he needs to develop a better changeup. With pitchers around him having a similar sort of method of getting hitters out, Taillon is the one that comes with the most upside. If there’s word in Spring Training about a new changeup, that will be something interesting to keep an eye on because an additional pitch is an additional weapon. There are lots of reasons to like Taillon heading into 2017 although he might undergo some growing pains.
  1. Steven Matz (New York Mets): Matz is expected to be ready for Spring Training. By pitching well or exemplifying encouraging signs during Spring Training, Matz could very well be a hot commodity come draft day. In his short MLB career thus far, Matz has pitched to a 3.16 ERA, 3.44 FIP, with solid strikeout and walk rates. It’s the injury history and propensity that will scare off potential owners. You can probably say that about any of the Mets starters at this point.
  1. Matt Harvey (New York Mets): Even superheroes get injuries. The Dark Knight returns from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. It’s difficult to know how he will come back from this injury. Some will avoid him while others will flock to a depressed price at a potential “ace.” Harvey’s been an excellent pitcher in his career illustrated by a 2.94 ERA and 2.79 FIP, despite what his 92.2 innings of pure garbage last year show. The injury no doubt contributed to this inferior form of Harvey playing with his velocity and unstable mechanics. There’s a lot of risk with Harvey and it wouldn’t be surprising if he never returns to his previous form again. Like his teammate DeGrom, the Dark Knight could rise the ranks if there are positive words spoken during Spring Training. At this point, it’s hard to find someone with the ceiling of Matt Harvey and I’d take my chances. You could plan ahead and draft consistent pitchers throughout the draft (Kershaw, Quintana, Kluber, etc.) It’ll be interesting to see if the Dark Knight Rises.
  1. Robbie Ray (Arizona Diamondbacks): I went through a lot of back and forth on Ray and ultimately decided to include him in the top 40. He’s the definition of high risk – high reward this season. Ray had one of the best strikeout rates in the league (fifth highest) this past year and comes with the third highest fastball velocity among lefty starters. The slider is an impressive pitch playing a key role in his high strikeout rate. Ray’s problems are twofold: He is a poor contact manager and his changeup is bad. The change does not drop making it less effective nor is the velocity differential ideal. He can’t locate well enough nor does he have a third pitch to fall back on. The peripherals are rock solid though (90 FIP- over the past two years).  It’s not just the lack of skills that cost Ray last season. The BABIP was one of the highest in the league to go along with one of the lowest strand rates. The plot below shows single season values of BABIP and LOB% for qualified pitchers from 2002-2016. These two statistics are unlikely to be at such extremes next year even if he remains poor at limiting hard hit balls. Lastly, 2016 was his first MLB season where he pitched the full year. He very well could improve and increase his innings total closer to 200.

    screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-10-47-57-am
    Robbie Ray’s Poor Batted Ball Luck
  1. Carlos Rodon (Chicago White Sox): I went into greater detail on Rodon here. I think Rodon has a breakout campaign because of his increasing trust in an improving changeup and good second half.
  1. Rick Porcello (Boston Red Sox): The AL Cy Young award winner played a key role in the Boston Red Sox securing a division title. Porcello finished with a pristine 3.15 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. He was aided somewhat by a generous .269 BABIP (career .307). Porcello has an average strikeout rate, something that makes him a better real life pitcher than fantasy. When it comes to keeping batters off base through limiting walks, Porcello’s career 2.04 BB/9 is impressive. He’s a good candidate to pair with a high WHIP + high strikeout pitcher. In 2013, Porcello added a curveball to his arsenal giving him five pitches of varying quality. He transformed his fastball to “rise” more leading to more flyballs and whiffs. It also helps that his release points don’t deviate too much. I wouldn’t expect Porcello to be a fantasy ace this year because he’s been inconsistent in his career and has a pedestrian strikeout rate. He still should have a decent ERA and could work his way to 200 innings once again.
  1. Aaron Sanchez (Toronto Blue Jays): Sanchez took a big step in 2016 finishing with a 3.00 ERA and 192 innings pitched. He improved his command and control leading to terrific results. Three of his pitches get very good movement and he induces lots of groundballs. He did get some BABIP luck and had a higher second half walk rate in addition to peripherals not in line with his ERA (3.55 FIP, 4.01 SIERA). I will note that since he is an extreme groundball pitcher, he is more likely to outperform his FIP. Sanchez consistently posted average strikeout rates in the minors and thus far in the majors. His stuff doesn’t really lead me to think he will induce more whiffs. Upside is thus limited and I’m not confident he posts a 3.00 ERA again this year.
  1. John Lackey (Chicago Cubs): One of the reasons for Lackey’s recent success? The movement on his cutter got more fade as opposed to drop. This transformation increased his swinging strike rate on the pitch. In addition, Lackey and the Cubs pitching staff found a method to attack left handed batters as he posted the third best single season ERA of his career. Lackey was helped by a generous BABIP, somewhat due to a strong Cubs defence. Lackey stills throws plenty of first pitch strikes and has good strikeout to walk ratios. He’s unlikely to be as good as he has been these past two years however the skills suggest he’s not done yet.
  1. Matt Shoemaker (Los Angeles Angels): Shoemaker rebounded from a bad 2015 posting a 3.88 ERA and 3.52 FIP. Shoemaker saw a decrease in walk rate and increase in strikeouts. Shoemaker increased usage of his splitter to 40%, a key reason for his success. It’s reasonable to expect a similar season to the one he just had.
  1. Tanner Roark (Washington Nationals): The Nationals have quite the pitching staff eh! Believe it or not, across 4 years Roark has amassed 502 innings as a starter putting up a sterling 3.04 ERA and a decent 3.79 FIP. He’s got a good subset of pitches including a curve that gets lots of drop and fade. Roark’s average exit velocity was very good and he did a good job of limiting hard contact once again. It’s time to put some trust into Tanner Roark. He is another example of a better real life pitcher than fantasy because of his below average strikeout rate.
  1. Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics): I went into greater detail on Manaea here. Above average ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and K-BB% to go along with an improved changeup make Manaea a potential breakout candidate.
  1. Sonny Gray (Oakland Athletics): Gray spent some time on the DL pitching only 117 innings. Those innings, despite being few, were incredible for owners in 2016. A 5.69 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and 94 strikeouts must’ve made owners salivate. To understand Gray’s horrendous season, it’s important to remember that he was incredibly unlucky throughout the year posting a BABIP almost 40 points higher than his career average. He was on the other end of the spectrum relative to his career (see charts below). Having one the league’s worst strand rates (64%) only compounded the problem in addition to a 17% HR/FB%. Gray’s walk percentage jumped up a point, but it was within his career average. The peripherals were also bad. Even so, a FIP at 3.61 is above average. Gray’s breaking pitches moved well and his groundball rate (including pulled grounders) was once again impressive. Gray struggled all year with command. How much of it is related to the injury is unknown although it’s reasonable it may have played with his mechanics. Gray won’t reach the peaks of 2015 nor will he get the troughs of 2016. I think there’s a decent chance for a bounce-back given his poor luck and prior abilities.  I’m not convinced he’ll be a star but a serviceable pitcher who could very well be a third starter for a fantasy team.

     

  1. Julio Teheran (Atlanta Braves): Teheran is a tad perplexing because he doesn’t have overwhelming stuff. He relies on good command and sequencing. If that goes, he doesn’t have much to fall back on. Teheran had a good bounceback season after a terrible 2015. Teheran throws at 90, limiting his strikeout potential. The Braves ace reduced his walk rate to prior career levels which should be something that stays because he’s done well to get the ball into the zone throughout his career. He pitches to contact which is one of the reasons he has carried a .275 BABIP in his career. The picture for Teheran looks pretty decent overall however he lacks upside and comes with some risk considering his career FIP is 3.85. There’s not enough to fall back on if he loses velocity or is unable to command well. I think there are players who would perform similarly to him that could very well give a better return on investment like Rick Porcello, Aaron Sanchez, or even Dallas Keuchel.
  1. Dallas Keuchel (Houston Astros): Keuchel had a disastrous 2016 campaign after winning the Cy Young in 2015. Keuchel struggled with command especially early on and was injured. He did manage to rebound in the second half posting a 3.80 ERA with a 3.52 FIP. I wouldn’t count on Keuchel being as good as his Cy Young winning year, or as bad as last year, rather something in between. Keuchel’s two seamer lost quite a bit of horizontal movement leading to fewer grounders and greater ineffectiveness. The slider remained a strong pitch and is a key fixture for Keuchel’s plan to attack batters. Dallas should get into 200+ innings making him one of the few workhorses left. The walk rate is still good and he induced a healthy amount of swinging strikes. Lastly, Keuchel’s strand rate was below 70%, a sign he didn’t get the best batted ball luck. He has a career 3.78 ERA and 3.71 FIP. The Astros look to be World Series contenders putting him in a good position to rack up wins.
  1. Blake Snell (Tampa Bay Rays): Odorizzi is the safer route, Snell is the upside route when it comes to Rays pitchers at this stage. In just under 90 innings, Snell displayed signs of ace quality and a pitcher whose time as a starter is limited. Let’s start off with the good: 3.54 ERA, and 3.39 FIP. Hitters hit plenty of line drives off him (27.3%) playing a role in an abnormally high .356 BABIP. As a lefty, Snell comes with above average fastball velocity (93.5 MPH) which is about 0.7 MPH faster due to his throwing routine. More on his fastball, it “rises” more than most pitchers’ fastballs. The changeup is a good pitch that scouts liked heading into the season. The slider was improved from his time in the minors illustrating good movement and velocity despite the horrendous results.  The curveball gets above average drop making it a good pitch for whiffs but that’s about it. The curve needs additional work or Snell needs to be smart about its usage. The Rays pitcher owns an effective repertoire of pitches that are good enough to be a top pitcher. On the downside, Snell posted a 4.34 xFIP and 4.53 ERA. The high line drive rate can’t be explained simply with luck albeit plays a role. Snell walked more than five batters per nine innings! He struggled with control in the minor league’s as well walking four batters per nine innings in his final 63 innings of AAA I find there’s sufficient bullet points on the side for good and Snell’s strong upside make Snell a draft day target.
  1. Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners): The King no more. With core skills deteriorating and velocity down, it’s not looking pretty for Hernandez. The peripherals looked bad (4.63 FIP), and the command just wasn’t there even with injury. The sinker lost velocity; however, the movement was right in line with his career. The problem was likely location. Followed by that, Hernandez’s fastball lacked horizontal movement compared to the rest of his career. It’s also gets below average “rise” compared to your average fastball. Once again he struggled with location. Here are heatmaps of Hernandez’s fastball (all variations) from 2010-2014 (left) and 2016 (right).

    Command deteroriated as he was unable to locate as well as he used to. . The good news for Hernandez: the changeup had consistent movement with his career and both it continued to induce a strong number of groundballs and swinging strikes. On another positive note, Hernandez’s average exit velocity was below average. Maybe it was always below average or maybe Hernandez is making a concerted effort to become a better contact manager. Ultimately, the key for Hernandez is improve command of his fastball and sinker to set up the change or curve. Will he be as good as his career 3.16 ERA? Probably not. Will he be as bad as his 2016 FIP suggests? Unlikely. I don’t foresee a Verlander-esque renaissance for Hernandez though. Lastly, during spring training, if there are reports of a velocity increase, that could be a good opportunity to invest in Hernandez. I’m not optimistic; he’ll likely have to transform himself.

  1. Michael Pineda (New York Yankees): Pineda is as divisive as it gets. A FIP darling, Pineda’s ERA leaves a lot to be desired. Thanks to a very good slider, Pineda gets tonnes of strikeouts and his walk rate has always been solid. He gets swings and misses, he throws many first pitch strikes, and he has a 94 MPH fastball. Despite all this, Pineda routinely gets hit harder especially with men on. At the end of the day you can either take a chance on him thinking this is the year his results match his peripherals. Or you can avoid the headache. I’ll go buy some Ibuprofen.
  1. Kevin Gausman (Baltimore Orioles): Gausman is a potential breakout candidate after posting a 3.10 second half ERA. Gausman’s splitter is his best pitch as it induced the most swinging strikes out of all pitchers who threw more than 200 splitters (17 pitchers). It also comes with a splendid 62% groundball rate. While the strikeout and walk numbers look good, the problem for Gausman has been home runs (1.19 home runs per nine innings). This is an issue across all his pitches. Furthermore, Gausman struggles to gain an initial edge by posting a poor first pitch strike rate. Gausman’s pretty ERA had a component of measurable luck as well; an 81% left on base percentage usually hints at luck as opposed to skill. The underlying numbers (3.77 xFIP, 3.81 SIERA), three different velocity levels hint he might get better. The home run issue will be a concern until it isn’t.

This concludes the top 50. There’s a mixture of upside and consistency with ample question marks. The most intriguing pitchers are on the Mets, Matz and Harvey, both who should be monitored closely during Spring Training. Blake Snell has the tools to be a front line starter and then there is Felix, who we all wonder if he will ever reach ace status again. This concludes the top 50 starters for 2017.

 

Stats from: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus

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