Welcome back to the Starting Pitcher Rankings for 2017. The top 25 can be found here and the top 50 here. The big thing I’ll note is that the volatility seems to increase which makes me think of going for the high risk – high reward pitchers. This strategy would include opting for safer pitching options in the draft; those who have shown consistency in the past without any major warning signs of decline. If you are unfamiliar with any of the terminology, I’d suggest heading here or replying in the comments.
- Marco Estrada (Toronto Blue Jays): I went into greater detail on Estrada here. Estrada is one of the league’s best contact managers. FIP doesn’t tell the story with Marco. He doesn’t rely on speed; rather good command and “stuff”.
- Drew Smyly (Seattle Mariners): There’s a few reasons why Smyly has made the top 60. Primarily, Smyly has a career 3.97 ERA and 4.08 FIP as a starter. He’s consistently posted good strikeout and walk rates. The slider is a good pitch. On the downside, Smyly’s 90 MPH fastball velocity plays more like 88 due to his mechanics. It’s a pitch with good movement that leads to popups and flyballs. For him to be successful, he needs batters to hit into softer flys like Marco Estrada. Sure enough, his average flyball exit velocity is three miles slower than league average so there might be something to it. He doesn’t get as much spin on his fastball; he’s around average which isn’t necessarily good for pitchers. It should be noted that Smyly’s strand rate was one of the worst in the league. Moving to Seattle, Smyly might have better fortune or he will find some way to alleviate his fastball command woes. I think he’s got a good floor with some room for improvement. I also really like his name; I think that ought to count for something…
- Jeff Samardzija (San Francisco Giants): Shark’s big value comes with eating innings. He’s managed 200+ innings pitched for four consecutive seasons. A couple years ago he found a cutter, a pitch that is arguably his best alongside the slider. The lack of a good third pitch hurts Samardzija but his fastball does hit 94 MPH. He’s kind of boring; 200+ IP, 160 SO+, to go along with an ERA around 4.
- Jon Gray (Colorado Rockies): Gray will be a dismissive player entering 2017. Some will argue his stuff is really good minimizing the impact of Coors. Sliders are arguably the best secondary pitch to throw in Coors field with Gray having a pretty good one. Others, like me, will be more cautious of the Coors effect. Whichever camp you are in, both can agree Coors Field limits his potential. Gray had a solid 161 innings; his FIP- was the same as Jose Quintana and Justin Verlander. He was on the short end of luck having a 66% left on base rate. He threw first pitch strikes at a healthy rate in addition to getting batters to swing and miss at 12% of pitches. There’s lots of risk having a pitcher who will pitch half his games in Coors field. Near Gray’s draft position, there may be players with similar upside and opportunity cost.
- Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals): Wainwright, coming back from injury, no doubt disappointed owners with his lackluster performance. There were things out of his control that no doubt compounded his ERA. With a BABIP of .330 and a left on base percentage below 70%, Wainwright wasn’t exactly the luckiest pitcher of 2016. He posted a 3.93 FIP with an average strikeout percentage while logging nearly 200 innings. This makes me believe Wainwright will be better. Not to his career 3.17 ERA, rather something around 3.7-3.9.
- Anthony DeSclafani (Cincinnati Reds): DeSclafani took another step forward last season improving his FIP- and xFIP-. Slight improvements to his strikeout and walk ratios certainly helped him put up a 3.28 ERA. The Reds pitchers got some positive luck in regards to strand rate. My issue with DeSclafani is that I don’t see him getting better than last year nor does his profile indicate he’ll have such a nice ERA in 2017. Moreover, DeSclafani continued to be poor against left handed pitching (.351 wOBA vs Lefties in 2016). If he is to take an additional step, I’d like to see him utilize his knuckle curve more often, something we saw in September. An oblique strain limited him to 123 innings in 2016. A fully healthy DeSclafani will challenge for 200 innings. I think he’s capable of a 3.75-4 ERA with 170-180 strikeouts if not better.
- Jaime Garcia (Atlanta Braves): In 2015, Garcia pitched amazing (2.43 ERA, 3.00 FIP). In 2016, Garcia pitched terrible (4.67 ERA, 4.49 FIP). The big thing that killed Garcia was the long ball, as his 1.36 HR/9 was much higher than his career 0.79. The groundball rate remained elite, the strikeouts and walks both increased. The former Cardinals pitcher should trust his slider more often, a pitch that decreased in usage during his tumultuous second half. The slider was the 25th best pitch in terms of whiffs per swing among pitchers with at least 200 thrown (103 pitchers). I believe Garcia has three good pitches (slider, two-seam fastball, changeup) making it realistic that he is capable of a bounce-back season. Garcia, despite his proneness to injuries, has managed a 3.57 ERA and 3.60 FIP throughout his career. For what is likely a late round pick, he’s worth a flier.
- Jharrel Cotton (Oakland Athletics): I went into Cotton in greater detail here. Filthy changeup, good control and command exhibited in the minors, Cotton’s poised for a nice season.
- Daniel Norris (Detroit Tigers): The first thing you need to know about Norris is the addition of a leg kick that was key in his strong finish. Next, Norris exemplified signs of growth as shown by a higher strikeout rate, higher first pitch strike rate, and an improved FIP from 2015. His velocity went up by 2 MPH to 93, a welcome sign for the Tigers lefty. I’m a fan of his slider and change. A Norris breakout could very well be the difference between the Tigers making the playoffs or not.
- Joe Ross (Washington Nationals): Joe Ross reported he intends to focus on improving his changeup. A third pitch is something that can vault him into the top 40 pitchers. Ross has pitched 181.2 innings across two seasons with success. He’s adept at making batters swing and miss primarily with the slider. Without the development of a change that can miss bats, I can’t see Ross improving his strikeout rate despite a swinging strikeout rate of 11%. I think Ross is a good pitcher who’s capable of a good ERA and average strikeout totals. I’ll be watching for news on his changeup during March, something that could vault Ross up the rankings.
- Vince Velasquez (Philadelphia Phillies): Velasquez showed some encouraging signs in 2016 increasing both strikeout and walk rates. He pitched better by SIERA and xFIP. He struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings. He was wheeling and dealing until August where his ERA jumped to 7.52! By most metrics, Velasquez improved upon his 55 innings in 2015. He has solid potential and has been pegged as a breakout candidate in MLB circles.
- Garret Richards (Los Angeles Angels): A hyped player coming into 2015, Richards had a somewhat disappointing campaign. Last season Richards had issues with his elbow pitching only 34.2 innings. He did not undergo Tommy John surgery and is expected to be healthy. When he did pitch, Richards showcased his newly developed changeup. From a movement perspective, the pitch had above average fade and drop. Couple that in with the high velocity, and you’ve got quite the pitch.
- Julio Urias (Los Angeles Dodgers): My biggest concern with Urias is any possible innings limit or lack of innings due to Dodgers pitching depth. He pitched 122 innings last season across AAA and the MLB. Through 15 starts, Urias posted a 3.25 ERA, 3.02 FIP, and 25.8 K-BB%. Urias’s ceiling is a top five pitcher. In the minor leagues, he has absolutely dazzled at every stop. Urias utilizes four different pitches and each at four distinct velocities. The fastball and curveball are both solid pitches with the changeup looking good as well. The sky’s the limit for Urias; much of his value depends on how many innings he will rack up. Uncertainty on playing time is the reason he’s not within the top 60.
- Jerad Eickhoff (Philadelphia Phillies): In his first full season, Eickhoff managed a 3.65 ERA and 4.19 FIP across 197 innings. He has a good fastball curve combo and I like the slider which has an impressive 18.4% swinging strike rate for his career. Eickhoff strikes me as a pitcher who might be better if he threw fewer fastballs but more breaking stuff or perhaps improved sequencing. Eickhoff struggled immensely when facing batters for the third time in a game illustrated by an ugly .397 wOBA. The most interesting aspect of this was the greater reliance on the curve in these situations against left handed hitters, something I think you would want to do. Against right handed batters, Eickhoff again reduced usage of the fastball in favour of the curve. I think increasing usage of the slider in this situation would be a better call. Really, I think further development of Eickhoff will be all about the slider from usage to better pitch selection. Eickhoff is an effective pitcher who will eat innings. He’ll be someone to watch closely during the beginning of the season.
- Dylan Bundy (Baltimore Orioles): Expectations are that Bundy will not be on an innings limit. The former fourth overall pick has a 94 MPH heater with two breaking pitches providing three different levels of velocity. The fastball gets lots of “rise” and is has elite spin with only 17 pitchers had a higher spin rate on fastball (minimum 250 pitches). The changeup doesn’t get a healthy amount of drop; instead Bundy manages to induce greater fade with a 9 MPH velocity differential. The fastball-change combo is good; watch out if he rediscovers his cutter something he’s been working on. One issue working against Bundy? He pitches in the AL East, not exactly the friendliest division for pitchers. Before this exercise, I wondered about how much I would like Bundy. There’s the health risk, the peripheral statistics looking not so good, and the lack of a distinct + effective third pitch. Bundy’s got a good strikeout rate, the fastball-changeup combination is good, the walk rate might be better. At this point, I’ll likely go for the potential upside Bundy gives which is of a top 25 – 40 pitcher if not higher. Add him to the list of pitchers to watch in Spring Training.
- Drew Pomeranz (Boston Red Sox): Another pitcher who’s tough to project because playing time might be an issue, Pomeranz put up a 3.32 ERA and 3.8 FIP in 170 innings with both the Padres and Red Sox. The strikeout percentage was impressive. He was the beneficiary of a below average BABIP and above average left on base percentage. Pom is a two-pitch pitcher capable of striking out batters at a high clip but I don’t see reason to believe he is good as his 2016 season makes him out to be.
- Lance Lynn (St. Louis Cardinals): Before his injury, he pitched two strong years and has a career 3.34 ERA and 3.36 FIP. He never relied on velocity either. He was good at limiting hard contact, a key factor in his success. Lynn’s a risky draft day choice that very well could pay dividends.
- Gio Gonzalez (Washington Nationals): Things got quite a bit ugly for Gio in 2016. ERA skyrocketed, FIP to its highest level since 2011, and velocity went down by 1.2 MPH. At 31, it’s unlikely the velocity returns. Gonzalez posted an above average BABIP and his left on base percentage was close to five points below his career mark. The number of strikeouts remained consistent as the number of walks issued decreased. Gonzalez’s peripherals weren’t terrible; they hint towards a high 3 ERA as opposed to the 4.57 he put up. Gonzalez is clearly on the decline although he did have some outside factors working against him. The Nationals look to be a strong force in the NL increasing the likelihood Gonzalez picks up wins.
- Wei-Yin Chen (Florida Marlins): Chen was ripped apart by opposing batters. Chen’s ERA nearing 5 was only the 27th worst among pitchers with 100 innings pitched last year. He suffered an elbow injury during the season. From a skills perspective, the strikeout and walk rates remained consistent. The FIP was uglier than usual. From 2014-2015, Chen posted a 3.44 ERA. I don’t think he’s that good nor do I think he’s as bad as his 2016 season would let on.
- Taijuan Walker (Arizona Diamondbacks): Walker was heralded as a potential breakout candidate in 2015 and then again in 2016. He does a few things well including limiting the free pass, induces enough swinging strikes, and manages to get ahead of the count early more than your average pitcher. Command seems to come and go more often for Walker and this is shown by his career 1.36 home runs per nine. The peripherals were worse than 2015 with FIP-, xFIP-, and SIERA all rising. Around his draft position, I think there will be players available with similar upside and fewer question marks.
- Ian Kennedy (Kansas City Royals): Kennedy pitched over his head as shown by having a FIP (4.67) much higher than his ERA (3.68). Kennedy benefited from a BABIP below his career average, and one of the best strand rates on baseball. Kennedy continued to have problems with the long ball giving up 1.52 home runs per nine. Kennedy’s more of a low to mid 4’s pitcher as opposed to the mid 3 ERA he gave owners last season. If he can get into 180 innings, he’s capable of 180 strikeouts. Don’t pay for Kennedy’s 2016. I will note that he is one of the fewer
- Tyler Skaggs (Los Angeles Angels): The 25-year-old has missed quite a lot of time due to injuries. He showed poor control, not surprising for a player who hadn’t pitched since 2014. On the positive end, 23% strikeout rate was a great sign to see as was a fastball approaching 93 MPH. This ranking is all about upside. Skaggs is an unknown quantity capable of delivering quite a bit of quality. Whether he does or not remains to be seen; like Walker above, there may be players with similar upside but fewer question marks available.
- Collin McHugh (Houston Astros): McHugh’s a bit of a perplexing pitcher. He’s had his ERA and FIP both increase over the past two years since his 2014 breakout but he’s maintained a solid swinging strike rate, walks issued have remained relativiely consistent, and has increased his first pitch strike rate. This past season he did have some trouble with balls in play (.338 BABIP). McHugh doesn’t have overwhelming velocity; instead McHugh has three pitches he trusts: the fastball, slider, and curve. Maybe it’s about sequencing his pitches better? The curve is the only standout pitch in his repertoire. The Astros pitcher did have one of the best average exit velocities. McHugh looks good for an ERA around 4 and decent strikeout numbers.
- Junior Guerra (Milwaukee Brewers): The 32 year old was quite the story in 2016 posting a 2.81 ERA. Guerra benefitted from a .250 BABIP and a left on base percentage of 79%. Not someone to reach for although Guerra could provide additional value if he can get more strikeouts like he did in the minors.
- Hisashi Iwakuma (Seattle Mariners): Iwakuma pitched the worst season of his career. Strikeouts and walks went the wrong way, with his other underlying statistics pointing in the direction of his ERA rather than away. On the positive side, Iwakuma’s BABIP was 30 points higher than his career average while pitching 199 innings. And that’s about it. If he gets some BABIP regression and manages to get the ball into the zone more often, there’s a chance he can get his ERA under 4. Don’t expect a lot of strikeouts.
This concludes the top 75 pitchers. There are few clear cut “safe” choices. Many young pitchers with upside to jump into the top 40 are apparent as are wily veterans who could produce a good season.