2017 Rankings: Top 40 Starting Pitchers For Fantasy Baseball
3/13 update: I have since updated these rankings on March 13th. Check out those rankings here.
We’re continuing our Starting Pitcher Rankings after going over the Top 20 Starters on Monday. We’ll be revealing the Top 100+ this week and it starts to get fun with the Top 40 today. Let’s dive in!
Tier 3: Now What? (Continued)
21. Jameson Taillon (Pittsburgh Pirates) – We’re continuing the same Tier from yesterday’s Top 20 (it’s a yoooge tier) and now it gets fun because I see big stuff here with Taillon. BIG STUFF. He learned his two-seamer from the holy Ray Searage when he hit the majors last season and now he’s developing his Changeup alongside it to have a fantastic 1-2 punch that I expect to develop more in 2017. He also has a nasty Curveball that generated groundballs at a fantastic 67% mark and held a 4.7 pVal in just over 400 thrown in 2016. The kid has some serious potential with these pitches and I can see him fully blossoming in the year ahead, but let’s talk a little about his approach last season. Diving in, it’s quick to see his goal was to focus exclusively arm-side with his Fastball/Changeup, and focus down under the zone with his Curveball – which he did exceptionally well, might I add. He’ll need to command his pitches on both sides of the plate to be truly effective, while gaining a touch more movement on his Changeup (not enough fade currently, but he used a four-seam grip last year as he picked up his two-seamer. I expect a new grip in 2017 and much better movement/pairing with the heater). But this shouldn’t be a negative as it highlights the fact there is room to grow and while he doesn’t have the same hook that Aaron Nola has displayed, I can see Taillon being the command specialist with plus heat (94.2mph average Fastball last year!) with great secondary pitchers to turn himself into a bonafide Top 25, heck Top 20 starter this year. Of course we can’t forget that he returned from TJS just last year, which cuts his chances of a 200+ inning season (maybe they’ll let him loose?), despite his 160+ frames in 2016. Still, I see a breakout in the near future and I would love own roughly 180/190 innings of Taillon for the year ahead.
22. Aaron Nola (Philadelphia Phillies) – Easy A and I are best of buds. I’m his Obama to his Biden. Why do you get to be Obama? Because Nola deserves the Medal of Freedom dammit! Last year this time, I placed Nola in the Top 50 – the only one to do so in the ECR – and the kid pitched liked it for the first two months. But that would be understatement as he produced studly ace numbers in those outings: 9.81 K/9, 1.73 BB/9, 2.65 ERA (2.75 FIP, 2.71 xFIP!), and a 53.9% GB rate as he allowed just 24.2% hard contact. Holy Wade Boggs’ Mustache! Problem was that it fell apart starting on June 11th, leading to a 9.82 ERA across his final eight outings – all of which are supposedly products of an injured elbow and horrid luck. So clearly, once again, we have a clear question of health (apparently his elbow is “100%”), but there are two major factors that elevates Nola above the rest: 1) That upside regardless of the small 12 starts sample size is enormous and 2) he doesn’t have an injury history otherwise that would make me think he’s now cursed for 2017 and beyond. There’s risk at play, but among the field of enigmas, I’m gunning for Nola’s top-notch ability.
23. Zack Greinke (Arizona Diamondbacks) – I’m not going to be the first to point out that Greinke has had one of the strangest careers of being absolutely dominant some seasons while also painful mediocre in others. After three straight seasons below 2.75 ERA, it was a dramatic fall from grace as Greinke put up a 4.37 spot in Arizona. Some regression was expected entering a HR heavy park with a 7.3% HR/FB rate in 2015, but not like this. Going after Greinke isn’t as heavy of a gamble as other pitchers as that 4.37 ERA may seem, but there is clear risk here. You could catch a guy around a 3.00 ERA with a 8+ K/9 and super low walk rate, i.e. a Masahiro Tanaka type with a tick more upside, or you could be trying to cut your losses and hoping his name value is enough to get something back from him in late April. With so much mystery, I’m shying away in his 33-year-old season and unless his sub 100 ADP falls dramatically, I’d rather wait for other options dozens of picks later.
24. Danny Duffy (Kansas City Royals) – This ranking really shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been following me through August. Well, maybe it should since I thought of putting Duffy around #30, BUT HERE WE ARE AT #24. This tier is weird. Anyway, Duffy was glorious in 2016 and I think a lot of people are going to be running to get him as their #2 this season, but I’m super cautious for three reasons: 1) His lack of workload across six seasons that is partially a product of his dramatic injury history, 2) His hard contact rate as a starter was a staggering 37.9% but just a .286 BABIP 3) His success as a starter hinged greatly on maintaining elite velocity that he had as a reliever – velocity that started to decline in August/September that I imagine won’t be the same through all of 2017. If that heater is still stellar, good times are awaiting. But if its velocity diminishes, I expect his walks to return as he loses confidence in his stuff, and you have yourself a guy you’re wondering if you can drop by the end of May.
25. Jose Quintana (Chicago White Sox) – It’s hard not to like Quintana – steady elite walk rates through his tenure (2.31 BB/9 career rate!), 200+ innings four straight years, and a QS fiend that gives him a major boost in respective leagues. But like a Sandoval in the room, it’s hard to ignore that his hard contact spiked to 32.7% last season, reduced his grounders from 47.1% to 40.4%, and raised his SIERA to a worrisome 4.01 mark. Then you remember that his K/9 has never been above 8.00 and suddenly he doesn’t become so enticing. Now I traditionally don’t like to mention W/L when discussing starters, but I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention the struggle ahead for the 2017 White Sox. If Quintana does enter the season in Chicago, I can understand lowering him a few slots, but keep in mind the possibility that he gets traded mid-season when a team is ready to make a major push. It adds up to a guy that I initially slotted Top 20, but grabbing him early seems like an overpay for a guy that is good but not great.
26. Kyle Hendricks (Chicago Cubs) – This has been a conflicting tier and it doesn’t stop with Hendricks. I’ll try to make this one Nesquick. Is it going to be tasty then? …Maybe? Would anyone describe baseball writing as tasty? Hey, you said this one would be quick! Oh come on! Hendricks showed us all what a true finesse pitcher can look like, relying heavily on deception, pitch movement, and location to make batters’ lives hell despite a sub 90 MPH heater. It was wonderful and we all had a party in 2016. It was grander than Curtis winning $1,000 at the MGM casino. But now it’s 2017 and we have to realize the facts. Hendricks needed to pitch perfectly to get successful results and if he doesn’t work those corners perfectly or loses a touch of movement on that Changeup it could be disappointing for owners. I’m not calling for a 4.00 ERA, but a 3.40 without the same strikeouts as he could struggle seeing the sixth inning is sure not what you want at his price. Keep in mind, if he does lose that luscious feel, he doesn’t have the same stuff as someone like teammate Jake Arrieta that can get him out of tough James. Tough James? Yeah, Tough James. Difficult Jimmies. Hard Sprinkles. You meant to say jams didn’t you. THIS IS A LEGIT PHRASE I SWEAR.
27. Cole Hamels (Texas Rangers) – It’s getting to the point that you just want some sort of dependability in this tier that feels like an AA meeting (everyone has their problems but at heart they are good people) and you want to believe in a household name like Hamels. He used to be comfortably in the Top 15 but he’s raised some serious questions as of late, most notably a dramatic rise to his walk rate in 2016 (3.45 BB/9) that was over a full point higher than his 2.41 BB/9 mark in 2015. And it gets worse. The product of his extra free passes is the ineffectiveness of his best asset: his Changeup. The pitch had registered double digital pVALs for five straight years, averaging a value of 21.1 across that time. That number shrank to just 1.5 in 2017 as its zone rated dropped to 33.2% (compared to a 44.7% career mark) while also losing an inch of vertical drop. Sure, it was still a beneficial pitch by definition, though if you want Hamels being Hamels, he needs that pitch to return. It’s certainly possible, but when you see the floor of a 3.99 SIERA and 3.85 xFIP with a 1.31 WHIP from last season, you wonder if you should be banking on him reclaiming his stellar Changeup.
28. Kenta Maeda (Los Angeles Dodgers) – I’ve seen a good amount of talk about pitchers this offseason and let me tell you, the new curved glass pouring mechanism of the Pur Classic 11-Cup is top notch. I keeed but I’ve been surprised to see how many people are on board for Maeda in 2017. Okay that’s a lie. I understand why people are buying it, but they are hanging out at the shallow end of the pool. Everyone knows the deep end is where fun is hidden! People see his 9.17 K/9 and 2.56 BB/9 and think great times are ahead. What I see are three things: 1) Maeda’s Slider was ridiculously good last year despite average movement because he was able to perfectly place it along the outside corner and off the plate at will. Essentially, he tapped out last year, especially with just a 90 MPH Fastball. 2) That K/9 translated to under 6 Ks per game since his IPS was terrible at 5.5. 3) It’s hard to believe Maeda will dramatically improve his 3.69 SIERA and 3.70 xFIP this year given that I don’t see any room for improvement. What this all adds up to is a guy I expect to lower his K/9 while not changing much else and possibly getting hit around a little more with his average velocity – he needed his Slider to be impeccable to generate the numbers he did last year. Sure, he’s serviceable and I’m not saying AVOID AVOID AVOID, it’s simply a scenario where I’m waiting for his price to drop before considering him.
29. Steven Matz (New York Mets) – Another Met, another super talented arm that could be Top 15 who is plagued by injuries. I am such a huge fan of Matz’s ability it hurts. The southpaw has four pitches that I love – One of the rare pitchers with four pitches that all registered positive pVals – as he began integrating a Slider last season. A healthy Matz = 9.00+ K/9, 2.00 BB/9 and a 3.00 ERA with a 50% GB rate. That’s an elite starter. But then his injury history is aggravating, including bone spurs, TJS, oblique strain, back discomfort, and shoulder issues. And he’s only 25! I would be surprised if he gives you more than 170 innings, but it’s hard to ignore that if he does have a full season, Matz is a premo ace. I debated Matz vs. Paxton for a while and it came down to myself trusting Matz slightly more every time he hits the mound. The NL Easy can do that.
30. James Paxton (Seattle Mariners) – Big slingin’ James Paxton. My boy since Pitcher GIFs started in 2014. And guess what? Now he’s upgraded to a new arm slot that has him touching 100 MPH paired with a deadly cutter that demolishes right-handers – we’re talking whiffs at a 27.9% rate against RHB. That’s deadlier than a deadly snake. Or a deadly lion. Or another deadly animal because THAT PITCH IS DEADLY. Paxton put up numbers that I imagine would surprise a good amount of people: 8.70 K/9, 1.79 BB/9 and a 2.80 FIP – this is a guy who was burned by an atrocious 66.3% LOB rate and a .347 BABIP. His IPS was just over 6, which I imagine would go up once the BABIP and LOB rate normalizes. The major catch here is Paxton’s horrendous injury history, as his 121 innings were a career high despite his third season in t he rotation. Like a few others here, an injury free 2017 would push Paxton to Top 15 territory, but it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to such a consistent issue. Nevertheless, I imagine he’ll get more innings than a guy like Rich Hill, pushing him into Top 30 status.
31. Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh Pirates) – A lot of people want to act like 2016 didn’t happen. Like Cole himself? Well, yeah after featuring a 3.88 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and only 116 innings in 21 starts (a 5.52 IPS, yikes!). Don’t forget that he also had a right triceps muscle sprain and right elbow inflammation that caused three trips to the DL last year. But, as I said, we’re supposed to look past this horrid season and act like he’s going to be Top 25 in 2017. It’s certainly possible – the kid was a stud in 2015 – but he lost a ton of vertical movement on his Slider (nearly two inches!), leading to a near 10% jump in line drives allowed on the pitch, with an eleven point dip in batters chasing it off the plate and a significant six point increase in contact rate. Mix that with less horizontal and vertical movement on his heater and his stuff just wasn’t as good as what we’ve seen in the past. Now I know “that was because he was injured!” but I feel like this is the same case with a ton of pitchers in this tier. The problem with Cole is that his upside is only apparent when he’s 100% healthy as opposed to other guys who will still be productive in the time they pitch regardless of their jagged season due to DL stints. Get my drift?
32. Michael Fulmer (Detroit Tigers) – There are things to dislike about Fulmer: a 3.95 xFIP and 4.03 SIERA with a .268 BABIP and 79.0% LOB Rate suggest that his 2016 ERA of 3.06 was a major stretch, while a 7.47 K/9 is far from ideal. I have to believe that K rate will rise in 2017 though, as his Slider generated just a 13.3% whiff rate despite coming in at about 88mph and with late sharp break. Not to gross levels, but 8.00 K/9 or so should be expected with upside for more. What’s really interesting here is the development of Fulmer’s Changeup. In his first four games, Fulmer threw his Changeup just 6.1% of the time and carried a 6.52 ERA with a 4.19 BB/9 rate. After that, Fulmer threw his slow ball at least 10% of the time per game (save for his final start), nearing 20% for all games after May 20th, carrying a 2.58 ERA and 2.13 BB/9. Coincidence? I THINK NOT. Seriously, I’m very adamant about this. Now, let’s assume that Fulmer is cruising with his Changeup now, throws it a little more this year and saves his Slider as more of a strikeout pitch, we can see something like an 8.25 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 50% GB rate, mixed with a 3.30 ERA while maintaining a 6+ IPS. They say once you’ve learned how to ride a Mike, you never forget it and I simply can’t ignore him for 2017. Oh god, that sounded so much better in my head.
33. Rich Hill (Los Angeles Dodgers) – Hill is another intriguing option as he pitches like an ace when on the..ahem…mound – for real: 10.52 K/9, 2.69 BB/9, 2.12 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 20 starts! – but the question is how many starts you’re going to get. It’s a situation where I want to own Hill if he’s forgotten about during drafts, but I’d rather go after a guy that I can depend on week-to-week instead in the first 150 picks. After that, I’ll take Hill and use a DL spot on him whenever he happens to go down. Come to think of it, with Urias and Hill the Dodgers have both a super young and super old pitcher that should go about 120-140 innings and are very beneficial for your squads when they start. Obviously Hill is more valuable here as he’ll go deeper in the starts that he does give, but it’s an interesting parallel that has no fantasy weight. But all my fantasies contain things with lower weight. Oh boy…
34. Rick Porcello (Boston Red Sox) – After I was the highest in the ECR on Rick Porcello last year, it’s time to be one of his haters this year. Womp womp. It will be foolish to expect another 22-4 season from Porcello after getting by far the most run support in the majors (7.6 runs per game) and realizing that he pitched well above his head – he had a 3.15 ERA despite a 3.89 xFIP (9.3% HR/FB in Fenway/AL Beast? HOW?) and his Hard Contact rate of 30% is good but not great, especially when paired with just 16.9% soft contact. Meanwhile, his 7.63 K/9 isn’t turning heads, though I would be naive to overlook that he tossed 223 innings last year (6.75 IPS!), which makes his strikeout production a bit higher. I’m not sold that he’ll have the same amount of productive innings this year with the same run support that will keep him in the game, nor do I believe he has the ability to drastically outperform his xFIP/SIERA consistently. I know it seems like I’m hating on everyone, it’s more that I want to systematically display how each pitcher in this tier doesn’t deserve some of the “Top 20 elite!” labels that they are getting. Would I own Porcello? Of course! Would I draft him him as my #2? Definitely not! Will I stop asking questions? Maybe!
35. Danny Salazar (Cleveland Indians) – If you’re looking for reasons not to get on the Salazar train, you’ve come to the right place. Where to begin…how about his elbow injury last year that cut him to just 25 starts? Or maybe in those starts his walk rate soared to 4.13 BB/9 with a 3.87 ERA, 33.8% Hard Contact, 1.34 WHIP, and under 5 2/3 innings per start? Did you know his only pitch that registered positively in 2016 was his CH (albeit an excellent 12.0 pval mark), which he threw under 18% of the time? It’s just not screaming breakout season for me and there’s waaaaay too much worry for me to chase his 10.55 K/9 (which translates to only 6.5 Ks per game, mind you) and I think you’ll be happier just letting him go in the 12th round. There are so many intriguing guys to chase much later that could present plenty of value instead of this fella.
36. Julio Teheran (Atlanta Braves) – On the surface, I can see why people are digging Teheran. He bounced back from an atrocious 4.04 ERA and 3.27 BB/9 to give owners a solid 3.21 ERA and 1.96 BB/9 in 2016, while just missing 8.00 K/9 across 188 innings. Pitching in the NL Easy helps his case and even some deeper numbers help – all four of his pitches registered positive pVals. But then I really just don’t like Teheran’s shtick. He’s a flyball heavy pitcher without the same “rise” (Zmovement) on his Fastball that we normally see from that archetype, his soft contact is well below 20% while rocking his highest Hard Hit rate since 2012 (33.1%), with a SIERA at 3.93. I understand his HR/FB and xFIP aren’t the best choices given that he’s clearly going to beat the average given his lack of grounders, but he also had a career low in BABIP (.260) that doesn’t help his case when he’s not pulling in the strikeout upside of many others. He’s also beaten his FIP numbers every year – don’t forget his 2.89 ERA to 3.49 FIP in 2015 – but it’s hard to believe that as a genuine skill when he isn’t suppressing hard contact like the elites. I’m simply not interested in chasing The Uncle (Who? Leo?) when his upside isn’t so mighty and there’s more risk than people realize with him turning into waiver wire fodder. Sidenote: I love how I only hear the word “fodder” in fantasy contexts. Fodder fodder fodder fodder. What about this? Touché.
37. Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics) – It seemed like Manaea didn’t get much love last year, which I totally understand after the big fella featured a 5.85 ERA through 11 starts on July 5th. But get this, in his final 13 starts, he posted a 2.44 ERA with a 7.97 K/9 and 1.81 BB/9. Hallelujah! Now he needed a .252 BABIP and 83.3% LOB rate to help out, leading to a 3.48 xFIP and 3.60 SIERA, but there is certainly something here that is being overlooked. At that would be his adaptation for his Changeup that he suddenly threw 31.6% of the time during this stretch, while reducing his Slider to just 12.5%. Consider the fact that he was throwing his Changeup eight points less prior, while his Slider/Fastball were both getting hammered prior for negative pVals. He changed his approach, had a bunch of success, and I don’t see much a reason why we can’t get on board for 2017 where a young pitcher could continue developing and improve his strikeout totals. I’m not predicting a Top 20 season for the kid, but Top 30 is certainly within the realm of reason and I think his floor is much higher than people think with upside for a sturdy #3 SP on your team. Sign me up!
38. Kevin Gausman (Baltimore Orioles) – With a lot of pitchers here, we’re expecting a change. Maybe slightly better, maybe slightly worse, maybe being a disappointment in the eyes of their parents no matter what they do, but I see Gausman and I think it’s more of the same. 8.50 K/9 that hints at 8.00 as his peak, a good sub 2.50 BB/9, and an ERA that hovers around 3.50. There’s a bit upside for more in the ERA category down to say, 3.20 or so, but given that his third pitch – a Slider – isn’t showing signs of becoming the stellar third pitch he needs, I think we have a capped ceiling with Gausman and his supppper deadly Splitter. Likewise, I don’t see Gausman falling off a ton, making him one of the smallest question marks of this entire tier. Weird.
39. Lance McCullers (Houston Astros) – I can see a lot of people chasing McCullers this year for good measure: a 3.22 ERA last season was supported by a 3.00 FIP, his K/9 was an absurd 11.78 and he boasted an elite 57.3% GB rate. We should be good to go, right? Ehhhh as much as I want to endorse Lance a lot…ahem…his walk rate was an atrocious 5.00 BB/9 as he’s never featured sub 3.00 numbers across the minors and majors, save for four starts for a small minor league club in 2012. Then it would be foolish to overlook that his IPS was just 5.79 in 2016 – nearly identical to his 5.71 rate in 2015. That means his glorious strikeout rate isn’t expressed as often as you’d like while he’s not getting quality starts, fewer chances at wins, and more volatility in the ERA/WHIP department. Did I also mention that he missed time last year due to elbow and shoulder injuries? It’s a year of tough picks as essentially every pitcher is a Singleton Risk/Singleton Reward player (Dude, that Jon Singleton joke is like three years old), but it’s disconcerting that even a healthy McCullers still has his walk demons to face before becoming the stud you want.
40. Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays) – Boy did I love Stroman entering 2016. In the fall prior, Stroman’s Sinker was showing elite movement with both vertically and horizontally and I forsaw the kid keeping the same trend while expanding on his breaking stuff for a legit ace breakout. The latter did happen – his Slider/CT/CB combination all improved in 2016 – but his Fastball/CH just didn’t have the same movement and his performance took the hit. There were moments of brilliance, such as a a four game stretch with 34 Ks in August, though he never got into the consistent groove we hoped for. Now, there are stats to show it was a product of luck – 3.41 xFIP (16.5% HR/FB!), just a 68.6% LOB rate despite an elite 60.1% GB rate, but it’s worrisome to see a guy that relies on grounders to see a 31.8% hard hit rate – guys like Keuchel and Hendricks who had the same Modus Operandi needed rates around 25% to make a major fantasy impact. It’s possible Stroman turns the corner and regains the movement he needs while figuring out his Changeup, but it’s a tough bet to make.