3/13 update: I have since updated these rankings on March 13th. Check out those rankings here.
It’s February and time to start thinking about the fantasy baseball season ahead. Our rankings always start with pitchers and this first week we will outline the Top 100+ Starting Pitchers for the 2017 season. Let’s do it.
Tier 1: Then There Were Seven
1. Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) – I’m going to leave you with one stat. Just one. The 2017 Steamer projections have every starting pitcher holding an ERA above 3.00…except for Kershaw who is projected to carry a 2.29 ERA in 2017. And I’m not even surprised. Just don’t expect these blurbs to be this short. Things are going to get much much larger, trust me. Yes, that’s how I’m starting this season. Best joke ever.
2. Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals) – With Kershaw out of the way it gets a bit more interesting, though I imagine writers ranking Scherzer below #2 will be categorized as BOLD this preseason. He has all the variables you want if you’re spending an early pick on a starter: durability (eight straight seasons of 30+ starts), four consecutive 200+ inning seasons, an ERA under 3.00 and sub 1.00 WHIP in three of his last four seasons, five straight years of 10+ K/9, and as if you needed more reason to sign up for Scherzer, he gets to play in the NL Easy for the team that will give him another shot at 20 Wins. Don’t be silly and take a bold selection when you get the sure-thing stud you want with Scherzer once Clayton is off the board.
3. Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox) – I wouldn’t be shocked if Sale doesn’t get many #3 spots after dropping his strikeout totals dramatically in 2016 (11.82 down to 9.25 K/9) while his ERA stayed above 3.30 for the second season in a row. It’s not bad, but you dang well don’t expect that from the #3 overall SP. I could talk a ton about Sale, like how he’s finally in a separate division from the Twins – the team that somehow is the bane of his existence – or how he performed much better against AL East teams than AL Central teams in 2016, but it comes down to two factors for me: He will finally be on a winning ballclub that could give him a better case for a 20 Win season (I know, 17 Wins last year was high for him so it’s not that big of a jump this year), but more importantly I trust that he’ll alter his approach a bit as his experiment of “pitching more to contact” didn’t work out as planned. He elected to stop throwing his Changeup against lefties nearly entirely, while also refusing to throw it with two strikes to right-handers (24% down to 7%). I have to believe that will revert this year, which means we get more strikeouts and more wins from one of the most consistent pitchers around. That earns the #3 spot to me despite the hoopla about moving to the AL Beast.
4. Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants) – There are a lot of points I like to hammer down like the Yankees to the Red Sox from 1996 to 2003 and you’re going to hear this one a bit: If you are taking a pitcher in the early rounds, consistency and durability is top priority. Bumgarner has given 200+ IP since 2011 (over 6 2/3 IPS last year!), with elite ERA and strikeout numbers each season. Yes, his Hard Hit rate rose a bit last year and his SIERA/FIP are not ideal, but the floor here is a 3.40 ERA season with a 8.75 K/9 and 2.40 BB/9. That’s the floor. Ceiling is 10.00 K/9, 1.80 BB/9 and 220 innings of 2.70 ERA. Hot diggity-damn.
5. Noah Syndergaard (New York Mets) – This is actually a mini-tier inside of the top tier that goes until Verlander. Why not just make a new tier? Because that just doesn’t seem right to me. I might as well just put Kershaw is his own tier then but y’all already know that and whatever, just roll with it. Anyway my love for Thor is far from a secret. I adore the guy more than Kel loves orange soda. Probably. There is a part of me that wants to even put Thor as #2 and there is a strong case for it: a 2.29 FIP and an unjustified .334 BABIP given his elite 28.1% hard contact rate screams stud ERA/WHIP, especially when there’s theoretically room to grow at age 24. Match that with a near 30% K rate and a walk rate that could stay under 6% again and you have pure SP bliss. There is a major problem though: he doesn’t have the same history of 200+ innings as the rest of the bunch and he had injury questions last season. A ranking of Thor at #2 is betting that he stays healthy through the year and if I knew he’d be getting 34 starts, I believe that is where I’d place him. But with bone spurs and elbow questions and the lot, I just can’t go into the draft taking Syndergaard over sturdy workhorses like Sale, Scherzer, and Bumgarner. I’ll be pressing my hand on the window with rain streaking down from outside: We had good times Syndergaard. Good times.
6. Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians) – It seems like clockwork with the Klubot as he struggles early in the season, but then becomes a sturdy ace rest of the way. If his season started on May 20th last season, he would have had a 2.77 ERA with a 9.68 K/9, 2.43 BB/9 and over 6 2/3 IPS across 24 games. It’s Kluber’s biggest weakness and you’re simply going to have to tough it out if he’s looking slow out of the gate. HANG TOUGH. Essentially you’re getting an innings eater who will help you out every week, even if he still can’t figure out how to have a solid Fastball. It’s crazy to me. The fella has two of the best breaking balls in the game (or is just one pitch?), and if he simply learned how to command his heater, he would be golden. Instead, his Sinker has registered a career -33.8 pVal with his Four-Seamer hanging out at -21.1. Jeeeeeez. Nevertheless, he had heavy negative values last year in his Fastballs and still gave owners a top notch year. Just how it goes.
7. Justin Verlander (Detroit Tigers) – It was a fun ride last year with Jimmy V (why do I keep calling him that?), who was a definitive ace after six rocky starts to kick off the season and deserved another Cy Young award. The transformation occurred once he turned his loopy ~83 MPH Slider into a tight ~88 MPH Cutter, leading to a 2.42 ERA, 10.31 K/9, 2.05 BB/9, 6.9 IPS, and absurd 0.92 across those final 28 starts. Ridiculous. Now, it’s hard to expect Verlander to give us those numbers for a full 2017 season, which gets harder to believe when you realize he’ll be 34 years old this year and it’s hard to argue that his numbers were a product of a rare season of perfect health. Still, his upside is gorgeous with excellent recent numbers and he can be a stud through the year given decent health. You’ll be hearing that phrase a lot, by the way.
Tier 2: I’ve Got A Bad Feeling About This
8. Jacob deGrom (New York Mets) – Now in the second tier (kinda like the third given the top four is pretty set in stone) there are a lot more questions that will make people trust their gut more than Po. Skaaaaadoosh. First up is deGrom who I absolutely adore when he’s healthy, as there is little reason to believe he can’t continue pitching with the same command that has allowed his not-so-elite stuff to consistently get guys out. The problem is I simply don’t know where his health will be when the season starts after having ulnar nerve surgery in September. If all signs are go-go-go, I’ll be hoping to draft deGrom, expecting a 9.50 K/9, 2.00 BB/9, and sub 3.00 ERA across about 190-200 innings. As of now, his ADP is around the 6th round, but I imagine as we get more news on his injury status either way his price will fluctuate. If not, I’d be incredibly happy waiting for deGrom in the 5/6th round and creating a stud lineup in the meantime and so should you.
9. Jon Lester (Chicago Cubs) – If you wanted to label one pitcher as safe in this tier, you would be hard pressed to find someone more sturdy than Jon “Sturdy McSturdster” Lester. Three straight seasons of sub 3.35 ERA/1.12 WHIP, nine consecutive 190+ IP seasons (eight of which with 200+), averaging 208 Ks in each of the last three years, and so on and so forth. He’s playing for a winning team on the Cubs that should keep up those Wins as well and it’s hard not to be satisfied with Lester on your squad. The downside here is that his 3.61 SIERA in ’16 was the worst since 2013, but his lowest hard hit rate since 2011 (26.8%!) tells me there isn’t much to be worried about. The best argument around is to consider a 33-year-old finally hitting the inevitable wall and it’s not out of the question Lester has some trouble, especially as his errrr day catcher David Ross elected to call it quits. I originally wanted to dock Lester a few points given the age question and limited ace-upside, but the array of warts on the others options have propelled him higher than I expected.
10. Jake Arrieta (Chicago Cubs) – I wrestled a long while about which Cub I’d prefer entering the season and I wouldn’t be surprised if I drafted neither one. I want to love Arrieta more and classify him as a Top 5 guy. His stuff is dazzling with each of his four pitches deadly enough to wipe out any offense. The problem is his mechanics that I believe led to his control issues. The man pitches dramatically across the ball, that is landing heavily to the right of the plate – as opposed to in a straight line from the mound – forcing him to have perfect feel of his timing as he releases the ball across his body during delivery. Yes, he went 5 and 1/3 of no-hit ball in the World Series but Jonah Keri and I showed how lucky he got…but then again his stuff is so good that he was able to limit any damage even when his control is super wonky. It’s an odd spot to be in, and if he can get that feel again for a large part of the season, then Arrieta is primed for another Cy Young season. But that’s an italic if, which sure doesn’t suggest it as something I want to make heavy wagers on. There’s a rule for you kids out there: Never trust shifty ifs.
11. Yu Darvish (Texas Rangers) – I promise this one will be short like a classic animated Disney film. I love Darvish’s strikeouts and he has a knack for keeping that ERA/WHIP reasonably low. Maybe a little more worry with the WHIP given his horrid walk rate. The biggest problem is health – he’s been injured in every season he’s pitched in, including injuries of all types. He’s a glass case of…glass and I don’t like the idea of relying on him to survive through the season as my #1. Give me someone I can depend on for 200 innings with a slightly worse K rate and much better walk rate instead. Next!
12. Johnny Cueto (San Francisco Giants) – Me and Cueto have a bit of a…history. Like his buddy Jeff Samardzija, I haven’t been very keen on the Dreaded Wonder for years, and while my pessimism was justified in 2015, he certainly forced me to cave in 2016. But this is a new year! Is Cueto going to excel again for the Giants for regress back to his oft-injured and pretty-good-but-not-elite self? Last season, Cueto impressed me by raising his groundball rate dramatically, hitting 50% for the first time since 2013, while boosting his K/9 to 8.11 and lowering his walk rate to 1.84. It’s all just great, but it’s not going to change your week like Darvish’s superb strikeout ability or do I trust his stability like I do with Lester. Then you have to consider some regression coming and while I certainly do not object to owning Cueto, I’d rather look to someone that can bring a bit more upside to the table and raise my staff to the top of the league. He’s a solid addition, just not the Top 50 pick and elite #1 you want.
13. Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals) – Man I have such a love-hate with Stras. On one hand, he can be a super stud, presenting to-tier numbers in any way you want. Only three pitchers had a higher K/9 among 140+ innings than his 11.15 K/9 last year, and his 1.10 WHIP was just the tip of the iceberg. But there is a good amount of worry – his 3.60 ERA was far from acceptable, his walk rate rose to 2.68 BB/9 after being sub 1.90 for two seasons, and his LOB rate of 73.6% was below league average for the fourth straight time – leading me to believe he won’t ever get over his in-the-stretch woes. Of course his 2.92 FIP and unreal 21.4%/26.6% soft/hard contact rates make it tempting to believe better days are ahead, it’s simply hard to think “this” is the year when he has exceeded 185 innings just once while finding ways to hit the DL and allow sudden clunkers left and right. I want to believe, but unless he falls like a pig on ice I’m looking elsewhere.
14. Carlos Carrasco (Cleveland Indians) – Soooo then there’s Carrasco, the man along with Syndergaard that I found myself owning in a bunch of leagues last year. Across 25 starts he was pretty dang good – 9.23 K/9, 2.09 BB/9, 1.15 WHIP and a 3.32 ERA. For his price and the plague of the 19 that followed during the year, it worked out fine, but there was certainly a lot left to be desired after giving owners an IPS under 6.00 and not looking like himself in the final two months where he posted a ghastly 4.77 ERA. The biggest culprit is his heater, which he has trouble locating both high nor low and spotting in the middle third of the batter. I want to encourage owners to chase Cookie once again given a price much lower than the elites, but his injury history mixed with a questionable Fastball and a hard hit rate north of 35% last season give me concern that the end to our trust in Carrasco in nigh. Nigh.
15. David Price (Boston Red Sox) – Boy was 2016 a tough year for Price. Lowest K/9 since 2013 at 8.92, HR/FB rate was a career high by a longshot at 13.5%, ERA soared to 3.99 – he hadn’t been above 3.50 since 2009 – and he had a Hard Contact Rate above 29% for the first time in his career…at 34.8%. Holy letdown Batman! Now you’re probably waiting for me to give you a huge list of reasons why it was overblown and he’ll return to his old ways in 2017. Well…I’m not really going to do that. I mean, sure he’s a workhorse and had 220+ IP for three straight years while being the only guy with 35 starts last year and I’m well aware of his 3.39 ERA over 28 games after May 11th, but his xFIP was better across the entire season (3.52 vs 3.60), while Hard Contact was still up to 33.5% and fewer strikeouts. It just wasn’t Price at his sharpest – his Two-Seamer went from a 10+ pVal to a -4 pVal – and it could be more of hisfrustrating self. I imagine some people are willing to let Price off after last season, but I’d rather look elsewhere for my #1.
16. Chris Archer (Tampa Bay Rays) – What on earth happened to Archer’s Fastball in 2016? His inflated 4.02 ERA sure wasn’t a product of his Slider which earned a 20+ pitch value for the second year in a row. The quickest assessment is that he lost a single MPH off his Fastball, from 96+ to 95+ heat. What’s more interesting, though, is the contact rate of batters against the pitch in the top half of the zone. We’re talking a near 15% difference, which would explain the pitch’s jump in ISO allowed to .250 in 2016 and why he dropped his Fastball usage rate down to near 45% as the season continued, favoring his much better Slider in tight situations. Is this a product of a velocity drop? Was it deception or pitch selection? We don’t know. What we do know is he’ll continue to fan a ton of batters (230+ in 2015/2016) with his deadly Slider with a questionable walk rate and an ERA that could hang in the 3.30-3.60 range after consecutive seasons of sub 3.50 xFIPs. Not the most enticing choice but those strikeouts without a destructive ERA/WHIP and upside for greatness forces me to place him here.
Tier 3: Now What?
17. Masahiro Tanaka (New York Yankees) – This tier is super weird. After what I consider the definitive sixteen top starters it’s a handful of upside/risk players with some that have more dependability. You’re betting on good health, rebounds, breakouts, or decent floors. Take your pick on what makes you happy at night and go with it. At the very least, we can all agree that Tanaka is a tick above the rest here while not having the same studly numbers as the previous set of pitchers. After a season of 3.51 ERA and 3.98 FIP, Tanaka got his HR/FB rate in check, dropping from a horrific 16.9% rate to a manageable 12.0%, helping his ERA fall to 3.07. He’s pretty boring with a middling strikeout rate that will most likely hang around mid 7s to upper 8s, but he avoids walks like I avoid starters that end in “ocke”, allowing for a sturdy pitcher in your staff who will help each week. He’s a nice luxury, but with people paying the price of a game-changer it really isn’t in your best interest to chase Tanaka. Sure, I’d like him but as you’ll see in this tier there are just so many pitchers that can be sturdy with more strikeout production. Tanaka has a bit of a higher floor, which elevates him above the others but that floor could even be tested this year if his 3.79 SIERA and 32.4% Hard Contact from last season gets realized. Oh, and did I mention that there has always been an injury cloud hovering over Tanaka? Yeah….
18. Matt Harvey (New York Mets) – Matt freakin’ Harvey. In the sea of monstrous beasts that may emerge and act like Sir Loch Ness, Harvey is king. On one hand you have legit stud potential after displaying godlike numbers in 2013 – 9.64 K/9, 1.56 BB/9 with a glorious 2.27 ERA (2.00 FIP!) and 0.93 WHIP. Holy bejesus Dark Knight! And even when TJS reared its ugly head, Harvey still rebounded in 2015 to satisfying levels. But y’all know 2016 was a complete mess, which may have been a product of his TOS that took Harvey out for good in the summer. He’s supposed to return in full health in the spring, but who knows? Now I think some are overplaying the injury concern here – if Harvey is indeed getting a proper spring training, I would have him in the Top 15 easily. We were all perplexed with his inability last season – it just didn’t add up – and TOS is the perfect excuse. Given good health, I believe in Harvey. There’s a chance he has a setback in Spring Training and we don’t see him until the end of April or May, but if I’m a betting man, I say he’s in the rotation on opening day. There are a lot of people that will simply avoid Harvey given the injury concern and last year’s atrocity, which I totally get. This is one of those picks that I don’t have to make – the smart thing to do would be for me play it safe, not risk my reputation, and place Harvey in the 30s or so – but the cool part about these articles is I can go with my gut and my gut is that we see a Top 15 pitcher this year out of Harvey. I’m not reaching for him, but once I start looking into this tier for an arm in the middle rounds, I’m hoping to see Harvey there.
19. Carlos Martinez (St. Louis Cardinals) – With all the focus on Sanchez, I think a lot of people don’t realize that Cmart is essentially the same pitcher but with a better track record and more consistent strikeout stuff. The fun thing about baseball is you can actually see through stats the changes pitchers made to go from an excellent strikeout pitcher to a middling one as Cmart went from a 9.24 K/9 to 8.02 K/9 last year. The answer? Just like Chris Sale, the kid dramatically stopped using his Changeup with two-strikes to left-handers. It’s a difference maker and turning to his Fastball instead induced fewer whiffs and overall ineffectiveness. It’s crazy to me, especially when his Changeup is so good. We’re talking over 3.5 inches of extra horizontal movement and 4 inches of bonus drop from the average right-handed Changeup. I have to believe he embraces the pitch more in 2017, which would push him out of the 20s and turn him into a teenager like the rebel he is. Just please improve the walk rate along the way,
20. Aaron Sanchez (Toronto Blue Jays) – Here’s a great example of a pitcher that I would like owning, but I believe his price is going to be too high to justify. But you have him at #20! Sure do, I just don’t see the large gap that ADP trends are telling you exists between the Aaroneous and the rest of pitchers in this tier (I seriously hate a lot of pitchers in this tier). Well that and the fact that his warts aren’t as big as others but I digress. I understand all the things to love – a 3.00 ERA, a solid 6.4 IPS, 54.4% GB rate, 20.7% soft contact, and the stuff. Oh man, have you seen this kid’s stuff? That’s the funny part about all of this. I often believe owners overvalue players simply because they don’t understand a kid’s repertoire. Like how Robbie Ray doesn’t have a third pitch and it will prevent his mega-breakout this year. I’ll obviously dive into Ray later (you have no idea), but what’s fascinating about Sanchez is that the opposite is happening now. Owners are aware of Sanchez’s repertoire and it’s driving his price muuuuch higher than it should be. But that ERA! Dude had a 4.01 SIERA last year and a .267 BABIP that suggests an extreme fly-baller (Yeah, no. 25.1% FB rate is as low as they come). But he’s fixed his walk issues! Welllllll, that 2.95 BB/9 is still not a fun time and I wouldn’t be shocked if he loses a little of his feel to turn back to a 3.40 BB/9 pitcher. But his stuff is so good! Surely he’s a strikeout machine?! You mean the 7.55 K/9 he had last year and the 5.95 K/9 in 2015 when he spent most of his time as a reliever? His heater with all its movement still has just a 5.4% whiff rate and I don’t believe the called-strike-three count is going to vastly pull him in the other direction. Look, I like the kid, I think he’ll help out your team and whatnot – I can’t believe I have him at #20 – I simply have a hard time believe he’s going to take yet another step forward this year and that makes me not willing to take the dive when I can get other pitchers for a much cheaper price.