What is happening. It’s been months since you’ve seen some action here at Pitcher List but it’s February and we’ve got work to do. While some of you may be scrambling to find a hot date by Sunday, the rest of us have more important things to take care of. We’re talking the first round of Fantasy Baseball rankings as Pitcher List makes its returns from the shadows of the off-season. Let me tell you, those shadows were cold. I didn’t originally plan on it being so barren, but the wait will have been worth it, I promise. There will be some incredibly exciting changes to the site that we will be revealing to everyone very shortly. It’s annoying how I can’t speak further but whatever, it’s going to be a party. Until then, let’s get some logs on the fire and start the fantasy discussions with my favorite position: Starting Pitchers. I’ll be revealing my Top 100 SP over the course of the week, beginning with the Top 20 Starting Pitchers for 2016 today. Let’s do this. UPDATE: Check out the Top 40, Top 60, Top 80 and Top 100 now that they have all been released.
TIER 1: The Luxury Taxes
1. Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) – I’ll get through this one quick since we all know he’s the best starter in the fantasy world. He’s like the Kurt Cobain of grunge, the Bounty of paper towels, or the Tommy Wiseau of bad, but freakin’ awesome movies. The Kersh has been incredible for years now, and arguably just had the best season of his fantasy career despite following an MVP 2014 campaign. I won’t be drafting him in standard leagues – I believe elite hitting is more valuable than elite pitching – but we can all hold hands and sing Clayton’s praises as he flies off the board first among SPs.
2. Jake Arrieta (Chicago Cubs) – So the next three spots get a bit tricky and I can see arguments for each pitcher to get the second slot. The biggest factor that elevated the not-bearded-anymore wonder is the higher floor. Yes, despite only having about two seasons of excellence under his belt, Arrieta’s floor is still higher than both Scherzer’s and Sale’s. Jake has a much more consistent FIP and xFIP through his time in Chicago, the best source of Wins playing for the pre-season World Series favorites, and featured by far the best groundball rate of the trio (a whopping 56.2% in 2015). Sure, when he’s tossing under 10 Ks per 9 his upside isn’t as luscious as the other two, but if it costs me a high draft pick, I’ll be sleeping sound – Yankee pajamas and all – knowing Arrieta has the best shot of ending the season in the Top 5 SP.
3. Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals) – What is this Nick? Why isn’t Sale third like you had it in October? Because some things never change, and some things do. There really isn’t a whole lot different between Scherzer and Sale – they both have incredible K rates, hold SIERAs around 2.50, and walk few batters – and I wouldn’t blame you if you prefer Sale over Scherzer. Heck, I felt like you back in the fall. The biggest difference maker to me is Scherzer in the NL Easy on what should be a more successful Nationals team than 2015. Sure, the Scherz has his blips here and there in the middle months of the year, but he rebounded well enough to convince me he’s going to be mowing down people like a pissed off Rambo.
4. Chris Sale (Chicago White Sox) – To me the top four guys seem pretty locked into place. Some have placed Bumgarner or Price into the mix, but that’s just crazy talk. Crazy. Sale has increased his K rate in each of his first four seasons, and had his lowest walk rate of just 4.9% in 2015. Sure, his biggest flaw was a shocking 3.41 ERA…with a sparkling 2.52 SIERA and 2.60 xFIP. He had some bad luck that I see being corrected this year (73.2% LOB rate, .323 BABIP despite a great 21.0% soft contact rate), though he shouldn’t crack 15 Wins once again. There will be some moments where he’ll perplex you, such as tallying 23 ER across just four starts against the Twins, but those sad days will long be forgotten when he’s striking out 14 in the next one followed by a 12 K game in the next and suddenly you’ll be singing COME SALE AWAY so loudly you wake up your roommate. We’ve all been there.
TIER 2: The Guys You May Actually Draft
5. Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants) – With the obvious four out of the way, it’s time to blast some Run-DMC up in dis cause it’s gettin’ tricky. (You missed the corny jokes, admit it.) There are a bunch of guys that all could put up similar numbers, which means you shouldn’t jump for any of them if there are a handful still available. This mini-tier goes until Lester, though in all honesty I’m most likely not taking anyone until 15 starters come off the board. There simply isn’t a big enough gap for me to turn down premier offense in the early rounds and the guys in this tier are all pretty dang close in value. Anyway, from here to Price can be placed in pretty any order and I wouldn’t have any problem, but I’m going with Maddy Ice based on his steady production over the past five seasons. All 200+ innings hovering right around the 3.00 ERA mark, each season improving his strikeout rate to an elite 9.65/9, and lowering his walk rate to under 1.80/9 in each of the last two seasons. He also has the luxury of pitching in the best pitcher’s park around, while playing for the Giants in an even year. I want little risk if I’m convinced on taking a pitcher early, and Bumgarner has the least of the guys remaining.
6. Jacob deGrom (New York Mets) – Part of me wants to rank deGrom lower, the other part of me sees deGrom taking another step forward this year as he logs a 200+ inning season inside the NL Easy. The biggest knock I can give you is his 6.37 IPS (Innings per Start) sits a bit lower than a good amount of guys in these rankings. Both his K and BB rates were 9th best in the majors, and a 12.7% swing strike rate mixed with an excellent 67.8% First Strike rate tells me it’s here to stay. There are a good amount of guys that could fluctuate around the Top 15, though deGrom has a low chance of dropping outside the Top 10. That’s what I want if I spend the big bucks it’ll cost to snag deGrom.
7. Jose Fernandez (Miami Marlins) – The Cuban import could win you your league, as he could easily be a Top 3 pitcher through the year. Then why is he at #7? Simple, really. A) He has an injury history including being sidelined post TJS-return and B) He will in all likelihood be on an innings limit. Look, there’s obvious risk with Jo-Fer, we all know this, but when he’s playing he’s a no doubt Top 5 SP. The dude had a 11.64 K/9 and a 1.64 BB/9 with a 2.24 SIERA to boot. Nah, those were actually Kershaw’s numbes, but the fact that you would actually believe them to belong to Jose tells you what you needed to hear. And, for the record, his actual stats of 10.99 K/9 and 1.95 BB/9 last season with a 2.62 xFIP and 2.24 FIP are tastier than a hotdog on a stick. Have you ever had one? Oh man, it’s so good.
8. David Price (Boston Red Sox) – Wait a second Nick. You just made an argument about consistency talking about Bumgarner, and Price is 3 spots lower?! Sure do. I trust Bummy to be more stable through the year, with fewer meltdowns and a better strikeout rate. Madison also held a 3.00 SIERA and pitches in AT&T Park inside the NL West, while Price needs to deal with the AL Beast in Fenway after putting up a 3.27 SIERA. It’s tougher to bank on a sub 3.00 ERA from Price than most of these guys, but a 240+ K season could be incoming with a low walk rate to boot with makes him a solid choice at #8. The brevity of this blurb should tell you how I still hold some of my anti-Price bias and am turning a back to myself as I force myself to slot him this high on the list knowing it’s the right thing to do. THE THINGS I DO FOR YOU GUYS.
9. Carlos Carrasco (Cleveland Indians) – From here to Strasburg is another mini-tier called “Tom Cruise and Bob Seger”. They are all sexy options, but they all have their issues that could prevent them from being the stud you need. Soooo let’s take a deep breath as I tell you I like Carrasco more than Kluber this year and so should you. Carlos had better strikeout numbers, a better FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, and nearly 10% more groundballs. Oh, and Carrasco also led the majors in O-Swing% (how often batters swing at pitches not inside the strike zone) with a whopping 40.1% rate – nearly 4 points higher than deGrom sitting at 2nd. Obviously there has to be something holding him back, and it isn’t his 3.45 ERA since looking under the hood reveals an excellent 2.84 FIP, 2.66 xFIP, and 2.74 SIERA. Nay, the major knock on Carraco was his IPS. He averaged about 6.20 innings per start, while Kluber averaged nearly 7 full innings. That may not sound like a big difference, but then you realize his K rate and ERA numbers become 16% more realized with those extra innings and it suddenly there is a stark difference. However, Carrasco should have a full season’s worth of outings this year, and that innings gap should shrink as his LOB rate isn’t a horrific 71.8% nor a BABIP of .304 now that he’s getting a full season of Francisco Lindor and possibly Yandy Diaz sometime during the season. I can talk a lot more about Carrasco (I probably will…), but this is getting longer than a Red Sox/Yankee game so I’ll leave you with this. Players batted just .158 with a 19.4% whiff rate against his Changeup…and batted only .101 with a 25.7% against his Curveball. GET PUMPED.
10. Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians) – Kluber is oh so close from being the bomb-diggity that you know and love. He posted nearly the same strikeout and walk rates from his breakout season, held career highs with an excellent 12.9% whiff rate paired with a 35.4% O-Swing rate, and had superb RAA ranks for both his Curveball (3rd) and Slider (8th). The problem was his ERA spiking over a full point from 2.44 to 3.49. Now, his 2.97 FIP, 3.05 xFIP, and 2.98 SIERA aren’t Michael Jackson bad, but he did allow 4 ER on 11 occasions last year, and it’s a bit unsettling. With your first pitcher, you want a little more muscle in your rock. We’re talking jacked up biceps coming out of that rock. Still, I’m seeing a near 3.00 ERA with 220 innings and hinting at 250 Ks with an elite walk rate, which would be sin to not be Top 10 worthy. A SIN. So here he is and deal with it.
11. Noah Syndergaard (New York Mets) – Here’s something crazy that really shouldn’t be crazy and maybe isn’t as crazy as I think it is. I believe Thor is the best pitcher on the Mets. His Fastball is one of the best in the game with elite command, velocity, and movement (16th highest RAA value among starters in just 150 IP) and there’s still room to grow as he develops in the bigs. He started to get comfortable with his Warthen Slider by the end of the season, he has the “hook from hell“, which has upgraded to “Noah’s Arc”, and he is so comfortable with his Changeup that he threw it in 3-1 and 1-1 counts in his MLB debut. Then there are the numbers: near 10 K/9, sub 2.00 BB/9, solid 46.5% GB rate, 12.2% whiff rate, and a great 64.3% First Pitch Strike rate. He was a bit unlucky last year with a 14.3% HR/FB rate, which should regress, making the perfect formula for the year of Syndergaard. The only reason I don’t have him above teammate deGrom is because he will most likely throw fewer innings after throwing about 179.2 frames across the minors and MLB last season. The Mets may be coddling him come September and that’s fun for no one. Still, ~195 innings of Norse God goodness is a beautiful thing.
12. Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals) – I wrestled with this one for a long time, and in the end I have no choice but to endorse Strasburg this season. He’s a bit of an enigma, though when he returned from his second DL stint of the season, he was goatee-less and GOAT-esque. We’re talking a 12.48 K/9 and 1.09 BB/9 with a 1.90 ERA, 2.09 FIP, and 1.95 xFIP in 66.1 IP. Unreal stuff. The major difference was a resurgence of his money pitch – the Changeup. Before the August 8th, his Changeup generated a whiff rate of 15.53%. After? 28.81%. In fact, his entire repertoire become much less hittable, generating an overall rise in whiff rate from 8.2% to 14.6%. and batters swung six ticks more often to pitches off the plate (29.1% O-Swing to 35.1%). You get it, he was the bees-freakin’-knees in the second half. The problem is the sample size and Strasburg’s overall inconsistency given his injury history and being just plain bad at times. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility Strasburg puts it all together this year and becomes a bonafide Top 5 guy – getting a “Stras in da house” season from Stephen can straight up win you your league – but I’m looking at others for a bit more dependability who still carry monstrous upside.
13. Matt Harvey (New York Mets) – Outside of that pesky Archer, from here to Felix are the guys that are very solid and will produce well, but don’t give you that uncontrollable lust. After having an incredible 2013, Harvey came back from TJS last season and was a little bit worse. ERA/FIP/xFIP all had noticeable increases, K rate down from 9.64/9 to 8.95/9, walk rate slightly up, HR rate doubled…there was essentially nothing that was objectively better in 2015 than 2013. Now let’s give him some slack here. It’s not easy being removed from baseball after pitching straight for nearly your whole life and be expected to perform just like before. Now that he’s had a full season under his belt, I think it’s safe to expect some sort of bounce back with 200+ IP, and I’ll take that over the “really great but not elite” of Cole and the shifty walk habits of Archer.
14. Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh Pirates) – Placing Cole isn’t a simple task, as it’s fathomable the 25 year-old has one of those crazy-good seasons that makes you wonder why you didn’t draft him yourself. At the same time, despite his excellent 2.60 ERA over 208 innings and minute 1.90 BB/9, Cole never felt overpowering and dominant through the season, partly due to his relatively low 8.74 K/9, and partly due to his obnoxiously high 29.5% hard contact rate. That’s 24th highest among qualified pitchers (conversely, 56th lowest), which doesn’t seem so bad until you realize he’s supposed to be the best pitcher on your staff. Cole is a guy who has great stuff but just keeps getting hit despite it all, evidenced by his .300+ BABIP in two consecutive seasons, each with a sub 75% LOB rate. So when you’re striking out fewer than a batter per inning (I understand this could rise, but I just don’t see a 9.50+/9 from Cole), and BABIP isn’t on your side, I’m going to look elsewhere for my ace.
15. Chris Archer (Tampa Bay Rays) – I was originally going to place Archer higher, but then a pair of numbers stuck out like a sore thumb. In the second half across 90.1 IP, Archer’s soft contact rate was just 13.9% with a 37.3% hard hit rate. Yikes. He also bumped his walk rate from an excellent 2.22 BB/9 to a staggering 3.59 BB/9. Those numbers are trending in the wrong direction, and makes me consider that his blistering first half was more of an outlier than the real deal. Speaking of real deals…Like Black Friday? No, I mean Archer’s strikeouts which were consistently hovering around 10.5 K/9 for the year. So here’s the thing. If you feel like you need a guy that will give you 200+ IP and hinting at 250 Ks, and are willing to risk his walk rate rising and ERA possibly creeping north of 3.30, then go ahead and pick up Archer. I’d go after the other guys above him who are a bit more dependable.
16. Dallas Keuchel (Houston Astros) – Oh boy. Freakin’ Keuchel. Anyone who followed the site last year knows that I went back and forth with the actually-bearded wonder until I was convinced his 8+ K/9 was here to stay about half way through. So, I love absolutely love that he’s a finesse pitcher who has found a way to get more whiffs on his Changeup (20.0% in 2015) and Cutter, but man is he less consistent than Christian Bale’s weight. He had ten games – about 30% of his starts – with 4 Ks or fewer. That’s really tough to endure in a H2H league, especially when he also had five more games of just 5 Ks, but for roto it’s not much of an issue as he also struck out at least 10 batters five times. Now do I believe that we can rely on those five games to keep a K rate above 7.75? Probably, and his unreal 61.7% GB rate mixed with the 3rd best soft contact rate in the majors (25.2%) makes his floor pretty dang high. I simply need more strikeout production if I’m picking a pitcher here. Maybe there’s leftover breakfast cereal stuck in his beard? You know, some Special K? Really Nick? I’m leaving, I’m leaving.
17. Zack Greinke (Arizona Diamondbacks) – Yeaaaaah, I can hear you through the screen. I don’t Zack and his surfer hair and I’m sure that’s going to upset some people. It really shouldn’t though and I’m surprised I haven’t seen more “Greinke is a bigger bust than El Chapo” posts floating around. The Greinkster’s 8.08 K/9 is the lowest of all SP in the Top 20 (Keuchel included…somehow), which means he needed all of his 222.2 IP (his most since 2009) to reach exactly 200 Ks. But his 1.66 ERA! You mean the one that needed the 2nd lowest BABIP in the majors of .229 and a career low HR/FB% of 7.3% to get by? Yeah, his xFIP was 3.22 and his recent travels to Arizona are going to hurt. The Dodgers played in The Big A, which has the 3rd best Park Factor for pitchers of 81. Chase Field, however, has a PF of 112. That HR/FB is going to get a bump and suddenly you have a #2 pitcher and not an ace on your team. Bummer.
18. Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners) – Felix used to be the guy that would never let you down and he seemed to be getting even better as he posted a sterling 2.14 ERA, a sweet 9.46 K/9 and 1.75 BB/9 with a crazy good 56.2% GB rate in 2014. Then he started making a habit of blowing up to the point that if a great pitcher allows at least 7 ER in a game, it’s now considered “a Felix”. Talk about harsh. To his credit, he only had four games allowing more than 4 ER, but when they 7 ER, 7 ER, 8 ER, and 10 ER people aren’t going to let you forget it. I think a lot of owners are going to see Felix more as a relic of the past after this 3.53 ERA season and you’ll likely see Felix fall even farther in your hometown leagues. While I don’t see a major jump in his K rate, I think a strikeout per inning is definitely feasible, and a near 3.00 ERA with other 200 innings paired with a well above-average ~2.00 walk rate is what we’re looking at in all likelihood. And you should be dang happy to have that when everyone else is scared to eat the brussel sprouts.
TIER 3: The Fall
19. Jon Lester (Chicago Cubs) – After Felix is a major tier drop where we’re forced to decide between consistently above-average players or chasing high risk/high reward youth. Owning Lester last year didn’t feel like a fun season, as you watched guys like deGrom, Arrieta, Cole, and Keuchel perform at higher levels while you drafted Lester many picks earlier. Still, the Cubs lefty posted a beautiful 9.09 K/9 and 2.06 BB/9 with 205 innings under his belt. Sure his 3.34 ERA left a bad taste, but he got unlucky with a 71.8% LOB rate and his highest HR/FB rate since 2012, which is supported by a great 2.92 FIP and 3.06 xFIP. Look, he’s not the sexiest of options and he’ll certainly make you question yourself through the year, but I would be awfully surprised if he falls out of the Top 30, let alone the Top 25 all year and if you’re looking for that stability as you add your second pitcher to your staff.
20. Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays) – Most are making sure the indecisive weatherman, Sonny Gray, fit inside the Top 20, but there’s a different guy I like a little more. I see big things for the Blue Jays ace, as he’s a heavy groundball pitcher who walks few batters, with lively heat and potential to raise his strikeout rate from his somewhat lackluster numbers thus far. On that note, if you’re looking at his 6.00 K/9 from 2015 in just 27 IP, there’s a lot of reason to believe it’ll go way up in 2016. His Changeup and Curveball both registered low whiff rates in the small sample of 2015 despite great numbers in 2014, and I see Stroman finding his groove in a great way as he is fully recovered from injury. Once the Ks improve, you’ll be looking at a ~2.00 BB/9 guy with a stellar 55% groundball rate who could strikeout more than a batter per inning. Additionally, in his very limited time Stroman generated 24.4% soft contact – a stat that would rank 4th among all qualified pitchers and makes you a bit giddy at the possibilities. I know there isn’t much to extrapolate on now and the SSS can be argued either way, but let me tell you that I love what I see. Great command of his pitches, movement and velocity on his Fastball to make batters’ lives difficult, and the secondary pitches to close the door. It’s all there and I see a major breakout in 2016, even if he may be on a 185-190 innings limit.