(Photo by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire)
We featured the Top 20 Starting Pitchers for 2018 on Tuesday and now it’s time for the Top 40 Starting Pitchers in fantasy baseball for 2018 where a bit more controversy is sure to arise. Here we go.
Tier 4: The Sea Of Troubled Waters (Cont’d)
21. Zack Godley (Arizona Diamondbacks) – I find Godley to be a polarizing arm, but after adding a tick of fastball velocity and ramping up the usage on his deadly curveball, it’s hard not to be a believer in the miracles Zack brings to your team. It starts with his sinker that features above average drop and induces a whopping 64.3% grounders on his own, paving the way for his fantastic 47.0% DB rate – i.e., balls in play that are hit into the ground that mostly result in outs – while his curveball was much better than you realize, featuring a 21.7% whiff rate, 50.3% O-Swing, and inducing a pitiful .155 BAA across 862 thrown. One of the more elite deuces you’ll come across. The major question is Godley’s walk rate, though. His harder stuff features a split of cutters and sinkers with neither pitch exceeding a 46% zone rate, meaning he’s banking on batters getting themselves out through weak contact or chasing pitches out of the zone. I’m not going to tell you that things will get better here and it’s the sole reason I’ve lowered Godley to the #21 overall spot as opposed to the comfortable Top 20 ranking I had in October. His 8.5% walk rate could improve, but it will take a major shift in approach to give in with his cutter and/or sinker to do so…and I’m not sure we’re going to see that. Now, the humidor’s inevitable arrival will also help things for Godley – a 14.7% HR/FB should theoretically decline – but it’s not as much of a necessity for Godley as it is for Zack Greinke or Robbie Ray as Godley only allowed 26.2% flyballs last season. Still, I love me some Godley as his skillset to miss bats and induce weak contact is top notch, paving the way for success even if it does come with a clear flaw via free passes.
22. Dallas Keuchel (Houston Astros) – I’m sorry to disappoint those hoping for Keuchel in the Top 20, though I think there’s a little haze in his talent assessment. It’s clear as Billy that The Playoff Tax is having an effect on his ranking, though I can’t blame it all on October. He has had a sub 3.00 ERA in three of four seasons and last year’s numbers of 2.90 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 6.3 IPS are awfully tantalizing. However, I have good reason to not ride the Keuchel train. He’s had a strikeout rate north of 22% once in four years (21.4% last season), he’s failed to pitch more than 170 innings in each of the last two seasons, and his walk rate rose to a pedestrian 8.1% in 2017. There will be times this season Keuchel looks like the best pitcher on the planet and other stretches where he allows 14 ER in three games. I’d love to have Keuchel on my squad, but not more than players that I think have a great shot at being Top 15 or even Top 10 by season’s end. His price is calling for a return to 2015’s greatness and I just don’t see that happening over another full six months. Be honest, it’s the beard, isn’t it. WHY DOESN’T HE JUST CUT IT ALREADY.
23. Jake Arrieta (Chicago Cubs) – 2017 was Arrieta’s year of tinkering s he tried to figure out how to get by with a slider that just wasn’t what it used to be. Back in his heyday of 2014/2015, the pitch accumulated massive pVals of 15.1 and 23.5, while 2016 return an exact 0.0 mark, and 2017…well it was bad. -9.7 bad. The crux of the issue was his inability to command the pitch like he used to, dropping seven points in zone rate with batters chasing it off the plate 10 points fewer as well. Then when he did throw it for strikes, batters bumped their BAA 90 points from .186 in ’15 to .276 last year. Ouch. The pitch itself lost about an inch of vertical drop along the way, but the main issue here is feel. I’ve talked about it a lot on the podcast, as Arrieta’s mechanics have him stepping aggressively toward third base, forcing him to throw heavily across his body with every pitch. It creates plenty of deception, but it makes throwing pitches with precision plenty harder. Arrieta was in a groove in 2014/15, but lately he simply hasn’t been locked in, causing his increase in walk rates (98.6% in ’16, 7.8% in ’17) and dip in overall command that causes strikeouts (just 23.1% K rate last year). Without his signature slider and pristine command that produced a 5.5% walk rate in 2015, it’s tough to bet that a sub 3.30 ERA is coming, let alone a sub 1.15 WHIP with the K production you want…but is that so bad? Even in his worst year last season, he still gave you a 3.53 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and about a strikeout per inning. Yes, that 5.6 IPS needs work, but it’s possible we just saw the floor for Arrieta instead of another step down the stairs of inadequacy. There is a serious risk of headache if he joins your staff, but I’m not going to ignore the skillset that helps raise his floor. I most likely won’t be making the dive with Arrieta myself in drafts, but while I initially planned on sticking him outside the Top 25, you just can’t say no to the upside he brings paired with a surprising floor despite his flaws.
24. Jose Quintana (Chicago Cubs) – Over the winter, I dove into Jose Quintana for RotoGraphs and it turned me from a Negative Nancy into a Positive Peter. That’s not a thing. Stop being a Nancy. Quintana went up north and brought a new approach with him, moving his sinker from glove-side to arm-side, effectively opening up the plate for his entire arsenal. The plan of jamming four-seamers inside to right-handers, while playing sinker/changeup off the outside corner worked, resulting in a stellar 27.9% K rate, 7.2% BB rate, 3.40 ERA, and 1.13 WHIP across his final 21 starts. That’s legit. Now, he had 11 starts prior that were all kinds of atrocious – 5.60 ERA/1.40 WHIP – and that is something of concern, though I’m willing to buy into a second half on a new team and new approach with a better infield defense and lineup to secure more Wins (and I never talk about Wins!). A 24/7.5% K/BB with an ERA comfortably under 3.80 and sub 1.20 WHIP seems attainable across 200 frames, and that turns Quintana into a Top 25 arm in my book. Not a studly Top 20 arm, but someone I can enjoy as I rumble the ice in my whiskey ginger, hearing the crackling of fire roasting feet away. You feel safe and secure owning Quintana, you know?
25. Michael Fulmer (Detroit Tigers) – So this is funny. I had Fulmer around here in the fall, then mentioned on the podcast and on Reddit that I’d want him past 30 if I did it again, BUT HAHA JUST KIDDING. The biggest area of concern was his health, after all, he did get shut down for the season and get surgery. But that surgery is a good thing, if you can believe it. It was the same one Jacob deGrom got prior to 2017 and, according to one of my colleagues it “fixes a problem in human evolution” as it moved a nerve to a better location. This isn’t a lingering problem that you should be docking Fulmer points for. I’m docking him points for his stupid bad K% and gap between his 3.83 ERA and 4.48 SIERA. Well, that’s totally fair. Kinda. His SIERA hates him (probably because of his 8.8% HR/FB rate), but I’m a believer in his skills to keep the ball in the yard and his bbFIP has him right in line with his ERA at 3.88. And about that 3.883 ERA. If I expected Fulmer to hold a 3.80+ ERA this year I would definitely not be advocating him. Consider that his fingers were going numb during his starts will make you understand why his Changeup had less success last year – over an inch less movement and a 7 point drop in zone rate – and his 65.6% LOB rate is sure to rise a bit from that atrocity. But what about that 16.9% K rate? I completely hear you there. I’m a believer that his slider/changeup are only going to get better moving forward, opening the door for a ~23% K rate moving forward. Pair that with a 6.5+ IPS that he had in 2017 with a 1.15 WHIP, and you have yourself a Top 15 stud. It sounds like a big IF, but it’s much closer than you think.
26. Jose Berrios (Minnesota Twins) – 2016 was a complete disaster for Jose Berrios and I won’t even cite the numbers as I don’t want to scare away the children. Somebody is thinking of the children! It made 2017’s performance of 3.89 ERA and 1.23 WHIP plenty more impressive than the numbers actually are, and I get the sense that plenty owners are Weaverwarm on Berrios entering 2018. And they might be right, though Berrios is plenty closer to being a clear Top 15 stud than I think most give him credit. Indulge me as I dive into his arsenal for a brief moment. If you don’t know that Berrios’ curveball is ridiculously good, you didn’t watch our Top 150 pitches of 2017 that featured the pitch eight times. It’s as legit as Paulie Gee’s pizza. His heaters come in both the four-seam and two-seam varieties and, guess what, they both are stellar, each sporting 6.0+ pVals in 2017. The problem is against left-handers as Berrios’ third option (and the standard affair for getting out batters of the opposite hand) is a changeup that is all kinds of meh. A 7.3% whiff rate, just a 25.9% zone rate, and a .279 BAA all point to inadequacy just like the Marlins’ off-season points to tanking. It should be no surprise lefties held an 11.9% walk rate and a near .800 OPS against Berrios in 2017. The solution might not be fixing his changeup – a slider/cutter that jams left-handers paired with his curveball and two-seamers away/four-seamers up-and-in could do the trick – but there needs to be some change. It could happen sooner than you think (don’t forget, he turns 24-years-old in May!), and at this point I’m willing to bet on his two excellent pitches + youth development for the year ahead.
27. Masahiro Tanaka (New York Yankees) – Owners endured as they rostered Tanaka through his first 14 starts of the year – 6.34 ERA, 22.2% K rate, 1.49 WHIP – watching his HR/FB inflate to a whopping 25.0%. They were dark times – the HRs. Oh lord the HRs! – and we debated heavily what we should do. Well, if you stuck through it because you labeled him what I’m calling a TIARA – a guy who will Turn It Around Right Away – you were rewarded with a 3.54 ERA, 28.9% K rate, 4.9% BB rate, and 1.05 WHIP through his final 16 outings. He still held a 17.3% HR/FB rate that inflated his ERA more than you’d like, but it was a just reward for two months of pain. If you’re wondering if there was a change in Tanaka’s approach, there sure was as he increased his splitter and slider usage in favor of dialing back his sinker – he totaled under 35% usage between his four-seamer, sinker, and cutter! – and the success followed. It’s believable he can bring down the 17.3% HR/FB mark as well, making a path to a 3.40 ERA possible. That’s a lot to go his way, though, and while I’m encouraged for 2018, I can’t take Tanaka over pitchers that have a higher floor or more believable path to their ceiling.
28. Chase Anderson (Milwaukee Brewers) – One of my favorite value arms entering 2018 will be Anderson, who is pulling a Dangerfield as he gets no…love. Yes, his 2.74 ERA needed an 8.6% HR/FB rate and 0.89 HR/9 to stay under 3.00 – not a small feat given the plethora of HRs swatted each day – but there is plenty to be said about the strides Anderson made in 2017. First, he upped his fastball velocity from 92.1mph to 93.7mph, raised his overall whiff rate from 8.4% to 10.2%, turned his changeup from a -5.6 pVal to a 7.5 pVal offering despite throwing it 33% less often (the trick was raising its zone rate from 41.6% to 49.9% and trusting its often 10+ mph difference from his heater. Now he has a secondary pitch he trusts to steal strikes!), and doing something that is so often overlooked in fantasy: he mixed all of his four pitches effectively. I wrote about his transformation into a “pitcher” back in September and don’t let the 4.14 SIERA or 4.33 xFIP fool you. Anderson began to command his entire arsenal and properly mix them to limit the damage done against him. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Anderson isn’t going to hold a sub 3.00 ERA in 2018, but even a regression to 3.40 ERA is fantastic, and there’s no reason he can’t maintain a 23.4% K rate for a second season. Not to mention, Anderson held a 4.25 ERA with a 19.3% K rate and 8.9% BB rate through his first nine starts of the year. His final 16 starts with a better pitch mix and added velocity? 25.8% K rate, 6.2% BB rate, 1.94 ERA, 0.90 WHIP over 92.2 IP. Just saying.
29. Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels) – First of all, I’m treating Ohtani like a SP and only an SP. There will be more talk about his value changing based on his in the lineup and which format you use, but for now, he’s just a SP in my book. Anyway, a lot of people are pumped about Ohtani, I simply just don’t like chasing pitchers that I haven’t had the chance to see perform at the MLB level yet. I’ve heard about the repertoire and I really do want to get excited about his stellar breaking ball and triple-digit heat, but in my drafts I feel more comfortable chasing arms that I have more experience with. Yes, even 89.1 IP at the major league level is enough for me. There’s also the fact that if Ohtani does see some time as a hitter, I’d be even more cautious. Pitchers get hurt well more than they should just throwing a ball every five days, but if Ohtani adds time in the field, I’m incredibly skeptical of his innings total in 2018, especially coming from someone who already has an injury history. It all just doesn’t add up to someone I want to invest in during drafts.
30. Jeff Samardzija (San Francisco Giants) – Samardzija. Shark. Loose Lips. Braces. A man of many names, including ones often said during the 2017 season that I shouldn’t write here. Everything under the hood looked fantastic from the massive Giant – 24.2% K rate, 3.8% walk rate, 3.61 FIP, 1.14 WHIP, but as you most likely know, his 4.42 ERA ballooned by his inability to keep balls in the yard. A 67.5% LOB rate resulted from his 13.8% HR/FB (1.30 HR/9) and it made us all so mad. He is just so close! I want to believe he can reduce those HR numbers to career levels (11.5% and 1.05) and taking a deep dive into his repertoire tells plenty. From ’16 to ’17, Samardzija nearly doubled his FB% rate on sinkers, while holding HR/FB% rates above 20%. The result a jump from 5 tates to 10, and it is everything. Meanwhile the sinker – thrown over 900 times last year – spiked in zone rate from 51.8% to 57.5% in an effort to lower his walk totals (which you’ll remember dropped to just a 3.8% clip). This was a clear trade-off as he elected to pump sinkers inside the zone hoping to avoid batters taking advantage of easier pitches to hit. Then there is his splitter, a pitch that can be a very effective tool to play off his heater, placing it under the zone to make batters reluctant to be aggressive at the plate. However, despite its 42.7% O-Swing in ’17 and career 19.8% whiff rate, Samardzija threw it inside the strikezone 40.7% of the time. Please stop. PLEASE. This should be an effective putaway or 0-1 pitch that makes batters hesitate to sit dead-red on heaters. I honestly believe Samardzija doesn’t need to reduce his sinker’s zone rate if he can re-adopt the mentality of his splitter as a chase pitch…and I can actually see this happening in 2018. He’s closer than ever to becoming that Top 20 arm we’ve always wanted him to be. I wrestled where to actually place Samardzija, but given how he already took a major step forward last season, I’m willing to take a chance on
Loose Lips Braces for the season ahead.
31. Gerrit Cole (Houston Astros) – This shouldn’t be too much of a shock as I’ve been a skeptic of Cole for a good amount of time, but it might be a shock that I debated heavily about where to ultimately place him. There’s a part of me that even wanted him to lead off Tier 5, but I’m settling for the middle of Tier 4. Why do you hate Cole so much? Some have him right around #20! Maybe it’s the 3.88 and 4.26 ERAs he’s put up over the last two seasons. Or that he’s lost movement on his slider. Or how his two-seamer allowed 8 longballs in under 600 thrown. Did you know that Cole has never had a 25% K rate? People are chasing his 2015 season forgetting that it is the clear outlier of what Cole has become…but wait. I’m being a little harsh here as I’m ignoring one major thing – the Astros are known for favoring breaking balls while the Pirates favor two-seamers. Cole has had plenty of inconsistency with his two-seamer and there’s a decent argument here that settling in Houston can help shift his approach in a way that will make him reclaim the magic of years gone by. It’s not enough for me to reach for him in drafts, but I’m willing to settle right around the #30 mark.
32. Sonny Gray (New York Yankees) – I’m going to cherry pick because I think it is most representative of what to expect from Gray in 2018. Please don’t hate me. Gray’s final game of the year was horrendous – 6 ER, 5 walks, and 2 strikeouts as it fell apart from against the Rays. He also had a tough ten starts out of the gate, returning from a lat injury that took away his spring training and the entirety of April. During this 16 start stretch from June 25th to September 23rd, Gray was solid – 23.1% K rate, 8.0% BB rate, 2.42 ERA. 1.17 WHIP. It’s not spectacular and it’s not the numbers you were hoping I’d spit out…and that’s kinda the problem. I do think Gray will be excellent as a #4 on your team as he still gets groundballs effectively, his strikeouts will help per week, and you can’t help but think his win totals will be there with the Yankee offense supporting him. At the same time, his walk rate will keep him from taking that next step, his strikeouts aren’t so overwhelming that he hints at Top 15 status, and you have to wonder if he can maintain an HR/9 under 1.00 playing in the AL Beast. He’s definitely better than his full season’s numbers suggest, but the limited upside makes him not my favorite play this year.
33. Luke Weaver (St. Louis Cardinals) – If you’re looking for the pitcher that I’ve changed opinion on the most from October, it may be Weaver. I can still see myself drafting him, but I’m not as convinced that he can return value as much as I was prior. Yes, there’s the whole thing about holding a 2.05 ERA and 26.1% K-BB rate (yes, K-BB!) through his first 52.2 IP last year before getting shelled for 14 ER in his final two starts. Yes, I adore his four-seamer/changeup combination with a heater sitting low-to-mid 90s that pumps the zone upwards of 60% of the time and a changeup that looks identical but falls out of the zone, inducing 60%+ grounders. My concern is there’s nothing else after that. His curveball is far from a strikeout offering – 5.0% whiff rate in 120 thrown – and while it can be a strike-getter, if Weaver is going to be a Top 20/25 arm, he needs that final weapon via a plus breaking ball. As long as the Cardinals are letting him start from here on out, I think Weaver’s floor is decently high because of his excellent 1-2 punch, but the path to his ceiling is a tougher road than I’d like to stick him in the Top 30. Prove me wrong Weaver, prove me wrong.
34. Jon Lester (Chicago Cubs) – We expected Lester to take a step back from a 2.44 ERA and 1.02 season, but like Switch said, not like this – 4.33 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and a 7.9% walk rate. He lost about 1.5 ticks off his fastball, turning it from a 13.7 pVal to a horrendous -9.7 mark and his curveball lost about 1.5 inches of vertical drop, adding up to a 7.9% BB rate – the highest it’s been since 2011. There was plenty of conjecture that the removal of David Ross would constitute a poor Lester season, but that velocity and movement drop is easily the problem at work here. I still think Lester will be better than last year – a 68.7% LOB rate and 21.4% induced soft contact preach better days, but he’ll have to improve his command or that 1.30 HR/9 lest not fall as far as you think it should.
35. Trevor Bauer (Cleveland Indians) – The poster child for inconsistency, Bauer will definitely be on some owners’ “Don’t Draft” lists, but you may be aware of the changes Bauer made last season that speak better to his future performance. The quick summary is Bauer killed it in his final 12 starts as he shifted from a hard cutter to loopier slider to the tune of 2.42 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 26.8% K rate, and 6.0% walk rate. Those are impressive numbers – 6.0% BB rate! – and while it’s not right to expect them to be replicated across 30+ starts, I’m willing to believe that Bauer, the ever tinkerer, has found a system that works for him and can hint at a 3.50 ERA with a ~18-20% K-BB rate. Problem is, The Playoff Tax has affected him a bit as I’m currently seeing him at #141 overall in the NFBC ADP and that’s not the kind of value of hoping to get for Bauer. I’d love to take a gamble with him at this point, but he’s not a target that I’d reach for in those rounds to secure his spot on my team.
Tier 4.5: The Hertz Tier
36. Garrett Richards (Los Angeles Angels) – Welcome to the “Hertz Tier” where guys are often injured and we don’t expect much mileage out of them. And the points don’t matter? Sure, whatever. These four arms bring near the same value to the table, but please don’t go drafting more than one – you’re setting yourself up to reluctantly start Miguel Gonzalez as the red glare of DL cackles at your despair. I can’t really say too much about Garrett Richards from 2017 – the guy had just six starts and 27.2 IP to his name – but what I can tell you is that I love what I saw. His four-seamer has natural cut action at 96+ mph that plays incredibly well with his two-seamer darting in the opposite direction, then he has a slider that earned a 21.8% whiff rate in 142 thrown and plays into his 52.8% career groundball rate. He has the stuff to return Top 20 upside, but the question, like it is with everyone in this tier, is how much he’ll actually pitch. He elected not to get TJS after a tear in his elbow (stem cells are magical things) and many feel it’s inevitable that Richards will see time on the DL. However, unlike the others mentioned here, Richards has the highest floor with the quality of innings he does provide among the rest in this tier, making him my favorite of the group. In a hypothetical 30 start season, it’s not out of the question his stuff dictates a 3.40 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 24-25% K rate. The upside is there, the weak contact is there, all he needs is time on the bump. Please, oh baseball Gods, let him have it.
37. Lance McCullers (Houston Astros) – McCullers is my favorite option of this lot, simply because of the overwhelming strikeout potential he possesses -25.8% K rate in 2017 after a whopping 30.1% mark the previous year, and don’t forget he brought his free passes down considerably to a digestible 7.8% clip. It’s hard not be a fan of his batted ball profile featuring a sub 20% flyball rate and grounders north of 60%, but there is one area of his game that I simply don’t enjoy – his heavy reliance on his curveball. It’s a fantastic pitch (it got the Astros to the World Series, after all), but it’s all he has. His fastball and changeup both registered negative pVal marks and McCullers is destined to have days when he simply can’t get it done with just his deuce. That’s enough for me to be wary of his walk rates and ability to go deep into games (5.4 IPS!), making anything close to a 3.00 ERA and 1.15 WHIP across a full season unlikely in my mind. A full season? Sorry, across 20 starts or so. Don’t forget, McCullers hasn’t started more than 22 games once in his three years in the rotation. I don’t have any problem being a McCullers owner – he will certainly help more than hurt – I just don’t like being so unsure how much he’ll help.
38. Alex Wood (Los Angeles Dodgers) – 1.23 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 31.6% K rate, 5.8% BB rate with a 6+ IPS. That’s how good Alex Wood was in 12 starts when he got a firm grasp of a rotation spot starting April 26th through July 15th. After that…4.25 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 17.9% K rate (though a 5.4% BB rate and 5.9 IPS). He battled a shoulder injury and a serious case of Dodgeritis that made him plenty of a headache to own, but there’s more to this story. During the first two months of the year, Wood’s fastball velocity was comfortably over the 93mph mark. In the final two months, that mark was down to 91.3mph. I’m sure the shoulder injury had something to do with it, but it’s difficult to expect Wood to regain two ticks on his heater not just for the start of 2018, but through the entirety of it. But there’s more. What made Wood special was a mix of whiff rate and induced grounders during his blissful 12 starts – a 65.5% groundball rate and 14.2% whiff rate that were as elite as they come. Those numbers fell to 42.6% and 9.4% in his final 11 starts. That’s super mediocre. I think people are going to see his overall 2.72 ERA and 1.06 WHIP and think he’s a steal in the mid 20s, but I’m shying away as all signs point to Wood distancing himself from a 12 start peak.
39. Rich Hill (Los Angeles Dodgers) – Does Hill deserve to be the last one picked in this tier of lepers? A 3.32 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 30.1% K rate should dictate much more favor…right? Not when it comes with a 5.4 IPS and absolute torture. Yes, torture. If you’re a Hill owner, you have to deal with short stints, the Dodgers going back-and-forth about his actual role on the team, and, of course, his severe injury risk, which I think we can all agree is the highest among the names in this tier. Blisters have been the bane of his existence and don’t forget, he’s going to be 38-years-old this season. I just don’t see how he can possibly come close to 25 starts for a second year in a row, and when he does start, he averages well below six frames per outing. Bleeegggggh. Uh oh. What’s wrong? I get the feeling you’re going to make an overused joke. …You should make like Rich and be over the Hill in 2018. I KNEW IT.
Tier 5: Hey This Ain’t So Bad
40. Jameson Taillon (Pittsburgh Pirates) – Taillon was one of my favorite arms entering 2017 and I think those that have already abandoned ship are going to regret they did. Say what you want about his bottom line – 4.44 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 21.3% K rate, 7.8% BB rate – the 25-year-old had cancer. Cancer. He managed to still make 25 starts but you have to believe he simply wasn’t himself through the year. There were different layers as to why I was excited about Taillon last spring – mid 90s heat with excellent two-seam movement, a plus curveball with serious bite, a history of low walk rates, and room to grow with a new changeup – and I’m willing to hit the reset button as we’re back where we started in 2017. Yes, I need to tack on some penalties for inconsistency and whatnot, but I still love the potential here and considering that he’s going right around pick #200, he’s going to find his way on plenty of my teams. Let’s down this bottle of Taillon together. I think you messed up that punchline. I sure did, friend. I sure did.