Monday March 16th, 2015

With fantasy baseball drafts on the horizon, Michael Beller will answer a series of burning questions leading up to the start of the MLB season.

Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on earth, and though we haven’t scaled the globe looking for someone better at getting hitters out, you can bet if there were someone out there who could do it better than Kershaw, he would have been found by now—most likely by Scott Boras. Kershaw is the best. No one denies this. If they did, they’d be ostracized from the community.

• Fantasy baseball draft kit: Player rankings, previews, profiles, more

The best real-life player at fill-in-the-blank position doesn’t always carry the greatest fantasy value, however. There are things that are more valuable in real life than the fantasy game, or vice versa, that may make the guy the best in one pool, but just the fifth-best in another. It’s why Adam Wainwright is a real-life ace, but no longer a fantasy ace. The Venn diagram between real-life value and fantasy baseball value has a lot of overlap, but it’s not just one circle.

Predicting best and worst scenarios for top fantasy baseball players

Don’t get me wrong: Kershaw is the odds-on-favorite to be the most valuable fantasy starting pitcher this year. But it’s not a slam dunk. In this week’s installment of our Burning Questions series, we ask: If not Kershaw, then who?

There’s another National League pitcher, born four months after Kershaw, who also had the best year of his career in 2014. This one entered the league with more fanfare than Kershaw and always seemed to fall short of extremely high expectations before last year. He’s universally seen as one of the best pitchers in the league, and does everything necessary to be the most valuable fantasy pitcher. His name is Stephen Strasburg.

• ​POSITION PRIMERS: SP | RP | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | C

The luddites among us look at Strasburg’s numbers last year and see a good pitcher, but not one who could arguably be the very best in the league. What they fail to see is the FIP that was 0.20 lower than his ERA, or his 242 strikeouts in 215 innings, or the walk rate he cut by 2.7 percentage points. They don’t see the fastball that sits, not tops out, in the mid-90s, or the changeup that’s among the best in the league, or the curveball with the whiff rate north of 15%. That’s an elite trio of pitches, and why he’s one of the best strikeout artists in the league.

Oh, we will make them see those pitches. How many pitchers do you suppose can throw a changeup like this?

Or a curveball like this?

Very few, that’s how many. And even fewer can throw both of them, along with a fastball that averages 95 mph. Strasburg’s baseline makes him a top-five pitcher. With better luck this year, he could be at the very top.

Strasburg had potentially the worst batted-ball luck of any pitcher in the league last year. His BABIP was .315, a number that just doesn’t jibe with the batted-ball rates he allowed in 2014. Fangraphs tracks a stat it calls xFIP-, which takes a pitcher’s xFIP (a statistic that prizes only the things a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts and walks, and factors in how many homers a pitcher would be expected to surrender based on his fly-ball rate) and adjusts it for park and league factors. That way, pitchers can be compared without the noise of matchups and stadiums involved. It’s admittedly wonky, but it’s also instructive. The top three last year: Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber. In '13, it was Hernandez, Matt Harvey and Yu Darvish.

Fantasy baseball sleepers: Will Gattis, Moss perform with new teams?

Strasburg ranked fourth in xFIP- last year. Of the 11 players who ranked between fifth and 15th, seven had better ERAs than Strasburg. That just doesn’t add up, especially when you consider the strides he made last year.

The 26-year-old Strasburg had been plagued by walks his entire career going into 2014. He had two straight seasons with a walk rate north of 7% and more than 2.5 walks per nine innings. He slashed each of those numbers last year, cutting his walk rate to 5% and BB/9 to 1.8. Despite that, he allowed 39 more baserunners from the previous season, and his WHIP jumped to 1.12 from 1.05. That brings us back to his BABIP.

Simply put, there’s just no way that Strasburg should have given up hits on 31.5% of balls in play last year. Strasburg is an extreme ground-ball pitcher, thanks in large part to his changeup. With Anthony Rendon ensconced at third, Ian Desmond at short and Yunel Escobar at second, more of those should turn into outs this season. Combine that with a declining walk rate and his always-high strikeout rate, and Strasburg’s ERA and WHIP should be come down this season.

Fantasy baseball busts: Be cautious when drafting Hamilton, Wainwright

There’s one more element inherent to the No. 1 fantasy starting pitcher that has always eluded Strasburg: He has to be among the league leader in wins. Win-loss record is a team stat that really shouldn’t be applied to individual players, but it remains a standard category for pitchers. Strasburg has never won more than 15 games in a season, but you should expect that to change this year. The Nationals are widely viewed as the best team in the majors, and if things break right, they could push 100 wins this year. That should help every starter post a gaudy win-loss record, Strasburg included.

Strasburg has been one of the best strikeout pitchers since he become a major leaguer in 2010. He grew as a pitcher last season, keeping his walks down and striking out more batters than ever before. He has one of the most dominant three-pitch repertoires in the league, along with a good offense and bullpen behind him. With better luck this year, he should have an ERA in the mid-2.00s and somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 wins. All that could make him the No. 1 fantasy pitcher in '15.

• BURNING QUESTION I: Is Miguel Cabrera still a first-round pick?
• BURNING QUESTION II: Will Kemp and Braun live up to their price?
• BURNING QUESTION III: Will Harper reach superstar status this year?
• BURNING QUESTION IV: Worth it to draft the oft-injured Tulowitzki?
•​ BURNING QUESTION V: Coming off surgery, how big a risk is Harvey?
•​ BURNING QUESTION VI: Invest in Adam Jones's boring consistency?
•​ ​BURNING QUESTION VII: Could Strasburg emerge as No. 1 fantasy SP?
•​ BURNING QUESTION VIII: Will Alcantara emerge as a top-10 2B?

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