Starting pitchers can break your heart, but too many fantasy owners use that as an excuse to throw darts at the position and see what sticks. On the contrary, this is a position where it really pays to do one's homework, and where more fantasy championships are won and lost than at any other position. It's all a matter of paying attention to the right things. Look at key ratios like strikeout rate, walk rate and groundball rates first: these are the best predictors of ERA going forward. Then, you might look at ERA itself. One thing not to look at are won-loss records from previous seasons. Wins and losses are a function of how well a guy pitches, plus run support, plus a dosage of luck. There is no such thing as knowing how to win -- but there is such a thing as knowing how to pitch.
It seems like some people are expecting a Bob Gibson-type of season out of Santana now that he's in the National League. That's likely too high a bar for him to clear. Santana benefitted in Minnesota both from solid defenses and from a home yard that had begun to play like a pitchers' park, so while he'll benefit from the change of leagues, the marginal gains aren't quite as much as you might think. Still, you can count with one finger the number of pitchers you can bank on for a 3.00 ERA, 17-18 wins, and a league-leading strikeout total. In deep leagues where it can be hard to be put together a pitching staff, he's arguably the best player in fantasy baseball.
Just as Santana is clearly the No. 1 pitcher in fantasy baseball, Peavy is clearly the No. 2. Peavy demonstrated last season that his mediocre win totals had been about nothing more than poor luck in his run support, and the rest of his numbers have always been excellent. While he's unlikely to post a 2.54 ERA again, the huge ballpark in San Diego forms a great hedge against any serious decline in performance.
Are you nervous about how he looked in October? Well, don't be. Big pitchers such as Sabathia and Carlos Zambrano actually seem to have an advantage in the durability department, and Sabathia has looked just fine in spring training after a full winter of rest. There is risk, certainly, but that comes with the territory when you're drafting a starting pitcher.
There's a fairly big drop-off after the top three pitchers, but Smoltz has become strangely underrated. His top four PECOTA comparables (Gaylord Perry, Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver and Phil Niekro) are all 300-game winners, and three out of the four (everyone but Seaver) were productive well into their 40s. Smoltz has had virtually zero health problems since converting back to the rotation in 2005, and it's possible that the time he spent in the bullpen added years to his arm. Grab him while the other owners go for sexier names, and watch him lead you to a win in the WHIP category.
You're going to see a couple of Rays on this list, the main reason being that we're expecting Tampa Bay to go from having one of the worst defenses in the league to one of the better ones, thanks to new additions such as shortstop Jason Bartlett. The defensive improvement alone could be worth as much as 50 points of ERA to everyone on their pitching staff, and Kazmir was already plenty good even before that adjustment. The Rays' offense is also young and on the way up, which should help Kazmir to improve on his win totals.
It's quite a battle between Bedard, Kazmir and Sabathia for the title of best left-hander in the American League, but Bedard might be slightly less valuable than the other two from a fantasy perspective. The main reason is run support; the Mariners have a mediocre, aging offense that benefitted last year from a couple of guys (Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen) who overachieved. It's also worth remembering that Bedard has never pitched more than 200 innings in a season. Bedard is a weird player -- he'll be underrated in some leagues, where owners barely noticed how well he was doing in Baltimore, but likely overrated in others.
There's a little bit more injury risk than you'd like, but Hamels is otherwise a pitcher who performs ahead of his years, with pitchability that betrays his youthful demeanor. Pitching in front of the Phillies' fine core of offensive talent, PECOTA's wins projection may be low.
He's both very talented and unusually safe for a pitcher, but PECOTA expects a slight decline from his '06-07 peak, in part because Webb has accumulated a lot of mileage on his arm and in part because he's pitching in a tough park environment -- Chase Field is probably the second best hitters' park in baseball after Coors Field. And of course, Webb's most unique and important attribute -- his ability to generate groundballs and avoid the home run -- is not reflected directly in fantasy scoring categories.
We've hit another little inflection point after the top eight pitchers, but Harang's numbers aren't far behind, and he might ultimately provide more bang for the buck. His biggest disadvantage is his manager. Not only might Dusty Baker overwork Harang, but he's also likely to play offensive zeroes like Ryan Freel or Corey Patterson in front of talented center field prospect Jay Bruce, which may impair Harang's run support.
So many things went wrong on the South Side of Chicago last year that Vazquez's outstanding season went overlooked. He's extremely durable, having made 32 or more starts in each of eight seasons running, and his outstanding control should guarantee a low WHIP, even if U.S. Cellular Field inflates his ERA.
Just a couple of notes of caution. The gains Haren will receive from moving to an easier league will be offset by moving to a more difficult ballpark. And Haren pitched slightly better than his peripheral statistics last year: his strikeout, walk, and groundball numbers would ordinarily be associated with an ERA of 3.66, rather than the 3.07 that he posted. He's an excellent No. 2 starter who may be priced as a No. 1 in some leagues.
I'm not sure there's any right-hander I'd rather have on the mound in a big game, but from a fantasy perspective, Beckett carries a couple of risks that are hard to get away from. Injuries have been a constant problem, and Beckett has already had to deal with back spasms this spring. And pitching in Fenway Park against AL East offenses inherently carries a high degree of difficulty. Bid on him with these caveats in mind, rather than reflexively expecting a repeat of his '07 numbers.
Long a sleeper pick who served to differentiate the true experts in the fantasy crowd, Lackey's reputation has now caught up with the reality after an outstanding year. There are no huge risk factors here, but his strikeout rates have gone down a tick, suggesting that his ERA and wins totals may be more like '05 or '06 than '07.
Although his season received less attention, Verlander actually had a much better year in '07 than in '06, significantly improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio and his WHIP. The only caution is that expectations for the Tigers offense are a bit inflated; they'll benefit from the addition of Miguel Cabrera, but will be harmed as players such as Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco return to earth after career years.
It has become a cliché to say this sort of thing, but if Shields pitched in New York or Los Angeles rather than Tampa, he'd already be a household name. Shields' No. 1 PECOTA comparable is Haren, and that's the sort of season you might expect out of him now that the Rays will be throwing a respectable defense behind him.
Dice-K's only real problem last year was a failure to live up to impossible expectations. It is easy to forget that Matsuzaka was a rookie last year, and naturally enough, he ran into a little bit of a rookie wall in the second half of the year, something that should be less of a problem as he becomes more used to the routines of life in the United States. PECOTA looks at his excellent strikeout rates and expects that he'll be a little better; I look at his six-pitch repertoire, still completely unique in North American baseball, and expect that he'll be a lot better.
Now, we like watching Carmona pitch as much as the next guy. But ultimately it's hard for a pitcher to maintain a place in the firmament of fantasy stardom when he has strikeout and walk rates that are no better than league average. Carmona can expect some regression in his ERA as well as the league starts to learn to lay off his sinker. And the injury risk that we didn't see with Sabathia, I do see here with Carmona. Unlike Sabathia, Carmona had no history of racking up a heavy workload, but he went from 0-to-60 last year, accumulating 230 innings pitched between the regular and post-seasons.