Fantasy baseball Pitching Report: Ranking the top starting rotations

Wednesday June 18th, 2014

Garrett Richards has been outstanding for the Angels recently and fantasy owners should take note.
David Tulis/AP

If fantasy owners drafted starting pitchers the way they typically do defenses in football, that is as units and not as individuals, which team would rank first? With football creeping into the fantasy consciousness now that the summer has hit, why not engage in a little crossover experiment between America's two favorite fantasy sports?

The contenders: Giants, Nationals, Dodgers, Braves, Cardinals, Tigers, Athletics

It's not a surprise that five of the seven teams considered are in the National League. Given the presence of the pitcher in every team's lineup, NL teams are bound to have better ERAs and WHIPs, on average. Indeed, seven of the top 10 teams in ERA and WHIP are in the senior circuit, but we couldn't ignore either the Tigers or A's. The Tigers, of course, have a fantasy stud in Max Scherzer and another top-of-the-rotation guy in Anibal Sanchez. The A's, meanwhile, lead the league in ERA, and feature fantasy mainstays Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir.

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Both of those AL teams fall short, though, thanks to their strikeout rates. The Tigers are tied for 11th at 20.2 percent, while the A's 20-percent rate has them 13th. The five NL teams considered are all in the top 10.

So we're down to the Giants, Nationals, Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals. One necessary feature of both a real-life and fantasy rotation is a true ace, and all five of those teams have one. Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Julio Teheran and Adam Wainwright can all anchor a rotation, be it real or imaginary. Another thing any rotation needs is at least four guys an owner can trust regardless of matchup. For that breakdown, let's go to the table.

Madison BumgarnerStephen StrasburgClayton KershawJulio TeheranAdam Wainwright
Tim HudsonJordan ZimmermannZack GreinkeMike MinorMichael Wacha
Matt CainGio GonzalezHyun-jin RyuErvin SantanaLance Lynn
Ryan VogelsongDoug FisterJosh BeckettAaron HarangShelby Miller
Tim LincecumTanner RoarkDan HarenAlex Wood/Gavin FloydJaime Garcia

This is where we start to see some separation, especially when you couple depth with strength at the top. While the Giants are as strong as anyone with Bumgarner and Hudson in the first two slots, they start to fade, compared to the rest, with Cain, Vogelsong and Lincecum. The Braves were already in trouble with Teheran and Minor up top, and the trio of Santana, Harang and Wood or Floyd likely knocks them out of the running. That leaves us with the Nationals, Dodgers and Cardinals.

Since strikeout rate was enough to eliminate the Tigers and A's, we should see if any of the three remaining teams can distinguish itself here. The Nationals rank first out of these three, and sixth in the majors, with a 21.2-percent strikeout rate. The Dodgers are right behind them at 21.1 percent, and the Cardinals are next at 20.6 percent. The difference isn't enough to separate any team.

While the Cardinals are last here, they're first among the three in WHIP. In fact, the Cardinals' 1.15 WHIP is first in the majors. The Nationals and Dodgers are tied for fifth at 1.21. St. Louis' 3.05 ERA (second in the majors) is also markedly better than Los Angeles' 3.24 (fourth) and Washington's 3.34 (fifth). However, the Nationals have the best FIP of the group, due in large part to their strikeout rate. Add in their .304 BABIP, the highest of the group, and their case begins to strengthen.

These are certainly our top three rotations, and all have a legitimate argument to be considered No. 1. Thanks to their strikeout rate and the fantasy worthiness of all pitchers one through five, the Nationals earn the top ranking. The Dodgers are second, with the Cardinals, Giants and Braves rounding out the top five.

Pitchers of the week

Garrett Richards, Los Angeles Angels -- Last week: 13 innings pitches, 1 win, 14 strikeouts, 0.69 ERA, 0.85 WHIP

Richards was great in outings against the A's and Braves last week. He picked up a win in his first outing with Oakland visiting Los Angeles, allowing one run on four hits with four strikeouts. He then shut out the Braves across six innings, fanning 10 while surrendering four hits and three walks.

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds -- 6 IP, 1 W, 12 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.25 WHIP

Cueto had to throw a lot of pitches in his six innings against the Dodgers last week, but his fantasy owners probably aren't complaining that he was only able to go six innings. He struck out 12 batters while allowing just three hits, zero walks and nary a run. He has a 1.85 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and 109 strikeouts in 102 innings this year.

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves -- 4 2/3 IP, 4 SV, 10 K, 1.93 ERA, 0.64 WHIP

This is the first time a closer has been included among the top three pitchers of the week, and it's no surprise that Kimbrel was the one to pull off the feat. He fanned 10 of the 18 batters he faced last week, allowing just one run and two hits. Kimbrel now has 20 saves and 50 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings this season.

Pitchers of the weak

Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves -- 9 IP, 9 K, 11.00 ERA, 2.89 WHIP

Minor really struggled in both of his starts last week, allowing a total of 11 runs and 22 hits to the Rockies and Angels. He was coming off strong performances against the Red Sox and Mariners, and his owners were no doubt expecting a whole lot more out of him in a two-start week. He'll oppose Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals on Friday.

Marco Estrada, Milwaukee Brewers -- 11 IP, 8 K, 9.00 ERA, 1.45 WHIP

Estrada gave up five more home runs last week in losses to the Mets and Reds. He has now allowed a league-high 23 home runs in 84 innings this year, and his season ERA is up to 4.82. While he is still worth owning in most mixed leagues, he's not a guy you should be running out there with confidence every single time he takes the ball.

Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants -- 2 1/3 IP, 3 K, 27.00 ERA, 3.00 WHIP

Romo blew a pair of saves last week, taking two losses against the Rockies. He allowed a total of seven runs on six hits in those two games, pushing his ERA and FIP for the year to 5.08 and 4.74, respectively. Bruce Bochy has not hinted at a change in the ninth inning, but Jean Machi has been lights out as a setup man this year.

Buy, sell or hold

Buy: Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs

Part of the Cubs' offseason blueprint the last few years has been to target inexpensive pitchers who could potentially put together a nice two- or three-month run and then be flipped for younger players with upside at the trade deadline. They were able to complete that entire cycle a year ago, turning three months of above-average production out of Scott Feldman into Arrieta and Pedro Strop. If his last few starts are any indication, Arrieta, is starting to realize the potential that always eluded him when he was with the Orioles.

In his last two starts, Arrieta hasn't allowed a run and has surrendered just five hits and a walk with 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. He has thrown 43 innings this year, compiling a 2.09 ERA, 2.32 FIP, 1.26 WHIP and 44 strikeouts. His strikeout rate is an impressive 24.6 percent, while his walk rate is down to 7.8 percent; those numbers were 18.5 and 12.7, respectively, in 75 1/3 innings last year. In addition, his .325 BABIP suggests his success is not a mirage. Arrieta has always had a power fastball, but his secondary pitches, especially his curve and changeup, have been much more effective this season. Given the ceiling he has always had, there's a very real chance he's figuring it out right now. He should be owned in most mixed leagues.

Sell: Charlie Morton, Pittsburgh Pirates

Morton has put together a nice run of starts in the last month, going at least five innings and allowing no more than two runs in each of his five outings since the last week of May. He has even changed the script in a few starts, fanning nine batters against the Padres and seven against the Cubs. At no point in his career has Morton been a strikeout artist, so his performance his last few times out has been a surprise.

Of course, that track record as a pitch-to-contact guy is why owners shouldn't expect this to last. First of all, the Padres and Cubs are two of the whiff-happiest teams in the league, both ranking in the top six in strikeout rate. Morton didn't really do anything different against either of those teams; the only thing that changed was the opponent. Morton has been a solid ERA and FIP pitcher for his last 200 innings or so, but ERA alone doesn't really move the needle for fantasy owners. He's always going to be a popular stream pitcher, and he could be kept around in deeper mixed leagues, but those of you in leagues of most sizes should not be considering him.

Hold: Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks

It's appropriate that Reed is our "hold" pitcher for the week because he could soon be trafficking in holds, and not saves, if he doesn't turn around his performance. Reed hasn't made it easy on Kirk Gibson or his fantasy owners all year, amassing a 4.15 ERA and 4.83 FIP in 30 1/3 innings. He doesn't walk anyone, issuing just four non-intentional free passes, and he has 33 strikeouts, but he gives up way too many home runs. He has surrendered eight longballs this year and sports an ugly 19-percent HR/FB ratio. Gibson has yet to indicate that someone else in the bullpen could take his job, but he would have every excuse to give someone like Brad Ziegler a shot in the ninth. Reed owners should beware a potential change.

Rookie pitcher spotlight

Andrew Heaney, SP, Miami Marlins

After first receiving attention from fantasy owners of all stripes in April, Heaney received a promotion from the Marlins on Monday. He'll make his major league debut on Thursday against the Mets, and if for some reason he isn't owned in your league, I'll wait for you here while you run to your waiver wire to grab him.

OK, now that you're back, let's take a look at why Heaney can make an immediate impact in fantasy leagues. He started the year with Double-A Jacksonville, and Southern League hitters could not do a thing when he was on the mound. In 53 2/3 innings, he had a 2.35 ERA, 2.48 FIP, 1.08 WHIP and 52 strikeouts. He was even better after getting the bump to Triple-A New Orleans, where he compiled a 2.74 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 1.13 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 23 innings in the famously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Heaney, Baseball America's No. 30 prospect entering the 2014 season, has long been considered a pitcher with legitimate frontline potential, and he has showcased that this season. The Marlins could certainly limit his innings, but don't let that dampen your enthusiasm. He's the biggest impact pitcher to be called up to the majors this year.

By the numbers

52 -- Strikeouts in the last month for Felix Hernandez. That covers a stretch of 47 innings. Despite what you might have heard, Masahiro Tanaka is not running away with the AL Cy Young Award.

12.1 -- David Price's K/BB ratio this season. He has 121 strikeouts and 10 walks in 107 2/3 innings. Forget about the ERA that is finally below 4.00. He has been every bit as dominant as usual.

52.2 -- Whiffs per swing for Dallas Keuchel's slider, on a percentage basis. It's the only pitch in baseball this year with a rate north of 50 percent.

23.5 -- Strikeout rate for White Sox hitters this year, the highest in the majors. If you need strikeout help, you could do worse than streaming whoever is starting against the White Sox.

1.85 -- Cole Hamels' ERA over his last 43 2/3 innings. He has been particularly filthy in June, putting up a 0.40 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 26 strikeouts while allowing opponents a .188/.256/.247 slash line.

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