Pitchers in baseball's Dead-Ball Era (about 1900-20) could do basically whatever they wanted to doctor a beat up, softened baseball. In the 1960s , high mounds and enormous strike zones helped pitching own the decade. Those two epochs not withstanding, we are truly in pitching’s Gilded Age.
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Starting pitchers have never been as dominant as they are now, and the effects are being felt in the fantasy baseball universe. Last year, three of the top four overall players in standard 5-by-5 leagues were pitchers. Clayton Kershaw was the No. 1 player, and became the first pitcher to win the NL MVP since Bob Gibson back in 1968, the last time widespread pitching superiority swept the majors. Thirteen starters had at least 200 strikeouts, and 22 who qualified for the ERA title had an ERA south of 3.00.
It wasn’t just the elite pitchers driving up the numbers, either. The leaguewide strikeout rate was 20.4%, the highest it has ever been. Ten years ago, it was 16.9%. When Gibson and his cohorts famously shut down hitters in 1968, it was 15.9%. In the Dead-Ball Era, strikeout rate hovered right around 10%. No matter how you look at it, pitching is preeminent in today’s MLB.
Fantasy owners, however, are not backed into a corner because of the rise of pitchers. In fact, starting pitchers ranked 25-49 (give or take) are stronger than they've ever been, which means owners can wait even longer before taking the plunge into the pitching market in drafts. On the other hand, anchoring your staff with a true ace is the surest way to boast one of the best rotations in your league and ensure as little variation in weekly performance as possible.
The best way to attack the starting pitcher position is more debatable than it has ever been. Fantasy owners essentially have three options, all of which can work with the right mix of players.
Option 1: The early-90s Braves for the 21st Century
Any of us born in the mid-80s or earlier remember well what the Braves were able to do behind Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine (Steve Avery, too, but, come on). The group ushered in Atlanta’s stranglehold of the NL West, then NL East. Between 1991 and 1998, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz combined for six Cy Young Awards and one World Series MVP (Glavine).
A fantasy owner could do his or her best John Schuerholz impression, and build a staff with three legitimate Cy Young candidates. That would likely require spending at least three of your first six picks on starting pitchers.
Option 2: Mine for gold in the middle rounds
The rising tide of pitching has lifted all ships, making it easier than ever to find values at the starting pitcher position. The owner who goes this route will target hitters in the first six, seven, eight, or perhaps even nine rounds of their draft before turning their attention to pitching. In an auction, they’ll spend at least 70% of their budget on hitting. It’s entirely possible to build a great staff this way, while also giving an owner the advantage of focusing precious resources on the scarce hitting categories.
For the sake of conversation, let’s say you don’t take your first starting pitcher until the seventh round, but then grab four with your next six picks. Using average draft position, here is just a sampling of the potential realistic four-man rotations you could secure in a 12-team league:
-- Julio Teheran, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco
-- Alex Cobb, Tyson Ross, Jake Arrieta, Yordano Ventura
-- Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Cashner
Other pitchers with ADPs that land them in rounds seven through 12, the middle rounds of a typical draft, include Jeff Samardzija, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Shields, Masahiro Tanaka and Doug Fister. If a staff like this features one breakout player and two who perform as expected, you’ve got a great rotation, even if one of the four falters. And that says nothing of the late-round targets who would fill out the backend of the staff.
Option 3: Build around an ace
This is sort of a hybrid of the first two options. Many fantasy owners want that ace who they can rely on every week, but don’t want to invest as heavily in the position as option one requires. With this strategy, an owner grabs someone like Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, or Stephen Strasburg, just to name a few of the possibilities.
With that anchor at the top of the rotation, an owner is now free to take a best-available approach for the rest of the early and middle rounds. If he or she likes the value presented by another pitcher, that option is there. If not, an owner employing this strategy can grab hitters until they’re ready to get back into the pitching market, confident that they already have an ace who can carry the rotation.
All things being equal, I typically find myself opening up door No. 3 and staying away from door No. 1, with door No. 2 my fallback option if the pitchers I like get snatched or hitting values too good to pass up present themselves. Pitching may dominate real-life baseball, but the fantasy game still gives owners flexibility in the composition of their staffs.
Breakout: Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates
After struggling at the start of last season, Cole rebounded from a midseason shoulder and back injuries to show his true colors in September. In 39 1/3 innings in the final month of the season, Cole had a 2.45 FIP, 1.07 WHIP and 45 strikeouts, while walking just six batters. He has always had the stuff to be a dominant pitcher, and there’s reason to believe he’ll realize that potential this year. At just 24 years old, Cole has a great chance to vault a tier or two this season.
Sleeper: Drew Smyly, Tampa Bay Rays
Widely overlooked as part of the trade that sent David Price to Detroit, Smyly was every bit as good as, if not better than, Price after the two pitchers switched addresses. In seven starts with Tampa Bay, Smyly racked up a 1.70 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 0.76 WHIP and 44 strikeouts against 11 non-intentional walks in 47 2/3 innings. Smyly owns one of the better curveballs in the league and, finally, a guaranteed spot in his team’s rotation. As a fly-ball pitcher, he’s also built to take advantage of Tropicana Field and the Rays’ strong outfield defense.
Deep sleeper: Yusmeiro Petit, San Francisco Giants
For now, Bruce Bochy says he envisions Petit as a "super reliever," preferring to place him in high-leverage spots while letting Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum battle for the final slot in the rotation. At some point, I think we're going to see Petit go into the phone booth and emerge in starter's clothes. Last year as a starter, he compiled a 1.84 ERA, 1.66 FIP, 0.86 WHIP and 59 strikeouts against 11 walks in 49 innings. He's simply too good in that role to keep the likes of Vogelsong and Lincecum ahead of him. As you bide your time waiting for him to get into the rotation, he'll provide your team with strong rates and a strikeout boost out of the bullpen.
Bust: Sonny Gray, Oakland A’s
Gray’s strikeout rate and walk rate both went in the wrong direction last year from his 64-inning debut in 2013. Steamer projects even further negative movement this season, and I agree with that. His breaking pitches weren’t nearly the wipeout offerings they were in 2013 after the league got greater exposure to him last year. While his BABIP and strand rate have been better than average in both seasons, losing a vacuum cleaner like Josh Donaldson is bad news for a ground-ball heavy pitcher.
Prospect: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Syndergaard had mixed results at Triple-A Las Vegas in 2014, but it was ultimately a successful season for the 22-year-old. He went 9-7 with a 4.60 ERA, 3.70 FIP and 145 strikeouts in 133 innings, to go along with a manageable 7.4-percent walk rate. He has one of the most powerful fastballs in the minors, and added a plus changeup to a repertoire that already included a very good curveball. Syndergaard will likely start the year at Triple-A, but looks set the join the Mets’ rotation at some point this season.
Early starting pitcher rankings
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Felix Hernandez
3. Chris Sale
4. Stephen Strasburg
5. Max Scherzer
6. Corey Kluber
7. Yu Darvish
8. Madison Bumgarner
9. David Price
10. Zack Greinke
11. Jon Lester
12. Johnny Cueto
13. Jordan Zimmermann
14. Cole Hamels
15. Tyson Ross
16. Julio Teheran
17. Gerrit Cole
18. Adam Wainwright
19. Matt Harvey
20. Jake Arrieta
21. Hisashi Iwakuma
22. Alex Wood
23. Alex Cobb
24. Jeff Samardzija
25. Gio Gonzalez
26. Jacob DeGrom
27. Carlos Carrasco
28. James Shields
29. Sonny Gray
30. Anibal Sanchez
31. Hyun-jin Ryu
32. Cliff Lee
33. Phil Hughes
34. Masahiro Tanaka
35. Andrew Cashner
36. Lance Lynn
37. Chris Archer
38. Garrett Richards
39. Marcus Stroman
40. Ian Kennedy
41. Jose Quintana
42. Drew Smyly
43. Mat Latos
44. Yordano Ventura
45. Doug Fister
46. Matt Shoemaker
47. Homer Bailey
48. Francisco Liriano
49. Michael Wacha
50. Zack Wheeler