Fantasy baseball position primer: Getting the most out of a deep starting pitcher pool

No fantasy position offers more value or valuable options than starting pitcher, but how do you construct the best possible rotation without overpaying?
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Welcome to fantasy baseball’s deepest position. Gerrit Cole has a FantasyPros consensus ranking of 22 and is the 28th pitcher off the board by NFBC ADP. Matt Harvey checks in 34th in both sets of rankings. Sonny Gray—who, before regressing last season, put up a 2.88 ERA, 3.36 FIP and 1.13 WHIP across 491 career innings—sits in 51st and 55th, respectively. Drew Smyly, who has a career 3.82 FIP, 1.19 WHIP and 23.5% strikeout rate, is the No. 61 pitcher by both measures. The starting pitcher well cannot possibly run dry during your draft or auction.

That means that there are plenty of ways to build a successful pitching staff. You can anchor your rotation with an ace, like Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer. You can wait until the middle rounds to strike and still end up with a core of Johnny Cueto, Carlos Martinez, Cole Hamels and Kenta Maeda. You could commit significant resources to the position and come out of the first four rounds with a pairing of Noah Syndergaard and Jake Arrieta. You can dive back into the pool late to find this year’s Kyle Hendricks or Danny Duffy. There’s no wrong answer at the position.

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That reality makes the high-priced pitchers inherently riskier than their mid- and late-round counterparts. No one doubts that Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game by a wide margin, but if he only throws 149 innings (as he did last year), his primacy doesn’t matter in fantasy leagues. If you’re investing a first-round pick in a pitcher, you need him to make 33 starts and throw 200-plus innings. That isn’t a guarantee for anyone at baseball’s most injury-prone position.

More often than not, I come back to the mid-round approach to building a pitching staff. I don’t want to neglect the position to the point that I miss out on the top-20 pitchers; that’s a great way to get left behind on the mound without making up significant ground at the plate. I’ll do what I can to build my staff around two pitchers in the 10–20 range, such as Cueto and Carlos Carrasco. From there, I’ll grab three or four more who slot from 21 to 40, which takes a typical draft from the middle of the eighth round through the end of the 14th. I’ll then round out my rotation with a couple of high-upside, late-round picks whose identities we will get into later in the primer.

There’s no wrong way to go about assembling your rotation. When Kershaw stays healthy for a full season, he is well worth a first-round pick. The values aren’t askew for any of the top pitchers, be it Scherzer (10.69 ADP), Madison Bumgarner (15.49), Chris Sale (20.12), Syndergaard (20.88) or Corey Kluber (24.32). I’d rather spend my money on high-floor, high-ceiling, low-risk hitters who have a much lower incidence of injury, but both roads can lead to championship teams. The most important takeaway here is that, as long as you have a plan, you can almost build your pitching staff before your draft or auction starts.


Five Big Questions

1. Who’s on your Do Not Draft list?

At a position with so many options, it’s important to cross a handful of guys off your cheat sheet. You won’t do this indiscriminately, but with good reason. The best reason is injury. Do not tie yourself to a pitcher who is an injury-related question mark when there’s no shortage of attractive arms on the market. The instinct to dodge injury risks should be even greater the higher you go up the rankings. That’s where Jacob deGrom enters the story.

This is not an “avoid deGrom” call as much as a recommendation to avoid unnecessary risks. deGrom is great when he’s healthy, and we’ve seen it for the better part of three years, going back to his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2014. Even when it was clear things weren’t totally right with him last season, he was mostly effective, ending the year with a 3.04 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 1.20 WHIP and nearly a strikeout per inning. Of course, his season was limited to 148 innings because of an ulnar nerve injury in his right elbow that eventually required surgery. There are eight words in that previous sentence that should have you questioning his 2017 value.

To be fair, deGrom’s recovery has gone exactly as planned: He began throwing off a mound in early February and pronounced himself pain-free heading into spring training. Yet it’s hard to shake any fears surrounding a pitcher who has yet to post a 200-inning season and is coming off an elbow injury that needed surgery to fix. What’s more, it’s not like deGrom will be the last pitcher on earth when he comes off the board in a standard draft. His ADP has him sandwiched between Martinez and Hamels. He is typically taken ahead of Masahrio Tanaka, Zack Greinke, Kenta Maeda, Rick Porcello and Cole.

If we knew deGrom were fully healthy, he’d be a possible top-10 pitcher. As it stands, he’s just inside the top 20, and that will make him a palatable risk for many fantasy owners. It’s more likely, though, that he’s a risk not worth taking.

2. Who’s the one pitcher you must have?

Just two spots in front of deGrom in the starting pitcher consensus rankings on FantasyPros and seven spots ahead of him overall, you will find my favorite pitcher for the 2016 season. He’s not necessarily the best pitcher, but taking draft-day price into account as well as my pre-stated preference for anchoring my staff with high-level mid-round starters, he is my No. 1 target. I will do everything in my power to get Carrasco on all my teams this year.

Before you call me a hypocrite by pointing out that Carrasco, like deGrom, came up shy of 150 innings last year because of injury, allow me to beat you to the punch. Yes, Carrasco missed time due to two injuries last season. But the first was a freak hamstring injury, and not only are leg injuries less serious for pitchers, but we’ve also already seen him return successfully from that one. The second was a broken bone in his hand caused by a comebacker off the bat of Ian Kinsler. Again, that’s a freak occurrence, and one that should not affect him this season.

With that out of the way, let’s focus on what Carrasco has done since becoming a full-time starter in August 2014. He has thrown 399 innings across 65 starts, amassing a 3.11 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 1.06 WHIP, 25.8% strikeout rate and 5.5% walk rate. In that same time frame, just eight pitchers have a wider spread between strikeout and walk rates: Kershaw, Scherzer, Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Syndergaard, Kluber, Bumgarner and David Price. That’s pretty good company.

Here’s the thing, though: All of those pitchers are ranked higher than Carrasco on FantasyPros and are coming off the board before him in a typical draft. I’m not saying that Carrasco belongs in the same draft-day neighborhood as Kershaw, Scherzer, Sale and Kluber. But his price tag, which pegs him 30 picks after Kluber and 35 after Sale in a typical draft, is an absolute bargain. Carrasco is the cheapest fantasy ace this season. He’s more Kluber than he is Martinez, but his price is akin to that of the Cardinals' flamethrower. If there’s one pitcher who is a legitimate No. 1 at a No. 2 price, it’s Carrasco.

3. Can Kyle Hendricks do it again?

At this time last year, Hendricks was entering his second full season in the majors, and while his first 260 innings, spread across two years, had been successful, he wasn’t exactly commanding the spotlight during spring training. It’s safe to say that he took much of the baseball world by surprise in 2016. In a rotation with Arrieta and Jon Lester, Hendricks turned into the Cubs' most reliable pitcher from start to finish, leading the majors with a 2.13 ERA across 190 innings, pitching to a 3.20 FIP and 0.98 WHIP, striking out 22.8% of the batters he faced and walking 5.7%. Hendricks finished third in the Cy Young voting, trailing Scherzer and Lester.

I don’t want to go out of my way to pat all of us on the back here, but the fantasy community was bullish on Hendricks last season, and unsurprisingly, it is buying in on him again after his breakout. Hendricks is the No. 17 starting pitcher by FantasyPros' consensus ranking and No. 16 by NFBC ADP. In the overall player universe, FantasyPros rankers have him ahead of Matt Carpenter, Gary Sanchez and Jean Segura, and NFBC drafters are taking him ahead of Gregory Polanco, Carlos Gonzalez and Kyle Seager. Hendricks isn’t going to come cheap this year.

Can he repeat his excellent 2016 season? Understand that Hendricks didn’t exactly come from nowhere last year. From the time he broke into the majors with the Cubs about halfway through the 2014 season through '15, he totaled a 3.49 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 1.14 WHIP and 214 strikeouts against 58 non-intentional walks in 260 1/3 innings. His ground-ball rate was comfortably north of 50% in his first full season, and he surrendered just 0.73 homers per nine innings, showing a real knack for limiting hard contact. As such, it wasn’t a surprise that he led the majors with a 25.1% soft-hit rate last year.

What’s more, the league was incapable of adjusting to Hendricks after getting a good look at him, and he did not tire in the second half. In fact, his ERA, FIP, WHIP and strikeout rate were all better after the All-Star break than before, and his single most dominant month was August, when he posted a 1.28 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 42 1/3 innings. Now 27 years old and one of the best players on the defending World Series champions, there is no doubt that Hendricks can provide a worthy encore to his breakout 2016 campaign.

4. Is there a more underappreciated player in the majors than Jose Quintana?

There’s the machine-like ability to produce the same result consistently, and then there’s Quintana, baseball’s lefthanded automaton. Here is what he has done, year by year, in his four full MLB seasons.

2013: 200 IP, 33 starts, 3.51 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 1.22 WHIP, 19.7 K%, 6.7 BB%

2014: 200 1/3 IP, 32 starts, 3.32 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 21.5 K%, 6.3 BB%

2015: 206 1/3 IP, 32 starts, 3.36 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 1.27 WHIP, 20.5 K%, 5.1 BB%

2016: 208 IP, 32 starts, 3.20 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 1.16 WHIP, 21.6 K%, 6.0 BB%

It’s pretty safe to say what kind of season we’ll get from Quintana in 2017. While it would be silly to expect him to jump a level in his age-28 season given the track record he set for himself the last four years, there’s a ton of value in what he provides, which is easy to see on the back of his card. His greatest asset, though, might be his reliability.

As we indicated in the intro to the primer, health is a skill for starting pitchers. Quintana is one of four pitchers with at least 200 innings and 32 starts in each of the last four seasons; the other three are Scherzer, Lester and Jeff Samardzija. Quintana may not be the first two, but fantasy owners don’t need him to be at his mid-round price tag. That you can etch in stone a 3.30 ERA and 1.20 WHIP across 200 innings makes him more valuable than the typical pitcher ranked in the mid-20s at the position. Some of them may possess higher ceilings or more strikeout potential, but none of them provide the stability he does. Over a six-month season, that’s the sort of currency that cannot be overlooked. Make sure you’re ready to pounce on Quintana this season.

5. Who are the best endgame targets?

Lance McCullers suffered through a lost 2016 season in which he threw 81 innings because of various elbow issues, but that down season created a buying opportunity. McCullers is the No. 40 starting pitcher by FantasyPros' consensus ranking and No. 48 at the position by NFBC ADP (182.17). He’s not expected to pitch in a spring training game until mid-to-late March, but, for now, the Astros believe he will be ready by Opening Day. Given his ceiling, rookie year production, depressed price and age (23 years old), he’s a risk well worth taking.

Drew Smyly is coming off the board after pick No. 200 in a typical draft, and while he fell short of expectations last year despite finally staying healthy, that’s a comically low price for his services. We’re talking about a pitcher who has fanned just shy of a batter per inning across 570 1/3 frames and has a career 23.5% strikeout rate. Smyly has had issues with home runs in his career, but he now calls Safeco Field—one of the most homer-depressing parks in MLB—home. He’ll also have the benefit of the best outfield defense of his entire career. Smyly is going to pitch his way into the top 40 of the position this season, and no one in your league will fight you for him.

The early returns are in for Joe Ross, and they are quite encouraging: In 181 2/3 career innings across two seasons, he has a 3.52 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 1.22 WHIP, 21.3% strikeout rate and 6.6% walk rate. Right shoulder inflammation limited him to 105 innings last year, but the fact that he returned in the postseason should give fantasy owners confidence about his health heading into 2017. Ross is entering his age-24 season and has already proved that he has, at worst, mid-rotation stuff and command. His 246.24 ADP makes him an easy buy in all fantasy formats. Don’t forget about his brother, Tyson, who is set to join the Rangers' rotation after missing all of last season due to thoracic outlet syndrome. When he’s healthy, you can live with the walks thanks to his strikeouts, extreme ground-ball rate and high-level ability to keep the ball in the park.