- We all know Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw are the top fantasy starters, but how can you make sure you draft a viable No. 1 starter?
Conventional wisdom in the fantasy baseball world has long held that you use your most precious resources, be they high draft picks or the majority of your auction dollars, on hitters. Not only are hitters significantly less likely to suffer recurring or serious injuries, their performance is also more stable over time. On top of that, the abundance of reliable starting pitchers available in the middle rounds made waiting on the position easy. A fantasy owner always had reason to suspect that, after loading up on hitting through the first four or five rounds of a typical draft, there’d be plenty of bankable SP2 and SP3 types waiting in the middle rounds.
For years, this has gone unquestioned, and for good reason. Then the 2017 season and its league-wide power surge happened. There were a record 6,105 homers last year, shattering the previous mark of 5,693, set in 2000. A whopping 41 players hit at least 30 homers, also a record. Scott Schebler hit 30 jacks. Jonathan Schoop racked up 32. Francisco Lindor belted 33. Scooter Gennett, a light-hitting middle infielder with 35 homers to his name across four seasons entering the season, left the yard 27 times in 2017.
The equal and opposite reaction to the homer explosion? Non-elite pitchers suffered. League-wide ERA jumped to 4.35 from 4.18 the previous season. League-wide WHIP jumped nearly a full tenth of a point. Seventeen qualified pitchers had an ERA of 3.50 or lower last year. There were 26 such pitchers in 2016. The assault on pitchers was felt in the fantasy world, where it was harder than ever to build a winning staff. Not only were there fewer elite fantasy starters, the middle class of the position was hit especially hard, which lowered the expectations of what an SP2 should be.
What does the paucity of reliable starters, coupled with the boom of power-hitting numbers, mean in the fantasy community for 2018? The conventional wisdom of yesteryear is gone. Only one person in your league can have Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer or Corey Kluber, but if you don’t lock up at least one reliable, legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter to anchor your staff, you could struggle in the pitching categories all season. I’m still taking the likes of Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Paul Goldschmidt at the very top of a draft, but pitchers will be on my mind, and my draft board, earlier than ever.
Five Big Questions
1. Who’s No. 5?
There is an industry-wide consensus that the top four pitchers are Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. No one who submits their rankings has any of those players outside the top four at the position, present company excluded. Rankers may differ on the order, but almost everyone agrees that those are the four best pitchers in fantasy baseball.
That’s where the consensus ends. There are a handful of possibilities at No. 5, and Madison Bumgarner holds the spot in the consensus rankings. If I’m looking at a pitcher and the top four are off the board, though, I’m going to Stephen Strasburg. In fact, I’d take Strasburg third among starting pitchers, behind only Scherzer and Kershaw. The Nationals righty made 28 starts and threw 175 innings last year, numbers he hadn’t hit since 2014. The results were glorious. Strasburg finished the season with a 2.52 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 2.72 FIP, 29.1% strikeout rate and 6.7% walk rate. He fanned 204 batters in his 175 1/3 innings, and topped 5.0 fWAR and 6.0 bWAR for the first time in his career.
So, why do I like Strasburg over Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Carlos Carrasco and Jacob deGrom, and even Sale and Kluber? Well, while Strasburg’s health has been dodgy his whole career, his performance, when healthy, has been consistently great. Strasburg may only give you 26 or 28 starts, but you can be sure those starts are going to be ace quality. In nearly 1,100 career innings, Strasburg has a 3.07 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 2.72 FIP and 29% strikeout rate. The lowest strikeout rate of his career was 26.1%, and that was in 2012 when he was coming off Tommy John surgery. That was also the only season of his career in which he had a FIP north of 3.00. He may give you a few injury scares, but he will not give you any concerns about his on-field performance. When Strasburg pitches, he dominates.
Since entering the majors in 2010, Strasburg ranks sixth in ERA, third in WHIP, second in strikeout rate, and third in strikeout rate minus walk rate. Love advanced stats that isolate a pitcher’s performance for what he can control? Pick any of them, and Strasburg was great at it. He’s second in FIP, second in xFIP and third in SIERA since 2010. Kershaw is the only other pitcher in the majors in the top three in all of those over the last eight years.
Worry about Strasburg’s health if you must, but he’s not the one who made just 17 starts last year. That was Bumgarner. He’s not the one who made just seven starts last year. That was Syndergaard. Strasburg is as healthy as he has ever been, and is set for another monster campaign. Perhaps that consensus at the top of the position should add one more player.
2. What do we do about Shohei Ohtani?
The Ohtani question is one of the most vexing to hit the fantasy baseball community in some time. Ohtani’s value will largely depend on where you play your fantasy baseball. Most sites, including Yahoo, are treating Ohtani the pitcher and Ohtani the hitter as two different players. CBS, however, is making him just one player, which comes with a non-zero chance of breaking the game. I strongly prefer the two Ohtanis approach and, since this is a column about the starting pitcher position, we’re going to assume that one while answering this question.
Understand this about Ohtani. There will be an owner in your league, likely one who hasn’t seen him throw a pitch before his spring training debut, who will fall in love with him. Ohtani won’t come cheap, and average draft position will be even more of an abstraction with him than it typically is with every other player. If you want Ohtani, you’re likely going to have to pay for the top end of his realistic range of outcomes. That almost certainly means I’ll be out on him in all my leagues.
Still, that doesn’t fully answer the question. There is no doubt about Ohtani’s ceiling as a pitcher. He is a top-of-the-rotation arm who could realistically be an ace right away in his rookie season. He was electric in five years in the Pacific League in Korea, posting a 2.52 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 624 strikeouts in 534 innings. Ohtani won’t turn 25 until July, and yet he boasts three plus pitches, all of which could be elite in the MLB. Ohtani’s four-seam fastball sits in the high-90s, and regularly breaches 100 mph. He throws a filthy, heavy splitter that dives as it reaches the hitting zone and a slider that is kryptonite for righties. TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) is an acronym for a reason, but there seems to be no doubt with Ohtani. If he stays healthy, he’ll be one of the best MLB starters of the next decade.
The issue here could be workload. Ohtani will unquestionably be a pitcher first for the Angels, but they seem committed to getting him plenty of plate appearances, most likely as a DH. How much are they going to want to tax him in his rookie year? Will he be on pitch counts early in the season? Will that change if they aren’t contending in August? These are answers that are likely impossible to pin down during fantasy draft season. At the outset, it seems foolish to project him for more than 150 innings, and the prospect of a shutdown looms if the Angels fall out of the postseason picture. Ohtani will be great, he’ll be one of the most fun players to draft, and this is fantasy baseball, not life or death. It should be fun. And yet, winning is the goal. Ohtani’s price may understandably outpace his realistic projections in his first season in the majors.
3. Who outside the top 10 in average draft position has the best chance to make the leap?
Aaron Nola woke up on June 22 of last year slated for a start against the Cardinals, his 10th of the season. At that point, what many believed could be a breakout season wasn’t going according to plan. He had a 4.76 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 47 strikeouts against 16 walks in 51 innings. He was at his best that day, however, tossing 7 1/3 innings of one-run, four-hit ball, striking out eight and walking two.
Over the next two months, Nola was one of the best pitchers in the majors. That start against the Cardinals launched a streak of 10 starts in which Nola allowed two or fewer runs over six innings or longer. He had at least seven strikeouts in all but one of the outings, and surrendered one baserunner or fewer per inning six times.
Nola hit a bit of a speed bump at the end of August, but righted the ship in September. He finished the season with a 3.54 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 3.38 xFIP, 1.21 WHIP and 184 strikeouts against 49 walks in 168 innings. Entering his age-25 season, he’s the No. 18 pitcher by FantasyPros consensus ranking, and the No. 17 starter by ADP. That’s a bargain for a pitcher who owns Nola’s ceiling, previous success, repertoire, youth and room for growth. He’s the type of mid-round pitcher who can turn into an SP1 and single-handedly change the complexion of your fantasy rotation.
4. Who are your favorite end-game targets?
Strikeouts are the driver of late-round value at starting pitcher. Not only do they represent a standalone category in most fantasy leagues, they also contribute positively to ERA and WHIP. What’s more, a high strikeout rate is indicative of an ability to dominate and value that has not yet been realized. With that in mind, Dinelson Lamet is at the top of my list of end-game targets.
Lamet made 21 starts as a rookie with the Padres last season, totaling a 4.57 ERA, 4.20 xFIP and 1.24 WHIP. What makes him so attractive, however, is that he fanned 139 batters in 114 1/3 innings. He leans heavily on his four-seamer, which sits at 95.3 mph on average, and his devastating slider, which had a 19% whiff rate last year. Walks and homers were issues for him last year, but he’s not the first rookie to struggle with the two outcomes that kill pitchers. Heading into his age-25 season, there’s reason to believe he can cut back on both of those this year, especially if he can hone the two-seamer and the change.
Lamet rose steadily through the Padres farm system, and he struck out batters at a gaudy rate every step along the way. He spent the entire 2015 season at the Single-A level, whiffing 120 batters in 105 1/3 innings. Lamet spent time at three levels in 2016, finishing the year at Triple-A El Paso, totaling 158 strikeouts in 150 frames. He may be young, and we shouldn’t be locking in anything on a 114-inning sample, but he has always been able to miss bats. That’s enough to make him a high-priority late-round target.
Other starters who fit the bill include Michael Clevinger, Carlos Rodon, Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton (whoever wins the fifth starter job in Houston), Sean Newcomb and Jake Faria.
5. Any good bounceback candidates this season?
Sure, there are plenty, but the one who really jumps out at me is Danny Duffy. I was all-in on Duffy last season after his breakout 2016 campaign, in which he notched a 3.56 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 161 2/3 innings as a starter. I bought in mainly because of two significant changes Duffy made from his previous failings in the rotation, which I detailed in this column. In short, Duffy ditched the windup for the stretch, even with no one on base, and he reduced the number of moving parts in his delivery, starting it from his chest rather than down at his belt. The simplifications paid dividends in 2016.
Unfortunately, that did not carry over to 2017. It’s not that he was bad, but he didn’t take a step forward, and wasn’t quite as consistent as he was the previous season. The result was a fine, and yet equally uninspiring, season. Duffy ended the year with a 3.81 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 1.26 WHIP and 130 strikeouts in 146 1/3 innings. That last number, however, helps explain why Duffy is one of my favorite bounceback candidates for 2018.
Duffy has always had great velocity on his pitches, especially his four-seam fastball. Even when he was bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation, he was living in the mid-90s with his fastball. When the radar gun kept popping up 92s and 93s last year, there was reason for concern. Duffy first hit the DL in late May with an oblique strain that cost him the entire month of June. He returned on the 4th of July and pitched well for most of the month, but things took a turn for him again in August when he labored through four starts, failing to make it to the seventh inning in any of them. After the last one, the Royals placed him on the DL again with a sore elbow.
Duffy returned in September and made three starts with mixed results. Shortly after the season ended, he had surgery to clean out cartilage and bone fragments that lodged behind his elbow. Duffy said in January that he wished he had the surgery done during the season, and indication that it was bothering him for some, if not most, of the year. Duffy will be the rare veteran whose performance matters in spring training. If his velocity is back up and he’s able to throw all his pitches with confidence, he’ll be back in the mix to be a top-25 starting pitcher in all fantasy formats this season.