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Fantasy Baseball 2013: Starting Pitcher Primer

Andy Behrens
Roto Arcade

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Kris Medlen, dealing (Getty Images)

If your fantasy pitching staff seems unfinished at the conclusion of your draft, don't panic.

In nearly all leagues, a significant percentage of ownable pitching talent will go un-drafted. This is true for both starters and relievers. Every pitching category can be addressed in-season if you play in a standard fantasy format.

Last year, during the second half of the season, there was no more valuable pitcher in our game than Kris Medlen. He went 9-0 after the break, striking out 95 batters in 95.1 innings, walking just 14. His second-half fantasy ratios were straight from the Dead Ball era: 0.94 ERA, 0.82 WHIP. But in most leagues, Medlen wasn't added until early-August.

RA Dickey actually finished as the top-ranked fantasy starter last year in terms of full-season value, and he was still available in a majority of Yahoo! leagues as late as May 23, following an 11-K win at Pittsburgh. Dickey went un-drafted in the Friends & Family League in 2012, so it's not as if the experts were all over him.

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Here's a partial list of pitchers who were selected outside the top-280 picks in last year's F&F draft, or who weren't taken at all: Medlen (No. 296), Lance Lynn (312), Jonathon Niese (316), Johnny Cueto (281), Hiroki Kuroda (306), Jake Peavy (294), Kyle Lohse (ND), Wade Miley (ND), AJ Burnett (ND), Ryan Vogelsong (ND), Matt Harrison (ND). Each of those guys ultimately finished among the top-35 fantasy starters in the year-end ranks.

So basically, as long as you're an active owner, you'll find that it won't bee too difficult to upgrade your fake rotation. That's not to say that we encourage you to ignore the elite SP options, of course. But you shouldn't freak if you whiff on these guys...

After the Big Three are off the board at this spot (Verlander, Kershaw and Strasburg), who's next up in your queue?

Dalton - Give me Cliff Lee. His 7.39 K/BB ratio last year led all of baseball by a wide margin, and he's one season removed from striking out 238 batters with a 2.40 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. He also had a crazy 109:8 K/BB ratio after the all-star break last season, with a 2.45 ERA.

Andy - For me, it's David Price. He's given us three straight seasons with 200-plus innings, excellent K-rates, and solid fantasy ratios. The secondary stats here are stable, so I'm not at all worried about a crash in value. His velocity has actually improved over the past three years. He's pitching for a clear contender, too.

Scott - I've got Cole Hamels as my clear No. 4 arm, though you can wait before you take the plunge. Verlander went 1.12 in my keeper league draft this past weekend, 13 picks ahead of Hamels at 3.01. There was an 18-pick gap between Hamels and the Big Three in the Yahoo! Friends & Family Draft. Take the discount, gamers.

Generally speaking, what's your draft-day approach to starting pitchers? In which round(s) are you looking to address the position? Does your strategy change from roto to head-to-head? How 'bout in a roto league without an innings cap? (OK, I realize there are actually four questions here. Long answers are encouraged...)

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Stephen Strasburg (Getty Images)

Brandon - Unless it's Clayton Kershaw in the second round, I'm not looking at starting pitchers, generally, for the first five. I think the template I used for the recent Friends and Family draft, where I drafted my first three starters between rounds 7-10, is where I like to start loading up on the front-end of my rotation. After that, it's usual draft dynamics that determine where I'll pick up my next 2-3 starters — meaning, I have guys I like, and if they fall into what I think is "great value" range, I'll grab them. And you can always count on pitching bargains late. As for IP capped leagues, obviously the more ratio efficient, higher K/9 guys take precedent.

Scott - I want National League pitchers whenever possible, and I use MLB team strength as a tie-breaker between similar arms. Wins are fluky, sure, but they're not 100 percent fluky. I want a decent support cast when I can get it. I'm always going to focus on offense first as a draft kicks off, but I'd like to get at least one top-10 arm, and maybe three of the top-20. It's an inexact science, but I try to get a sense of which reliable arms I might like more than the average bear. This year, it's been guys like Jordan Zimmermann, Cole Hamels and Kris Medlen.

Dalton - If Stephen Strasburg fell to the late first/early second, I'd grab him. But other than that, I'm waiting until rounds 4-6 to address SPs. Not only do pitchers typically have a wider variance of outcomes, but the same could be said about how drafters view them (much more volatile than hitters). For instance, I don't see a big difference between the No. 7 and the No. 20 starting pitcher on my board, so I'll let the draft (or auction) room dictate whom I target in that tier. As for different formats, I'd definitely punt saves in H2H leagues, but I wouldn't approach starting pitching differently. In formats with an innings cap, K-rate matters far more. Guys like Tim Hudson carry plenty of value in weekly leagues, but with an innings cap, he's borderline useless — in fact, if he's also unlucky with wins, he could actually have negative value, even with a strong ERA and WHIP.

If you had to construct a four-man fantasy rotation only featuring starters with ADPs of 150 or greater, what would it look like? Please share a few thoughts on your favorite late-round SP...

Andy - As of this writing, I'd have to go with Anibal Sanchez (148.2), Homer Bailey (179.6), Alex Cobb (253.0!) and Jarrod Parker (163.4). Cobb is just a ridiculous value — he had a terrific second-half in 2012, and he's been dominant in spring training. And let's give an honorable mention to Julio Teheran (245.7), who's also been a monster during the exhibition season.

Brandon - Ah, man, Matt Harvey (No. 149 ADP) doesn't count? Alrighty then, give me Mike Minor, Jarrod Parker, Marco Estrada and Jonathon Niese. Estrada and Parker are two players I'd target, in particular. Estrada was top 7 in K/BB ratio among starters in the second-half of last year, and top 18 in K/9. As for Parker, he had a strong rookie season, and he's in an organization that has a strong track record of mining immediate success from its young arms, especially those with the kind of pedigree Parker brings to the table.

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Scott - If you rank all pitchers for their road-only games in 2012, Homer Bailey (179 ADP) comes out No. 1. Obviously he still has to deal with his tricky home park going forward, but I see a talented arm that's finally putting things together into his age-27 season. Ryan Vogelsong (175) is the poor man's Adam Wainwright; he spots his fastball early in the count, has a dynamite off-speed pitch, competes his tail off. The big park is much appreciated, too. Mike Minor (165) might be too trendy at his current cost, but his second-half breakthrough is hard to ignore. I still feel Trevor Cahill (205) has another level to climb - his strikeout rate has jumped in two straight years, he has decent control, and his ground-ball rate pushed over 61 percent last year.

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(Note: If Aroldis Chapman had SP eligibility, you'd find him above in Tier Three)

Last year, 25 starting pitchers finished the season as top-100 fantasy assets — from RA Dickey (No. 4 overall) down to Max Scherzer (93). Of those 25 starters, who's least likely to repeat as a top-100 player?

Dalton - Kyle Lohse, especially if he ends up signing with an American League team. My second choice would be Wade Miley.

Andy - Kyle Lohse is the easy answer here, because he doesn't even have a team at the moment. If he ends up pitching in Texas, the ratios could get ordinary in a big hurry. Zack Greinke is clearly a risky play as well, since he's already dealing with elbow issues

Brandon - Definitely not counting on Kyle Lohse as a top-100 repeater. Same goes for Arizona's Wade Miley. And among the more buzzy arms, Scherzer, who barely made it in last year, is someone I wouldn't bet on for top-100. Though he held it together nicely in the second half in 2012, he's got a history of being erratic. His nasty repertoire can be hard to handle, as his 4.17 pitches-per-plate-appearance indicates (most among starters in '12). That said, I'll admit he's also got top-10 starter upside.

It's easy to say that Kris Medlen's 2012 numbers aren't repeatable. But he can regress a fair amount, yet still deliver a useful fantasy line. What's a reasonable expectation for Medlen in the season ahead?

Scott - I already have Medlen on a couple of teams, so I guess I'm on the bus. Pianow Projection: 14 wins, 202 IP, 175 K, 3.11 ERA, 1.13 WHIP.

Dalton - Anyone who posts a 1.57 ERA is going to have some peripherals that look lucky, but Medlen's 23.1 K%, 4.4 BB% and 53.4 GB% suggests he's 100% legit. Accounting for some regression, I'll predict an ERA in the low 3s, a WHIP around 1.17 and another strong K/BB ratio.

Andy - Medlen's strikeout-to-walk ratio was stellar last season (5.22), and his 2.42 FIP suggests that he wasn't some fluke. Put me down for 195.0 innings and 168 Ks, with an ERA of 2.90 and a WHIP of 1.17. I've ranked him No. 12 among all starters, so I'm obviously bullish.

Lester or Lincecum? Who ya got?

Scott - Lincecum still fanned 190 in his terrible year, and we saw electricity during his playoff relief work. Give me the big park and the NL environment. Maybe the short hair will agree with him.

Brandon - Neither pitcher benefited from much luck last year, although Lester didn't endure the big velocity drop that Lincecum did. I had them pretty close coming into the spring, and the fact that Lester has been one of the top pitchers in training camp and Lincecum has been of the worst is enough to put me firmly in Lester's camp on this one. There's a decent chance, the way things are going right now, that Lincecum ends up in the bullpen before the season is over.

Andy - To be perfectly honest, I haven't actually drafted either guy just yet (although I briefly chased Lincecum in a recent auction). I've got Timmy one spot ahead of Lester at the moment, but I'd take either at the right price. Since these guys are relatively close, I'll have to give the edge to the N.L. starter with a pair of Cy Youngs on his resume. Even in a miserable year, Lincecum still managed 190 Ks.

OK, gimme your top-12 starters if you were drafting a dynasty league from scratch...

Brandon - 1) Clayton Kershaw, 2) Stephen Strasburg, 3) David Price, 4) Felix Hernandez, 5) Justin Verlander, 6) Cole Hamels, 7) Madison Bumgarner, 8) Yu Darvish, 9) Gio Gonzalez, 10) Chris Sale, 11) Matt Cain, 12) Max Scherzer.

Dalton - 1) Stephen Strasburg, 2) Clayton Kershaw, 3) David Price, 4) Justin Verlander, 5) Felix Hernandez, 6) Cole Hamels, 7) Yu Darvish, 8) Matt Moore, 9) Matt Cain, 10) Madison Bumgarner, 11) Aroldis Chapman, 12) Kris Medlen.

Scott - I'm mostly a play-for-today guy with keeper and dynasty leagues, so I don't jumble things up too much. Kershaw, Strasburg, Verlander, Hamels, Bumgarner, Price, Cain, Latos, Beachy, Harvey, Medlen, Wainwright, Wheeler. Wait, that's 13. And yes, I'm worried about Felix Hernandez going forward.

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Who's the one pitcher you just couldn't quit, fantasy-wise? Rich Harden? Daniel Cabrera? Mark Prior? Give us a name, guru.

Brandon - I recall Hideo Nomo being a pitcher I typically couldn't help myself from drafting at some point. I chased those strikeouts and got stuck with a lot ERAs in the mid-to-upper 4s.

Scott - I had some good times with Chris Carpenter and I had some downright ugly times. The day I switched to Wainwright was a happy day.

Andy - Boof Bonser has re-surfaced at Triple-A Fresno, so that's a problem for me. If he gets the call, I'm not sure I'll be able to avoid him. Boof is one of those odd cases where I've apparently witnessed every great game he's ever pitched (like this one, for example), and I've missed the worst of the clunkers — not easy to do, since he's had a career loaded with five-inning, five-run clunkers. (Or so I've been told).

Dalton - I've actually been a sucker for all three of these at some point, but without question, it's Mark Prior. After watching him in person throw a complete game shutout against UCLA, with a 14:0 K/BB ratio, I was convinced he was going to be the best pitcher ever. Heck, if there was one positive report on his health tomorrow, I'd still probably use a top waiver priority on him. It's not too late!

(Ed. note: Not only is Prior back, but he finds himself again in the caring, capable hands of Dusty Baker. Feel-good story of the season. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, that's what).

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Position averages for the top-48 fantasy SPs, last three years

2012, SP1 – 17.2 W, 189.8 K, 2.73 ERA, 1.07 WHIP
2012, SP2 – 13.6 W, 190.1 K, 3.30 ERA, 1.15 WHIP
2012, SP3 – 13.7 W, 162.8 K, 3.45 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
2012, SP4 – 11.7 W, 133.3 K, 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP

2011, SP1 – 17.5 W, 212.3 K, 2.69 ERA, 1.04 WHIP
2011, SP2 – 13.5 W, 177.3 K, 3.06 ERA, 1.17 WHIP
2011, SP3 – 12.2 W, 155.3 K, 3.36 ERA, 1.17 WHIP
2011, SP3 – 10.9 W, 143.2 K, 3.30 ERA, 1.20 WHIP

2010, SP1 – 16.3 W, 206.2 K, 2.78 ERA, 1.10 WHIP
2010, SP2 – 14.8 W, 177.9 K, 3.04 ERA, 1.18 WHIP
2010, SP3 – 12.4 W, 153.5 K, 3.31 ERA, 1.19 WHIP
2010, SP3 – 13.4 W, 165.6 K, 3.76 ERA, 1.25 WHIP

(Note: In keeping with primer tradition, “SP1” represents the performance of the 12 highest-ranked starters. The pitchers who ranked 13-24 are the SP2s, 25-36 are the SP3s, etc.)

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