Pitching by the Numbers: Tier review

Michael Salfino
Yahoo SportsMarch 3, 2014

Every week, we essentially rank by telling you who is over and underachieving in fantasy based on the more predictable stats that usually are the foundation of fantasy performance.

Winning pitching is the key to fantasy baseball. It’s the best way to make a profit on draft day. We all know who the good hitters are, so there is a convergence of opinion and thus price on them. You just have to accept that you’re going to have to pay retail for hitters. But with the exception of most of the top tier, there is significant divergence of opinion on pitchers, even among top fantasy baseball players. So me being right about the pitchers I like offers a profit potential that often is the difference between winning and losing.

With that in mind, here are pitcher rankings for your drafts, as you have made your demands clear for a rankings of sort, especially via Twitter (@michaelsalfino). But I hate numerical rankings. Nine times out of 10, choosing between the 19th and 20th starter is meaningless. The exception is when they are separated by a tier. These tiers are what’s important. Consider these players loosely grouped within a tier. The idea is to wait as long as you can to get the last guy in a tier. You never want to be the guy who picks the first one.

I’m mainly considering last year’s performance in strikeouts minus walks per inning pitched and isolated slugging allowed (slugging average minus batting average with anything .130 or under being good). But the former is weighted three-times more than the latter. That’s the “index” number you see here. But then I adjusted more subjectively for sample size, age, prior performance, expected future performance, etc. I almost never consider wins. Team environment is important of course. But even if you can project them (you can’t), it’s just one of the four categories we care about with starting pitching and the other three are more closely related.

One pitcher is in a tier of his own and should be the first hurler off the board in every draft.

[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

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This next group is more tightly grouped and is ordered not by where I would draft them but by their performance in our two key stats last year. NOTE: I’m not saying you should draft them in this order. If I had to, I’d take Yu Darvish but I never have to, so why not wait and get Chris Sale or really wait and get Anibal Sanchez?

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Basically we all like these first-tier guys, but few would lump them together and there’s your advantage. Again, take the last one, or two of the last one. Or just wait and get three of these second-tier guys:

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You had to have 50 innings pitched last year to get the stats necessary to chart in this model, while also getting most of your games as a starter. But Masahiro Tanaka would be in this group and I think he has Tier 1 upside (we did a whole column on him). Burnett could be first tier given how well he pitched in 2012, too. But there is a lot of disappointment in his history, no doubt. Is he a fundamentally different pitcher now (extreme ground ball)? I believe he is. But you can keep the Burnett pick in your pocket for a long, long time.

Salazar is someone that everyone is sort of loving but really not willing to pay the price. This is where home leagues are tougher than expert leagues. The experts don’t want to be seen as the chump who reaches even if they love the player. But civilians, for lack of a better word, are just taking the guys they like the most when they pick. Under those rules, I can’t tell you where I’d take Salazar (number one in our K-BB/IP stat). Seventh round? I’m not going to criticize that. But but try to wait until the 10th and then pounce.

Masterson is another guy who slides almost everywhere. The expert community is being dragged kicking and screaming to the Masterson table. But not me. I can’t even remember what I thought yesterday about a guy. I only care about tomorrow.

Verlander is controversial. He’s a first-tier guy pretty much for everyone. I’m not going to argue with you if you put him there and draft him more highly. He’s a Hall of Fame talent. But he’s lost some velocity and is getting right at the age (31) where most of the big-time power pitchers have to start transitioning a little into being more finesse-y. That walk total may be the first sign of the transition. He also had an injury-plagued offseason. I want to rank Verlander just low enough not to get him, though I do respect that he can still beat me.

Yeah, I would take Bailey over Price but the point, again, I cannot emphasize this enough, is that no one will make me.

On to Tier 3:

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Tyson Ross didn’t qualify because of the percentage of games needed as a starter. He pitched much better as a starter though, especially when it comes to K/9. Let’s put him in this Tier 3, though I’m very tempted to put him in Tier 2. You have my permission to reach for Ross.

DRAFT RULES: The guys we rank lower than the market we just don’t get. The ones we agree with the market on are not worth drafting because we have to pay a market price. But the ones where we diverge the most from the market, well, that's the sweet spot.

So, Kluber, Kazmir, Lynn, Corbin, Ryu and Cashner are the gets here. Look at their ADPs. Try to get them a round earlier just to be safe. How much is a staff of Salazar, Masterson, Kazmir, Ryu, Cashner and Kluber going to cost you? Or whoever the two cheapest in tier two and four cheapest in tier three are? I see no dogs and a lot of upside and next to nothing in cost. You can draft hitters and closers (just high-K, please) until you’re sick of them and get that staff.

I put Cashner in there because I like him so much. I think he’s the poor man’s Verlander, meaning that the Ks are likely to catch up to the stuff. Even if I’m wrong, he doesn’t give up loud hits and is in a great park. So the averages will be very good to great.

We will proceed to Tier 4 even though you shouldn’t have to go down this far:

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I guess I’m way lower than the market on Zimmermann. I can’t see much K upside there, though I guess you can say that his Ks can catch up to his stuff like I think will happen with Cashner. The difference is we have a lot of starting data with Zimmermann and it hasn’t happened. Cashner’s starting career is just starting (forget the ages). Plus, look where I can get Cashner versus where Zimmermann goes. Cheaper is always better if the pitchers are more or less the same.

I love Cueto but I have no idea what to make of his motion/abdominal issues.

Cain? The isolated slugging was terrible last year and below average in 2012, too. Yeah I can be really wrong about him and his ERA can go back down into the low 3.00s but he’s not likely to be much better than average in K/9. And I can’t stand Cain’s 28.6% slider rate last year (13 points over his career rate), especially at age 29 with all those innings/miles. I’ll pass on him without concern.

Dickey doesn’t deserve to be here based on last year’s numbers but he was hurt and if he can throw his knuckler with the velocity he had late in 2013, he’ll be an asset. Definitely make him a reserve pick.

Finally, Tier 5 (and 6):

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No, I’m not saying Ricky Nolasco is better than Matt Moore. I’m saying I don’t want Moore. Let Moore prove it before you pay. He’s a fantasy baseball bubble right now. All these guys are interesting/streamable. I really like Santiago, for example. But I don’t trust big names like Wilson, Kuroda, Santana, Weaver, Sabathia and Moore in shallow formats unless they are picked very late.

I threw Slowey on there like Nolasco as a guy who just may be an outlier in grading well without the pitching results. I have a soft spot for Parker, who I still think can develop into a Tier 2 pitcher, and I like Ramirez even though he lost velocity and was hurt last year. At least put those guys on your watch list.