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Position Primer: Starting Pitcher

Andy Behrens
Yahoo Sports

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More SP analysis: Yahoo! SP ranks | High Fives: Starters | Spin Doctors: Kershaw v. Verlander v. Halladay If you're a veteran fantasy manager — let's say you've been participating in leagues for a decade or more — then you've probably noticed the recent change in baseball's run-scoring environment. Last year, the composite major league ERA dropped below 4.00 for the first time since 1992. Twenty-four different qualifying pitchers finished the 2011 season with an ERA less than 3.25. Just five years earlier, only six starters beat that mark. Whatever your standards for pitching excellence used to be, it might be time to tweak them.

Just to drive home the point, here's a snapshot of MLB league-average performance in three key fantasy ratios from 2000 to 2011:

2011 – 3.94 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.1 K/9
2010 – 4.08 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 7.1 K/9
2009 – 4.32 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 7.0 K/9
2008 – 4.32 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 6.8 K/9
2007 – 4.47 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 6.7 K/9
2006 – 4.53 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 6.6 K/9

2005 – 4.29 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 6.4 K/9
2004 – 4.46 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 6.6 K/9
2003 – 4.40 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 6.4 K/9
2002 – 4.28 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 6.5 K/9
2001 – 4.42 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 6.7 K/9
2000 – 4.77 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 6.5 K/9

Back in the day, when fantasy analysts projected a pitcher to deliver an ERA in the mid-3.00s and a WHIP in the 1.20s, that meant we really thought the guy was going to be a terrific asset. Today if we forecast those rates, it means we think the pitcher in question will be somewhat better than league-average, if something less than an ace.

Of course we need to be careful not to declare that some seismic shift is underway based on a few years of data. Historically, there have certainly been greater year-to-year swings in run-scoring, and it's not as if a 3.94 composite ERA is unusually low. In 1968, for example, the Washington Senators' team ERA of 3.64 was actually the worst in baseball. We should also resist the temptation to identify a single cause for the recent dip in scoring (which, again, could be just a blip). Major League Baseball's drug testing program isn't the only change in the landscape; a few of the game's newer ballparks — hello, Target Field — are rather pitcher-friendly.

But in fantasy, we can't really care too much about why the stats are as they are — maybe the hitters have shrunk, or the parks have expanded, or the defenses have improved. Whatever the reason, you should simply understand that we're coming off back-to-back seasons in which league-wide pitching stats were better than any we've seen in nearly 20 years. In all likelihood, the numbers that earned you a fantasy title in 2007 won't be sufficient in 2012.

Here's a look at the average stats delivered by the top-48 mixed league fantasy starters over the past three seasons:

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

2009, SP1 – 16.6 W, 214.4 K, 2.81 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
2009, SP2 – 13.7 W, 172.4 K, 3.26 ERA, 1.19 WHIP
2009, SP3 – 11.9 W, 140.3 K, 3.53 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
2009, SP4 – 11.1 W, 133.0 K, 3.86 ERA, 1.26 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.)

Relative to other roster spots, this remains a position where a significant percentage of the ownable talent will go undrafted, so you shouldn't have much trouble enhancing your starting staff during the season. If the back end of your fantasy rotation seems incomplete on draft day, that's hardly a reason to panic. You'll find something useful in the free agent pool, if you're attentive. There's rarely a need to make a post-draft trade. We should note, however, that despite the availability of talent off the wire, the top-of-draft starters are still worth their price tags. Last year, with the exception of Josh Johnson (shoulder) and Ubaldo Jimenez (thumb, groin, velocity), the starters selected in the top-75 more or less held their value.

If you've streamed your way to head-to-head championships in prior years — adding and dropping starters each day, piling up wins and Ks — you'll note that the default public league max for weekly acquisitions is set at six, so you'll want to be discerning with your pick-ups. Managing a pitching staff in head-to-head generally requires a different set of priorities. Recall that in public rotisserie leagues, owners have a full-season innings max of 1400, an easily reached total. In that format, you should really care more about strikeout rate than total Ks. You don't want innings-eaters in roto, not unless they're also striking out a batter-per-inning. In head-to-head, you can manage around the K-rate shortcomings of, say, Mark Buehrle or R.A. Dickey. In public roto leagues, however, those names really shouldn't appear on your draft board. But this one should …

Five starters under the microscope …

With Stephen Strasburg's workload capped at 160-or-so innings, how should we treat him on draft day? In standard roto leagues, you should be all over Strasburg. It's not difficult to make a case for him as a first or second-tier starter. Again, the innings cap in Yahoo! rotisserie leagues will be reached by every active manager, so it's perfectly fine to carry a non-workhorse starter (or two). And in roto, the stats compiled by a player in April mean just as much as those delivered in September. Strasburg's career major league K-rate is 11.35 per nine innings; if he maintains that level of performance this season, he'll strike out 200-plus hitters over 160 frames.

But in head-to-head, Strasburg is the sort of pitcher who might carry you to the playoffs, then abandon you in the most critical month. Unless the Nats decide to give Strasburg a mid-season rest — as the Padres did with Mat Latos in 2010 — then he'll likely burn through his innings allotment before the final weeks, when your head-to-head title is decided. Sure, you can try to flip Strasburg when he reaches 100-120 frames — perhaps to a desperate team battling for the final playoff spot — but it's not like you'll be able to find an owner who isn't aware of his cap.

The bottom line with Strasburg is that he's a much safer investment in roto, a format where we don't really care when our stats arrive. In head-to-head, Strasburg gets a multi-round downgrade.

Sticking with the Tommy John recovery theme, what's the scoop with Adam Wainwright? The next dose of bad news on Wainwright will be the first. He's a year removed from elbow surgery, scheduled to draw an exhibition start at the end of the week. Clearly we'll need to monitor Wainwright's spring performance and his radar readings, but this recovery seems uncommonly clean. This is a player who'd emerged as a first-tier starter prior to the injury, delivering consecutive 200-K seasons with sub-2.70 ERAs. Take the injury discount this year — Wainwright's Yahoo! ADP is 109.3 — and enjoy the likely profit.

What's the forecast for Yu Darvish in his rookie campaign? We've actually filed that report already, back in January, and nothing we've heard so far this spring has diminished our enthusiasm. Darvish posted sub-2.00 ERAs in Japan for five straight years before making the jump to the big leagues, with sub-0.90 WHIPs in four of those seasons. He was a more aggressive pitcher in 2011, plus he added strength, preparing for the upgrade in quality-of-competition. Darvish's arsenal includes multiple plus-pitches, he's hit 96 on the gun this spring. There are no run support issues in Texas, either. Three members of the Yahoo! fantasy team have ranked him as a top-20 starter … and remember, Pianowski never befriends the new kids at school. Darvish has ace upside, but the price is reasonable (ADP 83.0).

Care to explain why Edinson Volquez isn't in the bottom tier? Or why he's even listed here at all? Yeah, he was basically a train wreck last season, posting a 5.71 ERA and 1.57 WHIP. The first inning was usually the roughest for Volquez last year, as he allowed at least one first-frame run in nine of his 20 starts. But there are definitely reasons to feel at least moderately optimistic about the right-hander this year. Here's the pro-Volquez spin, from the man himself:

"I did it in 2008," said Volquez. "Finally, I have everything together again. I can do it. The mind is a factor. I feel good and I think I am in the right place."

There's a history of success here (although it was back in '08), and Volquez will be pitching in Petco this season, one of the friendliest possible environments. As a low-risk, final-round starter, this is a perfectly reasonable choice.

Speaking of players who were thrown in the inappropriate tier, what's with the Brett Myers placement? Simple: Myers is handling closing duties for Houston this season, and he has SP-eligibility. That's a huge detail, because it allows you to squeeze an extra relief pitcher into your daily lineup — there are never enough RP/P spots in leagues that track both saves and holds. In real-life, the Astros' decision to slide Myers to the bullpen is plenty questionable — this is a bad team converting a 200-inning pitcher into a 70-inning guy. But the move really clears up a messy situation for fantasy owners, so for that we should all be grateful. Even the bottom-dwelling franchises can deliver useful fantasy closers; don't dismiss Myers simply because his team is slightly win-challenged.

Starting Pitcher – Tiers
Clayton Kershaw; Justin Verlander; Roy Halladay; Cliff Lee; Tim Lincecum


Felix Hernandez; Cole Hamels; CC Sabathia; Jered Weaver; Zack Greinke; Dan Haren; David Price


Matt Cain; Yovani Gallardo; Stephen Strasburg; Jon Lester; Ian Kennedy; Madison Bumgarner; C.J. Wilson; Yu Darvish; James Shields; Adam Wainwright


Tommy Hanson; Josh Johnson; Daniel Hudson; Matt Garza; Mat Latos; Matt Moore; Ricky Romero; Michael Pineda; Gio Gonzalez; Brandon Beachy; Josh Beckett; Jordan Zimmermann; Cory Luebke; Chris Carpenter; Brandon Morrow; Shaun Marcum; Ubaldo Jimenez; Ervin Santana; Anibal Sanchez; Brett Myers


Jaime Garcia; Hiroki Kuroda; Johnny Cueto; Jeremy Hellickson; Max Scherzer; Ryan Dempster; Tim Hudson; Jhoulys Chacin; Derek Holland; Doug Fister; Bud Norris; Wandy Rodriguez; Justin Masterson; Ted Lilly; Brandon McCarthy; Edinson Volquez; Clay Buchholz; Jair Jurrjens; Alexi Ogando; Colby Lewis; John Danks; Scott Baker; Tim Stauffer; Roy Oswalt; Johan Santana; Trevor Cahill; Chad Billingsley; Edwin Jackson; Gavin Floyd


Henderson Alvarez; Francisco Liriano; Vance Worley; Mike Minor; Erik Bedard; Jonathon Niese; Ricky Nolasco; Carlos Zambrano; A.J. Burnett; R.A. Dickey; Ryan Vogelsong; Jonathan Sanchez; Phil Hughes; Mark Buehrle; Shelby Miller; Julio Teheran; Luke Hochevar; Chris Capuano; Jeff Niemann; Drew Pomeranz; Mike Leake; Homer Bailey; Brad Peacock; Hisashi Iwakuma; Jarrod Parker; Josh Collmenter; Jake Peavy; Ivan Nova; Felipe Paulino; Rick Porcello; Randy Wolf; Matt Harrison; Brett Cecil; Dallas Braden; James McDonald; Kyle Lohse; Bartolo Colon; Brett Anderson; Jacob Turner; Randall Delgado; Zach Britton; Kyle Drabek; Manny Banuelos; Tyler Skaggs; Trevor Bauer

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