This position is really unique in the fantasy world, in that it's the one roster spot where the expert community won't even pretend that we can predict future performance with great accuracy. Instead, we simply tell you to spend fewer auction dollars on pitchers than you spend on hitters, and to draft pitchers in the middle or late rounds. Because we don't really know what any of them are going to do. It's humbling, to say the least.*
Of course the pitching categories account for half of the total scoring in standard leagues, so if you knew nothing else about the position, you might assume that a 50/50 spending split on hitters and pitchers would be the norm. And if you also knew that there were fewer roster spots reserved for pitchers, you might reasonably assume that elite starters – the players who give you the most innings, the best ratios, the most Ks – would be the most expensive commodities at the draft table.
But they aren't, for a variety of reasons. As suggested above, forecasting is generally less reliable where pitchers are concerned. Many of the starting pitchers we project as assets for the upcoming season will, in fact, be severe liabilities – think Liriano, Kazmir, Dice-K and E. Santana in '09 – and a significant percentage of ownable pitching talent will go undrafted in your league. Also, there's no such thing as a five-category starting pitcher. The top-tier batters will contribute in every hitting category; the top-tier starters will be useful in only four.
It's worth noting, however, that truly elite starters – guys who've delivered upper-tier value over multiple seasons – are a more reliable, projectable subset. There's a strong argument for bidding aggressively on Halladay, Lincecum and Sabathia, then sketching in the rest of your fantasy rotation with late, high-ceiling options.
In the end, when we attempt to account for all of the limitations, uncertainty and injury risk at this position, experts typically suggest that you plan for something like a 70/30 auction spending split in favor of hitters. (Again, that assumes you're playing in a format that's more or less standard. Different league specs can lead to different recommendations). While I'd love to reject that particular piece of fantasy dogma – or any other piece of fantasy dogma – in practice, I'll likely never construct a roster where more than 30-35 percent of my budget will be allocated to pitching. In drafts, I'll rarely take more than two pitchers within the first ten rounds. There's just too much opportunity in the middle tiers.
Last year five of the top 10 fantasy starters (according to year-end Yahoo! rank) were considered (by me) to be third or fourth-tier starters during the preseason. Zack Greinke(notes) was taken in Round 8 of the Yahoo! Friends & Family draft. Adam Wainwright(notes) was selected in Round 9. Justin Verlander(notes) went in Round 11. Chris Carpenter(notes) was taken in Round 16. The middle of the draft was an absolute goldmine.
Perhaps the most important thing to recognize about this position is how little we really know entering the season. It's the one spot where you can legitimately expect to find several of the year's most valuable fantasy assets at outrageously low prices.
* Full disclosure: If my editors knew the details of Ramon Ortiz(notes) Draft Debacle of 2003, they wouldn't let me anywhere near the pitching primer. It's tough to overstate the absurdity of my involvement with this feature. Just throwin' that out there before my AL-only league-mates have the chance …
Position averages, top 60 starting pitchers based on year-end Yahoo! rank
2009 SP1 – 16.6 W, 0.0 SV, 214.4 K, 2.81 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
2009 SP2 – 13.7 W, 0.0 SV, 172.4 K, 3.26 ERA, 1.19 WHIP
2009 SP3 – 11.9 W, 0.3 SV, 140.3 K, 3.53 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
2009 SP4 – 11.1 W, 0.0 SV, 133.0 K, 3.86 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
2009 SP5 – 11.2 W, 0.0 SV, 155.0 K, 4.11 ERA, 1.33 WHIPv
2008 SP1 – 16.5 W, 0.0 SV, 196.7 K, 2.83 ERA, 1.12 WHIP
2008 SP2 – 14.4 W, 0.0 SV, 166.3 K, 3.25 ERA, 1.21 WHIP
2008 SP3 – 11.9 W, 0.0 SV, 133.7 K, 3.53 ERA, 1.21 WHIP
2008 SP4 – 12.2 W, 0.0 SV, 135.5 K, 3.81 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
2008 SP5 – 10.9 W, 0.0 SV, 130.0 K, 3.91 ERA, 1.30 WHIP
|Five Starters I Love|
|1. Josh Johnson – K rate on the rise, BB rate falling, GB rate increasing and he's only 26 – he's a fairly cheap roto ace option.||1. Johan Santana – Based on where I've seen him ranked and mocked, it appears there's a nice post-surgery discount here. Don't sweat the spring numbers.||1. Roy Halladay – Location, location, location. Swapping the AL East for the NL East sets him up for a career year, and the ADP isn't silly yet.|
|2. Clayton Kershaw – League hit at the Mendoza Line against him as a 21-year-old – he's got maxed-out video game stuff.||2. Kevin Slowey – So far so good this spring, as he recovers from the wrist injury. The K-rate works and Slowey never issues walks.||2. Ubaldo Jimenez – Three plus pitches, heavy ground-ball rate, the humidor; finally, a Colorado pitcher you can grab with confidence.|
|3. Cole Hamels – Dealt with some loss of luck and confidence in '09, which just means you'll be getting a 26-year-old ace at a bargain price.||3. Brett Anderson – As useful as he was in '09, peripherals suggest he may have been a little unlucky. May well improve in 2010, not regress.||3. Ricky Nolasco – Unlucky early in 2009, but flashed his dominance out the door (16 whiffs at Atlanta). He won't be cheap in our world, but he might be in yours.|
|4. Ubaldo Jimenez – Power/ground-heavy repetoire so ideally suited for Coors that he's actually got better career home splits than on the road.||4. Max Scherzer – He has heterochromia, which means he can cast spells and talk to snakes! Also has an outstanding K-rate.||4. Roy Oswalt – You don't have to love him, just take him when the rest of your group keeps passing. Welcome to the Ibanez All-Stars.|
|5. Justin Masterson – What you look for in a late-round flier – strikeout pitcher, tons of grounders, big frame, adequate MLB seasoning … and no longer in the AL East!||5. Dan Haren, before the break – He's an absolute ace before the All-Star break (3.08 career ERA, 1.06 WHIP), but then a funny thing happens …||5. Jon Garland(notes) – Forget him if your league has an innings cap, but in very deep groups, this is an ideal last-round pick. Petco, where fly balls go to die.|
|Five Starters I Hate|
|1. Dan Haren – You can't really have your fantasy ace dumping you when you need him most (4-plus ERA post-break for four straight years).||1. Dan Haren, after the break – He turns into an ordinary pitcher in the second half, every year (4.21, 1.32). You need to shop him in June.||1. Javier Vazquez – Doc Halladay in reverse, this regression call is too easy.|
|2. Cliff Lee – If I'm spending a top 60 pick (55.3 ADP), I'm gonna need to feel much better about the K's … not to mention the 272 IP he threw in '09.||2. Jair Jurrjens – FIP was more than a run higher than his ERA in '09, he won't pile up Ks, and he's battled shoulder issues in spring.||2. Josh Beckett – The division does him no favors, and his career ERA at Fenway is 4.47.|
|3. Jake Peavy – The NL to AL route is not ideal, especially when you go from an extreme pitcher park to a veritable launching pad.||3. Roy Oswalt – Drafters like the brand name, but there's nothing special about Oswalt's ratios and Ks anymore.||3. Scott Baker – Industry keeps betting on the come, I want to see returns first. On the plus side, the gloves are better at second and short.|
|4. Scott Baker – Never have loved his profile: Extreme fly-ball stuff with good, but not great, K rate||4. Aaron Harang – He's been sketchy for two straight seasons and seems likely to be dealt. He'll be a ratio-killer in mixed leagues.||4. Jake Peavy – It's always been a case of the Two Jakes – his ERA climbs over a run outside of Petco. Good luck on the South Side of Chicago.|
|5. A.J. Burnett – Nasty stuff, but control is a big problem and, after two healthy seasons, it's pushing your luck to hope for a third.||5. Joel Pineiro – There are no Ks here. You can't own guys like this in leagues with innings limits.||5. John Lackey – Slight leakage in each of the last two seasons, now he goes to the best hitting environment in the AL. Lackey is just a No. 3-4 for roto purposes.|
|Top 5 Starter Prospects|
|1. Stephen Strasburg – If you need some background on him, you can get 1,660,000 options by typing his name in a Yahoo! search box.||1. Stephen Strasburg – Perhaps you've heard of him. He could legitimately have a Hanson-in-'09 sort of impact.||1. Stephen Strasburg – If he faces Matt Wieters(notes) during interleague play, the web will explode.|
|2. Brian Matusz – Started his first pro season in Single-A and ended it victoriously on the hill at Yankee Stadium.||2. Brian Matusz – The lefty was plenty impressive over his final five starts for O's in 2009: 4-0, 31.1 IP, 25 Ks, 6 BB.||2. Brian Matusz – Fast-rising lefty brings four excellent pitches to the table. In a non-keeper league, this is the best kid to gamble on.|
|3. Jeremy Hellickson(notes) – After holding Triple-A hitters to a .157 BAA in 57 IP, Hellboy is rady to take his show to The Show.||3. Aroldis Chapman – We know the fastball is of the highest quality. His control and his secondary pitches are the keys to his '09 value.||3. Wade Davis – Showed his stuff with a decent late-season trial. Division does him no favors but he has the stuff to survive.|
|4.Madison Bumgarner – His ERA has yet to reach 2.00 in any of his four professional stops.||4. Wade Davis – The 10 K win over Baltimore on Sept. 17 basically won me a league. I am forever in Davis' debt.||4. Jeremy Hellickson – Tampa's depth at this position is obscene.|
|5. Neftali Feliz(notes) – With consistent upper 90's fastball, his emerging changeup could make him a hitter's worst nightmare.||5. Daniel Hudson – Expected to begin the season in the minors, but don't forget him. Hudson was great at three levels in '09 (10.1 K/9, 2.32 ERA).||5. Aroldis Chapman – Radar-gun stories are nice, but I'll wait until the post-hype buying opportunity comes in a year or two.|