Fantasy Baseball Position Primer: Starting Pitcher

Right here at the top, I feel compelled to direct you to Michael Salfino's Yahoo archive. Mike has basically been writing an extended Starting Pitcher Position Primer for the past 4-5 weeks in "Pitching by the Numbers." His series is loaded with useful data and strong opinions. If you're looking for deep-digging research, it's recommended reading. You might not agree at all times (or ever), but you'll be forced to think.

The first and most important thing to know about your starting fantasy rotation is that it's OK to leave it unfinished on draft day — in fact, you should probably plan to do so. Don't feel that you're making a firm, season-long commitment to whoever you land as your fourth and fifth starters. Plenty of useful arms will emerge from the free agent pool. Every year, a substantial percentage of our game's ownable pitching talent goes undrafted.

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

You might recall, for example, that Jose Fernandez was available in an overwhelming majority of Yahoo leagues last season, days ahead of his MLB debut. Fernandez ultimately ranked as a top-five fantasy pitcher and a top-15 player overall. And a formidable badass — just look at this wickedness.

Other names that were almost certainly added in-season in your league include Danny Salazar, Gerrit Cole, Bartolo Colon, Patrick Corbin, Travis Wood, Francisco Liriano, Tony Cingrani, Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Michael Wacha, Chris Archer, Ubaldo Jimenez and Corey Kluber. All of these guys proved useful in mixers; all were available for free.

If you manage aggressively throughout the season in leagues of standard size and shape, you'll have no trouble enhancing your fantasy team's rotation. This is an old fantasy principle that remains unchanged.

However, we're not saying that you can simply ignore the pitching cat's at the top of a draft. You won't find any Clayton Kershaws on the wire. (As our friend Jeff Erickson has written, Kershaw threatens to break whatever valuation system you're using.) High-end starting pitchers aren't exactly poor investments. If you'll take a look at last year's preseason SP ranks, you'll notice that most of the upper-tier pitchers held their value, or at least came close enough that you didn't regret the pick. Seven of this season's top-10 starters also ranked among last season's top-10 — and of the three who didn't, two were just outside (Bumgarner at 11, Scherzer at 20).

Thus far in 2014 drafts, I've typically selected one or two luxury starters within the first 5-6 rounds, then Salazar in the middle (pet player), then I've waited until the end-game to sketch in my starting staff. If tickets like Ross, Kluber and Archie Bradley don't cash, fine. Pitching talent will emerge. It always has, always will.

We're pretty good at fantasy forecasting around here — *ahem* — but no one yet has mastered the science of projecting starters. (Salfino is thisclose). Sure, we can look for breakout candidates by examining stats like swinging-strike percentage and K/BB, but that road leads inevitably to Joe Blanton and Ricky Nolasco. DO NOT TAKE THAT ROAD. Instead, get yourself a proven ace or two, then stay active on the wire.

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

2013, SP1 – 14.5 W, 211.8 K, 2.70 ERA, 1.02 WHIP
2013, SP2 – 13.1 W, 163.0 K, 2.95 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
2013, SP3 – 12.0 W, 164.9 K, 3.31 ERA, 1.18 WHIP
2013, SP4 – 11.8 W, 154.0 K, 3.47 ERA, 1.21 WHIP

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