When it comes to pitching in fantasy baseball, I hold two strong, somewhat contrasting beliefs.
1) If you can nail the pitching, you give yourself the best possible leg up to winning your baseball league. Starting pitchers are like running backs in fantasy football; having top-shelf ones is the way you sleep at night. They’re the needle movers. At least some of your early picks should be starting pitchers, a strategy that’s become more and more prevalent in recent seasons, especially in the high-stakes environment.
And yet, we also have to accept this:
2) Pitchers are fickle, erratic; largely unpredictable and often injured. And even in this age of evaluation enlightenment — there’s never been more quality in the fantasy analyst market — there’s still one pesky fact about pitching analysis: No one really knows anything.
Don’t misconstrue that last point. We definitely want to make intelligent guesses — everything in our game is a guess on some level — and the new school will help you get to that reasonable guess. Just appreciate how inexact this all is. And understand you can never really have enough pitching.
Pitching improvement can come at any time, for any number of reasons. Sometimes they’re tangible things, sometimes not. A pitcher might surge with improved mechanics, with a change in rubber position. Maybe he’ll thrive by adding a pitch or scrapping one. Maybe a new pitching coach will click with him, or a new catcher. A soft division can be a wonderful buoyancy. An airtight defense or a roomy home park can hide a lot of mistakes.
Of course, most of those above things can be for the bad, too. And then there are the injuries, sometimes disclosed but often not disclosed. Anytime your ace has 2-3 bad starts in a row, the James Andrews nightmares start all over again. Often it takes months for the truth to come out about a sore shoulder or barking elbow.
So this, a starting pitcher buying guide, is a little bit of a fool’s errand. But it’s the assignment in front of me. Compare my darts with anyone else’s darts — mix and mesh.
How do you make the gods laugh? Make a plan.
Pitchers I have already drafted
Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
He’s sure giving Washington its money’s worth. Scherzer’s strikeout rate has improved for five straight years. His walk rate has come down the last two seasons. He hasn’t had a swinging-strike dip since 2014. Age is just a number for Mad Max, entering his age-36 season.
Maybe you worry about the back, but given that Scherzer is already pitching in spring training games, I can wave that off. Last year’s 172 innings weren’t as much fun as the 220-standard we’d gotten used to, but if that’s the floor, I’ll take it. Scherzer’s violent mechanics were supposed to derail him a decade ago. It’s safe to say he figured that stuff out. I don’t need Scherzer to be the best pitcher if I take him in the first round, though I know it’s possible. I just want a foundational brick in place. There’s no reason to expect anything different.
Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s always comforting to draft young players who could still be on the escalator, and Buehler checks so many of those boxes. He improved his walk and strikeout rates last year, worked a career-best 182.1 innings, won about half of his starts. He’s still in a prime position, pitching for the prohibitive NL West favorite in a division loaded with soft landings (Coors the obvious exception).
I understand Buehler’s upside might not jibe with the current SP5 tag he carries in the NFBC pool. You’d like to see a higher swinging-strike rate. Perhaps his innings are somewhat capped by the understanding that the Dodgers will likely tiptoe around their starters now and then, with an eye towards October. More than any other team in baseball, the Dodgers can manage like they’re already in the playoffs. They’ve won the division seven straight years, and if anything, this year’s roster is better.
But floor is a huge part of the pitching hunt, too. Entering his age-25 season, Buehler clearly has less mileage than so many other aces. Most of his starts will come against DH-free lineups. The Dodgers should give him plenty of run support, too. Even if Buehler’s birdie chances appear narrow, I’d be thrilled to take him in the second round and plan on a par.
Matthew Boyd, Detroit Tigers
For years the idea has been to “not chase wins” with pitchers, but as the gap becomes wider between contenders and tanking teams, I’m much more interested in having my guys toil for a competitive group. It’s a rough time for all four Detroit pro sports teams, not one of them close to legitimate contention.
Okay, but maybe Boyd will be on a better team in the summer. Call it close to 50-50 he’s gone. His strikeout and walk numbers play anywhere, and that slider is a deadly putaway pitch. If Boyd could bump the ground-ball rate or trim the homer problem, then we’d really be onto something. Maybe pitching in front of a solid defense — and not feeling like he needs to shut out every one of his opponents — would do wonders for his game. I’ll have my share of Boyd shares, an acceptable SP4, and a damn-fine SP5, when gettable.
Pitchers I probably won’t draft
Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
The only bad thing I can say about Cole is I hate him leaving a perfect setup. When players struggle, we wish a change of scenery. When players hit the high end of their range, we want status quo. Mind you, the Yankees have a loaded offense and a dynamic bullpen to back him up. But the division will be harder, and the park will be, too.
I’m not going to tell anyone not to take Cole in the first round, but given his current tag, I’ll probably take a hitter.
Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
His career is already a massive win. Remember, some intelligent scouts saw his wonky delivery as a collegian and labeled him a sure reliever. Instead, Sale put together a monster decade, posting seven years worthy of Cy Young contention. Someday we’ll have to explain to the grandkids that Sale somehow never won a Cy Young Award, but guys like Rick Porcello did.
Sale’s 4.40 ERA can’t be taken at face value, given that he was likely pitching hurt most of the year. But remember he’s made just 52 starts in two years, Fenway is still an offensive Disneyland, and the offensive environment of the AL East is a problem. The price has come down to a reasonable point (ADP 36 in NFBC, the 11th starter), but Sale is a hard pitcher for me to trust into his ninth year as a starter. Too much attrition. Too much downside.
Madison Bumgarner, Arizona Diamondbacks
The new reality of the Arizona park could cushion some of his fall, but then again Bumgarner was pitching in a graveyard the last two years and it didn’t really save him. A strikeout rate under one per inning is a loss in today’s game, and he wasn’t suffering in bad luck — reasonable BABIP, a FIP equal to last-year’s 3.90 ERA, an xFIP of 4.31. Bumgarner wins the Narrative Olympics, with the alter ego, the extreme hobbies off the field. But this isn’t about marketing your team with cool guys, we just want the numbers. I realize you have to overpay in the free-agent market, but this is not where I would have parked $85 million.
Luis Severino, New York Yankees
If the discount isn’t gigantic, I’m out. He’s still a Top 160 pick over the last few days. You are already investing in something that is broken. Occam’s Razor.
Value pitchers I would like to draft
Jose Berrios, Minnesota Twins
If he maintains what he’s done, he’s a par at his ADP of 83. If he takes a step up, reasonable at his age pocket and in that division of pillow landings, you can make a heck of a profit. He was one of my signature players last year, and it was only a break-even. I’m willing to double down. The defense will be a plus, too.
Jose Urquidy, Houston Astros
Still hidden outside the Top 200, perhaps because of rotation uncertainty. I’d like to see who Houston’s five better pitchers are. He has a fly-ball tint to his profile, but that’s not a problem in Houston, so long as they’re not hitting it right down the line. Minute Maid Park has been a stealth pitcher park for years.
As much as the cheating scandal leaves a scar and a stench on this organization, we still want to bet on the overall infrastructure. We want guys pitching here, tied to the park and defense and expected run support. I expect the price to gradually rise all spring, but Urquidy is still priced for profit. A strikeout bump would be welcome (and is possible, maybe even likely), but given his elite control, he can succeed even without improvement. (If you prefer Josh James in this spot, I will not argue with you.)
Zack Greinke, Houston Astros
Still has three plus pitches, including a fastball that barely gets to 90. Greinke couldn’t get stopped for speeding in a school zone. This is what knowing how to pitch means. One of the best fielding pitchers of all time, which comes in handy when you carry a ground-ball tilt. Watch every one of his starts while he’s still around. The boring veteran discount applies — you can land him around Pick 65-70.
The Wild Cards
Mike Clevinger, Cleveland Indians
Over the last four days, he’s still a Top 40 pick in the NFBC. I suppose that’s tied to his knee injury — at least it’s not tied to the shoulder, elbow, or forearm. Nonetheless, when I see timetables like 6-to-8 weeks, I always focus on the larger number. I don’t like to seek out players already hurt unless I’m given a significant discount for the trouble. This coupon isn’t sizable enough for me, but your mileage will vary. A fully-healthy Clevinger was worth considering in Round 2.
Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals
After that ballistic second half, what’s not to like? Well, he’s really just a two-pitch pitcher, and the ERA estimators don’t trust the 2.75 out front. The strand rate probably comes down, the BABIP can’t be expected to get lower. His swinging-strike rate is okay, not elite. I have a soft spot for Black Jack; he won a couple of leagues for me last year. But if you’re making me draft him Top 25 or lower, I’ll try to find a similar arm in the third or fourth round.
David Price, Los Angeles Dodgers
Came to Boston in a salty mood and never really warmed up. The media can be antagonistic, but it’s not as adversarial as Price believed. But now it’s a happy ending; the Dodgers media isn’t out to rip anyone, and Price can hide behind several big-name pitchers. A change of scenery at the perfect time. His current NFBC ADP is a reasonable 164.