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Pitching 3D: Starting Pitchers 22-30

Doug Thorburn

Doug started writing for RotoWire in April of 2015. His work can be found elsewhere at Baseball Prospectus and RotoGrinders, and as the co-host of the Baseballholics Anonymous podcast. Thorburn's expertise lies on the mound, where he tackles the world of pitching with an emphasis on mechanical evaluation. He spent five years at the National Pitching Association working under pitching coach Tom House, where Thorburn ran the hi-speed motion analysis program in addition to serving as an instructor. Thorburn and House wrote the 2009 book, “Arm Action, Arm Path, and the Perfect Pitch: Building a Million Dollar Arm,” using data from hi-speed motion analysis to tackle conventional wisdom in baseball. His DraftKings ID is “Raising Aces”.

It's said a rolling stone gathers no moss, but moss can be good to the fantasy gamer, in the sense of “boring” predictability based on a cleaner (yet often less impressive) track record. Let's say that a team started with Strasburg and Carrasco as the top two pitchers on staff, then suddenly a mossy rock (a Jose Quintana type) looks much more attractive. Other teams will be looking for risk/reward, the type of player that could vault up the rankings during the season but whose draft-day cost is discounted due to warts of uncertainty.

Due to the nature of this ranking system there will be disparity at the top in terms of points, but those with single, specific weaknesses will fall into a bin around 32-34 points. The perceived value of these players might match up to a certain point value, but their impact on specific stat categories can vary widely. This is why I find it necessary to begin sub-grouping players as we head into the fatter part of the bell curve of the fantasy pitcher population, so that preferences can be tailored to individual team need.

With this in mind, I'm changing the approach a bit. Instead of going through the rankings in the order of NFBC ADP I'm going to go in order of DT Rank, because now that the points are clustering we get to throw some more personal preference into the mix. The value of the pitchers in this cohort will vary widely among fantasy pundits, so rather than having an NFBC tour guide to take us through the first round, we now must lead ourselves through the next run of pitchers - the backend SP2s, SP3s (under 15-team league) and beyond.

A quick review:

Introduction to the ratings
Rating NFBC SP 1-10
Rating NFBC SP 11-21

We'll start with a pair of 34-pointers, tying them with top-20 targets Jacob deGrom and Masahiro Tanaka, and both players carry the same fundamental flaw as Tanaka when it comes to fantasy stats: a pedestrian K rate.

Julio Teheran

NFBC ADP: 26
DT Rank: 19

K 6 of 10
ERA 4 of 6
WHIP 5 of 6
W 2 of 3
IP 7 of 10
Stuff 4 of 8
Mechanics 6 of 7
TOTAL 34 of 50
Teheran was the only pitcher that fell in my top-21 that didn't fit with the NFBC ADP. The fact that he receives a "2" in the wins category - despite playing for the lowly Braves - illustrates the lack of predictive value attached to the metric. It might surprise some to learn, however, that he has an excellent delivery. Teheran can look odd at times, as he splays his limbs like a cheerleader making an "X" during the stride portion of his delivery, but the sum of his parts is much greater than any individual piece of his mechanics. The biggest glare on his mechanics report card is a vertical drop that hurts his balance, but the lateral stability is nearly perfect and his momentum is incredible. I grade a pitcher's delivery along five dimensions and Teheran is plus in all five of them, without anything registering higher than 65 on the 20-80 scale. It looks more and more like 2015 was an aberration in terms of his walk rate and his ERA, and I expect him to be a stable anchor for the ratios this season even if the strikeouts leave something to be desired.

Jose Quintana

NFBC ADP: 23
DT Rank: 22

K 6
ERA 4
WHIP 4
W 2
IP 8
Stuff 5
Mechanics 5
TOTAL 34
Quintana is boring from a fantasy perspective, with nearly identical campaigns on his resume as a big leaguer. In that sense he doesn't fit the paradigm, but the moss that he gathers represents a sigh of relief in a season that is marked by pitchers that are high risk near the top of the ranks. He earns a score of 34 in the system, one of just 22 pitchers in baseball to score that well or higher, and though none of his metrics inspire greatness, he is exactly the antidote that one might be looking for if he/she has chosen some more volatile arms to the pitching staff. He is a 200-inning machine, having passed the 200-frame threshold in four consecutive seasons despite never pitching more than 208 - that sort of predictability has a lot of value, even more in deeper leagues where innings are at a premium.


With the 34-point players behind us, we head into a wide swath of pitchers who earn 33 points on the ranking system. Up until this point, no more than four pitchers had been tied in point value, but as we head closer to the average fantasy pitcher the point assignments become more crowded. There are eight players who earn the Rolling Rock special with 33 points, and a squad's preference could well come down to team needs and player profiles.

I'm a sucker for big K rates, and at this point in the draft I am looking for high-quality innings even if those innings come in short supply, so the first 33's on my list are those who might struggle to get frames under their belt but who are projected to be especially strong in the rate categories during those innings. The goal is to get a pair of these pitcher types, realistically viewing the tandem as one, 250-inning stud. Invest accordingly.

Gerrit Cole

NFBC ADP: 24
DT Rank: 23

K 7
ERA 4
WHIP 4
W 2
IP 4
Stuff 6
Mechanics 6
TOTAL 33
It seems that Cole should rank higher based on name value alone, as merely a year ago he was a hot up-and-comer with an insanely-hard thrown two-seamer and an excellent delivery. Then he struggled his way through the 2016 season, culminating in an elbow injury that ended his campaign prematurely, and suddenly the vultures of doubt are swirling. I'm still a believer in the raw skills, but take one look at his B-Ref page and the weaknesses become clear: he has pitched more than 138 innings just once, the ERA has been volatile, he has a diminishing K rate that is on a three-year run of decline and a walk rate that is going the other direction. Throw in an exceptionally-low rate of homers allowed that could rise with a couple of badly-thrown pitches, and suddenly the blow-up factor becomes impossible to ignore. The health of his throwing elbow will go a long way in determining his ultimate contributions this season.

Danny Salazar

NFBC ADP: 29
DT Rank: 24

K 8
ERA 4
WHIP 3
W 2
IP 5
Stuff 6
Mechanics 5
TOTAL 33
Similar to Cole, Salazar has raw skills that outstrip the numbers that he has generated, but a difficulty with staying on the mound and a penchant for volatile ratios has thrown his fantasy value into a quagmire. Salazar came back from a midseason elbow injury to pitch in the World Series, providing some optimism that he can get past the wounded wing and contribute 30 starts for Cleveland this season (as he did in 2015), but Salazar was a low-inning risk before the elbow injury and has done little to help that reputation. Throw in a high rate of homers allowed (career 1.1 HR/9) with last season's bloated walk rate of 10.8 percent (following three years of 7.0-7.4 percent) and there is a steep downside to his ERA. That said, Salazar has piled up strikeouts despite throwing fastballs or changeups on 87-percent of his throws; there is steep upside if he develops his breaking pitches (just one of the two will be fine, in which case go curveball).

Rich Hill

NFBC ADP: 30
DT Rank: 26

K 9
ERA 5
WHIP 5
W 2
IP 2
Stuff 5
Mechanics 5
TOTAL 33
If looking just at the rate stats, Hill potentially belongs in top-15 territory, given his exceptional ERA, WHIP and strikeout numbers over the past two seasons. The issue is that he has only pitched a total of 139.1 innings at the highest level over that time. This is an older player (age-37 season in ‘17) who has only pitched more than 111 innings once in his career, and that was back in 2007. He looked like waiver-bait at the start of the 2016 season with Oakland but quickly turned things around, and all of a sudden he's a hot commodity despite languishing on the Dodgers bench for over a month after he was traded due to blisters on his pitching hand. Hill is an extreme case of great-ratios over a small sample, and employing his services means that fantasy managers run the risk that his numbers don't hold up over a larger sample and/or that sample will never come to fruition. He ranks high on this list, but drafting Hill requires that another starter be picked up post-haste in order to cover for the innings.

Lance McCullers

NFBC ADP: 42
DT Rank: 28

K 9
ERA 4
WHIP 3
W 2
IP 3
Stuff 6
Mechanics 6
TOTAL 33
Yet another injury risk that could fall short in innings, McCullers also shares the physical profile of excellent stuff and a powerful-yet-stable delivery, a combination that fuels his incredible strikeout rate. McCullers has tremendous momentum and an insane curveball, one that finished off 89 of his 106 strikeouts last season. He'll earn 10 points in strikeout rate if the right-hander repeats the 30.1 percent K rate of last season, but he has yet to harness his own powerful delivery, resulting in mistimed pitches that have formed the foundation of his 10-percent walk rate at the highest level. McCullers is still young (age-23 season in 2017) and could take a giant leap in the WHIP category if he gets things under control. The NFBC ADP for McCullers is just no.42 among starting pitchers and I see considerable profit potential in leagues that underappreciate his skill set.

Julio Urias

NFBC ADP: 45
DT Rank: 29

K 8
ERA 4
WHIP 4
W 2
IP 4
Stuff 6
Mechanics 5
TOTAL 33
It seems there is no limit to Urias' potential, but the Dodgers have shown such restraint that there's no telling whether the young southpaw will be allowed to pitch 150 frames at the big league level this season (he threw 122.0 innings between the bigs and Triple-A last season), and whether they temper his workload on a per-game basis as they did in 2016. If they shorten his leash on a per-game basis, then that “2” in wins becomes a “1,” but that's a small price to pay for a pitcher who might have the most upside in the game. I have seen him gain 5 mph on his fastball in the span of a year, I've seen him morph his delivery no less than twice over the last two years with excellent results and he might already have the best left-hand quick pick-off move in the game. Did I mention that it's his age-20 season?


Before I get to the upside-down of the number 33, let's look at the demogorgon who's guarding the space between:

Felix Hernandez

NFBC ADP: 31
DT Rank: 25

K 6
ERA 4
WHIP 4
W 2
IP 8
Stuff 4
Mechanics 5
TOTAL 33
At this time last year, I was hyping Felix as an undervalued asset. Reports of his velocity decline were overblown, he had only gotten better mechanically over the years, the peripheral stats were within reason and he'd had no problem overcoming statistical blips in the past. For two months, the King made me look good, at least superficially, as he carried a 2.21 ERA through his first nine starts of the season. Despite the strong run prevention, everything under the rug was dirty for those two months, from a fastball that had legitimately declined to a spike in walk rate and fewer strikeouts. The other shoe dropped over the summer, and when the smoke cleared Hernandez had finished his worst season in 11 years, with his first trip to the disabled list to boot. Everyone keeps waiting for the workload to catch to his arm, and though all of the signs point to decline, I don't feel that players always behave that way. I think that Felix can get back the velo and the command, or at least a semblance of it, and that he can succeed even as he distances himself from his physical peak. Pitchers change too much year to year, and I gave him low enough marks for stuff and strikeouts to buffer expectations, but the upside is significantly more.


Finally, the 33-point crew includes a couple of guys who should post tidy ratios but won't push toward any K titles.

Kenta Maeda

NFBC ADP: 25
DT Rank: 27

K 7
ERA 4
WHIP 5
W 2
IP 6
Stuff 4
Mechanics 5
TOTAL 33
Maeda joins a cadre of southpaws pitching in the Dodgers rotation this season, removing a bit of the novelty when pitching in the third game of a series, but his ability to take the ball for six innings every fifth day is critical for a team that has the volatile inning-counts of players like Rich Hill and Julio Urias, two other lefties who could be out of action at any given time. Maeda's strikeout rate in his first season of MLB was higher than anything that the 28-year-old had ever posted in Japan, leaving one to wonder if his K rate is bound to take a step back as opposing batters get another look at what he brings to the table. If he continues to strike out more than a batter per inning then he will justify his ranking.

Jameson Taillon

NFBC ADP: 35
DT Rank: 30

K 6
ERA 4
WHIP 5
W 2
IP 6
Stuff 5
Mechanics 5
TOTAL 33
Taillon is young and not that far removed from Tommy John surgery, which combines with what he showed prior to injury that he has considerable upside in the categories of stuff as well as mechanics. He was a generator of strikeouts and walks in the minors prior to the injury, and though players with elbow woes often find that pitch command is the last thing to return following surgery, the fact that Taillon was able to succeed with such an altered approach was an encouraging sign for his continued development. The questions are whether he will start going after more strikeouts, and whether the walk rate (and hence his WHIP) will rise along with it.


Just for review, here are my top 30 starting pitchers:

RANKPLAYERPOINTS
1 Kershaw 48
2 Scherzer 46
3 Bumgarner 45
4 Kluber 45
5 Syndergaard 43
6 Darvish 43
7 Sale 42
8 Price 42
9 Arrieta 42
10 Lester 40
11 Strasburg 39
12 Archer 38
13 Hamels 38
14 Verlander 38
15 Cueto 38
16 Carrasco 36
17 Greinke 35
18 C.Martinez 35
19 Teheran 34
20 DeGrom 34
21 Tanaka 34
22 Quintana 34
23 G.Cole 33
24 D.Salazar 33
25 F.Hernandez 33
26 R.Hill 33
27 Maeda 33
28 McCullers 33
29 Urias 33
30 Taillon 33