- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Thursday's the day.
It's not only a key date on the baseball calendar -- it's the approximate quarter-point of the 2013 season going by total days (48th of 183) or games played (604 of 2,430) -- but it's also the day we'll publish our updated group top 250 rankings.
That's right, on Thursday, you'll get a second set of player rankings, in addition to the weekly rankings published in "60 Feet, 6 Inches" and "Hit Parade." At that point we'll see just how crazy I am with my Matt Harvey ranking. That's the fun of this: We get many opinions with which you can formulate your game plan, and it's a good time of year to reassess your team's standing.
It's a guess, but where each of us puts Harvey might be the first thing the majority of fantasy owners notices. As of Tuesday, he was the No. 1 starting pitcher as well as pitcher overall, and the No. 7 player overall on our Player Rater. Harvey was also on pace for 287 strikeouts, which would be the most by any pitcher in nine years (though Yu Darvish, A.J. Burnett and Anibal Sanchez are all on pace for more); a 1.44 ERA, which would be the second-best during the expansion era (1961 and later); and a 0.73 WHIP, which would set an all-time single-season record.
Harvey jumps another six spots in this week's column, behind a beginning of seven quality starts in eight games. Though my initial low ranking of the sophomore right-hander was discussed in the April 23 edition, Harvey's continued mastery of four pitches is nothing short of remarkable: He has afforded opposing hitters a .261 wOBA (Weighted On Base Average) with his fastball, .129 with his curveball, .192 with his slider and .132 with his changeup, every one of those more than 80 points beneath the respective major league averages, and has thrown each of those offerings at least 10 percent of the time.
If there are any obstacles remaining in Harvey's path through the end of the season, they're minor: One is natural regression; let's not be so foolish as to assume that he'll finish with a sub-1.50 ERA or sub-0.75 WHIP. After all, Harvey's left-on-base percentage is 87.3, fourth-highest among ERA qualifiers; his BABIP is .190, second-lowest; and his home run/fly ball percentage 5.6, 12th-lowest. Give him league-average numbers in those three departments in his eight starts to date, and his ERA would've been 3.36, his WHIP 0.99 -- he'd have given up three additional home runs, 15 additional hits and 12 additional runs in that case.
That's not to say that Harvey should've surrendered those additional homers, hits or runs; rather, it illustrates what could have happened if we assumed league-average influences. And it explains why he might be much more likely to have an ERA about 3.00, a WHIP about 1.00, than sub-2.00/0.85 going forward. Still, that's an extremely valuable pitcher.
The other possible obstacle -- again minor -- is a cap on his workload. Harvey's New York Mets aren't a competitive squad, likely to be out of the playoff race by late August. Might the Mets consider reining in Harvey's innings, considering he threw 169 1/3 frames between the majors and minors in 2012, and 135 2/3 in the minors in 2011? Perhaps not, but if Harvey is capped at, say, 200 innings, that means a slowed pace from his current 259 1/3 frames.
Harvey isn't the only other highly ranked pitcher who might generate chatter come Thursday. Let's look at two others I bet I'll have ranked the highest of the group:
Stephen Strasburg (my No. 8 starting pitcher): As I said on Monday's Fantasy Focus video, I'm all in on Stephen Strasburg. Frankly, I think he has gotten a raw deal as a result of one low-strikeout, 2013 debut outing against the Miami Marlins, as well as some poor, poor fortune in the win column. Four times so far, Strasburg registered a quality start without a win; only James Shields (6) and Cole Hamels (5) have more. Strasburg also has a 10.20 K's per nine innings ratio in his past seven starts (out of his eight total in 2013); 10.46 per nine in his past six; and 11.50 per nine in his past three. His average fastball velocity is also largely unchanged (95.5 mph this year, 95.7 mph last).
This might be the one time you have all year to even trade for Strasburg, let alone buy low; he might be off-limits for trade by his owner in a month.
Max Scherzer (my No. 9 starting pitcher): If Harvey represents a regression-to-the-mean case of diminishing returns, Scherzer represents one of potential progression. Returning to those categories, Scherzer's 63.1 left-on-base percentage is sixth-lowest among ERA qualifiers, his .312 BABIP 29th-highest. Predictably, he has the majors' third-best FIP (1.89). There's one more thing working in his favor: He has decreased his walk rate in each of the past three seasons, his 4.9 percent rate (comparative to total batters faced) representing not only a career best, but also the 18th-best rate among ERA qualifiers.
If Scherzer's owner in your league doesn't realize that he's plenty capable of a top-10 standing from today forward, now is your chance to act.
What about the pitchers who have moved substantially in the rankings since the preseason? First, let's address three who have dropped:
R.A. Dickey: The good news is that his hard knuckler has been just as effective in the American League as the National League; those clocked at 78 mph or faster have limited opponents to a .237 batting average, .592 OPS and have resulted in a 37.5 percent strikeout rate, numbers that compare favorably to his .185/.500/34.3 percent in 2012. The problem is the volume of those pitches, as Dickey has thrown only 17 percent of his knuckleballs that hard, down from 52 percent last season. In short, Dickey's arsenal -- not simply the strength of his competition -- has changed, which diminishes his prospects of a quick fix. Until we see a start from him in which the majority of his knuckleballs approach 80 mph, there isn't much reason to buy low, at least not any higher than I've ranked him.
David Price: He was another pitcher discussed on "Fantasy Focus" video on Monday, and to expand upon my point, his fastball has averaged 93.3 mph this season, down from 95.4 mph. Opponents have a .318 batting average against it, up from .244. But that's all that has really changed. In Price's defense, his average fastball velocity on this date in each of the past three seasons was lower than his final season number, especially in 2010, when he had a 92.8 mph average on May 14 and finished with 94.4. But a 2.1 mph drop from one year to the next is disconcerting, and it's the main reason I'm not quick to keep Price in my top 10.
Matt Cain: Back-to-back quality starts offer encouragement, but Cain's propensity for home runs this season is troubling. He has served up at least one home run in five of his past six starts, has a ghastly 1.80 home runs per nine innings ratio -- that one primarily responsible for ruining his FIP (career-worst 4.91) -- and 15.4 home run/fly ball percentage. Cain's location has been off at times this season, and while his homer rate should come down with time, I wonder whether it'll be enough to restore him to top-20 status. After all, he's not an elite strikeout source, never with as many as eight per nine innings in any season.
Now, let's examine three who have improved in ranking:
Clay Buchholz: For all of the hoopla about the goop on his left arm, why aren't we talking more about the improvements Buchholz has made to his arsenal? His cutter has been outstanding, limiting opposing hitters to a .143 batting average with a 52.5 percent ground ball rate. His changeup has become a far better swing-and-miss pitch, with opponents swinging and missing at it 35 times (only 12 pitchers in baseball have generated more). Sure, Buchholz needs to keep missing bats at this rate to keep his ERA beneath 3.00 moving forward, but even if he regresses to something closer to a 7.50 K's per nine ratio, he'll remain a worthwhile fantasy starter in all formats, just as he's ranked here.
Alex Cobb: Few pitchers have enjoyed a larger increase in strikeout rate than Cobb; he has improved his K's per nine ratio by 1.87, an amount exceeded by only six pitchers (the aforementioned Buchholz being one of them). Amazingly, Cobb's changeup -- his best pitch -- hasn't been as lights-out this season as last; he has 22 K's with it, third-most in the majors, but opponents have batted .268 against it. Still, he has improved his fastball -- opponents have batted .221 against it, down from .302 last season -- and he's generating ground balls as effectively as ever. A pitcher averaging more than eight strikeouts per nine and a greater than 50 percent ground ball rate is a pretty stable investment.
Paul Maholm: After a disaster of an outing this past Saturday, Maholm isn't far off earning a place on the most-dropped list, having been shed in more than 10 percent of ESPN leagues in the past week. But has anyone noticed this: Six of his past seven starts have come on the road, where he has a 4.36 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 34 games, compared to 3.04 and 1.16 in 32 games at home. Granted, that might underscore him as more a matchups starter than one to ride every start, but remember that most pitchers fare better at home than on the road, and Maholm and his Atlanta Braves have 10 more home than road games the rest of the year. He continues to generate ground balls at a high rate (53.6 percent), while throwing a slider that helps neutralize right-handers (.154/.241/.231 rates in 29 PAs).
TOP 150 PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For starter- or reliever-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.
5dDavid M. Hale