2014 Position Preview: SP

2/20/2014 - MLB

Starting pitching is never easy to figure out, as the position holds the most injury risk and usually the most variability from year to year. Even some of the elite arms such as Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain all threw at least 30 starts in 2013 and still finished 41, 39 and 64 in the 2013 Player Rater for starting pitchers, respectively. That's not a great return on an investment that had to be more than $20 in standard auction leagues last season.

On the flip side, this position always has great surprises that help make up for these underperformers and injured pitchers. Nobody thought 12 months ago that Bartolo Colon, Homer Bailey, Francisco Liriano, A.J. Griffin, Chris Tillman, A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana and Travis Wood would all finish higher in the 2013 player rater than Verlander, Hamels or Cain.

I personally think this position has more depth and more "sure things" than in years past, probably because there are so many young arms that exploded onto the scene such as Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Gerrit Cole, Julio Teheran and Michael Wacha, who are all 23 or younger, but are all within ESPN.com's initial top-36 starting pitcher ranks. Among these top 36 arms, there are just two names that are older than 32 years old: Cliff Lee (35) and R.A. Dickey (39).

Because of this great depth and unpredictability, fantasy owners can wait maybe a round or two longer than usual to pick certain pitchers. However, there are plenty of top-flight arms worthy of your attention in the early rounds of your snake draft.

Cream of the Crop

The half-dozen starting pitchers in this elite group are all ranked among the top 35 players in ESPN.com's initial Top 300 (as of Feb. 7). Clayton Kershaw is the only starter worthy of first-round consideration in a standard fantasy league, as he finished third overall in ESPN.com's Player Rater last year, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. Not only did Kershaw lead the majors among qualified pitchers in ERA (1.83), WHIP (0.92), opponents' OPS (.521) and quality starts (82 percent), he also finished second in both innings (236) and home run rate (0.42), while his well-hit average (.123) ranked fourth. There's really no downside to the 26-year-old southpaw, who has made at least 30 starts in five straight seasons and his numbers since 2011 are a ridiculous 51-23 (.689), 2.21 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9.2 K/9 and 4.2 K-to-BB ratio.

Yu Darvish improved leaps and bounds from his rookie campaign to his second season when he led the majors in strikeouts (277) with a dozen 10-K games, and lowered his walk rate from 4.2 to 3.4. Although he served up 26 homers, 17 were solo taters and the other nine were two-run shots, so it didn't hurt him that much. In the rare instances he pitched with at least two runners on base, these opponents batted .117 (9-for-77) with a .182 SLG, 28 strikeouts and just six walks. And while many pitchers struggle to pitch in the Arlington heat, Darvish is 17-8 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 11.2 K/9 in 33 career home starts. With what should be an improved Texas Rangers offense in 2014, Darvish is certainly capable of winning 20 games.

Cliff Lee led the majors in strike rate (70.8 percent) and called strike rate (42.3 percent) last year, showing that his control is the best in baseball. If only his Philadelphia Phillies lineup could start scoring more -- his 3.29 runs of support per game last year were fourth-worst in the majors -- Lee would easily win 15-plus games. The 35-year-old southpaw is earning $25 million for each of the next two seasons, so it's unlikely he'll be moved out of Philadelphia, which is just fine for his fantasy value considering how well he's pitched in a Phillies uniform in his career: 105 starts, 2.86 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 6.6 K-to-BB ratio (741 K's, 112 walks). The durable Lee has logged more than 210 innings in each of the past six seasons, making him worthy of once again being a top-5 fantasy starter despite his advanced age.

Adam Wainwright was quite the workhorse last year, throwing 276 2/3 innings in 2013, which included 35 postseason frames. Although he struggled a bit from July 2 to Sept. 2 (4-4, 4.56 ERA), Wainwright was still able to save his best for last, going 6-3 with a 2.19 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 8.5 K/9 in his final 10 starts (5 regular season, 5 playoffs). Wainwright did a great job of keeping the ball on the ground, with a strong 50.4 percent ground ball rate (16th in majors) and a mere 27.3 percent fly-ball rate (eighth in majors). That is why he has been so successful at Busch Stadium since 2009, where he's 38-22 (.633) with a 2.49 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 8.5 K/9. With his St. Louis Cardinals likely to finish well above .500 for the 14th time in 15 years, Wainwright's win chances are as high as any pitcher in the majors.


Position rankings: Roto | Points
Mid-round sleepers:
Andrew Cashner, Tony Cingrani, Danny Salazar, Sonny Gray
Late-round sleepers:
Travis Wood, Tim Hudson, Wandy Rodriguez, Hector Santiago
Prospects: Archie Bradley, Taijuan Walker, Jameson Tallion
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Stephen Strasburg
Player to trade at All-Star break: Patrick Corbin, Travis Wood, Mike Leake
Player to trade for at ASB: Anibal Sanchez, Mike Minor, Homer Bailey
Home heroes: Madison Bumgarner, Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Johnny Cueto
Road warriors: Matt Cain, James Shields, Marco Estrada, Alexi Ogando
Player I inexplicably like: C.J. Wilson
Player I inexplicably dislike: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Felix Hernandez has finished among the top eight in Cy Young voting in four of the past five seasons, averaging 232 innings, 14 wins, 222 K's, a 2.85 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. Despite posting a career-high strikeout rate (9.5 K/9) and a career-low walk rate (2.0 BB/9) in 2013, Hernandez finished only 13th among starting pitchers in the Player Rater. A lot of that had to do with bad luck, as his .316 BABIP was 10th-highest among all 81 qualified starters last year. This occurred despite tallying a strong .242 opponents' BA that was much better than the average .274 opponents' BA of the other nine pitchers in that high BABIP group. Hernandez has plenty of superstar innings left in his 27-year-old arm, and would be a perfect fantasy team ace to draft in round three.

Max Scherzer was an easy choice for the AL Cy Young in 2013, when he led the league in wins (21) and WHIP (0.97), placed second in strikeouts (240) and fifth in ERA (2.90). These numbers were so excellent because he also led the majors in line-drive rate (15.5 percent). The one knock on the 29-year-old Scherzer is that his 47 percent fly-ball rate was second worst among all qualified pitchers in the majors, ahead of only A.J. Griffin. But before you think last year was fluky and that he was a product of pitcher-friendly Comerica Park, consider that his road numbers (2.28 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 10.5 K/9) were significantly better than his home stats (3.55 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.6 K/9). While a slight regression is expected, especially in wins, Scherzer is still a pitcher that should be drafted before the end of the fourth round in a standard snake draft.

The Next Best Thing

Three other young aces are all sitting among the top-40 fantasy leaguers in ESPN.com overall rankings: Stephen Strasburg, David Price and Chris Sale. Strasburg was a bit inconsistent last season, allowing four-plus runs seven times (six on the road), but also allowing zero runs in seven of his starts. Strasburg also picked up the pace as the season went along, posting a stellar 0.94 WHIP and .543 opponents' OPS after the All-Star break, which both ranked second in the majors behind only Clayton Kershaw (0.93 WHIP and .539 OPS). He also led the majors with a .112 well-hit average. Although I'm picking Strasburg as my least-valuable top-10 SP based on what owners will have to spend to buy him in an auction, if he's available in round six of a standard-league snake draft, I would highly advise to pounce on him.

Price had impeccable control in 2013, finishing with the second-highest strike rate in the majors (68.8 percent) and placing third in called strikes (40.4 percent). That led to a career-low 1.10 WHIP and a fourth straight season of a sub-3.50 ERA. The left-hander was especially unhittable once July began, going 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in his final 18 starts. Although his strikeout rate did drop considerably from 8.7 K/9 in 2012 to 7.3 K/9 last year, his K-to-BB ratio ballooned with his pinpoint control, going from 3.5 in 2012 to an astounding 5.6 last year (151 K's, 29 walks).

Like Price, Sale also worked in the strike zone brilliantly for most of the season with a 39.5 percent called strike rate (fourth-best in majors) and a 26.0 percent miss rate (misses divided by swings) that ranked sixth in MLB. Not only did Sale toss 23 quality starts, but he lasted at least seven innings in all but one of those 23 outings. The left-hander was just filthy against left-handed hitters last year, holding them to a .135 BA and .155 slugging percentage, allowing no homers in 163 plate appearances. His only blip was when he faced the division rival Cleveland Indians who completely shellacked Sale, saddling him with an 0-4 record, 8.61 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in four meetings.

Where's The Ceiling?

Jose Fernandez had an amazing rookie season, despite not being legal drinking age for the majority of the year. Not only did he lead the majors in opponents' BA (.182), Fernandez also placed second in the majors in both ERA (2.19) and opponents' OPS (.522) behind only Clayton Kershaw. While I don't believe in sophomore slumps, I do think he'll regress slightly this season, as he benefitted from a strong defense and some luck, as evidenced by his major-league low .242 opponents' BABIP. And while Fernandez was unbeatable at Marlins Park last season (9-0, 1.19 ERA, 0.86 WHIP), his road numbers were not nearly as impressive (3-6, 3.50 ERA, 1.14 WHIP).

Masahiro Tanaka will probably never live up to a seven-year, $155 million deal, but the 25-year-old was given this contract because he supposedly has an All-Star arm. His numbers in Japan last season were just ridiculous, when he was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 212 innings. While some owners will jump on him in round five, just don't go crazy for a pitcher that New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman says has the potential to be a "No. 3 starter."

Michael Wacha had a roller coaster ride last season between Triple-A and the majors, and also between a starting role and a stint in the bullpen. Once he was put in the rotation to stay at the start of September, he allowed zero runs in three of his five starts and closed out the month with a 1.72 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 8.0 K/9. And if you were hibernating in October, you may have missed the 22-year-old's postseason heroics when he started the playoffs 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and .122 opponents' BA before the Boston Red Sox touched him up for six runs in less than four innings in Game 6 of the World Series. With Wacha now pitching a full season as a major-league starter, he could conceivably become a top-15 fantasy starter in 2014.

There weren't a whole lot of top pitchers who switched teams this offseason, but there are four such arms that should benefit from the 2014 change in scenery. Doug Fister wasn't in a bad situation with the Detroit Tigers, but now he moves to the Washington Nationals where he will be pitching the majority of his games in a subpar offensive division with the Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets who finished with the fewest, fourth-fewest and eighth-fewest runs, respectively, last season. Fister should do just fine against other National League clubs as well, considering his career 2.09 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 7.6 K/9 versus NL teams is much greater than his 3.67 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 6.1 K/9 when facing American league clubs.

Tim Hudson has always thrived at Turner Field in his productive career (62-32, 3.20 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 6.2 K/9), but now he'll be throwing half of his games in the pitchers paradise known as AT&T Park. Hudson has thrown six quality starts in his eight career starts in this San Francisco, and although he's 38 years old and doesn't strike out many batters (6.5 K/9 last year), Hudson is still a serviceable fantasy starter for mixed leagues. Over the past four seasons, Hudson is 57-33 with a 3.33 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.

The Los Angeles Angels also picked up a pair of young starters in 22-year-old Tyler Skaggs and 26-year-old Hector Santiago, who should both benefit from Angels Stadium, which ranked 20th in homers and 19th in runs in ESPN.com's Park Factors for 2013. Skaggs has logged just three road starts in his young career, while Santiago has been much better on the road in his career (2.98 ERA, 1.24 WHIP) than at U.S. Cellular Field (3.82 ERA, 1.48 WHIP).

Where's The Basement?

Some of the best knuckle-ballers have thrown well into their 40s, so that's not reason alone for discounting 39-year-old R.A. Dickey this season. But Dickey's numbers dropped off considerably from his NL Cy Young in 2012 (20-6, 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 2.1 BB/9) to what he did last year (14-13, 4.21 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.8 BB/9). Dickey has never had much career success against American League teams (4.55 ERA, 1.39 WHIP), especially compared to how he's fared versus NL clubs (3.43 ERA, 1.23 WHIP). The AL East remains loaded with stacked lineups, as the Boston Red Sox led the majors in runs, the Baltimore Orioles were fifth, the Tampa Bay Rays were 12th, and the New York Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran to make sure they are not 16th again.

Speaking of the Yankees, team "ace" CC Sabathia was anything but last season, posting a career-worst numbers in ERA (4.78), WHIP (1.37), opponents' BA (.272) and opponents' OPS (.770). While I wouldn't call the 33-year-old washed-up, I am concerned that including playoffs, the left-hander has thrown 1,198 1/3 innings (240 per season) in five years in Pinstripes. And last year's struggles couldn't even be blamed on Yankee Stadium, as his road numbers were downright atrocious (4-8, 5.54 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 6.9 K/9).

I thought Bartolo Colon's career was done in 2009, but after not playing in 2010, his stats over the past three seasons have been head-scratchingly strong (36-25, 3.32 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 6.1 K/9). Colon finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting last season, tossing three shutouts, placing sixth in the majors in ERA (2.65) and posting a 4.0 K-to-BB ratio for the second straight season. His move to the New York Mets should hurt his stock, as Citi Field ranked 10th in homers last season according to ESPN.com Park Factors, compared to O.co Coliseum that ranked 25th in long-balls. Colon had the 20th-highest fly-ball rate, meaning some of those long flyouts in 2013 could turn into gopher balls in 2014. Colon also had the 14th worst opponents' well-hit average (.172) of the 81 qualified pitchers, showing that batters got plenty of good wood off the 40-year-old.

Steady As He Goes

Cole Hamels is still crafty, leading the majors in chase percentage by getting hitters to swing at 34.2 percent of the pitches he threw outside the strike zone. Fantasy owners might be a little concerned that Hamels' pitching coach for his entire major-league career, Rich Dubee, was fired last season, but the lefty probably doesn't need all that much coaching now that he's turned 30. Hamels certainly had a frustrating 2013 season with a career-high 25 quality starts, but a career-low eight wins, but if you take away his five interleague starts last season and just focus on his 28 starts against NL teams, Hamels posted a 3.30 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 8.5 K/9, numbers that are strong in any fantasy format. Considering the average season he has tallied since 2010 (13 wins, 3.13 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.6 K/9), Hamels is still as steady as they come.

Zack Greinke had a heck of a first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, especially in Dodger Stadium where he was 8-2 with a 2.11 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 8.1 K/9. And based on how well he finished the 2013 campaign (7-1, 1.58 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 in final 12 starts), fantasy owners should be very optimistic that the 30-year-old will string together another ace-worthy season.

Justin Verlander is coming off a down year, but most pitchers would take 13 wins, 3.46 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 8.9 K/9 as an "off" season. Since 2006, Verlander has made at least 30 starts in each year, and since he turned the switch in 2009 from quality arm to annual Cy Young contender, his average season has been 18 wins, 3.05 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 9.2 K/9. Looks pretty steady to me.

Mat Latos just posted his fourth straight campaign with an ERA below 3.50 and a WHIP under 1.25, fanning at least 185 batters in all four years. Latos also threw the most innings of his career (210 2/3), but allowed the fewest homers (14). He was not bothered by Great American Ball Park in the least, going 9-2 with a 2.77 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 8.0 K/9 at home. Latos is just scratching the surface of his greatness, and at just 26 years old, Latos will remain a top-notch starter in this league for years to come.

Talkin' prospects

There are plenty of excellent pitching prospects to keep an eye on this year with Archie Bradley, Kyle Zimmer, Mark Appel and Jonathan Gray all ranking the top dozen youngsters in ESPN Insider Keith Law's Top 100 Prospects of 2014. However, none of these four prospects has pitched above the Double-A level, and Bradley is the only one of the four that will be major-league ready in 2014. If you play in a fantasy league that is void of farm picks and need arms that should be in their team's rotation for the majority of the season, take a late-round flier pick on either Taijuan Walker (Seattle Mariners), Kevin Gausman (Baltimore Orioles), Kyle Zimmer (Kansas City Royals) or Jameson Tallion (Pittsburgh Pirates), all of whom are ranked among the top 150 starting pitchers in the initial ESPN.com rankings. The 21-year-old Walker is a virtual lock to start the season in Seattle's rotation after three strong starts at the end of last season. Just be aware that the Mariners are likely to keep the youngster on an innings count, so don't expect Walker to exceed 180 innings pitched this season. The other three youngsters are more likely mid-to-late season call-ups.

Points Versus Roto

If you're playing in a points league, you're mostly concerned with innings pitched, which obviously helps increase the chances of wins and strikeouts. Rather than just re-hashing the stud innings eaters like Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Felix Hernandez, points-based leagues should put a higher premium for players like James Shields, Justin Masterson and Ervin Santana, all of whom rank in the top 15 in innings pitched over the past three seasons. Durable arms that have racked up gobs of victories since 2011 include C.J. Wilson, Yovani Gallardo, Ian Kennedy and Kyle Lohse who have all won more than 40 games in this timeframe, placing among the top-15 pitchers in the majors in this category.

Rotisserie leagues are looking for more well-rounded pitchers that are not only going to produce strong counting numbers, but also giving a boost to your fantasy ERA and WHIP. Two pitchers that were both surprisingly among the top 40 SPs in Player Rater last season were Justin Masterson and Andrew Cashner, and I expect even bigger things from both hurlers in 2014. Masterson had the best ground-ball rate (58.8 percent) of any pitcher in the majors last season, while placing third in well-hit average (.120) and fifth in line-drive rate (16.7 percent). That helped the 28-year-old post a personal best in WHIP (1.20) with a strong 3.45 ERA, while keeping his counting numbers very high. He finished eighth in the AL in both wins (14) and strikeouts (195). Cashner threw quality starts 73 percent of the time (eighth-best in majors) and his 0.95 WHIP after the All-Star break ranked third-best in the majors, thanks to an MLB-best .249 opponents' OBP in the second half of the season. Cashner finished with a 3.04 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in his 26 starts, including a miniscule 1.92 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in his 11 starts in San Diego.

Bottom Line

After years of juiced-up offensive baseball, starting pitching is now abundant in the majors, and this trend is here to stay. When there are 13 pitchers ranked ahead of Justin Verlander, you know the top-end of the position is stacked. There are also a good number of established pitchers under the age of 25 who will continue to improve in the upcoming years, and also a handful of unseasoned pitchers ready to make the jump to the big leagues. Even when the top 50 SPs are gone, you'll be able to find substantial contributors to the back-end of your rotations.