Draft This, Not That: Starting Pitchers Part I

We have reached the fantasy baseball jackpot. Last week I claimed that outfielders were by far the deepest offensive position in this game of numbers we like to play. The truth is, even the outfielders cannot hold a candle to the depth on the mound in Major League Baseball these days.

Where I think you can really make gains in building your staff is the middle tiers for starting pitchers. The amount of aces in the game does not seem to have increased from when guys were popping steroids like a dude with coffee breath pops tic tacs. The ace pool seems pretty stagnant at about 8-10 guys no matter what year it is. This year’s ace group features Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Corey Kluber, David Price, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and perhaps Yu Darvish. After the aces group, you have a set of fringe number ones. This includes guys like Adam Wainwright, Matt Harvey, Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Cole Hamels, Zach Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, and maybe Julio Teheran. From that point on you are faced with the deepest set of middle tier arms the game has seen since the late 70’s and early 80’s. This is where you need to go hitter crazy and find the right values. Grab an ace or two early on (preferably two for deeper formats), then go nuts with hitters and a couple of closers through the first 150 off the board. After that, start value hunting at the back-end of the middle tiers for starting pitchers.

Here are some great values this year’s drafts have in store for you:

Draft Ian Kennedy, Not James Shields

Pitcher-A: Threw 201 innings in 33 starts this past season with a 9.27 K/9 and a 3.44 xFIP. Pitcher-A enters 2015 at age 30 and this will be his contract year.

Pitcher-B: Threw 227 innings in 34 starts this past season with a 7.14 K/9 and a 3.56 xFIP. Pitcher-B enters 2015 at age 33 and just signed a lucrative four-year contract.

Which pitcher would you rather have? Rhetorical question, Farley! With the age and contract details included, obviously Pitcher-A is Ian Kennedy and Pitcher-B is James Shields. The numbers shared do not tell the whole story but they sure do make Ian Kennedy the more appealing San Diego pitcher when compared to James Shields. What should be even more appealing to drafters is that Kennedy can be had around 75 picks later in 2015 drafts.

Full disclosure; James Shields throws 200 innings like clockwork and did have the better ERA and WHIP in 2014. Shields finished the season with a 3.21 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP compared to Kennedy’s 3.63 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. The 2014 success Shields had can largely be attributed to his ability to limit walks on his way to posting an impressive K/BB rate of 4.09. Kennedy posted a 2.96 K/BB rate in 2014. It is only fair to point out that James Shields had little reason to walk anyone with what was widely considered to be the league’s best defense playing behind him in Kansas City last season. The same cannot be said for the Padres’ defense he will have playing behind him in 2015.

Shields can regularly be expected to post a K/BB rate in the mid-3’s. A look back to 2011 and 2012 reveals that Ian Kennedy also has it in him to achieve a mid-3’s K/BB rate (3.60 in 2011 and 3.40 in 2012). While he is not quite the innings eater Shields has proven to be, Kennedy has surpassed the 200 innings pitched mark in three of the past four seasons and should be expected to approach a career high this season as he chases a big pay-day.

James Shields is as reliable as they come. He’s likely to go off the board around the 100th overall pick in most standard leagues and rightfully so. Shields has the track record you can bank on, there’s no denying that. If you miss out on his services and want a solid chance at a similar stat line, take a chance on Ian Kennedy who should be available sometime between picks 150 and 200 overall.

Draft Marcus Stroman, Not Sonny Gray

Just about everything Sonny Gray did on his way to a 3.09 ERA in 2014 was topped by another young starting pitcher in the form of Marcus Stroman. Since Stroman ended the year with a 3.65 ERA, early indication is that he will end up lasting about 80 to 100 picks further into 2015 drafts than Gray. Perhaps the fact Stroman stands just 5’9” has a little something to do with his ADP as well.

  ERA xFIP WHIP K/BB GB/FB FA Velocity
Gray 3.09 3.46 1.19 2.47 2.19 93 MPH
Stroman 3.65 3.17 1.17 3.96 1.94 93.6 MPH

So far, it appears as though Sonny Gray only had a slight advantage in his ability to induce ground balls. Take the ERA column out and nullify all park and defensive factors and tell me who you would rather have in 2015? No contest, right? Want to feel even better about Stroman? Check out what he did once he got his feet wet and really started to put it all together in the second half:

  ERA xFIP WHIP K/BB GB/FB
Stroman 3.38 2.43 1.11 4.27 2.43

What his second half might indicate is that Stroman did a better job of adjusting to the league than the league did of adjusting to him. All indications so far suggest that in 2015 Sonny Gray should see his ERA go up while Stroman’s falls.

The other factors to consider are home ballpark, defense, bullpens, and potential run support. I do not need any fancy numbers to tell you that Oakland and pitching in the AL West in general is more advantageous for pitchers than throwing in Toronto and the AL East ball parks. Advantage: Sonny Gray

Defensively, Toronto ranked 7th overall in 2014 team fielding percentage, while Oakland finished 28th overall in the category. An off-season of changes for both teams will likely impact their respective team defense going forward. Toronto’s addition of Russell Martin is perhaps the most important defensive upgrade made by any team in baseball this off-season. Martin is heralded for his defense and especially the framing metrics everyone is so high on all of a sudden. Another improvement up the middle should be seen in centerfield for the Blue Jays as they let rookie Dalton Pompey loose this season. As for Oakland, they will have a new look at C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, and LF in 2015. Only Brett Lawrie seems like a potential upgrade for them at any one of those spots. Advantage: Marcus Stroman

The A’s have put together one of baseball’s best bullpens and it only got stronger with the recent addition of Tyler Clippard. Sonny Gray is about as reliable as anyone to go six innings every time out and his bullpen should have no problem holding a lead for him. To this point it would be difficult to tell you the same thing when Marcus Stroman exits a game. The Blue Jays likely have an addition or two to make still and have done nothing to alter their shaky bullpen this off-season and lost closer Casey Janssen to free agency. Whatever the Blue Jays do to shore up their pen likely will not hold a candle to the A’s pen. Advantage: Sonny Gray

That moves us to the next question; will any runs be scored in Oakland? What I’m seeing is an offense that lacks a sure 15+ homer bat. Two of the better players in the Oakland lineup are Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick who tend to familiarize themselves with the disabled list often. On the flip side, I’m fairly certain the Blue Jays will be at least as solid offensively as they were a season ago and they may even push to become the best offensive team in baseball. Advantage: Marcus Stroman

Marcus Stroman has better peripherals across the board when compared to Sonny Gray. He does play in a tougher pitcher’s park but with a superior defense to Gray. Stroman appears set to have better run support than Gray but will need the cushion for when he hands a game over to his bullpen. All the external factors seem like a wash to me. Ultimately this comes down to the peripherals as the tie breaker. The verdict here is that there is no way Sonny Gray ends up on a 2015 squad of mine through the draft. Why in the world would anyone select Gray in the top 100 when Stroman profiles better than him and can be had 80 to 100 picks later? At the time Sonny Gray goes off the board I will have my eyes set on an upside bat along the lines of a Christian Yelich, Kolten Wong, or Mookie Betts type.

Draft Rick Porcello, Not Jered Weaver

85.9 MPH. Yes, that might be the average fastball speed of the best high school pitcher in your area. 85.9 MPH also happens to be the average two-seam fastball speed for Jered Weaver. Next number; 4.30. No, that is not the GPA of the local valedictorian. This is Jered Weaver’s xFIP from 2014 (4.18 SIERA).

Poor Jered Weaver is always getting picked on by us fantasy nerds. What I worry about for Jered Weaver is that he is destined to become in 2015 what Matt Cain was in 2014. Whether the clock strikes midnight on him in 2015 is TBD but he will not be doing it on my team. Even if the smoke and mirrors act of Jered Weaver leads to another 3.59 ERA, 1.21 Whip, and 169 K’s as he produced in 2014, I would rather wait nearly 100 picks and select Rick Porcello instead.

The newly anointed ace of the Red Sox finally had a breakthrough in 2014 as he produced a 3.43 ERA, 1.23 Whip, and 129 K’s. The 15.4% K-rate left quite a bit to be desired. I cannot deny that. Still, for 2015, health permitting I would put my money on Weaver’s strikeout total falling, while Porcello adds to his 2014 total.

Something else to like is that Porcello has consistently been able to induce a large number of ground balls and the defense slated to play behind him in Boston will be a large upgrade over the defense that played behind him in Detroit last season.

In shallow leagues, there’s a chance both Weaver and Porcello are nothing better than high-end waiver wire guys. For deeper formats of 12+ teams Porcello and Weaver should absolutely be rostered. In either case you are going to want to pair Weaver or Porcello with a guy like Ian Kennedy above who should provide a boost in K’s.

Here’s a little draft logic for you; pass on Weaver, select the big K arm from Ian Kennedy around 185 overall instead, and then wait to pair him with Rick Porcello around 285 overall. Another way to look at that scenario is that there is no way you could pick Weaver up at around 185 overall and plan to pick up a big K arm to offset his deficiencies at around 285 overall. There are simply no 200 K arms coming at 285 overall. A Kennedy and Porcello combo could average out to two pitchers producing a 3.60 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, with 170 K’s, and a reasonable shot at a nice pile of wins.

Draft Kyle Lohse, Not Doug Fister

I want to leave you with one more and I am going to keep this short and to the point. Doug Fister is coming off a 2014 campaign that featured a 2.41 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 98 K’s in 164 innings pitched. These seasons happen from time to time. Kyle Lohse posted a 2.86 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 143 K’s in 211 innings pitched back in 2012. As I mentioned, these seasons happen from time to time. What you should take from this is that Fister and Lohse have the veteran presence to pitch above what their “stuff” says they can. The most likely scenario after a season like Lohse had back in 2012 and Fister had just a season ago is they will fall back into the mid 3’s in ERA, with a around 1.17 WHIP and a K total that you will have to make up for elsewhere.

Both Fister and Lohse work as great compliments to pitchers of the Francisco Liriano, Zack Wheeler, Danny Salazar, or Ian Kennedy variety. Fister will fall back to reality in 2014 but will still post a usable season for fantasy purposes. Lohse gives no indication he is going to cease doing what he has done year in and year out. At the end of the season Fister and Lohse will look like mirror images of one another. So why does Kyle Lohse go over 140 picks later in NFBC drafts?

Draft This: Not That
Catcher First BaseSecond BaseThird Base Shortstop
Outfield Part 1 Outfield Part 2 – Pitcher Part 1 – Pitchers Part 2 – Relievers