Starting Pitcher Tiers

Written by: David Holler

Starting pitching is arguably the most important position in fantasy. You cannot win your league without a number of good options to anchor your staff. This position is also full of arm injuries, variability from year to year, and sleepers who will come out of nowhere to finish in the top-20.

There are so many starters to consider, so do not consider this list to be comprehensive. I’ve broken my top 35 pitchers into tiers to help you plan the first 125+ selections of your draft. These are the pitchers who should anchor your rotation.

The last tier titled the “Lottery Ticket Tier” identifies 10 players who could break out in 2017 and be a major difference maker in your title run. These players are not the 36th through 45th ranked players. They are the players beyond the top 35 who have the greatest chance to break out and finish in the top-20 for this year and beyond.

Editors Note: Dave would have done a complete tier by tier breakdown if not for the impending birth of his third child, so cut him some slack if your pitcher is not here and instead offer up some congratulations. He will return if two weeks to cover closers.

The Elite Tier

  • Clayton Kershaw LAD 29
  • Max Scherzer WAS 32
  • Madison Bumgarner SF 27

Clayton Kershaw is a once in a generation pitcher. He is the favorite to win the triple crown of pitching, plays in some of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, and is the safest pick this side of Mike Trout. The only question is how much are you willing to invest in the best pitcher in the game.

Max Scherzer has recorded 230+ strikeouts in each of the past five seasons. Couple that with a whip under 1.00 for the past two seasons and we’ve got a challenger to Kershaw for the sabermetric king of 2017.

Madison Bumgarner won’t earn you any points for chopping wood in his Carhartt jacket, but he should. This guy feasts on the NL West to the tune of a sub 3.00 ERA and strikeouts well into the 200’s. At 27, he is in the prime years of his Hall of Fame career.

The Near Elite Tier

  • Chris Sale BOS 28
  • Corey Kluber CLE 30
  • Noah Syndergaard NYM 24
  • Jake Arrieta CHC 31

Chris Sale has the talent and numbers to be placed in the elite tier. What effect will the temperamental Sale’s move to Fenway have on his season? You’ll have to pay a high price to find out, so let’s hope he fares better than David Price.

Corey Kluber was absolutely dominant in his six postseason starts last October. Kluber is nearly unhittable when he dials it up. His strikeout totals and WHIP should be near the top of the league with an ERA around his career mark of 3.33.

Noah Syndergaard has arguably the best stuff in the majors. Where you take “Thor” will depend completely on your comfort level with his injury risk. Anytime I hear a pitcher this young dealing with an elbow issue I get nervous. His talent puts him in the elite tier, his injury potential could drop him right into Strasburg territory.

Jake Arrieta is pitching on the last year of his contract in 2017. As insanely competitive as Arrieta is, that should be bad news for the rest of the National League. I expect the Cubs ace to have one of his best seasons as he prepares to enter free agency.

The Big Names Tier

  • Jon Lester CHC 33
  • David Price BOS 31
  • Johnny Cueto SF 31
  • Justin Verlander DET 34

Jon Lester brings a resume of great consistency, pitches for an outstanding offense, and has started at least 31 games every season since 2008. With all those positives, I’m willing to overlook a historically higher WHIP and lower strikeout total than the other pitchers in this tier.

David Price did not pitch well by his lofty standards last season. His ERA (3.99), FIP (3.60) and WHIP (1.204) were all the highest they’ve been since his rookie season in 2008. Price belongs in this tier as I fully expect him to settle into the #3 pitching slot for Boston behind Porcello and Sale this year. A return to previous form would mean Cy Young Award numbers.

Johnny Cueto has been great since 2011 (excluding 13 subpar starts for the Royals down the stretch in 2015). His strikeout totals may not quite reach 200, but I expect the wins, ERA, and WHIP to be among the league leaders pitching in the NL West.

Justin Verlander, welcome back. After two disappointing seasons (2014 & 2015), most pundits were in agreement that the dominant stretch of Verlander’s career had come to an end. With the return of his great velocity and some much-needed adjustments, Verlander became one of the greatest values of 2016. Due to age and inconsistency over the past three seasons, I would advise selecting the other pitchers in this tier before betting that there is a repeat coming this season.

The Potentially Dominant Tier

  • Stephen Strasburg WAS 28
  • Yu Darvish TEX 30
  • Carlos Carrasco CLE 30
  • Jacob deGrom NYM 28
  • Chris Archer TB 28

Stephen Strasburg is dominant when he can stay healthy. If you take Strasburg, you’re gambling on health. He is a strikeout master with a career 10.6 K/9. Perhaps the most ominous sign is that even Strasburg’s own agent doesn’t believe in his long-term health. Scott Boras, who takes his clients to free agency as a matter of principle, negotiated a long-term deal for Strasburg with years left on his contract. Take notice.

Yu Darvish is in the same injury plagued boat as Strasburg – maybe to a somewhat lesser extent, though. The career K/9 rate of 11.3 is elite, but he hasn’t made more than 22 starts since 2013. Investing in Darvish means you believe the injury woes are behind him or you can flip him midseason to an owner who’s willing to look past the risk.

Carlos Carrasco has the ability to be a top pitcher in 2017. He’s averaged over a strikeout per inning in each of the past three seasons, but the FIP and WHIP took a small step backward last year. Will this be the season that Carrasco puts it all together and makes 30+ starts?

Jacob deGrom took a small step back last season from his breakout in 2015. If you average his past two seasons, you’re looking at a guy with a 2.76 ERA, 1.077 WHIP, and a 9.2 K/9. He may not be the next coming of Tom Seaver, but you could interest me in the aforementioned numbers.

Chris Archer was a high pick for many fantasy owners last Spring. The 1.436 WHIP over the first half of last season was shockingly disappointing. Archer righted the ship after the All-Star Break and produced a 1.007 WHIP, but still managed to lead the league with 19 losses. Congratulations if you nabbed him as a buy-low option at the midpoint of the season. The career 1.202 WHIP has me looking elsewhere in this tier, but the raw ability and strikeout potential are undeniably immense.

The Next Best Tier

  • Kyle Hendricks CHC 27
  • Carlos Martinez STL 25
  • Cole Hamels TEX 33
  • Masahiro Tanaka NYY 28
  • Jose Quintana CWS 28

Kyle Hendricks probably won’t be able to repeat his outstanding 2016, but I’d take the career averages. Over the course of Hendricks’ two and a half-year career, he’s managed a 3.29 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and will pitch for the presumptive top hitting team in the National League. Take the Cubs hurler if you value consistency and a good chance at a win every time he takes the mound.

Carlos Martinez has shown enough in his 68 career starts to earn a five-year contract with the Cardinals this offseason. Management must believe that the career 1.29 WHIP will decrease with development and another season working with the great Molina.

Cole Hamels gives you the best chance at 200 strikeouts in this tier. Hamels has started at least 30 games in every season since 2008. He also owns a FIP in the 3.00’s for each season he has pitched in the majors. The only knocks on the Rangers ace are the jump in his walk rate last season, and the potential decline that comes with turning 33 years of age.

Masahiro Tanaka has put up an impressive 3.12 ERA, 1.045 WHIP and .709 winning percentage over the course of his three major league seasons for the Yankees. Tanaka would be in a higher tier if not for a risk of injuries. He’s pitched through many of the ailments to this point, but buyer beware.

Jose Quintana has a career 3.41 ERA and it’s dropping. He lowered his WHIP below 1.200 for the first time in 2016. Combine that with strikeout totals over 170 for each of the past three seasons and you’ll see why fantasy owners and MLB general managers have taken notice.

The High Risk / High Reward Tier

  • Zack Greinke ARI 33
  • Julio Teheran ATL 26
  • Gerrit Cole PIT 26
  • Danny Salazar CLE 27
  • Aaron Sanchez TOR 24
  • Felix Hernandez SEA 30
  • Matt Harvey NYM 28

Zack Greinke had the stereotypical “contract year” in 2015 and the “just got paid year” in 2016. The truth lies somewhere in between, but which year is it closer to? Pitching in Arizona and age are two factors pointing to the season with the 4.37 ERA. However, a vintage Greinke season makes you look like a genius.

Julio Teheran had a sabermetrician’s dream season considering where you were able to draft him. Ignore wins and losses and the Braves ace was a tremendous value. The 3.69 FIP tells us the 3.21 ERA might have been a little lucky, but I do expect the wins to come up this year with an improved Braves roster.

Gerrit Cole has the pedigree and stuff to be an elite pitcher. Injuries and a rough 2016 has put this in doubt. The 1.44 WHIP from last season will scare off enough owners to create a nice discount. Selecting Cole is a pick for ceiling and potential, not for the risk averse.

Danny Salazar had a big time breakout in 2015 and was drafted accordingly. He struck out 195 batters while posting a 1.13 WHIP. Predictably, Salazar crashed back down to earth; the WHIP ballooned to 1.340 and he got hurt. The talent is real, so I’m eyeing Salazar as a post-hype draft day bargain.

Aaron Sanchez broke out in a big way in 2016. He probably can’t go 15-2 again this year, or match his 3.00 ERA, but the talent is very real. He needs to develop other pitches to go with his fastball. If he can do that, you will see another quality stat line this season.

Felix Hernandez is trending in the wrong direction. King Felix’s pitching metrics took a noticeable dip in 2015 and then crashed and burned in 2016. It’s really hard to ignore the 4.63 FIP and 1.324 WHIP from last season. Hernandez will probably be taken a couple of rounds before he should because of name recognition and potentially Hall of Fame track record. The reports are already coming out about an improved fitness level, so take King Felix if you think a Verlander-like comeback is in the cards.

Matt Harvey was so good in 2015. What if he returns to form? I’m not a doctor, and I don’t actually know what Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is, but I read the symptoms include lack of feeling in your fingers. Sounds bad for a pitcher. He’s a super high risk, high reward pick. Take him if you can spare a pick.

The Fallback Tier

  • Kenta Maeda LAD 28
  • Kevin Gausman BAL 26
  • Rick Porcello BOS 28
  • Danny Duffy KC 28
  • Marcus Stroman TOR 25
  • Michael Fulmer DET 24
  • John Lackey CHC 38

Kenta Maeda pitched very well in his first MLB season. He finished the year with a 3.48 ERA and even managed to strikeout 179 batters. A ranking in this tier indicates a decent chance at a repeat of his impressive debut, but it’s far from a lock. I’d take the under on the player rater.

Kevin Gausman is a popular breakout pick for 2017. He has the stuff to make a major breakout – so what price are you willing to gamble? Take Gausman as a flier, but I’m staying away from pitchers in the AL East without a proven track record.

Rick Porcello was the steal of the draft in 2016. The Cy Young winner dropped his 2015 WHIP from 1.36 to 1.009 in 2016. Pitching adjustments can make such a difference, but most pundits aren’t buying a repeat performance. I believe Porcello’s 2017 WHIP will be closer to his career mark of 1.306.

Danny Duffy experienced some luck last season with his 12-3 record and 3.51 ERA. Conversely, the 188 strikeouts and 1.141 WHIP were signs of a legitimate age 27 breakout. I personally see some regression coming and won’t be betting on a carbon copy of 2016. Take Duffy if he slips in your draft, but you may have already seen the ceiling.

Marcus Stroman probably cost you a valuable draft pick last Spring, but he didn’t play like one. The Blue Jays ace has the ability to get batters out and probably hasn’t shown us his ceiling yet. Will this be the year? The lack of strikeouts, pitching in the AL East and a limited productive track record brings an equally low floor.

Michael Fulmer won the Rookie of the Year award last season by posting a 3.06 ERA and 1.119 WHIP. The 3.76 FIP suggests there is a market correction coming, but you have to consider this guy with the success he had this year. Expect regression, but I wouldn’t let the AL ROY slip too far in your draft or auction.

John Lackey missed 2012 because of Tommy John surgery. Since that time he has posted a 3.35 ERA, 1.178 WHIP, and a 7.7 K/9 rate. At age 38 he is the oldest pitcher appearing in this article, so we can’t realistically expect this to continue forever. Lackey will decline at some point, but pitching for the Cubs keeps him fantasy relevant.

The Lottery Ticket Tier

  • Dallas Keuchel HOU 29
  • Steven Matz NYM 25
  • Aaron Nola PHI 23
  • Sean Manaea OAK 25
  • Jon Gray COL 25
  • Jameson Taillon PIT 25
  • Carlos Rodon CWS 24
  • Tyler Glasnow PIT 23
  • Anthony DeSclafani CIN 26
  • James Paxton SEA 28

This is the tier for owners who like pull tabs and Powerball tickets. These guys could finish in the top-10 or outside the top-100. They are not your 36th – 45th ranked players. These ten players are all worth a flier if you can spare the draft pick and the roster spot. Proceed with caution in deeper leagues if you cannot afford to miss on a pick.

Dallas Keuchel won the Cy Young in 2015. That sentence alone vaults you to the top of this list as long as your arm is still attached. A report suggests rotator cuff inflammation may have contributed to his disappointing 2016. Follow his progress in Spring Training.

Steven Matz limits offenses and struck out almost a batter per inning last season. Like almost every young Mets pitcher, there have been injury concerns. At this point in the draft, I’ll take the chance.

Aaron Nola was the 7th overall pick in the 2014 draft and struck out over a batter an inning last season. The Phillies ace dealt with an injury and growing pains, but the ceiling is sky-high with the strikeout potential.

Sean Manaea looked pretty good in his rookie season posting a 1.189 WHIP and having some nice moments. There were rough patches as well for the former first round pick, but imagine what a step forward would look like.

Jon Gray struck out 9.9 batters per 9 innings in 2017 with a 3.60 FIP. His stuff is nasty, but so is Coors Field on pitchers. At some point, a pitcher will overcome the mile high air. Gray has the talent to be that guy.

Jameson Taillon had an impressive debut last season. The highlight was his 1.115 WHIP. Expect a little regression because of the 3.71 FIP, but there was a lot to get excited about during the rookie season.

Carlos Rodon strikes out over a batter per inning, and he’s only going to be 24 years old this season. That’s the good news. The ERA, WHIP, and FIP need to take a major step forward to be a fantasy ace.

Tyler Glasnow will officially be a rookie this season, so we can’t draw too many conclusions from his 23 MLB innings. The Pirates prospect has been highly rated coming through the minors and has top end stuff.

Anthony DeSclafani seems to be over drafted to me, presumably because of the 3.28 ERA he posted last season. The FIP, WHIP, and K/9 are very pedestrian. I’m staying away because of the ADP, but pounce if he slides to the late stages of your draft.

James Paxton pitched over 100 innings in the majors for the first time in 2016. The 2.80 FIP he posted has put Paxton on the fantasy owner’s radar. Striking out almost a batter per inning also adds to his potential in 2017.


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