2016 Rankings Sneak Preview: Starting Pitching

Like outfielders, there are a lot of SP options in the draft, and you’re more likely to find budding, useful starters in the FA pool during the season than you are going to hit on a new stud hitter. Outside of closers, Starting pitchers have the biggest risk and reward for value. It’s true that because we’re in a pitching age, the SP depth is abundant, so you can focus on hitters first and pitchers later. However, in every position the elite, super-studs are still leaps and bounds above the average player, so I’m still going to grab an ace or two in the first eight rounds.

What Did I Miss in 2015?

In the 2015 rankings, two of the Assembly team called Sonny Gray overrated, and I had him ranked the lowest, at #39. For the season he’s the #50 player in the game, and the #12 SP. Did I fully miss on him? Not really. I knew he had the potential for great WHIP and ERA due to his ground ball tilt. However, he lacked the K/9 (and even K/BB) to break into my top rankings. In 2015 he hasn’t really improved on his K/9, but his BB/9 was great in the first half (2.2) before fading back to 3.0. He also had some likely BABIP luck this season, and though I believe he can stay under the MLB average, I don’t see anything that screams top-15 SP. Unless he greatly improves K/9 and or BB/9, I feel he’s more likely to repeat 2014 than to improve on his 2015 stats.

A definite miss for me would be Alex Wood. I was admittedly very high on him, and why shouldn’t I have been? A K/9 of 8.9 and a BB/9 of 2.4 in 2014 had him poised for a full season of starts in 2015. Unfortunately, the K/9 dropped a lot to 6.7, and his BB/9 rose a little to 2.9. When combined with some potentially slight bad luck in BABIP and strand rate, there was no way he’d live up to my expectations of a top-15 SP. Even if Wood was making some in-season adjustments, his velocity has been slightly fading over the last two seasons, and I can’t expect a return to 2014 levels.

I have always loved Jordan Zimmermann‘s sub-2.0 walk rate. When he combined that with his best K/9 since his rookie year, I was optimistic. The K/9 fell a little but was still his second best in the last five years. The issue was the suddenly higher ERA and WHIP. In today’s game, a 1.21 WHIP is only average, and given Zimm’s previous ability to get it under 1.10, it killed his value. His highest ERA in the last five years also hurt. When looking at his half seasons, he gained back his good K/9 in the second half but suffered from gopheritis with a HR/FB of 19%. It’s a mixed bag for him in 2016, and though I still like him, I can’t label him as highly reliable, so he has to drop from my #8 ranking last year to likely out of the top-20.

On the surface, it seems I missed on Garrett Richards. I ranked him #71 because I was wary of his recovery and playing time when I had to make the rankings. This year he’s in the top-35 for SP. However, I’m not sold for 2016. His ERA was lucky in 2014, primarily due to a 4% HR/FB. This year the homers came back, and his ERA rose accordingly. His strikeout and walk rates also took small hits compared to his breakout 2014 season. Perhaps you can point to them being better in the second half, so maybe the further he gets from his injury, the better he’ll get. However, 2014’s super breakout was clearly luck induced, and 2016 is more likely to be closer to 2015.

Questions for 2016

Is Jake Arrieta legit? The short answer is yes. I’m sure we will be posting a few articles on SP breakouts in the coming months, but you should invest in this new ace. I don’t expect him to fully repeat his ERA and WHIP, because there is a touch of luck involved, but his skills are solid: a new ground ball tilt, a steady K/9 over 9.0 for two seasons, and a further improved walk rate. I wouldn’t go to Kershaw prices for him, but he’s a top-5 SP for 2016.

How about Dallas Keuchel? I’m less certain of a repeat from him than from Arrieta, because there isn’t any major skills growth here. You can point to the spike in K/9, but his velocity (same), swinging strike rate (up slightly), and first pitch strike (down) don’t really back it up. Batters are swinging out of the zone a little more than last year, but not by a ton. He’s throwing more pitchers out of the zone and getting hitter to chase or make weak contact. That may correct in 2016. I’m setting my expectations of ERA, WHIP, and K/9 closer to 2014 than 2015, which means I likely won’t have him next year because people will value him as a top-10 SP.

Can Adam Wainwright be a top-20 starter in 2016? I’m not going to bite. In redraft leagues, I tend to avoid pitchers who missed the majority of the previous season. He’s only getting older, and he had a noticeable K/9 fade in 2014. I’ve taken him for years and reaped the rewards as people pass on him due to age and other hyped options, but it’s time to move on for my #2 SP.

Will the real James Shields please stand up? A lot of fantasy managers assumed a move to the National League would result in better numbers, but his ERA and WHIP are his worst in the last five years, despite a new home park that’s pitcher friendly. A career high in HR/FB has led to gopheritis (33 HR allowed). He’s lost velocity on his fastball. He’s changed his repertoire. He posted his worst walk rate of his career (and is throwing out of the zone more often). But he also posted his career best K/9 and swinging strike rate. It’s certainly a mixed bag, but given his history of good value, along with the occasional clunker (see 2010), I’m going to hope he takes a drastic fall in ADP and scoop him up for a decent return. That being said, he’ll have a short leash in 2016.

Early Sleeper Picks

I’ve bought into Hisashi Iwakuma every year. After his really shiny 2.66 ERA in 2013, it jumped up to 3.52, and that scared people away. Then in 2015 he missed significant time due to a lat strain. Despite that, his WHIP and BB/9 are still very elite, he has a consistent K/9 for his MLB career (around 7.5), and he has a nice GB%. He’s older and doesn’t play for a big media team, but for 2016 redrafts I’m buying high on him — and he likely won’t cost as much as comparable production.

On the surface, Jose Quintana didn’t improve much from 2013 to 2014, or even to 2015. He doesn’t get a lot of love, and that’s what makes him a great buy. First, we all know by now that wins don’t tell the whole story, so despite his poor W-L records, it’s not his fault — the White Sox are simply pretty awful: also see Chris Sale’s unimpressive 12-11 this year. In Quintana’s case, his quality starts have gone up every season, and he sits at 24 QS in 31 GS this year. That’s tied for 6th this year, along with Gerrit Cole. On top of that, he has four years of improving walk rate. He has a slightly high BABIP this season, though it’s not far off of last year’s. It may mean he could improve there, but it doesn’t seem a certainty. Regardless, this is a skill set to invest in now, before he breaks out. I’m targeting him in redraft as well as keeper leagues.

If people have forgotten about Patrick Corbin due to him missing the first half of the year (and all of 2014), that’s their mistake. I was very high on him before the injury, and he’s done well in his 15 starts. He had a nice July, and then he had a rocky and unlucky August. He did much better in September, and in 2016 I could see an ERA under 3.40 and a WHIP under 1.20, along with a strong walk rate and an average to good strikeout rate.

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Kevin Jebens

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Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.