[Editor’s Note: I’m very pleased to publish this guest post from Scott Rudicil, a.k.a. Bodhizefa from various message boards in the fantasy baseball community. One of Scott’s claims to fame is his annual Tiers of Starting Pitching dissertation. This is great stuff, which I can attest to first hand since it helped me acquire Zack Greinke and Josh Johnson on the cheap last year. So enjoy his 2010 version, and I hope you didn’t have any other work to do today!]
Gentlemen (and ladies, if you’re out there… yes, that includes you, Doug),
It’s a pleasure to bring you my Tiers of Starting Pitching for 2010. What I find interesting after doing this for so long is that every year I realize just how much I don’t know about the vast world of pitchers. There are plenty of analysts out there who have a much more comprehensive database, better knowledge of statistics, scout contacts in the business, and better food than microwavable Hot Pockets to fuel their mission.
But by God, those jackasses charge a lot of money, so I like to help out where I can for the majority of the crowd who frequent message boards like RotoJunkie. If I happen to unearth a gem here or there through my work, awesome. And if I happen to be totally wrong about the guy, I’m sure it was Todd Zola’s fault (way to go, Todd).
In the years since I began this pet project, we’ve seen the advent of the amazing FanGraphs. If you aren’t a regular frequenter of their site, I encourage you to dig your heels in and get a learnin’. They’re providing some cutting edge statistics for everyone for the fantastic price of free.
And as per usual, many thanks to Hardball Times, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, ESPN, Mastersball, RotoJunkie, Gatorade, the cookies my sister made me the other day, and my friend Rio’s mom for all the help they’ve given me in the past few weeks in writing this thing.
I’d also like to thank Dusty Baker for fueling the fire in my belly to start this thing way back in the day due to his handling of certain pitchers that shall remained unnamed. Dusty Baker, you can die and go to hell. (No, I don’t hold grudges.)
Lastly, I’ve included the Average Draft Position (mixed League) in parentheses for each player and occasionally commented on them. I used this instead of FIP this year because it seems more relevant to what we’re all trying to find—value. So, without further adieu…
Tier 1—Timmah’s Tier
1. Tim Lincecum, SF (ADP: 12)—He is in a class all his own. Period. The End.
Tier 2—The Superstars
2. Roy Halladay, PHI (24)—One of the best pitchers in baseball moves to the NL (iNferior League), and he can’t even get top billing? Any conspiracy theorists out there wondering if MLB mandated that Toronto send him to the NL just so Lincecum wouldn’t win his 3rd Cy in a row and subsequently bust the arbitration system all straight to hell? Yeah, me neither.
3. Zack Greinke, KC (26)—He was amazing last year, but let’s take a moment to be realistic. He plays for the Royals, who apparently think Yuniesky Betancourt and Willie Bloomquist are an excellent middle infield. When did Bill Bavasi become chief advisor to Dayton Moore? Considering how interested Greinke is in sabermetric statistics, I’m surprised he hasn’t pulled a Billy Cole from “The Last Boy Scout”, drawing a Colt 1911 from under his cup and shooting Betancourt through his glove, exclaiming, “Now you’ve got a real excuse, asshole!”
4. Dan Haren, ARI (42)—I wrote last year that Haren may actually be a better pitcher than his counterpart in the rotation, Brandon Webb, despite Webb always getting more press. Well, that’s not a problem any more. My only beef with Haren is that he’s simply not as good in Head-to-Head leagues since he generally sees a decline in productivity in the second half.
5. C.C. Sabathia, NYY (28)—The best part about new Yankee Stadium’s homer happiness is that it doesn’t affect Sabathia nearly as much since he’s a southpaw. Without even knowing it, the Yankees lucked into probably the best starter for their ballpark in the entirety of baseball (okay, luck and spending $160 million may not be the best bedfellows, but still, it is an entertaining thought). Sabathia’s pretty amazing—three years of 255+ innings (including playoffs), and he’s still going. Side Note: Isn’t it interesting that in almost any other sport, having a figure like Sabathia’s would instantly preclude a bevy of articles questioning his stamina and work ethic, yet in baseball, being a big fatty is often seen as a positive? I love baseball.
6. Felix Hernandez, SEA (31)—Here’s the real issue with what was Felix’s supposed coming out party. I think a decent part of his awesomeness in ’09 can actually be attributed to the super duper defense in Seattle. And I think another part of the “breakout” had to do with Felix getting lucky against left-handers with homeruns. Do I think Felix actually learned how to pitch instead of just throwing really hard? Yes, I do. So it’s the combination of the defense plus Felix’s awareness of how to pitch with that type of defense behind him that makes me recommend him highly this year. But I have my doubts as to whether he’s a full-blown, legitimate every-year-with-a-shot-of-an-under-3.00 ERA type of pitcher yet. Thus, he’s the lowest ranked of the 2nd Tier. The good news? He’ll be 24 this season, and every single year I’ve watched him he’s learned something new and has improved his game. Is the learning curve done? I’m betting no.
Tier 3—The Studs
7. Cliff Lee, SEA (54)—Lee moves to a team that arguably has the best defense in baseball and is in a park that hinders right-handed power almost to an extreme. Any regression that Lee sees in HR/FB should be easily balanced out by an outperformance of FIP due to defense and the park’s natural suppression of RH power. Also, I think he’s a bit more dependable peripherally than the next few guys (not by much, but he’s shown the most stability of this tier in my opinion).
8. Johan Santana, NYM (45)—His peripherals have gone down steadily over the years, and as much as I love him from a personal standpoint, Santana has a low probability of ever becoming vintage Santana again. So what does that leave us with? A very good pitcher who should decline slowly but steadily each year for a while. I’ll take that. Gladly, in fact. But don’t be the guy who’s trying to relive 2005 over and over and over, okay?
9. Justin Verlander, DET (47)—Was he one of the best pitchers in baseball last year? Absolutely. Am I worried that his velocity spike is unsustainable? Absolutely. And to me, that’s the biggest reason for his awesomeness. His contact % went from a career rate of over 80% to a much more star-like 76%. It will also be interesting to see how two new youngsters play defense behind him (A.Jackson and S.Sizemore) as both of them are replacing above average defenders at their respective positions. Jackson in particular should be of interest to Verlander fans given his high flyball %. He’s a possible Tier 2 guy for sure, but I think there’s enough risk involved (i.e. probable regression) to where we have to knock him down slightly. A good argument could even be made that he’s better than Felix Hernandez. However, the defense and the ballpark behind him are not better than Seattle’s, and that has significance in this whole projection thing.
10. Jon Lester, BOS (59)—Look, I was dead wrong about him. How in the hell could anyone have guessed that Lester was going to see yet another spike in velocity? He was quite awesome last year, and the defense behind him is stellar in 2010. So why isn’t he a Tier 2? Much like Verlander, I’m worried that velo spike isn’t sustainable (Ervin Santana 2008 vs. 2009 comes to mind as an example). And with a bit of a drop in velo comes a drop in strikeouts and overall effectiveness. Your mileage may vary, but I can’t see ranking him above anyone on this list, especially given his divisional competition.
11. Chris Carpenter, STL (73… no, this is not his age)—He’s older than when he was a fantasy horse in the mid-2000’s, and I think it’s probable that he won’t pitch 230+ innings. Still, he’s one of the smartest pitchers in the game right now, and he’s still got the toolset to use those smarts to their fullest.
12. Josh Johnson, FLA (66)—Another guy with a velo spike, but to me, his seems a tad more sustainable. Still regress his numbers a bit, but this is the talent level he flashed in 2006 before he got hurt. I find it baffling, though, that Florida pushed him to 209 innings after a season in which he only notched barely above 100, though. Does this organization never learn from their mistakes on handling young arms? Thusly, he comes with risk, but he may be the most affordable player in this tier given the lack of press he generally receives.
13. Josh Beckett, BOS (78)—Have I mentioned yet how awesome the Red Sox defense is this year? Beltre at 3rd + Cameron in Center + Ellsbury in Left = very good for Josh Beckett.
14. Cole Hamels, PHI (102)—I’m sure most of you have read where his peripherals were almost exactly the same last year as in years prior. They would be right. Hamels’ FIP’s the last 3 years? 3.83, 3.72, and 3.72. His BABIP will regress this year, and he should be fine again. Still, after being pretty lucky in ’07 and ’08, I’d look for more of a mid-3’s ERA and 1.20ish WHIP than the lower luck-driven numbers in years past.
15. Adam Wainwright, STL (56)—Wainwright is more luck than skill, and I am aghast that he gets as much press as he does. He’s not an ace, but he constantly gets billed as one. His strikeout rate last year increased dramatically despite his contact % barely going up a percentage point. Expect that to regress to the low to mid 7’s. I anticipate an ERA closer to the mid to upper 3’s than anything in the 2’s this year.
16. Ricky Nolasco, FLA (106)—What a weird weird year for him last year. He had an almost disastrously flukey ERA while almost all his peripherals were even better than his breakout season. I’m willing to bet he’ll be on almost all my teams this year as you can net him later in the draft while stocking up on one extra solid hitter versus the rest of the guys in this tier.
17. Clayton Kershaw, LAD (96)—This guy is a bulldog. I love his charisma and attitude and demeanor on the mound. Even when he doesn’t have his control, he’s still fighting through it, trying to make adjustments. He’ll definitely give up more homers this year, but he’s got one of the best young lefty arms in baseball.
Tier 4—The Really Good Pitchers
Guys that are either injury risks or are technically #2 starters, but their teams probably call them an “ace”
18. Matt Cain, SF (92)—One of those guys who always manages to outproduce his peripherals in some way, shape or form. There are names for people like that in sabermetrics. They’re called assholes. So here’s to you, Matt Cain. You’re one heck of an asshole.
19. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU (116)—He’s good, though I was really surprised when I was going over his bio and realized he was 31 years old. Also… “Magic Wandy”? That’s the best his fans could come up with? Seriously? Let’s just move on.
20. John Lackey, BOS (118)—I love that Red Sox fans are fine with owning Lackey because “he’s fine as a #3 starter.” Red Sox fans, you can go to hell. And say hey to Dusty for me while you’re down there, too.
21. Yovani Gallardo, MIL (87)—2009’s version of Gallardo is why we play the game on the field and not on a spreadsheet (or on MLB ’09 The Show, where Gallardo pitched three no-hitters for me). That he had a pretty sizeable control problem in ’09 went beyond head-scratching to a bit of a shocker for me. And then I went back and realized it was his first full season in the big leagues despite my notion that he had been around for a few years now. In any case, his stuff looked quite good last year, but he had a lot of rust to iron out. I think the kid gloves come off for Gallardo this year, and he moves towards becoming one of the better pitchers nobody knows about.
22. Jake Peavy, CWS (84)—April 5th: The day Jake Peavy realizes he’s not in Petco anymore. April 30th: The day Kenny Williams realizes how much of an impact Petco had on Peavy’s success. Look, I like Jake Peavy. I do. And I don’t mind Kenny Williams so much anymore. And Williams didn’t give up much in the way of talent to acquire Peavy. But what he did give up was a lot of money to a guy with a growing injury list and peripherals that were masked by the Michael Myers of all baseball masks—Petco Park. Peavy’s an interesting experiment, but on a team that thinks Carlos Quentin is a better option in right field than Andruw Jones, I’m probably not risking my fantasy season on Peavy being too awfully good. He is the very definition of high risk/high reward in 2010, so if you’ve already fallen behind by the time Peavy’s name pops up on your draft radar, well, may luck be your lady tonight.
23. Brandon Webb, ARI (123)—A bonafide ace when healthy, Webb is a pleasure to watch when on. His sinker baffles people to ground out weakly time and time again, and his curveball and change-up are both above average offerings at this point. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether he’ll be healthy in 2010, but he’s probably worth taking a risk on. I rank him right behind Peavy because Peavy’s already shown us he’s back (in some capacity). We’ll still waiting for Webb to do that.
24. Tommy Hanson, ATL (80)—Sexy. And probably worth the risk, too. Usually I worry about innings being a problem, but he threw close to 190 IP last year in total. Yeah, just go ahead and splurge.
25. James Shields, TB (128)—Generally the best of the guys who have good control but not as much stuff, Shields had a bevy of bad luck last year in the BABIP department. As per usual, and with such a solid defense behind him, we should expect a regression towards the good. His peripherals remind me a little of Cole Hamels as he was lucky a couple years in a row, maybe got a little overrated going into 2009, and then was unlucky in a big way. I’m buying.
26. Chad Billingsley, LAD (121)—So he had a setback. So did Sylvester Stallone, and what helped him through it? Steroids! In all actuality, Bills’ peripherals stood fairly strong in 2010, but he didn’t continue his improvement in the control department. That’s going to be the difference between him being a good pitcher and a great one. I’m here to tell you I have no clue if he can do it. How’s that for “expert advice”?! He’s one of those guys that, if you need a burst of upside, you should roll the dice on him. Otherwise, there are other, fatter, and seemingly better pitchers that I would recommend.
27. Ubaldo Jimenez, COL (103)—Do I really have a Rockies pitcher this high? And did I specifically save his ranking for when I was drinking? Yes and yes, thank you. Jimenez is a fascinating pitcher, and not just because he’s the hardest throwing starter in baseball either. He was a bit of a walking contradiction last year. His HR/FB ratios and BABIP were low despite being in Coors. The BABIP can partially be explained by the good infield defense (that almost makes up for the fact that the outfield defense on the Rockies is pretty crappy right now). But can Jimenez keep that HR rate down? And can he keep up his improvement in control? I still get the feeling that he’s not really sure where his pitches are going, and I think it’s 50/50 as to whether he regresses as opposed to improves there. Control takes an awful lot of work, and you just never know which pitchers are going to put in that time. For now, I like those strikeouts but would probably expect regression in all other categories for Jimenez.
Tier 5—Solid Gents
Guys who maybe shouldn’t be at the top of your fantasy rotation, but are still good!
28. Jair Jurrjens, ATL (136)—This is precisely the type of player you allow your dumbo casual leaguemates to draft and think they got a young “ace.” While Jurrjens is pretty good, his peripherals last year supported an ERA more akin to mid or high 3’s than the ridiculous 2.60 he put up. Not to mention the fact that the Braves’ defense was in the lower half of baseball last year and doesn’t project to be much better this season. Basically, I look at Jurrjens as a guy who’s probably mostly topped out and doesn’t have much upward projection at this point. Add that to the regression of his ERA toward a more FIP-happy 3.60ish range, and Jurrjens is a quality pitcher. But he’s no ace. UPDATE: His shoulder woes early on in camp allow me to drop him a couple spots without feeling too bad about myself.
29. Brett Anderson, OAK (161)—How much do I love Brett Anderson? Let me count the ways: 1) lefty, 2) sexy control, 3) I LOVE FATTIES! Seriously, though, there are enough questions about Anderson’s, um, interesting mid-season velo spike to warrant a bit of caution. He went from a cupcake on the mound to a dominatrix. Hell, he went from tossing 14 K’s and 8 BB’s in 23 innings in April to 3 walks in September against 26 strikeouts in the same number of innings. THREE WALKS! That’s almost as awesome as how chubby this kid’s chin is. Almost. No wonder all the scouts liked Cahill better—you can see his jawline, for christ’s sake.
30. Javier Vazquez, NYY (61)—I cannot stress enough what a negative difference it is for a good pitcher to go from the NL to the AL. Couple that with Vazquez moving from a pitcher’s park to a homerun haven, and I again see Vaz as having a tough go in the AL East. Vazquez’ lowest ERA in the AL in his career is 3.74. His average ERA in the AL in his four years spent there is 4.52. His average K/9 is 8.14. I’m not saying he’s going to be absolutely awful, but I don’t see this going well for his owners if they’re expecting anything close to ’09 levels of performance. Unless I get him for a major discount, Vazquez is on my no-fly zone for this season. (On ADP: There are an awful lot of people who are going to get badly burned this year.)
31. Jered Weaver, LAA (134)—Extreme flyball pitcher who now has a defense behind him of Abreu, an aging Hunter, and Juan Rivera with Matsui saying he wants to play the field some? I hope Weaver has a medicinal marijuana prescription to deal with the job-related stress there. Sheesh.
32. Ryan Dempster, CHC (165)—I had no idea he’d ever turn out to be good. It’s funny what time and hard work can do for a guy. I guess even the Cubs can’t screw everything up.
33. Roy Oswalt, HOU (158)—He’s no longer a fantasy ace, but Oswalt ain’t chopped liver either (and come to think of it, chopped liver really isn’t bad if it’s fried, so I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say other than Roy Oswalt is a fine pitcher. Why does chopped liver get such a bad rap anyway?) In fact, Oswalt is the perfect target because he’s unsexy these days as his luster has worn off and all he does is go out there and pitch well.
34. Matt Garza, TB (124)—Maybe there’s a reason scouts said he was more of a #2 guy than a #1. Despite his stellar minor league stat record, Garza looks like he’s going to top out as a #2 or #3 starter. He’s still got some upside, especially control-wise, so let’s give him another season before we go labeling him this or that (look, I’m as guilty as the next guy, okay?!) His peripherals don’t look steady enough for me to prescribe a massive breakout, though.
35. Randy Wolf, MIL (176)—I’ve loved Wolf since his days with the Phillies, and I still love Randy Wolf (I think it’s the red facial hair). The Brewers’ stadium isn’t that egregiously different from the Dodgers, and their outfield defense has a chance to be a bit better than the Dodgers’ of ’09 depending entirely on Carlos Gomez. Still, even though Wolf is a flyball pitcher, the Brewers’ infield ‘D’ is somewhat questionable compared to L.A. With a regression to his ERA, I’d anticipate a number closer to 4.00 and a WHIP closer to 1.30. But the strikeouts should still be there. And the Wins. Gosh, Wolf is just a quality pitcher to own. Red facial hair men of the world unite!
36. Scott Baker, MIN (155)—I’d be interested if anyone in the Twins’ organization would admit to having a carbonite mold and assembly line where they make their pitchers to all be the same flyball, control, moderate strikeout type of pitcher that we’ve all come to know and love. No wonder Liriano keeps getting hurt. They tried to fit him in the carbonite mold, and it broke his arm! As with all of these types of pitchers, I like Baker. His ilk really helps in WHIP, moderately helps in K’s, and rarely hurts in ERA. It’s the perfect complement to a pitcher who might have a control problem.
37. John Danks, CWS (164)—A move to almost any other stadium would do the flyball pitcher wonders, but even in Chicago’s south side, he’s still a quality fantasy pitcher to own. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Danks yet, too.
38. Neftali Feliz, TEX (169)—I loved him last year, and I love him this year. He is dynamite. That said, I think there’s a chance we’re going a little too cuckoo for the Feliz Puffs right now. Fangraphs currently shows a fan projected ERA of 3.45, 129 K’s in 119 IP, and a 3.19 K/BB. I’m as optimistic as the next guy… well, actually, it appears that I’m not. I think those numbers are something like Feliz’ 99.9th percentile (to put this in BP speak) and are pretty far-fetched. I think he’s going to be a very special pitcher someday soon, but he’s got some very probable regression in K/9, BB/9, HR/FB, and BABIP coming his way in 2010. I’d be very happy with his numbers if he threw 150 IP with 135 K’s, a WHIP in the high 1.20’s and an ERA in the high 3’s. I think that would be something to get very excited about, actually.
39. Ted Lilly, CHC (154)—A perennial fave of mine, it pains me to look at the outfield defense the Cubbies have behind him. He’s also a bit of an injury risk coming after coming off of arthroscopic labrum surgery (he’s not expected to be ready by the beginning of the season). Yes, he was lucky last year. But the improved control over the last few years is real and sustainable to a degree. Don’t pass him up if he’s cheap enough. I don’t think he’ll disappoint. (UPDATE: Injuries will cost him some spots.)