I published a re-ranked top 25 starting pitchers list last week, but after going over the rest of the names on my list I saw that there were changes that needed to be made to the top 25. Instead of two-separate posts, I’ve decided to go ahead and put the whole damn thing together. I’m sure you’ll find some surprises in these rankings. My methods are strongly based on sabermetrics, but I certainly include “real life” issues that some of these pitchers face like innings limitations, age, previous arm injuries, etc.
1. Tim Lincecum – While Lincecum battled a stretch of command problems, he seems to be back on track for now. His strikeout numbers remain top notch and he is third in baseball in K/9 and second in whiff rate. It is that type of dominance that helps maintain a low ERA despite a .313 BABIP. Until someone out-pitches Lincecum over the course of a full season, he’s still my top arm.
2. Ubaldo Jimenez (This was written on June 22nd) – What is interesting about Ubaldo Jimenez’s performance so far this season, other than how incredible the numbers look, is that he hasn’t improved his strikeout rate or really lowered his walk rate all that much. His ground ball rate has always been above average and it is once again in 2010, but it has only increased, to this point, by roughly two-percent. He’s not even missing more bats. Actually, his whiff rate is just slightly better than 80 percent, which has generally been about league average. The big difference has come in the results of his balls in play. Jimenez has only allowed a line drive rate of 13 percent, which helps explain such a low .239 BABIP against. He has also done a great job of keeping the ball in the ballpark, allowing only three home runs to this point.
All that being said, to expect this type of dominance to last 200 or so innings is asking a lot due to the fact that the results are based on balls in play and not a high level of strikeouts. A .239 BABIP is extremely hard to maintain, as is a left on base percentage of over 90 percent.
Jimenez will continue to be a top-level pitcher this season, but the chance to take his 100 best innings and sell for a first-round-level bat is now.
3. Josh Johnson – Johnson’s .270 BABIP against has a chance to regress toward .300 as the season moves along, but everything else in his numbers is top-notch. A K/9 just under nine and a 2.3 BB/9 combined with the ability to generate ground balls (48.5 percent), and the ability to miss bats (26 percent whiff rate, good for third best in baseball).
4. Adam Wainwright – I didn’t think Wainwright could pitch much better than he did last season, but he just continues to improve. So far this season he has a better K/BB rate, a better ground ball rate, a better whiff rate and has only allowed a 16.4 percent line drive rate. Even if his numbers regress a little in the second half, he should maintain his ranking as a top-end fantasy starter.
5. Jon Lester – Despite a poor start to the season, Lester has been so good that his ERA and WHIP are still excellent. The best part is that his peripherals have improved every month with regards to strikeout rate, walk rate and ground ball rate. He is an ace who should continue to post top-notch strikeout numbers to go along with the wins, ERA and WHIP.
6. Roy Halladay – Same ole story and it’s a good one. Halladay just continues to use his excellent command to keep the ball on the ground and keep hitters off balance. He won’t improve his strikeout numbers much, which keeps him out of contention for a top-three ranking, but he’s just a darn good and reliable fantasy ace.
7. Jered Weaver – After back-to-back seasons posting similar K/BB rates, Weaver has seen a huge jump in strikeouts helping him post a 4.65 K/BB rate thus far. Weaver has increased the usage of his offspeed stuff, which has translated into more swings and misses, more swings at pitches outside the strike-zone and thus more strikeouts. As long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to continue to put up fantasy ace numbers.
8. Cliff Lee – In 77.2 innings, Cliff Lee has allowed four walks. That’s right FOUR walks, while striking out 67. He has basically become Roy Halladay with BETTER command. The problem comes with the win potential of his current ball club. There is a chance Lee gets traded yet again as the trade deadline approaches, but as it stands his offense will have to give him more run support for him to jump up in the rankings even more.
9. Chris Carpenter – Many of Carp’s numbers are right in line with what he did last season. He’s keeping the ball on the ground, limiting line drives and his strikeouts are actually up a bit this season. If there are any question marks, they come in the form of an injury plagued past and a loss in velocity across the board. That’ll keep him out of the elite, but still among the best fantasy pitchers in baseball.
10. CC Sabathia – While Sabathia remains a very good fantasy starter, he’s not the dominant force he once was. Part of that can be blamed on the league and division he now plays in. There might also be something to the high innings totals he has thrown since 2007. No matter what the reason, he’s just not elite anymore.
11. Felix Hernandez – There is really nothing wrong with the way King Felix has pitched this season other than the fact that he has done it for the offensively challenged Mariners. Hernandez ranks 77th in run support in baseball so far this season (minimum of 80 IP).
12. Clayton Kershaw – Still having an issue with control, Kershaw won’t move into the elite category just yet do to an inflated WHIP. However, as far as generating swings and misses as well as strikeouts, he’s one of the best in the business.
13. Stephen Strasburg – He has done nothing but live up to every bit of the hype and now has 41 strikeouts in 25.1 innings pitched with an insane 8.2 K/BB ratio. Innings will be limited, but his production has been so good that fact in only a small knock on his overall ranking.
14. Yovani Gallardo – There is only one weakness in Gallardo’s game this season, his walks allowed. While he has made a slight improvement over last season’s 4.56 BB/9, he’s still allowing too many baserunners to keep his WHIP down.
15. Colby Lewis – After time spent in Japan turning himself into a better pitcher, Colby Lewis has come back to the United States and exceeded expectations to this point. The biggest surprise has been his strikeout rate, which stands at 8.65 K/9. It was his command that saw the biggest improvement during his time overseas, but such a good strikeout rate was completely unexpected. That being said, the question now turns to his BABIP against, which is an incredibly low .233. As long has he maintains a K/9 over eight, he’ll have plenty of value, even if the BABIP regresses.
16. Tommy Hanson – After suggesting to buy low on Hanson on June eighth, he had back-to-back very good outings before getting shelled for nine earned runs against the White Sox in his last outing. For the reasons started in that article and because a nine spot can greatly skew an ERA, there is another chance to buy low on this super talented youngster.
17. Cole Hamels – Aside from a rain-shortened three earned runs on June 1st, Hamels has only allowed three earned runs in less than six innings once since April 28th. He has increased his strikeout rate by over a full K/9 from his 2008 and 2009 totals, but has also raised his walk rate by a over one BB/9. Hopefully those walks allowed are on the way down as Hamels hasn’t walked over three in a game since May 16th.
18. Zack Greinke – Despite a 4.61 K/BB rate, Zack Greinke is 2 and 8 with a 3.94 ERA. While he is certainly not the pitcher he was last season, his number’s should get much better as the season moves along. His biggest problem so far has been his home runs allowed. All of last season Greinke only allowed 11 home runs. In only 96 innings this season, he has allowed 13. His defense hasn’t done him any favors either and a .309 BABIP against while only allowing a line drive rate of 17.3 percent is evidence of this. Now would be a great time to buy low. He may not get the wins either way, but he should help in strikeouts, WHIP and ERA going forward.
19. David Price – Funny how much difference it makes to simply keep the ball in the yard and get a few more ground ball outs. Price’s K/9 and BB/9 don’t tell the story here…
2009: 7.15 K/9, 3.79 BB/9, .282 BABIP, 41.5% GB%
2010: 7.17 K/9, 3.63 BB/9, .271 BABIP, 47% GB%
Price has only allowed 0.69 HR/9 while that rate was at 1.19 last season. While that means that he has improved as a pitcher this season, it still makes a sub 3.00 ERA somewhat surprising given the K/BB rate under 2.0.
20. Roy Oswalt – A savvy veteran, Oswalt realized that he could no longer rely so heavily on his fastball this season and has gone to more offspeed pitches than ever before in his career, especially with regards to his changeup. The problem is that, for the time being, he remains a member of the helpless Astros, who fail to help him out much on the offensive or defensive side. If he is traded to a contender, he could easily jump a spot of two in the rankings.
21. Matt Cain – One thing and one thing only continues to make me worry about putting too much stock in Matt Cain: His declining strikeout totals. Cain is trying to go back-to-back seasons with an ERA under 3.00. Last season was seen by many as a sort of fluke given a low .286 BABIP against. That’s not to say that Cain didn’t pitch well, but sub 3.00 well? The same thing is happening this season as hitters have managed only a .238 BABIP against him. It would be easy to say that BABIP is sure to rise toward .300, but then again, Cain has a career .274 BABIP against. The fact that his strikeouts are down make him a bit risky, but Cain seems to find a way to always get the job done despite what his peripherals say.
22. Justin Verlander – The big drop in strikeouts is hurting Verlander’s value, though he is still a very good fantasy option. For some reason, Verlander has not used his fastball as much as he did in 2009, when it was a pitch worth 25.4 runs above average.
23. Dan Haren – See: Dan Haren: 2010’s Ricky Nolasco, Only Better
25. Ricky Romero – What I wrote about Romero back in April has held true all season thus far. He added cutter and two-seamer this offseason and, as a result, has increased his K/9 by over one strikeout per nine, raised his ground ball rate about three percent from an already good 54 percent to 57.2 percent, lowered his line drive rate and contact rate by two-percent each. While he may not be able to hold a sub 3.00 ERA all season, he looks in line to be one of the better pitchers in baseball the rest of the way.
26. Ryan Dempster – Allowing just a few too many home runs is about the only thing Ryan Dempster is doing wrong this season. He has a solid 2.84 K/BB rate, a good groundball rate and an above average whiff rate and chase rate. In English that means he is getting hitters to swing and miss or hit his “pitcher’s” pitches weakly more often than not.
27. Johan Santana – A continued regression in strikeout rate as well as velocity have cause Santana’s fantasy stock to fall despite continuing to post solid ERA and WHIP numbers. Whether this regression is due to elbow problems he faced last season or just the natural regression of a pitcher who has logged a lot of innings over his career, one thing is for certain: He’s not the fantasy ace he once was.
28. Mat Latos – When I wrote this article back in December, I caught some flack from people who couldn’t believe I was comparing Tommy Hanson to the unproven Mat Latos. The point of the article was to show the difference in ADP and how the cost of acquiring Tommy Hanson was sky high compared to the late round cost of Latos. Never did I think Latos would actually have better numbers to this point in the season, but his 2.93 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 3.6 K/BB rate are sparkling. However, the issue that will be confronting fantasy owners and the Padres is his innings total. Last season Latos threw a combined 123 innings between the majors and minors. A 30 innings increase would put him at 153 for this season. He is already at 86 innings so far, which would mean he has about 67 or so innings left in him. The Padres, who are in contention, may feel pressure to alter their plans a little, but either way, they are sure to be very careful with their prized young arm.
29. Hiroki Kuroda – This season, Kuroda has stepped it up a notch. He has increased his strikeout rate, groundball rate and whiff rate while keeping his walks low.
30. Chad Billingsley – It has been a very up and down season for Billingsley. At times he has looked like his dominant old self and other times he seems to loose command of the strike-zone all together. If there is a positive trend here, it is that Billingsley’s walk rate in May and June has been better than it was in April. He has fallen out of the top tiers because of his inconsistency, but from a pure stuff prospective, he is still a pitcher with potential for a very good second half.
31. Gavin Floyd – He has not allowed more than two earned runs in his last five starts and holds a 33:7 K:BB ratio over that stretch. He was a big draft day target of mine this season, but got off to a horrible start. He may be primed to have a very good second half given his solid 2.73 K/BB rate, 49 percent ground ball rate and inflated .328 BABIP against.
32. Phil Hughes (written on June 22nd) – Hughes has pitched outstanding so far this season showing well above average strikeout potential while limiting his BB/9 to 2.73. However, there will be an issue with regards to his innings the rest of the way. The Yankees are famously cautious with their young arms and Hughes only threw a combined 105 innings last season. It is very unlikely that the Yankees allow him to go over 150 innings this season, so if he only throws 45 or so more innings, his potential with regards to strikeouts and wins will be limited, holding back his ultimate value from here on out.
33. Shaun Marcum – It has been an incredible season so far for Shaun Marcum who was coming off of major arm surgery and nearly an entire season off. Therein lies the risk going forward. Marcum’s career high in innings pitched is 159, back in 2007. Right now Marcum has thrown 103.1 innings, so it is yet to be seen how much more stamina he has or how much the Blue Jays will hold him back late in the year.
34. Carlos Silva – Most analysts were using Silva as a punch-line this offseason, but all he’s done so far is perform on the mound and take over as the Cubs ace. While I’m personally not ready to grant him ace status, he has done some things extremely well this season. First of all, his 6.33 K/9 would represent the highest strikeout rate of his career and by far. As he has done almost every single year of his career, Silva is not giving up many base on balls. This season, however, he is getting hitters to chase pitches outside the strike-zone much more often. While there is always risk in a player that has league average or lower strikeouts, everything else Carlos Silva is doing suggests that he could very well remain a productive pitcher all season long.
35. Clay Buchholz (Knee injury dropped him in the rankings) – In the same light as I looked at David Price’s season so far, Buchholz hasn’t necessarily done much different with regards to his K/BB rate. However, he has definitely done a better job of keeping the ball in the ballpark. He has only allowed three home runs through 91 innings this season while he allowed 13 through 92 innings last season. As is the case with Price, Buchholz may be pitching a bit over his head as far as his ERA is concerned, but as long as he continues to keep the ball in the yard he’ll be an effective fantasy starter going forward.
36. Max Scherzer – It seems like Max Scherzer may finally be hitting his stride after a rough start and a demotion to the minor leagues. His strikeout rate in June rose to over 10 K/9 while the control has been much better since returning to the Tigers rotation. There is still risk involved due to inconsistencies in the past, but Scherzer has actually been better against left-handed batters this season, something he had struggled with in prior seasons.
37. Jonathan Sanchez – This is the year we’ve all been waiting for from Sanchez. For years he has teased us with high strikeout rates and even a no-hitter. Now he’s walking the line of a 3.00 ERA and his WHIP is even usable. The problem is and always will be inconsistency. He’s amazing one month and mediocre the next. Hopefully he can keep his walk rate down enough to maintain an ERA in the threes.
38. Brandon Morrow – This season has been an impressive turnaround for Morrow, the former Mariners prospect. His current 4.50 ERA is nothing special, but almost all of that is reflected in his pre-adjustment time in April and May. In June, Morrow has posted a 1.91 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 33 innings. He has also lowered his HR/9 every month of the season. Sure enough, he’s becoming more of a pitcher than just a hard thrower. Morrow is now throwing his curveball and changeup more often than ever before in his career. With a 9.27 K/9 and 2.73 BB/9 this month, Morrow looks like a pitcher ready to have a big second half. Consistency, of course, will be the key.
39. Jason Hammel – Since May 27th, Hammel has only allowed 10 earned runs in seven starts. He mixes very good command with a decent enough strikeout rate to give him sub 4.00 ERA potential. Most of the damage to his ERA came in April and May when he was not healthy. Hammel is healthy now and his 1.83 ERA in June should not be ignored.
40. Ricky Nolasco – The sauce was hot this preseason. Then someone messed with the recipe as the strikeouts were inexplicably removed from the ingredient list. For a good part of the season, the sauce was mild. Now, with an eight-strikeout game and a nine-strikeout game back-to-back, it seems like someone slipped a jabonero chili in while no one was looking. Problems with the home run ball are still present and keeping me from fully endorsing a big second-half. But hey, what can I say? I need me some Hot Nolasco Sauce! Hang in there, things might be moving in the right direction.
41. Andy Pettitte – I don’t put much stock in older pitchers, but there is little doubt that Pettitte is doing one heck of a job so far this season. His strikeout rate is nothing to write home about, but his command has been good and he is mixing and matching enough to keep hitters swinging at pitches outside the strike-zone. Still, the age factor worries me as innings continue to pile up.
42. Jaime Garcia – Because of elbow surgery, Garcia only threw 37 combined innings last season. Obviously, given his age (almost 24-years-old) and recent arm injury, the Cardinals would be wise to hold him back a little in the second half. As much as I liked Garcia as a sleeper this preseason, it’s about time to sell high while you still can. Aside from the inning limitations, he has a relatively high walk rate and an 83.5 percent strand rate that may be hard to maintain going forward. Also, his line drive rate against has risen every month.
43. Ervin Santana – There are some very positive signs to Santana’s game this season. His K/9 is as high as it has been since his great 2008 season and the walk rate is down to 2.64 BB/9. However, Santana has never been able to regain the velocity he had prior to arm issues last season. He is a fly ball pitcher that gets hurt by the long ball a bit too often and without the extra velocity to increase his swing and miss rate, those problems will limit his upside. Still, there is a decent chance that Santana can manage a sub 4.00 ERA in the second half and provide a good amount of strikeouts.
44. Matt Garza – What looked like the possibility of a breakout season has turned south in a hurry. In April, Garza kept the ball in the park and was striking out hitters at an impressive pace, but ever since the long ball has caught up to him and his ERA ballooned to 6.83 in June. If we break Garza down we see a pitcher that is good, but will probably never be great. There is just no one part of his game that is overpowering.
45. Jake Peavy – Is he back? After struggling to find himself the first two months of the season, Jake Peavy put together one heck of a June posting a 1.20 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. It could be that he is finally over some nagging arm injuries he has face this season. Then again, those arm problems could very well pop up at some point once again this season.
46. Jeff Niemann – There are two numbers that jump off the page when it comes to Jeff Niemann’s 2010 season. First is his incredibly low .236 BABIP against (the second lowest in baseball to Tim Hudson’s .234 BABIP against). Second is his extremely high strand rate of 87.2 percent, the highest strand rate in baseball. The BABIP against can be somewhat explained by a very low 15 percent line drive rate against. Odds are that both numbers will regress toward the mean. Niemann’s current FIP is 4.39, a 1.67 run difference from his current ERA. Nothing about Niemann’s stuff is overpowering and I’d expect a big regression in the second half.
47. Tim Hudson – I have probably been asked about my thoughts on Tim Husdon more than any other pitcher this season. My response is usually, “Not a fan.” He currently sports a 1.28 K/BB rate, which is the eighth worst in baseball (min 70 IP). However, he also sports the league’s best ground ball rate (67.8 percent). Getting groundballs has always been the key to Hudson’s success, but he has never held a BABIP against as low as .234 over an entire season. Without the strikeouts, Hudson’s value will hinge on his ERA and WHIP alone. It’s a risky proposition for a 35-year-old pitcher with a history of arm problems.
48. James Shields – Looking purely on strikeouts and walks, Shields is having the best season of his career. Too bad he has had problems with allowing home runs to go along with an inflated .343 BABIP against. The month of June has been especially bad to Shields with one 10 earned run outing plus nine earned runs in his last two starts. The problem is that, even with a high BABIP against, Shield is still allowing too many line drives (over 21 percent). There is upside here for a 3.65-3.85 ERA the rest of the way.
49. Mike Pelfrey – One thing we know to this point in his career is that Mike Pelfrey is not a strikeout pitcher. His career K/9 stands at 5.26 and his current season K/9 is 5.69. His current 1.85 K/B rate in and of itself is reason enough to be skeptical of Pelfrey’s second half projection, but add on top of that the fact that his strikeout rate has actually regressed every month of the season. Then there is a .273 BABIP against coming from a pitcher with a career .308 BABIP against. Needless to say, I think Pelfrey is due for a regression and would look to sell high right now.
50. John Danks – In many ways, Danks has pitched almost exactly like he did last year. The only problem with his current numbers is that they have been skewed a bit by an extremely good April in which he held a 1.88 ERA and a 4.33 K/BB rate. It has all been downhill since as Danks’ K/BB rate has held below 2.0 ever since. In a bubble, Danks is a good pitcher, but he’ll never be a top-two tier type.
51. Trevor Cahill – Trust in his curveball from himself and Oakland management has made a world of difference for Cahill. His groundball rate has jumped from 47.8 percent to 53.3 percent. He has also increased his K/9 by almost two strikeout per nine innings while lowering his walk rate to under three per nine innings. He’s definitely a pitcher that pitches to contact, so he may not be a fantasy ace, but this season he is showing why he was side-by-side with Brett Anderson in the discussion of who was the better pitching prospect.
52. Ted Lilly – It usually takes about a full year or more before pitchers regain their “stuff” coming off of labrum surgery. Clearly, Lilly is experiencing some issues with his “stuff” as he has not been able to maintain velocity or locate his pitches within the strike-zone as well as he has in the past. There is still plenty of upside here, but the nature of his arm injury makes it hard to imagine numbers anywhere close to last season.
53. Carl Pavano – Pavano’s biggest asset is his command of the strike-zone. He currently sports a 1.28 BB/9. Because of the fact that he is always around the plate, he is able to get hitters to chase his out pitches at a high rate (35.4 percent chase rate). That is part of the reason I saw him as a surprise pitcher this preseason, but in the end he is still a risk due to a well below average strikeout rate and a current .256 BABIP against.
54. Scott Baker – Due to top-notch command and an above average strikeout rate, Baker will always be on the minds of fantasy owners. However, as consistent he has been in terms of command, he has also consistently had problems surrendering home runs to the opposition. Baker is averaging 1.41 home runs per nine innings, which has been a major issue so far this season. So far, Target Field has played as a pitchers park and Baker has a 3.55 ERA at home. On the road, however, he has allowed 10 of his 15 home runs and is sporting a 6.55 ERA. For now, Baker is a solid option to start at home. If we see a trend in improvement on the road, he could be usable in every format.
55. Jonathan Niese – There are some real nice parts to Niese’s game including a ground ball rate over 50 percent and a decent 2.11 K/BB rate. The problem is that he is really nothing more than a solid number three in the Major Leagues and pitches to contact a bit too much to be completely trusted by fantasy owners. Despite being left-handed, lefty hitters have actually had more success against Niese this season than right-handed hitters.
56. Javier Vazquez – Though he has improved every month this season, Vazquez is still having big problems with giving up home runs. He has only gone six starts out of 15 this season without allowing a home run and three of those six came against National League teams. There is potential for a sub four ERA in the second half, but pitching in the American League exclusively the rest of the way will limit his ultimate potential.
57. Jason Vargas – Despite having only six wins on the season, Vargas has pitched well enough this season to warrant mixed league discussion to this point. The problems in his projection stem from his peripherals. Vargas has a well below average 5.8 K/9, but good command (2.24 BB/9). However, he is a fly ball pitcher who’s 5.2 percent HR/FB rate is by far the lowest of his career. Last season, Vargas posted a similar K/BB rate, but was hurt by allowing over one and a half home runs per nine innings. Without the strikeouts or a high groundball rate, a .263 BABIP against is very unlikely to stick.
58. Randy Wells – For Wells, it all comes down to keeping the ball away from the middle of the plate. He still has great control and has actually improved his strikeout rate to this point over last season, but not many pitchers can get away with a 25 percent line drive rate against. There is enough upside here to warrant a spot on your watch list.
59. Brett Cecil – After a strong start to his Major League season, Cecil has had back-to-back-to-back poor outings and raised his ERA to over four. The positive through the struggles is that the walks remain under control. If he can continue to work the corners of the strike-zone and keep from issuing free passes, he’ll be a usable pitcher in good matchups down the road.
60. Barry Zito – After an insanely hot start to the season, Zito is back to his old self again. As a matter of fact, his current K/BB rate is lower than last season’s, if only by a hair. His ERA’s in May and June are both over 4.00 and his HR/9 has gone up every month. The point is that a great month of April has skewed his overall numbers. He’s a good major league pitcher, but not someone who is going to carry fantasy teams to a championship.
Others of note:
Joel Piniero – Despite a solid month on June, Piniero is who he thought he was. His groundball rate has regressed big time and his command is not nearly as good as it was last season. His HR/9 has also seen a big jump. Clearly, Dave Duncan is a magician.
Aaron Harang – Despite a five-plus ERA for much of this season, Harang spots a pretty good 2.38 K/BB rate. The bottom line, however, is that his “stuff” just ain’t what it used to be. Opposing hitters have no problem making good contact off of his pitches and he is constantly being hurt by the long ball. There will be spots to use Harang in good matchups, but his time as a full time mixed league option is officially over.
Justin Masterson – An absolute ground ball machine, but Masterson simply can’t find success against left-handed hitters. He currently has a 3.11 FIP against right-handed hitters, but a 4.67 FIP against left-handed hitters.