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Crush or Flush Starting Pitchers

Thomas McFeeley Staff Writer March 13, 2017 1:16PM EDT
Every Fantasy Baseball owner has a “fingerprint.” Maybe you like to draft rookies and hope one turns out to be Mike Trout. Or you’re the “five-tool guy” who is always chasing Jose Altuve in the first round or via trade, followed quickly by Starling Marte. Or you’re the guy who likes to start runs in the draft by taking two closers too early (that’s the “Two/Too Method” by the way).

Trust me, you have a draft fingerprint. Your leaguemates know it – and you better too.

My fingerprint is quietly collecting a very solid pitching staff. Yet, I don’t draft pitchers early. I’ll never own Clayton Kershaw, as great as he is, because if you accumulate enough above average starters, you will compete with any staff in your league. You just have to know what to look for. Because I consider you a friend, I’ll tell you what I look for:

  • No pitchers in at least the first 3-5 rounds. Each year, when you look at starting pitcher rankings, there’s one

    Aaron Nola has the skill set to be a great Fantasy pitcher. Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)

    Aaron Nola has the skill set to be a great Fantasy pitcher. Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire

    name that jumps out. That’s the name of the “last viable true ace” who can anchor a staff. It’s often in Round 7, but recent years have seen more pitchers taken early in the draft, so the line keep moving. My ears will perk up when I hear the name “Chris Archer” in the 60s (though he might be my first starter). This year that line is in the Cole Hamels (78) neighborhood. I do believe Gerrit Cole or Julio Teheran *could* anchor a staff, but that’s a much larger leap of faith.

  • Draft skills, not stats. Look for high groundball percentages, a swinging strike percentage of 10 percent or higher; lots of Ks and minimal walks. A pitcher with a consistent record of these skills will generally produce predictably solid Fantasy stats (and they’re your best bet).
  • Okay, draft one stat: strikeouts. Don’t fret over ERA; fret a little over WHIP, but just draft K rates of at least 8.0 K/9. High strikeouts are like home runs – there is always a market. ERA is so fluky; wins is the King of Fluky; and if have a good sense of your staff’s WHIP, you can work around a couple of Nuke LaLoosh types.
  • Avoid overachievers. Outside of Kershaw, and maybe Chris Sale and Max Scherzer, starter performances vary from year to year. (Is Jon Lester an ace this season, or a No. 2?) The worst bets are starters whose Fantasy stats improved without much improvement in the skill stats I mentioned above. Also, look for large gaps between a starter’s ERA and xFIP. Carlos Martinez’s ERA last season was 3.04, but xFIP was 3.81, a difference of 0.77 runs. So I would bet his ERA will be in that 3.80 range this year, or will at least move significantly in that direction
  • Seize on underachievers. Last season, I pointed out that Kyle Hendricks’ 2015 ERA of 3.95 was matched with a 3.25 xFIP. I declared actual “love” for Hendricks and suggested “a sub 3.00 ERA was in the offing.” (I didn’t quite envision a 2.13 ERA, but his xFIP last year was actually 3.59, higher than in that underachieving 2015). I find that pitchers who underachieve not only meet, but exceed the previous season’s xFIP. You figure Hendricks was good enough for a 3.25 ERA in 2015, and with a solid skill set, you could have envisioned at least a 2.50 ERA if he produced a 3.25 ERA.  The good news is underachievers with good skill sets are available in virtually every round of a Fantasy draft.
  • Other “ingredients.” If a pitcher had a spike in BABIP, particularly over his career average, look for improvement – more innings, lower ERA and subsequently more Ks. If his HR/FB ratio was significantly higher (or even lower) last season, expect a correction.  If he improved his groundball rate, treat that as a skill, not a stat. Contact stats are important too, but usually when used with other stats (like first strike percentage or swinging strike percentage). When I analyze pitchers, I use a spreadsheet that ends up being three pages wide, so I can get as complete a picture of his skills as possible.

So my draft fingerprint goes something like this:

  • First three rounds – power. Draft as much power as is available. After that, I assess the pitching market (where that “Greinke” line should be), begin to think about stolen bases and positional needs and availability in the draft.
  • Rounds 4-6: Draft more power maybe a top closer.
  • Round Seven: First starter.
  • Rounds 8-15: Draft four or five more starters and fill needs based on trends in the draft and position availability throughout the draft.
  • Rounds 15 and on: Pure position filling, and depth. I always find in this part of the draft there is much less competition for specific players in specific slots. Go get the players you like; do be aware of the needs of teams picking around you so that you can make best guesses about those they might be targeting. Continue drafting power and pitching, even at the expense of a position or a category (saves, steals – power can always get you those needs through trades)

If you draft the top power lineup and a respectable starting staff (no competitors will be wowed because you didn’t get “stud” pitchers based on ADP), then you’re basically looking to fill minor holes on your roster. Having Joey Votto, Jose Abreu and Brandon Belt, for example, gives you great first base depth, and therefore, nice options to trade for various calibers/combination of players.

So who are the pitchers to avoid and to target this year?  Keep reading. (The starters’ ADP, as of this writing, is in parentheses for context.)

  • Chris Sale (21): I won’t tell you not to draft Sale high in your draft, although, my strategy would never allow me to. I merely want to point out that something happened to Sale last year. He sacrificed both velocity and strikeout totals (11.82 K/9 to “just” 9.25 K/9). He was able to pitch deeper in games as a result. I’ll assume that was an intentional change, but know that this should be the new norm, and you should watch all of his stats early in the season…just in case. I’m flushing only because I’d never draft a pitcher this high, but this is merely a nudge to keep an eye on Sale’s performance and peripherals. FLUSH
  • Kyle Hendricks (68): To complete the above thought on Hendricks, I do not think his ERA will balloon to his 3.59 xFIP from last year, but I would bet on a 3.20-ish mark. (Cubs pitchers all tend to have much better ERAs than xFIPs because of outstanding defense). And, for me, his 8.05 K/9 is not quite high enough to either be a Fantasy ace, or to assure me of a low ERA. He’s got great skills, for sure, but by pure Fantasy numbers, I think his value is more in the 90-100 ADP range. FLUSH
  • Aaron Nola (170): Why is a 6-9 pitcher with a 4.78 ERA being drafted even this high? Sabermetrics. Nola is the 2017 version of Kyle Hendricks. By sporting a 3.08 xFIP, Nola (if healthy) is a virtual guarantee for vast improvement. Remember what I said about pitchers not just matching their xERA, but surpassing it. Is a 2.50 ERA possible for Aaron Nola? Yes. He struck out 9.81 per nine innings; his BABIP was an inflated .334 when hitters did manage to put it in play; his strand rate (or left of base percentage) of 60.6 was unlucky (league average was 72.5 percent last year); swinging strike rate was an ok 9.6 percent; he’s a 55 percent groundball pitcher (25 percent fly ball rate). He’s not the most electric arm, but he’s the 2017 version of Kyle Hendricks – with more Ks. There’s hype around him for sure; so if he’s around at 150, think about it, but not too long. He’ll be gone and he’ll be more than worth it. CRUSH
  • Chris Archer (61): Draft strikeouts; draft groundball pitchers. Look for underachievers. Archer in 2016: 233 Ks in 201 innings; 47.8 percent ground ball rate; 4.01 ERA against a 3.41 xFIP. Bank on tons of Ks and an ERA around 3.20. Remember, you don’t need a true ace if you draft a bunch of No. 2 and No. 3 pitchers for your staff. (See above, Aaron Nola can easily be a No. 3 at a 170 ADP).  Archer’s a fine name to call for your first starter in the draft. CRUSH
  • Blake Snell (248): I’m old enough to remember a young Ron Darling. He struggled with his control (and was able to mature in the shadow of Doc Gooden), but improved each season. Snell reminds me a bit of Darling. He’s got better stuff and obviously has great talent. Snell posted a strikeout rate of 9.91 K/9 last season, but he also had a 5.16 BB/9 mark (good for a 1.62 WHIP). He baffled hitters with a 10.9 percent swinging strike rate. He induced soft contact 22 percent of the time (one of the best marks) and hard contact only 31 percent of the time (well below average). He features a nice mix of pitches. Snell’s growth will be measured not only in walks, but in improving a poor 36 percent groundball rate. He’s easily worth the risk because other than the walks he hands out, hitters have to earn bases when they swing, and that is not easy against Snell. Believe (and maybe cross your fingers a bit). I think he’s Cy Young material. Maybe not quite this year, but it wouldn’t shock me. CRUSH
  • Anthony DeSclafani (210): I was high on DeSclafani last year and an oblique strain cost him more than two months to start the season. He did produce a 9-5 mark, with a 3.28 ERA. DeSclafani’s xFIP, though, was 3.99. His skills stayed about the same but notably, his changeup was one of the fastest in the league (87.6 mph), and against a 92.9 mph fastball probably didn’t have much effect. Oblique injuries are hard to come back from and usually steal some force and power from an athlete. I still do crush on DeSclafani overall, but I think he needs a growth year, and that may require a small step back before he potentially leaps forward. He owned a 7.6 K/9 rate last season, not quite enough to make me ignore a likely ERA regression. If you have a deep staff already at pick 200, by all means, call his name. But if you think you’re drafting a 3.28 ERA, you’ll likely be disappointed. FLUSH
  • Chris Tillman (351): Here’s a study in LOB% (strand rate). In 2015, Tillman posted a 68.2 percent strand rate, below the league average of about 72 percent. He went 11-11 with a 4.99 ERA. Last season, Tillman’s LOB% was 77 percent, well above that league average. He went 16-6 with an okay 3.77 ERA. The xFIPs? 2015: 4.58; 2016: 4.54. He was mostly the same pitcher, though, he added more than one strikeout per nine (7.33 versus 6.24 K/9). He walks about 3.3 or 3.4 batters per nine innings, which never helps, He featured his cutter a bit more last year, which helped a bit. He’s really an average major league pitcher, but at 351, I’ll draft a 16-game winner who I can start based on matchups at the tail end of my draft. Not all crushes are the stuff of romance novels. Value is value. CRUSH
  • Cole Hamels (78): Hamels’ spot at No. 78 is exactly where I prefer to take my first starter. But it won’t be Hamels. I’d rather take Greinke, or more likely, Archer or deGrom in the previous round. Hamels is great, no doubt, but his 15-9 record did hide some skill declines. At age 33, the chances are greater those skills continue to erode than rebound. If he lasted another round or two and I already had a couple of good starters, I’d grab him, but I don’t think you should build a staff around Cole Hamels, or assume he’s a stud No. 2. FLUSH
  • Danny Duffy (105): When I told you to look for an improvement in skills, I didn’t mention you should watch out for dramatic spikes. I prefer to see gradual improvement. Last year, Duffy boosted his strikeouts to 9.3 K/9 from just 6.3 K/9 in 2015. His swinging strike rate shot from 7.9 percent to 12.3 percent. His walk percentage plunged from 9.2 to 5.6 percent. I think he just figured it out and he attacked the strike zone more. His 81.4 percent strand rate was high, but with a new and (very) improved skill set, it may remain somewhere above average. His ERA probably will end up in the 3.50 area. I think the 105 neighborhood is about right and Duffy can be part of a solid pitching staff. CRUSH
  • Danny Salazar (108): Speaking of Dannys in the early 100 ADPs. This is the comparison shopping portion of our lesson. If you believe Duffy’s skills growth will hold, there’s no choice here. Salazar, who has the potential to be an ace, is coming off various arm injuries (risk) and has not managed his control issues. The group of starters being selected just before and after include: Jose Quintana, Kenta Maeda, Julio Teheran, Felix Hernandez, Matt Harvey, Dallas Keuchel and Michael Fullmer. I like most – if not all – of those names over Salazar. Again, it’s not potential, but risk. You can embrace risk later in the draft, but these are the foundational pitchers for your staff. FLUSH
  • Drew Pomeranz (223): I repeat…embrace risk later in your draft…Pomeranz at 223, I believe, is a nice risk. He brings a nice profile – 11.1 percent swinging strike rate, 9.78 K/9, 46.4 percent GB rate. He did struggle down the stretch, probably because he’s never pitched that many innings in a season. The risk is that he’s coming off arm discomfort, and he’s not assured a spot in the Red Sox rotation just yet. Assuming he does start, Pomeranz is probably a safe bet for a solid first half, but not having many innings under his arm might continue to be a problem. I think he’s going to be a sell-high candidate, so for the early part of the season, it’s a CRUSH
  • Michael Pineda (213): This morning on FNTSY Sports Network, “The King”, Scott Engel asked me how I can pass up a pitcher of Kershaw’s immense talent in Round 1. If it wasn’t 6:15 a.m. local time, I might have said “because Aaron Nola’s ADP is 170, Blake Snell is No. 248, and Michael Pineda is No. 213.” Pineda at 213 might be 80 slots after he should be taken. Yes, he was 6-12 with a 4.82 ERA. It is also true that his K/BB ratio was 3.91 (and a sick 7.43 in 2015), his xFIP was 3.30 (admittedly in 2015 his ERA was 4.37 on a 2.95 xFIP). In addition, he had a filthy 14.1 percent swinging strike rate and he was in the upper echelon of first strike percentage, the lower echelon of HR/FB (17 percent) and he owns a solid 45 percent groundball rate. If he *should* have had a 3.30 ERA, and he improves his performance and whiffs batters at that rate, it’s Cy Young consideration. At pick No. 213? No, I’m calling his name at 160, if a Yankee fan doesn’t beat me to it. CRUSH
  • Rick Porcello (95): I have a “one fact” theory. I believe everybody has one singular fact about them, and even if it was the only thing you knew about them it would pretty much give you their essence. Rick Porcello’s one fact: His BABIP was .269 last year (compared to .332 in 2015). In 2017, he is going to get lit up like a Christmas tree. (If I could give you a “second fact” it would be that his 3.15 ERA was against a 3.89 xFIP, a higher xFIP than his 3.72 in 2015. His ERA that year? 4.92). You’re crazy if you pick Porcello at this spot, or any spot ahead of Michael Pineda. FLUSH
  • Matt Shoemaker (208): When I evaluate pitchers, I print spreadsheets that contain a bunch of their statistics over the last three years. The spreadsheet is three pages wide, with dozens of different measures. As I scanned Shoemaker’s line on the spreadsheet, nothing really jumped out at me. Yes, Ks are up a bit and walks down a bit but nothing special. Then on page three I saw them; Shoemaker’s among the best at missing bats with a 13.1 percent swinging strike rate, a 69 percent first strike percentage and excellent contact numbers (hitters struggle to make contact). Shoemaker’s 14-3 season of 2014 seems a long time ago, and he’s in his age 30 season, but he’s still got something there that hints at a mini-breakout.  Around the 200 slot, I think he’s well worth the chance. CRUSH
  • Masahiro Tanaka (88): When I was a kid and I had an upset stomach, my mom gave me ginger ale. I never had it when I was healthy. As an adult, I’ve come to really like ginger ale – it’s kind of yummy and makes me happy. Tanaka is pitching ginger ale. He will settle your stomach with a solid, predictable skill set, and with a floor that might be closer to his ceiling than most any other pitcher. But I’m going to get cute here: If you play in a Yahoo league, Tanaka is a flush. CBS leagues? Crush. Why the difference? Yahoo ADP: 75; CBS: 102. The experts’ consensus rank is right around 88. If you already have a couple of serious strikeout pitchers on your staff, I fully endorse Tanaka. For me, that’s around his CBS slot around 100. If I already have Chris Archer and Jacob deGrom on my staff, Tanaka both settles my stomach and tastes yummy like ginger ale. At 100, it’s a crush. But until about 100? Unfortunately, he’s a
  • Noah Syndergaard: You already know I’m not one to take a pitcher early, and that I say for every great season, there’s a season of regression waiting. Noah Syndergaard’s BABIP was .335, 56 points higher than in 2015. How is that even possible? Syndergaard is flat out filth. I think he’s actually going to be better. He’ll be drafted when I’m drafting reliable power, so have fun. I give you my blessing. He’s almost first round worthy to me. CRUSH
  • Vince Velasquez (175): The Phillies’ trio of Nola, Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff are garnering a lot of attention and I fully endorse all three of them. Velasquez is already fooling major league hitters. He’s a touch wild, but that improves with age (he’s 25 this year), but the Ks are there and hitters struggle to make good contact. I wouldn’t jump much higher than 175; he’s no sure thing, but I’d be comfortable with VV after about 160, for sure. CRUSH
  • Jerad Eickhoff (220): Let’s tackle Eickhoff right here, just after Velasquez. Eickhoff is kind of “Vince light.” He’s not as electric as Velasquez, but he owns better control. He owns a nice mix of pitches that keeps hitters honest. I think this ADP is appropriate and Eickhoff can and should be part of a deep Fantasy staff; and again, another reason you don’t chase the ace. CRUSH
  • Matt Harvey (I don’t care): As a Mets fan, I hope and pray that Harvey returns to form. I’m not going to find out on my Fantasy roster, though, and you shouldn’t on yours. There are too many good pitchers in his area of the draft (low 100s) that you don’t have to risk it. Pass. FLUSH
  • Jake Arrieta (27): Most credit the Cubs for “fixing” Arrieta, but as I wrote in March of 2013, Arrieta had all the skills to be successful but was mostly unlucky in Baltimore. After an injury-riddled season that year, he began to shine in 2014, won the Cy Young in 2015, and stepped back a little bit in 2016. Arrieta is a tremendous talent, but his struggles with control late in the season worry me. If I was the type to draft pitching early, I’d pass on Arrieta in favor of another arm. Nothing personal, but when I get “that feeling” it’s hard to ignore. FLUSH
  • A. Happ (162): Here’s a guy who went 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA last year, getting drafted after the 6-7 James Paxton (more on Paxton below). Happ’s fine, but he’s more like a 4.00 ERA pitcher, he doesn’t strike out enough hitters to get anyone excited and everyone knows he’s on the Regression Express this year. He showed a nice approach and made some changes, but in this area of the draft I’d rather have Paxton, or jump early for Aaron Nola (see above). I’m sure Mr. Happ is a nice guy, but he’s more likely to be closer to Mr. Happless this year. FLUSH
  • James Paxton (159): He showed a good skill set, slightly above average. Nothing special, nothing terrible. I like other guys here a bit more, but if they’re gone, I’d call Paxton’s name (certainly ahead of Happ’s). A .347 BABIP (.298 league average) and 66 percent strand rate (72 percent average) means he’ll be a little better. He’ll at least hold his value. I’m not writing love notes for Jimmy, but I have a minor
  • Jacob deGrom (62): deGrom is a reminder that it is very hard for a pitcher to improve each season without a little step back. He had an ulnar nerve issue in September, but so far so good in spring training. I think you can build your staff around deGrom, but just try to land a bunch of No. 2 and No. 3 pitchers to back him up. CRUSH
  • Robert Gsellman (326): I mention Gsellman for two reasons; the Mets staff has a history of injuries so even if he doesn’t make the rotation, you should track him anyway. And secondly, he passed my “eye test” last year during the playoff chase. Gsellman was an aggressive rookie who exceeded his minor league K rates. If the rotation stays healthy, he’ll have the room to fail a bit in the No. 5 spot. Keep your eye on him, because I think he’ll pass your eye test too, and he’s worth a late draft pick or early season waiver consideration.
  • Gerrit Cole (97): I mentioned above that Cole *could* possibly anchor a staff, but it’s a pretty big risk. I was very high on Gerrit Cole last year and predicted ace-level production, but a couple of arm injuries got in the way. Obviously, arm injuries for a pitcher should always get your attention and give you reason to pause when drafting or researching them. But I’m willing to take another risk on Cole this year. His peripheral stats were a touch lower last year (arm discomfort would explain them), but they were still pretty solid. Cole’s a 26-year-old groundball pitcher who throws hard, generally misses bats and did go 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA in 2015. If you’re drafting a deep staff, I fully re-endorse Gerrit Cole. CRUSH
  • Jeff Samardzija (172): In Crush or Flush, I tend to write about pitchers whose value/ADP I feel strongly about. But in some cases, I just want to talk about a certain guy. I view Samardzija as a barely above-average talent and an ADP around 170 is just fine, I guess. With a K/9 rate that’s fairly low recently (8.04 career, but 6.86 and 7.39 in 2015 & 2016) and the fact that he’s played with his fastball and slider percentages during that time, something’s not quite right. Last year, he cut his slider use in about half, which signals arm discomfort to me. He hasn’t missed any time over the past two seasons, but his approach has been weird, despite consistent velocity on his pitches. His ceiling is too low, and his K totals worry me, so he’s a flush for me, though at #172, I understand absorbing the risk on a deep staff. I just don’t see any value higher than, say 140, ever, for Samardzija. I’ll find bigger upside in this part of the draft – but I wanted to just let you know I saw some funky patterns. FLUSH
  • Jake Odorizzi (180): I view Odorizzi in a similar light as Samardzija, in that the ceiling is pretty low. He yields too many fly balls, and the difference between his fastball and change-up is about 6 mph, so I think hitters will tee off on him.  Odorizzi is a 4.15 ERA pitcher until and if he changes something about his skillset.  He’s not far off from being a very productive pitcher, and if he sinks into the 200s, I’ll be interested. Too many fly balls and not enough Ks to pique my interest. At 180 (again because of better upside here) Odorizzi is a FLUSH
  • Hisashi Iwakuma (221): Hisashi Iwakuma winning 16 games last year is a flat joke. In his age 35 season, despite contributing 199 innings, his skills were in a rapid decline. In just 2014, he had a K/BB ratio of 7.33. Since then his strikeouts have decreased and walks increased (just 6.65 K/9 and a solid but increasing 2.08 BB/9). His WHIP (1.05 and 1.06 in 2014 and 2015) soared to 1.33. The wheels are falling off, so don’t look at his late draft status as a potential bargain for 16 wins. He will struggle to win 10 games, or even stay in a rotation, this season FLUSH
  • Ivan Nova (280): Normally I would not recommend a pitcher with a mediocre K rate and injury history, but I can’t urge you strongly enough to invest in Nova, even well before ADP 280. Yes, he’s a 7.3 K/9 guy – he’ll contribute enough strikeouts to be worthwhile, but he induces twice as many ground balls as fly balls, he yielded only 1.64 walks per nine innings last season, his 5.07 and 4.07 ERAs in 2015 and 2016 were both about a half run too high.  When I see a 3.70 xFIP, I see a 3.35 ERA the following season. His 16.7 percent HR/FB ratio will come down a bit and you’ll find that he’s a bargain if he’s still on the board at #250.  He’s immensely better than Odorizzi and Iwakuma who, as you see, are taken well before Nova. Enjoy. CRUSH
  • Gio Gonzalez (275): Remember when Gio was “the IT boy” in Fantasy baseball? Experts raved about him, yet he’s become a consistent .500 pitcher, drawing a collective “Meh” from the Fantasy community. Take that “Meh” and turn it into “me,” because I think you want Gio on your roster. Very much like Nova, Gonzalez had a 3.80 xFIP last season, but he strikes out 8.7 K/9. His control isn’t great, but whose is in the 275 ADP range? Gonzalez will probably never crack the top 100 players as once thought, but I’m for giving him one more chance at a solid season. Draft strikeouts and work around it later if necessary. CRUSH


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