From the 21st of January to the 20th of February, the writers at TDG will be taking you through our rankings position-by-position. As I mentioned in the primer, this year we’re doing things a little differently. Instead of having my personal rankings up on this site, like last year, these rankings for 2014 are of the consensus variety and being brought to you by all of the TDG staff. Everyone put a lot of work into this project, so we hope you enjoy the end result. And if you are looking for my personal dynasty league rankings, you can find them this off-season at Baseball Prospectus.
So we hope you enjoy the rankings package that we’ve put together here. And if you do, I hope that you will make a donation to show appreciation for the content you’ve seen here at the Dynasty Guru. You can do that through this link, or by clicking the “Donate” button on the top-right corner of the homepage. All donations are truly appreciated.
Starting pitching is always tough to evaluate as a whole since the group of usable starters is sooooooo big, but we have seen a shift towards more high-level performance out of younger and less-experienced hitters. In fact, were it not for Matt Harvey’s elbow explosion (dibs on that for a band name), we could have seen two pitchers in the top-five who came into 2013 with less than 60 major league innings combined. However, with great performance also comes great responsiblity–and that responsibility is for the fantasy owner to determine whether their young pitcher who was surprisingly good can continue at a high level over a long period of time. We’re pretty confident we know Jose Fernandez is going to be great, but can you say the same thing about Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray, Danny Salazar and Tony Cingrani. I’m not so confident. The other noticeable thing about starting pitching is that some of the depth we’re used to seeing is drying up a bit. But you won’t notice that with this group of studs (just wait until Thursday and Friday).
Now the 20 best starting pitchers in dynasty leagues, starting with a unanimous pick at the top spot among all TDG rankers (like you really need to ask who it is):
1) Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (Age: 26, Previous Rank: 1)
It’s really hard to write anything analytically useful about Kershaw these days. He won his third straight ERA title last year, taking it to another level by posting the first sub-2.00 ERA by a starter since 2005. He led the majors in WHIP too. And the National League in strikeouts. He saved a drowning puppy on his way to the ballpark that one time. And he always had dinner waiting for you when you got home at night. I guess maybe there’s a chance he shows up to Spring Training with a McNugget belly and devil-may-care attitude after inking his massive contract extension this off-season. And his first start of the season will be in Australia, so maybe he gets jet-lagged or something. Otherwise he’s the undisputed best pitcher in the world and a clear choice to stay at the top of our rankings.
2) Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers (Age: 27, Previous Rank: 7)
After a rookie season in 2012 that showed flashes of his elite ceiling Darvish busted out for real last year. He struck out a third of all hitters he faced, racking up 277 punchouts total on the season. Batters that did manage to put the ball in play against Darvish didn’t fare much better, as he allowed just 6.2 H/9 and a .334 SLG against. If there’s a knock on him it’s that he gives up his fair share of flyballs and his home park doesn’t do him any favors in keeping those balls in the yard, as evidenced by last year’s somewhat unlucky 14.5% HR/FB rate. But that’s just nitpicking with a pitcher of Darvish’s caliber. He’ll pitch this season at Age 27 and should be a dominant force in fantasy for years to come on the strength of otherworldly strikeout potential.
3) Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 3)
The King’s reign continued for yet another season in 2013, as he paired a career best K/9 rate with a career low walk rate and showed that somehow there’s still growth potential for a pitcher who’s already logged over 1,800 Major League innings before his 28th birthday. That’s a big number, incidentally, and despite the stellar performance he did show some signs of wear in the form of a fastball that lost a full mile-an-hour for the 4th consecutive season. He offset this lost velocity with a substantial increase in the use of his elite change-up, and that seemed to do the trick for the time being (as the strikeout rate boost can attest). It’ll be interesting to see how long the King can maintain his dominance, as he’s in fairly uncharted waters for a modern day starter. Despite whatever warning signs there may be, though, he hasn’t shown any signs of falling off yet and fantasy owners should enjoy it for as long as it lasts.
4) Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals (Age: 25, Previous Rank: 2)
The Nationals wunderkind takes just a couple steps down our rankings after a season that again saw him fail to really put it all together. He missed more time with injury (this time an oblique), and after a much-ballyhooed attempt to “pitch to contact” at the outset of the season saw his aggregate strikeout rate fall 4%. Dynasty league owners should not fret, however. The strikeout rate rebounded as the season progressed, and young Strasburg a) is still young and b) possesses two of the deadliest weapons in baseball in his change-up and curveball. A hundred and nine at-bats ended on a Strasburg change-up in 2013, and not one of them produced an extra base hit. A hundred and fifty-six more ended against his curve, and only 5 times did a batter make it past first base. The pitches combined for a .158 SLG against. He also happens to throw 95. Don’t let the loss of some shine dull your enthusiasm for him. He’s still one of the best young pitchers in baseball and one of the best bets to make in most any dynasty format.
5) Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins (Age: 21, Previous Rank: 38)
It’s sort of hard to wrap your head round what Jose Fernandez accomplished last season. He entered spring training as a 20 year old with no experience above A ball and no chance to make the Major League roster, and he ended it as the 9th best pitcher in fantasy baseball. He put up a 2.19 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP AS A 20 YEAR-OLD ROOKIE. Let that marinate for a second. His .522 OPS against trailed only Kershaw’s .521 mark, and he struck out almost 10 batters-per-nine on the year. Those are simply incredible numbers, and there are about 20 more we could talk about that are equally mind-bending. He ranked 38th on this list last year on account of anticipated distance from the Majors, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll see him out of the top 5 again for a very, very long time.
6) Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox (Age: 25, Previous Rank: 20)
Sale laid to rest questions about his durability that have plagued him and his unorthodox delivery since his prospect days with 215 knockout innings last season. He improved his already-stellar control, lopping 1.3% off his walk rate while boosting his whiff rate by about the same amount. And he did it with a more diverse attack and better pitch sequencing; he ratcheted down a heavy reliance on his fastball in favor of a few more sliders and a lot more change-ups, indicating a promising evolution that bodes well for his ability to one day survive inevitable velocity decline. U.S. Cellular is a tough home ballpark for a non-groundball pitcher to thrive in, yet he’s managed to make it look pretty easy for two straight years now. Given his age and across-the-board improvement he makes for one of the best options around to build a dynasty league staff around.
7) David Price, Tampa Bay Rays (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 4)
After holding opponents to a consistently below-board BABIP throughout his career Price felt the wrath of lady luck in the first half of last season, and it lead to a 3.94 ERA and .316 wOBA allowed. He rebounded to a batted ball profile more in line with his career norm in the second half, but by season’s end he had logged just the 42nd most valuable season among starting pitchers. While he progressed to a career low walk rate of just 1.3-per-9, his strikeout rate took a troubling tumble down into 7.3/9 territory. There are some conflicting messages to be gleaned from his performance: on the one hand, he induced more swings on balls outside the zone, but on the other he gave up significantly more contact than he had since his rookie season in 2009. The latter development is perhaps unsurprising given that he lost over 2 MPH off his fastball, and that drop makes Price one of the riskier plays in the top 10.
8) Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants (Age: 24, Previous Rank: 16)
It’s important to remember sometimes than Bumgarner’s only 24, as he boasts the kind of consistent pedigree usually reserved for grizzled veteran types. He’s logged over 200 innings in three consecutive seasons now, and he’s seen hard contact against him decrease each year. He cut over 4% off his Contact % last year, leading to a tasty bump in his strikeout rate that bodes well for his future as a fantasy ace. He walked a few more hitters last season, and his extreme reliance on a devastating slider waves a warning flag for the long-term health of his elbow. But his early career returns point to a reliable, durable starter capable of anchoring a championship-caliber fantasy rotation for years to come.
9) Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers (Age: 29, Previous Rank: 13)
It all came together for Scherzer in 2013, as he struck out over 10 batters-per-nine for a second consecutive season, won 21 games, and posted an ERA under 3 and a WHIP under 1.00. It all added up to the best season by a starting pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw. A big reason for Scherzer’s leap was the deployment of a curveball against left-handed hitters for the first time. He threw the pitch just 8% of the time, but held lefties to a .180 average and .051 ISO with the pitch. He’s likely to face some BABIP regression in 2014, and suffice to say owners should not bank on a reprise of his 20 win luck. But Scherzer’s top shelf strikeout potential should keep him in the upper echelon of starting pitchers for a while.
10) Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals (Age: 32, Previous Rank: 9)
If anyone had a doubt remaining about Wainwright’s survival of Tommy John surgery he put that doubt to rest last year, logging a Major League high 231 2/3 innings and posting the 3rd best fantasy season among starting pitchers. His peripherals are steady as they come, his fastball velocity was up a mile and a half-per-hour last year, and both his curveball and cutter rated as the 2nd best versions thrown by Major League pitchers last year. He’s not a guy that depends on velocity for success, and it’s a profile that should age well. There are a couple warning signs: the post-surgery version is a bit more prone to hard contact than he used to be, as he’s posted consecutive seasons of a line drive rate north of 23% after sitting around 18% for his career before the injury. And the combined 277 regular and post-season innings he threw last year are an awful lot. Still, he’s one of the safer bets around as an anchor for your fantasy rotation, and should remain so for the next several years.
11) Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers (Age: 31, Previous Rank: 5)
Verlander had an “off” year in 2013 with a 3.46 ERA. Even if that becomes the norm for him the 200+ Ks he also provides and his place on a World Series caliber team make him an excellent fantasy SP. The good news is he probably has a bit more ERA upside than what he showed last year and the reworked Tigers defense should provide a bit help as well. Predicting pitching stats is a fools game but if we set the bar at his 2013 stats I’d bet Verlander bests all of those numbers this year.
12) Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates (Age: 23, Previous Rank: 32)
At 23 years old Cole might be the perfect pitching prospect, he’s got good size, mechanics and health along with high strikeouts, a 50% ground ball rate and the ability to limit walks. If all of these continue to click like they did in 2013 Cole will find himself well inside the top 10 next year. Playing for the Pirates and in the NL only helps his case as both the team and league will help to reduce runs scored. Basically, I’m buying all shares of Cole I can before this year with an eye on a big return in 2014.
13) Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers (Age: 30, Previous Rank: 8)
The cross-town move from the Angel Stadium to the Chavez Ravine helped to boost Greinke’s fantasy appeal last year and 2014 should be no different. I’d expect a jump in his strikeouts and a low 3s ERA moving forward and as long as he doesn’t get into any on-field quarrels he should be good for 200+ IPs as well. The only downside here is that Greinke just turned 30 but that shouldn’t scare you away for the next 2-3 years at least.
14) Matt Harvey, New York Mets (Age: 25, Previous Rank: 30)
Oh handsome, flame throwing Matt Harvey your 2013 was a magic ride for fantasy owners and highlights exactly why you should target high upside NL SPs in the late rounds of any draft. Sadly the Tommy John ghosts came calling and all of 2014 will be a loss. Without the injury you’d easily slide into the top 5 on this list but with the lost year and the fact that recovery, while very likely, is not guaranteed pushes you all the way back to 14. Harvey is a really amazing target for any rebuilding team and now is the time to go after him, the longer you wait the more he’ll cost.
15) Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals (Age: 27, Previous Rank: 17)
The strikeouts will never be elite but the control will be, last years 4.03 K/BB was outstanding and basically is reason you want Zimmermann. At 27, Zimmermann still has lots of mileage left and is a great #2 pitcher for any fantasy staff, especially one trying to lower its ERA and WHIP.
16) Shelby Miller, St Louis Cardinals (Age: 23, Previous Rank: 33)
Miller pitched above his head during his short time in the majors and I’d expect his 2014 ERA to more closely resemble the 3.67 FIP he posted in 2013. Still he’s only 23 years old and there is a lot to love here especially since Miller has the upside to increase his K-rate and become a perennial 200+ K SP. If he ever figures out how to bring his BBs down Miller could become an elite ace and while he’s never shown that ability in the past he’ll definitely be working on it with one of the best coaching staffs in the game. Like Gerrit Cole I think Miller’s price will jump substantially after 2014 so grab him now if you can.
17) Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies (Age: 30, Previous Rank: 6)
Hamels is a workhorse and while his numbers looked a bit off in 2013 a full rebound should be expected in 2014. Hamels’ 2013 basically showed us why trying to predict Ws is a total crapshoot as he put up a career low 8, expect that number to rise closer to 15 this year alongside an ERA that more resembles 3.00 than 3.50. If a co-owner is undervaluing Hamels based on his 2013 swoop in and buy low as soon as possible.
18) Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies (Age: 35, Previous Rank: 15)
Lee, now 35 years old, looked incredible in 2013 and I’m expecting a similar ride this year. However, with any player of this age you never know when the wheels will fall off, just look to Lee’s old teammate Roy Halladay on how quick the drop can come. So if you’re a contender Lee could be a great addition to your staff but if your team out of it this year I’d be looking for the best offer I could find to unload Lee.
19) Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants (Age: 29, Previous Rank: 11)
There were some bumps in Cain’s 2013 as his HR/FB rate spiked in the first half of the year but Cain righted the ship and his second half looked a lot more like his career norms. I doubt Cain returns to his sub-3.00 ERA ways but a return to a mid 3s ERA should be expected, along with decent Ks and Ws. Cain is another great buy low candidate heading into 2014.
20) Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds (Age: , Previous Rank: 25)
Latos who turned 26 in December has all the tools to become a top flight SP and 2014 could be the year he puts them all together. Since Latos is also an established fantasy commodity there isn’t a whole lot of risk here and there could be a lot of upside. Don’t sleep on his potential and you could end up see a the Max Scherzer-like breakout of 2014.
Commentary by Wilson Karaman, Luke Chatelain and Bret Sayre.