Most Valuable Number 3 Starters
Baseball award season means hot takes and fierce debates between fans over minor differences, but it also means heralding greatness with trivial lists. I say, why should the great be the only ones with trivial lists? Why not let the merely competent get in on the list action? In that spirit, I set out to identify the Most Valuable number three starting pitchers for the 2016 season.
The methodology is straightforward, if arbitrary. A number three starter is the draft mule of the rotation- behind the champion steed aces and workhorse number two. A number three starter is the one you don’t drop after a rough first half, but you’ll trade away at the first sign that someone might mistakenly overvalue them.
Some pitchers entered the season as a fantasy SP3 but improved their profile over the season–Rick Porcello or Kyle Hendricks. Some pitchers entered the season as an ace–Felix Hernandez or Sonny Gray– or with ace potential–Chris Archer or Michael Wacha– and performed more like an SP3 or worse. There are pitchers who jumped from SP5 to SP1–Rich Hill–and pitchers who played like an SP1 when they were on the field but missed enough time to finish the season accumulating the value of an SP3–the top halves of the Indians and Mets rotations.
What makes someone an SP3, for the purposes of this arbitrary award? As a person writing about baseball, the beauty of awards is that my justifications for them are purely my own and beholden to no one. But we here at TDG have higher standards of integrity than other baseball writing/award governing bodies, so let’s set some criteria:
- Must have entered 2016 ranked in the 40-100 range in TDG consensus SP rankings.
We have to set some boundaries for an SP’s perceived ranking at the beginning of the season. Entering 2016, Marcus Stroman was perceived to be a top 25 SP. By the end of the season, his performance put him around the same 2016 value as Mat Latos. The 40-100 range of this site’s consensus rankings would account for non-prospects most likely to be the third pitcher drafted in a new league draft for most teams in a 14-16 team league. That’d make them SP3s, and being an SP3 is about as good a definition for what an SP3 is as anything.
- Must not be a prospect, not have rookie eligibility, and be 25 or older by the end of the 2016 season
If you’re a young player, you aren’t an SP3. You’re a potential SP2. Even if every scout sees you as a mid-rotation starter, a young pitcher who finishes the season valued around other SP3’s is going to have someone writing something about his ace potential for fantasy. Once young players get to be about 25, their potential can set into reality and players will stop being drafted or traded as if they could be an ace or SP2.
- Must be likely to be evaluated as an SP3 next year regardless of performance this year
We don’t know where these players will rank or get drafted, but we can guess based on career, profile, and the general trend for fantasy players to look for value. Kyle Hendricks is no longer in the SP3 tier. Matt Shoemaker might be (but I don’t think he is, hence his exclusion from this list).
With criteria set, let’s take a look at my ballot for Most Valuable SP3 for 2016:
- Matt Moore
The thing about players who fail to achieve ace potential is when they fall, we expect them to fall hard. Moore is definitively not an ace– the words “cautionary tale” appear beside his name in just about every mention of him on these fair pages in the past year. Yet Moore pitched a career high 198 innings and recorded a career high 178 strikeouts in 2016. His ERA and walk rate continue to ensure he won’t be mistaken for a top-of-the-rotation starter in either real life or fantasy any time soon, but it’s realistic to assume he can put up similar counting stats next year and that could result in lucking into some more wins. A middle-of-the-road WHIP and subpar ERA will continue to depress his value, but an SP2 season or two could be in his future.
- Ian Kennedy
The only thing more surprising than the contract the Royals handed Kennedy might be that he played up to it. He put together stretches this season where one could persuasively argue that he pitched like an ace, as long as he kept balls inside the park. The Royals defense helped ensure fly balls to the outfield didn’t turn into ERA-crushing hits, and Kennedy put together the kind of season that placed him between Carlos Carrasco and Chris Archer in ESPN’s player rater. No one saw that coming, and there is still the potential for another 200 strikeout season before his contract expires.
- Trevor Bauer
Bauer has been a tale of two pitchers his entire career, both on the field and off. He had SP1 potential, but never developed the control to fulfill it. He has an intriguing and media-hungry personality, but he makes dumb decisions (like drone-flying, rapping, or tweeting). This remained true in 2016: Bauer strung together a few abysmal months along with a few where he looked like the best pitcher on the Indians’ unbelievable staff. He’s cemented his status as an SP3 for the next few years; he’ll be rostered but won’t be anyone’s first choice and should probably be streamed based on matchups. Unlike other young pitchers, though, he remains unencumbered by injury risk (maybe the long-toss program works?!) and a capable workhorse. They say that which does not kill you makes you stronger, and when Trevor Bauer isn’t making you want to die he’s certainly helping your team.
Author’s Note: The first version of this article mistakenly included Michael Wacha in the same category as Rick Porcello and Kyle Hendricks. Unless you are Michael Wacha’s mother, this should be considered a grave error. Thanks to reader MatthewVRoberson for the catch.