We're just a couple of days away from Opening Day, and we've now covered each hitting position in fantasy baseball. The only thing left to do is to look at the other side of the equation, analyzing the pitchers.
The rankings below result from projections and what we call our “numberFire score”. The score, from a high level, takes a player’s contributions across all relevant scoring categories (5X5 league) and adjusts for position scarcity. It’s all placed in one fine, cute number, but the amount of math that goes behind it is significant. After all, that’s what we love – we love math.
Without further ado, here’s who the algorithms like this season at pitcher.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kershaw's $215 million deal shouldn't stop him from being the most dominant fantasy pitcher in the game, though his 1.83 ERA last year will be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. Keep in mind that, while Kershaw's ERA was by far the best in the bigs last year, his xFIP was over a full point higher than his earned run average. Regression is bound to happen for L.A.'s rich pitcher, not only because his ERA was a lot lower than it should have been last year, but because he saw career bests in BABIP and LOB%. Just remember that regression for a guy like Kershaw doesn't mean that he's not going to be the best in the business, and there's still opportunity for him to improve on a K/9 rate that was the lowest he's seen since 2008.
2. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Lee has thrown at least 200 innings in each of his last six seasons, and has never seen his ERA rise above 3.22. In 2013, he was able to post his best BB/9 rate of his career, all while striking out nearly one batter per inning. There's a decent chance his 2.87 ERA from a season ago rises a tad due to his lower-than-average left on base and BABIP numbers, but Lee's consistency makes him a pretty safe pick in fantasy drafts, even though he'll be 35 in August.
3. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
Our numbers like Bumgarner much, much more than a lot of rankings out there. Why? Well, like Lee, part of it has to do with consistency. The Giants lefty has hit the 200 innings pitched mark in each of the last three seasons, and while his batted ball average has dropped, a sign of regression, his line drive rate against has also dropped. Perhaps this is due to his decrease in fastball use over the last three years. And while that's increased his walk rate a bit, it's not significant enough for us to dub him worse than a pitcher outside of the top five. We're not expecting his ERA to sit below 3.00 again this season, but we also don't think he's going to jump significantly above the 3.00 mark. Plus his name is sweet.
4. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
The first of two Tigers on this list, Verlander brings - hey, imagine that - consistency to your fantasy baseball team. Clearly the algorithms are going to favor a guy who's pitched seven straight 200-plus inning seasons, but there is more downside with Verlander versus the pitchers who came before him on this list. The start and finishes to his 2013 season were great, but his middle months were lacking - he had a 6.41 ERA in May, a 3.92 average in June, and he hit 4.11 in August of last year. Part of the problem is that he's lost velocity on his fastball over the last two seasons, and it's becoming more and more mediocre. A declining Verlander is still better than almost any other fantasy pitcher though, and we think he can bounce back a bit from his up-and-down 2013 campaign.
5. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
Hernandez finished 2013 with the best strikeout rate of his career, fanning 9.5 hitters per nine innings. It was significantly higher than his 8.65 rate he saw in 2012, which was the second-best average of his career. It's not as though he's still blowing people away with his fastball, but he's throwing his changeup more than he ever has (23.0% last year), and he's one of the best in the game at throwing it. King Felix's xFIP was over 30 points better than his ERA last year, too, so perhaps we'll see the 3.04 number posted last year drop below 3.00. That's what our algorithms are expecting, at least.
6. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Some fantasy baseballers are taking Strasburg as early as the number two pitcher, but our numbers don't agree. Yeah, I know, strikeouts FTW. But it's hard to get strikeouts in cumulative form when you're seeing under 190 innings pitched. He's dominant, has all the potential in the world, and could easily become one of fantasy's best pitchers. We're in the projections game here though, and we'd rather get consistency at the beginning of our drafts before we dive head first for a guy who hasn't pitched an entire season.
7. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Sale managed to increase his K rate and decrease his BB rate during his first 200-plus inning season, keeping his ERA just above 3.00. Sale was able to turn some of his opponent's line drives into ground balls last year, which is a reason for his drop in WHIP and BABIP. If he can continue to progress, he should have no problem hitting the totals we've projected for him. It's just unfortunate that he plays for the White Sox, as his numbers were so strong, but he lacked a good record thanks to a whacky Chicago team.
8. Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers
A 21-win season from Max Scherzer won't happen this year, but the defending AL Cy Young winner should still be more than fantasy relevant. The biggest thing he did last year was decrease his home run rate, going from 1.10 per nine in 2012 to just 0.76 in 2013. While that rate was still just 22nd-best in the bigs, it allowed for an ERA of just 2.90. Scherzer could also struggle keeping his K/9 rate above 10.00 - something he's done over the last two seasons - dropping his strikeout totals a bit.
9. Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
Darvish has a neck injury, and will miss his Opening Day start for the Rangers as a result. That's caused a slight panic in fantasy land, but the reality is that he still has far too high of an average draft position when compared to our projections. After leading the AL in strikeouts last year, we're expecting the same to happen in 2014. But his ERA should rise a bit considering his drop in BABIP in 2013, as well as a FIP that was 45 points higher than his ERA. The biggest fantasy problem with Yu, however, is that he's going to get walks. In fact, no pitcher is projected to walk more batters than Darvish in 2014 (he finished third in 2013 within the category). As a result, his WHIP is on the higher end among these top 10 pitchers.
10. Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins
Fernandez comes with obvious risk, having pitched just one season in the bigs. But he was so, so good. Although his xFIP suggests that his ERA will shoot up towards the 3.00 range this season, our projections still have him pegged for a 2.84 average. He may not get a ton of wins with Miami, but he'll provide you that small ERA as well as the potential for a lot of strikeouts - his K rate was the fifth-best in baseball last year. He may be limiting due to innings pitched as a young arm, and his walk rate may cause a high WHIP, but Fernandez has the ability to be a top fantasy pitcher. There's just risk involved in drafting him.
Click here for the rest of the pitcher rankings.