Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Primer

Over the last few weeks, we've been surveying the landscape at each position and focusing on the top guys you should be targeting in your fantasy baseball drafts this season. We've already highlighted all the hitting groups, so be sure to check out the primers for first base, second base, third base, shortstop, catcher, and outfielder.

Next, let's take a look at starting pitchers. To reflect the most recent draft market values, all ADP numbers are from National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts since March 1.

Death of the Workhorse Pitcher

As recently as 2014, 34 pitchers logged at least 200 innings. That number has steadily declined since then, dropping to 28 in 2015, 15 in 2016 and 2017, and then finally all way down to 13 last season. You may have heard the workhorse pitcher is a dying breed, and it's no exaggeration.

The decline in 200-inning pitchers isn't all that different to the shortage of bell-cow running backs we see in fantasy football these days, and it's a pretty apt comparison. Both positions tend to be more susceptible to injuries, but the small group of elite players are true difference-makers, and after they're off the board, the talent drops off precipitously.

However, unlike their rushing cousins, elite starting pitchers historically haven't come at premium prices, with only rare exceptions like peak Clayton Kershaw going in the first round.

That trend is starting to change, though, and there's evidence to suggest that securing an ace early is becoming increasingly important under the current fantasy baseball landscape. If you're a fantasy football veteran, it may seem intuitive that running backs bust at a very high rate after the top options are off the board, but it turns out starting pitchers may not be all that different.

On FanGraphs, Ariel Cohen published a study in February that analyzed how starting pitchers performed in 2018, and found that after the first 12 starting pitchers, hurlers busted at a truly alarming rate, failing 71% of the time from pitchers 13 through 57 and 67% from 58 through 90.

And when you think about it, perhaps that makes sense. In addition to only 13 pitchers registering 200 innings in 2018, just 18 hurlers reached 200 strikeouts, and only 11 qualified starters had an ERA below 3.00. Elite pitching is rare, indeed, and drafting one or even two potential aces in the first three rounds has become a popular strategy this season.

This doesn't mean you must grab an early-round ace, as there's no one right way to draft -- after all, the much discussed "Zero RB" strategy in fantasy football rose to prominence for a reason. Going all-out on hitting is nothing new in fantasy baseball, and with this renewed attention on pitching, there's always potential value in zigging when others zag.

But it's evident that if you're trying to play things safe, your odds of getting a strong return on investment at pitcher -- and avoiding a bust -- is far greater in the opening rounds. With Luis Severino dealing with a shoulder injury, there are now arguably only 10 pitchers you can reasonably project for 200 innings and 200 strikeouts while also providing strong ratios. Obviously, we'll see our share of breakout pitchers and surprise stories who will join them, but the numbers say we're not nearly as good at predicting these mid-to-late round gems as we'd like to think.

The Top 10

The order of this year's top pitchers may vary from person to person, but what's clear is there's a consensus "big three" in Max Scherzer (ADP 5), Jacob deGrom (11), and Chris Sale (14). In 2018, all three were absolutely filthy, posting SIERAs under 2.80, strikeout rates above 32%, and walk rates below 6%.

Sale is theoretically the riskiest of the trio after only throwing 158 innings and experiencing reduced velocity down the stretch, but he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball on a per-inning basis last season. His 2.27 SIERA and 38.4% strikeout rate led all pitcher with at least 150 innings by a wide margin. He's taking things slowly this spring, but all indications are he's fully healthy.

Justin Verlander (21), Gerrit Cole (24), Aaron Nola (25), Corey Kluber (26), Blake Snell (30), Trevor Bauer (31) and Carlos Carrasco (36) round out the top 10 and are all strong candidates to anchor your pitching staff.

Verlander was every bit as good as Scherzer last year and has been lights out since coming over to Houston in 2017. Last year's 2.63 SIERA, 34.8% strikeout rate, and 4.4% walk rate were all career-bests, and you can certainly make the argument he deserves a seat with the top three -- yet it's fair to wonder whether those marks will be repeatable at age 36.

Cole, Snell, and Bauer are all stars on the rise, breaking out for monster 2018 campaigns with strikeout rates exceeding 30% for the first time in their respective careers. While Snell and Bauer figure to see their ERAs regress to the low 3.00s, there's little reason to think this trio won't be racking up the punchouts again this year.

Nola didn't show quite the same strikeout prowess last season (27.0%), but he saw sizable leaps in swinging-strike rate (12.4%) and first-pitch strike rate (69.4%) as his skills continue to improve every year. It wouldn't be surprising to see him take yet another step forward, and his fantastic batted-ball numbers shouldn't be underestimated. He produced a 50.6% ground-ball rate while ranking sixth in soft-hit rate (22.3%) and second in hard-hit rate (25.1%) among qualified starters in 2018.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised that Kluber's strikeout rate dipped back down (26.4%) following a career year in 2017, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old remains a safe, high-floor workhorse. For five straight seasons, he's exceeded 200 innings and 200 strikeouts with an ERA below 3.50 and WHIP under 1.10.

Carrasco often seems to get left out of when discussing the best hurlers in the game, but it's hard to argue with his results. Last year, he posted a 3.03 SIERA, 29.5% strikeout rate, and 5.5% walk rate. In spite of prior health concerns, he's thrown over 180 innings in three of the last four seasons, striking out over 200 in all three cases.

On the Cusp Aces

Following those first 10 names, there are a slew of hurlers with the ceiling to finish as bonafide fantasy aces, and you may even think a few of them already belong in the top tier. But these guys all come with lingering questions to various degrees, and some will almost certainly fail to live up to expectations.

Already looking like the heir apparent to replace Kershaw atop the Dodgers' rotation, the question isn't whether Walker Buehler (39) has the skills but how many innings he'll log this season. They've been extremely cautious with the 24-year-old, who "didn't feel right" entering spring training -- something you never want to hear -- but Buehler was masterful over 137 1/3 innings last season, posting a 3.31 SIERA, 27.9% strikeout rate, and 6.8% walk rate. If you add in his minor league innings, he threw a total of 153 1/3 innings in 2018, so it isn't inconceivable to see him jump up to the 170 range, but particularly with his slow spring, it's hard to see him sniffing 200. Still, from a per-inning perspective, he's already every bit as good as the top tier.

Noah Syndergaard (39), James Paxton (54) and Stephen Strasburg (61) possess similar inning concerns, but in their cases it revolves strictly around health. All three failed to reach 170 innings last year, and Strasburg is the only one to ever log a 200-inning season -- way back in 2014. At age 26, Syndergaard is the most likely to shake the injury-prone label, while Strasburg is at his lowest ADP in recent memory, arguably making him a nice value even if you have trouble trusting him. Like Buehler, they can hang with the best if they get the innings.

Patrick Corbin (50), Jameson Taillon (56), Mike Clevinger (61), Jack Flaherty (62), Jose Berrios (69) and German Marquez (79) are all coming off career-best seasons, and the only question is whether they continue to grow and maintain that level of success.

Corbin was a fantasy beast in 2018, producing a 2.91 SIERA, 30.8% strikeout rate, and 6.0% walk rate, and he was one of just eight players in the 200-inning, 200-strikeout club. However, it was also a massive leap over his career numbers, and the key is whether he can continue to rely on his devastating slider, a pitch he threw 41% of the time and registered a 54.2% strikeout rate and 29.3% swinging-strike rate.

Flaherty similarly rode an impressive slider on his way a fantastic rookie campaign, posting a 3.57 SIERA with 182 strikeouts over 151 innings, but it came with a potentially concerning 9.6% walk rate. The punchout upside is obvious, but know that it comes with the risk of the dreaded sophomore slump.

Taillon had the most nondescript strikeout rate of this bunch (22.8%), but a new slider (weird, it's like sliders are a good pitch) he debuted in late May added another wrinkle to his repertoire, suggesting the possibility of another level. Could the 3.13 xFIP and 27.7% strikeout rate he posted over his final eight starts be a sign of things to come?

Clevinger, Berrios, and Marquez all joined the 200 strikeout club in 2018, but it's Marquez who's arguably the most intriguing following a monster second half performance in which he produced a 2.57 SIERA, 33.9% strikeout rate, 5.5% walk rate, and 48.8% ground-ball rate. If Marquez played anywhere but Colorado, he would be going far earlier in drafts. Can he duplicate that magical run? Maybe, but he also wouldn't be the first talented pitcher to suffer a cruel fate at Coors Field's hands.

Zack Greinke (68) is still hanging around putting up solid numbers, though how much longer can he go at age 35? And yet, the fact is he exceeded 200 innings for the fourth time in the last five years, and came one short of 200 strikeouts. He's not exciting and declining velocity suggests a lower upside than his younger brethren, but he remains the rare workhorse you can count on for volume.

Luis Severino (54) and Clayton Kershaw (62) have both seen their draft stocks plummet as they deal with shoulder injuries, but they can be considered potential values if you can stomach the risk. Kershaw is the more worrisome of the two after dealing with injuries for several years now -- he's exceed 27 starts only once in the last five seasons. He's making progress, but it's understandable if you want no part of him unless he drops well past his ADP. (Update: Severino is now expected to be out until May, making him a far riskier pick, and at this point you may want to consider avoiding him all together.)

Along the same lines, Madison Bumgarner (89) deserves a mention as another big name to consider avoiding. He posted thoroughly mediocre marks in 2018 with a 4.42 SIERA and 19.8% strikeout rate, and while spring training numbers can generally be ignored, his numbers haven't exactly been encouraging, either. Frankly, he's been a shell of his former self since his dirt bike accident in 2017, and the lack of any positive signals in his recent numbers suggest you might want him to be someone else's problem instead of banking on a rebound.

The Best of the Rest

There are plenty of gems to unearth over the rest of the draft, but as noted earlier, you're probably going to, ahem, strike out more often than you like. Even so, that shouldn't discourage you from dreaming big and taking a shot at upside guys with the potential to break out or bounce back in 2019. The ones you hit on could go a long way towards locking up that fantasy championship. Here are some you should consider once the top names are off the board.

Zack Wheeler (91) and Luis Castillo (115): A pair of hurlers who started out slow in 2018 but excelled in the second half. Previously never dropping below a 10% walk rate in a season, Wheeler's campaign was highlighted by a career-best 7.4% walk rate, and he also posted excellent batted-ball marks, ranking third in soft-hit rate (23.4%) and first in hard-hit rate (24.8%). Meanwhile, Castillo was a downright disaster in the first half but looked more like the breakout candidate everyone was hoping for following the All-Star break with a 3.30 SIERA, 26.3% strikeout rate, 5.3% walk rate, and 48.0% ground-ball rate. If they can maintain the best parts of last year, there's a whole lot to like here.

Charlie Morton (118): You know you're going to get stellar per-inning numbers from Morton, it's just how many innings will that come with? That said, in just 167 innings he eclipsed 200 strikeouts for the first time, so there's still plenty of upside in this 35-year-old arm. Go in expecting 150 innings, and everything else is gravy.

Robbie Ray (128), Chris Archer (132) and Yu Darvish (140): A trio of classic bounceback candidates who can pile up the punchouts with the best of them. With a return to form, they'll easily out-perform their respective ADPs. Darvish is the biggest wild card after throwing just 40 innings last year but is also going the latest in drafts.

Masahiro Tanaka (134): Sure, Tanaka gives up too many home runs, but he's not getting a whole lot of respect for someone who just posted a 3.50 SIERA, 25.5% strikeout rate, and 5.5% walk rate. His 14.1% swinging-strike rate was top 10 among pitchers with at least 150 innings last season, sandwiched between James Paxton and Gerrit Cole.

Shane Bieber (138), Nick Pivetta (145), Eduardo Rodriguez (152), Tyler Glasnow (154), Nathan Eovaldi (170), Andrew Heaney (179), Joey Lucchesi (193) and Joe Musgrove (204): The who's who of 2019 breakout candidates, this is the perfect section of the draft to take a shot at a few upside arms without breaking the bank. Despite an ugly 4.77 ERA in 2018, Pivetta posted a promising 3.51 SIERA, 27.1% strikeout rate, and 7.4% walk rate, making him one of the trendiest picks this season. Glasnow is another popular choice after showing renewed potential in a late-season trade to Tampa Bay, putting up a 3.52 SIERA, 28.4% strikeout rate, and 8.4% walk rate over 11 starts. On the surface, Musgrove's 2018 numbers don't scream breakout, but he showed encouraging peripherals down the stretch, and a potent slider and change-up in his arsenal may make him the sneakiest of this crew. Note that Heaney is in danger of missing Opening Day with elbow inflammation, so keep tabs on his status, although it's worth noting he endured the same issue to begin last season and still threw 180 innings.

Rich Hill (167), Hyun-jin Ryu (184), Ross Stripling (204) and Kenta Maeda (206): Yes, you could pretty much roster the whole Dodgers rotation and have a pretty nifty squad, but in the mold of Charlie Morton, by now it's pretty clear we can't expect Hill, Ryu, or Maeda to much exceed 150 innings. Still, that's baked into their prices and you know as long as they're out there, you're going to get quality innings. With Kershaw ailing and Buehler being brought along slowly, Stripling should join the rotation to begin the year and has the chance to do great things if he can stick. He produced a 3.13 SIERA, 27.0% strikeout rate, and 4.4% walk rate over 122 innings last year.

Jon Gray (197): Gray was an utter disaster in 2018, and yet his peripherals suggest he wasn't nearly as bad as his 5.12 ERA would indicate. Just as importantly, he attributed his disappointing season to poor health. We've been down this road before, and Coors Field remains a major hurdle, but the talent is still there to turn this thing around.

Collin McHugh (220): From starter to reliever and back to starter again, the hope is McHugh can bring his success as a flame-throwing reliever (33.2% strikeout rate) into the rotation this year. Now armed with an effective slider he debuted in 2017, McHugh would hardly be the first pitcher to show new life in the Astros' rotation.

Tyler Skaggs (227) and Steven Matz (244): Two guys who posted solid, if unspectacular, overall numbers in 2018 but also showed flashes of excellence. While health is hardly assured for Skaggs and Matz, both are still just 27 years old, and the price is right to speculate on the positives.

Marco Gonzales (265), Anibal Sanchez (275) and Sonny Gray (276): Exciting? No, but the perfect kinds of guys to round out the back end of your rotation. Gonzales doesn't walk anyone, and his ERA estimators suggest he could earn a sub-4.00 ERA. Sanchez's 26.3% soft-hit rate trailed only Chris Sale among hurlers with 130 innings, suggesting 2018 wasn't a total fluke. People seem to forget Gray has been plenty good before, and he worked with tracking machines this offseason to figure out what went wrong in New York.

Brad Peacock (285): Much like Stripling's situation, an injury to Josh James has opened the door for Peacock to hopefully begin the season in the Astros' rotation. Across 21 stars in 2017, Peacock posted a 3.65 xFIP with 135 strikeouts over 111 2/3 innings. It's hard to say how many innings he'll get, but draft the skills with confidence and hope he gets the opportunities.

Jesus Luzardo (203) and Chris Paddack (290): Luzardo and Paddack are two prospects lighting it up this spring, and both are suddenly looking like pretty good bets at making their respective rotations come Opening Day. The hype behind the Paddack train has seen his ADP rise all the way to 257 over the past week. But nothing is set in stone and keep in mind that both players had Tommy John surgery in the past and figure to have limited 2019 workloads no matter how things shake out. Also, don't sleep on Paddack's teammate Matt Strahm (319), who isn't getting quite the same attention but is also killing it this spring and making a strong case for a rotation spot. And speaking of prospects, Forrest Whitley (247) is widely considered the top pitching prospect in the game, and although he'll begin the year in Triple-A, he may be worth a stash depending on your league format.