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February 12, 2013 posted by Albert Lang

2013 Fantasy Baseball Head-to-Head Starting Pitcher Ranks & Preview

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For a brief tutorial on how to use my head-to-head ranks, please visit here. For all of my in-depth rankings breakdowns, please visit here. For spreadsheets of rankings visit here.

While pitchers of all shapes and varieties tend to be a volatile lot, it appears we are nearing a renaissance of young hurlers coming into their own. As such, there are reasonably 17 top flight starting pitching options for fantasy baseball in 2013.

Very few pitchers are without their invisible warts. Will all those innings catch up to Justin Verlander? Is the injury to Cole Hamels truly nothing? What’s the deal with Jered Weaver’s velocity? Can Stephen Strasburg last 200 innings.

So why fret in choosing one pitcher or another. Instead, make a list of “aces” you are comfortable with and draft hitters until there are only a few “aces” left. Then you can fill in the holes with high-upside and high-K starters later in the draft.

Every year there seems to be one pitcher I’m higher on than others. Recently, that pitcher has been Yovani Gallardo (# 8SP). Last season, Gallardo topped 200 K’s for the fourth straight year and Gallardo is tied for ninth in K’s since 2010. During that time, he has the sixth best K%. Of course, those are bulk rates over three years while Gallardo appeared to take a step back last season: 3.94 FIP, 7.8% swinging strike rate and 56.6% first-strike rate.

It’s easy to dismiss those underlying rates as outliers, especially considering his K% and BB% was right around career average. The difference in last season and his career appearances to be swing rates – batters swung at his slider 41% of the time and his curve 37% of the time – down from 45% and 40%.

Gallardo put himself in a bad position by not throwing his fastball/sinker combo early in the count. For his career, 59% of his first pitches are either a fourseam or sinker. Last season, he threw his fastball just 36% of the time when the count was 0-0 (he threw his sinker 15% of the time). Instead he threw his curve a lot more (a pitch that is a ball nearly 44% of the time). As a result, he didn’t get as many first strikes as he had been. This put the batter in a favorable position.

If Gallardo can get back to pounding the zone with his fastball early in the count, he’ll increase his first-strike rate and should increase his K%.

Lastly, it’s not like 2012 was awful: 204 K’s, 3.66 ERA. However, if he can make these adjustments, he should improve on those numbers: 3.49 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 220 K’s. Even if he falls short, you have a sturdy K-producer in h2h leagues.

If you follow the plan and secure Gallardo or another of the highly ranked SPs, you’ll have to fill in behind them with other pitchers a bit later in the draft.

Long a top flight option, Tim Lincecum (#24 SP) seems to be an afterthought in most drafts this season. Sure, the ERA (5.18) was ugly, but the FIP (4.18) wasn’t overly fugly, especially for a near-200 K performance. For some time, Lincecum’s velocity has been declining, but he has maintained an impressive swinging strike rate. Since 2010, he has the third best swinging strike rate (11%) in all of baseball. It was higher last season: 11.3%. The real culprits of his poor 2012 were a 67.8% strand rate, 10.9 BB% and 14.6% HR/FB rate. Those three issues can be explained pretty simply by Lincecum not being able to get his sinker (37% of the time a ball for his career, 42% last season) or change (35% versus 40%) over. If he hadn’t had his outcome on homers, those walks wouldn’t have been so detrimental. Basically, if Lincecum can get his pitches over a bit more, his ERA is going to come down a ton. His ERA will likely come down regardless, as it seems odd that he is suddenly a gopher baller when his previous high in HR/FB rate was 9.9%. With Lincecum, expect a 3.55 ERA, 226 K’s and a 1.32 WHIP.

With Dan Haren (#28 SP) there are some real issues scaring people off: a steep velocity decline (he didn’t average 90 MPHs last season) and injuries (a hip) which caused him to pitch only 176 innings (he had topped 200 the past seven seasons). However, the velocity or injury didn’t do much to his K% or BB% – the difference came in the swinging strike rate. It appears that batters simply weren’t offering at his curve ball: for his career, batters offered at his curve 33% of the time, last season they swung just 19%. Last season, his curve was about four MPHs slower than it normally was. There is a chance that gave batters ample time to read the pitch and not swing. All of that goes to explain what happened last season, yet all you care about is 2013. Well, he should be healthy (he passed a physical in signing with the Nationals and was pretty good at the end of 2012), will be in the National League and has something to prove (he signed a one-year deal). Banking on him to return to 200+ innings seems a bit silly given his age and recent history. But, even with 185 innings, he can provide a ton of value: 160 K’s, 3.58 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.

Ryan Dempster (#29 SP) wasn’t that bad in the American League: he had a better K%, swinging strike% and first-strike rate. He did walk a few more batters, but, in reality, he just got hammered in the Texas sun: 12.8% HR/FB and .330 BABIP. While he wasn’t as good as he was in Chicago (2.25 ERA), he certainly wasn’t as bad as he was in Texas (5.09 ERA). Add that up and you have a sleeper. With the move to Fenway, we’ll probably see a similar composite to his Texas days: an ERA around 4.00 (with a HR/FB rate around 11%), an inflated WHIP (1.37) but also a decent amount of K’s (170+ given 180 innings). He’s a bit old, so there might be a DL stint here or there, but that’s a good amount of K’s you’re getting for a relatively cheap price.

After a breakout 2011, Bud Norris (#36 SP) came a bit back to earth last season, battling injuries and posting a 4.65 ERA and 4.23 FIP. It was the second season in a row he failed to K a batter per inning. That said, his K% was solid (22.5) and he continued to collect double digit swinging strike rates. Surprising, but true: Norris is tied for the seventh best swinging strike rate among qualified pitchers since 2010. During that time, his FIP is 4.13 and he has a 3.86 SIERA. What has kept Norris from matching those rates with his ERA? A slightly elevated HR/FB rate (11.7% for his career). At this point, after 563 big league innings, Norris could be a guy that gives up a few more HRs than he should (the yin to Matt Cain’s yang?) and this could be exacerbated by throwing him to the wolves in Texas (of course, he does get the Angels, Mariners and A’s to balance out the scales). While there might be a slight decline in his K rate with the DH, he should still come close to a batter per inning, which could get him to 165 K’s. The ratios (4.20 ERA, 1.35 WHIP) won’t be world beaters, but those K’s will be nice enough to overcome slightly below average ratios.

Josh Beckett (#40 SP) certainly turned his year around in L.A.: 2.93 ERA and 3.82 FIP despite an 11.9% HR/FB rate. He upped his K’s and GBs in Hollywood, while continuing to post a sterling BB%. Unfortunately, it was only 43 innings, so ignoring his 127 innings in Boston (with a bizarre 65.3% strand rate) can’t be done. Despite striking out more batters in L.A., Beckett had a far better first-strike and swinging strike rate for the Red Sox. In short, in 2012, up was down, right was left, good was bad– there is just no way to connect the dots. According to Brooks Baseball, there wasn’t much different in his approach once he went to the N.L. All of this is by way of saying there’s a bit more guesswork going into Beckett than normal for me. Certainly I don’t expect an 82% strand rate and 2.90 ERA, but I also don’t expect a 55.7% first-strike rate or 7.7% swinging strike rate. Beckett has always had good control, which should benefit him in spacious Dodger Stadium against National League (West) line-ups. He seems a good bet to put his K/9 rate closer to 8 (which is where it rested in 2010 and 2011), which could get him to 160+ K’s. In addition, he has posted solid WHIPs in the AL (aside from 2010), so he could come in right around 1.20 in 2013. Lastly, his FIP in 2012 was 4.26 with all the nastiness going on and the majority of innings coming in the AL East. With a modicum of improvement, you’re looking at a reasonable 3.75 ERA with some upside.

Jon Niese (#47 SP) doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, but he does most things well enough to be a solid pitcher. He owns a career 3.78 FIP, an average K% and a slightly better than average BB%. He gets ahead of hitters but isn’t really able to put them away. While you’d think he benefited from his home ballpark, he gives up his fair share of homers (11.3% HR/FB rate). Over the past two seasons he has taken a step forward in limiting walks and striking batters out, posting the 27th best K:BB rate since 2011. In short, Niese provides solid filler and innings for your team. Niese, with his ability to post a 3.60 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, can balance out some high-K, high-ratio types. Heck, with 200 innings, Niese could come close to 170 K’s himself. There isn’t any flash or tons of upside here, but solid dependable pitchers later in the draft can really fill out a squad.

Like Niese, Alex Cobb (#58 SP) doesn’t do anything overly spectacular (aside from not walking guys and getting a good amount of ground balls). He doesn’t K a lot of batters or generate a ton of whiffs, but he does get ahead in the count. Unlike Niese, given the poor swinging strike rate, it is unlikely Cobb will help at all with K’s. Still, you should be able to get a decent bounce in his ratios if he continues to generate a ton of GBs and limit walks. Grab Cobb for the 3.75 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. If he reaches 140 K’s, count yourself lucky.

Perhaps it is because he’s portly, but Joe Blanton (#69 SP) just doesn’t get any respect. Since 2010, among qualified pitchers, he has the 10th best BB%, 21st best first-strike rate, 28th best SIERA and fifth best K:BB rate – what the what? Blanton had done all that damage in the NL but the move to the Angels and AL shouldn’t really hurt him. In fact, the shift away from Philly (predominantly) might be super helpful to his 2013 prospects. The biggest wart for Blanton is a propensity to give up a ton of fly balls which become HRs (10.3% HR/FB rate for his career, 15.3% last season, 13.9% in 2011 and 12.2% in 2010). Don’t go overboard, Blanton won’t be a stud (his K-rate won’t support that), but he should actually improve (aside from when he’s in Arlington). Blanton’s ERA should hover right around 4.00, but could be as low as 3.75. Meanwhile, his WHIP will be decent (1.23) and he should top 150 K’s. With the Angels offense, he also has a decent shot at some wins.

Since 2010, among qualified pitchers, Chris Capuano (#85 SP) has the 13th best swinging strike rate – better than Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and many others. It hasn’t translated into overwhelming success (4.03 FIP, 3.78 FIP) or many K’s (his K% since 2010 is just 45th overall). In addition, at the moment, Capuano seems to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the Dodgers rotation. Obviously there is attrition, but he’ll also be battling the likes of Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly for a potential rotation opening. Still, Capuano is too good to be without a job when so many teams need starting pitching. His value could fluctuate a lot depending on where he goes (he has given up way too many HRs in big parks in New York and LA). Still, a 7.75 K/9 rate 3.80 ERA and 1.25 WHIP are entirely reasonable. Monitor where he lands and scoop him late in your drafts for solid rotation depth.

It has been a long time since Johan Santana (#87 SP) has been both healthy and exceptional. However, despite the ERA in 2012, it was a major step forward. Santana posted his highest swinging strike rate and K% since 2007. He got behind hitters a bit more and walked more than normal, but that can be attributed to rust – and, even if it is the new norm, his walk rate was still above average. Factor in a poor strand rate (68.8%) and spike in HR/FB rate (11.7%) and you see why his FIP (4.09) and SIERA (3.86) tell a different tale than his ERA. Obviously there is no predicting whether Santana will be healthy or make the 28 to 30 starts the Mets want. You could count on 150 innings (and they’d be awesome innings) but, if an injury comes, why is it likelier to come after 150 innings and not before? Instead of trying to couch a set number of innings, just go after him later in the draft and pray. Santana should be good for an 8.79 K/9 rate, 3.55 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.

Hisashi Iwakuma (#108 SP) didn’t get a chance to start until July last season. In his 30 relief innings, he didn’t fare well: 4.75 ERA, 23:16 K:BB ratio. However, things clicked as a starter: 2.65 ERA and 78:28 K:BB ratio over 95 innings. It should be noted that his K% went up only slightly when starting, but his walk rate decreased considerably. Iwakuma, unlike most other pitchers, relies heavily on a splitter, throwing the pitch 421 times, compared to just 637 fourseamers and 481 sinkers. And, boy, was it successful: 33.46% whiffs:swings and 78% ground balls. In total, Iwakuma had a 9.5% swinging strike rate, but there’s a chance that could be higher if he started the entire season. Even if he doesn’t increase his K’s, Iawkuma’s ability to control the strike zone makes him an attractive pitcher. Without any hyperbole, a 3.68 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 150 K’s seem reasonable.

As a maturing adolescent, I was always confused about Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts (even if Julia is kind of a horse face). Maybe that has something to do with my infatuation with Jordan Lyles (#160 SP)? Lyles put together 127 solid innings at AA (21.3 K% and 6.5 BB%) in 2010. However the K’s didn’t translate to AAA or the majors in 2011. Still, with some solid improvement, Lyles could be a decent hurler for 2012 (or so the thought process went). Lyles took strides at AAA (in just 40 innings, he had a 19.6 K% and 4.8 BB%), however he didn’t get much going in the majors: 5.09 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 15.8 K% and 6.7 BB%. The walk and first-strike rates (61.5%) were impressive but he couldn’t put any batters away (6.9% swinging strike rate). Still, SIERA (4.07) really liked his effort, so there’s certainly something there, right? SIERA probably likes his solid ground ball rate and discounts his near criminal strand rate. Lyles has given up more than his fair share of HRs, but we don’t have a real baseline on what is accurate for him. The move to the American League also probably hurts him and his K rate. Still, he packed on some velocity last year, so silver linings abound. Lyles will probably help most in WHIP, while wins, K’s and ERA might not be that great. Still, as a spot starter in deeper leagues (think Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, etc.) he could provide some value. His arm is the type to have at the end of your bench and trot out late in a week to try and calm your WHIP down or pick up a couple of K’s.

Much like Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez (#166 SP) didn’t get a chance to start until late in the year. As a starter, Ramirez posted a 41:8 K:BB ratio, 3.64 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. Not surprisingly, he pitched far better at home, but wasn’t terrible on the road (3.00 K:BB rate, 3.90 ERA and 1.27 WHIP). Ramirez, just 22, doesn’t have a ton of innings to his name and wasn’t exceptional in the minors (he never had a 20+ K%). However, he came up and totally fooled MLB hitters: 11.3% swinging strike rate, 63.9% first-strike rate and 20.2 K%. He probably got a beneficial boost form his BABIP (.243), but his strand rate was nothing special (67.2%). It’s possible with more scouting batters will jump on Ramirez earlier in the count, but his change and fourseam were true out pitches last season. It’s a small sample (that isn’t completely in line with his minor league track record), but it’s hard not to like the price. At worst, you’re looking at a guy with a solid WHIP (1.15) and ERA 3.75 but no K’s (130). At best, you’ll probably get those same ratios but Ramirez could reward you with close to 170 K’s.

Nathan Eovaldi (#189 SP) had a fun run in August/September, 2011. He started six games and put together a 3.09 ERA but an unsustainable 23:17 K:BB rate. His inability to strike out guys at the major league level has really dogged him, but he has posted 20+K% at most every meaningful stop in the minors. Eovaldi also sits in the mid-90s, but really only works a fastball, slider combo – his change has not translated yet (MLB hitters put up a .459 batting average and .730 slugging percentage against it). If that change can come along at least a little bit, you’re looking at a really good three pitch repertoire. In addition, even in a relatively poor 2012, Eovaldi posted a 4.30 ERA and 4.13 FIP, so he was, by no means, a disaster. There is some upside in his arm and is worth a stash.

Travis Blackley (#203 SP) is pretty buried in the SP depth chart, however there are a lot of young and injury-prone pitchers in front of him (Brett Anderson, Dan Straily, AJ. Griffin, Tommy Milone, etc.). Blackley made 15 starts last season spanning 79.1 innings. He posted a 10.1% swinging strike rate which tied for the 29th best rate among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings. The swinging strikes didn’t lead to a ton of K’s, but it’s worth noting his K% was a good bit better as a starter than reliever. Blackley posted a solid first-strike rate last season and was good at limiting free passes (something he hadn’t really shown before). He also pitched far better at home. There are a lot of ifs with Blackley, but he should be someone in the back of your head. There’s a chance he increases his K’s and gets a chance at the starting rotation. If that happens, he could almost be a must start at home, which has its value.

Like Blackley, Corey Kluber (#207 SP), is a bit blocked in the SP depth chart (but Zach McAllister, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco are no sure things). Kluber has posted solid K% at AAA the last two years (it should be noted that success has come with him repeating the levels and he’s not exactly a spring chicken at 26). In his 12 starts last season, Kluber posted an impressive 10.7% swinging strike rate. He didn’t get ahead of hitters though which makes his above average BB% an outlier – he also never really posted a good walk rate in the minors. Still, there’s enough there to think he can miss a bunch of bats in the majors – albeit with a ton of walks. So, he can be the type of pitcher at the end of the bench you use in a week you need K’s. If Kluber can take a small step forward and gets in the rotation, you could be looking at an 8.65 K/9 rate, 4.65 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. The ratios are awful, but you’d only be using in him choice match-ups or in a week during which you wouldn’t win ERA/WHIP anyway.

Albert has been playing and arguing about baseball and fantasy sports since 2002. Since 1982, he has also been largely miserable (here’s looking at you Armando Benitez) because of the Orioles and Eagles. Albert has won leagues and lost leagues, but he has the most fun debating player values. Albert typically plays in several baseball and football leagues a year. He also is an avid baseball card collector and writes about older players and their historical value relative to the Hall of Fame and their peers/current players. When not harassing league mates with trades and analyzing what categories his team performs poorly in, Albert is a communications professional in Washington, D.C. Follow Albert on Twitter @h2h_corner. He has an awesome puppy named Charlotte. You can find all of Albert's work at http://h2hcorner.wordpress.com/.
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