Commentary

Early 2011 starting pitcher rankings

Updated: September 30, 2010, 4:48 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

60 Feet 6 Inches

Pitching, to a certain degree, can be a crapshoot.

Today, "60 Feet 6 Inches" -- like "Relief Efforts" and "Hit Parade" before it in their final editions of 2010 -- ranks the top starting pitchers for 2011. You'll find those rankings below. But considering the significant impact of luck upon a pitcher's statistics, fueled by rapid shifts in a pitcher's circumstances (run support, bullpen support, defense), I'm going to preface the discussion with this comment: Would anyone really be all that surprised if any one of the names in the top 25 finished as the No. 1 starting pitcher on the 2011 Player Rater?

Look back to the 2009 Player Rater: Zack Greinke topped all starting pitchers, and this season he has dropped to 58th. Conversely, Roy Oswalt, who ranked 59th last year, has soared to fourth at the position this season.

Roy Halladay
Howard Smith/US PresswireRoy Halladay is one of the few sure starting pitchers who can produce and stay healthy.

And then there are the injuries. It is often said that any pitcher can get hurt, and that's absolutely true. There's no better example than this:

Kerry Wood pitched 166 2/3 innings as a rookie 21-year-old (he actually made his big league debut as a 20-year-old) for the 1998 Chicago Cubs. In that season, he threw 100 or more pitches 21 times in 26 starts, 120 or more eight times and once threw 133. He totaled 2,840 pitches, averaging 109.2 per outing. To put that average into perspective, only eight pitchers from 2000-10 averaged more in a season at the age of 25 or younger. Wood would undergo Tommy John surgery the following year, only 26 starts into his big league career.

This season, Stephen Strasburg pitched 68 big league innings -- 123 1/3 including the minors -- as a rookie 21-year-old (though he turned 22 on July 20), never once threw as many as 100 pitches in an outing, totaled 1,070 pitches thrown and averaged 89.2 pitches per start. And despite the far more conservative workload, Strasburg, too, had Tommy John surgery 12 starts into his big league career.

Is it any wonder that, year after year, we advise you not to invest the majority of your draft-day resources in pitching? It's the riskiest of risky commodities in fantasy baseball, and even coming off a season in which pitching rebounded in a major way -- the composite major league ERA was 4.10, down almost a quarter-run from 2009's 4.31 -- it remains true.

That said, in an era when we have several burgeoning pitching stars, and pitcher workloads are closely maintained, we can't afford to ignore pitchers, either, certainly not to the degree we might have around the turn of the century. These days you can't typically win without an ace (or a couple of near-aces); it's merely a question of picking the right ones.

So to help you on your way, in addition to my top-75 rankings, I'm including some useful nuggets as you make your early 2011 plans regarding starting pitchers. Each of the categories below identifies some of the important positives and negatives with certain pitchers on the list -- or ones who narrowly missed it -- and if you put stock in a certain indicator over another, feel free to make your own adjustments. After all, anything goes with starting pitching!

Hot stove impact

This won't be as exciting a free-agent class as the one during the 2008-09 offseason, but at least it's deeper than last winter's class, which was headed by John Lackey and Joel Pineiro. It might also lead to significant change in the fantasy ranks, as many of the notable names are pitchers who make their homes in ballparks that reside at either end of the hitter- or pitcher-friendly spectrum. Take a look:

Cliff Lee, Texas Rangers: He didn't adapt to life in Texas nearly as well as anyone expected, but don't put the blame entirely upon the ballpark. Lee had three quality starts apiece at home and on the road for the Rangers, though he did make two more road (8) than home (6) starts. One might wonder whether the back injury that cost him a few days earlier this month could have contributed, but if the Rangers are seriously going with a three-man playoff rotation, they must have faith that Lee is completely healthy. They can probably afford to re-sign him, and with his track record and impeccable command, Lee could be a top-10 starter even if he remains in Texas. You can be sure, however, he'll command a higher price in fantasy drafts if he escapes Texas for a less hitter-friendly ballpark.

Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers: Though he has had a couple of shakier outings lately, Lilly's time in L.A. showed us that, plopped into a pitching-friendly ballpark, he indeed can rank as one of the better fantasy starters. Before that, he was annually underrated, regularly a contender for the top 25 at his position despite garnering a reputation as more of a top-40 guy. Where he lands will have a lot to say about his 2011 appeal, but if he's in another pitchers' heaven, there's a chance he might very well be drafted as a top-25 guy … finally.

Jorge De La Rosa, Colorado Rockies: Another pitcher who would be better off in fantasy if he left his current team, De La Rosa had a 3.73 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 22 road starts in 2009-10, compared to 4.77 and 1.36 in 30 games (29 starts) at Coors. The advent of the humidor has improved Rockies pitchers to the point that they can't be casually dismissed, but let's face it: A Rockies pitcher is still a Rockies pitcher. Put De La Rosa in, say, L.A. and he might be a much hotter commodity.

Carl Pavano, Minnesota Twins: Don't attribute his bounce-back season solely to the Twins' new pitching-friendly venue; he had a 3.90 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 13 starts at home, compared to 3.77 and 1.15 in 18 road starts. More responsible was an improved changeup, though luck was a contributing factor as well. Here's the real worry with Pavano: The last time he headed into free agency coming off a year like this, he signed that four-year, $39.95 million deal with the New York Yankees, entering four of the ugliest, most injury-marred years of his entire career. Don't mistake a big payday for a guarantee he'll repeat.

Regression candidates

Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves: He'll presumably be everyone's top regression candidate for 2011, as people talk up things like his .257 BABIP and 81.6 percent strand rate, both of those career bests, as well as his 4.02 FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching on an ERA scale) and 3.85 xFIP (expected FIP), numbers right in line with his 2007-09 performance. Still, let's not forget that, from 2007-09, Hudson's ERA was 3.30 and his WHIP was 1.23, so it's not like his numbers should be expected to go into the tank. The greater worry is that he's now 35 years old, and the instant his sinker loses its bite, dropping his ground-ball rate beneath 60 percent, his career might take a swift, sudden downturn.

Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics: No one seems to trust the ground-ballers, and FIP (Cahill's is 4.27) and xFIP (4.15) present two significant reasons. Pitchers who put the ball into play as frequently as he does put so much faith in their fielders, as well as fortunate bounces, and there's no better demonstration of that than his .235 BABIP, which is actually the fourth-lowest number of any pitcher who has qualified for the ERA title since 1990 (Chris Young, .230 in 2006; Curt Schilling, .230 in 1992; Nolan Ryan, .232 in 1991). Cahill's rising ground-ball (55.7 percent, up from 47.8) and strikeout-to-walk rates (1.84, up from 1.25) do support the fact that he should sustain low BABIPs … but not this low. He'll need to boost his strikeout rate into the range of the 9.90 per nine he averaged during his minor league career to keep his ERA in the 3.00 range again. Otherwise, there's a better chance it'll be closer to four in 2011.

Brian Duensing, Minnesota Twins: He has been an absolute sensation for the Twins, first serving as a dominant reliever, then a standout starter when called upon to serve as an injury replacement beginning in July. The problem, of course, is that he was so good in both roles, in his second season in the majors, that fantasy owners might be hooked that he's a future star. Truth is, he's a 27-year-old who had a 3.61 career minor league ERA and profiled as no more than a No. 3/4 starter. In short, he's exactly what he has been: more fill-in than leading man. Among pitchers with 100-plus innings, Duensing's 82.2 percent strand rate is third-best, and the difference between his ERA (2.44) and FIP (3.75) is the greatest of anyone (-1.31). He's bound to regress next season.

Tommy Hunter, Texas Rangers: Hmmm, a low-strikeout, homer-prone Texas Rangers right-hander is due to regress next season? What is this, a repeat of 2009, with Hunter as this year's Scott Feldman? Feldman's follow-up to his breakout 2009 was about as ugly as it gets, and while I'm not about to predict an identical result with Hunter, I can't rule out the prospect, either. Feldman averaged 5.36 K's per nine, 3.08 walks per nine, 0.85 homers per nine and actually allowed more ground balls (46.8 percent of the time) than fly balls (32.7 percent) last season; Hunter's numbers in those categories this year are worse: 4.90, 2.41 (the only one that beats Feldman's stats), 1.46, 41.6 and 40.4. It's simply not an easy thing to pitch in Texas, and chances are Hunter is in for a rockier 2011.

'Progression' candidates

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: How can he not improve? After Morrow tossed 146 1/3 innings this season, the Blue Jays should be more prepared to let him roam free in 2011, and this season he added a strikeout per nine to his career number (10.95, up from 9.99), shaved a walk per nine (4.06, from 5.08), yet saw his year-end ERA rise from his career number (4.49 in 2010, 4.19 career). That's mostly a product of bad luck -- look at that .348 BABIP -- but with Morrow more likely to handle a full-timer's workload and trending upward in terms of his command, a breakthrough might be coming.

Francisco Liriano
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireFrancisco Liriano is getting closer to the form that made him one of baseball's best pitchers in 2006.

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins: The seeds of something great remain; think top-five -- not merely top-25 -- starter status. Liriano had a tremendous season, but look at his FIP (2.50) and xFIP (3.07); they're not as far from his 2006 numbers (2.55 and 2.35) as you might think. He's also 8-2 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 13 second-half starts, improving the further removed he gets from November 2006 Tommy John surgery. Liriano might always be a health risk, but a healthy Liriano is a potential Cy Young winner. It's a risk worth taking.

Bud Norris, Houston Astros: Among pitchers with 140-plus innings, he ranks 10th in K's-per-nine (9.26), 10th in swinging strike percentage (10.8) and eighth in terms of lowest contact percentage (75.5), meaning he misses bats. In addition, the differential between his ERA and FIP was 0.84, seventh-most in the league. Now, those numbers guarantee nothing -- Felipe Paulino being a 2009 example who didn't pan out -- but Norris did have a more accomplished minor league career than Paulino. There's sleeper potential here.

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers: There's a perception about round numbers, especially ERAs, and if Porcello can't lower his ERA beneath five -- it's currently 5.01 -- it might cause many fantasy owners to think badly of him. Here's the problem with that: His full-season numbers were done in by a miserable start to the season, including a 6.14 ERA in his first 13 turns. Since Porcello returned from a refresher course in the minors, during which time he added a cutter-slider (a slider thrown with a cutter's grip), he has a 4.08 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 13 starts. During that time he has a minuscule 1.67 walks-per-nine ratio and a 2.94 K's-per-walk ratio, well above the big league average. Remember, Porcello is still just 21 years old and has been regarded as a future ace by many. His low strikeout total is a concern, but strikeouts don't dictate everything about pitching success.

Pitchers with potential 2011 innings-cap concerns

Ages are as of Opening Day 2011, and only include pitchers aged 25 and younger who have never pitched at least 160 innings in any professional season. Innings totals include both those pitched in the majors and minors.

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 153 1/3; previous professional innings high: 147 1/3 in 2008)
Simon Castro, San Diego Padres (Age: 22; 2010 innings: 140; previous professional innings high: 140 1/3 in 2009)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 107; previous professional innings high: 2010 was his pro debut). He's included under the assumption the Reds will make him a starter next season.
Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers (Age: 22; 2010 innings: 66 1/3; previous professional innings high: 127 1/3 in 2008). Ditto Chapman, though the Rangers are probably more likely to keep Feliz in the bullpen than the Reds will Chapman.
Kyle Gibson, Minnesota Twins (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 152; previous professional innings high: 2010 was his pro debut)
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 154 2/3; previous professional innings high: 152 in 2008)
Derek Holland, Texas Rangers (Age: 25; 2010 innings: 118; previous professional innings high: 150 2/3 in 2008)
Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 138 1/3; previous professional innings high: 2010 was his pro debut)
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 159 2/3; previous professional innings high: 14 in 2009)
Mike Montgomery, Kansas City Royals (Age: 21; 2010 innings: 93; previous professional innings high: 110 in 2009)
Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners (Age: 22; 2010 innings: 139 1/3; previous professional innings high: 138 1/3 in 2008)
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals (Age: 24; 2010 innings: 64 2/3; previous professional innings high: 134 in 2008)

Pitchers whose 2010 innings could signal trouble

Ages are as of Opening Day 2011, and only include pitchers who were 25 or younger as of this past Opening Day. Innings totals include both those pitched in the majors and minors. This list is essentially an updated look at my innings-cap edition of "60 Feet 6 Inches" from Aug. 25.

Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks (Age: 26; 2010 innings: 189; 2009 innings: 23 2/3; Difference: +165 1/3)
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 159 2/3; 2009 innings: 14; Difference: +145 2/3)
Dillon Gee, New York Mets (Age: 24; 2010 innings: 188 1/3; 2009 innings: 48 1/3; Difference: +140)
Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals (Age: 24; 2010 innings: 163 1/3; 2009 innings: 37 2/3; Difference: +125 2/3)
Phil Hughes, New York Yankees (Age: 24; 2010 innings: 175 1/3; 2009 innings: 105 1/3; Difference: +70)
Alex Sanabia, Florida Marlins (Age: 22; 2010 innings: 170 2/3; 2009 innings: 104 1/3; Difference: +66 1/3)
Jonathon Niese, New York Mets (Age: 24; 2010 innings: 177; 2009 innings: 120 innings; Difference: +57)
Mat Latos, San Diego Padres (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 178 2/3; 2009 innings: 123; Difference: +55 2/3)
Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians (Age: 26; 2010 innings: 178; 2009 innings: 129 1/3; Difference: +48 2/3)
Luke French, Seattle Mariners (Age: 25; 2010 innings: 197; 2009 innings: 149; Difference: +48)
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants (Age: 21; 2010 innings: 188 2/3; 2009 innings: 141 1/3; Difference: +47 1/3)
Ivan Nova, New York Yankees (Age: 24; 2010 innings: 184 2/3; 2009 innings: 139 1/3; Difference: +45 1/3)
David Price, Tampa Bay Rays (Age: 25; 2010 innings: 207 2/3; 2009 innings: 162 2/3; Difference: +45)
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 154 2/3; 2009 innings: 114; Difference: +40 2/3)
Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies (Age: 23; 2010 innings: 168; 2009 innings: 128 2/3; Difference: +39 1/3)

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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