Three years makes it clear: It's a pitchers' era.
OK, OK, so perhaps that's stretching it. After all, the league's ERA is currently 4.02, only a hair beneath the 4.08 number across all of Major League Baseball since 1970. So let's amend that statement: This is actually a neutral era, but it's fine to embellish by applying a "pitchers' era" label if you add the caveat that it's comparative to the "hitters' era" from 1998 to 2004, when the MLB mark was 4.49.
There's a reason I point this out: Fantasy owners tend to cling to such widely circulated labels, and you can be sure you've heard some mention of a "Year of the Pitcher" at some point within these past three seasons. Most likely, you've already made strategic adjustments to compensate for the game's recent slant toward pitching.
But here's the scary reality about 2012: While pitching rates as a whole remained largely unchanged -- a 6 percent rise in league-wide strikeout rates the only non-negligible shift -- it was the relievers who improved. Starting pitchers, as a whole, actually regressed in performance. Take a look:
Perhaps this won't come as a surprise, not in this era of relief specialization, pitch counts and innings caps. Those quality start and innings-per-start stats are telling; and they further strengthen the case that wins are a weak measure of pitching ability. After all, that 5.91 innings-per-start average is drawing precariously close to the five-inning minimum for a win required by the rulebook.
Certainly it changes the way we should look at starters entering 2013, though. An "ace" is still an ace, and comparing preseason ADP to Player Rater rankings, four of the top 10 not only have remained within that group, but have also finished within five spots of their ADP, while 12 of the top 21 in ADP rank within the top 20. Comparatively, only six of the top 20 hitters in terms of ADP rank among the Player Rater top 20. And that's merely a surface-level glance at the rationale behind targeting an ace in the draft, rather than waiting as you might have done a few short seasons ago.
In this final 2012 edition of "60 Feet, 6 Inches," let's give you that head start on your 2013 draft preparations. Today's edition provides preliminary starting pitcher rankings for next season and next season alone. Player value encompasses standard ESPN rules: Rotisserie 5x5 scoring and traditional rosters minus the second catcher.
In addition, however, let's make some early predictions on 2013 trends, following the same categorical breakdown as last week's "Hit Parade":
TOP 75 STARTING PITCHERS FOR 2013
Who's No. 1
The definition of a true fantasy ace is changing, the gap between the No. 1 and next several starting pitchers narrowing. This season's current No. 1 starter, R.A. Dickey, is only one spot and 0.42 Player Rater "points" higher than the No. 2 starter, Justin Verlander, and four spots and 0.88 higher than the No. 3 starter, David Price. (For games through Sept. 26.) It's for that reason that any No. 1 pick needs be taken with a grain of salt; I'd make the case that any of the five highest-ranked pitchers on my list were legitimate candidates, effectively serving as Nos. 1, 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D.
Pressed to pick, give me Felix Hernandez. I know, I know, his "win potential" trails that of a Justin Verlander, David Price or Clayton Kershaw. But what, exactly, is this fabled win potential? The statistics above show the ever-decreasing extent to which a starter hangs in the game long enough to even qualify, not to mention this season, more than any other in recent memory, has challenged us to define exactly what constitutes a winning team. The Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, for instance, are likely to win 90-plus games apiece, and the Washington Nationals are certain to set a franchise record, perhaps even challenging for the Washington, D.C., record of 99 wins, set by the Washington Senators (now Minnesota Twins) of 1933.
Heck, for another example, take our preseason projections: Of the seven pitchers we projected for 17 or more wins, three have no more than 10 wins apiece and pitch for vastly disappointing teams (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee of the Philadelphia Phillies and Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox).
This far ahead of draft day, why wouldn't you pick the most skilled pitcher, regardless of win potential? "King Felix," in the past five seasons combined, has the third-best ERA (2.88), ninth-best FIP (3.18) and 15th-best WHIP (1.17) among pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched, as well as the most quality starts (120), second most innings (1,143⅓) and fourth most strikeouts (1,053). Oh, and by the way, he has the 11th most wins (68) during that time, despite pitching for the team that won the third fewest games (346, .431 winning percentage).
Every winter has its share of buzz-worthy fantasy names, players most likely to spend the offseason riding the hype machine en route to their soaring up the 2013 preseason rankings. That's not to say they aren't deserving; it's merely to say that you'll hear plenty of chatter about the following five pitchers between now and March:
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: As if you haven't heard enough about him already. Fantasy owners might complain about his 159⅓-inning cap, or the fact he didn't pitch a game after Sept. 7, getting shut down with 24 games remaining on the Nationals' schedule. But if the goal was to keep Strasburg healthy for the long haul -- meaning the year-over-year, certain-keep in keeper leagues -- then the team's decision should at least inspire greater confidence in his durability entering 2013. Since Strasburg's innings cap almost perfectly matched teammate Jordan Zimmermann's 161⅓ in 2011, his first full season following Tommy John surgery, let's use Zimmermann's follow-up as a barometer again: Zimmermann has pitched 189⅓ innings, is on pace for 199⅓ and 33 starts, and has a lower ERA (2.90) than he did in 2011 (3.18). Why, therefore, can't Strasburg throw 200 innings in 2013, with comparable per-inning production to his 2012? Look at Clayton Kershaw's No. 5-ranked stat line, and tell me you doubt that Strasburg can manage those kinds of numbers next year.
David Price, Tampa Bay Rays: Thanks to an active 16-start hot streak during which he has 15 quality starts, a 2.14 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, Price has probably put himself in the lead for American League Cy Young honors, an award that tends to kick-start the hype machine. The No. 1 overall pick from the 2007 draft, Price has steadily improved in each big league season -- his WHIP has declined each year since 2009 and even if you call his 2011 a "down" year, credit him for handling aptly an increased workload of 34 starts and 224⅓ innings -- and he's 27, in the prime of his career. Heck, that he's a member of the AL East might be the only viable argument against his candidacy for the top spot.
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds: A dark horse contender for National League Cy Young honors, Cueto is sure to be hyped during the voting season, particularly if he wins the one additional game he needs for 20. His candidacy for the award is legitimate -- R.A. Dickey's absurdly good year is his biggest obstacle -- and that Cueto has won 10 of 14 starts with a 2.79 ERA and 1.07 WHIP at home is testament to how well he has pitched in spite of his hitter-friendly home ballpark. He's a workload concern no longer, setting personal bests with 32 starts and 210 innings, and his 3.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the highest of his career. Yes, Cueto is a legitimate top-10 starter candidate.
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox: He's the one pitcher on this list who legitimately scares me. I loved Sale in the preseason, but a key trait I loved about him is no longer true: Now you know who he is. And when I examine Sale's accomplishments in 2012, a few other concerns stand out: The 117⅔-inning bump -- plus any possible postseason frames he works -- the "human" 3.66 ERA and 1.36 homers-per-nine ratio since the All-Star break, and the 81.0 left-on-base percentage that's third highest among ERA qualifiers. Sale's praises will be sung all winter. I think he's going to take a hit as a result of the increased work, and I won't be riding shotgun on the bandwagon when it happens.
Kris Medlen, Atlanta Braves: He has nine quality starts and a 1.04 ERA in 11 starts since rejoining the Braves' rotation and his Braves have won 22 straight games he's started; how can Medlen not be hyped this winter? His has been one of the most successful first-full-year-back-from-Tommy John-surgery stories in baseball history, and he has flashed impeccable command -- odd for a pitcher fresh off that surgery -- in the process (5.27 K-to-walk ratio). The Braves have also preserved Medlen's arm nicely, working him back initially in relief before restoring him to their rotation, meaning what was a 132-inning season might be closer to 180-190 in 2013. His ratios will regress. But if "regression" means a 3.00 ERA, I've underranked him.
Hot stove impact
This winter's free-agent market took a hit during the season's first half, when current top-10 Player Rater starters Matt Cain (7th) and Cole Hamels (10th) agreed to long-term extensions. However, even with those two jewels off the market, this winter's at least remains a healthier free-agent class than last winter's class. The oft-mentioned third member of the "trio of free-agent aces," Zack Greinke, remains unsigned, and three other impending free agents changed teams, as Greinke did, in trade-deadline rental moves: Ryan Dempster, Francisco Liriano and Anibal Sanchez.
Greinke struggled initially upon his return to the American League, only one of his first five Los Angeles Angels appearances a quality start, his ERA 6.19 during that light portion of his schedule. Thankfully for his 2013 fantasy prospects, he has rebounded with six quality starts in his past seven games, during which time he has a 1.62 ERA and 0.94 WHIP despite facing a more challenging stretch of the schedule. Greinke's turnaround might have the Angels thinking extension/winter re-signing, and curiously, they're probably going to be put in a position of deciding to keep two out of three between him ($13.5 million earned in 2012, free-agent price unclear), Dan Haren ($15.5 million option for 2013, $3.5 million buyout) and Ervin Santana ($13 million option for 2013, $1 million buyout). That's a significant situation to watch, because of the pitching-friendly nature of Angel Stadium: It ranks 27th in runs scored and 25th in home runs on our Park Factor page this season, and it finished in the top 10 in the majors in either category in both 2010 and 2011.
Among other free agents whose values might be impacted by winter moves:
Kyle Lohse: There might not be a pitcher whose value stands to change more than Lohse's, because after turning in a career-year performance while earning $11.875 million, he's almost certain to seek a hefty, multiyear extension that might price him out of the St. Louis Cardinals' range. Why that matters is that Lohse has gained a comfort level by spending five seasons calling Busch Stadium his home; his 3.37 ERA in 72 career starts there is almost a run and a half lower than it is everywhere else (4.76 ERA in 282 games, 258 starts). How many other places can he reasonably go without risk at a substantial hit to his ratios? Perhaps Atlanta or Los Angeles, but that might be it.
Anibal Sanchez: Just as Greinke did, Sanchez, struggled initially upon his move to the American League, his ERA 7.97 in his first four starts for the Detroit Tigers. Sanchez has turned it around since; he has a 2.25 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in his past seven starts. The problem, however, is that his issues in new circumstances paint him as a pitcher who requires adjustment periods in challenging situations. To that point, he also struggled to recover from shoulder issues in 2008-09. Sanchez's familiarity with Detroit, coupled with his pitching in the AL's weakest-hitting of the three divisions, might be the one thing assuring a comfort level with his 2013 fantasy owners.
Ryan Dempster: This makes it 3-for-3 in the "pitchers who struggled to adapt to the AL" race, as Dempster followed a similar route to that of Greinke or Sanchez. But Dempster's problems, unlike those of the other two, followed a predictable matchups pattern. He surrendered a 6.35 ERA in four starts as a member of the Texas Rangers facing these matchups: @TOR, NYY, TOR, @LAA. He also had a 2.76 ERA in seven starts for them facing these matchups: CLE, @MIN, @KC, CLE, @CLE, OAK, KC. Predictable matchups types are generally welcomed in all but the shallowest of mixed leagues, but from an overall-value angle, Dempster's appeal would be lesser as a member of the AL than the NL. Simply put, he'd face a higher volume of challenging matchups if he stayed put than if he returned to the Senior Circuit.
Two of last winter's free agents signed successful one-year deals, Hiroki Kuroda with the New York Yankees and Edwin Jackson with the Washington Nationals, and perhaps their examples might convince more teams to go the short-term route (wherever possible). Oddly enough, both pitchers might now re-sign and stay put, and their performances in the heat of pennant races should diminish any fear of a hit to their value even if they change teams. In Kuroda's case, he showed he could thrive in the hitting-rich AL, specifically the East. New York, New York: If you can make it there …
From a serious angle, could the "contract year" chatter most apply to one-year deals for prove-it-to-me starters? The 2011-12 free-agent class also had success stories in single-season deals for Bartolo Colon, Hisashi Iwakuma and Paul Maholm (though he has an option). Might it be that this winter's one-year-deal signees will be comparable bargain bets? We might see pitchers like Francisco Liriano, Shaun Marcum and Brandon McCarthy fall into that group, coming off disappointing years.
On the trade front, the New York Mets might conceivably trade R.A. Dickey, who has an affordable $5 million option for 2013 but is eligible for free agency in a year. Don't rush to assume a change in ballparks will adversely impact Dickey; knuckleballs are most influenced by the weather, not the dimensions of one's ballpark, and his 2.81 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in road games should settle your nerves. No. 1-ranked Felix Hernandez might make the rumor-mill rounds for another winter, but my bet is that the Seattle Mariners would lock him up with another extension rather than trade him.
Risky option years: Among the class of prospective free agents that would first need their teams to decline options, besides the aforementioned Haren and Santana, the Chicago White Sox have already said that they'll pay the $4 million to decline Jake Peavy's $22 million option for 2013. The Atlanta Braves might also free up Tim Hudson ($9 million option, $1 million buyout) and/or Paul Maholm ($6.5 million option), a situation well worth tracking what with Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado waiting in the wings for rotation spots.
Unranked value picks
Extending the rankings 75 starting pitchers deep greatly reduces the amount of "sleeper" candidates, but among the pitchers who missed the cut, here are a few whom I'll be closely examining all winter as possible bargains:
Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals: Should Kyle Lohse leave St. Louis -- and I'm betting today that he will -- Miller is his most logical replacement. Perhaps his 4.74 ERA in 27 starts for Triple-A Memphis, or reports that his velocity was down early in the year, is off-putting. Remember, though, that Miller's ERA was accrued in one of the minors' most hitting-rich leagues, and his velocity did return by midseason, resulting in a 2.88 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 10.62 K's-per-nine innings ratio in his final 10 starts for Memphis. Miller's curveball is already a lethal weapon, and I'd argue he should be in the Cardinals' opening-day rotation, even if today there's no guarantee of a spot.
Trevor Bauer, Arizona Diamondbacks: Few things suppress a youngster's draft-day price more than a brief, disastrous first taste of the big leagues; ask Anthony Rizzo's drafting owners who paid effectively nothing for his services this spring. Bauer's star hardly faded as a result of what, after all, was only a four-start stint in the desert; he had a 2.89 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 9.88 K's-per-nine ratio in six starts after being returned to Triple-A Reno. He has some control issues to work out, and that might require further minor league seasoning to begin 2013, but he's a pitcher I want to see back in the bigs sooner than later, and want in my top 75. Bauer's ceiling is high; he's still someone to build around in a keeper league.
Michael Pineda, New York Yankees: Utterly forgotten following a season lost to shoulder surgery, Pineda might be an afterthought today, with six months to go until most of our drafts. The Yankees have been tight-lipped about his rehabilitation, but let's face it, he's still very much a part of their future, being 23 years old (24 in January) and specifically acquired to address the team's long- as much as short-term needs. Pineda will come cheap in the spring, barring glowing health reports between now and then, being that he'll have to earn a rotation spot during spring training. But let's not forget that this is a pitcher who, at 22 in 2011, struck out more than a batter per inning. You could do a lot worse with the No. 8 or 9 starter on your roster.
Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays: He's constantly overshadowed because he has never been hailed one of the team's top prospects … and they've had a lot of great ones break through in the past half-decade, including David Price, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson. Cobb might not even be promised a rotation spot; the Rays should have Jeff Niemann back and Chris Archer might be ready to join the starting five come March. Still, Cobb deserves to start somewhere, even if not in Tampa Bay. He's a ground ball pitcher (58.4 percent rate) with good command (2.69 K-to-walk ratio), a combination that minimizes his per-start risk. In AL-only leagues, he's a good late-round target.