Commentary

2011 Position Preview: Starting pitcher

Updated: March 23, 2011, 9:23 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Is it a pitchers' game once more?

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The statistics say yes. Starting pitchers managed a 4.15 ERA in 2010, and pitchers as a whole registered a 4.08 ERA, both of those numbers the lowest in any single season since 1992. Pitchers as a whole also averaged 7.13 strikeouts per nine innings and limited opposing hitters to .146 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average), both of those numbers better than in any season since the 1994 strike. The world champion San Francisco Giants, meanwhile, led the majors in ERA (3.36) and ranked third in starters' ERA (3.54), serving as one of the best recent examples of the mantra, "Pitching wins championships."

Surprisingly enough, fantasy owners don't seem to be hopping on the pitching bandwagon, despite those numbers. As they did in 2009, fantasy owners selected just 28 pitchers among the top 100 overall (in terms of average draft position) in 2010, although 23 of them were starting pitchers, up two from 2009's 21.

But here's a startling fact: Of those 23 starting pitchers in the top 100 in ADP, 14 finished among the top 100 on the season-ending Player Rater, or 60.9 percent. By comparison, only 36 of the 72 hitters among the top 100 in ADP also finished among the top 100 on the Player Rater (50 percent). Sample sizes have something to do with the differential, but if you look at how the top pitchers fared compared to the top hitters, neither group stands out as the clearly stronger investment. Heck, the 2010 Cy Young winners were picked second (Roy Halladay) and third (Felix Hernandez) at their position, while neither league MVP had an ADP better than 37th.

Of course, there are always examples of total busts on either side, like hitters Jacoby Ellsbury (20th in ADP) and Grady Sizemore (31st) and pitchers Josh Beckett (64th) and Javier Vazquez (67th). But don't let those pitching failures sully your opinion of the group as a whole; as the years progress, the likelihood of a busted pick is narrowing between the elite draft-day hitters and pitchers.

It's for that reason that a keen strategy is mandatory entering a fantasy draft, specifically an auction. By now you probably have heard all the funky strategies: the "LIMA" Plan (Low Investment Mound Aces), developed by Ron Shandler, which stipulates that you pick low-priced pitchers with strong command ratios; the Labadini Plan, which is the infamous $9 pitching staff in an auction league with nine pitching roster spots; and punting saves, in which you don't draft any closers and instead load up on quality starters in order to take wins and strikeouts.

No one says you have to pick such a creative strategy. In fact, sometimes the smartest strategy is a simple one: "I've got a $260 auction budget, and I'm not comfortable spending more than $100 on pitching, with $25 to go to one top-shelf closer." Most importantly, it's specific, it's firm and it's one that is not difficult to stick to at the draft table. Make sure you prepare accordingly.

The elite

Starting Pitcher Rankings

1. Roy Halladay, Phi, $28
2. Felix Hernandez, Sea, $26
3. Tim Lincecum, SF, $26
4. Cliff Lee, Phi, $24
5. Jon Lester, Bos, $22
6. CC Sabathia, NYY, $20
7. Clayton Kershaw, LAD, $18
8. Tommy Hanson, Atl, $17
9. Justin Verlander, Det, $17
10. Chris Carpenter, StL, $16
11. Ubaldo Jimenez, Col, $16
12. Dan Haren, LAA, $15
13. Mat Latos, SD, $15
14. Jered Weaver, LAA, $14
15. Zack Greinke, Mil, $14
16. Cole Hamels, Phi, $14
17. Josh Johnson, Fla, $14
18. Matt Cain, SF, $14
19. Roy Oswalt, Phi, $13
20. David Price, TB, $13
21. Yovani Gallardo, Mil, $12
22. Francisco Liriano, Min, $12
23. Max Scherzer, Det, $11
24. Wandy Rodriguez, Hou, $11
25. Chad Billingsley, LAD, $11
26. Ted Lilly, LAD, $10
27. Shaun Marcum, Mil, $10
28. Matt Garza, ChC, $10
29. Tim Hudson, Atl, $9
30. Brett Anderson, Oak, $9
31. Hiroki Kuroda, LAD, $9
32. John Danks, CWS, $9
33. Jonathan Sanchez, SF, $8
34. Clay Buchholz, Bos, $8
35. Daniel Hudson, Ari, $8
36. Colby Lewis, Tex, $7
37. Brett Myers, Hou, $7
38. Jeremy Hellickson, TB, $7
39. Brandon Morrow, Tor, $7
40. Jhoulys Chacin, Col, $6
41. Ricky Nolasco, Fla, $6
42. Phil Hughes, NYY, $5
43. Madison Bumgarner, SF, $5
44. Ryan Dempster, ChC, $4
45. Trevor Cahill, Oak, $4
46. Jaime Garcia, StL, $4
47. Ricky Romero, Tor, $4
48. Brian Matusz, Bal, $4
49. Josh Beckett, Bos, $3
50. Johnny Cueto, Cin, $3
51. C.J. Wilson, Tex, $3
52. Ian Kennedy, Ari, $3
53. Jordan Zimmermann, Was, $2
54. Edinson Volquez, Cin, $2
55. Bronson Arroyo, Cin, $2
56. James Shields, TB, $2
57. Travis Wood, Cin, $1
58. Jair Jurrjens, Atl, $1
59. Wade Davis, TB, $1
60. Joel Pineiro, LAA, $1
61. Jake Peavy, CWS, $1
62. Gavin Floyd, CWS, $1
63. Anibal Sanchez, Fla, $1
64. Randy Wolf, Mil, $1
65. Johan Santana, NYM, $1
66. James McDonald, Pit, $1
67. Jon Garland, LAD, $0
68. Michael Pineda, Sea, $0
69. Jake Westbrook, StL, $0
70. Scott Baker, Min, $0
71. John Lackey, Bos, $0
72. Jorge De La Rosa, Col, $0
73. Dallas Braden, Oak, $0
74. Javier Vazquez, Fla, $0
75. Ervin Santana, LAA, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.

If you're willing to make a significant investment in pitching, grabbing an ace in the early rounds is the right move. Eight of the top 12 starting pitchers in terms of ADP last season either exceeded or finished within 11 ranking spots of their ADP on the Player Rater, and five of those eight fall within this group, joined by a sixth,Tim Lincecum, who after a rough summer rebounded with lights-out September and October numbers to help lead his Giants to a World Series title.

These six pitchers share some common bonds: They've all ranked among the most productive fantasy starting pitchers for at least two consecutive seasons, and six of the seven led their respective leagues in at least one important statistical category in 2010. Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia tied for their leagues' lead in wins (21), Halladay led the National League in innings (250 2/3), Felix Hernandez led the American League in ERA (2.27) and quality starts (30), Cliff Lee led the AL in WHIP (1.00), Tim Lincecum led the NL in strikeouts per nine innings (9.79) and Jon Lester led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings (9.74).

They comprise Tier 1 and are ranked as follows: Halladay, Hernandez, Lincecum, Lee, Lester and Sabathia. Before he heard something "pop" in his elbow, Adam Wainwright, one of the "eight of the top 12" mentioned above, also belonged on this list, but he's essentially a write-off for 2011. For those of you in keeper leagues, consider grabbing him just outside of the top 200.

Tier 2, or is it "Tier 1A"?

The 2011 season is one so rich in pitching that, while there are seven members in the top tier of starting pitchers, all of whom rank among our top 35 players overall, the next tier could include as many as 10 more names. Ten more pitchers ranked between Nos. 36 and 70, and we could build a case for a top-five season for each of them.

We have the burgeoning superstars: under-25 starters Clayton Kershaw (23), Tommy Hanson (24) and Mat Latos (23). Each has been advertised as a future staff ace and potential Cy Young winner, and judging by their 2010 performances, their peaks could by all rights arrive as early as this year. Something you might want to think about: All three pitchers have a sub-3.00 ERA and a K's-per-nine rate greater than 9.00 during their professional careers to date, none of which has been longer than five seasons. They've each dominated the minor league levels, then quickly adapted to life in the big leagues, so have no fear picking them early.

We have the perennial Cy Young contenders in their prime: Zack Greinke (2009 AL Cy Young winner), Justin Verlander (third in the 2009 AL Cy Young voting), Chris Carpenter (2005 NL Cy Young winner and top-three finisher in both 2006 and 2009) and Ubaldo Jimenez (third in the 2010 NL Cy Young voting). It has often been said that those who have done it before are every bit as likely to do it again, and in the cases of Verlander, Carpenter and Jimenez, even falling short of award-winning status, each finished among the top 18 starting pitchers on our Player Rater in 2010. Greinke, meanwhile, gets a fresh start in Milwaukee, pitching in a division that should enhance his bounce-back chances, but he'll miss a couple of April starts with a broken rib suffered while playing basketball. It's nothing to worry about long-term, but it does put him behind a few other starters who, if not just as good, will put up better numbers thanks to a full complement of starts.

And we have the final group, one I'll call the "Cy sleepers": Los Angeles Angels teammates Dan Haren and Jered Weaver and Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cole Hamels. These pitchers tend to be overlooked relative to their brethren. Haren, for instance, has a reputation for being a "miserable" second-half pitcher, although in 2010 he bucked that trend, with a 3.34 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 16 starts after the All-Star break. Weaver actually led the majors in strikeouts (233), a fact many fantasy owners seem to have forgotten. And Hamels tends to get overshadowed, often labeled only fourth best in the Phillies' loaded rotation, but consider this: He set personal bests in terms of ERA (3.06) and strikeouts (211) in 2010, and actually cracked the top 20 starters on the Player Rater.

The next level

For the fantasy owner who doesn't care to spend an early-round pick on a starting pitcher, this is probably the group from which you want to select your ace. Waiting longer than this means taking an excessive amount of chances with late-round selections, and increasing the frequency with which you'll need to troll the waiver wire for replacements and matchups candidates in-season. Owners who plucked only one of the above names probably also want to pick at least one, and perhaps two, from this particular group.

What makes these pitchers so much different from the ones in the previous two groups? Simple: some small blemish, a slightly lower statistical ceiling, perhaps some health risk or a team/ballpark situation that doesn't fit the pitcher's skill set. Let's take a closer look at each:

Josh Johnson: He'd be a top-10 starting pitcher in any format if not for both the shoulder and elbow injuries that plagued him at the conclusion of last season. You can pick him earlier, if you're less risk-averse than the average owner.

Matt Cain: Reliable, consistent, but it's frustrating that he has yet to either boost his win total near the 20s or his strikeout total closer to 200.

Roy Oswalt: He's the least desirable fantasy commodity of the top four Phillies starters, apparently, probably because his performance had slipped in his final years with the Houston Astros, not to mention his generally modest strikeout rate.

David Price: Ace potential, yes, but he has done it for only one season, and had a .270 batting average on balls in play, 78.5 percent strand rate, 6.5 percent home run/fly ball rate and 16.7 percent line-drive rate, numbers that hint that good fortune was partly at play.

Yovani Gallardo: For the second consecutive season, his numbers fell off a table after the All-Star break. He's got the skills; now can he build the stamina needed to be a consistent, six-straight-month fantasy star?

Francisco Liriano: Everything is trending upward, but let's not forget that 2010 was the first season in his big league career that he stayed completely healthy.

Where's the ceiling? The breakouts

This is the most exciting, tantalizing group of any of the starting pitchers, and fantasy owners tend to love when this portion of the draft arrives. ADPs tend to fluctuate when we reach this stage; there are many people willing to overdraft some of the names below, especially if they get off to hot starts during spring training. Grabbing the correct two or three from this group could lead to a fantasy title at a steep discount; land the incorrect few, however, and you could be sent scrambling to the waiver wire or trade market just to round out your staff.

Let's break them down into two types:

Up-and-coming aces

Max Scherzer: That midseason demotion to work with the team's roving pitching instructors seemed to work wonders; he had a 2.46 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 9.25 strikeouts per nine innings in 23 starts after being recalled in late May.

Brett Anderson: When healthy, he was as productive as any AL starter last season. Just keep tabs on how his elbow is holding up during spring training.

Daniel Hudson: He was a sensation for the Arizona Diamondbacks after coming over in a midseason trade; he had a 1.69 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 11 starts for them. Those are tough to repeat, but even a slight drop-off would keep him ace-worthy.

Jeremy Hellickson: "Hell Boy" is one of 2011's most exciting rookies, and the Tampa Bay Rays are expected to hand him a rotation spot right from Day One.

Brandon Morrow: He misses bats with the best of them, and if the Toronto Blue Jays simply take off the kid gloves, he might be one of the AL's top breakout arms.

Jhoulys Chacin: What he did in 2010 as a 22-year-old Colorado Rockies rookie was nothing short of phenomenal, and now he'll be a starter for them from day one. Chacin's talent might not be any less than Ubaldo Jimenez's, even right now.

Phil Hughes: He got off to such a hot start last season that he made the All-Star team, and now the question is whether the New York Yankees' careful maintenance of the young right-hander's arm has hindered or helped him.

Already good, but might get better

Chad Billingsley: At the time of his big league debut in 2006, he was advertised as a future staff ace. Now 26, Billingsley has made small strides in each of the past two seasons, posting his best WHIP (1.28) and walks per nine (3.24) in 2010.

Shaun Marcum: Getting out of the AL East might do wonders for this incredibly underrated right-hander; he was 1-6 with a 5.64 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 10 starts versus the division's top three teams in 2010.

Matt Garza: Ditto Marcum, except that Garza has a cleaner track record in the health department. The NL Central is a far easier place for a pitcher than the AL East.

John Danks: He keeps toeing the line between middle-of-the-rotation starter and budding ace, and he'll turn just 26 in April. He might have room to grow.

Jonathan Sanchez: He was one of the NL's most valuable pitchers the second half of last season and is a strikeout machine. There are hints that he might regress in 2011, but at the same time, he does have the stuff to take another step.

Clay Buchholz: He's already a ground ball-generating machine. Now, can he boost his strikeout rate closer to the 10.23 per nine he averaged in the minors?

Ricky Nolasco: He's a sabermetrician's dream, the kind of pitcher who feels like he has battled bad luck forever. The Florida Marlins were confident enough in his skills to lock him up long term; will he prove them right?

Johnny Cueto: The 2010 season was the first time in his three-year career he maintained a consistent level of performance all year. Stamina has been a problem for him in the past, but maybe that portends something greater?

Sound as a pound

Once you reach the middle rounds of your draft, sometimes it's comforting to know that a starting pitcher out there, even if completely unexciting and without much in the way of upside, is a consistent, reliable type you know you can throw out there for 30-plus above-average starts. These pitchers typically need minimal roster maintenance; you pick them, plug them into your lineup in Week 1 and never remove them all season. In 2010, Wandy Rodriguez, Ted Lilly, Tim Hudson, Hiroki Kuroda and Brett Myers each ranked between 14th (Hudson) and 47th (Rodriguez) among starting pitchers on our Player Rater, and in the past three seasons combined, their ERAs have ranged between 3.03 (Hudson) and 3.94 (Myers) with WHIPs between 1.12 (Lilly) and 1.32 (Myers). Lilly, in fact, has the second-lowest WHIP of any pitcher with 650-plus innings since 2007 (1.13).

Where's the basement?

This group is typically populated by familiar names, ones who might have been fantasy standouts as recently as last season. But for some reason, each has a significant amount of downside entering 2011, and certainly more so than any of the pitchers listed in the previous sections. Let's break them down by category:

Health risks

Josh Beckett: He has made 13 trips to the disabled list in his 10-year big league career, and in 2010, he had noticeably weaker stuff than in years past. Beckett has had ace-caliber potential in the past, but have injuries finally caught up with him?

Johan Santana: He's expected to miss the first half of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, and considering his strikeout rate has been plummeting rapidly in recent seasons, it's unclear whether he'll ever recapture his past form.

Jorge De La Rosa: A finger injury cost him more than two months last season, and while he's expected to be fine entering 2011, he does have three career DL stints on his résumé. Coors Field also caps his upside somewhat.

Jake Peavy: Shoulder surgery abruptly ended his 2010 in July, and at the time, there were whispers it could be a career-ender. Peavy is a former Cy Young winner and has that kind of potential if healthy, but his spring will be one to track closely.

Hard to repeat

Colby Lewis: He's the enigma of the five in this group, because he did return from Japan a completely remade pitcher. Still, it's difficult to think that a pitcher with a 6.71 ERA in his previous big league stint in 2002-07, plus one worked as hard as Lewis was in 2010, can match or exceed last year's lofty numbers.

Trevor Cahill: His extreme ground ball tendencies (56 percent in 2010) and low strikeout rate (5.40 per nine innings) put his fate entirely in the hands of his fielders, and it's hard to imagine the stars aligning so perfectly for him again.

Jaime Garcia: Like the aforementioned Phil Hughes, Garcia's carefully maintained workload late last season could be either a boon or a hindrance, and we might not know until 2011 gets underway. He did throw a lot of innings for a pitcher who scarcely threw in 2009 after returning from Tommy John surgery.

R.A. Dickey: He's a knuckleballer, he's 35 years old, and he had a 5.43 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in his first seven big league seasons. These types of pitchers can be wholly unpredictable; how lucky are you feeling?

Gio Gonzalez: His walk rate is awfully high (4.13 per nine in 2010) and his strand rate (78.1 percent) is probably unsustainable. Gonzalez is probably here to stay as a full-time starter, but he'll be hard-pressed to repeat 2010's stats.

Where's the ceiling? The sleepers

The definition of "sleeper" can be a broad one -- as you'll see with the categories broken down below -- but the vast majority of successful fantasy teams tend to hit it big with multiple names from lists like these. While it's a risky venture to build a fantasy staff entirely of sleepers, maximizing upside from the final few spots on your team is a must if you're serious about your championship hopes. Ask yourself this: Would you rather chance the pitcher who could explode as a top-25 value or the middle-of-the-road, ho-hum, final-round veteran?

Good job, kid: These pitchers showed at times in 2010, especially late in the year, that life in the major leagues was A-OK with them:

Madison Bumgarner (1.53 ERA, 1.13 WHIP in his final 10 games/nine starts, postseason included), Wade Davis (3.28 ERA in 12 second-half starts), Ian Kennedy (2.13 ERA in his final nine starts), Brian Matusz (7-1, 2.18 ERA in his final 11 starts) and Travis Wood (3.51 ERA in a 17-start late-season stint)

The comeback kids: These pitchers have at times throughout their careers -- either majors or minors -- flashed ace potential, yet struggled or were hurt for extended periods in 2010. Granted a more favorable set of circumstances or a fresh slate in 2011, might they rebound?

Rick Porcello (4.00 ERA, 1.16 WHIP in final 14 starts after a mid-June demotion to the minors), Edinson Volquez (9.46 K's per nine in last full season in 2008, 9.62 K's per nine in 12-start late-season stint in 2010), Jordan Zimmermann (first full season back from Tommy John surgery)

Streaming specials

No matter your opinion of the "streaming starters" strategy -- one that dictates that you sign a bunch of starting pitchers scheduled to pitch on a given date, only to replace them with a fresh set slated to work the following day (and so on) -- it's a tried-and-true one in many daily formats. Success in those formats often requires knowledge of individual pitchers' matchup tendencies, and the lists below highlight some of the 2010 season's most attractive options.

Home cookin': Pitchers who tend to perform at their best in home games; statistics are from 2010, unless otherwise noted:

Wade LeBlanc: 2.71 ERA, 1.32 WHIP in 13 GS
Mike Pelfrey: 10 W, 2.83 ERA, 1.27 WHIP in 19 GS
Joel Pineiro: 7 W, 2.18 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 13 GS
Clayton Richard: 6 W, 3.15 ERA, 1.22 WHIP in 17 GS
Jason Vargas: 7 W, 2.86 ERA, 1.20 WHIP in 16 GS
Barry Zito: 7 W, 3.35 ERA, 1.29 WHIP in 18 G (17 GS)

Road warriors: Pitchers who typically perform better on the road than at home, often due to their home ballpark being a hitter-friendly venue. Again, statistics are from 2010, unless otherwise noted:

Bronson Arroyo: 10 W, 3.76 ERA, 1.10 WHIP in 18 GS
Homer Bailey: 3.95 ERA, 1.26 WHIP in 9 GS
Fausto Carmona: 7 W, 3.61 ERA, 1.28 WHIP in 14 GS
Brett Cecil: 8 W, 4.06 ERA, 1.30 WHIP in 16 GS

Bullies the bad: Pitchers who capitalized upon facing the 10 worst offensive teams (as judged by runs per game) in 2010. Statistics are only against offenses from those groups last season, and these pitchers might be worth a try facing particularly bad opponents.

A.J. Burnett: 3.56 ERA, 1.30 WHIP in 11 GS
Edwin Jackson: 3.25 ERA, 1.22 WHIP in 12 GS
Derek Lowe: 2.79 ERA, 1.21 WHIP in 14 GS
Jeff Niemann: 3.18 ERA, 1.18 WHIP in 9 GS
Jonathon Niese: 2.75 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 6 GS
Carl Pavano: 2.05 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 8 GS

Bottom line

Feel free to shuffle somewhat the tier breakdowns listed above; I know with my personal rankings, I typically classify pitchers in groups and will make changes based on my personal preferences. Remember, things can change quickly with starting pitchers, especially those buried deeper in the rankings, so if you have a strong gut instinct about a player, feel free to move him up or down a group or two. Another strategy to consider: Determine which tiers are most appealing to you. Maybe none of the top 10 starters in our rankings interests you, but you see three to five pitchers ranked from 11th to 20th that you'd love to get. Such a fantasy owner might opt to draft only hitters for the first few rounds, then take three of those pitchers in consecutive rounds to anchor his/her staff. Such a plan helps you determine a course of attack, a critical thing to have entering a draft or auction.

That's especially so in this age of pitching rebirth. Remember a decade ago, when you'd never, ever pick more than one or two starting pitchers in your first 10 rounds, or spend more than a third of your auction budget on pitching? That's no longer a slam-dunk strategy, so careful preparation is more critical today than it has been in the past.

You don't want the game's rapidly shifting trends to leave you behind.

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.