Commentary

2012 Position Preview: Starting pitcher

Updated: April 4, 2012, 12:06 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's all about perspective.

We've witnessed back-to-back seasons in which pitching dominated the headlines -- 2010 was termed the "Year of the Pitcher" by many, and 2011 regarded as the "Year of the Pitcher, Part II." It's true that pitching has enjoyed a return to glory of sorts. Major League Baseball averages the past half-decade back that up:

But there's something people forget when embracing this pitching lovefest: Every statistical note regarding this leaguewide pitching rebirth includes a caveat, usually something to the effect of, "since so-and-so season." For instance, that 3.94 ERA and 53.5 quality start percentage might impress, but did you know that those are merely the best numbers in those categories since 1992?

Again, this all comes back to perspective.

If you're a younger baseball fan or a fantasy team owner, you might not even remember baseball before the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins came into existence, and since they joined the National League in 1993, the corresponding rise in ERAs is no coincidence. This pitching uptick is entirely new to you; you have every reason to call 2011 the "Year of the Pitcher." You might even think this is the first time you've ever seen such an extensive list of good, draft-worthy pitchers.

The longtime baseball fans and fantasy players will be quick to correct that: They will say that 1968 is, and was, the "Year of the Pitcher." That was the year, after all, that Major League Baseball's aggregate ERA was 2.98, lowest since World War I, and starters managed quality starts 62.6 percent of the time, most in any season for which that statistic is available (since 1946).

In other words, the truth is that we're not necessarily in a pitchers' era … the pendulum is merely swinging back toward pitchers, just as it began to swing toward hitters during that 1993 season.

That requires us, the fantasy owners, to adjust accordingly, but there's one thing that ties the 2012 season, 2000 (arguably the worst for pitchers in history), 1992 and 1968 together: It's all about value relative to replacement. Or to use that word again, perspective.

Ask any two people how early you should draft your first pitcher and you might get two entirely different answers. Ten years ago, the answer might have been obvious: Pick Pedro Martinez in the first round, or wait until Round 9 to get your ace. Today, however, the case for pitching in the early rounds is valid … just as there's validity to the argument that, since there is so much quality pitching available, you can wait before drafting a starter.

The case for building around pitching: Despite the improved league ERA, ace-caliber starters are more reliable and provide a considerable advantage over their brethren. Of the first eight starting pitchers drafted, on average, in ESPN drafts last season, six finished in the top 10 at their position on the Player Rater, and not one finished lower than 30th (Felix Hernandez). Only three of the top eight hitters, meanwhile, finished among the top 10 hitters on the Player Rater.

In addition, using a "value over replacement" statistic such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement), six starting pitchers managed at least a 6.0 in 2011. To compare, four did it in 1992, four in the hitting-rich 2000, seven did it in 2009 and two in 2010. Pitchers like Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson might have experienced a greater comparative advantage -- and corresponding higher WAR -- in terms of value about 10 years ago, but there's no question that the value of an "elite" arm -- think a top-10 type -- has remained largely the same in each of those years, relative to replacement.

[+] EnlargeIan Kennedy
G Fiume/Getty ImagesIan Kennedy stepped out of relative obscurity to win 21 games last season.

Now the case for waiting on pitching: Despite the reliability of fantasy aces the past several seasons, there are plenty of surprises annually on the pitching side, both the fortunate (Ian Kennedy, Doug Fister) and unfortunate (Adam Wainwright, Ubaldo Jimenez). Scoring several "hits" on the pitching side can land you a league-leading staff at a dirt-cheap price; it's not quite as easy to do that with hitters.

Plus, just look at the stats. We've ranked Madison Bumgarner, Ricky Romero and Daniel Hudson as our Nos. 23, 24 and 25 starting pitchers, not one would've cost you more than a 16th-round pick, and last season all three finished among the top 25 starters on our Player Rater, averaging 15 wins, a 3.20 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 179 strikeouts between them. Meanwhile, Felix Hernandez, our No. 5-ranked starting pitcher, posted 4 wins, a 3.47 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 222 K's, only the strikeouts a better number than the average stat line by the aforementioned group of three. That's extracting arbitrary statistics to support an argument, assuming that anyone would've been lucky to get this combination exactly right, but the point remains: There was a way to build a staff on the cheap in 2011.

As for which is the correct approach, the answer might relate to your familiarity with sabermetric pitching statistics, which increases your probability of finding these hidden gems. Also consider the amount of time you're willing to spend both in draft preparation and in-season roster management. If you can't invest the time to do the dirty work, your investment in known commodities should be greater.

The past decade has brought with it numerous statistical advantages to help with the former; at the same time, those advances help your competition, too, decreasing your chances of being the only person at the table who knows that hidden gem.

The latter, meanwhile, also depends upon the format of your league. The larger your player pool -- think shallow mixed -- the easier it is to find a suitable number of daily or weekly matchups to spot into your lineup.

Just make sure to make the decision before draft day. There might not be a more critical position at which to have a predetermined strategy.

Cream of the crop

Starting Pitcher Rankings

1. Roy Halladay, Phi, SP (12)
2. Justin Verlander, Det, SP (17)
3. Clayton Kershaw, LAD, SP (20)
4. Cliff Lee, Phi, SP (22)
5. Felix Hernandez, Sea, SP (28)
6. Jered Weaver, LAA, SP (31)
7. Tim Lincecum, SF, SP (32)
8. Cole Hamels, Phi, SP (39)
9. Dan Haren, LAA, SP (41)
10. CC Sabathia, NYY, SP (43)
11. Zack Greinke, Mil, SP (48)
12. David Price, TB, SP (53)
13. Jon Lester, Bos, SP (56)
14. Matt Cain, SF, SP (61)
15. James Shields, TB, SP (64)
16. Yovani Gallardo, Mil, SP (65)
17. C.J. Wilson, LAA, SP (68)
18. Ian Kennedy, Ari, SP (71)
19. Matt Moore, TB, SP (73)
20. Stephen Strasburg, Was, SP (74)
21. Madison Bumgarner, SF, SP (77)
22. Ricky Romero, Tor, SP (79)
23. Daniel Hudson, Ari, SP (84)
24. Jeremy Hellickson, TB, SP (89)
25. Mat Latos, Cin, SP (92)
26. Adam Wainwright, StL, SP (94)
27. Matt Garza, ChC, SP (97)
28. Ubaldo Jimenez, Cle, SP (100)
29. Josh Beckett, Bos, SP (103)
30. Jordan Zimmermann, Was, SP (105)
31. Tommy Hanson, Atl, SP (111)
32. Shaun Marcum, Mil, SP (117)
33. Brandon Beachy, Atl, SP (118)
34. Yu Darvish, Tex, SP (120)
35. Josh Johnson, Mia, SP (124)
36. Cory Luebke, SD, SP, RP (126)
37. Gio Gonzalez, Was, SP (128)
38. Max Scherzer, Det, SP (130)
39. Anibal Sanchez, Mia, SP (133)
40. Doug Fister, Det, SP (139)
41. Hiroki Kuroda, NYY, SP (142)
42. Johnny Cueto, Cin, SP (147)
43. Jaime Garcia, StL, SP (150)
44. Tim Hudson, Atl, SP (153)
45. Justin Masterson, Cle, SP (154)
46. Ervin Santana, LAA, SP (155)
47. Ted Lilly, LAD, SP (158)
48. Wandy Rodriguez, Hou, SP (160)
49. Brandon Morrow, Tor, SP (163)
50. Colby Lewis, Tex, SP (165)
51. Brandon McCarthy, Oak, SP (171)
52. Tim Stauffer, SD, SP (174)
53. Clay Buchholz, Bos, SP (180)
54. Chris Carpenter, StL, SP (184)
55. Gavin Floyd, CWS, SP (187)
56. Mike Minor, Atl, SP (189)
57. Bud Norris, Hou, SP (192)
58. Ryan Dempster, ChC, SP (197)
59. John Danks, CWS, SP (203)
60. Brett Myers, Hou, SP (210)
61. Ricky Nolasco, Mia, SP (212)
62. Scott Baker, Min, SP (213)
63. Jonathan Sanchez, KC, SP (215)
64. Chad Billingsley, LAD, SP (217)
65. Edwin Jackson, Was, SP (219)
66. Jhoulys Chacin, Col, SP (226)
67. Derek Holland, Tex, SP (239)
68. Vance Worley, Phi, SP (245)
69. Jair Jurrjens, Atl, SP (252)
70. Mark Buehrle, Mia, SP (256)
71. Jonathon Niese, NYM, SP (261)
72. Trevor Cahill, Ari, SP (265)
73. Phil Hughes, NYY, SP (271)
74. Homer Bailey, Cin, SP (275)
75. Jake Peavy, CWS, SP (281)
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2012 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Overall position ranking is indicated in parentheses.

"Perennial Cy Young contender" and "perennial fantasy ace" are synonymous. To that end, this group has scored seven of the eight Cy Young Awards bestowed since 2008, each ranked among the top 20 starting pitchers on the 2011 Player Rater, and each managed a top-25 Player Rater ranking in each of the past three seasons.

You could probably recite both the names and their accomplishments from memory: Roy Halladay, 2010 National League Cy Young winner and No. 1 fantasy starting pitcher; Justin Verlander, 2011 American League MVP and Cy Young winner and No. 1 fantasy starter; Clayton Kershaw, 2011 NL Cy Young winner; Cliff Lee, 2008 AL Cy Young winner; Felix Hernandez, 2010 AL Cy Young winner and, along with Halladay, one of the only two in this group to have scored top-three finishes on the Player Rater in two of the past three seasons; Jered Weaver, runner-up in the 2011 AL Cy Young race; and Tim Lincecum, NL Cy Young winner in both 2008 and 2009.

There are two strengths of this group: Balanced performance across the four rotisserie categories upon which starting pitchers have the most influence is the first. In the past three seasons combined -- that's 21 seasons registered total by these seven starters -- this group is responsible for 16 seasons of 200-plus strikeouts, 13 sub-3.00 ERA qualified seasons, 10 sub-1.10 WHIP qualified seasons and three of the six 20-win campaigns in the majors during that span.

But the other strength is stamina; in addition to raw rotisserie influence, these players are annually responsible for tallying the most innings pitched, further bolstering their ERA and WHIP contributions, and increasing their probability of victory. From 2009-11 combined, this group owns the top three spots in innings pitched (Halladay, Hernandez and Verlander), the top four in complete games (Halladay, Lee, Hernandez and Verlander), and the top two in shutouts (Halladay and Lee). Kershaw and Weaver, meanwhile, logged more than 230 innings apiece in 2011, while Lincecum's 1,028 innings pitched since his May 6, 2007, debut are the eighth-most by any pitcher since that date.

You can win by skipping over this group, but in an increasingly pitching-centric league, there's validity to bucking the "build around hitting" strategy and picking one to anchor your staff in the early rounds. Wait at your own peril; the less you plan to invest on draft day, the more work you create for yourself unearthing hidden gems and managing matchups in-season.

The next best thing

Perhaps the most compelling case to be made against spending a top-25 overall pick on a starting pitcher is the talent available in the next tier at the position. While the pitchers in the above group might cost you a pick in the first three rounds, the 11 names in this category should go in more like the fourth to seventh rounds. Could a viable strategy be to forgo one of the perennial Cy Young contenders, spending those first three picks on hitters, then pick two of these in rounds four through six?

These 11 starting pitchers are split up into two groups.

The first six are pitchers who, with some good fortune, could realistically contend for the No. 1 spot overall on our Player Rater. These pitchers are largely those whose primary rotisserie numbers -- wins, ERA, WHIP, K's -- might not have overwhelmed last season, but whose peripheral numbers hint at greater things. This group includes three of the top seven in terms of strikeout-to-walk ratio in Dan Haren (5.82), Zack Greinke (4.47) and Cole Hamels (4.41), and five of the top 25 in FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching score): CC Sabathia (2.88), Zack Greinke (2.98), Dan Haren (2.98), Cole Hamels (3.05) and David Price (3.32).

Pitchers like Sabathia, as well as Jon Lester, the sixth name in the group, also derive a good chunk of their fantasy value from their win potential. In fact, one of the primary reasons neither one is in the upper tier is because both pitch in the American League East, which is just enough to increase their ERA/WHIP concern.

The next five starters, meanwhile, are more "consistent" types you can bank on finishing in the top 20 but who lack the upside of the former group.

Every single one of them finished among the top 19 starting pitchers in last year's Player Rater, with each earning a vote in the Cy Young balloting and the group being responsible for 15.6 percent of the Cy Young ballot points. But the other common thread in this group is their performance in another key, fantasy-related statistical category: Quality starts. Each member of the quintet finished among the top 12 in baseball in quality starts last season: Matt Cain (26, 3rd), James Shields (25, 5th), Ian Kennedy (24, 10th) and Yovani Gallardo and C.J. Wilson (23 apiece, both 12th).

Though the pitchers in this group will almost assuredly be gone by the eighth round in most mixed leagues, it's probably smart to spend at least one pick within those eight rounds on one of the above starting pitchers.

Where's the ceiling?

They're the tantalizing, the exciting, the might-they-break-out-in-a-major-way starting pitchers, and they're the pitchers who might otherwise be contenders for top-10 fantasy starter status if not for some small obstacle in their paths.

In several cases, it's a matter of innings. Washington Nationals right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are two prime examples; they'll be 19 months and 32 months, respectively, removed from Tommy John surgery come Opening Day 2012, and Zimmermann's meticulous workload management last season shows that the team is mindful of pitchers coming off that operation. Strasburg might have his innings capped at 160, and Zimmerman, who threw 161 1/3 innings in 2011, might not be fully set free to work 200 frames and beyond.

In others, it's their hitter-friendly home ballparks. Both Mat Latos and Michael Pineda were projected future staff aces at the time of their major league debuts, but they now call Great American Ball Park and Yankee Stadium, respectively, their homes. Japanese import Yu Darvish, meanwhile, must adapt to the U.S. game at Rangers Ballpark. And as all three pitchers will be adjusting to new surroundings -- all three changed teams this winter -- that's another question.

Injuries -- or at least injury history -- cast a shadow over two Atlanta Braves pitchers, Brandon Beachy and Tommy Hanson. Beachy's 10.74 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio as a rookie demonstrated his monstrous upside, but to date he has never pitched more than 146 2/3 innings in a professional season, missing time last season because of an oblique injury. Hanson, meanwhile, was on track to have already captured the role of staff ace until shoulder problems ended his 2011 season prematurely.

Rookie Matt Moore, boldly ranked our No. 19 pitcher despite his mere 19 1/3 innings of big league experience (and that's counting the playoffs), is still exactly that: A rookie. An adjustment period is always possible.

Meanwhile, two other young pitchers, Madison Bumgarner and Jeremy Hellickson, are coming off outstanding breakout campaigns in 2011. But each comes with questions: Was Bumgarner's increase in strikeout rate, nearly a whiff and a half per nine innings over his 2010 number, legit? Is Hellickson's 4.44 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching score), which was 1.49 higher than his ERA (2.95), the widest differential in the majors, the true indicator of his future talent?

Where's the basement?

Past glory does not always equal future success, and while the pitchers in this group might be familiar -- many of them are even household names -- the prospect of disappointment is somewhat greater for them than those in the higher tiers.

Age is a common concern for three: Josh Beckett (31), Chris Carpenter (36) and Tim Hudson (36) are all on the wrong side of 30, and each has already shown us a disappointing campaign within the past three seasons. Beckett had an unsightly 5.78 ERA two seasons ago. Carpenter missed most of the 2007-08 seasons with injuries. Hudson had Tommy John surgery in 2008, missing most of 2009.

[+] EnlargeJosh Johnson
AP Photo/Alan DiazJosh Johnson is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward pick.

Speaking of injuries, they're a concern for both Adam Wainwright and Josh Johnson, both of whom missed significant action last season. Wainwright, a command specialist who relies heavily upon his curveball, is fresh off a Tommy John surgery of his own, without any statistical data to demonstrate how healthy he'll be. Johnson, meanwhile, missed the final four months of 2011 because of a shoulder issue, one that resulted in multiple setbacks throughout the summer. Hudson also belongs here; he's fresh off November back surgery.

Hudson, in fact, belongs in three groups of "basement" candidates, the third being a heavy reliance upon his defense. He and Doug Fister, one of 2011's most surprising breakout stories, generate few strikeouts and need the players behind them to make plays. And in Fister's case, the Detroit Tigers' decision to shift Miguel Cabrera to third base, adversely impacting their defense, could prove disastrous.

Finally, what of Ubaldo Jimenez? One of the top pitchers in fantasy baseball two seasons ago -- he ranked fourth among starting pitchers on the 2010 Player Rater -- Jimenez endured a poor 2011, partly a product of diminished velocity. Given a fresh start with the Cleveland Indians, he might bounce back, but at the same time his 5.10 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 11 starts for them following his midseason trade don't inspire confidence in fantasy.

Steady as he goes

No one in this group is likely to overwhelm you or convince you that he's the key to a fantasy championship.

They are the "ho-hums," the middle ground, the guys you'll take because they look a heck of a lot better than the alternatives in the later rounds. They're the pitchers you should target as your Nos. 3, 4 or 5 fantasy starters, and the brilliant selections for an owner deciding to go the cheap route.

Five of these six "reliable" types are standouts in a specific, important statistical category: Strikeout-to-walk ratio. Cory Luebke (3.50), Daniel Hudson (3.38), Hiroki Kuroda (3.29), Shaun Marcum (3.23) and Matt Garza (3.13) each averaged more than three strikeouts per walk in 2011, a number that only 36 ERA qualifiers exceeded last season. Command of that caliber tends to diminish a pitcher's downside, and while none of these five pitchers ranks higher than No. 23, the chances of any of this group dropping out of the top 50 is minimal.

The sixth pitcher, however, wasn't a K's-per-walk standout: Ricky Romero.

Romero's place in this group is predicated upon his consistent track record of annual improvement; at 27 years old, he's in his prime and coming off a stepladder pattern to his first three big league seasons. From wins to ERA to WHIP to strikeout-to-walk ratio, Romero has improved each season.

Thanks but no thanks: The 'Do not draft' list

There are so many different reasons not to draft a starting pitcher, not the least of which is, "He gives up too many runs."

A.J. Burnett, come on down!

Some of the pitchers who belong in this group are obvious, so obvious, in fact, that their respective big league teams might not even afford them enough time in their rotations that they'd pitch the innings necessary to unravel a fantasy team. It's for that reason that this group, while ranked to the point where they'd be draft-day considerations in some fantasy league -- think AL- or NL-only specifically -- is tabbed "do not draft" because they're dangerous options in a mixed league. It doesn't, however, mean that they're entirely without value anywhere.

Setting the cruise control is not a recommended strategy with such pitchers, as having them in your lineup for extended periods of time could prove disastrous. Ponder their matchups, but be prepared to bail at any moment.

Six of these pitchers rank among the top 10 in earned runs allowed from 2009-11 combined: Carl Pavano and Burnett (311, tied for 1st), Jeremy Guthrie (301, 3rd), Bronson Arroyo (299, 4th), Derek Lowe (292, 7th) and Mike Pelfrey (288, 9th).

Reversing the Fielding Independent Pitching numbers is another way to extract the "danger" arms. Among the 25 worst qualified starters in the category the past three seasons combined are Arroyo (5.01, 4th), Joe Saunders (4.83, 6th), Guthrie (4.74, 10th) and Burnett (4.63, 19th).

And how about those pitchers whose command can fail them at any moment? These four pitchers ranked among the 10 worst qualified starters in walks-per-nine innings ratio in 2011: James McDonald (4.11), Charlie Morton (4.04), Chad Billingsley (4.02), Ryan Dempster (3.65).

Finally, Francisco Liriano might be the most confounding starter of them all. Remember, he threw a no-hitter last season … but still managed to post a 5.46 ERA and 11 quality starts the remainder of the year.

Talkin' prospects

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMatt Moore has ace-like upside.

Matt Moore is head and shoulders the top pitching prospect at the dawn of the 2012 season, and he might be the only prominent rookie to begin the season in his team's rotation. Having a five-year, $14 million contract is one compelling reason for him to crack the Tampa Bay Rays' starting five.

Most of the prospects within range of Moore, meanwhile, are candidates for in-season promotions rather than Opening Day rotation spots.

The Arizona Diamondbacks and Seattle Mariners each boasts well-stocked farm systems, especially on the pitching side, and between the teams we might see three prospects reach the majors and make a fantasy impact by midseason. The Nos. 2 and 3 overall picks in last June's draft, Danny Hultzen (Mariners) and Trevor Bauer (Diamondbacks), in fact, might be making cases for top-25 starter status one year from now. Fellow Diamondbacks prospect Tyler Skaggs, meanwhile, could join Bauer in the starting five before the calendar flips to 2013.

The Braves have a wealth of pitching prospects, their top two candidates for in-season rotation spots already having received cups of coffee in 2011: Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino. Teheran should be first recalled in the event of a rotation opening, while Vizcaino might even factor into the team's Opening Day bullpen.

Among the prospects who will compete for rotation spots early in the year: Jacob Turner of the Tigers, Drew Pomeranz of the Rockies, and both Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock of the Oakland Athletics.

Points versus Roto

League type has a critical bearing upon the strategy you lay out for starting pitchers on draft day. At no other position is there a greater differential in rankings between rotisserie and points-based scoring than this one.

We don't have a single starting pitcher ranked within our top 15 in rotisserie leagues, but in points-based leagues, we have four within our top 10 and six in our top 15. There are only three starters in our top 25 for Roto; 11 starters made the cut in points-based leagues. And while 11 starters cracked the top 50 in roto, a whopping 23 -- or nearly half -- made the top 50 in points leagues.

Wins, innings pitched and strikeouts have a critical bearing upon points-based leagues. There's a reason pitchers such as Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez and Brandon Morrow, pitchers who strike out a healthy number of hitters but regularly rank among the leaders in walks-per-nine ratio, rank higher in points leagues than in roto: It's because strikeouts mostly drive the scoring, and a double-digit strikeout performance can be a week-winner all on its own.

Don't underestimate, however, the "per-game" performers, who do experience an advantage as well in points-based formats. Many of the pitchers in the "Where's the ceiling?" and "Where's the basement?" categories benefit in points-based leagues, because while they're surrounded by questions, their upside on a start-by-start basis exceeds that of the safer, more stable, 33-start pitchers. Matt Moore and Stephen Strasburg are two excellent examples; Moore is projected to average 19.04 points per game, which would place him in the top five in the game, while Strasburg is projected for 17.93, which would be ninth-best.

As for rotisserie scoring, it's the ratio types who rank higher there comparative to their place in points-based. Pitchers like Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Matt Garza, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto tend to be more attractive roto than points selections, primarily because they influence ERA and WHIP, two categories that are not specifically scored in a points-based league.

Bottom line

Unfortunately, there is no "right" answer as to how to approach drafting starting pitching. In this age of the pitcher -- well, this recent age -- there's as much validity to scoring one or two anchors for your staff as there is being patient, building a dominant offense in the first five rounds and then scouting pitching values from the considerably deeper pool than in years past.

Experienced fantasy owners might get away with the latter; they're more likely to be familiar with the lesser names on our list, able to extract values from deep within the rankings. Owners who are newer to the game might want to grab one top arm, or at least someone from the top 10 overall.

But it's all in how you choose to play. One thing is clear: You've got a wealth of options from which to pick.

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.