June 2, 2017
Updating the Tiers
Welcome to the Baseball Prospectus in-season rankings update to our preseason positional tiers article. As we did before Opening Day, players at each position will be divided into five tiers, represented by a “star” rating. In addition, unlike with the preseason “star” ratings, these lists can also be viewed as a straight ranking.
If you are wondering why a specific player isn’t listed, please note that in many cases players in the one-star tier and players who are not ranked are interchangeable.
The rankings above assume a 15-team, standard 5x5 Roto scoring format, with 23-man rosters and the following positions: C (2) 1B (1) 2B (1) 3B (1) SS (1) CI (1) MI (1) OF (5) UT (1) P (9). Position eligibility is based on either 20 games at the position last year or five games this year.
Here’s the schedule:
The sun rises, the sun sets, Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in fantasy baseball. He isn’t the best pitcher year to date by fantasy earnings, WARP, or cFIP, but betting on someone else to be the best pitcher going forward is a foolish proposition. Through Wednesday’s action, Kershaw is “only” on pace to earn $29.95, behind Sale ($33.39), Ervin Santana ($32.61), and Keuchel ($30.66), but if he is healthy, he is still the horse I want on my fantasy team down the stretch.
Scherzer is ranked ahead of Sale primarily because of the NL/AL league difference, but despite having the advantage not facing a DH, Scherzer has 10 fewer strikeouts (100) than Sale (110). While Sale could out-earn Scherzer in 2017, the lack of a DH and the easier NL East unbalanced schedule make this a lean toward the NL pitcher. On the other hand, Sale is helped much more by the Red Sox defense than he was by the White Sox defense. The top three pitchers are the least likely to get traded in any format, so while the Sale/Scherzer debate is an interesting one, it is also an extremely hypothetical one.
The five-star tier mostly held from the preseason to this update. The most notable exception is Keuchel, a pitcher many believed had some bounce back potential but not to the form of his 2015 Cy Young season. Keuchel has almost completely returned to that form, parlaying excellent command in the zone to elite results despite the lack of a power fastball.
Based on 2017 performance, you could make a case for Kluber getting pushed down into the four-star tier. My educated guess is that his back injury was the primary culprit and that Kluber should be an elite arm the rest of the way. Kluber has gone through stretches like this in the past but has also one through periods where he strikes everyone out and is virtually un-hittable. With almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings, Kluber has a strong valuation baseline even if he “only” posts a 3.50 ERA like he did back in 2015.
DeGrom’s shaky start against the Brewers and his 3.97 ERA could make him seem like a questionable candidate for inclusion in this tier as well, but as Mr. Met might say (redacted prior to publication). DeGrom is one of four pitchers with 90 or more strikeouts and there is a good chance he tops 200 for the second time in his career assuming health. With strikeouts spiking across the board, the initial reaction is that whiffs are less valuable, but since fewer pitchers are going deeper into games, obtaining an anchor who has the potential to strike out over 200 is invaluable. Only 11 pitchers have whiffed 200 or more batters in the past calendar year.
Strasburg has been a low-key ace for the Nationals, and a case can be made that he has had a (slightly) better year than Scherzer thus far. He has been keeping the ball down, and in the park, while pitching a little bit more to contact. The preseason concerns about Strasburg’s health are a distant memory.
Five-Star Trade Target: Carrasco
The list of pitchers I have reversed my pre-season opinions on is short, but McCullers is easily at the top of this list. The concerns I had about his control and command have dissolved, and the only thing keeping him out of the five-star tier is the fact that he has never thrown more than 157 2/3 innings in a season as a professional. If the Astros maintain a significant lead in the AL West, it is possible that McCullers gets pushed back in the rotation or skipped entirely to keep his arm fresh for the playoffs.
I haven’t completely given up on Arrieta, Lester, and Hendricks, but it is fair to worry at least a little about the diminished velocity of Chicago’s hurlers and to a lesser degree about the Cubs drop in defensive efficiency. All three present a buying opportunity, but all three come with varying degrees of risk. Hendricks is the Cubs pitcher with the most volatility, as it is such a fine line for a pitcher who was not a hard thrower to begin with. Cueto is another former five-star pitcher who cannot be included among the elites based on his 2017 performance, though his previous start was an encouraging step forward.
Four-Star Trade Target: Porcello
The three-star tier is where things start getting mushy and there is a lot of room for movement in either direction. Most of this differentiation comes with the injured pitchers in the tier. I have stuck more than a few wounded warriors here, and I don’t have a good feel for what any of them are going to do going forward. If you have faith in Bumgarner or Syndergaard returning early and immediately slotting back in as aces, then rank them more aggressively than I did. Likewise, if you believe that Hamels and Felix are going to return later than expected and that their struggles weren’t entirely due to injuries, feel free to push them down a tier.
Urias and Jon Gray both may seem like they are ranked too low based on potential, but neither young hurler has done enough to earn my trust yet. In five 2017 starts, Urias has more walks than strikeouts and that strikeout rate is barely above four batters per nine innings. Gray’s results haven’t been nearly as ghastly as Urias’, but a poor K/BB ratio with a low K rate isn’t making me want to rush out and buy him either. It’s too soon to close the book entirely on either pitcher, but in a redraft league you are better off letting both pitchers work out their issues on someone else’s fantasy roster.
I’m not entirely sold on Bundy, but his newfound durability combined with a swinging strike rate that has mostly held from what he did in 2016 make me believe that he can live in the mid-3s in ERA and isn’t the regression candidate that DRA and cFIP believe he is.
The Tanaka ranking may seem awfully generous, but unless he is hiding an injury (and am not suggesting that he is) there is nothing in the performance markers to suggest that he has suddenly turned into the worst pitcher in baseball. Most of Tanaka’s issues revolve around missed location as opposed to a dramatic drop in velocity or a significant loss of movement on his pitches. This doesn’t mean that Tanaka will automatically right the ship, but it at least gives him a fighting chance.
I’m not ready to believe that this is the 2015 version of David Price just yet, but am encouraged enough by his 2017 debut to rank him at the top of the three-star tier. Jose Berrios’ ranking should be viewed in a similar manner. This isn’t a knock on Berrios but rather a combination of the belief in his ceiling with a concern that we have been down this road before with the Twins’ talented prospect. Fulmer could be a case of a pitcher where I’m letting my pre-season bias influence my mid-season ranking, but he did get off to a fast start in 2016 before fading in the second half. Fulmer’s 2.56 DRA is great but his 85 cFIP is more in line with last year’s results. The strikeout rate is not elite and there is nothing in Fulmer’s game that make me believe the whiff rate will suddenly jump.
Three-Star Trade Target: Samardzija
Unlike Fulmer, Samardzija is a pitcher who I do believe in based on his DRA WARP. Samardzija’s 28.3 percent strikeout rate is ninth best among qualifiers and he is displaying the ace level skills he did across the board back way in 2014. The mediocre ERA is masking a quiet breakout for Samardzija, and the home venue in San Francisco gives The Shark a little room for wiggle error even if he slips somewhat in the next few months.
As was the case last year, the two-star tier is where three types of pitchers reside. One—those off to fast starts I don’t believe in just yet. Two—pitchers off to slow starts who I don’t want to dismiss entirely. Three—Young pitchers with room for growth. Because there have been so many injuries thus far, you can add a fourth category of injured pitchers whose health is even more of an open question than it is for the pitchers ranked in the three-star tier. McCarthy, for example, has looked very solid when he has been on the mound, but has been skipped or seen performances cut short due to injury.
J.C. Ramirez has impressed thus far, but he isn’t a big strikeout guy and despite pitching in an extremely favorable home venue is still allowing more than a home run per nine innings. Straily is another pitcher I’m ranking much lower than his DRA, in part because his command has fallen apart at times this season and he has had difficulty pitching more than four or five innings in a start as a result. If he can take a step forward in this area, there isn’t a pitcher in the two-star tier who has a greater chance of taking a leap into the three or even four-star tier than Straily does.
Two-Star Trade Target: Lamet
There are only 18 pitchers in the one-star tier but I spent more time deliberating over this bracket than I did over any other tier. Part of this was not only due to the pitchers ranked in this tier but also because of the arms that didn’t make it. As noted above, the difference between a one-star pitcher and more than a few pitchers who didn’t make the cut is marginal at best. Taillon is the pitcher in the one-star tier I hope proves me wrong more than any other pitcher in this update, but I had a difficult time ranking him higher than this based on his health, which obviously matters far more than anything he does on the field.
It is amusing to see so many Rockies pitchers on this list, but they are all legitimate choices. I have not completely given up on Tyler Anderson, but he is having difficulties with consistency and Colorado is not the place to work through said difficulties.
One-Star Trade Target: Wainwright
He’s riding a hot streak, so it might already be too late to jump on the bandwagon. But the difficulties Wainwright had locating his curve in 2016 appear to be behind him, and he is working all his other pitches off the bender the way he did in 2014 and earlier. This isn’t to suggest that Wainwright is going to go back to being the ace that he was at his peak, but he could easily return three-star value at a bargain basement price.