Let’s talk. This is the last tier rankings update of the season and I wanted to take this opportunity to explain how these rankings transport from my brain to these virtual pages of typed letters. Judging by your comments on these very rankings each month, it’s clear that you take these seriously. That’s a good thing, as it confirms that what we do here is truly helping you, or at least you would like what we do to be helping you.
As many are aware, I project baseball players. This whole job is done during the preseason, of course. I then run those projections through the valuation system I use to calculate precise dollar values. These values can then be sorted to rank players, and in this instance, starting pitchers. As a result, my preseason rankings are 100% accurate. Not accurate in terms of where these players will rank at season’s end (I’m not that good), but accurate in terms of how I value each of them. You disagree with a pitcher’s placement? Great, I’ll try to convince you that my projection is going to turn out more accurate than yours.
Unfortunately, as soon as the season begins, these preseason projections lose some of their usefulness. And since my brain isn’t actually a computer, the task of updating my preseason projections to reflect in-season stuff is simply not possible. So what happens is this — I do my best to analyze every pitcher’s current performance, attempt to make any adjustments to my preseason thoughts, then move the player up or down in the tiers if necessary. But the moving up and down part becomes just a wild guess. The reason we have valuation methods performed on Excel is because our brains can’t possibly look at a statistical line of several players and quickly determine who is more valuable. Try that exercise with 100 pitchers!
Furthermore, I freely admit that I have missed players. Missed as in I didn’t realize a pitcher’s skills had changed dramatically from what I was projecting, and therefore left the player’s ranking the same, which may have been a mistake. This is not to make excuses and scream “ITZZZ HAAARRRRRRRDDDD”. Instead, it’s a window into my process of placing pitchers into tiers and why sometimes a pitcher might look ridiculously out of place.
Phew, let’s get to the tiers.
Someone please explain Felix Hernandez to me. Seriously. A sub-2.00 ERA, nearly backed by a 2.42 SIERA? A career best strikeout rate that has jumped for a third straight season and if his career marks were graphed, would form almost a complete upward slope? A walk rate that has declined every single year since 2008? King Felix? Nah. God Felix is more like it.
David Price is just another example of why I keep pounding the drum on fantasy owners putting too much stock in ERA. It fluctuates far too greatly during the season that at any given time, it just doesn’t mean a whole lot. At least not in terms of projecting future performance. Through his first 11 starts, Price had posted a 4.42 ERA. But, his xFIP was 2.69, with the large discrepancy due to an inflated .332 BABIP and ridiculous near 15% HR/FB rate. Since then, Price has posted a 2.12 ERA, with a nearly identical xFIP. Apparently all of a sudden, Price discovered how to limit hits on balls in play and the rate at which fly balls jump over the wall. Obviously, that isn’t what happened — it was simply a matter of fortunes turning the other way.
His highest fly ball rate since 2009 has resulted in a slightly elevated HR/9 mark for Jered Weaver, which has caused his ERA to jump to its highest mark since that very same year. It will be interesting to follow along and see when his BABIP and HR/FB rate suppression skills start to deteriorate. When that happens, his LOB% is going to drop. For now, he remains here as we wait for the bomb to explode.
Curiously, James Shields has dropped his change-up usage, which would explain why his SwStk% is sitting at a career low. Of course, the change-up itself is generating a SwStk% the lowest it ever has. But with the number of innings he throws and excellent control, he’s still one of the top AL options.
I should have pushed Corey Kluber into the top tier just to see what kind of reaction I would receive. Would you approve? I certainly wouldn’t argue if I saw him appear there on someone else’s list.
Too late? Probably. But better late than never to move Hisashi Iwakuma up a tier. Wishing for more strikeouts is just nit-picking. When you induce nearly 50% grounders and walk less than a batter per game, your ERA and WHIP contributions are going to be plenty good enough to offset the averageish strikeout rate.
Chris Traeger/Donna Meagle
It’s a merging of tiers!
Hiroki Kuroda isn’t done yet. He posted a mid-3.00 ERA in both June and July, which was hidden by a 5.28 April mark and 4.00 May. His strikeout rate is down a notch, but it has primarily been a surprisingly low LOB% that has hurt him this year.
Justin Verlander was dropped a tier for all of two seconds, and then I decided to merge the two tiers together. He has a 2.40 ERA in August! His velocity remains down and you have to wonder if he has never fully recovered from his offseason core surgery.
I took a lot of flack in recent months for my aggressive ranking of R.A. Dickey. I finally gave in and dropped him a tier, but he was still too high for many. He posted a 3.07 ERA in July, which followed a 3.55 mark in May and 4.11 June. His season ERA is being clouded by a 5.09 April, but he’s been just as I expected since.
After a 5.40 ERA in June, Sonny Gray posted a 1.03 mark in July, but his SIERA remains significantly above his ERA. None of his luck metrics are so out of whack to automatically assume they will regress toward the league average. But, given his limited track record, the smart money says his ERA should head north.
I strongly considered pushing Jon Lester up a tier, but I just cannot wrap my head around his skills surge. Just looking at his strike percentage and strike type percentages, they simply do not support such splendid strikeout and walk rates. So here he stays.
The lack of a track record and other question marks keep Garrett Richards and Dallas Keuchel down here, though recall that they had recently been promoted in a previous tier update. I can’t believe that Richards’ walk rate is sustainable though given his poor F-Strike% and below average overall strike rate.
Most of these guys are youngsters with high upsides, but innings is a serious concern. Given the same projected innings as some of the above names, they might very well accompany them in those tiers.
After an atrocious April that saw him post a 6.85 ERA, Jake Odorizzi’s luck turned, and he has posted marks below 4.00 in each month since. I’m still somewhat pessimistic about his future though and his ability to maintain a strong strikeout rate. None of his individual pitches have generated a SwStk% of more than 13.8%, which is strange given the fact that he’s struck out well over a batter per inning.
I don’t know what has happened to Kevin Gausman. Where’d the strikeouts go? The problem has been his four-seam fastball. Despite averaging 95.1 mph, it has generated a measly SwStk% of just 4.2%. Yet, he has thrown it nearly 70% of the time! Unless that improves, he’s going to have to start throwing his secondary pitches more often.
I was once a fan of Danny Duffy and on the surface, it would appear that the breakout is happening right before our eyes. But, it’s really not. His 4.27 SIERA is nearly two runs higher than his 2.39 ERA, driven by an almost league leading .233 BABIP, a LOB% above 80%, and a suppressed HR/FB rate. His control has improved, but his strikeouts have taken a dive as he hasn’t generated the swings and misses he usually does.
Yuck. Little upside and ratio killing potential. This is when you go middle reliever instead of starter.
The Jerry/Gary/Larry Gergich Injury Tier
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.