2016 NL Starting Pitcher Tiers: May Edition

Can you believe we’re almost done with April? It seems like the season just started. I swear baseball weeks move 10x faster than winter weeks. Anyway, it’s time to check in on the National League starting pitchers. I didn’t do an official first run of tiers last month, instead letting my final rankings update serve as my baseline, but from here on out I will be updating monthly per usual.

The release of Drake’s fourth studio album today gave me an easy theme for the May tiers, though I obviously need more than four tiers so I’m including some mixtapes and collaborative albums to get us to eight. They’re just in order of how I like them so “Views” comes in last just because I’ve only listened to it three times so I don’t really have a feel for it yet. I think first impressions with albums are kind of worthless.

I can’t tell you how many times I hated something on first listen only to love it two weeks later after another 10 spins. With due respect, I don’t care what you think about Drake in this particular forum (btw, that probably reads as more aggressive than I’m intending… I’m just saying, it’s tangential to the piece so let’s not get too hung up on it). I know some people don’t like him. I don’t like some music that others love. That’s just how it works. Comedy and music are two subjective arts that I finally stopped telling people how they should feel about once I realized that not everyone had to like what I like.

Let’s get to the pitchers!

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

I wish Drake had more albums so I had more tiers because I’ll grant that Kershaw might still deserve his own, but let’s not give short shrift to Arrieta. He’s been absolutely amazing since the start of 2014, putting together 421.7 innings of a 1.98 ERA – best among qualified starters, 0.02 points better than Kershaw. I didn’t have Arrieta a top three or even top five starter coming into the season because of some durability concerns after wearing down last year – his first with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title – and battling injuries prior to his 2014 breakout.

That concern isn’t alleviated by five starts, but I’ve consistently said that I’ll bet on elite skills and hope to stay healthy any day so I should’ve had Arrieta higher to start the season. Even with 119-pitch no-hitter, we’ve seen a more efficient Arrieta, too. His 3.87 pitches per plate appearance is his lowest since his 2010 debut (3.81). In fact, he was really efficient before the no-no and follow-up outing as he walked four in both. I expect a lot more 6-7 inning outings with sub-100 pitches than we saw last year (just 10 sub-100 pitch outings).

So Far Gone

I really wanted to put Thor in that top tier. I almost did it, too. But in the end his 176.7 major league innings just falls too short to get that kind of ranking. I still felt comfortable enough to lead him off in this tier, though. The stuff is so electric. He looks like pre-injury Fernandez.

Cueto doesn’t have the overwhelming strikeout rate of these guys, but he’s a fantasy ace. I don’t buy that he’s some ultra-high risk injury asset, either. He has thrown 212+ innings in three of the last four seasons, something only six other arms have done: R.A. Dickey all four seasons, Kershaw, Scherzer, Cole Hamels, James Shields, and Jeff Samardzija with three apiece. Plus, the volume of innings mitigates the downside of the strikeout rate in leagues that don’t use an innings cap (which is most leagues).

Between Fernandez’s walks, Harvey’s general mediocrity, Cole’s modes strikeouts, deGrom’s injury that has limited him to just two starts so far, and Bumgarner’s health concerns from Spring Training, we haven’t been blown away by these aces just yet, but none of them have lost that ace status for me after a month. I’d be buying any of them if available.

Nothing Was the Same

I didn’t love Greinke coming in, but even I recognize he’s not this bad. Yeah, I’m going out on the limb of saying Zack Greinke isn’t a 6-ERA pitcher. Do y’all wanna buy my book on starting pitchers after that nugget of wisdom?? I don’t think you can sell right now unless you find that true believer who is still paying 85-90% of draft day market value.

Gonzalez has a career-best 64% first-pitch strike rate backing his career-best 7% walk rate so I gave him a substantial boost on his spring rank. I really liked him to bounce back this year anyway, but the fact that he’s improved his skills to fuel his fast start has me especially encouraged. His 2012 ratios aren’t out of the question if these walk rate gains hold, but even if not, he’s a low-to-mid 3.00s arm on a good time with tons of strikeouts.

Maeda ripped through his first four starts allowing just one run before the Marlins got to him for four, but I really think there is some peak-Iwakuma capability here. Where Iwakuma rides his splitter, Maeda leans on his slider and Iwakuma is bigger so it’s not so much a physical comp as it is a statistical one, though they also both have modest fastballs velocity-wise. Maeda will have to prove himself the second time around as he’s faced the entire NL West division once already, but I believe he will.

Thank Me Later

I know what you’re thinking… “Jaime Garcia??!?!” (said like the guys who say “New York City??!?!?!” in those Pace salsa commercials) and I get it because the injury risk is so severe, but he’s got a 2.90 ERA in his last 198.3 innings. Unfortunately those innings are spaced out from 2014 through now, but we know that risk with Garcia. It’s unlikely he makes it to the finish line, but enjoy him while he’s pitching and we’ll figure out a replacement if and when he does get hurt. It’s what we do with Liriano, though he has obviously earned more of a leash since he’s usually good for 160 IP/year.

Hammel has struggled to hold up all year these last couple of seasons, but he’s been really good on the whole. In 2014 he was traded to Oakland and admitted to that kinda throwing him off early and then last year he had a hamstring injury that seemed to stay with him throughout the second half. At 33 years old, he remains an injury risk, but wins should flow in with these skills and that Cubs teams supporting him.

Iglesias and Velasquez aren’t making it to the finish line with innings limits likely to hit at some point, but I’m less concerned with that in late-April. It’s kind of the theme for a large part of this tier. With some it’s injury, with others it’s a youth-induced innings cap, but either way just let me get the good innings now and I’ll take care of things down the road. You can thank me later when these guys dominate and then you find their replacements off the waiver wire by reading the weekly SP Guide FAAB updates (thespguide.com).

I’m torn on Eickhoff a little bit. His fantastic strikeout and walk rates are encouraging, but lefties still have an .814 OPS against him. Just good luck for them off of a .375 BABIP or are they still an issue he’s working through? I had him 47th coming in, so this is a massive jump. If he keeps it up, he’ll jump again for June.

I had Wainwright 15th in the NL coming into the season so this is a big drop. It may not be enough for some, but unless he’s going full Roy Halladay on us, I’m reluctant to just drop him off the face of the earth.

Take Care

Good thing Matz didn’t retire after his ugly season debut. He’s been great since. I don’t share the consensus’s exuberance after nine MLB starts, but I recognize the talent here.

It’s kind of amazing that the Diamondbacks are even 11-12 given how Greinke, Corbin, and Miller have pitched. Corbin and Miller were two guys I really liked coming in, but I’ve downgraded them after the first month as the skills have waned. Corbin is being clobbered around the yard and Miller is scraping his knuckles on the ground during his follow-through. Both are a mess right now, but the level-headed part of me still recognizes that it is just a month.

Pomeranz is missing tons of bats, but also walking the yard. The former can only protect the latter so much. He’s also a two-pitch guy, but at least it’s a platoon-busting curveball as his second pitch.

I didn’t really know what to do with Ross right now. I understand if you have him lower, but he isn’t going in for surgery and his timetable should become clearer very soon.

What a Time to Be Alive

(not from this album, but all the YouTube of WAATTBA are scrubbed… at least it’s Drake & Future)

Chacin has some excellent skills support behind his fast start, alas it’s 22 IP after ~700 with skills nowhere near this.

Nelson is showing some gains against lefties, though his SwStr% is way down overall.

Hellickson is finally leveraging his SwStr% for some strikeouts, but he’s still a homer machine.

These are the same skills we’ve always seen from Leake, you know he’s going to work his way back to a high-3.00s, low-4.00s mark by season’s end.

Rubby might be finally figuring out lefties a bit (.702 OPS, career .867), but it’s not via third pitch development as his changeup is being used a career-low 8% of the time.

Wisler is yet another guy who has to figure out lefties to really take off and so far they’ve eaten his lunch (.824 OPS, 336 points higher than righties).

Nicasio has learned that the majors are harder than the Grapefruit League.

Cashner is toting a career-worst 5% SwStr%… he might be lucky to even be in this tier.

Comeback Season

(Got the full mixtape for this one!)

This is the gamble tier with rookies/second-year guys, some injured arms, and guys still fighting for a consistent rotation role.

Excited to see how Blair does this upcoming month as I think he can be a positive asset the rest of the way, though his strikeouts will determine what kind of league type threshold for him.

I still really like Warren if he can make it into the rotation.

Ryu’s timetable is now late-May. We’ll see, I guess.


(nothing out yet on YouTube)

This isn’t a gamble tier so much as it is a take-what’s-left tier with waiver fodder, sixth starter-types, and TJ returners. You don’t want many guys in this tier.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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This is great. You going Nola over Berrios in redraft? W and QS count. Thanks.