2018 Pod’s Picks — Starting Pitchers

Yesterday, I listed and discussed nine hitters who I ranked significantly higher than the rest of my fellow RotoGraphers. Today, I move on to starting pitchers. I limited this list to those in my top 60 and also did a bit of cherry picking. Why? Because of this comment I added to the starting pitcher composite rankings post:

Before I get a million questions, remember these are projected end of season rankings based on dollar values earned. It’s absolutely not exactly how I would draft these pitchers, as I will always prefer a lower IP guy with better ratio projections than a higher IP guy with worse ratios, but more wins and Ks to boost his dollar value. That preference is not reflected in the ranking above, as it’s a strategic choice, not a mathematical one.

So I excluded guys like Rick Porcello, Julio Teheran, and Cole Hamels, whose betters rankings are likely due to differences in how we ranked players. All get most of their value from volume, rather than strong ratios. It’s more valuable to discuss players I ranked better due to a more bullish projection.

2018 Pod’s Picks
NAME Pod Consensus Diff
Kyle Hendricks 17 42 -25
Felix Hernandez 52 70 -18
Jon Lester 21 37 -16
Joe Musgrove 49 65 -16
Sonny Gray 36 51 -15
Patrick Corbin 53 68 -15
Sean Manaea 43 57 -14
Kenta Maeda 30 41 -11

It’s crazy to me to find Kyle Hendricks‘ name atop this list, as he is exactly the type of pitcher that I would have avoided like the plague several years ago. Guys who outperform their underlying skills by limiting hits on balls in play or stranding a high rate of runners rarely find their way onto my rosters. But that outperformance is why a statistical-oriented group of rankers like us are at risk of undervaluing him. The thing is, all the research has confirmed that his hit suppression skills were real. That doesn’t mean it’s repeatable, but at least we can’t automatically chalk up what has happened as a fluke. He has also limited hard contact throughout his career, which has allowed him to maintain a better than average BABIP. Oh, and the Cubs defense is again expected to be fantastic. Even forecasting the second worst ERA and WHIP of his career makes him appear super undervalued.

It would appear that fantasy owners have left poor King Felix Hernandez for dead. His SIERA jumped above 4.00 for the first time in his career back in 2016, and remained there last season during an injury-riddled campaign. The Fans and I are the only forecasters projecting a sub-4.00 ERA, and how is that? Well, I’m forecasting the slightest increase in strikeout rate and a marginal rebound in GB% coming off a career low mark. And of course, I don’t expect another 20%+ HR/FB rate! So small improvements here and there and better fortune should all combine to drop his ERA back below 4.00.

Geez, do I love elderly, boring veterans, or does everyone else just hate them? Jon Lester just posted his first 4.00+ ERA since 2012, as his strikeout rate slid again, to its lowest mark since 2013, while his walk rate spiked to its worst mark since 2011. He also couldn’t keep the ball in the park and his BABIP surged above .300. Unlike for Felix above, I’m actually right in the ballpark of the rest of the projections, with a slightly elevated WHIP. This appears to be an anti-boring vet stance for a 34 year old, but I don’t discriminate. Give me all the undervalued vets I could fit on my roster!

Though I like Joe Musgrove, I somehow haven’t managed to draft him in either of the two leagues in which he was part of the player pool. His xK% suggests strikeout rate upside and the move to a pitcher friendly home park in the National League could lead to a breakout.

I had no idea I was bullish on Sonny Gray, though I did buy him in AL Tout Wars. His skills fully recovered last year after his strikeout rate declined in 2016 and he returned to that BABIP depressor we used to question. Welp, he’s at it again, folks! He also boosted his SwStk% to a career high, so really, everything points to 2016 being the fluke.

Patrick Corbin’s stock was boosted when the Diamondbacks announced their decision to use the humidor this year. That’s going to help all their pitchers, and especially Corbin, who suffered through inflated HR/FB rates the past two seasons, along with a BABIP of at least .317 in four of five seasons. That BABIP history is scary, but the humidor should also reduce hits on balls in play. I’m not sure if any of the projections are accounting for the humidor or how much, if any, its use was accounted for in my fellow rankers’ rankings.

I’m now four for four at rostering Sean Manaea. He was just below Musgrove on my strikeout surger list, and his minor league strikeout marks suggest significant upside as well. Both his changeup and slider have been fantastic by SwStk% and his fastball has been fine. He’s one of my favorite breakout candidates.

There was so much excitement heading into Kenta Maeda’s first season with the Dodgers, but now after two full seasons, everyone has seemingly moved on. Perhaps it was the meh 4.22 ERA last year that has turned off fantasy owners. But, it came with a much more respectable 3.79 SIERA, as he had much more trouble keeping his fly balls in the park. My projection is a bit more bullish than all but ZiPS on the ERA front, and right in line with all in WHIP. Innings is obviously a concern, but he’s armed with an elite slider/cutter (two different pitches or the same?) and should be supported by a strong defense and offense behind him.

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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.

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I’ve noticed that all three of the arms atop the Cubs’ rotation–Quintana, Hendricks and Lester–have been available way later than I believe they should be. I love all three, especially Hendricks, and am glad to see him atop your list.

Maeda is also a guy I’m glad to see you featuring. It’s a testament to the Dodgers’ depth that he can be even considered for a bullpen role as he would be a Top-3 starter in the majority of rotations across the league. It still seems like a bad dream that he was pulled from the rotation when the underlying talent was so clearly there.

I’m now officially out on Musgrove. I had hoped he could put it together in Pittsburgh, but his price is starting to get a little too excited for a guy who is showing shoulder discomfort and really struggled as a starter. His best work came out of the pen, and I wonder what his xK% looks like in innings he has thrown as a starter. To me, Musgrove looks like a guy who gets roughed up in an ugly way the second and third time’s through the order.

Regardless, thank you for these updates, Pod. They have been fun reads!


Looked a little deeper into Musgrove:

2016, (SP): 62.0 IP, K-BB%: 15.2%, SwStr%: 9.9%, HR/9: 1.31, xFIP: 4.04

16-17, (SP): 140.0 IP, K-BB%: 13.9%, SwStr%: 10.5%, HR/9: 1.61, xFIP: 4.22

2017, (SP): 78.0 IP, K-BB%: 12.9%, SwStr%: 10.9%, HR/9: 1.85, xFIP: 4.36

2017, (RP): 31.1 IP, K-BB%: 21.7%, SwStr%: 13.8%, HR/9: 0.57, xFIP: 3.21

Overall, I’m surprised to find that his SwStr% actually improved when he was a starter last season. Considering he throws strikes consistently, it’s even more impressive that his overall 85.4 Z-Contact% was 52nd lowest for all arms pitching over 100 innings in 2017. During his 78.0 innings as a starter he finished with Hendricks and Arrieta with a Z-Contact% of 86.6%.

He got demolished by homers, but overall he looks like he was still a really solid arm. I take it back, Pod. I take it all back!