It is ranking tiers update week and today are the American League starting pitchers. By this time in the season, peripherals are stabilizing and I can now put a lot more stock into skills surges and declines. As a reminder, these rankings are only supposed to reflect how I expect pitchers to perform going forward. How a pitcher has already performed to date bears no weighting here. Refresh your memory with my May update.
In the last rankings update, Haren’s ERA was over 4.00 and his velocity had been down all year. I suggested in a “To Buy Low or Not to Buy Low” article a couple of weeks ago to monitor his velocity before targeting him in a trade. Unfortunately, the worst scenario occured for non-Haren owners – his performance improved and ERA declined, but his fastball velocity has continued to average around 89.0 miles per hour. However, he has still been able to maintain his skills, so I’m not dropping him. In fact, he actually moved up a rank due to Weaver’s injury.
No movement here except for a pitcher who has been dropped from this tier that you will find below. Shields continues to post strong skills and an excellent SIERA and is now looking like a good trade target. Remember that last year was seen as a fluke by some and a disappointing ERA at this point may further solidify this view, while his owners may start questioning themselves. Yes, Lester continues to disappoint, but his SIERA is significantly lower than this ERA and he did post a 3.73 xFIP in May, versus a 4.19 mark in April. Still not vintage Lester, but owners should avoid the temptation to sell low and non-owners might consider buying low. A rebound in strikeout rate and SwStk% would help quell some concerns though.
After several times suggesting owners buy low on Moore, I put my money where my mouth was and did so in two of the three leagues I didn’t own him in. Though on the surface he was quite unimpressive in May given his 4.83, he actually posted a 3.67 xFIP, a huge improvement over his 5.40 mark in April. The strikeouts returned as his SwStk% told us they would and his walk rate, though still higher than expected, was acceptable given the punchouts.
After the White Sox took Sale out of the rotation due to elbow concerns, made him their closer, and then returned him back into the rotation, he reappears in these rankings. He has been an absolute joy to watch and although he’s not going to maintain a low-2.00 ERA, his SIERA is fourth among all starters with at least 10 innings pitched. Josh Beckett drops out of the second tier as his velocity has been down all season. However, his SwStk% is as good as last year, and F-Strike% as strong as ever, so I decided not to drop him any further. Where are all the Morrow doubters who thought he had an inability to pitch with runners on? Suddenly the pendulum has swung and now he is actually benefiting from a bit of luck for a change, this time on the BABIP side. It is worth repeating once again to always trust the skills! Sure, there will always be exceptions, but trying to pick out that 1% simply isn’t worth it.
The only real difference between Hammel’s April and May was a decline in ground ball rate, which shouldn’t have been surprising. Still, his xFIP was 3.64 so it’s pretty clear that his improvement is no longer a fluke. Holland drops a couple of ranks due to his recent virus induced velocity dip and we cannot be sure how long that will last. He averaged just 91.1 miles per hour with his fastball on Tuesday after being around 93.0 all season. Floyd makes for a cheap buy low opportunity as he doesn’t exactly have the track record of consistent success, but has posted strong skills this year leading to a SIERA nearly two runs below his ERA.
As you can expect when it gets into the middle grouping, there was a lot of movement here. This is probably the tier that constitutes replacement level in shallow mixed leagues and pitchers who could be deployed based on matchups and two-start status. Paulino has typically suffered from high BABIPs in the past, which has hampered his ability to post an ERA that matched his peripherals. So far this year, that has changed, and stranding 93% of runners on base has helped him post a sub-2.00 ERA. He would be higher in the rankings, however his SwStk% has mysteriously dropped to just 7.4% despite no loss of fastball velocity and nearly identical pitch selection. His F-Strike% has also tumbled. So, I am not too confident that he will be able to maintain such a strong SIERA mark. Welcome back to the Majors Pettitte. What a surprisingly dazzling start to his pinstripe comeback. With a 2.81 SIERA, his sub-3.00 ERA hasn’t even been aided by luck. Of course, for a 39 year old pitcher with such a long and established track record, his 3.89 SIERA since 2002 paints a better picture of what to expect. His pitch selection hasn’t changed much since he was last in the Majors, but his fastball velocity now sits at just above 87.0 miles per hour. A high 3.00 ERA should still be the best you should expect, absent some good fortune.
Who currently leads all of baseball in SIERA among starters with 10+ innings? I bet that it would take you more than 50 tries to guess. His name is Scott Diamond, the 25-year old left-handed ground ball machine calling Target Field home. Like every Twins pitcher (except Liriano), he possessed pinpoint control. But that has come along with a 64% ground ball rate. Of course, he’s down in this tier because a sub-6.0 K/9 hurts his fantasy value and given his track record and 5.7% SwStk%, shouldn’t be expected to improve that much. Smyly jumps a couple of ranks from the bottom of the tier as he is still sitting on a nice 3.56 SIERA. Kuroda drops a tier as his strikeouts have gone missing amid a velocity dip and big decline in SwStk%. Both Doubront and Williams move up a tier, as the former has posted a surprising 3.47 SIERA with over a strikeout per inning and the latter has been generating tons of ground balls. Brian Matusz is another big gainer, moving up two tiers as he has suddenly become a viable option in fantasy leagues. His May xFIP was a respectable 3.97 after enduring a 5.70 April. Given his velocity rebound, he should be good for a high 3.00 ERA and a mid-7.0 strikeout rate the rest of the way.
As in the previous tier, there was lots of mixing around here. Cobb debuts in the rankings as Niemann’s replacement and I talked about him recently here. Liriano moves up from the last tier, but not even my crystal ball has any clue what he is going to do after his return to the rotation. His two fantastic starts have come against the third and sixth lowest scoring teams in baseball. After his Oakland start, I remained pessimistic as his ground ball rate was just 18% and his F-Strike% remained horrendous. But his Royals start was much better in both metrics, so maybe there is a chance he generates some value. I just traded him in LABR mixed on Sunday night, so he could come back to haunt me. Humber drops down a tier as his xFIP jumped from 3.26 in April to 5.19 in May as his control has deserted him. Danks drops two tiers after missing time with a shoulder injury. His velocity was down, leading to fewer swinging strikes and wreaking havoc on his peripherals, all likely caused by the shoulder problem and it remains to be seen how healthy he’ll be upon his return. Parker moves up a tier, simply based on the hope that his minor league skills begin to translate. At the very least, he’ll have a forgiving home ballpark and above average defense to help him beat his expected ERA metrics.
Just to clarify, since many commenters had issue with including Chen in a tier titled “The Great Disappointment”, these are forward-looking rankings. So although Chen’s ERA at the time wasn’t a disappointment, I expected his future performance to be. And, it has bene. He posted a 4.20 ERA in May, after a 2.22 mark in April, and a similar xFIP in the mid-4.00 range. Niemann falls precipitously after he suffered a knee injury and might not be back until August now. Bard also drops several tiers for obvious reasons. I would still be willing to hold onto him on a reserve list in a deep mixed or AL-Only league though. We know what kind of stuff he possesses when right and he still remained a ground ball pitcher, so the upside is substantial.
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.