Wins is the flukiest stat in fantasy baseball, and that is particularly irksome for starting pitchers since, without saves, they only have four categories to earn roto value. Over a couple of months, artificially high and low win totals can obscure the realities of pitcher performances and reasonable expectations for their rest-of-season fantasy production.
To get a sense of which starting pitchers have been the best so far this season divorced from their win totals, I’ve put together a leaderboard of Standing Points Gained for starters based only on their ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts. I’ve piggybacked on Jeff Zimmerman’s preseason discussion of this topic, so be sure to check out his articles if you’re unfamiliar with Standing Points Gained or you want to see the league specifications that drove that math. If you couldn’t be bothered, then just trust that the SPG column shows an approximate value for pitchers in roto formats with wins excluded.
Here’s the top 30 so far this season:
In a sense, I’m trading the small-sample vagaries of wins for those of ERA, and Julio Teheran is a clear example of that. Teheran’s peripheral numbers do not match his fantasy line. His 6.9 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine are both worse than in 2013. His 87 percent strand rate, sixth highest among qualified starters, has held his ERA about two runs lower than his FIP and xFIP. Teheran threw a six-hit shutout against the Brewers on Tuesday, so now is an opportune time to try to trade him to owners who think his depressed ERA is an indication that he is making the leap.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been consistently surprised every time I’ve checked the FanGraphs pitcher leaderboards to find that Jon Lester leads all pitchers in WAR. Lester has been particularly victimized by the Red Sox early offensive woes. The 2.9 runs his team has scored for him per game is lowest on the staff by nearly a run and fourth-lowest in the AL overall. That has led to a 4-5 record for Lester, who otherwise is enjoying the best season of his career. His 10.8 strikeouts per nine are way up from 7.5 last season and are better even than his peak season in 2009. In addition, his 2.4 walks per nine would be a career best.
Those improvements for Lester are supported by a clear change in approach. He has dramatically decreased his reliance on his changeup. Last year, he threw that pitch 12.5 percent of the time. This year, it’s down to 3.5 percent. Perhaps not coincidentally, the last time Lester threw his changeup less than 9.0 percent of the time was 2009, when his final numbers compared most favorably to his start this year. Try to trade for Lester now. He looks like a top 10 starter to me, and he’s currently available for top 30 prices. That could quickly change if the Red Sox can right the ship.
You are likely aware of Jeff Samardzija’s winless start to the season, which features the impressive combination of the lowest ERA in baseball (1.62) and the lowest run support (1.8). His teammate, Jason Hammel, is sneaking under the radar, but his sub-3.00 ERA and sub-2.0 walks per nine deserves to be noticed. And Hammel has not been destroyed by the Cubs like Samardzija has. He already has five wins, and like Samardzija, he will be one of likeliest players to be traded at the deadline. Even if you lose out on a few wins over the next two months, Hammel could repay you if he lands on a contender down the stretch.
A few of the other names at the end of the top 30 have been favored by the BABIP gods. In particular, Mike Leake (.246) and Tom Koehler (.213) are unlikely to see their success continue. In contrast, Kyle Lohse has increased his strikeouts to 7.0 per nine, which is a big deal for a pitcher who has walked 2.0 or fewer batters per nine for four consecutive seasons. Teammate Wily Peralta has done his best Lohse impression with 6.9 strikeouts and 2.2 walks per nine, but his 84 percent strand rate likely portends an increase in his 2.18 ERA.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt