National League Starting Pitcher Tiers: March

We have been touring the diamond here at Rotographs with our first round of positional tiers. Here are the ones that have been posted so far:

Some guys took some creative license with the naming of their tiers (specifically David w/the AL OFs and Mike w/the AL SPs) and I’ll do the same naming my 10 tiers after 10 characters from my favorite movie ever: Rounders, the 1998 Matt Damon and Ed Norton vehicle centered on poker just before the poker craze hit.

It’s a fantastic movie with a great cast (Johns Malkovich and Turturro were both incredible). Not every tier name will perfectly associate with the pitchers found in there, but I’m just having a little fun with the tier names anyway so it’s not critical that they line up to match the characters of the movie.

Tier 1: Mike McDermott (Damon)

He obviously gets a tier of his own and it follows that the tier would be named after the star of the movie, too.

Like McDermott against Johnny Chan at the Taj, Kershaw can beat the best even when he isn’t working with his best stuff. How much more do I really need to say? He’s the very best pitcher and it’s not even all that close.

Tier 2: Teddy KGB (Malkovich: they’ll splash the pot whenever…)

At times they may look like the best, but in the end they still come up short against Kershaw.

I know many have Scherzer over Strasburg, but it’s semantics at this level. They’re in the same tier and one spot apart meaning you could easily flip ‘em without any issue. In fact, the whole point of tiers is that you can take anyone in the tier according to preference. I personally wouldn’t take any of the others over the two Nats, but I certainly wouldn’t clown someone for preferring Bumgarner or Cueto or even Harvey if they believe he will be damn near 100% for his 180 or so innings this year. Chris Sale showed that you don’t need 200+ innings to be a superstar asset, ranking sixth among all starters last year with just 174 innings.

Zimmermann trails his teammates in the strikeout category, but that’s not because he lacks the stuff for them. In fact, he had a full season career-high last year of 22.8% without killing his efficiency (went from 3.56 to 3.64 pitches/PA) and that could reasonably jump up again in 2015 if he continues go for the punchout regularly.

There is some concern about Bumgarner coming off of the 270 innings last year, but not enough to really impact his draft status all that much. Plus, Jeff showed that we really don’t know if that’s going to have a huge impact for 2015. I have more concern with his 35% slider usage, though it was down from 38% in the previous two seasons.

Just seven pitchers have a sub-3.00 ERA over the last five seasons in at least 750 innings – Kershaw (2.26… What? How is this real?), Cueto (2.73), Felix Hernandez (2.78), Wainwright (2.89), Cliff Lee (2.95), and then both Hamels and Jered Weaver tied for sixth-best (2.99). Unfortunately, Hamels (60) and teammate Lee (53) are the only ones with fewer than 65 wins in that same span through no fault of their own, of course.

The ratios and strikeouts are so good that he still fits in this tier despite the likely wins deficiency. Although the bullpen is filthy in Philly so if they get Hamels anything of a lead, he should be in line for more than the nine wins he netted last year.

Tier 3: Abe Petrovsky (Martin Landau: these guys know pitching like he knows the law)

Landau’s character is one of the underrated stars of the film with some of the very best scenes. These guys aren’t really underrated, but they will have plenty of starts where they look like the very best the game has to offer.

Lester only has the one superstar season so it’s hard to get him in that second tier, but we know the talent is there for another special effort and now he joins the NL which should be enough to raise his floor and keep him from having anything like 2012 again (4.82 ERA in 205.3 IP).

We’re still betting on the come a bit with Cole, but it’s not like we haven’t seen the elite skills flash regularly. Volume is the missing piece at this point as injuries limited him to just 138 IP last year. The 3.65 ERA was a bit high, but the underlying skills and 3.23 FIP justify the lofty upside many see him having going in to ’15.

Gonzalez is the forgotten National thanks to the addition of Scherzer combined with him coming off of his worst season in the last five years (3.52 ERA in 158.7 IP). Of course, if a mid-3.00s ERA with just over a strikeout-per-inning is one of your worst efforts, you’re really damn good. Don’t sleep on Gio. If his teammates are going for exorbitant prices, sit back and get Gonzalez a relative bargain.

Wacha is poised for a massive season. He is my non-Kershaw NL Cy Young pick. He has a filthy four-pitch arsenal that all show plus to plus-plus upside at their best and the only thing that held him back last year was health. The shoulder concerns drop him to this tier, but he has Tier 2 upside for sure. His absurd Spring Training numbers are nice, but they aren’t influencing his ranking other than feeling confident about his health since he’s taking all of his turns and using his allotted his innings.

Tier 4: Les “Worm” Murphy (Norton: could go really well, but definitely dangerous; can’t keep his mouth shut)

These are all potential stars, but with at least one large question mark looming overhead based on either health, track record, or both in some cases:

  • Ross has a dodgy health record and so we’ve only seen about a season and a half of true excellence. His 42% slider usage keeps the injury concern in play.
  • Wood’s funky mechanics give me a little pause, but more importantly we still haven’t seen a full 30+ start effort out of him.
  • deGrom was an out-of-nowhere Rookie of the Year in 2014 so despite how good he was, it’s still just a 140-inning sample from a non-prospect.
  • Wainwright’s ranking is more of a prediction of trouble forthcoming. His numbers are virtually unimpeachable since returning from Tommy John, but there has been some injury worry since late last year and I think the drop in strikeout rate could be a sign of things to come.
  • Arrieta had 409.7 innings of 5.23 ERA before last year’s breakout and even that wasn’t a full season (156.7 IP).
  • Cashner’s never top 175 IP and we haven’t seen the strikeout rate match his raw stuff since he left the bullpen.
  • Latos was hurt most of last year limiting him to just 102.3 IP and while his results were strong, the velocity was down 2 MPH which was a big reason we saw his strikeout rate tumble.

Tier 5: Joey Knish (Turturro: owes rent, alimony, and child support; grinds it out to do so)

These guys might not have the best raw stuff or the cleanest health profile, but they grind out quality work regularly.

I’m buying Fiers with this ranking. You’ll consistently hear his detractors talk about how he throws 88 MPH from the right side, but tell them to update their information because he was at 90.3 MPH last year with his average fastball and that might not seem like much, but it’s substantial. His command is tremendous when he’s on and makes his low-90s fastball play way up.

Lackey has been strong in his two seasons since returning from Tommy John surgery. He isn’t fronting any fantasy rotations, but he is a great mid-rotation stabilizer and he has been an absolute beast at home in that time (2.72 ERA in 192 IP). I think we could see a full season ERA below 3.50 in St. Louis.

A healthy Cain won’t get all the way back to his sub-3.00 ERA in 200+ IP days of 2011-12, but I expect him to be better than the low-4.00s ERAs we have seen each of the last two seasons.

You should try to pair the last two guys in this tier together as Liriano gives you big strikeouts and solid ERA while Fister gives you great ratios in lieu of any strikeouts. Last year, they paired for 326.3 innings of 2.90 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 7.5 K/9, so essentially 1.5 Teherans. Teheran had a better WHIP, but otherwise, it’s really close – 2.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 7.6 K/9 in 221 IP.

Tier 6: Petra (Famke Janssen: sexy, but can put you into hoc)

The majority of this group has big upside, but big risk, too. Lohse veers from that as a high-floor, low-risk kind of guy. We’re unlikely to see another sub-3.00 ERA like he had in 2012, but you can feel pretty comfortable betting on a mid-3.00s ERA and a great WHIP.

Hammel was four bad starts with Oakland (9.53 ERA in 17 IP) away from a huge season. In his other 26 starts he had a 2.82 ERA in 159.3 IP. He returns to the Cubs where the breakout season began and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a lot of what he did for those first 108.7 IP with the Cubs last year (2.89 ERA, 1.02 WHIP).

Ryu’s health profile has officially become an issue. I think he is going to remain excellent when he does pitch, but how many innings can we reasonably expect?

Don’t give up on Miller just yet. This time last year he was coming off of a huge rookie campaign that had many excited about his future. He wasn’t quite a 3.06 ERA pitcher that year anyway so his slide to 3.74 ERA in 2014 wasn’t a huge surprise. This is still a very live arm and he’s just 24 years old.

Bailey is only down here because of health.

Tier 7: Grama (be careful when you’re involved with him)

You have to be quite the gambler to wanna bet on another 200 IP from McCarthy as he failed to reach even 175 in any of his first eight seasons.

Sleep on a Burnett return to prominence at your own risk. He still missed enough bats to be an asset and he returns to Pittsburgh where he found tons of success atop the Pirates’ rotation.

In Ray Searage I Trust when it comes to Worley.

Peavy was amazing after coming over to the Giants last year and while I don’t expect a repeat of his 2.17 ERA, I think a low-3.00s ERA is definitely in play. Never start him in Coors, but he should be perfectly usable everywhere else.

Niese & Leake are pretty boring, but boring isn’t always bad. They’ll each have some big runs in the course of the season, but enough butt-kickings that they’ll still end up with their mid-3.00s ERA by season’s end.

Tier 8: Jo (Gretchen Mol: Rule #1 – Throw away your cards the moment you know they can’t win.)

These gambles could pay off handsomely, but they are still gambles so you need to be ready to cut bait if it’s clearly not working out.

Anderson only had a 4.01 ERA last year, but there are skills worth betting on here. He had a solid 22% strikeout rate and a passable 8.2% walk rate. Homers were an issue, though. His 1.3 HR/9 rate contributed to that modest ERA and he allowed too many hits (9.2 H/9), so he needs to tighten up the command, but there is reason to believe he can and will do so.

Alvarez has gotten a ton out of his low-strikeout, high-groundball skillset, but when you’re allowing that much contact, it can go haywire in a hurry. The park and defense help, but sometimes a sub-15% strikeout rate is just too much to overcome.

Martinez completed his first step: winning the job, but now it’s time to see him start moving forward as a starter. I still have concerns about his command working as a starter, but the upside remains substantial.

Tier 9: Stu Vitter (the “caught a hanger, sarge” guy; don’t be left holding these guys when it goes south)

How much can we really trust Anderson and Morrow with their health profiles? And for Morrow, the results haven’t even been there when he does pitch in the last two seasons. Anderson was garbage in 44.7 IP with the A’s in 2013, but he has a 3.49 ERA in 451 IP beyond that.

Haren and Huddy are crafty vets and I can almost guarantee that each will have at least one run of 7+ starts where they look like their vintage selves, but getting a full season of it is entirely unlikely. Age and skills degradation will give them their fair share of shellackings, but both are at least home streamers.

Buchanan is a personal low-dollar favorite of mine whose skills suggest a modicum of upside, especially at his zero cost. It’s a groundball-heavy, low-strikeout approach similar to someone like Alvarez. As with Hamels, the bullpen should hold the few leads the offense actually gets for Buchanan. He won’t be special even if it all breaks right, but backend of your NL rotation usefulness is well within reach.

Tier 10: Judge Gene Marinacci (he won’t buy deferential… which doesn’t do anything to describe to the tier, but I was running out of characters)

Roark doesn’t have a spot, but the last time a team used just five starters through the season was 2003 (Mariners) so he will get some starts. Plus, he could be a solid low-dollar reliever in the interim as his strikeout rate will likely be closer to 20% with quality ratios.

Colon and Gee won’t be studs, but they will get plenty of matchups against PHI & ATL and that alone makes them worthy streamers. And if you can avoid Colon’s landmines (five starts of 6+ ER) then he could be a real asset. Three of his blowups last year were avoidable even before hindsight: at LAA, at COL, and at NYY. Lifting those three starts left him with a 3.37 ERA in 187 IP last year.

Syndergaard and Gonzales are prospects who will start 2015 on the outside looking in, but they should get opportunities in-season and they could both make an impact. Syndergaard’s ceiling is much higher, but Gonzales is more polished and closer to his ceiling so they could be similar this year before Syndergaard starts to take off toward his ace potential upside while Gonzales likely won’t peak much beyond fringe-three or high quality-four.

Erlin and Despaigne are both left out of the rotation in San Diego right now, but as you’ve already read, their rotation isn’t exactly the league’s healthiest going right now. Cashner, Ross, and Morrow all have significant injury concerns surrounding them.

For more on these guys and everyone else in the National League (and American League for that matter), check out the 2015 Starting Pitcher Guide.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and Content Director for OOTP Perfect Team. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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9 years ago

Adam Wainwright in Tier 4?

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sporer

It’s still ridiculous. His age (33) is the only reasonable argument to keeping him out of Tier 2 let alone Tier 3. That minor injury last October was blown completely out of proportion and was taken care of by minor offseason surgery. Heck, his teammate Wacha is a bigger injury concern than Wainwright is, yet you saw fit to place him in Tier 3.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sporer

It is when a perennial Cy Young contender is dropped two full tiers over a mere hunch based on very meager evidence. If he were in Tier 3, I’d simply disagree but see the point, however Tier 4 is pretty ridiculous. Don’t compare me to a troll who disagrees without any counterarguments.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sporer

I’m a big fan, Paul, but I think Lanidrac is very right. Waino has his red flags, but I would gladly take him before anyone in even your third tier. You’ve got to admit it’s a controversial drop, no? Even a heavy amount of regression still leaves a 3-4 WAR player. 2.33 ERA last year might have been very lucky, but he’s still elite.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sporer

You know, there is a fangraphs-y way to solve this question. You essentially rank Wainwright #19 (I know this is tiers and not rankings, but the tiers are organized by value in tier, so this is justified, kinda), so is this ridiculous (i.e. outside of 2 standard deviations from the average of other ranking folks) or is this simply bearish about Wainwright? I collected Wainwright’s NL rankings from 12 different sites (using the now common sampling technique of googling and yes I should do more, but gotta earn that cheddar, y’know), and his average NL Ranking is 10.58. 19 would be the highest value in this sample (there is an 18 ranking). The standard deviation is 3.37. So rankings above 17 are pretty much 2 standard deviations from the mean. The 95% confidence intervals for that sample then stay at (rounding unfairly): 8 for a low and 13 for a high.

Think about it this way, would you call it “ridiculous” if I ranked Adam Wainwright 3rd best SP in the NL? Yes, you would and that is exactly the same position on the normal distribution as you ranked him.

I would not use the word ‘ridiculous’ to say it, but 19 is remarkably high. Maybe you have a reason(s) for bucking the trend, but I think an apology to Lanidrac might be appropriate (but it is the internet…so). Peace and note, I already wanted no shares of Wainwright this year for similar reasons.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sporer

I think it’s ballsy and, to be honest, spot-on to drop Wainwright. I appreciate you putting yourself out there.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sporer

I never suggested following the crowd. But, if your assessments are dramatically different than the crowd that warrants: 1. claims that the ranking is ridiculous and 2. full credit given to you if your analysis proves right. Your Wainwright claim is ridiculous. It is based on legit reasons, I think it is likely to be right, hearing you fully flesh it out was great. But, it is significantly bucking the crowd. That’s good and ridiculous…and most importantly possibly right.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sporer

Fair enough, agree to disagree. I figure I’d leave you with the most ridiculous piece of trivia I ever heard about Rounders: once told it was based on SNL’s Norm MacDonald. I think I like a universe where that is true.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sporer

He’s 33, he’s losing velocity, his K rate is dropping…they’re predicting his decline before it actually happens. It’s what smart fantasy players are able to do