Fantasy Baseball 2012: Starting Pitcher Rankings & Profiles 1-25

Fake Teams is releasing an early positional ranking list every week to begin the offseason, and this week we focus on starting pitchers. Profiles for pitchers ranked 26-50 will be released tomorrow. You can view the list here.

1. Roy Halladay - PHI

Roy Halladay lost the Cy Young in 2011 to Clayton Kershaw in a race that in my mind was too close to call. Going forward, though, I feel safe recommending Halladay as the #1 in redraft leagues. The reasoning is simple: He has a track record that you can trust and shows no signs of slowing down. He's thrown 220 IP or more in each of the last 6 years. His strikeout rate used to be very pedestrian, but starting in 2008, he figured out how to miss more bats and his SwStr%, an indicator of strikeouts, has risen every year since. He doesn't walk people, he induces ground balls at a high rate, and he doesn't let the people who do get on base score. He's the total package, and he's a no-brainer as the top starting pitcher for fantasy in 2012.

2. Clayton Kershaw - LAD

Don't overthink this. The 24 year-old Cy Young winner is an elite option for all 4 categories that starting pitchers contribute to, and the numbers are all sustainable. In keeper leagues, he's the clear #1. In redraft leagues, he'll sit behind Halladay - for now.

3. Justin Verlander - DET

This fantastic piece from Baseball Analytics explains Justin Verlander's awesome 2011 season. Among the reasons for his success: he's got 4 pitches that are all well above average. No, he probably won't win 24 games again, but with that arsenal, I'd bet on him doing it before anybody else.

4. Felix Hernandez - SEA

Felix lost a tick on his fastball in 2011 (93.3 MPH was down from 94.1 in 2010) and its weighted value (according to FanGraphs) plummeted as well (-5.3 vs. 20.9). He found value in his changeup, throwing it more often and more effectively, and his strikeouts actually increased. Quite impressive, to say the least. (Equally impressive but for different reasons, his changeup is only 4 MPH slower than his fastball.) Hernandez' ERA did jump 1.2 points, even as his xFIP barely moved. Which set of results will we get in 2012? That may depend on how well his fastball does, but even if he's unlucky again, Felix's numbers will still be good enough for your fantasy team.

5. Tim Lincecum - SF

Over the last two seasons, Lincecum's fastball has lost some movement (both horizontal and vertical), and as a result he hasn't relied on it as often. While the pitch is certainly a strength for him, he uses it to set up his two best pitches, the slider and changeup, so even as his K/9 has steadily fallen, from a peak of 10.51 in 2008 to 9.12 in 2011, the decrease hasn't been as sharp as expected. You can't count on winning strikeouts in your league just by virtue of drafting Timmay anymore, but he will still give you plenty of Ks - and contribute in 3 other categories as well.

6. Cliff Lee - PHI

Lee posted a K/9 almost 2 points higher than his career average in 2011, thanks to a career-high SwStr%. The secret was in his curveball, which he threw more than ever before. His walk rate also returned to human levels, but he was still one of the best in the business. I can't believe that this guy is the second-best pitcher on his team. Stupid Phillies.

7. CC Sabathia - NYY

Sabathia is boring in his consistency, and he will turn 32 in 2012. Those two facts will cause many to overlook him. It happened in the Fake Teams Dynasty League, where he inexplicably went in the 4th round. Don't make the same mistake this Spring. The worst thing you can say about him is that his WHIP is close to average (1.23 career & 2011 vs. MLBAVG 1.32) and his K/9 (8.72 in 2011) is not quite the best in the game. His ERA will be in the low to mid 3s and he'll win a bunch of games. Sounds good to me.

8. Cole Hamels - PHI

Hamels at #8 is even more evidence of Philadelphia's embarrassment of riches. Hamels turned a corner in 2010 when he added a cutter, and he threw it even more in 2011, resulting in a career-high ground-ball percentage and a career year. His high swinging strike percentage (11.3) suggests he could be striking out even more people than he already is (8.08/9), and considering that his xFIP in 2011 was only 3.02, there's scary good potential here.

9. Zack Greinke - MIL

Greinke's first half vs. second half stats for 2011:

I Split W L ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
1st Half 7 3 5.45 13 74.1 77 51 45 11 16 99 1.251 12.0 6.19
2nd Half 9 3 2.59 15 97.1 84 31 28 8 29 102 1.161 9.4 3.52
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/5/2011.

Greinke shaved approximately 52% off his ERA in the second-half, and that was after his performance (K/9, K/BB) regressed to mortal levels. That's how unlucky his 2011 was, and he still managed to rank 26th on ESPN's Player Rater. With an ERA-xFIP of 1.27, he should rank much higher than that in 2012.

10. Jered Weaver - LAA

Ray covered Weaver a couple of weeks ago, calling him a regression candidate based on his strand rate and other statistics. Be careful not to downgrade him too much, as a pitcher with his skills still has plenty of value.

11. Dan Haren - LAA

Haren has a reputation for slowing down in the second half, and while it's true that his first half numbers are generally better over his career, the difference simply isn't enough to justify some half-baked strategy of drafting him and then trading him to some sucker after the All-Star Break. If you're worried about his post ASB performance, go ahead and let somebody else deal with a ton of innings (at least 216 for the last 7 years) and better than average numbers in all 4 categories. What a burden.

12. David Price - TB

Hang around baseball forums long enough, and you’ll find some people that evaluate pitchers by wins and losses. I know, I was just as surprised as you were that this species of baseball fan still exists. If you happen to play fantasy baseball with any of these folks, be prepared to hear stories when you draft him about his down year in 2011, when he went 12-13 after recording a 19-6 the year previous. (Oh, his ERA went up, too. What a horrible pick you just made.) Truth is, Price’s K/9 and GB% went up (the latter only slightly) while his BB/9, FIP, xFIP all fell. Yes, fantasy baseball uses wins and ERA in its scoring system, but the underlying stats say you can buy into a return to form in the more traditional sense.

13. Jon Lester - BOS

Lester's Achilles' heel is walks - if he could post a better walk rate, he could be a Top 10 or better pitcher. That's a bit like saying he would be a better pitcher if he could throw better, but if there's anybody that can overcome a below-average first strike % (career 56.5 vs. MLBAVG 59.9), it's Lester. In 2011, he had a 50.5% ground ball rate to along with with a 15.9 LD%. He contributes strikeouts (8.55/9) and wins, playing for Boston. If you don't mind taking a slight hit to WHIP, he's a good value once all of the upper-tier options have gone off the board.

14. Ian Kennedy - ARI

A year ago, I didn't buy into Kennedy's high (in my estimation) draft position, chalking up his numbers to ballpark inflation, and I stayed far away. I'm still not sure I completely buy his renaissance, but I wish I had jumped on the bandwagon anyway. I want to know more about Kennedy, so I'm going to do some digging. What I want to know most of all is what in the world happened with his fastball. The pitch's weighted rating on Fangraphs had never been more than a 1.6 in previous years, but in 2011, it jumped to 28.7. Can he replicate that? Questions aside, it's nice to know he can provide both a great WHIP and a good ERA while striking people out. He likely won't provide 21 wins again, but at 27 years old he's a solid play nonetheless.

15. Matt Cain - SF

2011 was Cain's best year of his career, and it was also the fifth straight year that he pitched at least 200 innings. He achieved his success by increasing his ground ball rate to 41.7%, which is 4.5% higher than his career average, and by limiting home runs (0.37 HR/9, second lowest among pitchers with >100 IP). It seems like he's constantly on the trade block, but if he can manage to stay in San Francisco, his home park will help him repeat those numbers.

16. Stephen Strasburg - WAS

Strasburg has the talent to be at the top of this list one day, but it's not going to happen in 2012. He showed he's still got the stuff after returning from Tommy John surgery (for more, see #24 Adam Wainwright), but his innings will almost certainly be limited. They probably would have been anyway, since he only threw 123.1 innings (68 of those in the majors) the year before. The Nationals are smart and know Strasburg will be an asset for many years to come, so they will not push him any more than necessary. For a really easy parallel, think Jordan Zimmermann 2011. The production he gives you when he pitches will be worth the draft pick, but don't go crazy expecting a full season of work.

17. Madison Bumgarner - SF

This should give you a picture of Bumgarner’s outlook, or at least what people think about it – he’s being compared favorably to Clayton Kershaw. Last season, he ranked 4th (min 100 IP) in FIP (2.67) and 8th in xFIP (3.10). His K/BB (4.15) was outstanding and he has the SwStr% (9.2) to support it. This kid is the real deal, and if you’re in a keeper league, you should try to grab him while he’s still relatively undervalued.

18. Michael Pineda - SEA

Beware the Verducci Effect, which states that "pitchers under the age of 25 who have 30-inning increases year over year tend to underperform." Pineda is 22 and had an increased workload of 32.2 innings from 2010 to 2011. The Verducci Effect is not a law, so Pineda is under no obligation to follow this trend, but he's certainly a risk. Is it one worth taking? Well, he has great skill numbers and he gets to pitch his home games at Safeco, so...maybe.

19. James Shields - TB

Shields pitched way more innings than ever has in 2011 (249.1) and his strong performance was buoyed by a very low BABIP (.258) and a too-high strand rate (79.6%). Before you go knocking him too far down, it's important to know that his success can partly be attributed to pitching smarter. He relied less on his ineffective fastball than ever before and more on his much better off-speed offerings. While I don't buy the total transformation, I think there's enough support to believe in another strong season.

20. Yovani Gallardo - MIL

Gallardo looked primed to break out in 2011 following a fantastic, yet unlucky 2010, but a funny thing happened - he went back to giving up home runs. It looks like 2010 is going to be the outlier here. Just look at these HR/9 numbers: 1.13, 1.02, 0.58, 1.17. You tell me which one doesn't belong. Even if he gives up the gopher ball one too many times, he's still going to give you plenty of strikeouts, a mid to high 3s ERA, and an average-ish WHIP.

21. Tommy Hanson - ATL

Hanson was consistently good when he pitched in 2011 - just check out his game log. The problem is, he was on the disabled list for a total of 62 games due to rotator cuff tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. Shoulder problems are no joke, and Hanson will be very lucky indeed if he can avoid any more problems for the rest of his career. That doesn't mean he will be injured in 2012, but there's a definite risk, so draft with caution.

22. Josh Beckett - BOS

In 2011, Beckett remembered that he's supposed to be an awesome pitcher, which is nice. I love it when players I throw back in keeper leagues have a bounce back season. That said, I'm not sure I buy it as a complete turnaround. These numbers do not appear to be repeatable: 80% LOB, .245 BABIP, 40.1 GB% (lowest since rookie season). He'll still strike guys out and get wins, and that's good for something, isn't it?

23. Matt Garza - CHC

Garza remade himself in 2011, and I'm buying continued success. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild reportedly encouraged Garza to rely more on his breaking stuff, and new coach Chris Bosio would be wise to continue that philosophy, as his ground balls jumped, his fly balls dropped (as well as HR/FB), and he struck more batters out. His xFIP (3.19) was by far the lowest it's ever been and was 1.12 better than the year previous. Matt Garza's improvement is no mirage.

24. Adam Wainwright - STL

Like Hanson, Wainwright is a risk, but the risk isn't so much that he'll get injured, but that he'll battle inconsistency as he returns from having Tommy John surgery. This low ranking of Wainwright (considering what he has done in the past) was discussed some in the comments yesterday, and I want to address my concerns here. First, it's important to note that the success rate for this procedure is decidedly not 100% - in fact, a 2009 Baseball Prospectus article cites a failure rate of 10 to 15 percent. According to a Sports Illustrated piece from the same year,

The original rehab time to return to pre-surgery pitching efficiency after this procedure is 18 months. But in recent years a team's desire to get its multi-million dollar investment back on the mound combined with the athlete's natural need to compete have driven the rehab time down to 12 months. This shortened rehab schedule has produced mixed results.

The article goes on to say that improved velocity and overall performance following the surgery is largely a myth propagated mostly by a rather famous 2003 USA Today article. Different organizations have evaluated statistics of TJS returnees, with mixed findings. A 2010 ESPN article focused on Strasburg, for example, stated, "Those pitchers who returned after surgery had no significant change in ERA or WHIP from before the surgery. Innings pitched per season was not significantly different by the second season after surgery." Meanwhile, a study conducted by St. Vincents and Richmond Orthopedics consisting of 33 Major League pitchers who had UCL reconstructive surgery from 1987 to 2004 found that the mean ERA of the pitchers rose from 3.88 to 4.49 while the mean K/9 dropped from 8.19 to 6.50. The third statistical measure, BB/9, showed no significant change, which may suggest that the problem with this study group has more to do with velocity than control (that hypothesis is my own and did not come from the study itself).

So what does this mean for Wainwright? Yes, there is a non-zero chance his rehab could go south, but the failure rate referenced in the BP article is attributed in most cases to a lack of discipline on the part of the pitcher in regard to his rehab. We have no reason to believe that Wainwright isn't incredibly motivated to return to the mound, but that's not a guarantee of success in and of itself. The 12-month anniversary of his surgery is March 22, which butts right up against the start of the regular season and represents the lower bound of the traditional recovery timetable. In other words, even if he comes back and can replicate his 2010 form, it's unlikely he'll be able to do so beginning in April - and that's without considering that setbacks in Spring Training are entirely within the realm of possibility. It comes down to this: If Wainwright is 100%, he's an elite talent, but 100% is a remote chance at this point.

25. Yu Darvish - Nippon-Ham Fighters/Free Agent

It's safe to say that Darvish will divide opinion if and when he is posted - just look to the comments on yesterday's piece, where one commenter said he would rank him no higher than 50, while another said Top 15. Part of the trepidation with Darvish is going to be his status as a Japanese pitcher. Here's an important point: Yu Darvish is not Daisuke Matsuzaka or Akinori Otsuka, anymore than Clayton Kershaw is Chris Young, even though they graduated from the same high school. The fact is that Darvish had a historic season for the Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2011, and it's not his first taste of success. If we accept that Darvish has a chance to succeed in Major League Baseball, then what can we expect? There are people out there suggesting that he could put up a 10 WAR season, based on MLE (Major League Equivalency) calculations they've done, and while I would reject those out of hand, I wouldn't be shocked to see a K/9 approaching 9 with an ERA in the low 2s and a WHIP that is above average. Of course, a lot depends on what organization he ends up with (if he does come over), but for now, 25 seems right...to me, at least.

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