As I sit here in front of my laptop suffering from All-Star Break-induced baseball withdrawal (no, the Home Run Derby doesn't count), I'm impressed by one thing in particular. As I attempt to figure out who exactly the top National League fantasy starting pitcher is, I realize that there are a number of solid candidates. There's been a slew of starters this year who you could legitimately make an argument for as the best fantasy starting pitcher. No one pitcher truly stands out as the absolute, no doubt best. Like, there's no obvious pick, a guy who is just smoking the league in every category like Justin Verlander last year. It's going to be a veritable battle royale for that Best Pitcher honor here in the Senior Circuit.
Now, of course, determining the best fantasy pitcher is a little different than picking the best pitcher in the real world (for lack of a better term). As much as we all hate pitcher wins and wish that that statistic would die a slow, painful death in the world of baseball analysis, we have to take it into account here. A pitcher who is 25-4 with a 2.45 ERA is going to be a better fantasy producer than a guy who is 10-10 with a 2.25 ERA. Wins are an integral fantasy category, so we must acknowledge them. Many analysts also pooh-pooh the use of WHIP as a way of breaking down pitcher effectiveness, but we have to respect it here.
So taking all of this into account, here are my top five candidates for the best fantasy pitcher in the National League.
Kill me if you want, but that's how I see it. After the jump, we'll throw these contenders in the ring and see who comes out on top!
Matt Cain 9-3 2.62 ERA 118 K 24 BB 0.96 WHIP
Let's start with the man anointed to be the National League's starting pitcher on Wednesday. After years of unspectacular (and somewhat underappreciated) consistency, Cain has busted out with his best year yet. After years of playing second fiddle to Tim Lincecum, he's making his own Cy Young case, striking out batters at the best rate of his career (he's tied for fourth in the NL) and slashing his walk rate in half at the same time. His perfect game on June 13 was just the icing on the cake of a wonderful year. Not to toot my own horn, but Cain's success is justifying my preseason defense of taking him higher than Lincecum.
R.A. Dickey 12-1 2.40 ERA 123 K 26 BB 0.93 WHIP
One of my favorites, and one of the best stories of this, or any, season. Dickey has ridden his high-speed knuckleball to fantasy stardom, as he enters the break second in the NL in strikeouts, fifth in ERA, first in WHIP, and tied for first in wins. His breakout has quieted those pessimistic souls who declared the knuckleball dead with the retirement of Tim Wakefield. Not bad for a guy who was comfortably below replacement level just three years ago.
Stephen Strasburg 9-4 2.82 ERA 128 K 28 BB 1.10 WHIP
You'll be seeing Strasburg on lists of this sort for years to come. In his first full season in the league, post-Tommy John surgery, he's leading the league in strikeouts. That alone makes him a candidate for the top fantasy pitcher moniker. The Nationals are being understandably very careful with him this year, and that is the only thing keeping (and that will keep) his fantasy value from soaring.
Gio Gonzalez 12-3 2.92 ERA 118 K 42 BB 1.11 WHIP
Just win, baby. Gonzalez has been money in two crucial categories: wins and strikeouts. He's tied for league lead in the former and tied for fourth in the latter. Pitcher wins are very hard to project, so who knows if he'll keep this pace up and eclipse 20 wins. So far, though, he's been one of the best fantasy pitchers for his ability to fill it up in just about every category.
James McDonald 9-3 2.37 ERA 100 K 31 BB 0.97 WHIP
McDonald has seemingly made the transition from frustrating curio to elite pitcher, ranking third in the league in ERA and third in WHIP. He's also helped his owners in the strikeout category, with 100.
So there are the top five. Who is the winner of the prize, the best pitcher in fantasy baseball up to this point in 2012? Well, at the risk of appearing to choose narrative over quality (which I'm not), I'm going to go with R.A. Dickey. He's at or near the top of the list in just about every relevant fantasy category. As if it isn't enough that he's been sensational in all the categories he can control (K's, WHIP, etc), his teammates have also scored runs for him, resulting in his high win total.
Dickey trumps his closest contender, Cain, in every fantasy category. He trails Strasburg by five strikeouts but destroys him in every other category. He has Gonzalez beat on strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. Finally, he's ahead of McDonald in all but ERA. If that isn't enough to make him the top NL pitcher in fantasy leagues thus far, I don't know what is.
-Johnny Cueto. He may have been snubbed by Tony LaRussa, but we'll throw him some love here. He has the ten wins and minuscule ERA, but his (relative) lack of strikeouts puts him behind the top five.
-Clayton Kershaw. I'm as shocked as you that he isn't among the top five, but Kershaw isn't striking out as many batters and his ERA isn't up to his normal standards. Still a great pitcher, though.
-Cole Hamels. Tied for fourth in wins and strikeouts, but a comparatively high ERA keeps him in honorable mention territory.