The State of Starting Pitching

Alex Trautwig

Bret Sayre kicks off a week of coverage on starting pitchers here at Fake Teams by taking a step back and analyzing the position as a whole.

You're going to see a lot of information this week on individual starting pitchers, whether it's player profiles, rankings or prospect information. But before we get into those specifics, it can be very helpful to take a step back. The idea behind this State of the Position series, which will run at the beginning of each week of coverage, is to give you a sense of what to expect from the position as a whole in various types of leagues.

The Overview

It's another year of the same old story in the starting pitcher landscape. There are studs at the top (around 15-17, depending on how you feel about a few guys), with a few interchanged parts from last year -- subtract Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester and Dan Haren, but add R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez and Yu Darvish. And if you look at the very top, there's a slight changing of the guard as well, with Stephen Strasburg and David Price forging their way into elite status, while Roy Halladay and C.C. Sabathia are surrounded by something that they're entirely unused to: doubt.

The landscape beyond the studs is very similar to recent years as well, in that everyone has their faults and there is upside everywhere. In the 20-40 range, you have rookies who could explode into fantasy studs like Matt Moore and Matt Harvey and big time bounce-back candidates like the aforementioned Haren, Lester and Lincecum. Even moving way down the list, outside of the top-90, you have pitchers with top-30 SP seasons on their resume within the last few seasons like Francisco Liriano, Ricky Romero and Ervin Santana. You also have two top-45 SP from just last season that no one seems to care about in Paul Maholm and Bronson Arroyo. Then there's a laundry list of names that don't fit into either of those categories, but I'll be taking late-round fliers on where I can, like Andrew Cashner, Scott Baker, Erasmo Ramirez and Jorge de la Rosa.

The League Breakout

In the official Fake Teams consensus ranks (which will be coming out in subsequent posts), the National League leads the American League in our top-100 by a score of 55 to 45 -- which shouldn't be surprising to anyone given the advantage senior circuit pitchers have over their junior circuit brethren. What is a little surprising, and a bit of a new phenomenon for 2013, is that more than half of the top-40 starters (21 to be exact) belong to the American League. However, what this also means is that of the next 60 pitchers, only 24 of them are AL starters -- which more or less tells you what you need to know about strategy.

If you're in an NL-only league, you can take advantage of the depth by not splurging on top guys. It's not ideal in a vacuum, but if you can really load up on offense and grab a staff anchored by Ian Kennedy, Mike Minor, Edwin Jackson types, it's certainly something you can win a title with. In an AL-only league, even if you prefer to employ a strategy in which you wait on pitching, you're going to be in a rough spot if you do that. There will be much more of a fight over middle-tier SP like Ryan Dempster, Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz than there are in the NL for their contemporaries. That means you're much better off biting the bullet and grabbing a pair of top starters for fair value than trying to grab the next level starters for prices (or rounds if you're snaking) you're unlikely to be happy with.

The Tommy John Rehabbers

It's a funny thing that's happened over the last couple of seasons. Prominent pitchers who have come back from Tommy John surgery have had immediate success more than ever before. This happened last year with Brett Anderson, who went 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 25 K in 35 IP after returning in August. in 2011, it was Stephen Strasburg, who went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 24 K in 24 IP. There have been others, but those are the ones that you remember, which is the point.

At some point in 2013, six potentially helpful arms will be returning from that same surgery. Scott Baker, Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke, Neftali Feliz, Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino are all guys with the potential to have real value in a variety of different types of leagues; however, don't get too caught up in the recent string of success from other TJ returners. If you're being smart about it, you're expecting all of these players to return around 13-14 months after surgery to a lower level of performance than you were accustomed to from their prior to the surgery. Anything on top of that is gravy. So if you're thinking about drafting any of these guys (outside of Scott Baker) in a redraft league, make sure you're realistic about what you are likely getting. And for your reference, here are the actual surgery dates for all of those players:

Scott Baker - April 17, 2012
Cory Luebke - May 23, 2012
Danny Duffy - June 13, 2012
Brandon Beachy - June 21, 2012
Felipe Paulino - July 3, 2012
Neftali Feliz - August 1, 2012

The Strategy in Mixed Leagues

With strikeouts rising and a continued low-ERA environment that we haven't seen since the early 1990's (the last time MLB had an ERA under 4.00 for a two season stretch was 1991 and 1992 -- it's been 3.98 over the past two seasons), you'd think that there would be more of a need to grab one of the top starters. Fortunately, for those of you who like to stock up on offense early in a draft, that's just not true. Of the top-13 starters according to the ESPN Player Rater in 2012, 6 were likely drafted outside the top-20 SP and 4 (Dickey, Medlen, Sale, Lohse) were likely drafted outside the top-50 (if at all). And that's not even touching on other very late draft picks, like Wade Miley, Matt Harrison, A.J. Burnett and Lance Lynn who had extremely impressive seasons based on their pre-season values. The opportunity is still there to wait and reap the benefits if you choose wisely.

And the biggest part of choosing wisely is invoking the "quantity over quality" mantra. We all can sit around before the season and talk about xFIP, HR/FB rate, BABIP and everything else that is entirely worthwhile to look at. We can go into our drafts with the absolute pinnacle of knowledge and still completely whiff on a pitching staff, which is both the blessing and the curse of the position. And it all comes down to simple math. Say the #5 SP in the 2013 rankings (in our case, it's Felix Hernandez) has approximately a 90% chance of finishing as a top-30 pitcher. If you believe that the #23 and #24 pitchers (Kris Medlen and Jordan Zimmermann) both have a 55% chance of finishing as a top-30 pitcher, the two of them combined have a 80% chance to give you a top-30 SP, and a 30% chance to have two. All while using a 2nd or 3rd round pick on a big bat (like Ian Kinsler, Matt Holliday or Jason Heyward). And it works all the way down to the later rounds, with pitchers who have a 10-20% chance at being a top-30 SP. You do your best to isolate names, but more important than the individual names you drag into your draft queue are the number of those names you get.

The Rest of the Week

Now that we've covered the position from a macro perspective, it's time to dig into the players. Ray will be bringing you the first part of our 2013 consensus positional rankings next (in just a few short hours), so stay tuned for that - along with our starting pitcher prospect coverage which starts tomorrow morning with Jason and Craig. The rest of the writing staff here will be working on bringing you in-depth profiles and sleeper picks. We've got a lot of information coming your way for both the rest of this week and the rest of the off-season, so empty some space in your brain and be prepared for an informational avalanche. Remember, if you haven't started your 2013 draft prep yet, you're already behind someone in your league (especially if you play in a league with me).

Follow me on Twitter at @dynastyguru.
Check out more of my stuff at The Dynasty Guru.

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