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Starting Pitchers: The elite, the middle and the bargain

Three starting pitcher targets for three fantasy tiers.

Divisional Round - Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals - Game One Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

I miss the days when I could wait until the sixth or seventh round for my first pitcher and feel safe knowing I was getting ace-like numbers. Thanks to a boon in offense, elite pitchers are at their highest premium yet and if you want to stay afloat, you shouldn’t be waiting longer than the fifth round for your first pitcher.

For your SP1, you want a workhorse-like guy who has a baseline of a 3.50 ERA with a 1.20 WHIP in 180+ innings who can strike out a batter per inning. If you get one of the four aces (Sale, Kershaw, Kluber, Scherzer), you can probably wait until you reach the Nola, Quintana tier to dip back in. Just don’t get too complacent. Pitchers who were once considered waiver fodder are now rounding out the ends of a rotation and you don’t want too many of those.

The Elite

Stephen Strasburg (NFBC ADP:26)

Divisional Round - Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs - Game Four Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I don’t think we’ve seen Strasburg turn in an elite season yet and that’s a hell of a thing to say when you own a career 3.07 ERA, a 10.5 K/9 and a 2.3 BB/9 in 1099.2 innings. Last year was the closest he got after turning in 175 innings (most since 2014) with a 2.52 ERA. In a season where home runs were exploding, he posted a career-best 0.67 HR/9. Thanks to an increased usage of a devastating changeup and curveball (each top five in the game in Fangraphs pitch value), he notched a career high SwStr% (12.9%) and got batters to chase (and miss) more out of the zone. He is getting better, everyone. Of course the concern has always been health. He failed to log 200 innings last year because of a right elbow nerve impingement that kept him on ice for nearly three weeks. But given the drastic reduction of pitchers who can go 200+ innings, settling for 175 innings is perfectly reasonable in today’s landscape. If he does get to that benchmark though, know that a 200-inning Strasburg is a Cy Young Strasburg.

The Middle

Zack Godley (NFBC: 125)

Arizona Diamondbacks v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

I know, it’s hard to believe in pitching breakouts, but I promise Godley’s is for real. Here’s what you should know. Strikeout pitchers are good. Godley was one of just 20 pitchers with a 25 K% or better. Groundballs are also good. If you can induce them, it limits the balls in the air, the ones that do the most damage. He was one of 16 to induce greater than a 50 GB%. But if you can get the strikeouts and the ground balls, that’s nearing ace level. Only three pitchers besides Godley (Jimmy Nelson, Luis Severino, Carlos Martinez) reached both those benchmarks. We’re still a little unsure how the humidor will affect pitchers, but we can at least surmise there will be a slight improvement. Given his limited major league experience, projection systems are pessimistic on Godley. I think he’s going to turn in a 3.60/1.20 season with 175 strikeouts. Buy now before his price continues creeping up.

The Bargain

Kevin Gausman (NFBC ADP:200)

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Are you ready to get suckered back in? I think I am. After a catastrophic first half, Gausman turned it around and finished his final 14 starts with a 2.70 ERA, 1.15 WHIP with a 9.4 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. We all know what went right: he threw his damn good splitter. As the year wore on, his splitter usage increased, he got more strikeouts on the pitch and ultimately better results. Why doesn’t he just use it from the get go? Your guess is as good as any. Could it take him two months to get a feel for the pitch? Maybe? The year he begins and ends the season with a 20%+ usage of the pitch each month is the year we get 180 innings of a sub-3.70 ERA with strong strikeouts at a bargain price.