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2019 Top 25 Starting Pitcher Rankings

Early 2019 Rankings for Starting Pitchers

Very little introduction here. Pretty straightforward, I rank my top 25 starting pitchers and follow up below with a blurb about some of the players and rankings. I touch on a few players that are left off and why. I plan on spitting out positional rankings as soon as the new year flips. On with it!

RANKPLAYERTEAM
1Max ScherzerWas
2Chris SaleBOS
3Jacob deGromNYM
4Justin VerlanderHOU
5Trevor BauerCLE
6Aaron NolaPHI
7Corey KluberCLE
8Blake SnellTB
9Gerrit ColeHOU
10Carlos CarrascoCLE
11Patrick CorbinWAS
12Luis SeverinoNYY
13Walker BuehlerLAD
14Noah SyndergaardNYM
15Clayton KershawLAD
16Stephen StasburgWAS
17German MarquezCOL
18James PaxtonNYY
19Zack GreinkeARI
20Mike ClevingerCLE
21Jameson TaillonPIT
22Zack WheelerNYM
23Jose BerriosMIN
24Jack FlahertySTL
25Mike FoltynewiczATL

I’ve been flip-flopping on Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale in the #2 spot. Sale’s skills are so far off the charts, that all he needs to do it reach 170 innings to provide the second most fantasy value per my projections. I have him at 182 IP and deGrom at 203 IP, so Sale gets the nod. If Sale could grace us with 200 IP, he’d be ahead of Scherzer, but Max is such a bulldog and has a badass name, so there’s that. If you search FanGraphs pitcher leaderboard for 2018, Sale doesn’t even show up because he only threw 158 innings. I guess you need 160 to qualify? If you’re wondering, Sale ranked 64th overall in innings pitched last season. However, his 237 strikeouts were good for 6th in MLB. You read that right, his 38.4% K rate laughed in the face of Justin Verlander, who finished 2nd at 34.8%.

I have a feeling that some of you are sitting there with your mouth agape looking at Trevor Bauer at number five overall. Here’s the deal though, Bauer ranked 4th overall in ERA and 8th is K% last season. Remember, he basically missed the last month+ with a stress fracture in his right leg. If we remove his short outings upon his return in late September, Bauer averaged 6.64 Innings per start. This is important for a lot of reasons but mostly because Bauer would have finished with around 215 innings and ranked 3rd or 4th in value for 2018. The average number of innings per start in 2018 was under 5.4, so yes, 6.64 is fantastic. Check out his Twitter and his work ethic, he’s always looking to improve. Me like Bauer!

I’m down a bit on Luis Severino, check out my player profile I posted a few days ago. Basically, Severino lacks a third quality pitch. Also, when he doesn’t properly elevate his 98 mph fastball, he gets punished. He also doesn’t possess a strong putaway pitch outside of his slider, that my friends can limit his strikeout upside. Sure, a K/9 between 9.5 and 10 is solid but because he’s grooving too many pitches, his ratios may take a hit. I like him, but he’s a back-end ace for me.

Yes, Walker Buehler is over Clayton Kershaw. I’m not going to wait until Kershaw completely breaks down to put Buehler ahead of him like those big box sites. This kid is for real and shouldn’t be limited to much of an innings cap (if at all) for 2019. We saw his skills and strikeout potential improve as the season roared on. Kershaw, on the other hand, is seeing his skills deteriorate and injuries have sapped his innings upside. Here’s the trend on Kershaw. K% last three seasons: 31.6%, 29.8%, 23.9%. The contact rates against him have jumped by 8% in that timeframe as well. It’s not just the strikeouts though, his homerun rate has spiked the last two seasons and has been firmly above league-average. Kershaw is a gamer and has a badass curve that he needs to throw more than 40% of the time to be successful. He will be fine, but not an ace.

Starting Pitchers who just Missed

The newly signed Tampa Bay Ray, Charlie Morton landed in the number 26 spot on my list. I very much wanted to put him in my top 25 but Morton’s win rate the last two season with Houston will not stand. Morton tallied 29 wins in only 55 starts with the Astros. Tampa is a good team but Morton has averaged just 157 innings the last two seasons and just turned 35. I love his stuff and that’s why he’s inside my top 30 despite the low innings projection.

A couple of boring low-strikeout guys Miles Mikolas and Kyle Hendricks are slotted at 27 and 28 because they have some very solid consistent skills. These guys have incredible control and regularly induce soft contact. Let’s play a little game of who is it? Who is the pitcher with the 5th lowest ERA since 2016? Did I give it away? Yes, it’s Kyle “The Professor” Hendricks. I don’t love the strikeout trend for Hendricks (hint: it’s going in the wrong direction), but he seems to defy the sabermetrics that I love so much. Mikolas is just a stud when it comes to control and pairs his elite slider with a solid 94-95 mph fastball. He keeps the ball on the ground which is muy importante when it comes to a lower strikeout rate.

I’ll get into guys like Rich Hill and Luis Castillo when I finalize my SP rankings and player projections, but both hover around 30 overall. Stay tuned.

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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Kyle Freeland 2019 Outlook

Kyle Freeland (COL – SP) – NFBC ADP 120

Kyle Freeland turned in one of the most improbable seasons in 2018 finishing with the lowest qualified ERA by a Rockies starter in team history. He pulled that off while giving up more fly balls up from 27.6% in 2017 to 34.5% 2018. For a pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate and league-average walk rate, and calls Coors Field home it sounds like a disaster. On the contrary, Freeland rolled to 17 wins with a 2.85 ERA and threw over innings. Freeland doesn’t throw hard averaging just under 92 mph on his fastball and throws three other pitches over 12% (Fourseam 40%, Slider 29%, Change up 14%, Sinker 13%) and occasionally mixes in a curve. I know what you’re thinking, Freeland is a lot like Kyle Hendricks. But, he’s not. Hendricks only throw two main pitches and mixes in a 3rd only about 10% of the time, plus Hendricks can’t even muster 90 mph.

The first thing that jumped out to me with Freeland is how successful he was with his fastball and sinker. As I mentioned, he doesn’t have elite velocity or high spin rates but take a look at the locations on the chart below to right-handed batters.

The fastball chart against right-handed hitters is a thing of beauty. A left-handed pitcher that can throw up and inside to righties is special. BaseballProspectus has Freeland ranked 19th overall in command score above pitchers like Miles Mikolas and Cole Hamels. Here’s the deal with the fastball up and in thanks to Michael Augustine of Pitcher List, it appears to be “effectively” faster to the batter. In other words, a 92 mph fastball up and it can seem like a 96 mph fastball down the pipe. Freeland has mastered this and keeping his fastballs inside to right-handed hitters and mostly up which has allowed him to utilize his secondaries much more effectively. Yes, I’ve said effectively a million times in this paragraph, but that’s exactly how Freeland pitched this year. Anyways, the fastball can set up an 85 mph changeup low and away that seems like 81 mph to the batter or vice-versa. The “effective” velocity difference seems more like 14 or 15 mph to the hitter than 7 mph.

The chart above shows the exit velocities on batted balls off of Kyle Freeland. Many of those low exit velocities are the result of well-located fastballs and sinkers up in the zone or inside to righties. Fastballs and sinkers are the two most hardest hit pitches in all of baseball averaging about 89.8 mph (in terms of average exit velocity). Freeland’s FB+SI on inside pitches averages just under 87 mph. That’s fantastic. The rest of his arsenal isn’t anything special, however. So yes, in this regard Freeland is crafty like Kyle Hendricks. What’s holding Freeland back from being a top 20 starting pitcher is the lack of a strikeout or put-away pitch. His changeup, which is only utilized 13% of the time generates the most swings outside the zone and the most swings and misses in general. The slider gets more swings and misses inside the zone, but didn’t generate many offerings outside the strike zone. Then there’s the sinker which had a positive pitch value in 2018 but it’s a pitch he threw 23% less than the previous year. It’s not a great pitch despite what the pitch value tells us, it generates ground balls but is crushed when not located correctly. The pitch does have value to keep the ball in the yard but has a thin margin for error. I hope the trend of the sinker continues for Freeland in 2019.

So what do we do with Freeland in 2019? I think he needs to develop either the slider or the changeup into a put-away pitch. We know he has incredible command of the fastball and because of that, it’s his best pitch. He just needs to generate more swings a misses. Without any changes to his pitch mix, I am going to have to project regression. Combine that with the increase in fly balls (which actually was a result of throwing fewer sinkers) in Coors Field, I believe a 3.60-3.75 ERA is in the cards with an elevated WHIP with his slightly above average walk rate. The high walk rate tells me he doesn’t give into hitters which will hurt his WHIP but help the home run rate. This is a necessity in Coors Field because sometimes giving in can lead to a three-run homer. For 2019 I’ll project Freeland to go:

12 Wins 3.72 ERA 1.29 WHIP 166 K in 190 IP

(Photo Courtesy of ESPN)

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Dallas Keuchel – 2018 Fantasy Outlook

Dallas Keuchel turned in a Solid bounce back campaign in 2017 after a down year in 2016. The 2015 Cy Young Award Winner did miss some time last year (two DL stints for a neck issue) but came back strong to finish with a 2.90 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 145.2 innings. The overall Ks were not great at 125 but that was offset by 14 wins. Unfortunately wins are the most difficult category to predict but luck is on your side when you have the offense of the Astros behind you.

Let’s talk about why Dallas will be overrated in 2018. His surface numbers look much closer to his 2015 Cy Young season numbers but I’d argue he’s closer to the guy he was in 2016. First, his K rate is nearly identical, 7.71 in 2016 and 7.72 in 2017 and his BB rate actually went up in 2017 to 2.90 from 2.57. Let’s look at BABIP which was a career low at .256 in 2017, his previous low was in 2015 at .269. Now, to be fair you can’t just say well a pitcher’s BABIP against is below the league average of .300, so he’s going to suppress because Keuchel does induce a lot of weak contact. So while I think he’s similar to Kyle Hendricks in this regard, I think a BABIP around .280 seems more comfortable. Along with the weak contact I love that he leads the league in ground ball rate at 66% and in turn limits home runs in an era where everyone and their great aunt Clare is hitting balls 425 feet. Wait, is this a LOVE post or a bust post, I’m getting confused.  

Take a look at the graph showing ERA, FIP, and BABIP.  BABIP and ERA basically are in line with each other with the exception of 2012 (partial year).  And his FIP had improved every year from 2012 – 2015 but in 2016 and 2017 it’s leveled off in the high 3s. The ERA stayed low and the BABIP stayed with it. As mentioned earlier, I expect that BABIP to bounce back up and the ERA will go with it. Also look at HR/FB which shot up in 2017 and now his margin for error is minimal with Keuchel, a few less GB and a few more HR with a rising BB rate = 4+ ERA and limited K upside.

I can’t deny that Keuchel is a good major league pitcher but I’m looking at his numbers regressing and I haven’t even mentioned his LOB % of nearly 80%! I do think his Ks will go up near 8.0/9 due to the fact that he does have a very good sinker/slider combo and mixes his pitchers very well. However, another issue arises when I look at his zone% which was only 37% and while he does get hitters to chase those pitches out of the zone over 32% of the time, I think hitters are going to start to be a little more patient with Keuchel and you’ve already seen some that with the increased walk rate. So I don’t expect a decrease in walk rate back to his career numbers.

Typically the margin for error with a pitcher that doesn’t have overpowering stuff (90 mph on his fastball) is so slim (Shady) a slight adjustment takes Keuchel from a 3.00 ERA guy to a 4.00 ERA guy. So to recap, Keuchel needs to do the following perfect to be successful: locate all pitches, get ahead in the count, get hitters to chase, suppress HRs, and get weak contact/ground balls. I don’t doubt he has the ability to perform on some of those tasks, but I’m betting he under performs on his projections especially since he’s had trouble staying healthy (he’averaged under 157 IP the last two seasons).

Projections for 2018: 170 IP, 13 Wins, 3.82 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 154 Ks

His early ADPs are around 64 overall, going as the 17th SP off the board. I’d rather have Aaron Nola, Jose Quintana, and Masahiro Tanaka among others.