Today we'll complete our review of first half performance measured by rotisserie value earned by taking a look at the top-40 starting pitchers and top-10 relievers. We've previously covered catchers and infielders as well as outfielders.
By means of a brief reminder, the pitchers will be presented in groups of ten, ordered by 2014 value earned through June 30 in standard 5x5, 15-team mixed leagues. Included with the first-half ranking will be my pre-season projected dollar value and rank. At the end of each group some commentary will be shared.
STARTING PITCHERS TIER ONE
A growing trend in fantasy baseball is how well the ace pitchers hold their value. This survey only covers half the season so it's premature to draw any concrete conclusions but at least so far only four starters ranked as a top-tier performer have maintained that status. Three of them aren't going to appear in the first-half top-40. We'll give Cliff Lee a pass due to injury.
However, Stephen Strasburg isn't so lucky. Before you start trolling me in the comments, keep in mind the cut-off for the numbers was June 30 and at that time Strasburg was sporting a 3.70 ERA. In two stellar July efforts, Strasburg has chopped that down to 3.47. The right-hander is a very good bet to finish the season with top-40 value (duh, that was brought to you by an award-winning fantasy baseball writer).
On the other hand, chances are the only top-40 Justin Verlander will be associated with is a list of ballplayers dating babes where Verlander is still in contention for first overall. Verlander and his first-half plight have been dissected everywhere so we won't waste more bandwidth here other than to say I'm not ready to declare him done for his career but I'm not counting on a rebound this season. His stuff has declined. He needs to either learn how to pitch more efficiently with what he has or develop some better secondary pitches. I'm not putting it past Verlander to do that; just not in 2014.
Some may question my initial rank of Yu Darvish at 13. Admittedly, with a rank in the double digits I didn't call out his name in any drafts and I was out of the bidding in auction well before the auctioneer bellowed "SOLD!". In short, while the strikeouts are great, especially for fantasy, my projected ERA for Darvish was mid-threes primarily due to his home park. That said, there is a difference between a draft list and a value list and Darvish was in my top-five starting pitchers on my drafting cheat sheet (though I still didn't get him anywhere). Similar to how Billy Hamilton's speed was discussed in the outfielder portion of this series, with the proper support, Darvish is worthy of a higher draft ranking due to the strikeouts. The idea is, later you pick up a starter who may be deficient in whiffs but sports excellent ratios so the end result is solid. Examples are Jordan Zimmermann or Jered Weaver.
STARTING PITCHERS TIER TWO
Two more elite starters show up in the next tier so that makes five elite maintaining top-20 value. A total of eight of my original top-20 were top-20 pitchers over the first half as compared to 11 top-20 outfielders that maintained that status. This sort of analysis is going to be an off-season project, looking at how well different positions hold value from the past several seasons. I expect the results will be very useful when it comes to roster construction next spring.
The main reason why drawing conclusions is premature is the presence of hurlers such as Afredo Simon in this tier. What's done is done. Those stats are in the book. What we now care about is the rest of the season and while Simon's peripherals aren't terrible, they in no way support a sub-three ERA despite the fact Simon twirled ERA's of 2.66 in 2012 and 2.87 last season out of the bullpen. A .233 BABIP and 84.1 percent LOB% are prime candidates for regression.
Especially with his trade to Oakland, Jason Hammel should be a top-40, if not top-20 mainstay the rest of the season. It wouldn't be a shock if he has better numbers than Jeff Samardzija over the second half. This isn't a prediction, just a recognition of Hammel's fine peripherals and my confidence he'll sustain them. You know what? I'll say it -- Hammel will have better numbers than Samardzija over the second half. He's more consistent with his control and less likely to be burned by the long ball. I realize the Shark induces more ground balls than Hammel but he can also be wild-high and has carried a high HR/FB a few times in his career.
The biggest surprise in the top-20 is Dallas Keuchel. Collectively, the Houston Astros are pitching better than expected and when that's the case, there's a good chance there's a tangible reason which makes me want to hold Keuchel (as opposed to sell-high like Simon). His whiff and walk rates are basically league average as his his BABIP and HR/FB. Where he butters his bread is with a huge ground ball rate. This keeps homers in check and the ERA down. So long as Keuchel continues to instill fear into worms living in infields across the American League, he should remain a top-40 performer.
If there is one arm that I am kicking myself for not recognizing the break-out potential it is Garrett Richards. A strong second half unto itself is not predictive. However, it can result in an opportunity the following season and this is something I missed simply by looking at the numbers. Had I recognized the increased opportunity the next step is taking a look to see the potential of a skills bump. While there is no way anyone could have predicted Richards would fan more than a batter an inning over the first half, it would have been perfectly reasonable to point out that due to his pedigree, if Richards were just left in the rotation and not yo-yo'ed to the bullpen, a spike in punch-outs was plausible. When looking for a break-out candidate, the trick is identifying opportunity and a reasonable chance at increased skills, I missed the fact Richards met that criteria perfectly.
STARTING PITCHERS TIER THREE
The term post-hype prospect is usually used with hitters but Jake Arrieta is a pitcher worthy of that label. After wallowing in mediocrity in the Baltimore organization, Theo Epstein and the Cubs took a shot they could bring out the attributes that made Arrieta one of the better pitching prospects in baseball a few years ago. The chance of Arrieta sustaining his current double-digit strikeout rate is minimal and he's enjoying a lucky four-percent HR/FB mark so there will be some give-back, not to mention from a fantasy point of view, wins are a category and they will be hard to come by. But the Cubs have found a way for Arrieta to improve his skills so at minimum he's back on the radar. Whether to sell high is a conundrum. You don't fan 10.09 per nine frames with magic; the skills are better. But how much better? Where is Arrieta's landing point? I think he finished out of the top-40 but will be in the next tier or so.
While he can't be deemed a complete disappointment, Max Scherzer has had a pair of disastrous outings that have dampened an otherwise solid first half. His skills are quite close to last season with a higher BABIP accounting for an ERA half a run higher than last season's 2.90 mark. That said, his xFIP and FIP are nearly identical to last season so expect Scherzer to jump up at least one tier over the second half.
Back in March, at the Tout Wars auction, I had the chance to roster either Taylor Jordan or Tanner Roark. I chose poorly. While my missed analysis wasn't to the Richards level, I felt Jordan would out-pitch Roark and remain in the Nationals' rotation once the likes of Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez were healthy. Roark fared better than Jordan and hasn't looked back. There's really nothing special about what Roark is accomplishing. His skills are average. He's been buoyed by a lucky HR/FB and LOB% which has dropped his ERA below his FIP and xFIP. Roark is more of a won't hurt-you type than someone that will carry your team down the stretch. There's a place for that - just not in the top-40. Roark's stay should be fleeting.
STARTING PITCHERS TIER FOUR
As a testament to how good a season he was having, Jose Fernandez still cracks the top-40. Going back to our outfielder comparison as the basis for an off-season research project, 17 pitchers projected for the top-40 returned top-40 value over the first half with 25 outfielders turning the trick. I still contend you can't be the last person in the room to draft a pitcher, but I'm beginning to think you can be the last one to draft your third starting pitcher.
Some like to downplay the impact of park changes and often it is overstated, but was there a more obvious change for the better than Phil Hughes and his fly ball ways leaving Yankee Stadium for Target Field? I'm a numbers guy (perhaps to a fault as alluded to earlier with Richards) so this is out of my realm but there has to be something to Hughes comfort level and improved control and command. He even went into Yankee Stadium and shut down his former teammates. Hughes upside is limited as his strikeout rate is just a little above average but he should be able to sustain this level for the rest of the season.
While Danny Duffy has a solid career ahead of him, he could be the league's luckiest guy (well, next to Verlander but we're talking pitching luck). His skills are pedestrian. His sub-three ERA is a result of extreme fortune on BABIP and HR/FB. He's a fly ball pitcher which isn't a bad thing in Kauffman Stadium but he needs to reduce the free passes and ramp up the punch outs just a tad to take full advantage of the park. I'm holding Duffy in a keeper/dynasty format but shopping him in a redraft format.
Relievers get more than their fair share of attention so we won't spend too much bandwidth other than to point out that Dellin Betances has made the list on the heels of his off-the-chart ratios and strikeouts. This is a pretty good means to understand how helpful the best closers can be (assuming you get it right) as closers contribute more than just saves. By season's end, Aroldis Chapman and David Robertson should crack this group. In the pre-season, I championed the idea of paying for saves from one of the six candidates with a legit shot for 100 strikeouts (Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Chapman, Robertson, Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal). Again - too early to declare victory but I'm not unhappy I practiced what I preached in several leagues.
Thus concludes what I hope becomes an annual feature -- the first half dollar value review. We'll do something similar for the second half and the season as a whole come October. But in the meantime, good luck over the second half.