Back in late June, I presented my first run at a top 15 for 2012 and as I looked back on the list two months later, I don’t hate it. There will be changes in the next iteration, but I don’t think it was reactionary to the 2011 season through three months while at the same time accounting for some of the emerging stars from this season. I will post a second run through of that list soon, but today I wanted to perform the same exercise with starting pitchers.
As we head into September, there is a lot of talk around a pitcher who might be an MVP candidate, not to mention ridiculously deep candidate pools for each league’s Cy Young. The Year of the Pitcher, Part II has continued in earnest after a hot start to the season with each league lowering its as compared to last year. As it stands right now, both leagues are toting sub-4.00 marks for the first time since 1992.
The American League’s tenuous grasp there at 3.98 makes it unlikely that the leagues will set 20-year lows, but at 3.98 and 3.85, respectively, there is a good chance the leagues will improve on last year’s 4.14 and 4.02 marks. Better overall pitching mitigates the impression that some of the year’s surprising performances has made, but the environment can’t change the fact that the top level performances are incredibly stunning.
With a commitment to the fast start that has consistently eluded him (career 4.75 ERA in April), Justin Verlander has taken center stage as the league’s breakout superstar at starting pitcher. His stuff has never been questioned, but it has been as sharp as ever and seemingly getting better as the season wears on. Talk of him as an AL MVP candidate has started to pop up, though the list of worthy candidates might be too long for him to pull off the feat for the first time since 1992 when Dennis Eckersley inexplicably won both by a landslide despite deserving neither. At least if Verlander did it, his case would be airtight for both.
In the National League, Roy Halladay has hardly ceded his perch atop the league checking in behind only Clayton Kershaw in most rankings, but the bar has been set so high for him that a 2.56 ERA/1.05 WHIP season with an improved strikeout rate (8.6, up from 7.9) and no change in his league-leading walk rate (1.1) has been more expected than impressive. Make no mistake, he is still jaw-dropping and amazing, but Kershaw is right there matching him in innings (190 apiece) then besting him in ERA (2.51), WHIP (1.02), strikeouts (9.8) and wins* (16 to 15).
*Since we’re talking about fantasy value, wins matter. I’m not using them to say Kershaw is, has been or will be a better pitcher, but the miniscule edge does add to his lead in overall fantasy value.
As with my top 15 overall players for 2012, I don’t plan on overreacting to anything we have seen in 2011 counter to a player’s history. They will be credited for it, of course, just not overly so. An example of this would be Ian Kennedy. He ranks 12th on ESPN’s Player Rater among starting pitchers and while I was high on him this year (ranking him 41st and in tier 2), I still undershot the mark. His significant flyball tendencies combined with a park conducive to home runs had me feeling he’d be good, but not great.
He’s been great. In part due to the fact that he cut his HR/FB rate from 10.8% last year to 9.0% this year. His xFIP of 3.62 and SIERA of 3.48 are more in line with what I had him down for and as such, he will be ranked accordingly and not in this top 15 for 2012. So who actually made the first cut?
15. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds – His 2.03 ERA has been remarkably impressive, but he hasn’t backed it with skills conducive to such a mark. However, I firmly believe he has the talent to do consistently post a mid-3.00 or lower ERA. This year he has had a significant spike in groundball rate (53%) combined with a barrage of good fortune (5.6% HR/FB rate & .226 BABIP) leading to the shiny ERA that is nearly two runs lower than his xFIP and SIERA.
His hefty groundball rate earns some of the HR/FB and BABIP goodness, but not that much. Beyond that, his strikeout rate has dipped from 6.7 to 5.8 while his walk rate ticked up to 2.9 per game. He still has strikeout stuff (as evidenced by his 7.2 K/9 in the last month) but he is learning how to combine it with his newfound groundball abilities. If he can combine the two, he could legitimately acquire an ERA around this year’s 2.03.
I will admit right away that there were several candidates for the 15-spot so I wouldn’t be surprised if Cueto is bumped out in subsequent iterations. That said, he has definitely improved his stock. I will know more after I watch more games of Cueto and the other contenders this offseason, for now he gets the nod.
14. Matt Cain, San Francisco – He continues to significantly out-produce his xFIP totals, but it’s not like his peripherals are a complete mess, either. His dwindling home run rate is something to behold bottoming out at a barely-visible 3.9% this year (down from 7.4% last year and having never topped 8.4%).
His strikeout rate has been remarkably steady since 2007 fluctuating between 7.1 and 7.7 in the five year period while his walk rate is on a three year decline since 2008. His groundball rate has climbed to a career-best 41% this year, an interesting development if it sticks. He has already notched six strong years under his belt yet he will be just 27 years old in 2012.
13. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox – If his 2011 feels like a disappointment, it is only because it seems like everyone had him as their preseason favorite for American League Cy Young and he has “only” been the 11th best pitcher in his league according to the ESPN Player Rater.
When compared against more realistic expectations, he has remained an excellent fantasy option. His ERA peaked after a June 7th start when he gave up three in six innings and bumped it up to 3.98, but since then he has posted a 2.23 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 8.3 K/9 in 73 innings of work.
12. James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays – This was my guy for 2011, I loved his prospects to pay huge dividends coming off of an abysmal seasons results-wise yet toting a rock solid skill set ripe for a major comeback. As someone who never jumps on the superstar pitchers in snake drafts because of their cost, I rely on Shields types to make up ground and he did not disappoint.
In fact, he impressed beyond even my lofty expectations. It’s no fluke, either. His skills remain elite and he might finally put together a few consecutive seasons commensurate with those skills. The only thing that might change for 2012 is his zip code. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rays deal him. I’m not sure any destination would remove him from the top 15 while a favorable move might bump him up a spot or two.
11. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners – For anyone wondering what’s “wrong” with Hernandez, and there has been talk of it on podcasts, radio shows and in articles at various sites, I’d answer with a resounding “nothing!”. His ERA has risen more than a run from 2.27 last year to 3.37 this year, but his base skills have been nearly identical. His strikeout rate has actually bumped up from 8.4 to 8.8 while his walk rate has moved up a mere 0.3 to 2.8 this year.
His xFIP totals the last two years are almost exactly the same. Last year he was at 3.14 and this year he is at 3.16, so looking only at his ERA and WHIP as compared to last year and trying to squeeze a narrative about how much the Mariners’ lack of success is wearing him down is foolish. They were god-awful last year, too, and he had an amazing season. He has been the same, only a little less fortunate. The only reason he is down here is because that team is so pathetic. Predicting wins is very difficult, but it has become quite clear that they are far less plentiful for pitchers in Seattle.
I’ll have 10-1 up next.