Continuing the top 15 for 2012, let’s go 10 to 1:
10. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels – While I was higher on his teammate Haren, I wasn’t down on Weaver by any stretch still ranking him 14th and believing almost entirely in his newfound strikeout ability. Alas the strikeouts were a bit fraudulent (back down 7.5 K/9), but he has improved tremendously on his 2010 rate stats. His league-best 2.28 ERA continues a three year trend of improvement while his 1.00 WHIP marks a fourth straight year of improvement.
Last year’s 3.01 ERA was greeted with a 3.32 xFIP and 3.15 SIERA suggesting he great, but not quite that great, but this year’s mark is met with great skepticism as shown by his 3.73 xFIP and 3.52 SIERA. A 6% rise in LOB%, a 2% dip in BABIP and a 3% improvement in HR/FB rate have all combined to deliver the gaudy ERA figure. He is on pace to finish top three among starting pitchers this year, but I don’t think it is sustainable so while I will remain high on him as a top 10 guy, I’m not sold as top 5.
9. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays – In each of his three full seasons, Price has improved his strikeout and walk rates reaching 8.7 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 in his 191 inning so far this year. The 2007 #1 overall pick is panning out about as well as you could hope for a top pick. In his first full season you saw the skills, but the results were so-so. He bounced back with improved skills and great results, though they were a bit undeserved. And finally this year his skills have ticked up yet again and the results are good, but looking at his xFIP & SIERA, they could be even better.
I have Price 9th, but I understand taking him a bit higher based on his potential for more because while the upcoming guys have unimpeachable track records, but they have plateaued a bit. He has two and 2/3rds (threw 128 IP in 2009) seasons under his belt and his talent is unquestioned, but his age and lean track record land him below these upcoming veterans.
8. Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels – Haren is kind of the forgotten ace these days. Maybe it because he is boring as a 30-year old with absurdly strong skills and consistency. He has gone 216 innings or more yearly since 2005 and he’s easily on pace to do the same again this year. Outside of his debacle of a first half last year, he has posted a 3.33 ERA or better in four of the last five years. Even if you include last year’s 3.91, he has still been an above average pitcher. He is on pace to win his league’s K/BB title for the third time in four years (the “off” year was last year’s 4.0) by topping 5.0 with ease and hitting 5.9 in 2009 and 2010.
I love his reliability and lengthy track record. Add in that he usually goes a cut below these guys he is included with and it is easy to be sold on Haren as your #1 pitcher. The only downside is that despite logging no fewer than 33 starts in each of the last six years and on pace for a seventh, he has yet to top 16 wins despite how good he has been yearly. Since this is a ranking of fantasy viability, wins matter and it is why I have him ninth, down two spots from his preseason rank.
7. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants – Remember when there was mass hysteria over Lincecum earlier this season? Let me refresh your memory. In a four start stretch from May 27th to June 11th, Lincecum pushed his ERA from 2.06 to 3.41 walking seven across the final two starts of that stretch and five during the outing just after the run. Since then he has been one of baseball’s best with a 1.75 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 99 strikeouts in 93 innings.
He is backed by an anemic offense that caps his otherwise substantial fantasy value. He won 18 during his first full season, but he hasn’t topped 16 since so they gaudy strikeout rate is merely putting him back on par with someone who can be relied on for wins yet with a slightly lesser strikeout rate. However, he does have a 2.78 ERA and 10.1 K/9 in 850 innings over the last four seasons so I can deal with getting wins elsewhere.
6. C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees – The definition of “workhorse”, Sabathia is about as bankable as a pitcher gets. After a couple seasons of skills erosion, he has roared back with a huge 2011 including a full strikeout more than last year up to 8.6 K/9 and his best walk rate since 2008. Sabathia’s penchant for going deep into games combined with the backing of a perennially prolific offense have led to win totals of 19, 21 and 18 (and counting) during his three seasons with the Yankees. While he will likely opt out of his current contract to improve his financial standing, it will almost assuredly come from the Yankees leaving that win potential high.
5. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies – If you don’t like the Phillies for some reason, you might want to quit reading now because as you may or may not have noticed this is our first Phillie in the list, but hardly our last. Like Lincecum, there was some panic surrounding Lee earlier this season. After all, he ended April with an ERA of 4.18 and a month later it was only down to 3.94 after he closed the month allowing 6 ER in 5.3 innings. That said, his skills were nearly flawless and I couldn’t recommend buying him enough. Most fantasy managers weren’t selling, but those who were regretted it.
Since May 31st, he has gone 10-2 in 14 starts spanning 106 innings with a 1.78 ERA, 0.92 ERA, 8.6 K/9 and 5.1 K/BB. Without the benefit of a “Since 5/31” leaderboard, I am willing to bet he is no worse than the second-best pitcher in baseball with only a certain Detroit Tiger possibly outclassing him in that timeframe.
4. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers – When it comes to this top 5, there is virtually no separation between the group because it so hard to decide who is more great. At this point it becomes personal preference. I went back and forth between Kershaw and Lee for these two spots. Do you prefer a proven track record or someone on the come up who could legitimately improve or possibly regress due to age and a lack of experience (by comparison)?
Kershaw has been one of just a few bright spots in LA this year with his excellent season on the mound. His stuff is so filthy that it is hard to believe we have already seen the best of the 23-year old. He is pacing toward his third straight season of 7.0 hits per game or less allowed including a 6.3 in 2009 that was MLB’s best. He is also on track for his third straight season of more than a strikeout per inning, but this year he took a major step forward in control resulting in a 4.2 K/BB.
Unlike with hitters, I’m often willing to lean toward the older player when it comes to pitching, but you can’t deny how great Kershaw is at the ripe age of 23 and given that this is him merely meeting and exceeding the hype he got in the minors and early on in his major league career, I expect more greatness from the young southpaw in 2012.
3. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies – The Phorgotten Phillie. A lot of the attention this year has gone to Lee and teammate Roy Halladay leaving Hamels somewhat neglected given how well he has done. He is every bit an ace yet he is viewed as a cut below the other two. I don’t quite see it that way and didn’t before the season, either. I had Hamels fourth overall this March ahead of Lee and Jon Lester among others and he has backed that up with an excellent season.
In the second half of last year he displayed a never-before-seen groundball skill that I thought, if legit, could transfer him into a bona fide fantasy ace made better by the fact that he wouldn’t have fantasy ace cost as somewhere between the 13th and 17th arm off of the board. His secondary numbers show that his 2.58 ERA is almost entirely deserved with a 2.90 xFIP and 2.80 SIERA backing up his entrance into fantasy acedom.
2. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers – There is no denying how great Verlander’s season has been and he has finally emerged as a true fantasy #1, but this is still just his first season with an ERA under 3.37 and WHIP under 1.16. The strikeouts, the sheer volume of quality innings and the no-hit stuff literally every fifth day are incredible assets he does possess, but one fantastic year isn’t enough to remove the king from his perch atop the starting pitcher list.
His ability to go deep into just about every game he is in has allowed him to pile up 17+ wins in five of six seasons, but I want to see another season of consistently excellent outings before I give him the top spot. As a diehard Tigers fan, I have long been aware of Verlander’s potential for a season like this, but I remained puzzled by how it continually eluded him. He is finally having it and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the start of a series of them.
1. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies – I don’t care if he is going to be 35 years old next year. He was 34 this year and he is on track to put up his fourth straight sub-2.80 ERA season. He has topped 1.4 BB/9 once since 2004 and hasn’t been above 1.3 in the last three years. The strikeout boost everyone was expecting to come last year never really panned out, instead arriving this year as he upped his mark for the third straight year to 8.7 K/9 (the gains were incremental in 2009 and 2010).
He is getting older, there is no denying that fact, but you also can’t deny the fact that is somehow getting better at the same time. He is already on pace to improve his strikeout, walk, home run and hit rates (as well as his WHIP) and there is an outside shot that he could actually improve on his 2.44 ERA from last year, too.
I can’t see any legitimate reason to remove him from the top spot when he continues to perform like the best pitcher in baseball. Sure, he is 4th on ESPN’s Player Rater for SPs this year, but you don’t put a guy #1 expecting him to finish there yearly, rather you put a guy #1 because there is a damn good chance he will be the top guy and his floor is also significantly better than everybody else’s.