When undergoing this hypothetical, predictive experiment last year, the results were rather mixed. Choosing Max Scherzer (2013 American League Cy Young Award winner) and Yu Darvish (runner up) was counterbalanced by permitting Edwin Jackson and Ricky Romero to occupy space in the same list. Overall, the process was beneficial — both selfishly and educationally — so it returns for a second round, with at least one player making a reappearance.
The major difference is that instead of using the MLB.com rankings (which coincided with a failed bid to be a fantasy baseball writer on the site in question), the ESPN.com rankings appear in the 2014 version. The list is constructed to highlight players from all segments and tiers of pitchers, from potential aces to the mid-level and forgotten pools of talent. Also, despite the rise in youth dominating the sport, rookies will be kept off this list, as will players returning from missing most (if not all) of the 2013 season. Without further ado, onto the list:
1. CHRIS SALE, CHICAGO WHITE SOX, (Ranked 9th amongst starting pitchers, 39th overall, according to ESPN)
Of the ten best pitchers in 2013 ranked by Wins Above Replacement, Sale finished with the second fewest wins (11 – only Matt Harvey had fewer). Pitcher wins overrate run support and skew against pitchers on bad teams (the White Sox won 63 games, third fewest in baseball), but they do play an important role in fantasy baseball.
In 2012, two of the top twenty pitchers by WAR, Cliff Lee and Anibal Sanchez, finished with 6 and 9 wins, respectively. Last year, they each won 14 games. While the White Sox may not challenge for a playoff spot, they’re projected to win between 72-80 games, with Sale a likely benefactor of the better team behind him.
As for Sale’s improvement as a pitcher, figuring out how to get right-handed batters out will be key. His stats suffered slightly against righties compared to 2012, as he allowed more home runs and a worse weighted on-base percentage. The fact that he often pitches in US Cellular Field doesn’t exactly help in this regard — 3.6% of batters he faced in 2013 hit home runs off him at home, while just 1.8% put the ball over the fence in their own home parks. Of anyone on this list, Sale is the most likely to challenge for a Cy Young Award in 2014, but continued improvement and better home run luck will be keys to his success.
2. MATT CAIN, SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS (17th among pitchers, 75th overall)
Out of all the pitchers on this list, Cain’s potential to rebound may be the lowest. There are plenty of factors that suggest a positive regression in 2014 — an unusually high home-run-per-fly-ball rate, injury concerns that have dissipated, and the fact that from 2006 through 2012, he accumulated 26.8 WAR, good for ninth best in baseball. But Cain will turn 30 in October and has logged more than 1700 innings since arriving in the majors in 2005. Last year was the first time he failed to top 200 innings since 2006.
Cain’s struggles — if not injury related — come from an odd choice in pitch selection and likely hitter familiarity. Batters connected on almost 90% of all pitches swung at in the strike zone against Cain in 2013, the worst mark of his career. While Adam Wainwright finished with a similar number, the players ahead of Cain on the list include “superstars” such as Joe Saunders and Jeremy Guthrie. Over the past three years, Cain has stopped using his changeup as much, opting for a slider instead. The results — albeit in small samples of course — have been mixed at best. Given his skill and the fact that he isn’t an overpowering pitcher whose potential diminishing velocity with age would likely cause problems, he has a great chance to return to being a top 10-15 pitcher in the majors.
3. JEFF SAMARDZIJA, CHICAGO CUBS (33rd among pitchers, 131st overall)
A quick primer on one of the more important sabermetric statistics: FIP. It stands for Fielder Independent Pitching and it attempts to calculate a pitcher’s worth by subtracting the defense around him, specifically focusing on home runs, walks and strikeouts. Is it flawless? No, but no single statistic tells a complete story. For a pitcher like Samardzija who has posted lower/better FIPs than ERAs in each of the past two seasons, it helps illustrate both the awfulness of the Cubs’ defense behind him as well as his likelihood to post better numbers going forward.
While the Cubs certainly didn’t upgrade their defense this winter, Samardzija has a great chance to have the best season of his career. Despite his age (29), Samardzija has only accumulated 558 innings pitched and is entering his third — magical fantasy trope alert — as a starter. He suffered last season from one of the ten worsts BABIPs in the majors, and fatigued down the stretch after reaching 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career. He allowed home runs on approximately 13.3% of all fly balls, the seventh highest rate in baseball. From 2011 to 2013, only one pitcher repeated their “top-ten” performance in this statistic, and Ian Kennedy now gets to call Petco Park home. While a myriad of factors go into any potential trade, it should be noted that if Samardzija doesn’t come to terms on a long-term deal with the Cubs, he may find himself in a slightly better pitchers’ park than the Friendly Confines.
4. CC SABATHIA, NEW YORK YANKEES (39th among pitchers, 153rd overall)
While it was mentioned above that Matt Cain was 9th in pitcher WAR from 2006 through 2012, CC Sabathia was tied for first (with Roy Halladay) at 41.6 wins above replacement. For his career Sabathia has accumulated 61.5 WAR and while he’s unlikely to reach 300 wins (he turns 34 in July and has 205 victories), he has a decent chance to make the Hall of Fame.
Last year was statistically the worst season of Sabathia’s career. His ERA settled near 5, his strikeout rate dipped below eight batters per nine innings and he kept runners on base at an abysmally low clip. He somehow still logged 211 innings, the seventh consecutive season he’s thrown more than 200. He’s the only pitcher to throw at least 1,600 innings since 2007 (Justin Verlander is at 1,574). The results, when combined with his age, indicate a pitcher forced to establish better command in place of velocity. According to Brooks Baseball, Sabathia averaged 94.2 miles per hour on his fastball in 2008. In 2012, that dropped to 92.4 mph and fell to 91.3 mph in 2013. This has allowed hitters to hold off on his off-speed pitches — batters swung at just 30.6% of pitches outside the strike zone against Sabathia, the lowest mark in four years. Combine that with the highest outside-the-zone contact rate allowed of his career, and it’s easy to see why Sabathia faltered.
Evidence suggests that the 94 mph fastball will never return, but Sabathia can still be an above average pitcher and better than someone like Matt Moore, who’s 32nd on the ESPN list. He reported to camp in The Best Shape of His Life (TM, Keith Law), and likely understands the adjustments he has to make to be better than his 4.78 ERA and 4.10 FIP. If his BABIP and strand rate normalize even slightly, Sabathia should have little trouble returning to the 4.6 WAR pitcher he was in 2012.
5. JUSTIN MASTERSON, CLEVELAND INDIANS (51st among pitchers, 194th overall)
Rumors abounded this week that Masterson, a free agent after this upcoming season, would be willing to resign with the Cleveland Indians on a two- or three-year deal worth between $40 and $60 million. The initial reaction was probably disbelief, that someone like Masterson could be worth more than any free agent pitcher in 2013 (excluding Tanaka if the posting fee is included in his contract with the New York Yankees). Taking a closer look, however, and it’s not hard to see why the Indians would be wise to lock up Masterson for something like a 3-year/$50 million deal.
Given his sinker-focused repertoire, it should come as no surprise that Masterson finished second overall in ground ball percentage (of balls in play, of course), trailing only another member of this list. Because of that, he allowed just 13 home runs in 2013 and hasn’t allowed more than 18 in a single season. Joe Blanton may have given up 18 in a game or two last year. A reliance on ground ball outs of course likely contributes to a higher BABIP over time, and a .24 point decrease from 2012 to 2013 suggests a potentially treacherous 2014 campaign, but Masterson’s cause for optimism comes in the form of strikeouts.
After never averaging more than 8.3 strikeouts per nine (or 159 in a single season), Masterson posted a 9.1 mark in 2013, translating to 195 punch outs, 17th best in baseball. The jump likely stems from an increase in slider usage, which jumped by nearly 5% better than his career average. The results show it was more effective than it had been in the past, resulting in batters swinging through it more than 42% of the time. It was more effective against left-handed hitters than it had been in the past — Masterson struck out 19% of lefties in 2013, better than his career mark of about 14%. Continued mastery of the pitch could go a long way into keeping lefties honest and keeping the ball in the park.
Much will be made about the likely switch from Carlos Santana to Yan Gomes behind the plate in 2014, but it’s difficult to truly quantify the impact of a catcher’s ability to influence umpires by “framing” pitches. The metrics — again, in their infancy stages — do show that Santana was basically a DH with a catcher’s mask — so a switch could certainly help Masterson and Corey Kluber (who will appear later on this list), but it’s impossible to quantify the difference and foolish to think a single season’s worth of data will skew a pitcher’s apparent control drastically.
6. RICK PORCELLO, DETROIT TIGERS (64th among pitchers, 224th overall)
While Masterson was second in ground ball percentage, Porcello finished first in 2013, after ending the previous two campaigns in 11th and 16th place, respectively. Because if this, Porcello’s ERA depends greatly on the percentage of ground balls that turn into hits. His BABIP has never settled below .307 in his major league carrier; it was the seventh highest in baseball last season. His ERA will likely always finish higher than his FIP — 4.32 to 3.53 in 2013 — though both have declined in each of his four big league seasons.
Going in 2014, two major factors suggest Porcello could be in line for a breakout year. His strikeout rate has ticked higher, from 4.7 batters per nine innings in 2010 to 7.2 in 2013. He threw his curveball more often in 2013 than in the previous three years combined and generated more swings and misses with it. Since he doesn’t throw terribly hard, he’ll need to continue seeing good results from his offspeed offerings to continue his improvement. It likely helps that the infield defense should be better in 2014 as well. Jose Iglesias, one of the best defensive players in baseball, replaces Jhonny Peralta at shortstop while trading Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers allows Miguel Cabrera to slide back over to first base. The results may not be great, but if even a few more grounders turn into outs, Porcello may finally post an ERA under 4.
7 . COREY KLUBER, CLEVELAND INDIANS (83rd among pitchers, 305th overall)
The second Indian on this list, Kluber posted strong numbers in his first complete season in the majors. He has four pitches at his disposal, with a hard two-seamer and a changeup that moves faster than his slider. At 147 innings pitched in 2013, he’s not considered a qualified pitcher, but he posted the sixth highest BABIP of all starters with at least 140 innings. This is despite a 45.5% ground ball rate, which suggests a lower BABIP may be in Kluber’s future.
However, the main cause for concern is that fact that no pitcher who threw at least 140 innings allowed more line drives than Kluber. The caveat is that contact falls under one of three classifications — ground ball, fly ball and line drive — which could certainly skew the results and means the data shouldn’t be taken as a single “all-encompassing” explanation. But of the top 30 pitchers classified by line drive rate, Kluber’s .329 BABIP was the highest, but only three other starters posted BABIPs above .320 (and Clayton Kershaw was on this list with a .251 BABIP). This information may mean nothing and Kluber could get pummeled in 2014 when fewer balls fall for hits, but are sequenced to skew his ERA above 5. The point here is that Kluber’s batted ball profile and strikeout-t0-walk ration suggest continued improvement in his age 27 season.
8. EDWIN JACKSON, CHICAGO CUBS (108th among pitchers, 400th overall)
Jackson made this sleeper list last season and then led MLB in losses (18) and posted the fourth worst ERA (4.98). Whoops! The pick made sense at the time. Jackson was coming off a decent season with the Nationals where he posted the highest strikeout rate of his career. His FIP was nearly 20 points lower than his ERA and his walk rate was at a decent level. If he improved just slightly, he could’ve been a top-80 pitcher (he was ranked 93rd by mlb.com before 2013).
Instead, his strikeouts declined, his walks increased, he couldn’t keep runners on base and he pitched in front of what the Cubs called “defense”. He was certainly unlucky — his FIP was more than a run lower than his ERA — but he certainly pitched worse than in 2012. The great thing about being so terrible is that it’s easy to improve. Better luck alone should shave his ERA to 4.50 or better, given his BABIP (.322) and strand rate (63%) were among the worst in the league. From a fantasy perspective, this is purely a value play. Jackson should be better than Joe Kelly (105th) and Kevin Gausman (101st) likely will begin the season in AAA or the bullpen. He may never put it all together, but Jackson can certainly rack up 180 strikeouts with a 4.20 ERA in 2014.
9. TYLER SKAGGS, LOS ANGELES ANGELS (128th amongst pitchers, 470th overall)
Kevin Towers, the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, famously values character seemingly more than any other executive in baseball. He traded Justin Upton for what appeared to be 50 or 60 cents on the dollar and dealt former third overall pick Trevor Bauer in a separate deal after rumors of Bauer’s “poor” attitude leaked to the media. The Diamondbacks weren’t necessarily better because of those trades — they finished 81-81 in 2013. Towers’ decision making returned to the spotlight this offseason, when he dealt Tyler Skaggs in a bid to acquire Mark Trumbo, who specializes at hitting home runs (and hitting little else). Skaggs experienced growing pains in 2013, struggling in seven starts with a 5.12 ERA and 4.86 FIP. He walked batters like Tim Lincecum and gave up home runs like Joe Saunders (yet even worse), but at just 22 there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Moving from Chase Field in Arizona to Angel Stadium in Anaheim should help his gopheritis, as should the reports that he’s fixed his mechanics. He doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, but does have the desired 10 mph difference between it and his changeup. Throw in an above-average curveball, and Skaggs can certainly have a better 2014. Walks will continue to be an issue, but the Angels believe those mechanical adjustments will limit those mistakes as well.
10. EDINSON VOLQUEZ, PITTSBURGH PIRATES (Not Ranked)
Last year, I put Ricky Romero on the list, hoping that he had rediscovered his mechanics and could return to the dominating form he displayed for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010 and 2011. He was rated as the 222nd best pitcher by MLB.com and barely cracked the top 500 in the preseason rankings, so it couldn’t get much worse. Except that it did. Romero made two starts for the Blue Jays in 2013, allowed nine runs in 7.1 innings and may never return to the majors. So for another shot in the dark, why not choose the pitcher with the worst ERA in baseball last year?
Volquez was somehow allowed to start 32 times for the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, posting a 5.71 ERA (next worst was Joe Saunders at 5.26). His strikeouts plunged, his walks — always a problem — remained high and he couldn’t keep any runners on base (his 63.3% strand rate was the second worst in MLB). While leaving San Diego may seem like an omen, Pittsburgh employs one of the best defenses in the majors. Volquez’s .325 BABIP last season may regress towards his lifetime .306 average, which would in turn push his ERA towards his 2013 FIP of 4.24. Having turned 30 halfway through last season, it’s possible that the velocity declines across the board may continue, which would portend a rocky season with the Pirates. However, if he continues on a trend in 2013 to abandon his four-seam fastball in favor of a sinker — which he threw more than any other pitch last season and at the highest frequency in his career — he may have a chance to do what Romero couldn’t in 2013: stay in the rotation.