As any experienced fantasy player knows, pitchers are fickle beasts, and, with the exception of a handful of players, the top names often change on a year-to-year basis. Young flamethrowers and top prospects intrigue fantasy owners every season only to fall short of their expectations, and reliable veterans are only one faulty delivery away form landing on the disabled list.
Starting pitchers have crushed many fantasy title chances in the past, but those who grab the most consistent players often find themselves playing deep into September. The following 25 pitchers make up the first tier of fantasy starters, and their reliability and upside distinguishes them from the rest of the pack.
All rankings are based on a standard 5×5 category, 10-team rotisserie league scoring system.
1. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
Halladay has long been one of the best pitchers in baseball, but, with his move to a contender and to the weaker National League, he has become an absolute fantasy monster. Halladay is the only pitcher worthy of first round consideration in a 10-team draft and is a lock for 18-plus wins, 200-plus strikeouts, a sub-3.00 ERA and a sub-1.25 WHIP. Any fantasy staff he anchors is in good shape.
2. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
It’s not hard to argue that Hernandez has the best stuff of any starter in the majors, and he posted his second consecutive Cy Young-caliber season in 2010. King Felix’s win total will suffer thanks to the Mariners’ poor offense, and his 249.2 innings pitched last year are of some concern, but there’s every reason to expect another 225 strikeout, sub-2.75 ERA performance in 2011.
3. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
Lincecum took a small step back form his ridiculous 2008 and 2009 campaigns last season, but he was still one of fantasy’s elite pitchers and looks to be going forward, as well. Lincecum’s “poor” season-ending stats were largely the product of one rough stretch in the middle of the season, and, if he can avoid such a slump in 2011, another 16-plus win, 225-plus strikeout, sub-3.00 ERA campaign is well within his reach.
4. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Similarly to how Halladay benefited from his move to Philadelphia in 2010, Lee should get a significant boost from his first full season as a Phillie in 2011. Lee has improved his strikeout rates in three straight seasons and has a chance to break 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career as a fulltime National Leaguer. He should post a sub-3.00 ERA and 16-plus wins, as well, and is a legitimate Top 40 pick.
5. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
Lester has been a consistent force over the past three seasons, and brings a phenomenal combination of durability, youth and upside to the table. Lester’s ERA may be north of 3.00, thanks to his AL East competition, but he’s as good a bet as anyone in the majors to reach 20 wins and has reached exactly 225 strikeouts for two years in a row. Don’t let him fall past round five.
6. CC Sabathia, New York Yankees
Sabathia is a safe bet to post nearly identical numbers to Lester, but is several years older, doesn’t strike out quite as many batters, and, at least on paper, plays for the inferior team. Still, Sabathia is as safe a pick as they come, and fantasy owners can bank on another 3.25 ERA, 17-plus wins and 200 strikeouts in 2011. If you can get him 15 picks after Lester, he’s a better value.
7. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Verlander saw his strikeout rate fall in 2010, but his increased ability to induce ground balls and limit homeruns indicate that he may be becoming a better overall pitcher. The Tigers have a potent enough offense to allow Verlander to surpass 16 wins for the fourth time in his short career, and he’s a lock for 200-plus strikeouts and a sub-3.50 ERA. His WHIP has improved for three straight seasons, as well, making Verlander a legitimate Top 60 pick.
8. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kershaw will be just 23 years old for the entirety of the 2011 season, but the young southpaw is well on his way to emerging as one of baseball’s most dominant starters. Kershaw cut his walk rate dramatically last year and finished with an ERA under 3.00 for the second consecutive season. Add in his 200-plus strikeouts and 16-plus win potential, and Kershaw has a shot at being one of fantasy’s five best pitchers.
9. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
The third lefty from the AL East to make the Top 10 list, Price has as much natural talent as anyone on the list save for King Felix. Price raised his strikeout rate while decreasing his walk rate in 2010 – an excellent sign for any pitcher – and while his ERA is unlikely to dip below 3.00 again, he should win 16-plus games and notch over 200 strikeouts as he continues to mature as a major leaguer.
10. Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies
Jimenez has some of the filthiest stuff in the majors and is an excellent pitcher, but his absurd first-half numbers have caused him to be slightly overrated in the fantasy world. Jimenez should post a sub-3.50 ERA, 200-plus strikeout, 15-plus win season, but I’d expect a slight overall decline from his 2010 stats. He’s still an elite option, but don’t take him before round six.
11. Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels
Haren has less upside than several pitchers who will follow on this list, but he’s also the safest bet to stay healthy while contributing solidly in all non-save pitching categories. Haren was the victim of bad luck last season, and, despite his move to the tougher league, he should see his ERA fall back closer to his career 3.66 mark. Expect 200-plus strikeouts and 15-plus wins, as well.
12. Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves
Hanson managed to cut his walk and homer rates last year, but his strikeout numbers fell, as well, and a poor mid-season stretch prevented him from putting up the type of monster season he’s capable of. Look for Hanson to take another step forward in 2011 and reward his owners with a sub-3.25 ERA, 15-plus wins and 200 strikeouts.
13. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels
2010 was quite the breakout season for Weaver as the fourth-year pitcher posted the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate, homer rate and ERA of his career. Weaver needs to post similar numbers in 2011 to be considered a truly elite fantasy pitcher, but, as a player in his prime with a steady track record of year-to-year improvement, there’s no reason to expect him not to.
14. Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins
Johnson would rank higher on this list based on potential alone, but health concerns and a relatively weak supporting cast knock him out of the position’s Top 10. Johnson can post 200 strikeouts and an ERA below 2.75 if healthy and running on all cylinders, but he’s unlikely to surpass 16 wins, and he may not reach 200 innings pitched either.
15. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
After a disappointing 2009 campaign, Hamels had a strong rebound season in 2010, finishing with 12 wins, a 3.06 ERA and 211 strikeouts. Hamels should post similar numbers in 2011, but I like his win totals to be a little higher, as he will routinely face middle-of-the-rotation pitchers on other teams thanks to the presence of Hallday and Lee. Hamels’ 82.7% left-on-base percentage is unsustainable though, meaning his ERA is likely due for a slight increase.
16. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Cain continues to show slight season-to-season improvement as he enters his prime years, but, at this point, we can largely accept him for what he is – an excellent No. 2 starter. Cain’s WHIP has improved for three straight years as he’s lowered his walk rates, and he’s among the safest bets in the majors to post a sub-3.50 ERA and 170-plus strikeouts. Don’t undervalue his consistency.
17. Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins
It took a little loner than many Twins fans had hoped, but Liriano returned to his dominant pre-Tommy John surgery ways in 2010, posting his most dominant season since 2006. It’s fair to classify Liriano as a medium-risk, high-reward pick since he’s never thrown over 200 innings or won more than 14 games, but he has the potential to be a Cy Young candidate in 2011.
18. Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers
If Gallardo demonstrated the ability to stay healthy for an entire season or pitch deeper into games, he’d rate much higher on this list, but he still remains a work in progress as he enters his fourth season in the majors. Gallardo has 225 strikeout, sub-3.50 ERA potential and could win 16-plus games on a talented Brewers team, but he’s not a lock to reach those numbers.
19. Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies
It’s absurd that Oswalt is the fourth Phillies starter to make the Top 20 list, but that speaks to the depth of the rotation in Philadelphia. Oswalt’s days as a truly elite fantasy starter are over, but he’s somewhat undervalued thanks to being overshadowed by his rotation mates. Expect a 3.25 ERA, 15-plus wins and 170-plus strikeouts, and don’t let him fall past round 10.
20. Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
Carpenter lacks the strikeout rate and youth of many others on this list, but he is a consistent four-category producer when healthy and has made at least 28 starts in five of the past seven seasons. He comes with risk as a soon-to-be-36-year-old with a history of some lingering injuries, but his ability to produce a 3.25 ERA, 175 strikeouts and 15-plus wins makes him a great No. 2 fantasy starter.
21. Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers
Greinke has seduced many fantasy owners this off-season thanks to his move to the NL and the memory of his 2009 Cy Young performance, but he’s among the most over-valued players this preseason. Greinke has topped 200 strikeouts and posted a sub-3.00 ERA just once in his career and will begin the season on the DL. He’s still worthy of a rotation spot on any fantasy team, but don’t make him your No. 1 starter.
22. Mat Latos, San Diego Padres
Latos is another player who has produced only one elite season and will begin the year on the DL, and, like Greinke, is being over-valued in most leagues. Latos had never thrown anywhere near the 184.2 innings he pitched in 2010, and some fatigue was all but inevitable. Latos’ ERA and WHIP will be a boon to any fantasy squad, but don’t expect more than 13 wins, 180 strikeouts or 175 innings pitched.
23. Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers
Scherzer brings a higher WHIP and more risk to the table than many of the starters above him, but he also has the ability to reach 15-plus wins and 200-plus strikeouts in 2011. Improving his walk rate would go a long way towards getting his WHIP below 1.20 and ERA below 3.50, but Scherzer is still just 26 and primed to build on his breakout 2010 campaign.
24. Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers
Billingsley has frustrated owners in recent years by failing to build on his success as a young starter, but, while he may not be ace material, he’s still a very solid pitcher. Don’t expect 200 strikeouts or 16-plus wins, but there’s no shame in having a No. 2 or No. 3 fantasy starter with 170 Ks and a sub-3.50 ERA. If other owners have given up on him, be sure to pounce.
25. Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox
Yes, Buchholz's ERA will likely rise by nearly a full run next season, and, yes, his 120 strikeouts in 2010 were a disappointment, but he’s clearly a pitcher on the rise. Don’t treat him as a fantasy ace, but expect a sub-3.50 ERA, 150 strikeouts and 15-plus wins in Buchholz’s second full season as a starter, and don’t be afraid to nab him if he falls past round 12.
Three prospects to watch for in 2011:
1. Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners
Few expected the Mariners to begin the season with Pineda on their roster since they’re not expected to compete, but fantasy owners should be pleased with this decision. Pineda profiles as a high-strikeout No. 2 starter in the majors and will likely be a top-30 fantasy starter in short order. For 2011, expect around 10 wins, a reasonable ERA and 140 strikeouts.
2. Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
Britton may be more useful in real life thanks to his sinkerball, but the Orioles’ prized southpaw should be able to provide help to some fantasy owners, as well. Britton is likely to be called up in May to help delay his arbitration clock, but he might only need 25 starts to win 10 games and notch a sub-4.00 ERA.
3. Kyle Gibson, Minnesota Twins
The Twins took a gamble on Gibson in the 2009 draft after he injured his arm, but their decision has paid off in a big way. Unlike many of the all-control pitchers the Twins develop in their system, Gibson has the stuff needed to be a solid No. 2 major league starter, and he could break into the Twins’ rotation as early as June.