The Z Files: Updated Top 20 Pitchers

The Z Files: Updated Top 20 Pitchers

This article is part of our The Z Files series.

As promised, this week's episode of the Z Files will reveal my current Top 20 starting pitchers from now until the end of the season. Well, current as of May 27, that is. We'll discuss them in descending order with their 5x5 dollar value used as the gauge.

By means of review, my projections are skills-based using a weighted average of what's happened and my original expectation. The weights are not linear as some in-season skills stabilize faster than others. Similar to hitters, the strikeout rate baseline is the first to change with walks not too far behind. Hit and home run rates take a lot longer to settle. Wins are projected using a modified version of Bill James' Pythagorean theorem. Innings are projected based on a player's history, health and current performance.

So without further ado...

20. Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians ($13): Carrasco has only hurled 22 innings this season so the vast majority of his expectation is still pulling from his original baseline. He missed time nursing a sore hamstring, which is better than an arm injury but still worrisome since he is now way behind others in terms of building up 2016 arm strength and could even be a candidate for a dead arm period. Still, with 376 strikeouts with only 78 walks in 339.2 innings since 2015, Carrasco has a solid two-year track record to support this lofty ranking.

19. Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox ($13): This ranking may come as a surprise to some that see what Quintana is doing and expect regression. There should be a correction to his 2.13 ERA and my little black box agrees, landing the lefty in the 3.20 range. That too may seem optimistic, but consider his established ERAs of 3.32 and 3.36 the past two seasons. His 2016 skills are also on pace to set career bests in strikeout and walk rates. If the Quintana owner in your league wants to sell high, get in on that.

18. Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees ($14): Remember when Tanaka's arm was in danger of falling off with every pitch? The right-hander has pitched into the seventh inning in seven of his past eight outings, completing it six times and falling one out short in another. Tanaka's strikeout rate is down from his baseline but his walk rate is better. It's the extra innings that are driving the rank. With the three-headed monster the Yankees have in their bullpen, if he can continue to work into the seventh, his wins will benefit.

17. Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit Tigers ($14): Keep in mind original expectations are still a huge factor and I was rosier on Zimmermann than most of my colleagues back in March. Last year was certainly a down campaign and the league change didn't bode well, but recency bias put the veteran's stellar 2011-2014 too far in the rear view mirror. That said, Zimmermann's continued drop in strikeouts is a concern, though like Tanaka he's compensating with volume as he's worked into the seventh inning in all but two of his nine outings.

16. Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks ($15): Everyone expected a bump in Greinke's ERA as he moved to hitter-friendly Chase Field, but even the most pessimistic prognosticator didn't peg it to land at 6.54 through the end of May. Greinke's strikeouts are down but not precipitously while his control is on par with career levels. Considering the right-hander was in the top 10 in March, this is a significant drop.

15. Drew Smyly, Tampa Bay Rays ($16): Remember, the numbers were run prior to Tuesday night's disaster, though one poor outing wouldn't knock Smyly out of the top 20. Even so, No. 15 is an SP1 in the NFBC Main Event which seems aggressive for him, regardless of what happened last time out. While we were drafting, no one questioned Smyly's skills; it was his durability that pushed him down draft boards. We're through two months without an injury scare, so while his innings are still tempered, in terms of percentage the loss is not as damaging which aids his rank. For the season, his 9.6 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 are still elite, though much of that emanated from a strong early April. If Smyly's recent woes have his owner in a tither, he's not a bad guy to go after. The recent numbers are ugly, but his history suggests he'll snap out of it.

14. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets ($17): Fun fact, the Mets' hurler is just two years and two months younger than Felix Hernandez. Before we delve into deGrom, take a peek at the dollar amounts for the next five hurlers. The change under your seat cushions essentially separates deGrom from a spot in the top 10. Many are concerned about a drop in velocity from the 28-year-old righty. Breaking that down by start, he is only down one mph from this time last season. Further, he has the 23rd-best swinging strike rate among starters with at least forty innings but checks in with the 76th-highest strikeout percentage. When those metrics are out of sync the strikeouts move towards the swinging strike rate, so expect deGrom's low 6.9 K/9 to improve.

13. David Price, Boston Red Sox ($17): By now you've probably heard the story. Dustin Pedroia was watching film from when he was facing left-handed pitchers and some at-bats versus Price came up. Pedroia noticed a flaw in Price's mechanics and ever since, the lanky lefty has picked up a couple of feet on his heater. Even when he was scuffling, strikeouts weren't the issue; the problem was being able to get out of a jam with a punch out. That's back and so is Price's top 10 potential.

12. Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs ($18): This rank surprised me a little and I'm a big Lester supporter. The rest-of-season ERA checks in at 2.96 and to be honest, I'm taking the over, but not by much. His FIP the past two seasons has been about 2.90 while his xFIP and SIERA (which I like better) are both in the 3.10 range. His peripherals are in line with career levels, albeit a tick shy of normal, but not enough to impact things too much. If you recall, wins are computed based on the pitcher's ERA and team's runs so Lester is among the leaders in expected wins which aids his rank as well. If I'm doing a redraft, he isn't an SP1 for me in a 15-team league but I'll gladly make him my SP2.

11. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians ($18): Kluber is a rather frustrating arm for number-crunchers to evaluate. His strikeout and walk rates are stellar yet he continues to carry a higher than expected batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Chances are there's a reason for that, but we're not collecting or analyzing the proper data yet so we all still regress his BABIP downward and anticipate better results. It's happening again this season as Kluber's actual 3.78 ERA is very high compared to his 2.88 FIP, 3.27 xFIP and 3.30 SIERA.

10. Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins ($18): Fernandez has top five skills but is likely to have a tempered innings total, which is reflected in his rank. If it appears the Fish will let him toss 200 stanzas, then his already lofty rank will swim further upstream. Or is that downstream? Regardless, it will only get better.

9. Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates ($18): I'm not going to lie, I'm definitely skeptical about a 2.74 rest-of-season ERA for Cole and plan on dissecting that when I run the numbers again over the weekend. His peripherals are a little worse than last season. They're by no means bad, just not top-10 material. So, I'll spare you the effort of posting or sending me something like:

Hey Zola, why are you so high on Gerrit Cole? Get out of the basement and actually watch some games. Man, I'd sure like to be in a league with a so-called expert like you.

8. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals ($21): If you took the chance on Strasburg's upside, kudos. There's not much to say. If he stays healthy, we could be looking at a top five arm next season, if not sooner.

7. Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants ($22): Cueto is the only surprise left, as the rest are fundamentally chalk. Numbers-wise, his walk rate is a career best while his strikeout mark is back up after dipping last season. The real driving force is Cueto is once again piling up the innings. Recall he tossed a shocking 243.2 IP in 2014. The volume helps pump up the raw strikeouts as well as adding more oomph to his ratios.

6. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets ($23): If you guarantee me Thor will throw 220 innings, he's second on this list – that's how good he is. But you can't, so he isn't.

5. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants ($25): Bumgarner reminds me of the Kinks when I was growing up. They weren't anyone's favorite group, but everyone liked them. As good as MadBum is, he'll always be in Cy Young contention, but he'll usually fall short. He's having another outstanding season. Last year it was Greinke and Arrieta that emerged. This year it looks like Syndegaard. He'll always be in the top five, but he'll only rarely make it to the top spot.

4. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals ($26): Here's another example, like Kluber, where there's something in the numbers beyond bad luck we're not yet able to capture. Sure, some of Scherzer's gopheritis is a random clustering of long balls, but there's some bad pitching mixed in as well. The question is whether it's correctable. At least for now, I'll give Mad Max the benefit of the doubt.

3. Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs ($28): OK, here's the deal. If you want to argue Arrieta belongs second, we can have a civil discussion. Well, actually we can have a civil discussion if you want to put him on top, but when your argument is my guy's ERA and wins are better than your guy's, I like my chances. Perhaps the opposite is true with Arrieta than was discussed with Kluber and he can skillfully outpitch his expected ERA levels, but his batter per inning whiff rate still dings him from a fantasy perspective.

2. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox ($29): No, I'm not crazy. To put things in perspective, last season Sale boasted an 11.8 K/9 to Kershaw's 11.6 along with a 1.8 BB/9 as compared to 1.6 from his NL counterpart. Obviously there's more to pitching that whiffs and walks, but sometimes we forget how skilled Sale is, and he does it in the league with the designated hitter in an offense-loving park. His strikeout rate is down, which docks him some points, but in terms of fantasy potential I'll take Sale over Arrieta. Feel free to make your case, civilly, in the comments.

1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers ($42): 'Nuff said. Actually, there is something worthy of citing. Check out the projected dollar amount. That's a goofy difference. Now consider we conventionally allot only 30 percent or so to pitching which artificially lowers the amount. If we distribute budget equally, Kershaw's $42 becomes $70 while a $42 hitter drops to about $30. Think about that the next time you have an early pick in a snake draft.

One of my favorite aspects of doing this column is addressing the ensuing questions in the comments section. If you want to know where someone not discussed is ranked, I'll gladly answer. If you want to question the placement of someone within the top 20, I ask that you suggest a pitcher to replace him. The reason for this is two-fold. Often, when pressed for a replacement, you realize the ranking is actually justified. More importantly, offering an alternative avails more discussion fodder.

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Todd Zola
Todd has been writing about fantasy baseball since 1997. He won NL Tout Wars and Mixed LABR in 2016 as well as a multi-time league winner in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. Todd is now setting his sights even higher: The Rotowire Staff League. Lord Zola, as he's known in the industry, won the 2013 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Article of the Year award and was named the 2017 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year. Todd is a five-time FSWA awards finalist.
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