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The Wheelhouse: ADP Spotlight: Starting Pitchers in the Top 100

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Director of Media for, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire's shows on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210).

Pitching is deeper than ever this year, right? It may just be the byproduct of larger shifts in offense throughout baseball due to a multitude of factors. Still, it's worth looking at the trends that have prompted more owners to grab pitchers with the top 100 picks in drafts this season. Using historical ADP data from Mock Draft Central, we can take look at the starters with an ADP of 100 or higher from last season.

Player Team ADP '10 Early Late
Tim Lincecum SF 13.0 5 24
Roy Halladay PHI 22.8 6 34
CC Sabathia NYY 28.8 15 45
Zack Greinke KC 29.3 17 44
Felix Hernandez SEA 30.2 18 40
Dan Haren ARI 39.3 27 53
Justin Verlander DET 44.1 24 53
Johan Santana NYM 44.3 28 62
Adam Wainwright STL 55.1 33 71
Jon Lester BOS 57.6 41 72
Cliff Lee SEA 58.0 43 107
Javier Vazquez NYY 61.7 47 89
Josh Johnson FLA 68.3 46 85
Chris Carpenter STL 71.6 36 87
Josh Beckett BOS 76.8 39 96
Tommy Hanson ATL 79.7 46 100
Yovani Gallardo MIL 85.6 48 105
Matt Cain SF 89.4 57 111
Clayton Kershaw LA 91.9 54 114
Cole Hamels PHI 94.2 54 115
Ubaldo Jimenez COL 98.9 63 141
Ricky Nolasco FLA 99.7 73 141

Last season, 22 starters were being nabbed within the first 100 selections of the “typical” draft. As you can see now, there were a few big mistakes – both with players who failed to live up to their potential, and in those who failed to recognize some of the early-mid round pitchers capable of moving up toward the league's elite starters.

Players highlighted in green have significantly improved their ADP since last season – mostly due to improved performance (Ubaldo Jimenez, Cole Hamels) or at least a particular skill (Yovani Gallardo, lower BB/9IP), although in some cases (such as Cliff Lee) it's heightened expectations based on offseason events. With Jon Lester, it's seemingly the ability to repeat his 2009 campaign with another 225-strikeout, sub-3.50 ERA season (if he shaves off those extra walks, the WHIP could improve and we may be talking about a Cy Young award winner this time next year).

Players marked in red were busts – either due to injury or pure regression last season. Some pitchers on this list were kind enough to double-dip (Johan Santana) to make the actual reason behind their struggles a bit less obvious.

For the sake of comparison, let's take a look at this year's starting pitchers in the Top 100:

Player Team ADP '11 Early Late
Roy Halladay PHI 14.2 5 20
Tim Lincecum SF 21.0 15 30
Felix Hernandez SEA 29.5 15 41
Cliff Lee PHI 37.6 24 49
Jon Lester BOS 40.3 24 50
Ubaldo Jimenez COL 42.5 32 60
CC Sabathia NYY 47.2 32 57
Clayton Kershaw LA 47.4 31 62
Dan Haren ANA 50.0 43 76
Zack Greinke MIL 50.5 42 70
Jered Weaver ANA 51.6 41 75
David Price TB 60.0 45 78
Cole Hamels PHI 62.1 47 71
Yovani Gallardo MIL 64.5 54 85
Justin Verlander DET 65.9 40 79
Mat Latos SD 71.6 60 88
Josh Johnson FLA 71.8 46 85
Tommy Hanson ATL 77.3 56 91
Francisco Liriano MIN 78.7 64 105
Chad Billingsley LA 86.3 75 120
Matt Cain SF 89.0 71 104
Ryan Dempster CHC 92.0 81 142
Trevor Cahill OAK 94.4 84 137
Clay Buchholz BOS 96.6 74 121
Chris Carpenter STL 96.9 67 113

How do you even begin to sort out which five or six pitchers will be the big busts and which five or six will be the ones carrying your team to a league championship? That is, next year when we look at this list, who will be marked in green and who will be covered in red? Maybe career workload should be a factor. After all, Santana, Beckett, and Vazquez entered last season with a lot of mileage on their respective arms. The best tool for predicting injuries may simply be a well-shaken magic eight ball, but most pitchers aren't Roy Halladay or CC Sabathia, with a seemingly endless ability to log heavy workloads without any significant injuries.

Of the players on the list above, the top five in career innings pitched are:

Halladay (2,297.1), Sabathia (2,127), Chris Carpenter (1,965) Ryan Dempster (1,840.1) and Dan Haren (1461.2). If we're truly convinced that Halladay and Sabathia are as close to indestructible pitchers as any out there, that would seemingly leave Carpenter, Dempster and Haren to be the three most vulnerable to a workload-based injury or loss of skills.

Carpenter's hamstring injury this spring and the fact that he's had consecutive seasons below 7.0 K/9IP have already pushed his value down on this list significantly. He'll turn 36 in April and there's plenty to fear in a pitcher his age coming back from a 235-inning campaign where his walk rate jumped (from 1.8 to 2.4 BB/9IP) and his FIP (3.67) paints a better picture of where he's really headed than his 3.22 ERA from last season does. As an owner of him in two keeper leagues (fortunately in one, the price is well below what he'd go for in a one-year auction), I would take an offer of 75 cents on the dollar for him knowing full well that the final years of his career could resemble something you would expect from Derek Lowe even though he still carries a high price tag.

Dempster was clearly undervalued this time a year ago, toting an ADP of 162.0 despite back-to-back seasons with ample strikeout and walk rates with the consistent ability to induce grounders. His walk rate has actually improved over the last three seasons in the Cubs' rotation from his earlier career rates between the bullpen and rotation. Still, he's also reasonably vulnerable to the long ball (1.0 HR/9IP last two seasons) and will roll the odometer over 2,000 career innings this season if he manages to stay healthy. Further, his control deteriorated during the second half of last season when his walk rate spiked to 4.1 BB/9IP. Dempster hasn't been an asset for WHIP in the past, but more baserunners will also push his ERA north of 4.00 if he can't cut back on the free passes.

Haren is more interesting – it's easy to pass on Carpenter and Dempster this year at their respective prices, but what's wrong with Haren? There are a few things to consider – his strikeout rate dropped after he was traded to Anaheim (from 9.0 K/9IP with the D-Backs to 7.2 over his final 14 starts). Those numbers are actually right in line with what he was able to do in Oakland (7.1 K/9IP in 2006, 7.8 K/9IP in 2007) before his move to the NL. Durability has never been a concern here, as Haren racked up most of his 1,461.2 career big league innings before his 30th birthday. As Dave Cameron of Fangraphs suggested in a blog post last July, MLB teams may not have been evaluating Haren the way most of us fantasy owners might have if we were in a front office with the opportunity to acquire him last summer. His velocity has been declining across the board and he's had his share of issues with the long ball. Chase Field is certainly one of the better hitters parks in baseball, but Haren's home/road splits reveal that it wasn't simply park effects (0.97 HR/9IP from 2008-10 at home, 1.08 HR/9IP on the road).

Even if his strikeout rate levels off at 7.5 K/9IP with the Angels this season and he's able to log another significant workload (we've projected him for 230 innings), Haren would still deliver 192 strikeouts and that would have ranked 19th in MLB last season. Perhaps a major injury will be avoided here, but Haren's immediate future looks more like Roy Oswalt's present than most fantasy owners are willing to believe. At 50th overall, he's overvalued despite the excellent track record.

Others to be concerned about:

Felix Hernandez – He's a stud and a complete workhorse; try five seasons of 30-plus starts from age 20-24. He'll turn 25 in April and enters 2011 with 1,154.2 innings. That's going to be a greater concern if he's tipping the 2,000 innings mark before age 30, but it's worth noting. Worry here has to be focused on his lack of run support and the dime store caliber bullpen that will be protecting his leads. “Bust” is a relative term, of course, but it would be in no way surprising if he's being drafted 25-30 slots later this time next year even if it's mostly factors that he can't control.

Clay Buchholz – There's plenty to like here, but Buchholz's hype train is pretty sickening. Don't be mesmerized by his 2.33 ERA from last season, there's a much more normal 3.69 FIP underneath. He did an excellent job keeping the ball in the park last season, but his 6.2 K/9IP also suggests that we're not talking about a finished product just yet. The Red Sox appear to have built an excellent bullpen and their offense should be one of the best in baseball, so while Buchholz will have plenty of run support and lead protection as his disposal, he needs to miss more bats and cut back on the walks (3.5 BB/9IP last season) to maintain an ERA in the low 3.00-range and improve his WHIP from the 1.203 he delivered last season.

On the other side of the ledger, we need to identify the values – those likely to return the most profit from their current ADP – and while there are plenty of opportunities to do that by waiting until the next 100 picks, there will be owners rewarded in earlier rounds for the pitchers they draft this season.

As noted before, Lee is something of an aberration in the group of pitchers who leapt up the draft board since last season. The common bond between Lester, Gallardo, Clayton Kershaw, Hamels and Jimenez is age. Obviously, pitchers in their early or mid-20s aren't incapable of regression (Greinke) or injury (Ricky Nolasco), but their potential to take a big leap forward makes them desirable.

Here are the starting pitchers in the ADP Top 100 that are excellent targets to draft in the early rounds because of their opportunity to profit.

Justin Verlander – It's really an impressive body of work when you look at the long-term trends. Verlander has improved his home-run rate in each of the last four seasons, while his walk rate seems to have stabilized just below the 3.0 BB/9IP mark. The underlying numbers regressed slightly from his 269-strikeout campaign in 2009, but there's not much here to explain the drop in his ADP from last season (44.1 to 65.9). Verlander has quietly improved his effectiveness against hitters from both sides of the plate in each of the last two seasons. At 28, he's still in his prime and the workload isn't alarming just yet (1,064.1 innings).

Josh Johnson – Health concerns have certainly kept his cost down to this point, but that appears to be on the brink of ending as Johnson quietly improved his strikeout rate (career-high 9.1 K/9IP) and lowered his walk rate (2.4 BB/9IP) last season before shoulder and back issues shut him down in September. If you're looking at pure tools, Johnson has the opportunity to vault into the league's top-five starters if he's able to make 33 starts this season. Considering that he accomplished that feat in 2009, it's not as far-fetched as you might think.

Tommy Hanson – Hanson was in beast mode during the first half of last season – carrying a 9.1 K/9IP over his first 18 starts before seemingly running out of gas in the second half. Even when he wasn't missing bats at that clip during the second half, he was still limiting his walks while holding opposing hitters to a .567 OPS against. Over the course of the entire season, Hanson dropped his walk rate from 3.2 BB/9IP in his rookie campaign to 2.5 BB/9IP. If that first-half strikeout rate holds for an entire season, a big breakthrough is forthcoming.

Chad Billingsley – Lots of positives here – even if the extremely low home-run rate isn't sustainable, gopheritis has never been an issue for Billingsley. His walk rate improved to a career-best 3.2 BB/9IP and his 1.74 G/F was the best we've seen from him as well. Like Hanson, Billingsley's OPS against improved in the second half (.591) even when his strikeout rate dipped slightly. Understandably, the attention is often paid to Clayton Kershaw when most owners look at the Dodgers' rotation and Billingsley seems to be somewhat overlooked.

Trevor Cahill – How can Cahill be undervalued when Buchholz is overvalued? Haters will be quick to point out his meager 5.4 K/9IP last season as a reason to avoid Cahill entirely with his inflated price tag. Instead, you have to see Cahill for what he really is. A 23-year-old with 62 big league starts and only 19 between High-A and Double-A. Instead of dominating Double- and Triple-A the last two seasons and getting his first taste of Oakland last September, Cahill has been learning how to survive on a big league mound. If his minor league strikeout rates are any indication, the big payoff is yet to come. He won't get Buchholz's run support from the A's offense, but he doesn't have to run the AL East gauntlet for his division either. Having a cavernous home park should also help to ease the growing pains as well. All of the peripherals you care about improved – K/9IP, BB/9IP and HR/9IP were all better in Year 2 than they were in his rookie campaign. It's only a matter of time before the punchouts follow.