Pitching is a very deep position this season; that much we know. Look at any “rest of season rankings” (for the record, Chris Sale, as you might have guessed, has moved up my rankings since I did those in late June) and you’ll see starters outside the Top 20 that you’d be content with to lead your staff (guys like Corey Kluber, Jeff Samardzija, and Homer Bailey). Depth is great, but most owners are going to have that this season. However, only one owner will have the number one pitcher.
How do we determine greatness? Well, there is the “eye test”, but there are a number of pitchers that look the part of the best pitcher in baseball. Let’s do this process of elimination style.
Begin by sorting all starting pitchers by their 2014 xFIP to give us 10 starting pitchers to work with. Subtract those who do not have a K-BB% of at least 23 percent: good bye Masahiro Tanaka (a torn elbow ligament doesn’t help his case), Zack Greinke, and Corey Kluber. In order to be a Fantasy ace, the strikeouts have to be there, so let’s rid this list of those pitchers with a strikeout rate under 26 percent: nice knowin’ ya Brandon McCarthy (the advanced metrics sleeper of the decade based on his Fantasy numbers through the first half of the season) and Jon Lester. I prefer my aces have the ability to pitch out of jams, thus making swing and miss stuff a requirement. Stephen Strasburg and David Price are kicked to the curb for their sub-12 percent Swinging Strike percentage. Many Fantasy leagues still use “wins” as a category, so to be the best pitcher in Fantasy baseball, you need consistent support from your offense. Sorry Felix Hernandez, but you’re DQ’d for the Mariners getting you less than five runs of support per nine innings.
And then there were two.
The incumbent: Clayton Kershaw vs. The Challenger: Chris Sale.
Subtract his worst inning (or fraction of an inning if he was pulled mid-struggle) from each outing this year and Sale has a 0.22 ERA and a 0.60 WHIP in 82.1 innings pitched. How silly is that? His ERA in the 12.2 innings subtracted is 14.21 and his WHIP is 2.45. It’s also worth noting that Kershaw has feasted on a banged up Colorado lineup this season (Carlos Gonzalez has missed all three showdowns while Nolan Arenado missed two and Troy Tulowitzki missed one) to the tune of a 0.41 ERA, 0.27 WHIP, .070 batting average against, and 13.1 K/9. The Dodgers don’t face the now-healthy Rockies for another two months. The difference between he and Kershaw this season has been that razor thin, and some advanced metrics indicate that Kershaw is due for a bit of regression while Sale’s strong season is more likely to be sustained in the second half.
Ground ball-to-fly ball ratio:
Both of these pitchers play in divisions that include some hitter-friendly ballparks, making the ability to keep the ball on the ground vital. Also, when dealing with ace pitchers that are tough to get base runners against, opponents tend to swing for the fences a bit more often, looking to produce a run with one swing as opposed to relying on making solid contact multiple times in a single frame. Kershaw’s tremendous first half has been supported by an amazing and likely unrepeatable, 2.10 GB/FB rate. He’s excelled at forcing grounders in the past, but his rate this season represents a 42.9 percent spike over his best season and a 68 percent increase over his career average. On the flip side, Sale’s spectacular start has actually been held in check by the fly ball. His GB/FB rate is down 19.4 percent from his career mark and 23.3 percent from last season, making improvement probable. With Kershaw’s HR/FB rate as high as it has been since his rookie campaign, it is reasonable to assume that regression to the mean in terms of GB/FB would impact his ERA in a negative fashion, while projected regression (thus more ground balls) would only help the value of the ChiSox lanky lefty.
Strikeouts per nine innings:
At first glance, you’d assume that, while both pitchers offer plus-strikeout numbers, Kershaw (on pace for 212-plus strikeouts for a fifth consecutive season)is the superior pitcher in this category, having notched 24 more strikeouts while recording just four more outs than Sale this season. While it is true that he has been the better punch out pitcher up to this point, those strikeouts aren’t going to help you moving forward. Instead of looking at his 96.1 IP sample size this season, let’s take a peek at his career track record in an effort to determine what to project from the reigning Cy Young Award winner moving forward. His K/9 had dipped in back-to-back seasons entering 2014, dropping from 9.57 in 2011 to 9.05 in 2012 and to 8.85 last season: still very good numbers, but not exactly the ideal movement when it comes to his Fantasy value. His rate this season (11.77) represents a 33 percent jump over his 2013 numbers and a 25.3 percent spike from his career average. He’s a great pitcher, but can Fantasy owners realistically count on this sort of improvement? Are you counting on Victor Martinez to hit 40 homers this season (his ISO had declined in back-to-back seasons before more than doubling through 80 games this season)? On the other side of the ledger, you have a pitcher in Sale who is progressing the way you’d expect a young reliever turned starter to progress. Much like Adam Wainwright, Sale was an elite strikeout pitcher in the bullpen to start his career, but he experienced a drop in strikeout rate when being moved to the rotation in 2012 (his 9.00 K/9 was still plenty impressive, but a drop off from the 10.60 rate he recorded as a reliever). Much like Wainwright’s career trajectory, Sale’s strikeout numbers rose as he became more comfortable in the rotation, and 2014 marks a second straight season of improvement. According to ESPN’s Player Rater, Kershaw’s strikeouts have been 36.3 percent more valuable than Sale’s, a gap that figures to shrink if the past few seasons are any indication.
Strikeout –to-walk rate:
Going hand-in-hand with the potentially unsustainable strikeout numbers from Kershaw is an equally unsustainable K:BB ratio. Before talking about career path, it’s important to note that projecting regression in this area is not a knock against Mr. Kershaw. His current rate of 9.69 strikeouts per walk would rank as the single most impressive control season over the last 100 years for a pitcher who threw at least 200 innings for one team in a given season. Could he be historically good? Sure, but safer money is betting on at least some regression (if you’re curious, the best such season was the 23-win campaign Curt Schilling put together in 2002 as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks), and his history would suggest significant correction. No one would argue that Kershaw has begun building a Hall of Fame resume, yet this K:BB rate would represent a 111.1 percent increase over his next best season and a 195.4 percent bump over his career rate. I realize it is a bit of an apples-to-oranges argument, but that spike in production would be the equivalent of Albert Pujols breaking the single season home run record. While Sale’s K:BB ratio is also on the rise (29.9 percent from last season and 51.5 percent from his career average), the fact that his strikeout rate has risen and his walk rate has dropped in each season as a starting pitcher indicates that this improvement isn’t as sudden as Kershaw’s. Again, I’m not expecting Kershaw’s ratios to fall off a cliff, but given how dominant both these pitchers have been, the slightest bit of regression could well open the door for a new number one Fantasy pitcher.
I’m not going to lie to you: I’m not an MLB scout and have never seen either one of these pitchers in person. That being said, I do spend a lot of time researching patterns and the following would concern me if I was on #TeamKershaw. When it comes to “Pitch Value” (number of runs above average for each type of pitch thrown), the Dodgers 26-year-old is having an underwhelming season compared to last year. He offers two “plus” pitches (a rating of at least four runs above average up to this point) and his overall pitch score (the total runs above average from all of his pitches) is on pace to dip from last season. The culprit has been his fastball, a pitch he has thrown nearly two-thirds of the time over his career, and his curveball. The heater has been half as effective as it was one season ago, while the curve (a pitch that he has begun to throw more and more often over the three seasons) is functioning at about 41 percent effectiveness as compared to last season. He’s obviously been able to overcome these trends and buckle down when he needs it most, but these pitch values would indicate that he is less dominant this year than last, therefore suggesting that his improved Fantasy numbers are set to backtrack. Sale, on the other hand, is a three-pitch pitcher, who has all three pitches currently ranking as “plus” stuff. His fastball and changeup are well ahead of last season’s pace, a positive trend when you consider that he is throwing those two pitches a combined 82 percent of the time this season. Admittedly, “pitch value” is a tough metric to track, but the main takeaway is that Kershaw’s best pitch isn’t as good as it was a season ago while Sale has all of his pitches working at a high-level.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say both of these pitchers have been phenomenal in the first half (they both rank among the best four starting pitchers in terms of ERA, WHIP, and WAR this season), but Fantasy Baseball is a “what will you do for me moving forward” business, and I like the chances of Sale being the game’s top Fantasy arm in the final 2.5 months of 2014.
Come back for Wednesday’s Stat Rant which will feature my second half all stars at each position as well as a value play at each spot moving forward. Or drop by the RotoExperts.com Fantasy Sports Show tomorrow at 11am EST to get a sneak peak!