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2012 Draft Prep: Starting pitching tiers using K/9 and ERA

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We have been writing about the merits of drafting by tiers on this site for several years now and many owners subscribe to this method of selecting players on Draft Day. The concept is pretty simple: cluster similarly productive players together within each position and restrain yourself from drafting players at a position while the highest remaining cluster is still well stocked. When there is a surplus of similar options available at a given position, it's a good time to fill a need elsewhere.

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That's easier said than done. There are many ways to assess a player's value and the methods owners use will affect whom they deem to be "similarly productive." ERA correlates well with Fantasy value for pitchers, regardless of whether it's Rotisserie or Head-to-Head value that is of concern, and it provides a good starting basis for arranging a series of tiers. (WHIP correlates nearly as well, but it overvalues pitchers prone to allowing homers.) Still, ERA doesn't tell the whole story. Mark Buehrle and Michael Pineda, for example, are projected for nearly identical ERAs, but the harder-throwing Pineda helps Fantasy owners far more with his high strikeout rate.

A pitcher who is an ERA liability can still have at least as much Fantasy value as a good ERA pitcher with the help of strikeouts. For a starting pitcher who throws 200 innings in a season, an extra strikeout per nine innings is worth about 40 ERA points in Rotisserie and 50 ERA points in Head-to-Head. That's how Ubaldo Jimenez (projected 8.5 K/9) can manage to be a little more valuable than Jaime Garcia (projected 7.5 K/9), even though Jimenez's ERA is projected to be 35 points higher.

Because strikeouts matter so much, I take a two-stage approach to creating tiers for starting pitchers. First I see how they cluster in terms of ERA ranges. Then, within each range, I promote pitchers who have strikeout rates that are high enough to put them on a par with those who reside in a higher-ranked tier. Based on his projected ERA, Jimenez is no more than a low-end fourth-tier starter, but his ability to strike out close to a batter per inning makes him valuable enough to be included in the third tier.

In fact, merely promoting high-strikeout pitchers to a higher tier may not emphasize their value enough. According to research conducted by Keith Woolner and CBSSports.com Eye on Baseball blogger Dayn Perry, strikeout rates are far more consistent year-to-year than ERAs are for individual pitchers. ERAs capture several factors -- from the defensive ranges of teammates to strand rates -- that can vary widely, even when a pitcher's skill set is stable. So while Jimenez and Garcia project to be very similar in value, the more reliable indicator of success, i.e., strikeouts, is stronger for Jimenez. That makes the Indians' ace a safer and, in all likelihood, a better pick than Garcia. That's why I have culled the high strikeout pitchers in each tier into a separate "K-factor" group, which represents those pitchers who pose a lesser risk of not performing up to the tier's standards.

What follows are four tiers of starting pitchers for standard mixed leagues. They do not correspond with Fantasy rotation spots (e.g., No. 1, No. 2, etc.), but rather they are clusters of pitchers who should produce similar levels of production. You could get your No. 1 starter from the first tier, but once the last top-tier option comes off the board, there is no need to reach for one of the top-ranked pitchers in the second tier in order to get your ace. In each of these tiers, players are listed according to their rank within the group, but remember that the top strikeout artists are separated out in a separate subgroup. If you want to bank on the stability of a pitcher's high K-rate while taking a potential risk in ERA, priortize the pitchers on K-factor list. If you're already secure in the strikeout category but are looking for a better bet with ERA, stick with the main ranked list within the tier.

First tier (sub-3.00 projected ERA): Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Tim Lincecum.
K-factor: Justin Verlander.
Summary: With the exception of Verlander, ranking the elite starters is a straightforward exercise. However, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner provides owners with a conundrum. He may have the best combination of strikeout ability and control among all starting pitchers, but for an elite, he has the potential to be homer-prone due to a mediocre ground ball rate. Because of his high K-rate, though, Verlander should be considered a top three starter, if not the best overall option.

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Second tier (3.01-3.40 projected ERA): CC Sabathia, David Price, Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, Ian Kennedy, James Shields, Yovani Gallardo, Jon Lester, Josh Johnson, Mat Latos, C.J. Wilson, Madison Bumgarner, Josh Beckett, Adam Wainwright, Matt Cain, Tommy Hanson, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon Beachy.
K-factor: Zack Greinke, Michael Pineda, Matt Garza, Stephen Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez, Yu Darvish.
Summary: Greinke's projected K/9 rate of 9.8 is high enough that he could go ahead of Sabathia and Price, but owners will have to have faith that he can reverse two years of subpar strand rates. Each of the remaining K-factor pitchers has some risk, even as sources of strikeouts. Garza and Sanchez have not had consistent K-rates, Pineda's velocity is down this spring, Strasburg's value will be constrained by an innings limit, and Darvish is still unproven in the big leagues. Each should be considered a lower-end pitcher in this tier, albeit with upside.

Third tier (3.41-3.60 projected ERA): Daniel Hudson, Ricky Romero, Ervin Santana, Jordan Zimmermann, Cory Luebke, Chris Carpenter, Wandy Rodriguez, Johnny Cueto, Justin Masterson, Jaime Garcia, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Clay Buchholz, Vance Worley, Jhoulys Chacin, Brandon McCarthy, Jair Jurrjens.
K-factor: Ubaldo Jimenez, Max Scherzer, Derek Holland.
Summary: As mentioned above, Jimenez should be taken ahead of Garcia, and he could conceivably get slotted in between Rodriguez and Cueto. As home run risks, Scherzer and Holland fit in towards the back end of this tier. Some may be surprised to see Hudson and Romero as third-tier starters, Hudson actually just missed the cutoff for the second tier, and if you see more than incremental increase in his strikeout rate this year, you could give him a bump up. Playing it conservatively, I'd prefer to wait on him. Similarly, I doubt that Romero can repeat last year's 14 percent line drive rate and the 2.92 ERA and 1.14 WHIP it helped to produce, so I chose not to include him in the second tier. Moore may look odd here, since he begins the year elgibile only as a reliever in Head-to-Head, but he will be a legitimate third-tier starter.

Fourth tier (3.61-3.80 projected ERA): Hiroki Kuroda, Jonathon Niese, Doug Fister, Trevor Cahill, Scott Baker, Tim Stauffer, Mike Minor, Mark Buehrle, Neftali Feliz.
K-factor: Francisco Liriano, Brandon Morrow, Colby Lewis, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Bud Norris, Ryan Dempster, Jonathan Sanchez, Edinson Volquez.
Summary: Here is where you will find Fantasy's flawed strikeout pitchers. Liriano, Morrow, Sanchez, Norris and Volquez fit this description best, as each can strike out more than a batter per inning but also be an ERA and/or WHIP risk due to unfavorable walk and strand rates. They have higher ceilings than nearly all of the pitchers on the main list, but because of the potential for a high ERA, it would be a mistake to reach for any of them while any of the previous tiers are still populated. Minor should post a low enough ERA to belong in this tier, but he may not compile enough innings to deserve third-tier K-factor status. Fister and Buehrle are risky due to their tendencies to pitch to contact. Either is a strand or BABIP rate fluctuation away from a highly disappointing season.

A few oddities: If not for his recovery from surgery, Tim Hudson would qualify for the third tier. Because he will miss roughly a month to start the season, he is more of a fourth-tier option. Shaun Marcum and Ted Lilly could post ERAs in the upper 3.00s, but if you need WHIP, they are worth considering in the fourth tier. Mike Leake and R.A. Dickey are both very economical pitchers, and because of their potential to rack up innings, both should be considered as fourth-tier pitchers in Head-to-Head leagues.

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