2018 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Starting Pitchers Part 1 (1-25)
Over the last several weeks, we’ve ranked hundreds of hitters whose job it is to provide as much offense as possible. Actually, 276 to be exact. Now we dive into the men who get paid tens of millions of dollars a year to limit that offense.
When it comes to pitching in fantasy baseball, everyone seems to have a different opinion. Some like grabbing their top few guys early, others grab their ace and wait, and some like to wait for several rounds before grabbing any at all. I find myself usually in one of those last two groups, as there is so much depth available each and every season. This season is no different.
That’s not to discount anything the men in the top-10 bring to the table. You can be a fan of offense all you want, but when a lot of these guys below, especially the top-five, take to the hill, it’s time to stop what you’re doing and tune in.
Whichever way you go about it, building a good pitching staff is key. Hitting is great, but it can’t win you a championship by itself.
*PLAYER NOTES/ANALYSIS CAN BE FOUND BELOW THE RANKINGS TABLE.
Starting Pitcher Player Notes
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Can we just take a minute to appreciate the greatness that is Clayton Kershaw? Over his last nine seasons, Kershaw has a 2.25 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 2.2 BB/9, and 9.9 K/9. There’s really not much that needs to be said here. Those stats speak for themselves. However, the one area of concern here is his troublesome back, which has limited him to an average of 162 innings the last two seasons. If that’s enough to scare you away from him and take one of the next three men, I’m sure another member in your league will thank you for it.
2. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
These next three players can honestly be ranked in any order, but the sustained durability of Scherzer gives him the nod here at No. 2. Scherzer has made 30+ starts in nine straight seasons and 200 strikeouts in six straight. His WHIP has been under one in four of the last five seasons, and he allowed a career-low 5.7 H/9 in 2017. Need I go on? The man is a fantasy stud, and that’s not going to change this season. The gap between Kershaw and Scherzer is closing.
3. Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
Is there anything more beautiful than a Chris Sale slider? Don’t answer that; it’s a trick question. That majestic, whiff-inducing offering helped Sale record the most strikeouts (308) in a season since Randy Johnson punched out 334 back in 2002. Back-to-back 17-win seasons are nothing to scoff at, either. Sale will once again toe the rubber in 2018 on one of the best teams in baseball and is firmly in this quartet of studly fantasy arms. Another season of 15+ wins, a sub 3.30 ERA, and 250+ strikeouts is a near certainty. And as a diehard Red Sox fan, I really hope I didn’t just jinx him into an injury.
You deserve some Sale K’s on this fine Sunday. pic.twitter.com/UWKXymSob3
— Red Sox (@RedSox) January 28, 2018
4. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
The 2017 season was the best year yet for Kluber. He recorded 18 wins for the third time in his career and posted career-bests in ERA, WHIP, CG, H/9, BB/9, and K/9 in route to his second AL Cy Young award in four seasons. Kluber might have been a late bloomer, but he’s definitely solidified himself as one of the premier arms in the game. There are no health or performance concerns here, either, which is what you want in your fantasy staff ace. Kluber is off the board on average at pick 15, so if you picked early in the first round, it’s highly unlikely you’re owning any shares of him in 2018.
5. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
If it weren’t for a lat injury that limited Thor to only seven starts, that quartet I mentioned above would be a quintet. Regardless, he’s still not that far off from those guys. Just look at his 2016 season when he had a 2.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9, and 10.7 K/9. Syndergaard bulked up last off-season and was throwing harder with all his offerings. Maybe that was what caused the lat injury. The upside here is as high as any right-hander in the game, but the injury concern will likely drop him into the third round of fantasy drafts.
6. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
Let’s just call 2017 a down year for Mad-Bum. After six straight seasons of 200+ innings, 190+ strikeouts, and a sub 3.40 ERA, Bumgarner was limited to just 17 starts and 111.0 innings. The results were still solid, but there were a few red flags. Bumgarner’s strikeout rate dipped from 10.0 to 8.2, and he was giving up home runs at the highest clip of his career at 1.4 HR/9. He might have dropped out of that top non-Kershaw SP tier, but I refuse to believe Bumgarner is done as a top-10 SP. This man has been an absolute workhorse, so expect him to bounce back this season with an improved offense backing him up.
7. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Trust me, I hate ranking Strasburg here. The talent and upside are blatantly obvious, but so are the health concerns. Strasburg has exceeded 200 innings only once (in 2014) and has averaged a mere 150 innings over the last three seasons. Granted, the results have been impressive when he’s out there. Strasburg has a career 3.07 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 2.3 BB/9, and 10.5 K/9 and was even better than that last season with a 2.52 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. Why can’t you just stay healthy, Stephen? This former No. 1 overall pick has as much upside as any right-hander in the game and would be in the top-five if I could guarantee 200+ innings. Unfortunately, my crystal ball is broken and I can’t make that prediction, so Strasburg slots in here at No. 7.
8. Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
Take what I said about Strasburg, multiply it by about 90% of the talent, and you’ll come up with Carlos Carrasco. In his eighth Major League season, Carrasco finally hit the 200-inning mark while going 18-6 with 3.29 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 10.2 K/9. The 2017 season was his fourth straight of at least a 9.4 K/9 and no more than 2.1 BB/9. Hopefully, those prior durability concerns are behind him. Right in his prime at age 31, there’s no reason why Carrasco can’t do it again in 2018, playing on one of the best teams in baseball.
9. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
Does everyone in this part of the list have durability concerns? Come on. After being limited to just 148.0 innings in 2016, deGrom recorded his first season of 200+ innings and 200+ strikeouts in 2017 while winning 15 games to boot. However, his ERA rose almost half a run up to 3.53. You can blame the strikeout spike on his fastball, which gained nearly two mph from 2016 and became a much more valuable pitch for him. He might not be the most intriguing guy to pick as your fantasy ace, but believe it or not, deGrom might be the safest option in the 7-10 range of these rankings.
10. Luis Severino, New York Yankees
Severino didn’t make any major changes from 2016 to 2017. He just did everything he usually does, but did it better. Something that goes rather unnoticed is the overall velocity difference between his fastball and changeup. In 2017, Severino had a 10.3 MPH difference between the two pitches, up 3.1 MPH from 2016. His slider also became much more effective for him. When you put it all together, he had a 10.7 K/9 at season’s end to go along with a 2.98 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Some of the names directly behind him might be more established, but Severino is definitely worthy of being your fantasy ace this season. He’ll have a ton of run support with the 21st-century version of murderer’s row backing him up. That’s for damn sure.
11. Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
After two down seasons in 2014-2015 where his K/9 dipped below eight, Verlander has come roaring back with two straight campaigns with a K/9 of 9.6 or higher. Reports of his demise as an elite fantasy pitcher were premature. He even showed that he still has a little of the old Verlander left in the tank with a dominant five-start stretch after getting dealt from Detroit to Houston. With a great team around him, expect Mr. Kate Upton to post another 15+ win season with 200+ strikeouts and a low-3.00 ERA.
12. Robbie Ray, Arizona Diamondbacks
If it weren’t for Sale positing video game worthy strikeout numbers, Robbie Ray would’ve been the top dog in the K/9 category last season. You should know what you’re getting with Ray at this point. If he’s healthy, another 200+ strikeout season is basically a foregone conclusion, but other than that, who knows. Yeah, he had a 2.89 ERA and 1.15 WHIP last season, but don’t forget that those numbers were 4.90 and 1.47 the previous year. What made the difference for Ray was abandoning his useless changeup and throwing his curveball more. Ray’s curveball usage went from 5.3% in 2016 to 21.9% last year. Predicting another sub-3 ERA might be foolish, but a 3.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 200+ K’s seem about right for Ray in 2018. He’s one of the biggest wild cards in this top-25.
13. Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks
I’ll openly admit that I’ve never been a Zack Greinke guy. In all my years of playing fantasy baseball and the countless number of team’s I’ve had, I can’t recall ever owning Greinke. Not even once. But when you look at his overall body of work, he deserves to be in this spot. Greinke bounced back from a lackluster showing in 2016 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, and 17 wins. Those numbers are definitely fantasy ace type numbers. However, there’s always that chance his alter ego rears its ugly head and he turns back into a fantasy SP2/3.
14. Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
Let’s rewind back to the spring of 2016. Barack Obama was still in office, the Cubs were still lovable losers, and Chris Archer was well on his way to fantasy stardom. Two 4+ ERAs later and he finds himself as my No. 14 pitcher for the upcoming season. Even if the ERA remains in the 4.00 range, Archer’s elite strikeout totals give him plenty of value in all formats. Three straight seasons of 200+ innings and 233+ strikeouts are as consistent as you’re going to get in this part of the rankings. If only he could get that ERA back into the low-3.00s.
15. Yu Darvish, Chicago Cubs
In 2017, Darvish made 30+ starts for just the second time in his career and continued to rack up the Ks at a rate very few current MLB hurlers can match. It’s funny, though. Darvish’s 10.1 K/9 rate last season was the LOWEST of his career. That speaks volumes to his devastating arsenal that a K rate like that is the worst of his career. Most starting pitchers can only dream of that number. The arsenal is nasty, but unfortunately, he has a slight problem staying healthy sometimes.
After signing with the Cubs, Darvish moves up three spots in these rankings. For more on that signing, check out my signing analysis.
16. Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
The name Nola might seem out of place in the top-20, but he checks off all the boxes. Nola has plus control, a diverse arsenal, and strikes out over a batter per inning. He might not have a blazing fastball, but his curveball is amongst the best in the Major Leagues and generates plenty of whiffs. Nola’s 4.78 and 3.54 ERAs the last two seasons seem very inflated when you compare them to his 3.08 and 3.27 FIPs, respectively. The Phillies are an improving team on both sides of the ball, so 15+ wins to go along with strong across the board stats are likely for the 25-year-old righty in 2018. Nola slots in as a strong and safe No. 2 fantasy hurler with the potential for fantasy ace production.
17. Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
No foreign player has entered the Major Leagues with as much hype and expectations as Ohtani. It almost seems like we’re anointing him as a fantasy ace without ever even toeing the rubber in a Major League game. I won’t go too in depth here as I wrote in-depth about Ohtani’s potential fantasy value earlier this off-season. However, I will say one thing: Ohtani’s upside in this season is 1995 Hideo Nomo, which would make him a top-10 fantasy SP. There’s plenty of risk, too, but the massive upside is worth a gamble in the fifth round or so.
You also have the added bonus of being able to use him as a hitter in Fantrax leagues. How many at-bats Ohtani gets is up in the air, but he possesses enormous raw power and should hit at least .260 or so. All the more reason why you should join a Fantrax league using the link below.
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18. Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals
We’ve reached the part of the rankings where the next few pitchers are more talented than their 2017 ERA. After two straight seasons with an ERA barely over 3.00, Martinez pitched to the tune of a 3.63 ERA in 2017, albeit, with the highest strikeout rate of his young career. The biggest reason for the rise in ERA was that he served up 27 home runs, 12 more than he did in 2017. The velocity on his fastball was the same, but the pitch became much less effective for him with a pitch value of just 2.5, down from 19.5 in 2016. Maybe this is just the type of pitcher Martinez is going to be going forward. A strong and rather safe SP2, but not the fantasy ace many envisioned him to be.
19. Alex Wood, Los Angeles Dodgers
There were stretches in 2017 when Alex Wood looked like a top-five fantasy pitcher. The overall end results were nice, but it could be a pain owning Wood at times last season due him missing occasional starts and not going deep into outings. Over 25 starts, Wood recorded a stellar 2.72 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 8.9 K/9. There’s solid upside here, but one must wonder if he’ll ever be able to make it through a full 33- or 34-start season. Regardless, the low ratios and high strikeout upside male Wood a decent SP2 option in 2018 that you can get right around pick 100.
20. Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
There are a few pros and cons to owning Dallas Keuchel. The pros are that he’s had a sub-3.00 ERA and sub 1.18 WHIP in three of the last four seasons. A less than stellar strikeout rate and only 49 combined starts the last two years are the cons. The fact that it’s been a lot of nagging injuries keeping him out of action is concerning. How many starts can we realistically expect from Keuchel? The uncertainty and lack of an elite strikeout rate drop him out of the fantasy ace discussion.
21. Jose Quintana, Chicago Cubs
Consistency is the name of the game for Jose Quintana. Over a four-year stretch from 2013-2016, Quintana threw for over 200 innings, between 161 and 181 strikeouts, and had an ERA between 3.20 and 3.51. The 2017 season saw Quintana dip below 200 innings but above 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career. However, his FIP was still 3.68, which suggests that his 4.15 ERA was a tad inflated. Now in the National League on a really good Cubs team, Quintana seems poised for his best season yet.
22. Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
It’s been an up and down career for this former No. 1 overall pick. Cole appeared on his way to stardom after the 2015 season when he went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings. However, the last two seasons have seen his ERA rise to 3.88 and 4.26 and his K rate drop to 7.6 and 8.7. The big difference last year for Cole was the long ball. After limiting home runs well the first four years of his career, Cole allowed 31 last season, which was tied for the 10th most in MLB. Maybe a change of scenery in Houston will help Cole get back on track, as he has a career 3.35 ERA against the American league.
23. Jake Arrieta, Free Agent
Everything is trending the wrong direction right now for Jake Arrieta. The ERA, WHIP, and H/9 are climbing, while his K rate is dropping. None of this should be a major surprise, though. Did we really think he was going to pitch at 2015 levels forever? His value for 2018 is still in flux as he remains a free agent with spring training starting in under a week. Regardless of where he signs, even at 2017 levels of production, Arrieta is still a SP2/SP3 and someone you can trust not to go into the tank. He’s as polished as they come.
24. Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
In a time of rebuild, there’s at least one bright spot in the Cincinnati Reds’ rotation. Castillo burst onto the MLB scene last summer with 3.12 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 9.9 K/9 rate in 15 starts. This after posting a 2.58 ERA< 1.01 WHIP, and 9.1 K/9 in 14 starts in Double-A. Who needs Triple-A anyways? Apparently not Castillo. He’s been starting for only three seasons, too, which is even more impressive. Castillo has the arsenal and control to become a top-of-the-rotation arm in this league and is already a very strong SP3 in fantasy with SP2 upside this season.
25. James Paxton, Seattle Mariners
If he could stay on the field for 30+ starts, Paxton would be well within the top-20 here. But apparently, that’s too much to ask of Paxton. His numbers have been solid over the last two seasons, but he’s averaged only 22 starts per season. Last season, the ERA dropped to 2.98 and he posted a career-high 10.3 K/9 rate. That’s all fine and dandy, but not a huge help when you’re only on the field for 136.0 innings. The sad part is that those 136 innings were a career-high for Paxton. If you’re a risk taker and want to grab Paxton as your No. 2, it’s not a crazy idea, but be ready for all of the missed starts.
STAY TUNED FOR THE REST OF MY STARTING PITCHER RANKINGS IN THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS.
Thank you for reading and I hope you can use this article to your advantage and get a leg up on your fellow league members. Got a question that I didn’t cover here? Then follow me on Twitter @EricCross04 and ask there.