2010 was deemed the year of the pitcher by many. There were six no hitters including Roy Halladay’s no-no in the ALCS and the league wide ERA for starting pitchers was the lowest it has been since 1992. To be perfectly honest, it seemed like the lineups throughout the major leagues had no chance to succeed. Will 2011 be different? Will breakout stars Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto continue to grow and help dominate the box scores? Or will the youngsters on the mound like Clayton Kershaw, Tommy Hanson and David Price help re-write the record books?
Starting pitching in 2011 will be exceptionally deep. More than a dozen starters graduated from prospect status including 18-game winners Trevor Cahill and Phil Hughes. Even 22-year old phenom, Stephen Strasburg, surpassed expectations by leaping into the major leagues and dazzling America with 14 strikeouts in his debut. The league is filled with young talent on the mound, most of whom are ready to take their performance to the next level.
The top 15 list
I’m going to take you through my top 15 starters for the 2011 season for non-keeper leagues. My criteria for the top 15 is based solely on fantasy performance and value. Some pitchers (ahem, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain) are much more valuable on the real field than in imaginary baseball, so I’m basing my list off of that. This list also does NOT include the recently injured Adam Wainwright as he potentially faces season ending surgery.
1. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies- There’s no debate here. He’s coming off his best season yet. 21 wins, a 2.44 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, and 219 K’s in 250.2 innings pitched earned him the N.L. Cy Young Award in his first season in the league and also a number one spot in ESPN’s player rater(http://games.espn.go.com/flb/playerrater?&slotCategoryId=14). He’s happy pitching for the Phillies and leading the best rotation in baseball so a repeat of all of his 2010 numbers is almost guaranteed.
2. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants- A tough May and an atrocious August contributed to Lincecum’s worst season thus far and a number 21 spot on the ESPN player rater, but don’t be discouraged. He’s 26 and already has two Cy Young Awards and is a strikeout freak. He was brilliant in six postseason appearances in 2010 which points to a return to dominance in 2011.
3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners- Most of you are probably wondering why he’s so low at number three, but I think I’m being gracious with the spot I’m placing him. The Mariners’ offense is so bad that the 2010 A.L. Cy Young winner only earned 13 wins and, in fantasy baseball, wins is a huge category. Yeah there are four other big categories that he out-produces everyone at, but in most league formats I’m staying away from the king. He won’t be at the same level, in terms of wins, as Halladay so I won’t rate him like he is. Still, he put up back-to-back elite campaigns in 2009 and 2010 and is not even 25 years old yet so he may very well prove me wrong and be the best fantasy starter when 2011 is over.
4. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox- He is my favorite fantasy starter because of his predictability and the ace-like numbers you get without having to draft him like an ace. Once he gets beyond his early season struggles he has the potential to be the best starting pitcher in baseball right up until the final pitch is thrown for the fantasy season. His ERA and WHIP are a little inflated because of his awful April last season, but in the months following he returned to dominance as he put together his second consecutive 200+ strikeout season. He pitches for the Red Sox who feature potentially the best lineup in all of baseball so a repeat of 19 wins is a given. If he could suppress his spring woes and drop his ERA to below 3.00 then look out.
5. CC Sabathia, New York Yankees- He has given up Cap’n Crunch, enough said, but I will go on. There so many things about the Yankee hurler to like, especially his consistency. Four straight seasons with 17 or more wins, 230+ innings, and 197+ K’s while not letting his ERA reach higher than 3.37 is pretty darn good. He’s not the best in any of those statistics but he nears the best of the best in all four and he always is a threat to win a Cy Young. He could easily finish higher than no. 7 on the player rater.
6. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers- What he lacks in the ERA department (which isn’t much) he makes up for everywhere else. I might like him more than I should, but his back-to-back 200+ K seasons and four consecutive 200+ inning seasons speak louder to me than his 3.81 career ERA. I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Detroit’s 28 year old ace yet, but this year could be his year. The lineup that provides support for him got better in the off season and he doesn’t have an injury to worry about. He also is a victim to slow starts, but in 2010 he overcame his less than average April with three months of a sub-4.00 ERA including two less than 2.00 and one that was barely over 3.00.
7. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies- I feel it’s cliche to put him in the top 10 even though I think he really doesn’t deserve it, but I’m probably appeasing the fantasy gods by putting him here. I wouldn’t call him stellar, but he is good. He is the one pitcher in the top 10 whom I would be surprised to see more than 15 wins and 200 strikeouts from. His success in 2011 hinges on the health of his back and the health of the Phillies’ hitters. Will he pitch like the 22-game winner we saw in 2008, or will he revert back to the form that earned him a demotion to the minor leagues in 2007? He’s been between those two places in the years since so I honestly can’t guess which it will be, but whatever Cliff Lee shows up, he will be drafted higher than he should in every league. He’s 32 and getting older so this could be his final season of being overrated before people realize he really isn’t that good.
8. Jared Weaver, Los Angeles Angels- I hope he gets more respect this year than he’s been getting in the time since 2010 ended. The 2010 A.L. strikeout king is coming off his best season during which he finished top five in four major pitching categories. The Angel’s offense will be better if Kendry Morales comes back and hits like he should so Weaver could provide 17-20 wins with 200+ K’s and a good ERA. He’s coming into his prime and is the leader of his staff and I expect big things from him in 2011.
9. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles. Dodgers- 30 miles of freeway separate Kershaw from our no. 9 spot, so not much. He is left-handed, 22 years old and strikes outs a lot of people. The Dodgers hitters have let him down each of the past two seasons as evidenced by his 21 wins combined in 2009 and 2010. His ERA has been less than 3.00 in the past two seasons and he’s improving in every aspect of the game. As he’s gotten older, his leash has been lengthened and he finally broke the 200 inning barrier in 2010. As he continues to pitch deeper into games and learns to be more efficient with his pitches he will win more games. I’m expecting a huge leap in 2011, perhaps into the elite starter status.
10. Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins- He has the highest risk/reward of any pitcher on this list, but the reward is for greater than any risk. At 26 last season he pitched his best, even though he didn’t pitch as long as we’d have liked or as long as he did in 2009. His K/9 was higher than it had ever been and his opposing batting average was the lowest of his career, two good indicators of improvement. The Marlins shut him down toward the end of last season because they were out of the playoff picture, but the team looks like they’re renewed heading into 2011 and that means a shot at the postseason and Johnson will have a lot to do with that!
On the border
Here are few guys who just couldn’t crack the top 10 but are almost there and may wind up being a top fantasy option by season’s end:
11. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
12. Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves
13. Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies
14. Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels
15. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies