American League SP Tiers Update

As you no doubt have noticed, this week we have been rolling out our updated positional tiers and consensus rankings. Today is American League starting pitcher day, which means that I have not actually forgotten to rank Lance Lynn, and no, this does not mean I think Tim Lincecum is not roster-worthy. Most importantly, these tiers are based strictly on how I rank the pitchers going forward. What’s done is done, so I don’t care what a pitcher’s results are right now, aside from how it may help me project them going forward. You can check out my pre-season tiers again to compare.

There was relatively minor movement among the top couple of tiers as you would expect. But lots of movement in the mid and bottom tiers.

You’re the Best

Justin Verlander
CC Sabathia
Felix Hernandez
Jered Weaver
Dan Haren

The only change in the top tier is Haren dropping to the bottom from third. Along with many others, Haren has suffered from a drop in velocity, and he is now teetering in dangerous territory as his fastball has averaged just 88.8 miles per hour. It has not affected his peripherals much though and his SwStk% and F-Strike% are as strong as always. Sabathia, Weaver and Hernandez rank two, three and four in SIERA in the AL, while Verlander sits seventh.

Second Best

James Shields
David Price
Jon Lester
Yu Darvish
Matt Moore
Josh Beckett

For those who did not believe in Shields coming off last season’s career year, maybe he is convincing you to change your mind now. Interestingly, he’s doing it with a significantly higher ground ball rate, which would be a major help for someone who has been victimized by the long ball in the past. Lester was dropped from the top spot in the tier and is at risk of declining further. His walk rate should rebound as his F-Strike% is actually a fantastic 65.4%, well above the league average and the first time it has sat above even 59% in his career. But his SwStk% is down again after initial declining last year from 2010. As I had worried, Darvish’s poor spring control was a harbinger of things to come, but everything else looks good. Matt Moore fans have reason to be optimistic as both his F-Strike% and SwStk% point to much improved walk and strikeout rates in his future. He represents a great acquisition target, though his extreme fly ball rate is a concern.

Strong Enough

C.J. Wilson
Brandon Morrow
Colby Lewis
Max Scherzer

C.J. Wilson was a source of much debate in the comments section of my initial rankings. I did move him up to the top of this tier, but his SwStk% has dropped below 8.0% and I simply cannot believe he can sustain an 8.0+ K/9 if that continues. In addition, that .227 BABIP is obviously going to rise, which combined with an expected drop in strikeout rate, means his ERA should soon push above 3.00. Forget about Scherzer’s ERA, his peripherals are just as expected and his SIERA is nearly three full runs lower.

Seeing is Believing

Derek Holland
Jake Peavy
Jason Hammel
Jeremy Hellickson
Hiroki Kuroda
Daniel Bard
Ervin Santana
Ricky Romero
Gavin Floyd
John Danks

Peavy enjoyed a huge jump in the rankings, though the funny thing is that according to SIERA, he is actually pitching identically to last year. The luck pendulum has simply swung the other way, but he can be no higher than this given his injury risk and his insane fly ball rate. Hammel didn’t even make my pre-season rankings, yet debuts in the fourth tier. I obviously don’t expect his peripherals to remain this good, but he’s a different pitcher this year with increased velocity and that means he should be better than all below him. Did you know that he leads the American League in SIERA?

Seriously, Jeremy Hellickson is trying his darndest to convince us to rethink everything we thought we knew about DIPS theory and underlying skills. He’s working his magic yet again, but I actually dropped him a tier. I expected his strikeout rate to jump, offsetting his luck neutralizing and ERA rising, but that has not materialized and his SwStk% now sits below the league average. If Hellickson can really be this good despite horrific peripherals, he needs to teach the rest of the Rays staff what the heck he is doing.

I’m Not Okay (I Promise)

Jeff Niemann
Doug Fister
Felipe Paulino
Brandon McCarthy
Philip Humber
Danny Duffy
Neftali Feliz
Drew Smyly

This is our first tier of pitchers who are primarily match-up plays as they should only be worth a couple of bucks in mixed leagues at most. I highlighted Paulino yesterday and he has breakout potential, while Duffy’s improved velocity and strikeout rate is also intriguing. Unfortunately Duffy’s poor control and recent return from elbow trouble is a red flag and prevents him from being any higher. I was not particularly optimstic about Feliz’ transition to the rotation to begin with, and I remain less than excited. Despite a 4.50 SIERA, he has created the illusion of a strong start thanks to a .210 BABIP and 80.3% LOB%. He’s a nice sell high candidate. Drew Smyly joins the rankings and I honestly have little clue as to what he will do the rest of the way. His peripherals are fantastic, but he has limited minor league experience, including just 1.2 Triple-A innings, sports just a 54.9% F-Strike% suggesting a control regression is coming and he was never considered an elite pitching prospect.

Livin’ on the Edge

Matt Harrison
Jake Arrieta
Jerome Williams
Felix Doubront
Bartolo Colon
Tom Milone
Jeanmar Gomez
Ivan Nova
Henderson Alvarez
Drew Hutchison

The majority of these pitchers have low strikeout rates, which limits their fantasy upside. Though Arrieta’s fastball velocity is up and his stuff looks good to my amateur eye, it has not translated into swinging strikes. His low F-Strike% also gives us pause when looking at his good walk rate. Jerome Williams has been quite the pleasant surprise so far, as he owns a 3.67 SIERA resulting from a strong ground ball rate and good control. His SwStk% even suggests strikeout rate upside. Of course, given his history of mediocrity, it is going to take more than a month of decent skills to push his ranking higher. Henderson Alvarez has the second lowest strikeout rate in baseball.

The Great Disappointment

Wei-Yin Chen
Jarrod Parker
Kyle Drabek
Carl Pavano
Josh Tomlin
Derek Lowe
Justin Masterson
Francisco Liriano
Ubaldo Jimenez
Clay Buchholz
Jason Vargas
Brian Matusz
Luke Hochevar
Rick Porcello
Jonathan Sanchez
Hector Noesi

This last tier is a smattering of crappy veterans, young pitchers who are unlikely to contribute and major disappointments. Jarrod Parker caused fantasy owners to rush to the free agent pool to pick him up after his solid first start upon his promotion, but I don’t think he is going to generate any value this year. Masterson has lost a couple of ticks off his fastball and his control is back to terrible territory. You know the story with Liriano and Jimenez. Both pitchers have the potential to be excellent, but something is seriously wrong and needs to change before they come close to be worth activating in any league. Jimenez has actually walked more than he has struck out.

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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

40 Responses to “American League SP Tiers Update”

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  1. hartmtown says:

    Why does an article that bills itself to be “American League Starting Pitchers Update” also consistently adopt a virtually mixed-league-only viewpoint? Some of us play AL (and NL) only leagues, and an article titled like this jumps off the page to us. For those of us who play ONLY AL and NL only leagues, it’s all the more true. I just don’t get the reasoning of marketing a piece in this way when you intend on including statements like “I don’t think he (Jarrod Parker) is going to generate any value this year.”

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    • hartmtown says:

      Another way to say the same thing: What’s the purpose in ranking AL starters only if the lens used to rank them is that of mixed leagues?

      P.S. This is supposed to NOT be a review of how pitchers have performed thus far, yet that’s exactly what it reads like. Brandon Morrow’s in the third tier, Jason Hammel’s in the fourth, and Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez are in the last? That makes sense if it’s a review — but as a projection? You really think Tom Milone and Jake Arrieta out-produce Buchholz and Derek Lowe the rest of the way?

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      • Socrates says:

        Pretty solid point.

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      • If you look at my pre-season rankings, you’ll see Morrow’s ranking is actually unchanged. When I say how a pitcher has performed so far, I’m primarily referring to ERA and WHIP. Those numbers I don’t care about. What I do care about though is changing in underlying skills such as SwStk%, F-Strike%, ground ball rate, velocity, etc. These numbers stabilize much, much quicker than ERA and WHIP. For all those pitchers you listed, there are drastic changes in skill that makes me change my opinion of them moving forward.

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  2. Owen G says:

    Though what you said about low strikeout rates has been true for Ivan Nova prior to this year I was hoping you might make note of his improved rate this year and whether it is sustainable.

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  3. JKB says:

    Interesting, Matt Moore in Tier 2 and Drew Smyly in Tier 5, and justification for this excludes the forest of accumulated information about the two and instead focuses on one stat where Moore currently looks better than Smyly, F-Strike%.

    Basically relying on regression to the mean to bring up Moore over the ROS and bring down Smyly ROS. That is a given but the question that needs to be addressed is how much regression will Moore have vs. Smyly ROS? And based on what? F-Strike% exclusively?

    Smyly has beat some good teams so far and, Moore’s good performances are almost all against mediocre teams.

    (FYI, I’m a Moore owner)

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    • JKB says:

      I cast a net into the leaderboards and pulled out the most recent 1 year stats which cover Moore, Smyly, and Parker’s MLB time. Then I looked for comps on the same 3 teams. Here is Smyly (IP=34) and a comp from Tier 2 (IP=100+), so there is a sample size issue, which I respect is a big caveat, still:

      K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 K% BB%
      Smyly 9 2.65 3.4 0.79 25.20% 7.40%
      Price 9 2.79 3.23 0.8 24.50% 7.60%

      Smyly 0.218 1.09 0.276 3.23 3.33 3.18
      Price 0.22 1.14 0.277 3.22 3.26 3.24

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  4. oilcanboy says:

    I like that the first pitcher listed under “The Great Disappointment” is Wei-Yin Chen, universally regarded as one of the most pleasant SP surprises of the young season.

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    • Well sure, if you’re only looking at ERA. Chen has a 4.34 SIERA, which is bad. He won’t keep a 4.8% HR/FB ratio all season.

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      • Sam Samson says:

        But as fantasy baseball uses ERA not SIERA, I think you’d be hard pushed to find many people saying he’s a disappointment, let alone a great one. People aren’t out here disappointed by his SABR shortcomings. Until oilcanboy asked, I was wondering which you considered Chen to be, a crappy veteran or a young pitcher who is unlikely to contribute. To say he’s a major disappointment with his 147 ERA+ seems inaccurate. What exactly were you expecting of him?

        This year, Chen has a 0.6 HR/9. Last year in Japan, his numbers were 2.68 ERA, 5.1 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, and 0.49 HR/9. Note the last one. No doubt his HR/FB ratio will go up towards the MLB average, but he has recent form for not killing you with homers. Overall Chen’s ERA is close to where it was in Japan, he’s walking more but also striking out more. His BABIP at .297 is right around league average, so no huge worry there.

        I’d say it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but as of today I am far from disappointed. You can argue he’ll do worse going forward, but mainly because of that anticipated HR/FB regression — not because he’s disappointed so far.

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      • Eric Dykstra says:

        Yeah I’m still not getting how Chen is a disappointment… What did you expect?? He’s easily been better than what most everyone projected him for.

        Maybe the tier name is just not accurate enough.

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  5. Pops says:

    I strongly disagree and will be counting on Jarrod Parker to generate some value this year.

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    • JKB says:

      Our H2H leage has the following pitching categories: W, Save, Hold, K, ERA, WHIP. Jarrod Parker is currently generating value in twice as many categories as Moore right now… again, regression to the mean will occur, but enough to justify Moore in Tier 2 and Parker in the Bottom Tier?

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      • JKB says:

        Here is a comparison of Parker (IP=20) and a Tier 4 pitcher (IP=100+) based on most recent 1 year stats. Parker will probably regress in HR/9:

        K/9, BB/9, K/BB, HR/9, K%, BB%
        Parker 5.4, 3.6, 1.5, 0.45, 14.80%, 9.90%
        Hellickson 5.39, 3.34, 1.61, 1.1, 14.70%, 9.10%

        Parker 0.208, 1.15, 0.237, 4.52, 5.38, 4.8
        Hellickson 0.208, 1.14, 0.217, 4.74, 4.46, 4.81

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      • JKB says:

        I got to figure out a better way to drop in the comparison stats, but my jist was that Parker, after 20 IP, looks like Hellickson but pitching in Oakland & against the AL West, vs. Hellickson pitching in Tampa & against the AL East. IF that’s still true at the All Star Break, after the opposing teams have gotten a better look at him, then Parker should probably move up a Tier or Two.

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  6. DJG says:

    If you have the roster flexibility to play the matchups, Jason Vargas moves way up the list. He’s a borderline “Strong Enough” play at home and worse than “The Greater Disappointment” on the road.

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  7. Socrates says:

    I would say at least 50% of the “great disappointment” list should be active in any reasonable AL-Only league.

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  8. Ben says:

    I think Oakland starters, due to ballpark, often provide fantasy value. I think that’s even more true when the pitcher in question (Parker) is talented.

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  9. Nittanychris says:

    C.J. Wilson most DEFINITELY deserves to be in the second tier. Not only that, but he would be at the top of that tier in my opinion, trailing only Price and perhaps Darvish.
    Also, would you care to explain how Jason Vargas has been a “great disappointment”? This guy has been fantastic.

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  10. taprat says:

    Mariner fan here. You’re vastly underestimating Jason Vargas, whose SIERA now sits at 3.79, and who plays half his games at Safeco Field and all of his games in front of a top 5 (in MLB) defense.

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  11. taprat says:

    Every time one of these updates comes out, a pattern emerges. There are a few players that the crowd thinks the experts have gotten wrong, usually because the crowd is being more reactive to recent data. Vargas is one of the obvious ones here. I’ll bet Smyly is another one, but we’ll see how the comments play out. Lahair was a clear one in the 1B rankings. If there is another update say, in a month or two, it would be cool if the update included a retrospective review to see if the crowd had it right.

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    • DJG says:

      As I indicated in my comment above, Vargas IS way under valued on this list if your league rules and roster flexibility allow you to easily play the matchups. He’s been money at Safeco over his entire career (especially this year in a small sample). This year he’s been solid on the road, but I wouldn’t trust that going forward.

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      • taprat says:

        Yeah, I just find it interesting that in all of these updated rankings, much more than in the original rankings, there are a few guys that clearly stand out as being mis-ranked. There is a disconnect between what we have seen this year out of guys and where they were originally ranked. Personally, I think the authors are a bit too reluctant to look at this year’s data (both objective data and subjective data) in moving guys up and down the rankings. Take Vargas as an example. He ended last year with a slightly changed delivery, a slight uptick in velocity, and improved peripherals. He seemed like a breakout candidate. From what we’ve seen this year, he truly appears to be breaking out. Now, maybe he isn’t actually breaking out, but the distinct possibility that he is should bump him quite a bit further up the rankings than he currently is. Having watched all their starts this year, the fact that he is anywhere near Noesi in the rankings is just flat-out wrong. Noesi is likely going to be bumped from the starting rotation altogether soon.

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  12. Trevor says:

    Clearly any list of AL starting pitchers that does not have Francisco Liriano at the bottom (if only out of spite) should be taken with a grain of salt, lol.

    Agree with the previous posters you’re underestimating the value of Vargas going forward. Love him as a play against most teams in my AL only league. I wouldn’t trade him straight up for most of the guys you have in the tier immediately above , or for Philip Humber two tiers up. Those guys are much dicier in terms of park and/or competition, not to mention track record. It’s just an insult that you rank him below completely un-ownable commodities like Carl Pavano, who devours innings on your cap with rock-bottom rates of production in every 5×5 category (he’s like a black hole that sucks in innings pitched and doesn’t let anything out).

    My other (constructive?) criticism: there’s guys who have huge job loss risk you’re ranking a bit too high for my tastes. If Vargas struggles a couple of weeks, he keeps his job, and you ride it out until he looks better and sees some more favorable matchups. If, say, Jerome Williams goes three bad starts in a row? Hello, Garrett Richards! While job security doesn’t matter in shallow leagues, where you can just pick up the next guy, it matters a lot in deep leagues. Maybe you’re targeting this list toward shallow leagues, but I think that’s the wrong approach down at the bottom of the list… deep leagues are the kind where the bottom tier actually comes into play.

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  13. To the various commenters on Vargas: his career SIERA is 4.63, it has never been below 4.44, and his ERA was 4.25 last year, while still playing in SAFECO. Until this year, his strikeout rate has been awful, and he plays for a terrible offense. Sure, his strikeout rate is up this year, but that’s a fluke. His SwStk% is at its 2nd lowest mark ever. I don’t want him anywhere near my mixed league pitching staff and it’s a waste of a roster spot to own a pitcher you’ll only start at home, and probably still bench against top offenses.

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    • taprat says:

      Let’s revisit this in a month or two. I’m sure I’m not being completely rational about this, just 12 hours after watching him dominate the tigers at Safeco with some excellent defense behind him. On the other hand, I’m not saying he’s great. I”m just saying he doesn’t belong in the bottom tier.

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    • DJG says:

      SIERA isn’t a category in any league I know of, and you cherry picked the ERA stat. Here are his career numbers at Safeco over 300+ innings:

      ERA: 3.52
      K /9: 6.43 (definitely not terrible)
      WHIP: 1.20
      K / BB: 2.44

      You simply can’t deny his effectiveness at home. Really, the only knock against him is he takes up a roster spot for a half time pitcher. That’s a huge knock admittedly, but it also very league dependent. In my 14-team mixed league, that uses a lot of rate stats instead of counting stats, I want him near my roster.

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  14. wynams says:

    You’re on crack

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  15. jcxy says:

    Idk about Haren that high. While his peripherals suggest stabilization of the ERA and once Pujols hits the offense might generate some wins for him… I’m concerned about the FBv trend. He’s not an elite K guy anyway and the BB and K/BB rate would seem to be intuitively “correct” if he’s throwing softer.

    If I owned haren, i’d probably be willing to deal him for anyone in tier 2 (but beckett and moore) and maybe even cj wilson from tier 3. At least I would be getting something elite from those pitchers besides IP.

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  16. wynams says:

    I wish this writer was in my money league

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  17. taprat says:

    Other rankings that appear out of place to me, based on undervaluing breakout potential and 2012 performance.

    Daniel Bard: barely hanging on to starting job. There are a ton of guys below him that I’d trade him for, straight up (Duffy, Smyly, Fister, VARGAS)

    Smyly, Fister and Duffy should each move up a tier.

    Haren, with performance issues and now injury issues, should move down a tier.

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  18. batpig says:

    I think you’re being a bit too bearish on Smyly. Sure he wasn’t an “elite” pitching prospect like Moore but he was an incredibly polished college pitcher who was always expected to have a quick path to the majors. These kind of guys aren’t going to get the hype that a Matt Moore type will — and obviously you’d rather have Moore’s upside potential long term in a dynasty league or in real life — but they can be undervalued as a class. A lot of people underestimate the growing pains for guys like Moore transitioning to the majors, witness some of the sky high preseason projections.

    Furthermore, Smyly isn’t some junkballer “polish” guy, he’s a lefty with 91+ FBv, struck out more than a batter per IP in his brief run through the minors, and his 10.3% SwStr% and 77.1% Contact% so far in the majors suggest his stuff isn’t a mirage. He’s got a solid GB% and nothing crazy lucky in his HR/FB or BABIP rates.

    Obviously the ERA/WHIP will come up a bit but is there anything to suggest this is fluky? His FIP/xFIP/SIERA metrics all indicate legitimate performance. Throw in a dash of regression in BABIP and BB% and you’re still looking at a guy who could put up a 3.50 ERA and 1.20ish WHIP with a strong K rate. I think he’s at least a tier too low.

    Also I think it’s amusing to see you drop your love child Brandon Morrow behind your black sheep CJ Wilson despite Morrow finally putting up the superficial stats we were hoping for ;-)

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  19. Vermont says:

    I actually think these rankings are quite spot on. A few things that stick out to me are that I would likely have Matt Moore ranked a little lower, possibly due to an innings cap and FB tendency. I’d have Romero a little bit higher, he’s just flat out better than about 4 guys above him. And I’d take Felix over CC anyday, but that’s just splitting hairs.

    For all those commenting about players ranked near the bottom of this list, let’s be honest, put all those pitchers in a barrel and pick 2 out and you get the same production that can be summed up in one word: inconsistancy.

    Some of the pitchers mentioned above only get consideration for moving up because of their home park (collesium, SafeCo). Let’s not forget the other parks in that division also, Angels Ballpark, and Arlington which go in the other direction for pitchers, thus averaging out their value.

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  20. stefangfg says:

    We have a whole bunch of significant challenges to DIPs Theory here: Hellickson, Henderson Alvarez, Fister (last year and continuing), Milone, and Hammel (to a certain extent). These guys induce a lot of contact on low and sinking pitches, yielding huge GB rates. Their stellar defenses allow them to hold hitters to BAs of around .200 on GBs. It seems like a workable formula. Maybe all the infield alignment shifting going on will allow teams to throttle opposing hitter GB BAs down to around .200. Expect some regression for all these guys, but expect them to beat their FIPs etc handily. DIPs does not capture all of reality, not even close …. and that’s fine. Those who work with statistic based theories in real world scenarios know there are few theories that are always realized in all time and space.

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  21. SatchelP says:

    If you are watching the Red Sox Beckett is not looking 2nd best. 7 ER 2.1 IIP

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  22. Go out and get Bruce Chen.

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  23. Jon Enther says:

    you must by a Red Sox fan… Josh beckett second best?

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  24. wmevans says:

    Mike, I wonder if you could provide a little more context on your Matt Moore ranking. (He’s available in my league after an owner abandoned him.) I get that his F-strike% and whiff rates are good, but his walk rate is awfully high. Given his minors numbers, I’m sure he’ll figure it out at some point, but I’m wondering if that’s likely to be this year.

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    • F-Strike% has a high correlation with walk rate. So a high F-Strike% relative to walk rate suggests better control to come. I would guess the high walk rate is rather flukey and maybe the result of weird sequencing, meaning coming in bunches, leading to more walks than the overall ball count would suggest.

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