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NL Starting Pitcher Tiered Rankings

There is some positively excellent pitching going on in the National League, just not quite from the players many expected to lead the charge. Neither of the pitchers who opened the season at the top of my initial tiered rankings is still there, and many of the people I thought might creep into those spots have had their own struggles. Even with the shake up, the Nationals, Phillies, and Giants have maintained a solid presence at the top of the list, while the Mets have been something of a surprise addition.

Tier One
Gio Gonzalez
Zack Greinke
Cole Hamels
Cliff Lee
Stephen Strasburg

The top of the NL, not just this tier but the one below it as well, makes life incredibly difficult on their opponents. There were concerns about Gonzalez’s move out of the ample spaces in Oakland, and rightly so, but after getting knocked around by the Cubs in his first start, he’s been virtually unhittable. Greinke has been excellent as well, but his issues on the road are flat out troubling; he’s allowing an extra base runner per inning on the road compared to home, it’s worth keeping an eye on as the summer hits full swing. Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo is wavering on Strasburg’s innings limit, which potentially pushes him up a slot or three on this list.

Tier Two
Anibal Sanchez
James McDonald
Johan Santana
Matt Cain
Clayton Kershaw
Roy Halladay
R.A. Dickey

Some big surprises here with Sanchez continuing the progress he made last year and Santana bursting back onto the scene with a flourish. I expected him to be ok, but he’s blown my expectations for him out of the water, which has to give hope to any pitcher going through capsule rehab right now. I still believe in Kershaw and Halladay, but Kershaw hasn’t been anywhere as good as he was last year and I’m skeptical about Halladay’s ability to be back in the majors before August 1. Dickey has pitched better than this ranking, I will cop to that, but “knuckleballer” and “consistently excellent production” aren’t exactly synonyms in my book just yet. The longer he makes hitters look positively foolish the way he is now, the higher he’ll rise on this list.

Tier Three
Madison Bumgarner
Brandon Beachy
Jeff Samardzija
Tim Lincecum

I’m not wild about the drop in Bumgarner’s strikeout rate, down a full strikeout per nine from last season, but it came with a drop in both hit and walk rates, so he doesn’t take much of a hit in value. Beachy and Samardzija both have serious regression risk in my eyes and both could fall precipitously from this position if the worst-case scenarios come true, but it’s hard to argue with how they’re doing so far. I suspect there will be comments saying that I have Lincecum too high and that I have him too low and either one could be right. His velocity issues scare me, but his walks are coming under control and he seems to be improving with every start, even if the Giants can’t seem to get him a win. Trading someone like Capuano or Garcia out of the next tier for Lincecum would be a cheeky move and one that could pay big dividends in the second half.

Tier Four
Chris Capuano
Shaun Marcum
Edwin Jackson
Lance Lynn
Jaime Garcia
Ryan Dempster

Capuano was easily the biggest omission off the initial rankings list as he has been solid as the Dodgers’ second best starter. His walk rate isn’t bad, but it’s a too high to sustain his WHIP under 1.10 when his BABIP comes up from its current .236 point. Marcum’s numbers look shockingly similar to his line from last season, except that he’s striking out a batter more per nine than he did then. Those who trusted me and bought in on Jackson early have gotten a career-best WHIP and ERA to go with an above-average strikeout rate. He’s still only the Nationals’ third-best starter. Lynn was really excellent to start the season, less so in May, and the times I’ve seen him pitch, I’ve felt he was less dominating than surviving. I just can’t see him maintaining a full season at this level, and trading him before the regression comes might be the right call. This isn’t going to help anyone who thinks I hate Garcia and/or the Cardinals — I don’t, I swear — he has been really good, but still isn’t striking anyone out and is expressing concern about his surgically repaired elbow, which is enough to drop him substantially.

Tier Five
Yovani Gallardo
Matt Garza
Jordan Zimmermann
Erik Bedard
Anthony Bass

I still believe in Gallardo, his May was much better than his wretched April, but June didn’t exactly get off to a rip-roaring start. His 11.70 ERA in the third inning reminds me of Greinke’s one-bad-inning issues last season. Garza’s May was terrible compared to his April, but his overall line is still plenty good. Unlike last year when his FIP was nearly half a run lower than his ERA, he’s reaping what he sows this season with 0.02 runs of deviation between the two. Interesting to note that Bedard and Zimmermann have been worth almost exactly the same WAR despite coming at it in completely different ways; I think it’s more likely that Zimmermann starts striking out a few more batters than it is that Bedard drops his WHIP to Zimmermann’s level, though. In theory, Bass reminds me of Cory Luebke, except that Luebke was better in almost every way. If you can find an owner who is closely conflating the two, you’ve found yourself a trading partner who is going to overpay for Bass.

Tier Six
Adam Wainwright
Carlos Zambrano
A.J. Burnett
Ian Kennedy
Dillon Gee
Jonathon Niese

I’m still buying on Wainwright even though his May success came at the cost of nearly three punch-outs per nine. The most important thing for Wainwright right now is to get his 20 percent line drive rate under control, which will make the home runs he allows less costly. I don’t expect Zambrano to get any better than he is right now, but I don’t expect a huge regression from him either, he’s getting a decent number of strikeouts and has a groundball rate over 50 percent, and that’s his recipe for success. Gee and Niese are charting a very similar course this year: Solid strikeouts and a goodly number of groundballs, but too many walks and too many home runs. Pitchers can thrive despite one or the other of those vices, but both leads to ERAs in excess of 4.00 and that’s what Gee and Niese both have.

Tier Seven
Mat Latos
Tommy Hanson
Josh Johnson
Daniel Hudson
Bud Norris

I want to believe in Latos more than I actually do. His hit rate is up almost two hits per nine, but it’s not a BABIP-driven fluke, and it’s making his bloated home run rate all the worse. I’d like to think he rights the ship, but I’m not so sure he does that I’m comfortable recommending that people trade for him. Hanson’s new motion has worked out fine, something I was concerned about heading into the season, but there’s nothing about him that makes me think he’s headed for a run of great starts. There’s a temptation to write off Johnson’s 1.53 WHIP as a BABIP-fueled nightmare since he’s allowing opponents a .377 BABIP, and in a way it is, except that this isn’t a case of bad luck. Johnson’s 25 percent line drive rate is the stuff nightmares are made of, and a big part of the reason that I don’t see him suddenly turning things around.

Tier Eight
Kyle Lohse
Barry Zito
Tim Hudson
Aaron Harang
Ryan Vogelsong

Zito and Lohse are what they are in terms of providing a good WHIP and ERA without giving much of anything in terms of strikeouts. Lohse’s line looks like the more sustainable of the two to me, but without an alternate source of value, both of these two could switch from asset to liability with just a couple bad-luck starts. Hudson did his numbers a world of good with his shutout on Tuesday, but as is more or less the rule for the rest of this list, he’s not providing a lot of strikeouts, though he may get his rate up around six strikeouts per nine instead of languishing in the fives. Harang has been another nice find for the Dodgers and while he isn’t setting the world on fire, he looks like he’s going to end up being worth about 2.5 WAR, which is livable for those in NL-only leagues.

Tier Nine
Homer Bailey
Wandy Rodriguez
Johnny Cueto
Trevor Cahill
Joe Blanton
Edinson Volquez
Chad Billingsley
J.A. Happ

Rodriguez’s strikeout rate has been falling since 2008, but this is by far the biggest jump that he’s seen even during his slide. If he hadn’t paired the drop with an even larger contraction in his walk rate, he’d probably be much further down the list. As is, he has value, even if he’s a little uninspiring. Cueto and Cahill have been remarkably similar so far this season (1.25 v. 1.28 WHIP, 5.83 v 6.01 K/9, 3.6 v. 3.6 FIP) so it’s positively puzzling that while Cueto is owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, Cahill is owned in just 17 percent. Yes, Cueto’s actual ERA is about a run better, but that doesn’t quite account for an 83 percent gulf in ownership. This is where Volquez’s overall production lands him, but as expected his home/road split is massive. He can be more valuable than 49th best in the NL, but only if he’s allowed to ride pine when the Padres are away from home. Billingsley and Happ are both potential contributors because of their high number of strikeouts, but both have a very real downside with their rate stats. I thought Billingsley had turned a corner in his career earlier this season; I was wrong.

Tier Ten
Bronson Arroyo
Wade Miley
Mike Minor
Randall Delgado
Juan Nicasio

On the plus side, Miley is keeping runners off base remarkably well and doing so in largely sustainable ways. On the downside, he’s not giving owners much in the way of strikeouts and his efficacy is certainly part of the reason the Diamondbacks haven’t called up Trevor Bauer yet. Not only is Minor the only starter over 50 IP in the National League to have a HR/9 over 2.00, he’s one of just three to have a mark over 1.50. The high strikeout rate makes him vaguely appealing, but the downside is just too far down to make the trade-off worthwhile. Nicasio would be a much happier camper if Coors weren’t his home park, but there’s not much he can do about that right now. Coming off the DL will push him up a bit, but quite possibly wouldn’t even get him off this tier.

Tier Eleven
Jake Westbrook
Mike Leake
Mark Buehrle
Clayton Richard
Joe Saunders
Ricky Nolasco

It used to be a foregone conclusion that Westbrook would be the odd man out of the Cardinals’ rotation when they’re ready to call up Shelby Miller, but one more injury could have them both in the rotation together. His groundball rate is good, but he’s just not getting much luck, and that’s pushing both his ERA and WHIP up to unusable levels, especially when he doesn’t have much in the way of strikeouts. I still really like Buehrle as a pitcher, but a strikeout rate under five is just poor. The Marlins can’t be too disappointed with his production, but Buerhle remains the quintessential example of a player who is far more valuable in real life than he is in fantasy. Once very similar in terms of production, Nolasco and Sanchez have gone in opposite directions over the last pair of seasons, and while Sanchez is flying high, Nolasco is no longer one of the Marlins’ potential playoff pitchers.

Tier Twelve
Paul Maholm
Lucas Harrell
Randy Wolf
Kevin Correia

I really felt like there was a small chance that Maholm was going to change scenery and blossom this season and it almost looked like he was going to pull it off when he allowed just three runs in a 25 inning stretch against the Reds, Phillies, Dodgers, and Braves, but reality his and he allowed 15 runs in his next 23 innings. Of this whole bottom tier, Correa is the only one with much of anything to offer, as his WHIP is a surprisingly not-terrible 1.22. If that looked sustainable, he’d be at least a tier higher, but he’s not keeping a .223 BABIP much longer and when that goes up, everything else is going to go with it. The fact that his ERA is as high as it is with his relatively low WHIP does not proffer much hope that he’ll even be remotely usable once regression kicks in.