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Ranking MLB Rotations Part 3: At Least They've Got 1 Good Starter

If you missed part 1… click here

If you missed part 2… click here

You’ll see 6 more of these over the next week & I hope you enjoy them all. I know these are long so I’ve bolded all of the relevant pitcher names. I’d really love to talk with you all about the rankings or baseball in general in the comments or on twitter.

Prior rankings: 30. San Diego Padres, 29. Cincinnati Reds, 28. Minnesota Twins, 27. Miami Marlins, 26. Milwaukee Brewers, 25. Kansas City Royals, 24. LA Angels, 23. Colorado Rockies

phillies 22. Philadelphia Phillies The Phillies are slowly but surely improving their roster, and the rotation is no different. The rotation is still in the lower levels but things are looking up and there is some long-term potential here.

Former rookie of the year Jeremy Hellickson put together the best year of his career last season, and opponents only made hard contact off his pitches 26% of the time (compared to 34% from 2013-2015). He also really improved against right handed batters (.261 OBP in 2016 vs a career mark of .294) He isn’t an ace and shouldn’t be expected to go too deep into games (6.38 ERA the 3rd time through the order) but he’s a quality arm. Clay Buchholz is an erratic arm. In 2013, he had a 1.74 ERA, in 2014 it was 5.34, it 2015 it dropped back to 3.26, then last season it grew back to 4.78. We don’t know if he’ll strike out 8.5 batters per 9 innings pitched (2015) or 6.0/9IP (2016). He’s also erratic on a per half basis (5.91 ERA in the first half last year vs 3.22 in the 2nd). There just isn’t much use trying to project how he’ll pitch because no one knows – I’d bet on him being pretty bad again. Jerad Eickhoff eats up batters his first two times through the order (2.64 ERA last year) but really struggles afterwards (6.85 ERA). His results really depend on how he is utilized but don’t sleep on this guy who also finished the year strong with a 2.52 ERA and 33 Ks in 35 September innings. nolaAaron Nola (pictured), just 23, has a special skill that should help him for years to come. Batters just don’t like swinging at his pitches. Only 52.2% of Nola’s pitches INSIDE the strike zone are even swung at. That is the lowest rate for any pitcher with at least 75 IP (Nola threw 111 innings) and outpaces #2 ranked Rich Hill by 2.2%. Thanks to this deception, Nola had the 15th best K/9 among those with at least as many innings as he threw. Now you might be wondering why I’m giving so much praise to someone with a 4.78 ERA. Nola’s strand rate was an unfathomable 60.6% – if he had qualified for the ERA title, that mark would be the worst in baseball by 5 whole percent. That just won’t happen again. He was also uncharacteristically unlucky in terms of fly balls. fall for base hits For Nola? They dropped for hits or cleared the outfield wall an astonishing 28.2% of the time – this won’t happen again. Nola is a pretty extreme pitcher but anticipate much more success in 2017. Vince Velasquez is young, injury-prone, and a great source of strikeouts. He’s just the type of guy the Phillies would want at the backend of their rotation and while his ERA jumped 2 runs from the first to second half of the year, he’s still a high potential young arm.

orioles 21. Baltimore Orioles Make no mistake about it. This is not a good rotation, but it does have a relatively interesting mix of upside and innings. Though upside does exist, I’d bet it manifests itself more in 2018 than 2017.

Chris Tillman, who will miss Opening Day with a sore shoulder, is the staff’s number 1 but probably won’t be their best pitcher. The 28 year old has seen his walk rate climb from just 2.86 batters per 9 innings in 2014 to 3.45 last year. He isn’t going to wow you with the strikeouts and, while he threw about twice as many cutters in 2016 as he did in past years, batters maintained their previous rates of soft, medium, and hard contact. Tillman also faltered in the second half of the year (4.45 ERA and 1.83 Ks per every walk). Ultimately, he’s the type of pitcher you want in the middle or back of your rotation – not your front.  Kevin Gausman has been hyped for years and the way the Orioles jockeyed him around has been self-harming. He finally started to chip into some of that potential last year and is carrying a ton of hype entering 2017. We should pump the breaks because, while the stats were there last season, it was kind of an illusion. Gausman’s K/BB ratio of 3.7 was 21st best among all qualified pitchers but runners were stranded at more than an 80% clip – 5th highest in baseball. We should anticipate some major regression there. Then, there’s the difference between his adequate ERA and his FIP (which is half a run higher) – that negative difference between ERA and FIP is 19th highest in all of baseball. It’s definitely not all negative though – I’m just trying to temper expectations. Gausman’s 3.10 ERA in 93 second half innings is a great sign and he was unlucky in the sense that significantly more fly balls dropped for hits than is typical for a pitcher. Despite his flaws, Gausman is the most talented guy on this staff.

gausman

Kevin Gausman

Dylan Bundy, 24, got some MLB action for the first time since 2012 last year. The former uber prospect dealt with various injuries but appears to finally be healthy. He’s still got great stuff but fatigues or is figured out after the first time through the order – 2.97 starter ERA first time through the order vs. 5.69 afterwards. He has the skills to be an ace at some point but 2017 isn’t the year. Wade Miley (5.37 ERA) was really bad last year and even worse when he came to the O’s at the deadline – he got pretty unlucky and should do better this year but he’s a 5th starter – not much more. Ubaldo Jimenez will forever be remembered for his first half of 2010 in Colorado but his 2nd half of 2016 wasn’t too shabby either. Jimenez has been shit with the O’s is typically an erratic and usually terrible starter, but in his final 60.2 innings, batters hit just .181/.263/.310 against him and he had a 2.82 ERA.

athletics 20. Oakland Athletics Much like the Angels’ rotation, the Athletic’s starting 5 is also riddled with question marks. But while the concerns for LA’s starters relates to injuries, the concerns for the A’s is youth. If everything works out, this rotation might be top 12 a year from now.

 Sonny Gray (pictured) finally imploded last year. After two and a half years of beating the peripherals (he outperformed FIP by 0.03, 0.38, and 0.72 and xFIP by 0.25, 0.39, and 0.96 in the three years prior to 2016), he finally fell apart. At first glance, one might be inclined to say that Gray’s career is Barry Zito-esque: Zito outperformed his peripherals and ERA indicators for a few great years with the A’s at the beginning of his career before slumping into mediocrity. I, however think, Gray will rebound (to a degree). grayGray’s LOB% was 2nd worst among all MLB pitchers who threw at least 115 innings, his velocity dipped but not substantially so, people just saw what was coming out of his hand better. Gray might need to work on deception a bit, especially with runners on base. He struck out 8 batters per 9 innings when the bases were empty but that number decreased to 6.5 with runners on. Of course its possible that the 5’10 Gray just isn’t built to hold as an MLB starting pitcher long term and that the higher home run rates that are characteristic of starters with shorter statures have finally caught up to Gray (17.5% of fly balls hit off of Gray left the yard in 2016 – his previous high was 9.4% back in 2014), but it’s more likely that Gray had been abnormally lucky from 2013 through 2015 and abnormally unlucky in 2016. Look for a major improvement from Gray but don’t expect anything like the pitcher you saw from 2013-2015. It’s important to note that Gray is currently expected to start the year on the disabled list but should only miss 2-3 starts. Behind Gray is Kendall Graveman, Graveman has thrown just over 300 innings in the majors and his ERA is firmly in the low 4.00s (4.08), however, it’s just very hard for me to trust someone who strikes out as few batters as Graveman does. He did have the 9th highest ground ball rate last year but his 5.2 K/9 only tops one other starter (Martin Perez and his 4.7 mark). It’s hard for me to see pitchers that don’t have strikeout stuff succeed as more than a #4 or #5 long term. manaea What if I told you that Sean Manaea (pictured) is an ace right now? The 25 year old top prospect made his debut last season and did not disappoint. While his 7-9 record and 3.86 ERA are not spectacular on their own, much of that is due to his rough acclimation period. After his first start in July, Manaea had a stellar 2.44 ERA the rest of the way. In 84.2 innings, he struck out 75 and held batters to a .215 average and .263 on base percentage. Manaea’s tough first few outings really lowered the pre-season hype on this guy but he is the real deal and should transform into the ace of the Oakland staff. Jharel Cotton impressed in his first 5 big league starts (2.15 ERA). Cotton is not that good. Opponents hit .198 on balls in play and 3/4ths of all baserunners were stranded at the end of the inning. He did walk just 4 batters in those 5 outings but we ultimately need some more time to know what Cotton is. He seems to be a very capable mid-rotation arm with good control. Andrew Triggs, a rookie last year, pitched mostly out of the pen but his 8.8k/9 vs 2.1BB/9 are each encouraging, and as long as the 28 year old can stretch out his arm, he should be an interesting 5th starter. Daniel Mengden, another rookie, had a shot at the 5th rotation spot but he’s injured now, and probably is just straight up worse than Triggs as well.

dbacks 19. Don’t read last year’s rotation rankings because I was embarrassingly high on the DBacks. Nothing worked for them last year and the starters finished with the 2nd worst earned run average in all of baseball. Why are they still ranked rather highly this year? Well, they’ve still got some legitimate talent there.

 Zack Greinke, just one season removed from an incredible 1.66 ERA struggled to adapt to the more batter-friendly environment of Phoenix. He struck out fewer batters and walked more per start than past years while his HR/FB rate exploded from 7.3% to 13.9%. Greinke’s 6.02 2nd half ERA doesn’t indicate that he figured anything out and the fact that righties hit .265/.321 off of him after hitting .180/.208 in 2015 and .222/.267 from 2009-2015 is worrying. Velocity doesn’t seem to be a concern for Greinke who threw about as hard as he has in years past though, interestingly, the range of velocities (the difference between the fastest pitch per outing and the slowest) has compacted relative to 2014 and 2015. Every year I am overly confident in Taijuan Walker (pictured with the Mariners) and every year he disappoints me. walkerWalker was traded from Seattle in the offseason and still has all-star athleticism. Walker walked 18 batters in 86 1st half innings. He walked 19 in 48.1 2nd half innings and was demoted for lack of competitiveness. Much like Greinke, it was right-handed batters who gave Walker the most trouble last year – they hit .281/.338/.471 off of him. Walker has the talent to be an ace, its just up to him on whether he ever wants to reach that level. Robbie Ray does strikeouts. His 11.25 K/9 is highest among qualified starters projected to pitch in 2017. The problem? He throws way too many pitches to get those Ks. He averaged much less than 6 innings a start. Now, if you are looking for potential upside, he might be your guy. Opponents had the highest BABIP against Ray, and he had the 12th worst strand rate. If these numbers regress towards the mean, not only will he be getting more outs but he’ll be throwing fewer pitches too. Shelby Miller’s trade to the DBacks was ridiculed as soon as it happened but it looks even worse after Miller had a 6.15 ERA in 101 MLB innings last year. Miller did have a sub-4 ERA in the 2nd half but batters still busted him by hitting .303 against him. We’ve seen the talent in the past but there isn’t much reason to believe he’ll turn back into an all-star in 2017. There was a lot of hype surrounding Patrick Corbin in 2016 but he disappointed by more than doubling his walk rate and raising his ERA to 5.15; he needs to demonstrate control before he can be trusted again. Archie Bradley, like Taijuan Walker, used to be the top pitching prospect in the game. I’ve got a lot more faith in Walker succeeding than I have in Bradley though. Bradley’s BB/9 is 4.7 across his MLB and MILB career and you don’t see much starter success with that lack of control. Bradley recently said he’d be open to a shift to the bullpen, and that might be the best outcome.

Be on the lookout for part 4 tomorrow!