Fantasy Baseball Tier 1 Starting Pitchers

Tier 1

Max Scherzer


Say auf wiedersehen to your baseballs.  Sorry, but I couldn’t help myself.  It’s hard for me to not think of Inglorious Basterds when I read Max Scherzer’s name aloud.  Much like Hugo Stiglitz’s character, Scherzer is all business.  He’s also the most reliable pitcher in this tier, which is why I have him as my number one starting pitcher heading into 2018 (NFBC ADP be damned).

Since 2009, he’s made at least 30 starts per season.  That is the kind of consistency that gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling when you draft a pitcher in the top 20. That kind of workload will catch up to him some day, but that doesn’t appear to be happening quite yet when you see that his 2017 average fastball (FB) velocity was 94.1MPH (2015-94.2, 2016-94.3).  Interestingly, his FB usage dropped for the third consecutive season (2015-59.4%, 2016-55.4%, 2017-48.7%).  For what it’s worth, his 48.7% FB usage ranked 33rd among qualified starting pitchers, which had him just behind Chris Sale.

I’ll be curious to see if this FB usage trend will continue. The change could prove rather effective in an era where hitters are routinely catching up with high velocity.  Further, the lower usage could help him maintain his FB velocity throughout the season.

On the other hand, the hope is that he doesn’t lower his FB usage too much more; throwing breaking balls more frequently could increase the likelihood of injury.  Not so coincidentally, his slider (.123 BAA) usage and strikeout rate has risen the past three seasons (2015-10.86, 2016-11.19, 2017-12.02).  12.02 K/9 last year!  Anybody have a cigarette?

You can count on him for 200+ innings of elite ratios, strikeouts and wins (Nats are pretty damn good).  Draft him early and with supreme confidence.  He’s a bingo!  Is that how you say it?  He’s a bingo?

2018 Projection:

200 16 255 52 2.80 0.98


Chris Sale


Sale became the first AL pitcher to reach 300 strikeouts since Pedro Martinez accomplished that feat in 1999.  Strikeouts only begin to tell the tale of just how dominant Sale was in 2017. He also led all qualified starting pitchers in FIP, WAR and was ranked 6th or higher in BB/9, SwStr%, Contact% and O-Swing%.  Simply put, batters couldn’t lay off of him and they struggled mightily to even make consistent contact.  His FB rendered hitters impotent with a .170 BAA.  Let’s pause for a moment…a .170 batting average against vs a FASTBALL! That is absolutely absurd. A BAA number like that is typically connected to elite breaking balls. Unfortunately, his breaking ball (SL) didn’t fare as well as his FB. No, batters hit a “robust” .179 off his SL. The man isn’t human, people. Like Scherzer, Sale’s SL usage and K/9 have trended upward in recent seasons. I don’t see that trend changing much heading into 2018.

Some fantasy managers remain concerned that Sale’s slight frame is going to give out on him, but he keeps on proving the doubters wrong with at least 30 starts in 4 of the last 5 seasons.  To further quell your fears of a breakdown, his 2017 average FB velocity of 94.8MPH was higher than his average FB velocity from 2012-2014.  Sale won’t come at a discount (couldn’t help myself) on draft day, but he’s an absolute stud and firmly in the discussion for being the first pitcher taken in drafts.

2018 Projection:

215 17 270 43 3.15 1.04


Clayton Kershaw


Death, taxes and Clayton Kershaw being drafted first among starting pitchers (SP). Now, I understand that some of you may have some trepidation drafting Kershaw because of his back issues. My advice to you would be to fear not. This future first ballot Hall of Famer is still as good as he’s ever been even if his innings pitched (IP) may be capped at 175 (speculating). Speaking of IP, just fifteen pitchers threw at least 200 innings in 2017, so it’s become more incumbent on fantasy managers to find quality innings. With that in mind, look no further than this generation’s best lefty.

Last season he had a FIP above 3.00, which was the first time that had happened since 2009. However, that appears to be nothing more than a blip on the radar. Among qualified SP in 2017, he managed to combine an elite 10.38 K/9 (12th best) and a 1.54 BB/9 (2nd best) with a 47.9% ground ball rate (12th best). So, he’s still striking out hitters at a high clip while maintaining control, and when they’re not swinging and missing then they’re likely hitting the ball on the ground. That’s about as good as it gets for a pitcher. Oh, and his 14.1 SwStr% (swings and misses/total pitches), which is highly correlated to a pitcher’s strikeout rate, was good for 4th best among qualified SP.  If you plan on starting your draft with a SP then don’t back (tee hee) down from taking the Dodgers’ best lefty in the history of the franchise. Yes, I said it. Sorry, Mr. Koufax.

2018 Projection:

185 17 224 28 2.30 0.89


Corey Kluber


Klubot, as he’s affectionately known in the nerdiest of fantasy baseball circles, had a second career year in 2017, which sounds dumb to say, but it’s absolutely true.  A 7.3 WAR in 2017 (2nd to Sale) nearly matched his 7.4 WAR in 2014 and both years dwarf his third highest output (5.6).  Last season, his 11.71 K/9 (3rd best) and 1.59 BB/9 (3rd best) were career bests.  Among qualified SP, his 2.50 FIP was second to only Sale.

Kluber continued this tier’s trend of decreased FB usage (42.5%) as his usage was down from 51.5% in 2016.  Its effectiveness was still elite as hitters could only muster a .184 average.  Surprise, his curveball (CB) usage (27.4%) increased by 7.7 percentage points from 2016 and its velocity has seen a steady uptick the past 3 seasons.  The CB is easily his best out pitch with a ludicrous .104 BAA.  Klubot has started to become more of a workhorse as he’s pitched at least 200 innings the past 4 seasons.  Now, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for this bearded wonder.  He’s had a 4.00+ ERA in each of the last 4 Aprils, but if you can keep the buy-low hounds and their terrible trade offers at bay, then you can count on an ace that absolutely belongs among the tier 1 starting pitchers.

2018 Projection:

215 17 255 45 2.85 0.99



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