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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Clayton Kershaw:  For the first time in a very long while, Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is no longer the consensus number 1 pitcher in fantasy baseball.  While on raw stuff alone Kershaw has almost no peer, the blockbuster 2017 campaign of the Boston Red Sox' Chris Sale and the continued excellence of Max Scherzer has at least made it a debate about which pitcher should come off the board first in drafts this spring.  What has turned this into a talking point in regards to Kershaw is the fact that he has become somewhat of an injury risk after two straight years of back trouble that led to extended DL stints.  Last season Kersahw missed a month-and-a-half with a back strain and that kept him to just 175 innings which was not the haul his fantasy baseball owners anticipated after spending a first round pick on the Dodgers lefty.  While the ratios were still dominant (2.31 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 10.39 K/9), Kershaw is leaking a bit of air in the statistical tires.  Perhaps most concerning is the fact Kershaw's average fastball velocity declined for the third straight year, going from 94.3 in 2015 down to 93.1 a year ago.  In a possibly related development, Kershaw posted a career-worst 1.18 HR/9 last season as opposing batters got better swings on him then ever before.  This may seem like nitpicking at the highest level given the annually ridiculous numbers Kershaw supplies but at the very least the increasing health problems should knock Kershaw out of the first round for the first time in awhile.  Back problems tend to become chronic and we are now two seasons and counting with flare-ups there for Kershaw.  Throw in the decline in velocity and Kershaw is no longer the flawless monster he was prior to 2016.
2018 PROJECTION:  18-5 2.51 ERA 0.99 WHIP 225 K  

Alex Wood:  Long a favorite sleeper recommendation in these pages, it finally appears as though Alex Wood has fully unleashed the talents that made him such a talked about commodity while he coming up the Atlanta Braves system.  While the Wood flashed ace-level stuff during his early years with the Braves; injuries and a rough start to the 2015 season resulted in a trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers midway through the year.  Once out West, Wood began to set the stage for what became a truly monster 2017 performance.  Flashing pinpoint control to go with a moving fastball, Wood posted a 2.72 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and won 16 games in just 152.1 innings.  Having not even been drafted in some leagues the previous spring, Wood became a blockbuster value play who pitched like an ace on a per start basis.  The numbers simply don't lie here as Wood has combined his terrific control (2.25 BB/9) with deceptively good strikeout ability (K/9 rates of 9.85 and 8.92 the last two years).  While Wood still has issues staying healthy (a long bout with shoulder trouble last season needs to be watched somewhat closely), the fact of the matter is that this is an SP 2 talent who doesn't get the recognition he deserves.
2018 PROJECTION:  15-6 3.35 ERA 1.10 WHIP 180 K  

Max Scherzer:  Already with two Cy Young Awards under his belt, it can be argued that Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer had his best season ever in 2017 as he established new career-bests in ERA (2.51), WHIP (0.90), and K/9 rate (12.02).  Simply put, there is not a better or more consistent strikeout artist in all of fantasy baseball as Scherzer has now logged six straight seasons of 230-plus K's; with the last 3 coming in over 260.  Those are crazy numbers to say the least and with an average fastball velocity holding steady at 94.3, Scherzer should once again post a silly number there again in 2018.  What really thrust Scherzer to stardom a number of years back was become a stellar control pitcher after some early years of struggle there and with stuff that is as hard to hit as anyone in baseball, opposing hitters have almost no chance against the guy.  About the only negatives we can discuss here were the injuries that cropped up during the course of last season.  It began with the fractured finger in spring training that turned out to be a non-issue but then morphed into an August DL stint for a neck problem.  Then during his final start of the year, Scherzer walked off early with a hamstring cramp.  While none of those ailments were overly serious in the long run, we do have to acknowledge the fact that Scherzer will turn 34 in July and that he has thrown a massive amount of innings the last five years.
2018 PROJECTION:  19-8 2.67 ERA 0.98 WHIP 248 K  

Gio Gonzalez:  For those who remain skeptics of the usefulness of advanced statistics, be sure to take a look at the last two years of numbers from Washington Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez.  In 2016 Gonzalez was a pariah in fantasy baseball as he posted a horrid 4.57 ERA but in actuality didn't pitch as bad as the surface numbers would indicate as he suffered from a very unlucky .316 BABIP.  Gonzalez' adjusted FIP (3.76) and XFIP (3.80) ERA's in fact showed a pitcher who was pretty good when you dug deeper.  Then in 2017, Gonzalez was a fantasy baseball darling again as he logged a dominant 2.96 ERA but in fact received a lot of help due to a lucky .258 BABIP.  Again when adjusted for the luck, Gio's FIP (3.93) and XFIP (4.24) ERA's were much worse.  Driving this point home even more was the fact that Gonzalez' K/9 (8.68/8.42) and HR/9 (0.96/0.94) rates were nearly identical the last two seasons respectively despite the wildly differing ERA's.  So when it comes to 2018 fantasy baseball, Gonzalez should be projected right down the middle from his numbers the last two years and that would make him a solid SP 4 candidate on a team that will help line up wins.  While Gonzalez has always walked too many batters, he remains a decent strikeout guy who carries good durability.
2018 PROJECTION:  14-10 3.78 ERA 1.29 WHIP 179 K 

Corey Kluber:  If the month of April was removed from the MLB calendar, then Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber would never give up a run.  While that is overstating things a bit, the fact of the matter is that Kluber has cemented his reputation as arguably the most dominant second-half pitcher in the game.  For his career, Kluber's ERA in April is a very shaky 4.04 but then that number drops to the following for the remaining 5 months:
May:  3.66
June:  2.74
July:   2.52
Aug.:  2.77
Sept.:  3.35

Clearly Kluber does his best work as the weather heats up and his strikeout ability is already off-the-charts as 2017 was the fourth straight year the righty reached the 220 K mark.  What is interesting is that Kluber doesn't always get included in the discussion of who the best pitchers in baseball are but he absolutely deserves a seat at the table.  2017 was arguably Kluber's best work as he posted career-bests both in ERA (2.25), WHIP (0.87), and K/9 (11.71).  Other than missing some time in May with a back strain, Kluber was as dominant as any pitcher in baseball.  While Kluber has leaked some fastball velocity (four straight years of decline and counting), he front a rotation on one of the best teams in baseball which mean plentiful wins to go with the splendid ratios/K's.  If you choose to use an early pick on a pitcher, this is a great place to start.
2018 PROJECTION:  19-7 2.73 ERA 0.95 WHIP 235 K 

Carlos Martinez:  For the third season in a row in 2017, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez' hard-throwing approach resulted in quiet ace-like numbers for both the team and his fantasy baseball owners.  While Martinez gets overlooked a bit when it comes to identifying the SP's 1 around the game, the numbers are clear evidence the righty has potent stuff to front a fantasy baseball staff.  A few themes have emerged with Martinez since he became a firm part of the Cardinals rotation in 2014 and they mostly center on his high-K/poor control approach that is equally exciting/frustrating.  On the strikeout front, Martinez was never better in 2017 as his 9.53 K/9 was a new career-high and it result was a trip to the 200-K plateau for the first time (217 in 205 IP).  On the flip side, the massive movement on Martinez's stuff continued to result in a high number of walks, with last season marking the fourth year in a row where the BB/9 rate went over 3.00 (3.12).  With a composite ERA of 3.64 and WHIP of 1.22, Martinez was a big asset to his owners no matter how many walks he gave up.  One last thing to note here as well is the significant fact that Martinez had no shoulder flare-ups during the year which was not the case both in 2015 and 2016.  Given the fears of any shoulder injury for a pitcher, no further trouble there allows one to feel much more comfortable investing in Martinez for 2018.
2018 PROJECTION:  15-8 3.50 ERA 1.22 WHIP 205 K  

Jake Arrieta:  Some serious red flags abounded all over the Chicago Cubs starting pitching staff entering into the 2017 season given the massive workloads that were accumulated the year prior as the team won the World Series.  Included in that grouping was former consensus top five ace Jake Arrieta who in 2015 engineered one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory (1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 236 K).  Unfortunately Arrieta has been a steady decline since then and his past as an injury-prone hurler are becoming a topic of conversation again.  The best place to start with Arrieta concerns a leaking velocity; a potentially big problem for any pitcher.  In Arrieta's case, he has now lost velocity on his fastball for three straight seasons; going from 94.9 in 2015 all the way down to 92.6 a year ago.  That is a big drop and is a prime reason Arrieta's K/9 has moved from above the 9.00 mark to the mid-8.00 range.  Also likely related to the velocity drop is the fact Arrieta is giving up home runs at a rate never seen before in his career (1.23 in 2017) and we all know how much of a potential problem that is for any starter.  Finally we have the injuries and last season was a bad one on that front as Arrieta hit the DL on two occasions (the first for shoulder trouble and the second for a hand ailment).  Remember that the Baltimore Orioles gave up on Arrieta due to his rampant injury problems and the fact that is becoming an issue again is a bad omen moving forward.  So while Arrieta did finish strong in 2017 (ultimately posting a solid 3.53 ERA), this is a shell of the ace pitcher who put himself on a pedestal just a few years ago.  You get the overwhelming feeling when evaluating Arrieta that more trouble is on the horizon and so avoiding an investment here looks like a good idea.
2018 PROJECTION:  14-8 3.44 ERA 1.17 WHIP 175 K  

Aaron Nola:  Finally!  Allow us to bask in the glory that was Aaron Nola's pitching performance during the course of the 2017; a year where the Philadelphia Phillies righty showed why our staff had such undying faith in the guy's talent.  Having started hyping Nola back in 2015, we wound up eating a bunch of crow and hearing more than a little criticism for tabbing him as a must have sleeper prior to the 2016 season.  The result was Nola producing a truly horrendous year that included a 4.78 ERA and our inbox filling up with nasty comments.  Despite all that, we went right back to the well on Nola for 2017 in arguing that it was his elbow injury the year prior that derailed things more than the stuff itself.  Fast forward six months and there is no arguing that Nola made us look very smart as big-time numbers flowed from all direction.  The strikeout ability that was always burgeoning under the surface exploded for Nola as he registered a potent 9.86 K/9 (184 K in 168 IP) and the control was spot on (2.63 BB/9) which was the holy grail daily double young pitchers needs to aspire to.  Even more exciting was the fact Nola's .309 BABIP was a bit unlucky and so his adjusted ERA's came in even lower.  Still just 24, Nola has future fantasy baseball ace written all over him and so you need to take our advice again to do whatever you can to make sure the guy is on your team this spring.
2018 PROJECTION:  16-8 3.26 ERA 1.19 WHIP 189 K  

Mike Clevinger:  Everything went right for the Cleveland Indians during the course of the 2017 regular season and getting contributions from unexpected sources is always part of such a development.  The Indians certainly got that on the pitching front in the form of righty prospect Mike Clevinger who came up in May and pitched to a 3.11 ERA and won 12 games in 21 starts.  While Clevinger went back to the minors for a bit during the summer, he continued to pitch well when called back up down the stretch of the season which speaks highly to the confidence level here.  Of course it took to the age of 26 for Clevinger to carve a consistent spot for himself in the majors due to the fact he has struggled terribly with control.  Even with the Indians last season, Clevinger's 4.44 BB/9 was a joke but he made up for it with a darting fastball that resulted in 137 strikeouts in just 121.2 innings.  It is likely that the Indians have seen enough positives from Clevinger last season to hold a rotation spot for him in 2018 but this is something to watch out for in spring training.  Ultimately we would be more comfortable owning Clevinger in Al-only formats as the guy still to show the walks and likely adjustments hitters will make for the coming season won't conspire to make 2017 one big fluke.
2018 PROJECTION:  12-9 4.10 ERA 1.32 WHIP 170 K

Marcus Stroman:  After having virtually the entire 2016 season taken away from him due to a spring training 

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