Fantasy Baseball: Drafting Your First Pitcher

If you have a late first-round pick, take a stud starting pitcher

Professional baseball pitcher holding baseball, rear view, preparing to pitch
Thomas Barwick/Stone/Getty Images

Wondering what pitcher to draft first a question every fantasy owner has asked himself.

Not, "How do I avoid drafting Alex Rodriguez in the second round?" Not, "Does Minka Kelly come with my Derek Jeter selection?"

We're talking pitchers.

Primarily, when do you take your first starter? It seems simple, but it usually isn't.

Some owners complicate matters by waiting too long to draft their first pitcher, thinking their star-studded lineup of hitters will be enough to carry them. Others foolishly take two starters in the first two rounds, then wonder why their best hitter is Brandon Phillips.

Let's make this as easy as we can.

Every year, there are tiers of starting pitchers.

  • There is a late first/early second-round tier. In 2011, that consists of Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum.
  • There is a late second-round/entire third-round tier. In 2011, that group is led by Boston's Jon Lester (our fourth-ranked pitcher), followed by Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia.
  • There is a late fourth/early fifth-round group. The 2011 version: Ubaldo Jimenez, David Price, Josh Johnson and Jered Weaver.
  • Finally, there is a sixth-round-and-up tier. Our 2011 group begins with Roy Oswalt, Mat Latos, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Carpenter.

When you strike first depends on when you are drafting.

If you have an early or mid-first-round pick, take the best available hitter.

If you are drafting late in the first round, I would strongly consider taking a starting pitcher.

In 2011, we have Halladay ranked 10th overall, Hernandez 12th and Lincecum 14th.

If, say, you have the No. 10 pick in a 12-team league, Halladay is a no-brainer.

Our No. 11 overall player is Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. The temptation for many owners is to select the best hitter late in Round 1, even if a pitcher is the better choice.

For example, let's say you take Cano 10th overall in Round 1 of a 12-team league. You would have the 15th pick in Round 2 and the 34th overall choice in Round 3.

In the No. 15 range, you're likely looking at A-Rod, David Wright, Matt Holliday and/or Adrian Gonzalez. In the No. 34 range, you would probably feel the need to take a starting pitcher, leaving you with Cliff Lee or CC Sabathia as your ace.

Not bad, right? Well, let's look at the pitcher-in-Round-1 route.

If you select Halladay at No. 10, you could still pick a stud hitter at No. 15 and, if you really believe you need a second baseman early, can take the Rangers' Ian Kinsler at No. 34 (which is where we have him ranked in our top 100).

For argument's sake, let's say A-Rod is the second-round choice in both scenarios, since we have him ranked 15th on our overall list for 2011.

  • Team 1: Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Cliff Lee
  • Team 2: Roy Halladay, Alex Rodriguez, Ian Kinsler

You might see Cliff Lee there and think Team 1 has the better first three picks. As we explained in our 2011 breakdown of the top starting pitchers, Lee is a much better major-league pitcher than he is a fantasy one. He is a combined 26-22 the last two seasons, and his career high in strikeouts is a surprisingly low 185.

Halladay, meanwhile, is a combined 90-43 the last five years and was 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 219 Ks in 2010. He is far and away the best choice late in the first round of a 12-team league, unless the first nine owners do something silly and leave the likes of Carlos Gonzalez or Carl Crawford available for you at No. 10.

The difference between Halladay and the pitchers at the end of our second tier is greater than the gap between Cano and Kinsler.

Cano is more valuable than Kinsler, but the latter had 31 homers, 86 RBI and 31 steals as recently as 2009, and the former averaged 20 homers and 79 RBI in 2008 and '09 (a far cry from his 2010 totals of 29 homers and 109 RBI).

If you are drafting late in the first round of a 10- or 12-team league, consider these four tips:

  1. If the likes of Halladay or the Mariners' Hernandez are there, strongly consider taking one with your first pick.
  2. Don't take Halladay too early. You don't want to select a starting pitcher ahead of the likes of Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, Troy Tulowitzki, Carl Crawford and Ryan Braun.
  3. If you don't get a starting pitcher in the first round, the third round could be key. There is a noticeable drop from Tier 2 to Tier 3. Sabathia won a combined 40 games in 2009 and '10. Ubaldo Jimenez, our No. 46 overall player and our No. 8 pitcher, is a much riskier selection.
  4. After Sabathia, the selections get much dicier, lending credence to the thought of taking a starter late in Round 1 or 3 -- but not both.

The Stud Starter Late in Round 1 Strategy has worked well for us in the past. But don't get cute.

As great as it may sound to say, "My top two pitchers are Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum," you might be forgetting to add the next line.

"My top hitter is Brandon Phillips."

2011 FANTASY BASEBALL RANKINGS: Catchers, First basemen, Second basemen, Shortstops, Third basemen, Designated hitters, Outfielders, Starting pitchers, Closers, Top 100 overall

More fantasy baseball tips:

Also see: