A lot of attention and effort is put into selecting hitters in fantasy, but starting pitchers account for four of the ten categories in your standard leagues, making them more important than only a handful of hitters.
The traditional problem with pitchers is one of consistency and health. Pitchers get hurt, and tired arms from one season can bleed into the next. So while you shouldn't take them immediately, you shouldn't be afraid of drafting the best starters early. But, who are the best starters?
1. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
The gap between Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw is razor thin, but in 2018 it is Scherzer who gets the nod from me at #1.
He's had 30+ starts since 2009, 230+ strikeouts since 2012, and at least 14 wins since 2010. He is the model of health, consistency, and dominance. With two strikeout pitches and the mentality to attack anyone he is as safe an investment as you can make this season. The only benefit he has over Kershaw is that the NL East is full of tanking or recovering lineups with little threat to them.
2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
To call Clayton Kershaw the #2 seems harsh. He is the greatest pitcher of this generation and will be a worthy addition to Cooperstown in the future, but with the NL West playing home to two tough lineups in Arizona and Colorado he is just, barely, below Scherzer.
The only worry with Kershaw is a balky back that has limited his innings and could cost him a few starts here and there, but when he is on the mound, he is pure class. A no-brainer ace for any staff.
3. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
Kluber had a rough start to the season, spent time on the DL, and still won the American League Cy Young in 2017.
His slider and cutter are brilliant, and he got great results from his fastballs as well. With solid defense behind him and a good lineup supporting him, Kluber is just a degree or two behind the top two arms coming into this season.
4. Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
Sale was a monster in the first half of 2017, striking out everyone and locking down every fifth game for the Red Sox in his first year in Boston, but the volume of pitches created by whiffing hitters so consistently and throwing deep every game wore him down toward the end of the season, and saw his ERA blow back up toward 3.00.
Expect Sale to pitch a bit more to contact in 2018, and maybe work an out or two fewer each game as the Red Sox try to preserve his arm for October. His strikeout total can absorb some regression though, and it may save on the late-season ERA as well.
5. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
There is something of a gap between Sale and Bumgarner this year. 2017 saw some worrying signs of decline in the effectiveness of Bumgarner's go-to fastball. Its swinging strike rate fell from a ridiculous 11.9%, where it had been for the previous four years, to around the league average of 7.3%.
It seems like a small thing but it had ripples on his performance all year, as his ERA went over 3.00 for the first time since 2012 and the WHIP bloated a few points too. The lost of some effectiveness plus a poor lineup and missed time led to a terrible wins total, but provided Bumgarner returns to something like his usual self that should pick back up. There is some risk with him this season, but I trust him to bounce back in 2018.
6. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Strasburg is not the best pitcher in the majors as he was meant to be when he hit the scene, but he is still extremely good.
While he carries some injury risk and may miss a start here and there where the Nationals feel they can protect his arm, when on the mound Strasburg is still a marvel to watch. His changeup is electric, and while he doesn't have the wipeout slider that others do he can still rack up strikeouts with the best of them.
7. Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks
Whatever was wrong with Greinke in 2016 disappeared last season, as he returned to his usual form, albeit with lower velocities.
At 34 that velocity change will only go one way, but Greinke is a savvy enough pitcher to work around it, and the humidor installed at Chase Field should return some bite to his breaking balls and suppress offense in his favor. He has the command and three terrific pitches to content, but be wary of paying too near Strasburg's price, there is a clear gap here.
8. Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
Cleveland's other ace, Carlos Carrasco is not going to blow hitters away, but he is certainly going to strike them out.
His slider is as filthy as any in the Majors, and both his changeup and curve generate swings and misses as well. The fastball remains a hittable problem, but Carrasco has good enough command of his breaking stuff that he doesn't have to rely on it in tough spots. He might not give you amazing rate stats, but the K's and wins will be there if he stays healthy.
9. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
When Thor is on the mound, there are very few pitchers alive that are more electrifying than he is. The problem is how often will he be on the mound? He has made 30 starts just once in his three-year major league career and made just seven last season.
Per start, he will be brilliant value wherever you draft him. But if he is barely breaking 20 starts, then even this ranking might be too high. It is a tough decision, but he is the kind of player that could swing a league title this year.
10. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
deGrom is a poor man's ace. He set several career bests last year, including innings (201.1) and strikeout rate. He has borderline elite command and a wide arsenal, but he doesn't always get the movement he desires, and while he racked up the strikeouts last year, the home runs and walks added up as well.
If he maintains the K/9 rate (10.68) and can calm his HR/FB rate back down to even 12% then this could be a terrific season for deGrom. He doesn't have a sparkling track record, but he can dazzle on the mound. More of a #2 than a #1, but he should be extremely reliable in 2018, even if he doesn't quite put up the numbers some will expect.