Breaking National League SPs into tiers

Conventional wisdom suggests that it's a mistake to go after pitching early in a draft.

Generally, this is good rule of thumb, but there are a few starting pitchers who are so far ahead of the pack that they are worth targeting in the first two rounds, even in a mixed league. American League hitters cannot be happy to see the return of CC Sabathia, who resumes his role as the league's preeminent hurler. Sabathia does have rivals in the National League, and we'll use our two-pronged approach of sorting pitchers by projected K/9 rate and ERA to determine tiers, from the elites on down, for your pitching draft list.

Using a 8.5 K/9 rate and a 3.80 ERA as our cutoff for the first tier, we arrive at the list of seven starters below for the senior circuit. We can see that Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana and Jake Peavy are true National League elites, and each rivals Sabathia for major league pitching supremacy. The remaining four, despite their lofty ratios, don't really belong in the same class. Rich Harden has perpetual health issues, Edinson Volquez and Chad Billingsley project to post mediocre WHIPs, and Max Scherzer has made only seven major league starts..

Rich Harden, Chicago Cubs 10.4 3.27 1.25
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco 10.2 2.89 1.19
Max Scherzer, Arizona 10.0 3.75 1.29
Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati 9.6 3.43 1.36
Jake Peavy, San Diego 9.3 3.04 1.17
Johan Santana, N.Y. Mets 9.0 2.86 1.16
Chad Billingsley, L.A. Dodgers 8.9 3.40 1.35

We uncover a few more gems if we ratchet our standards down to include pitchers who strike out fewer than 8.5 batters per nine innings, starting with Dan Haren. He projects to compile the same ERA as Harden and the same WHIP as Peavy, though he could lag 15 to 20 whiffs behind Peavy. Roy Oswalt, Brandon Webb and Cole Hamels are also strong bets to post excellent ERAs and WHIPs, but each presents an even greater sacrifice in the strikeout category. As with Volquez and Billingsley in the previous group, Josh Johnson, Yovani Gallardo and Matt Cain destroy an otherwise sparkling set of projections with WHIPs likely to rise above 1.30. Still, only two pitchers in this group are projected to post any ratio worse than the expected league average. Ruining the perfect picture are Adam Wainwright and Derek Lowe, whose below-average K/9 rates render them slightly less valuable than their cohorts on this list.

Roy Oswalt, Houston 7.0 3.12 1.21
Brandon Webb, Arizona 7.4 3.21 1.17
Dan Haren, Arizona 8.2 3.27 1.17
Josh Johnson, Florida 7.8 3.34 1.31
Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee 8.2 3.36 1.34
Cole Hamels, Philadelphia 8.0 3.42 1.12
Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs 8.1 3.49 1.29
Ryan Dempster, Chicago Cubs 8.0 3.60 1.25
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis 6.6 3.63 1.28
Matt Cain, San Francisco 8.1 3.73 1.31
Derek Lowe, Atlanta 6.0 3.73 1.27

The next four pitchers will all be close to striking out a batter an inning, but their collective firepower won't help them in the other categories. Jonathan Sanchez and Oliver Perez have too many control issues, and Brett Myers has gopheritis. Javier Vazquez has neither, but he is the rare starting pitcher who has a chronically high BABIP.

Jonathan Sanchez, San Francisco 8.8 4.79 1.42
Oliver Perez, N.Y. Mets 8.7 4.38 1.42
Brett Myers, Philadelphia 8.6 3.96 1.30
Javier Vazquez, Atlanta 8.6 4.32 1.26

This next tier represents the final helping of starting pitchers for mixed league drafts. For the most part, these pitchers are close to league average, and none are likely to meet either the 8.5 K/9 or 3.80 ERA threshold. Ricky Nolasco and Aaron Harang come close to these standards, and since both are very stingy with walks, they can be a big help with WHIP, too. Though their projected ratios place them in this group, both pitchers really belong with Myers and Vazquez in the previous tier. Nolasco and Harang are even better picks than Sanchez and Perez, despite their slight disadvantage in strikeouts.

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta 6.5 3.83 1.36
Chris Young, San Diego 8.2 3.96 1.37
Clayton Kershaw, L.A. Dodgers 8.4 4.00 1.44
John Maine, N.Y. Mets 8.3 4.00 1.33
Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado 7.7 4.00 1.37
Aaron Harang, Cincinnati 8.2 4.05 1.26
Ted Lilly, Chicago Cubs 8.1 4.05 1.32
Ricky Nolasco, Florida 7.8 4.11 1.24
Paul Maholm, Pittsburgh 6.3 4.21 1.36
Todd Wellemeyer, St. Louis 6.1 4.22 1.36
Kenshin Kawakami, Atlanta 6.3 4.25 1.39
Manny Parra, Milwaukee 8.0 4.31 1.45
Wandy Rodriguez, Houston 7.5 4.31 1.39
Randy Wolf, L.A. Dodgers 7.6 4.33 1.39
Doug Davis, Arizona 6.9 4.36 1.46
Barry Zito, San Francisco 6.1 4.38 1.42
Bronson Arroyo, Cincinnati 7.1 4.39 1.39
Randy Johnson, San Francisco 8.4 4.42 1.30
Anibal Sanchez, Florida 6.1 4.45 1.44
Ian Snell, Pittsburgh 8.0 4.48 1.45
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati 8.3 4.50 1.35

Nearly all of the pitchers below should be avoided in mixed leagues, especially the ones who aren't expected to reach five strikeouts per nine innings. Chien-Ming Wang is an exception to this rule in the American League, but the NL lacks a finesse pitcher who is as skilled as Wang at inducing groundball outs. Honorable mentions go to Mike Pelfrey and Chris Volstad, who should compile sub-4.00 ERAs and near-average WHIPs despite subpar K/9 rates. Pelfrey and Volstad join Carlos Villanueva, Scott Olsen and Collin Balester as the best pitchers in this tier, and the ones who are the best choices for a late round mixed league pick. Balester, in particular, is an intriguing pitcher. Despite the modest projections, the 22 year-old has shown in his minor league career the promise of posting above-average ratios. The question is whether he can make good on that promise this season or somewhere further down the road.

Andrew Miller, Florida 7.7 4.95 1.45
Carlos Villanueva, Milwaukee 7.7 4.58 1.46
Daniel Cabrera, Washington 7.1 4.98 1.48
Scott Olsen, Washington 6.3 4.61 1.34
Micah Owings, Cincinnati 6.3 4.96 1.35
Tom Gorzelanny, Pittsburgh 6.2 4.70 1.48
Brandon Backe, Houston 6.0 4.98 1.48
Cha Seung Baek, San Diego 5.8 4.83 1.40
Collin Balester, Washington 5.8 4.95 1.45
Mike Pelfrey, N.Y. Mets 5.7 3.86 1.36
Chris Volstad, Florida 5.7 3.91 1.37
Hiroki Kuroda, L.A. Dodgers 5.5 4.26 1.32
Mike Hampton, Houston 5.5 4.48 1.46
Kyle Lohse, St. Louis 5.4 4.51 1.35
John Lannan, Washington 5.4 3.97 1.45
Greg Smith, Colorado 5.4 4.28 1.43
Jamie Moyer, Philadelphia 5.4 4.20 1.41
Joe Blanton, Philadelphia 5.2 4.28 1.41
Dave Bush, Milwaukee 5.2 4.45 1.29
Jeff Suppan, Milwaukee 5.1 4.45 1.43
Braden Looper, Milwaukee 4.8 4.60 1.37
Jason Marquis, Colorado 4.8 4.55 1.40
Zach Duke, Pittsburgh 4.5 4.36 1.46
Jon Garland, Arizona 4.5 4.28 1.35
Aaron Cook, Colorado 4.0 4.13 1.35
Kyle Kendrick, Philadelphia 3.9 4.76 1.43

Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats

Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.