Last week, we named our tiers after buy-low hitters, which was fun. Buy Low King Giancarlo Stanton might have rewarded a new owner or two with that massive home run right into that hideous structure in center field in Miami. Maybe this week's Buy Low King will throw a no hitter. You never know.
Of course, buying a pitcher low is fairly difficult right now. Either something is really wrong, which is why they've been bad all year, or they've already started to right the ship from earlier in the season. In which case his owner knows that his player is not so bad off, and isn't really going to give you a good price. Consider Cole Hamels, who had an ERA well over four at the end of June, but was showing the same peripherals he always had. Now his ERA is respectable and his owner has enjoyed two straight months of a sub-three ERA. If you can get Hamels for less than ace prices, have at it. It's harder today than July first, though.
In any case, these pitchers should give you varying degrees of opportunity to buy at a sale price. And that trade, my overpriced for your underpriced, is at the heart of fantasy baseball.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Stephen Strasburg" Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Any ranking that factors in wins will under-rate Stephen Strasburg. Because Stephen Strasburg is in the top ten in strikeouts per nine, in the top twelve in ground ball percentage among qualified starters, and is comfortably above average in walks per nine. He's dominating all the phases of the game, really, and it's not his fault that his team hasn't scored runs for him. But perhaps you can use that to your advantage if you're doing well in the wins category. Trade away a guy like Justin Masterson or Chris Tillman -- in the top ten for wins -- plus another piece, and you might be able to get the WHIP, ERA, and strikeout rate of an ace.
Maybe you scoff at the idea that Strasburg is available at less than market prices, but I've seen plenty of trade ideas in my twitter feed that make him attainable. You might say the same about Kenley Jansen. In terms of statistics and ability, he should be untouchable. He has 89 strikeouts to 10 walks. No closer with more than two saves even comes close to that -- even Aroldis Chapman has 21 walks to pair with his 86 strikeouts -- and that should make him bullet proof. But it took him some time to gain the role, and he doesn't have the velocity or saves totals of some of the players in this tier, and he is attainable. It's the problem with using counting stats in your to-date rankings: someone like Jansen who has been elite in the role but wasn't in the role all year won't have the saves of someone who's been in the role all year.
Joe Nathan got a Kimbrel! Let's note that. Three strikeouts, no base runners -- with the recent rash of walks, it was a welcome sight.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Matt Cain" Tier.)
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Matt Cain creates more doubt than Strasburg. There's the chance he was never as good as we thought he was, since he doesn't have an elite strikeout rate. And maybe some of his regression was earned -- after years of better-than-average home run rates, he suddenly is showing an average one, and maybe that's what he 'deserves.' But the maddening thing is that Cain has been the same as he always was, all year. His strikeout, walk, and ground-ball rates and even his velocity -- all are virtually unchanged from his career rates. But, in the first half, he gave up 16 home runs in 112 innings for some reason. He didn't even really have an answer for me when we talked in June. In the second half? Cain's given up three home runs in 41 innings, has a 2.41 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP. If you can get him, then he's cheaper than he should be.
Should we appreciate Koji Uehara for a minute? Since his manager didn't bring him in to the ninth inning of a tie game in San Francisco last night, perhaps we should do the appreciating for him. He's only pitched three times in the last two weeks, too. Ah well. Uehara's the only pitcher that can rival Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman when it comes to strikeout-to-walk rates: his 77 strikeouts against nine walks sits just fine in that lineup. Maybe the 88 mph fastball turned some possible suitors off -- and everything Uehara throws is in the eighties, and he's had some homer issues in the past. But not now. Not now!
Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "R.A. Dickey" Tier.)
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
A third-tier buy-low option isn't going to knock your socks off like the top two tiers. And so it goes with our favorite super hero, a brother named RAD and his diving darting knuckler. Even if you focus solely on his last four years of excellence, it's not clear that he's going to strike many more batters out. His swinging strike rate is a little more like the Cy Young 2012 than the more average 2010 and 2011, so he could be showing his true-talent strikeout rate right now. But it's clear, from his velocity chart, that he's getting healthier. Well, let's not say clear. But he's throwing his hard knuckler more often, and he told me that his back was keeping him from throwing that pitch early in the season. And before a game against the Athletics two weeks ago, he said the back was all good. Home runs may be a problem in that park, in that league, but he won't cost much and he obviously has upside. If you're willing to look past some declining velocity, Jeff Samardzija offers good upside at a lower cost, too. Even if his flaws are more about his inconsistent control paired with a split finger, which doesn't get good strike rates, he can get strikeouts and still throws 94.
Joaquin Benoit deserves some love. Really, the only thing separating him from four straight excellent years was a freaky home run rate last year. Twice as many fly balls left the park as home runs last year as the league rate, and now that he's calmed down in that area -- and that area alone -- he's back to being the excellent high strikeout rate, low walk rate, high leverage reliever he's been for a while now. In fact, he's in the top half of the top 30 closers in strikeout-to-walk ratio, which shows how far he's come from the days when he broke into the league with poor control. You could say he's doing a better job staying out of the zone of danger. There is still the risk that he can't perform on back-to-back-to-back nights, but he'll still do enough with his chances to belong in this tier.
Jim Johnson drops to the bottom of the tier. It's another bad stretch for him. In his last four outings, he's given up four earned runs, two home runs, eight hits and two walks… and struck out four. Decent strikeout rate for him, but he hadn't struck a batter out in the four innings running up to those four. In any case, he's blown three straight saves and his team has a former record-breaking closer in the fold. Tommy Hunter got the save when Jim Johnson blew a game in San Francisco, though, and he might be the guy -- he's shown way more gas in the pen. Francisco Rodriguez has also not been used in a hold situation since the 14th. Johnson has survived these scrapes before, most importantly. if he can get the next save, the bet is, he finishes the year as the closer in Baltimore.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.