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We continue our rankings debate with a look at one of the game's most dominant arms. Major League Baseball's reigning strikeout king is a consensus top-four starting pitcher, but his exact draft value is still in question.

RotoBaller's expert writers have come up with our consensus rankings for mixed leagues, but that doesn't mean we agreed on everything. In this space, we'll hear from rankers with the biggest differences of opinion on a well-known player and have them defend their position against each other.

Today, the subject of discussion is Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale. With elite numbers across the board, no one is doubting Sale's abilities. However, while Bill Dubiel has him pegged as a late first-round pick, Harris Yudin is slightly more hesitant to draft a starting pitcher that early.

Editor's Note: Stay on top of our MLB off-season news and fantasy analysis all year round. Read our daily fantasy columns about MLB prospects, dynasty outlooks, player outlooks and much more. It's always fantasy baseball season here. Let's Go!

 

2018 Draft Rankings Debate - Chris Sale

Ranking Tier Player Position Kyle Nick Pierre Jeff Harris Bill
19 2 Chris Sale SP 21 15 17 18 24 11

 


Bill Dubiel's Ranking: #11 overall

I suppose I need to start by rationalizing taking Sale above guys like Carlos Correa, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman. The biggest factor for me is the guaranteed level of production that you're going to get. I certainly don't want to throw shade on any of those guys I just mentioned, but the difference between what I'll get out of Votto and a first baseman a few rounds later (Wil Myers, for example) is not as significant as the difference between Chris Sale and a pitcher drafted right around there (Chris Archer, for example). Sale is so head-and-shoulders better than a vast majority of his contemporaries, I will take every chance I can to get him on my team.

Sale has the most upside of any pitcher in fantasy, thanks in large part to his dominating strikeout ability. The numbers are eye-popping any way you look at them--in 2017 he boasted a 12.93 K/9, 7.36 K/BB, and 308 total strikeouts, 40 more than the next closest MLB pitcher (Max Scherzer). This upside offsets any small deficiencies he might have elsewhere, and it's not like those are easy to find either. Sale was fifth in MLB in wins (17), sixth in ERA (2.90), fourth in WHIP (0.97), and it gets even more impressive when you dig in to some of the more advanced metrics. For example, Sale posted a 2.45 FIP in 2017, indicating that his outstanding ERA isn't a real indicator of how good he truly was.

On top of the elite production, Sale has one other factor going for him that merits a selection in the first round. The Red Sox ace has started 31 or more games in each of the last three seasons. In an age in which pitchers frequent the disabled list or the bench (so that they might avoid the disabled list), Sale has been durable to an outstanding degree over the last few seasons, and at age 28 he is still smack-dab in the middle of his prime. Sale won't be breaking down any time soon, further cementing his appeal as a first-round pick.

 

Harris Yudin's Ranking: #24 overall

My ranking of Chris Sale isn’t really an indictment of Boston’s ace. I’m also the lowest of the Rotoballer rankers on Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Madison Bumgarner. I simply don’t draft starting pitchers as early as many others do.

Sale enjoyed arguably the best season of his career in 2017, and I would be wasting everyone’s time if I tried to make an argument against his production and talent. He paced all pitchers in strikeouts (including K/9 and K%) and FIP, and finished in the top five in just about every other major category. He cut back on his fastball last year, relying more heavily on his slider. His velocity jumped back up from 2016, and he induced fewer ground balls but more fly balls -- specifically weak fly balls -- by utilizing the upper part of the zone. Sale is approaching his age-29 season, and once again sits firmly among the game’s best arms on fantasy draft boards.

He’s really, really good. So I’m just here to argue against his draft spot.

My main point against taking a pitcher early is that the top hitters are more valuable relative to the rest of the league than the top pitchers. Pitchers should already be at a disadvantage because no pitcher can help in five categories, but a hitter could theoretically do so. I looked at roughly the top 40 players in each of the nine relevant categories (min. 100 IP and 300 AB), and came up with these loose thresholds:

Offense - .300 AVG, 30 HR, 90 R, 90 RBI, 17 SB

Pitching - 13 W, 160 K, 3.70 ERA, 1.23 WHIP

Now, I know what you’re thinking. A 3.70 ERA is not nearly as impressive as any of the offensive marks. And while this is certainly true in a vacuum, it’s important to note that a pitcher with an ERA below 3.70 is also likely to have strong numbers in the other categories. On the other hand, a hitter can sit atop the leaderboards in one category and not contribute at all (or even contribute negatively) in others.

Anyway, I found that there were eight players who reached four of those offensive marks: Charlie Blackmon, Joey Votto, Marcell Ozuna, Nolan Arenado, Ryan Zimmerman, Jose Abreu, Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt. No one was there in all five categories, but Blackmon (14 SB) and Goldschmidt (.297 AVG) were extremely close.

On the pitching side, 15 guys met the qualifications in all four categories: Sale, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Carlos Carrasco, Zack Greinke, Ervin Santana, Robbie Ray, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Luis Severino, Jake Arrieta and Charlie Morton.

Additionally, four others -- Rich Hill, Aaron Nola, Carlos Martinez, Zack Godley -- missed out on only wins (the most unpredictable and luck-based of all nine categories) despite, with the exception of Nola, playing for competitive teams.

I understand that this is an imperfect science. If you cut it down to the top 20 in each of the pitching categories, you find eight guys who meet the criteria. But even then, you’re looking at roughly a half-dozen hitters capable of five-category contributions, while no pitcher can help in five categories but more than 20 have the potential to contribute in four. And unless your league uses quality starts instead of wins, there’s a non-zero chance some of the top pitchers only deliver in three.

Perhaps the closest comparison for Sale is Giancarlo Stanton, whose 59 home runs displayed a level of dominance only matched by Sale’s 308 strikeouts. However, a 33 percent decrease in home runs would still leave Stanton vying for a top-five spot on the HR leaderboards, while the same decrease for Sale would put him out of the top 15.

Pitching is so volatile, and even the most durable of starters are bound to endure some injuries as their arms rack up mileage. Cole Hamels and David Price, two guys among the leaders in innings pitched from 2012-’16, combined for fewer than 225 innings last year. Sale is still on the right side of 30, but durability is never a given.

The bottom line is if you have a late pick, just grab two elite hitters and move on. You can’t pass them up, and you’ll find across-the-board pitching production later. The only exception there is Clayton Kershaw, who has posted an ERA below 2.40 in each of the past five seasons (no one else has done it more than once in that span). Securing Sale in round one will certainly boost your pitching staff, but I'd rather bolster my offense first.

 

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