The concept of Hero-RB has caught on in recent seasons in Fantasy Football, and I'm at the point where I think it's the ideal way to build your team. The idea is you grab a stud RB with one of your first two picks and then largely avoid the position for a while in your draft – avoiding the dreaded "RB Dead Zone" where they tend to be especially poor bets.

And I'm at the point where I've adopted a similar approach for pitchers in Fantasy Baseball. Last season, the trend was for starting pitchers to get pushed further and further up draft boards, despite limited evidence that we were actually getting any better at projecting which starters would hit. We were paying more than ever without any better results.

The evidence from last year's research suggested that, by the time you hit the third round, your chances of drafting a pitcher who would finish as a top–100 player were just about 50-50, and they only got worse from there. In fact, from 2016 through 2020, your chances of hitting on a top-100 player at pitcher were no better in the fourth round than the seventh or eighth rounds.

The first two (or three) rounds have historically been where your best bets at starting pitcher have come from, and paying a premium for early-rounders otherwise just hasn't really been worth it. Hence, the Hero-SP strategy: Grab one early-round ace, one second tier ace, and then fill out your pitching staff from Round 10 and beyond. This allows you to load up on hitters with most of your first 10 picks while leaving the bulk of your pitching staff to the point of the draft where the risk is muted.

My ideal start is probably something like Max Scherzer in the second round, one of Sandy Alcantara, Robbie Ray, or Kevin Gausman between rounds four and six, and then a bunch of guys like Eduardo Rodriguez, Pablo Lopez, and Framber Valdez in the middle rounds and Patrick Sandoval, Alex Cobb, and Mike Clevinger types in the teens, with some high-upside dart throws later on. 

Let's take a look at ADP data from NFBC drafts since the start of March to highlight which range of pitcher I'm most likely to draft from, where I'm likely to pass, and where the exceptions are to each: 

Tier 1

The first thing to note here is that Ohtani isn't really being drafted in the first round as a pitcher. Obviously, where you play will impact Ohtani's value, depending on how that site handles him. In CBS Fantasy leagues, Ohtani is dual eligible, which means you have to choose whether to use him as a hitter or pitcher everytime you set your lineup. In weekly lineup lock leagues, you're probably using him as a hitter more often than not, and he's a fringe first-rounder; in daily lock leagues, you can use him in whichever role he is serving in that day, and he's arguably the most valuable player in the game and a true 1.01 candidate.

However, if you're judging Ohtani just as a pitcher, he's probably more in the fourth tier. He's been excellent whenever healthy, but it's hard to see him having much more than, say, 150 innings since he'll always pitch every sixth day, not every fifth. That puts him in the range of pitchers with similar workload concerns like Alek Manoah, Trevor Rogers, or Carlos Rodon. A solid SP3 with a capped upside and plenty of injury risk – and not just from pitching. 

Cole is still the consensus top pitcher in spite of his struggles after the sticky stuff ban in 2021. From June 1 on, Cole struggled to a 4.15 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, though those numbers also go to show how "struggled" is a relative term. The first month was the toughest as he got used to … whatever changes he had to make after the crackdown, but he looked more like himself from then on; he had a 3.95 ERA from July 1 on, but that was with a 2.88 FIP and 33.8% strikeout rate, neither of which is concerning. There just isn't another pitcher out there with Cole's track record of healthy and high-level production. 

However, it is worth noting that Burnes has probably been the best pitcher on a per-inning/start basis since the start of 2020; if he's not No. 1, he's no worse than No. 2. Over the past two seasons, Burnes has a 2.34 ERA, 0.965 WHIP and massive 35.9% strikeout rate, all of which lead qualifiers over the past two seasons. The drawback is, he's just 25th in the majors in innings in that span, and it's not clear if he truly has 200-inning upside. The Brewers have been careful with his workload the past two seasons, but having reached 173 innings in 2021, will they cut him loose? If so, his upside is as high as anyone. I prefer him more in the middle of the second than as a borderline first-rounder in a 12-team league, but I can't object to his price. 

Tier 2

Buehler doesn't get the strikeout numbers we usually want from our ace pitchers, but he's been elite in terms of limiting hard contact throughout his career and emerged fully formed as a workhorse after being handled with kid's gloves in 2020 and before. Buehler provided metronomic consistency in 2021, going six or more innings in 29 of 33 starts, he's got the best supporting cast in baseball around him, and he's proven to produce at a high-level. If his upside is a little lower than some other high-end pitchers, it's not hard to overlook that in the name of projectability. 

deGrom is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He's the best pitcher in baseball when healthy, and it isn't particularly close; he has a 205 ERA+ over the past four seasons, with Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer the only pitchers with over 500 innings in that span over a 150 mark. It's not a question of where deGrom ranks among his peers, it's how close he is to the peaks of the likes of Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, or Randy Johnson. The problem is, he's dealt with escalating arm issues over the past few seasons that limited him to just 92 innings in 2021, including UCL damage. He looked like himself in his spring debut Tuesday, striking out five in two innings and sitting in the high-90s, and I wouldn't be surprised if his ADP started to climb as a result, but I'm not moving him up in my rankings because of that. I'm not worried about whether he's currently healthy -- I'm worried about whether he can make it through a full season. Seeing him throw two innings in Arizona doesn't answer that question.

Scherzer represents the balance between those two. He didn't match Buehler in innings, but he's certainly capable of 200-plus, and he's been an elite pitcher every season except for the COVID-shortened 2020, when he was still must-start. He's my favorite of this tier and the pitcher I'm probably most likely to draft of any early-rounder. Though I do also like Woodruff quite a bit, and I'm hopeful 2022 will be the year he makes the leap to the elite workload, too. If he stays healthy, there's no reason he can't. 

Tier 3 

This is probably the tier I'm avoiding among the higher-end options. You've got injury concerns with Wheeler and Bieber, a lack of a track record with Urias, Alcantara, Ray, and Peralta, and what I can only describe as weird vibes with Nola and Giolito. It's not that I can't see what everyone else likes about this tier; it's more that I'd rather make sure I'm getting difference makers among my hitters in this range of my drafts. 

Wheeler's in an interesting spot here because he probably won't ever actually be drafted in the late third-round range too often. He'll either slip due to injury concerns, as he has been since we learned that he dealt with shoulder soreness during his offseason throwing program, or he'll leap up to the previous tier if he shows he's healthy. I don't love his value even if healthy, because I'm not 100% sure I buy the leap he made as a strikeout pitcher last season – and the Phillies defense could be a real hindrance if he regresses in that regard – but someone will take him as their No. 1 SP if he makes it through his spring outings without issue. 

Bieber is another player I'm probably out on at his price due to concerns about injury. He's healthy currently, which is the more pressing concern, but I just can't ignore that he missed three and a half months with a shoulder injury and then had reduced velocity upon his return. I might miss out on a top-three pitcher like he was in 2021, but I just can't bring myself to pay this price for Bieber – especially given his pretty miserable quality-of-contact metrics. Bieber routinely ranks well below average in hard-hit rate, expected wOBA on contact, and average exit velocity allowed, and he's had an expected ERA over 3.70 in two of the past three seasons. His margin for error just isn't as wide as some of the other high-end pitchers -- even without the injury risk. 

I grouped Urias and Alcantara earlier, but that isn't fair to Alcantara. They both share the elite quality of contact suppression skills to make up for somewhat underwhelming strikeout numbers, but Alcantara has a much better track record of pitching deep into games and holding up late in the season. Urias hasn't really been asked to do those things in the same way, but that's also in part because of a pretty extensive injury history dating back to his time as a prospect. Urias probably has a tad more upside, but Alcantara has shown signs of turning into more of a strikeout pitcher – he's always had the stuff for it – and I'd rather bet on his version of stability. Especially one round later.

Peralta and Ray both turned obvious potential into actual high-end production in 2021, though they went about it differently. Peralta's improvements came from a widening of his repertoire, as he went from being, effectively, a two-pitch pitcher to one with four pitches he threw at least 10% of the time – and all of them rated above average (at least) in terms of quality of contact allowed and whiff rate. Hitters have always had trouble figuring out Peralta's fastball, but with multiple secondaries to throw at them as well, it elevated the whole package. The case against him is related to workload and lack of a track record, but I'm quite confident he'll be good when he pitches. 

Ray's improvements were both more straightforward and potentially tougher to buy into. Because, at the risk of oversimplifying, he just started throwing strikes. Ray has always had the stuff to be a high-end performer, and he's had many stretches where he looked like one. However, he's also always gotten hit very hard and has struggled to throw strikes, which led to the often ugly numbers we've seen from him for most of his career. In 2022, however, he cut his walk rate to 6.7%, by far the best rate of his career, and that mostly came about from Ray simply throwing his fastball in the strike zone a lot more. He also threw it harder than ever before, which helped him get away with that. If you believe in his ability to sustain those gains, Ray is a decent value, and I do tend to find myself targeting him, often as a No. 2 starter if he ends up falling to the fifth round. But he's not for the faint of heart. 

Nola seems like a good bet for a bounce back from his strange 2021, where his peripherals mostly indicated he was the same guy as always despite the results going sideways more often than not. However, the Phillies defense could be the worst in baseball, and that injects risk into a profile that is already a bit iffy after 2021. 

As for Giolito to round out the tier … I think he might suffer in some eyes for not having made the leap to the super-elite tier some were hoping for. He's been between a 3.41 and 3.53 ERA in each of the past three seasons, while his peripherals have mostly followed that same path. He's probably better served as your No. 2 starter – he hasn't topped 180 innings yet, either – but Giolito is an especially fine value in this tier if you can get him in the fifth round. 

Tier 4 

This tier is a bit of a grab-bag, but it's worth noting that Sale is likely to continue dropping from here after being diagnosed with a fractured rib. We don't have a real timetable for his potential return, but we know he won't be ready for the start of the season at least. His absence could stretch quite a ways into the start of the regular season, and while the good news is it isn't an arm injury, spring training injuries are always big red flags, seeing as how they can mess up a player's routine to start the season. I'm not giving up on Sale entirely, but there's no way I could take him inside of the top-100 right now. 

You can really see the effect of what I talked about in the intro here, as this group is full of young guys we're hoping can make a real leap (Webb, Cease), older, higher-floor, but less exciting guys (Berrios, Lynn), or mid-career breakouts we're just a little bit skeptical of (Gausman, Musgrove).

Admittedly, I'm not sure I understand why Gausman is going almost two rounds later than Ray at this point because he stands out as the clear top value here. His ERA rose to 4.42 in the second half of the season, but that mostly seems tied to a .354 BABIP. His overall numbers for the full season were excellent, and his peripherals mostly indicate he deserved an ERA around 3.00. Gausman is a good bet for a bunch of strikeouts and wins with the Blue Jays lineup backing him up, and I'm fine ending up with him as my No. 1 SP if I end up waiting – and I love him as my No. 2 in that hero-SP build. 

Fried is my other favorite target here. I don't expect his strikeout rate to ever be much more than around average, but he's been so good at quality of contact suppression in his career that he doesn't need it to be. He's been in the top 10 percent in average exit velocity allowed and his expected wOBA allowed in 2021 was .345, compared to a league average of .369. There have been some injury scares over the past few seasons that you have to take into account, and Fried probably won't give you the strikeout numbers needed to be an ace. But he's a solid option to have around for any pitching staff.

There's more hype around Webb and Cease than anyone else here, and I can understand why. With Webb, you're getting an elite groundball pitcher who changed up his pitch mix and started getting solid strikeout numbers in a breakout campaign. However, it seems like he often goes off the board even earlier than this price, and that's just too much to pay for a guy with just-okay minor-league numbers who had a 5.36 ERA in 19 starts between 2019 and 2020. He feels a little like Zach Plesac did a year ago to me. 

The case for Cease is arguably even more obvious than for Webb: Anyone who can put up a 31.9% strikeout rate across a full season is worth getting excited about. I struggle with Cease simply because watching him pitch can be such an exhausting exercise. I'll admit that might be my own bias, but it feels like he goes through a stretch during every start where it seems like he's battling himself as much as the opposing hitters and he simply cannot find the strike zone. Between that and some issues with hard contact, there are definitely a lot of ways things can go wrong for Cease. But someone in your draft is going to talk themselves into the upside. It just usually isn't me. 

Tier 5

Two players should be on the move here: Justin Verlander and Luis Castillo. And they figure to be moving in opposite directions. Castillo is behind schedule in his prep for the season after being shut down with shoulder soreness, and he needs to be pushed well outside of the top-100 right now, even if the issue is being downplayed right now. As for Verlander: Well, he looked like himself in his spring debut. Two years removed from the last time we saw him – with Tommy John surgery in the intervening period – that was no sure thing. However, he was working in the high-90s earlier this week, and that's what we needed to see. He's a top-24 SP for me. 

I like everyone in this tier, more or less – Charlie Morton is definitely on the "more" side – though I'm probably lower than the consensus on Manoah and perhaps higher on Rogers. The issue with Manoah is, right now he kind of looks like a two-pitch pitcher; his changeup looked okay, but his 13.0% whiff rate and .338 expected wOBA allowed don't suggest it's weapon yet. The slider/fastball combo should still remain effective, but Manoah is probably facing some innings limits in addition to concerns about his repertoire. I'm just not willing to pay this kind of premium for him.

Rogers, on the other hand, looks like he's got all the pitches he needs with his fastball/slider/changeup combo. He's actually the rare pitcher who used his changeup more than his breaking ball, and the slider usage was especially inconsistent at times, though the results were mostly quite good – especially the 40.8% whiff rate. His changeup was also a great putaway pitch, though it was his fastball he leaned on most in those situations – it's a high-90s heater with a 27% whiff rate, so you can't complain about the approach. The Marlins did limit Rogers' innings a bit last season, but he still got to 141.1 total – and he had 136 back in 2019, so I don't think 160-plus is an unreasonable ask. Nor is that the ceiling. Rogers looks like the real deal, and his price is still reasonable enough to be worth buying in even if you have to go above ADP a bit.

Tier 6

Flaherty is going to keep falling from here, as he had a PRP injection for an oblique strain. He missed significant time last season with an oblique injury and is also dealing with a shoulder issue that is, apparently, not a primary concern right now. He won't throw for a few weeks before trying to ramp up again, but it's hard to expect much of anything from him at this point. Maybe Flaherty will move past this issue without much trouble, but I can't justify picking him inside of the top 150 right now. 

I'm also not super excited about paying for Snell or McClanahan, though I wouldn't say I'm avoiding either necessarily. There's obviously upside with both, but there are also a lot of ways for things to go wrong with both, too. Snell probably has more ways for things to go wrong, seeing as he's dealt with injuries in addition to his inconsistent performance. Snell was getting dropped in a lot of leagues toward the midpoint of last season, but he salvaged his Fantasy value with a sterling 10-start stretch to close it out, where he had a 2.82 ERA and 35.2% strikeout rate. He accomplished that by simplifying his approach and becoming essentially just a fastball/slider pitcher, and it worked. But Snell also averaged just 5.4 innings per start in that stretch and just hasn't been a consistent difference maker since his Cy Young 2018 season. 

McClanahan is a lot like a young Snell – he's got electric stuff and showed a ton of upside as a rookie, but with some flaws he needs to work through. The problem with McClanahan is that he got hit really hard last season. He was in the bottom 10% among pitchers in basically every quality of contact metric, and while it didn't show up in his 3.43 ERA, his 4.60 xERA suggests he was one of the luckiest pitchers in baseball. The sample size is still small enough that you can't say for sure McClanahan is going to continue to be one of the worst in the majors at quality of contact suppression, but if he's anywhere near that bad, he'll probably need to strike out even more than 27.3% of opposing batters to live up to expectations. There are pitchers with similar upside who don't have that kind of red flag.

Or, in the case of Rodon, there are pitchers with very different kinds of red flags and even more upside. Rodon belonged on the short list of best pitchers in baseball last season. He's always had an excellent slider, but his career has been defined by his search for a second putaway pitch as much as injuries. He found it in 2021, as his fastball transformed into one of the most utterly dominating pitches in the game. Among 73 pitchers who had at least 200 plate appearances end via fastball, his 29.7% whiff rate and .280 expected wOBA allowed were the the gift-best in the league. His slider was even better, and his changeup was solid, too. A ton of shoulder and elbow injuries have threatened to wreck Rodon's career, but the Giants gave him a big enough guarantee that you kind of have to assume he's in pretty good health at this point, and if he's healthy, Rodon could be as good as anyone this season. He's a big risk, but the upside might be worth it. 

Tier 7

Baz will likely slip after he had surgery to remove loose bodies in his elbow, a procedure that figures to delay his debut by at least a few weeks, if not longer. The potential silver lining to that cloud is that, if Baz doesn't start pitching until May, it may mean he can just go straight through to the end of the season without having his innings limited. Of course, he'd have to get healthy and through the season first before that becomes a concern. Baz is arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball and could still make an impact, but it's hard to trust him now. 

It's hard to go wrong with a bet on any of the pitchers here, but my favorites are Rodriguez, Valdez, and Lopez. Call 'em the "EZ Button" in drafts. Lopez and Rodriguez have strong strikeout numbers and peripherals, while Valdez might be the league's premier groundball artist, giving him the potential to rack up big inning totals if he can manage to stay healthy. 

It all depends on what you're looking for in this range, but I'll probably have multiple players here. One name to keep in mind is Mahle, who is a trade candidate in the Reds teardown and could be a breakout candidate in a different home ballpark.