If I didn't know any better, I'd say the middle class has returned to a position that's had to do without the past couple years.
And by middle class, I mean upper middle class.
This group is deep. It's actually painful to consider some of the names I've had to leave out of my top 40, which represents a seismic shift in my thinking. Coming off 2019 and 2020, I felt like I had to have my pitching staff more or less assembled by the time we were 40 arms in. Not everyone could do it, of course, which is why we saw the price for high-end starting pitchers skyrocket, especially this year.
Looking over next year's crop, though, I don't feel that same urgency. A couple different factors have contributed to this shift. So many otherwise respectable pitchers were done in by the long ball in 2019 and 2020, but the new baseball helped to neutralize that threat this year. And then came the foreign substance crackdown midseason, making some of the elites appear just a little more human.
In other words, the top of the position isn't as far ahead of the pack anymore, and the overall number of usable pitchers has also greatly increased. While my top 30 feels more or less set, there may be something like 25 pitchers with a solid claim to the 31st spot.
Here's how things stand right now.
Note that these rankings are intended for 5x5 scoring (such as Rotisserie leagues), but I point out distinctions for points leagues where applicable.
Jacob deGrom New York Mets SP
|There are concerns surrounding his elbow -- which showed UCL damage at one point, then didn't -- but he's now so far ahead of the pack in terms of performance that he has to be No. 1 until he's ruled out.
Gerrit Cole New York Yankees SP
|Most will attribute his bumpy finish to the sticky substance ban, but he rebounded nicely from that before attempting to pitch through a hamstring injury. He feels a little too risky for Round 1 now, but we know the upside.
Max Scherzer Los Angeles Dodgers SP
|He dialed back the workload finally at age 37, but not enough to take him out of the Cy Young conversation. Neither his free-agent status nor his bout with dead arm in the playoffs seem relevant to his 2022 standing.
Corbin Burnes Milwaukee Brewers SP
|The MLB leader in ERA and K/9 (who also had a 1.63 FIP) would rank behind only Jacob deGrom pitch for pitch, but he'll have to prove he can bounce back from a big workload after being coddled in seasons prior.
Walker Buehler Los Angeles Dodgers SP
|Once known for being coddled himself, Buehler threw the second-most innings of any pitcher this year, which puts him firmly in the ace category even if his strikeout rate leaves a bit to be desired.
Brandon Woodruff Milwaukee Brewers SP
|He now has a three-year track record of him performing like a front-line arm, though it's worth noting that 2021 was his first time making it through a full-length season. Still, there's little to nitpick here.
Shane Bieber Cleveland Indians SP
|His hurried return from a shoulder injury only served to raise more doubts, but the pitchers who saw a similar drop in spin rate midseason eventually figured it out. Look back on his April and think happy thoughts.
Zack Wheeler Philadelphia Phillies SP
|The big leap was a little weird for a 31-year-old who had seemingly peaked as a mid-tier hurler, but the improvements were wholesale and he stuck the landing with a big September. At the very least, you know he's a workhorse.
Robbie Ray Toronto Blue Jays SP
|Speaking of unlikely breakthroughs, this 30-year-old figured out how to throw strikes consistently while also upping his velocity, taking him from scrapheap to hardware city. As with Zack Wheeler, it's mostly a question of whether you trust it.
Julio Urias Los Angeles Dodgers SP
|The majors' only 20-game winner this year solidified his ace standing with a 2.04 ERA in the second half. He's a little light on strikeouts but a proven run preventer with an optimal supporting cast and no more durability concerns.
Sandy Alcantara Miami Marlins SP
|An improved changeup elevated his bat-missing ability, which really picked up over the final two months. He also goes seven-plus as often as any pitcher, so about the only knock on him is the offense backing him.
Lucas Giolito Chicago White Sox SP
|That next step may not be coming for a guy who has delivered an ERA in the mid-threes three straight years and still hasn't made it 180 innings. He has a high floor, though, and will miss plenty of bats.
Kevin Gausman San Francisco Giants SP
|He's like Zack Wheeler in that he suddenly emerged as an ace after a lengthy track record of being something less, but unlike Wheeler in that he faded down the stretch. Good chance he walks this offseason, too, which would introduce a new wrinkle.
Aaron Nola Philadelphia Phillies SP
|His 4.63 ERA simply didn't jibe with his 3.37 xFIP (or whatever estimator you prefer), and it's not like he's a chronic offender in that regard. The hope is he had some bad luck on home runs and will regain his ace standing at a discount.
Charlie Morton Atlanta Braves SP
|Him turning 38 in the offseason will make you think twice, but he's still firing it in at 97 mph and spinning that curveball like nobody else. Plus, he's already re-upped with the Braves, so the wins should be there.
Lance Lynn Chicago White Sox SP
|The White Sox had a light touch with all of their pitchers down the stretch, but it was especially odd to see Lynn reduced to five innings at a time. Hopefully, they'll get back to using him like the workhorse he is.
Chris Sale Boston Red Sox SP
|Sale's secondary stuff seemed a little off in his late-season return from Tommy John surgery, but that's typical. Turning 33 next year, he could still recapture top-five standing at the position, and others in this range come with similar risk.
Jack Flaherty St. Louis Cardinals SP
|That big 2019 feels even more distant after an injury-plagued 2021, and Flaherty's performance since then has been hit or miss as well. The highs have been high enough, though, for us to continue to hold out hope once the obvious aces are gone.
Clayton Kershaw Los Angeles Dodgers SP
|The latest MRI on his UCL came back clean, but the recurring elbow issues down the stretch are no less concerning. There's little evidence of him declining otherwise, but you can't trust him to last a full season.
Frankie Montas Oakland Athletics SP
|After messing around for a few months, Montas finally keyed in on the splitter that prompted his 2019 breakout and dazzled to close out the season. He'll need to show he can maintain the feel for it before we can fully trust him.
Max Fried Atlanta Braves SP
|The lefty with the looping curveball had a 2.44 ERA apart from three injury-plagued starts in April and a 1.56 ERA over his final 12 starts. He doesn't get enough strikeouts to be a Fantasy ace, but he makes up for it with a high ground-ball rate.
Jose Berrios Toronto Blue Jays SP
|Berrios has settled into being sort of what Zack Wheeler used to be: a stable enough innings-eater who'll deliver an ERA in the mid-threes with a middling strikeout rate. He'll be bolstered by the Blue Jays offense but is decidedly mid-tier.
Logan Webb San Francisco Giants SP
|He declared himself to the world this postseason, but Fantasy Baseballers had already come to know him as one of the most bankable pitchers in the second half, consistently going six-plus while keeping the ball on the ground.
Freddy Peralta Milwaukee Brewers SP
|Pairing an improved slider with a deceptive fastball made Peralta's transition to the rotation even easier than expected and established him as an elite strikeout pitcher. He could jump 10 spots if he ups his workload this year.
Joe Musgrove San Diego Padres SP
|The experience of rostering Musgrove was more frustrating than his final numbers would have you believe, but the occasional early hooks and inconsistent strikeout totals nonetheless added up to a breakout year. You could certainly do worse.
Luis Castillo Cincinnati Reds SP
|Yes, he rebounded from a disastrous first couple months, delivering a 2.73 ERA over his final 22 starts, but the WHIP and strikeout rate were merely so-so during that stretch. He's solid enough but no longer to be mistaken for an ace.
Shohei Ohtani Los Angeles Angels DH
|On sites like CBS where you can use him as either a hitter or pitcher, he'll be drafted well before this, but on sites that offer a separate pitcher version, this ranking seems right. It's ace production but with long delays between starts.
Blake Snell San Diego Padres SP
|An adductor strain prevented us from finding out if he could keep it going another month, but a switch flipped for Snell in August, his 1.83 ERA and 13.9 K/9 in eight starts reminding us of his former Cy Young self.
Yu Darvish San Diego Padres SP
|Just when it seemed like the 35-year-old had stabilized as a no-questions-asked ace, Darvish collapsed down the stretch. He got burned by the long ball, but the skill indicators didn't change much otherwise, offering hope for a rebound.
Justin Verlander Houston Astros SP
|Reminder: Verlander had 21 wins and 300 strikeouts when last healthy. He'll have had plenty of time to recover from Tommy John surgery by the time 2022 kicks off, but he'll also be 39. An impressive spring could rocket him up these rankings.
Carlos Rodon Chicago White Sox SP
|His free agency will be one to monitor both for where he lands and what kind of contract he gets given his health and velocity concerns down the stretch. The 2.37 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 12.6 K/9 certainly make the risk worth the reward at this point.
Alek Manoah Toronto Blue Jays SP
|The big fella could stand to put the ball in the air less but turned in an awfully impressive rookie season given that he made use of only one offspeed pitch and entered with just 17 professional innings to his name. Bigger things to come.
Ranger Suarez Philadelphia Phillies RP
|The best-kept secret of the second half had a 1.12 ERA in three months as a reliever and then a 1.51 ERA in two months as a starter, going six-plus innings in his final five outings. He specializes in ground balls but misses enough bats to matter.
Pablo Lopez Miami Marlins SP
|Lopez was on his way to Joe Musgrove-like numbers before a rotator cuff strain took him out at the All-Star break. It's fair to question his durability given that he has yet to make it even 120 innings, but the Marlins were working him like an ace before the injury.
Chris Bassitt Oakland Athletics SP
|It's hard to make sense of Bassitt's success the past couple years, looking at the underlying numbers, but there has been no letup during that time. Anyone who goes seven innings as consistently as he does deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Lance McCullers Houston Astros SP
|He pushed past 160 innings for the first time but then ran into forearm issues in the postseason, again raising the question of how hard the Astros should work him. You love the strikeouts and ground balls, but the walks do hold him back.
Shane Baz Tampa Bay Rays SP
|Is it too aggressive? Maybe, especially given that the Rays might be the most likely team to suppress his innings. But his fastball/slider combo is just so devastating, and now that he's learned to control it, I weep for the rest of the AL East.
Framber Valdez Houston Astros SP
|No innings suppression here. Volume is actually the selling point for Valdez, whose best-in-the-league ground-ball rate can make quick work of a lineup when he's hitting his spots. Control often eludes him, though.
Dylan Cease Chicago White Sox SP
|Cease finally unlocked the swing-and-miss potential of his electric arsenal, which was a big step in his development, but efficiency remains an issue. You draft him here for the upside, hoping for continuing improvement.
Shane McClanahan Tampa Bay Rays SP
|The left-hander became a better pitcher over the course of his rookie season and finished with what would have been a top-five xFIP and a top-six swinging-strike rate if he had the innings to qualify. He's more hittable than you'd expect given his stuff, though.
Just for fun, here's what I'm thinking for 41-55:
41. Tyler Mahle, CIN
42. Nathan Eovaldi, BOS
43. Sean Manaea, OAK
44. Marcus Stroman, free agent
45. Adam Wainwright, STL
46. Trevor Rogers, MIA
47. Luis Garcia, HOU
48. Mike Clevinger, SD
49. Noah Syndergaard, free agent
50. Zack Greinke, free agent
51. Aaron Civale, CLE
52. Ian Anderson, ATL
53. Logan Gilbert, SEA
54. Zac Gallen, ARI
55. Patrick Sandoval, LAA