chris-sale.jpg

So how are we feeling about starting pitcher these days? Misled? Cheated? Bamboozled? Fair to say the position has taken us on a wild ride the past couple years.

Once derided in Fantasy Baseball for its volatility, it quickly surged to the top of the positional pecking order due to a perfect storm of seemingly unrelated factors. The best at the position had become historically good, missing bats at a clip unlike the game had ever seen. Meanwhile, changing workload expectations inhibited newcomers from joining their ranks. At the same time, the juiced ball so lowered the standard for home runs that seemingly any ball put in the air had a chance. Put it all together, and the gap between the haves and have-nots at starting pitcher had become untenably stark.

Position Strategy: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP    

Last year saw the landscape change again. The new baseball made home run prevention a realistic goal, leveling the playing field for pitchers who don't strike out everyone in sight, and the foreign substance crackdown made it so the very best pitchers weren't so otherworldly. The net result is a resurgent middle class at the position -- more of an upper-middle class, actually -- that brings the blaring urgency back down to a reasonable volume.

Starting pitchers are still more of an early-round factor than they've been for most of Fantasy Baseball history -- the position dominates the second round this year -- but after that strange two-year period wherein they seemed like the only path to success, they're back to being just one of many.

I'm still not one to shortchange the position. Many of the factors that brought it to a boiling point remain intact, chief among them being the disparate workloads. But now, instead of going all-in on the position early, I prefer to make the most of that upper-middle class while also leaning into the position's inherent volatility with a quantity-over-quality approach. Specifically, it means drafting seven of my top 60, hoping that at least four make good.

Unless you have my rankings handy, though, it's not so clear where the cutoff is. I'll try to give you a more general sense in the words that follow.

Generally regarded as aces

2022 ADP2021 PPG2021 ERA2021 K/9
817.753.2312.1
1018.432.4212.6
1419.332.479.2
1719.372.4611.8
2116.182.5610.6
2223.871.0814.3
2418.202.7810.4
2616.503.1712.5
2917.552.969.5
3814.343.5310.1
3912.454.6311.1
4214.263.198.8
4617.562.8411.5
5315.292.6910.1
6016.772.8110.6
8815.463.3410.5

Again, the first eight or so are typically gone by the end of Round 2, so the demand for the elite remains high even if it isn't as justified as it was a year ago. While I'd be willing to take Zack Wheeler or Shane Bieber (or even Gerrit Cole, really) if turn order demands it, I'm more inclined to go hitter-hitter with my first two picks, particularly in a categories league. I may sell out harder for the high-end hurlers in a points league, especially with there being so few hitter spots to fill in that format, but the approach would still be nothing like last year.

Bottom line is that I'm perfectly content to settle for Julio Urias or Sandy Alcantara or even, like, Aaron Nola as my No. 1 starting pitcher (he was much better last year than his ERA would suggest, for what it's worth). The ultimate failsafe is Charlie Morton, who's inexplicably going 30 picks later than anyone else in this group. He may be old, but then again, so is Max Scherzer. And given all the things that could go wrong for a starting pitcher, age is among the least of my concerns anyway. At his cost, Morton is a must for me, but I'd of course rather nab him as my No. 2 than my No. 1.

The elephant in the room is Jacob deGrom being only the No. 6 pitcher by ADP even though he's still No. 1 by ability. Yeah, there are real concerns about his elbow, which shut him down in early July. An MRI revealed a UCL tear at one point, though it's supposedly gone now. It's a lot of risk to take on with an early-round pick, but it may be worth it if he looks healthy and effective in spring training.

Could easily become aces

2022 ADP2021 PPG2021 ERA2021 K/9
1815.913.1810.8
5012.333.1611.0
5115.052.8112.2
6214.153.229.8
6616.183.048.6
6814.813.529.6
7410.393.989.2
7515.043.039.6
7813.893.1810.1
7914.773.3710.0
9112.354.2210.8
10510.304.2011.9
10622.50^2.58^12.1^
12514.773.5510.7

^last healthy season (2019 for Verlander)

This group of pitchers doesn't come with the same assurances as the previous group, but I still think you could reasonably predict a stud outcome for any of them. Chris Sale, Jack Flaherty, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw have all been there before but have since been relegated by varying health concerns. Freddy Peralta, Logan Webb and Frankie Montas all showed that kind of potential last season but have to prove they can sustain it over 180-plus innings. Note that Shohei Ohtani is the least likely of this group to become a true Fantasy ace because he doesn't take a regular fifth turn in the rotation. Good as he is as a pitcher, his hitting prowess is the reason he's being drafted so high.

I'm looking to take at least two from this group. If I was shut out in the previous group, three is almost a necessity. I'm not as wild about drafting Jack Flaherty, whose durability issues have been recurring, or Clayton Kershaw, whose threat of Tommy John surgery is even more pronounced than deGrom's. As you can see from Kershaw's ADP, though, the discount may be too great to pass up.

The ones I'm most likely to draft, given the cost, are Montas, who became a bat-misser on the level of Max Scherzer over his final 15 starts last year, compiling a 2.11 ERA, and Justin Verlander, who was of course in the conversation for best pitcher in baseball before needing Tommy John surgery in 2020. He had 21 wins and 300 strikeouts in his last healthy season, for crying out loud. Who else can deliver numbers like that? Sure, maybe he won't throw as many innings in his first year back, but he's 39. How much does he need to save for future years?

Show many ace-like qualities

2022 ADP2021 PPG2021 ERA2021 K/9
8915.583.2210.2
9612.753.9112.3
9712.662.6410.6
10211.703.4310.3
10417.232.3712.6
11812.433.0710.1
12817.002.0212.2
12915.983.159.1
13114.843.148.4
1478.241.369.1
15716.63^3.39^10.4^
16417.473.057.6
16613.25^3.02^8.6^
19013.47^4.28^9.2^

^last healthy season (2020 for Clevinger, 2019 for Syndergaard, 2018 for Severino)

My thinking for these pitchers is that while they may resemble aces inning for inning, they're not equipped to take on that sort of workload, whether because they're too inexperienced (Trevor Rogers, Shane Baz), too injury-prone (Carlos Rodon, Pablo Lopez) or coming back from surgery (Luis Severino, Mike Clevinger). Those whose innings are curtailed through phantom IL stints or other periods of inactivity are greatly preferred to those who never miss a turn but last only 4-5 innings. Unfortunately, it's the younger, more exciting pitchers who most often suffer from the latter approach.

There are two pitchers here who don't fit in the same mold as the rest. Chris Bassitt and Adam Wainwright measure up to the aces in terms of volume, but not ratios -- or more specifically, strikeouts. That's the way I prefer it, though. It puts them in a better position to win games than the reverse, and a lesser strikeout rate over more innings could still yield more total strikeouts than a greater strikeout rate over fewer innings. Hey, Wainwright was a top-10 pitcher in both 5x5 and points scoring last year. There's some downside risk, sure, but at Pick 164, it's silly to harp on it.

Framber Valdez is another innings-eater who breaks the mold, but his issues have to do more with WHIP than with strikeouts. Like Severino and Clevinger, Noah Syndergaard is also coming back from Tommy John surgery, and while all have delivered ace numbers in the past, I don't think they'll be given the free rein Verlander will. Ranger Suarez's numbers deserve special distinction here. The ground-ball specialist spent much of the year in the bullpen, but even in his 12 starts, he had a 1.51 ERA. And he only seemed to get better once he was stretched out to six innings.

Also fine

2022 ADP2021 PPG2021 ERA2021 K/9
11913.183.7510.5
1249.374.3010.3
13312.713.588.7
13812.983.759.6
14112.503.919.7
14212.383.309.7
14910.614.7410.6
15610.714.1910.3
16512.033.027.9
18912.543.628.2
19214.153.627.6
19514.073.178.2
21314.883.847.2
21512.693.839.9
22312.094.408.8
22510.573.839.3
2298.842.897.3

That preferred top 60 of mine ends somewhere in this range of pitchers. Not all are included in it, but most are. Tyler Mahle, Nathan Eovaldi, Sean Manaea and Marcus Stroman all have clear limits to their upside but should deliver respectable numbers across the board, with enough innings to make it count. Ian Anderson, Luis Garcia and John Means may have more upside to tap into, and Eduardo Rodriguez is a trendy bounce-back pick as someone who greatly underperformed all his expected stats last year.

Aaron Civale, meanwhile, has gone from darling pick to afterthought even though he was pretty solid last year. He generally worked deep into his starts, too, though due to injury, you wouldn't know it from his season totals.

The Sleepers

2022 ADP2021 PPG2021 ERA2021 K/9
13915.203.1610.3
14810.384.689.7
1683.783.5013.4
17512.084.377.6
1819.164.349.9
1917.143.5211.4
20414.804.0510.1
20610.724.059.9
21110.243.629.7
2189.364.9510.2
23411.734.776.5
2429.404.599.5
25912.333.769.5
2609.145.489.7
2624.406.619.3
2745.086.048.4
2788.503.2310.5
2808.264.318.6
2886.704.578.7
3089.254.529.9
3099.104.199.4
31510.674.419.3
3179.522.9010.0
34612.804.166.3
486-----2.36*14.1*
516-----2.31*13.9*

^last healthy season (2019 for Soroka)
*minor-league stats

It's a big group of sleepers, which is of course inevitable at a position as big as this one. The upside for all is intriguing, but I do think some are closer to meeting theirs than others.

Patrick Sandoval, for instance, began to maximize his bananas changeup for some impressive swing-and-miss numbers before injuring his back last year. Joe Ryan, who dominated the minors on seemingly marginal stuff, continued to defy the scouting reports in his first five major-league starts, offering some hope it's actually sustainable.

The ones I want to draw your attention to, though, are three guys who've been around a while. In fact, for most of the past decade, we've viewed them as top-25 types. Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Carrasco and Zack Greinke may have fallen short last year, but with no clear indicators of a loss of skill. For them to be complete afterthoughts now is just wild to me, especially since they're still equipped to take on a huge workload. I don't see a case for anyone in this group having more upside than them.

Stephen Strasburg and Hyun-Jin Ryu have a similar track record to those three, but the warning signs are clearer, I would say. Tanner Houck is a trendy pick who showed good strikeout potential in abbreviated stints as a starter last year, and I'm not ready to give up on Tony Gonsolin, who the Dodgers need in their rotation more than ever this year.