Previewing 2020 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 40 starting pitchers show more high-end depth than you might suspect, but Gerrit Cole leads the way
High end starting pitchers are the only worthwhile pitchers in today's homer-heavy environment, but there's more of them than you might suspect, according to Scott White.
Starting pitching was the story of the 2019 Fantasy Baseball season. You were in good shape if you had it and bad shape if you didn't. The proliferation of the long ball combined with new standard practices for usage made the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots the biggest determinant of Fantasy success.
But as this top 40 shows, it may be getting easier to be one of the haves.
Each of the pitchers depicted here has what I'd consider to be ace or near-ace potential. These were the pitchers those of us who didn't have pitching were continually denied in trade attempts. About a quarter of them missed significant time, which is one of the expected pitfalls of investing in pitching, but there are enough of them for you to grab three or four without completely selling out for the position.
And some others who fit that description couldn't even make the cut. Kyle Hendricks, Mike Minor, David Price, German Marquez, Domingo German, Robbie Ray, Luke Weaver, Jake Odorizzi, Marcus Stroman and Dallas Keuchel are among the names I presumed would be in my top 40 but aren't.
Chances are, then, you'll be able to grab five pitchers (whether in the top 40 or beyond) with ace or near-ace potential without breaking a sweat, but there's still a case to be made for grabbing more. Again, injuries will happen at this position, and when the drop-off comes, you don't want any part of what's left. Building in some security at the most pivotal position makes sense.
Go heavy, but don't go crazy would be my initial takeaway.
Gerrit Cole Houston Astros SP
|A late-season push that included nine consecutive starts with double-digit strikeouts clarified Gerrit Cole's spot at the top of the heap, and it almost doesn't matter where he ends up signing. He was a distant No. 1 in both K/9 and xFIP, and he's six years younger than either of the other two in the No. 1 discussion.|
Justin Verlander Houston Astros SP
|Justin Verlander will be 37 at the start of next season, so it's nothing short of amazing he continues to put up Cy Young-caliber numbers year after year with no discernible signs of decline. It seems prudent to downgrade him just because, but with he and Cole being so far ahead of everyone else in 2019, it's not the biggest variable to consider. And honestly, what pitcher isn't at risk of decline?|
Max Scherzer Washington Nationals SP
|Max Scherzer is sort of the knee-jerk pick to go No. 1 at the position, and it's true he led the majors in FIP this year. So as with Verlander, his advanced age doesn't appear to be a major hindrance, but then again, when the alternatives are Cole and Verlander, there's no reason to chance it with a guy who missed much of the second half with back issues.|
Jacob deGrom New York Mets SP
|Back-to-back Cy Young-caliber seasons certainly solidify Jacob deGrom's place in the top five, but he leaves so many points on the table pitching for the Mets. They're not so bad that he's condemned to a bad win-loss record, but you can't bank on wins like you can for the top three (and he falls a little short in the strikeouts anyway).|
Chris Sale Boston Red Sox SP
|This ranking is certain to catch some flak because of the bad press Chris Sale's bad season got and the fact it ended with a (seemingly minor) elbow issue. But if you look beyond the 6-11 record and at the numbers that actually matter, you'll see he ranked behind only Cole in K/9 and behind only Cole and Scherzer in xFIP. And his 14 starts with double-digit strikeouts were topped only by Cole, who made eight more starts.|
Mike Clevinger Cleveland Indians SP
|A velocity bump upped Mike Clevinger's bat-missing ability from good to great, and he would have ranked behind only Scherzer in FIP if he had the innings to qualify. A lengthy bout with a back issue diluted the breakout somewhat, but he was at his best after returning and has previously shown the capacity to throw 200 innings.|
Shane Bieber Cleveland Indians SP
|The line between the new Indians' co-aces is razor thin. Clevinger's strikeout rate is higher, but Shane Bieber's strikeout total ranked behind only Cole and Verlander. He piles up innings by pounding the strike zone while still coaxing whiffs with a top-of-the-line slider.|
Jack Flaherty St. Louis Cardinals SP
|It would have seemed crazy to rank Jack Flaherty this high at the All-Star break, but that's when the switch flipped for him and he became an unhittable, bat-missing force, compiling a 0.91 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 11.2 K/9 in 15 second-half starts. Walker Buehler's full-season ratios are little nicer, but you owe it to yourself to find out just how far Flaherty can take this. |
Walker Buehler Los Angeles Dodgers SP
|After a sluggish April brought about by the Dodgers more or less allowing him to skip spring training, Walker Buehler put together a 2.88 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 11.2 K/9. He should be fully equipped to take on an ace workload now and has that rare combination of stuff and command that should propel him to perennial Cy Young contention.|
Stephen Strasburg Washington Nationals SP
|An increased reliance on his curveball shielded Stephen Strasburg from the damages of a homer-happy league, upping his ground-ball rate in a way that didn't interfere with his natural bat-missing ability. His 3.17 xFIP, good for fourth in all of baseball, has him firmly back in the ace conversation, but of course, 2019 was an exception for him in terms of staying healthy.|
Clayton Kershaw Los Angeles Dodgers SP
|For the first time in four years, Clayton Kershaw didn't have his season interrupted by back issues, which should allay fears of a premature decline. He doesn't throw as hard or miss as many bats as he used, but with a slight rebound in 2019, he appears to have leveled off as an ace still.|
Patrick Corbin Washington Nationals SP
|Turns out the 2018 breakthrough was indeed real. Patrick Corbin's heavy slider usage continued to pile up strikeouts, and his ground-ball tendencies helped combat the devastating effects of a record-setting home run season. It's a stable profile in a steady organization, so you can draft him with confidence this time around.|
Lucas Giolito Chicago White Sox SP
|Lucas Giolito finally made good on his top prospect pedigree -- and right about the time most people had given up on it. The changes were wholesale, from upping his velocity to shortening his delivery for better command to altering his pitch selection so that the fastball and changeup played better off each other, there's no denying he was a different pitcher this time around.|
Luis Castillo Cincinnati Reds SP
|With the league's fourth-best swinging-strike rate and second-best ground-ball rate, Luis Castillo is uniquely adapted to combat the launch angle revolution and seemed more sure of himself in 2019. A bumpy last two months might make for some hesitance to target him like an ace, but the irony is that he may have cleared the last hurdle in his development during that stretch, significantly cutting down on his walks.|
Aaron Nola Philadelphia Phillies SP
|Uncharacteristically spotty command plagued Aaron Nola at times in 2019, most notably in April and September, but for the four months in the middle, he was every bit the ace you drafted him to be. We most likely just witnessed his downside, given his ability to miss bats, put the ball on the ground and pitch deep into games, and it was still pretty studly in a miserable pitching environment. |
Blake Snell Tampa Bay Rays SP
|Judging by the peripherals, including what would be the top swinging-strike rate (ahead of even Cole) if he had the innings to qualify, Blake Snell is still the same dominant pitcher who won the AL Cy Young in 2019, but his durability is rightfully in question. It's not just this year's injuries, either of which could recur, but also the fact the Rays have rarely let him pitch beyond six innings.|
Zack Greinke Houston Astros SP
|Zack Greinke is consistently sold short in Fantasy circles, and even though he'll be 36 next year, he'll also in line for a full season with the Astros supporting cast, which means stock up overall. Reliable as he is, though, he just can't compete with the 16 names ahead of him in terms of overall upside -- and specifically strikeout potential.|
Charlie Morton Tampa Bay Rays SP
|Charlie Morton showed he could thrive outside the purview of the Astros' analytics department and responded well to taking on an ace workload for the first time. He has all the skills of a high-end hurler, piling up strikeouts and limiting home runs en route to having the fourth-best FIP (behind only Scherzer, Cole and deGrom) in 2019. The limited track record for a pitcher on the wrong side of 35, though, should give you pause.|
Noah Syndergaard New York Mets SP
|Wouldn't you know that the year Noah Syndergaard stayed healthy for 32 starts, he'd struggle to find his slider, enduring lengthy stretches of ineffectiveness? He throws as hard as ever and presumably has the same upside as always, but it's two years in a row now that he's underwhelmed with the strikeouts. And of course, the injury history is pretty extensive.|
Luis Severino New York Yankees SP
|Luis Severino, of course, missed nearly all of 2019 with a lat injury but looked good enough in his September return that it's fair to assume he's still the textbook ace from 2017 and 2018 who's big on strikeouts, short on walks and predisposed to putting the ball on the ground. But it's also fair to wonder about the risk of recurrence and if the Yankees will handle him more carefully this time around.|
Tyler Glasnow Tampa Bay Rays SP
|The health concerns for Tyler Glasnow, who missed more than half the season with a strained forearm, are similar to Severino's, but of course, he doesn't have the same track record of durability or effectiveness. What he does have is a 1.78 ERA supported by a just-as-bonkers 2.26 FIP, and if he continues to find the strike zone and stay on the field, he'll go far.|
Yu Darvish Chicago Cubs SP
|Including Flaherty, no pitcher had a bigger in-season transformation than Yu Darvish. His inability to find the strike zone early was particularly damning coming off an injury-shortened season, but then it's like he couldn't miss, issuing just seven walks over his final 14 starts for a 2.95 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 12.6 K/9. He may not be the most bankable ace out there, but he clearly still offers that kind of potential.|
Trevor Bauer Cincinnati Reds SP
|Trevor Bauer still misses bats aplenty and had stretches in 2019 when he looked like an ace. But his constant tinkering, specifically backing off his curveball in favor of a cutter, may have gotten the better of him, leading him to put more balls in the air at a time when home run prevention may be a pitcher's No. 1 objective.|
Brandon Woodruff Milwaukee Brewers SP
|As with Glasnow, Brandon Woodruff's breakout season gets an "incomplete" due to injury, but he certainly rose to the occasion in his long-awaited look as a full-time starter, overpowering hitters with one of the most high-impact fastballs in the game. He also showed the makings of an innings-eater once the Brewers stopped holding him back in May, at one point throwing seven-plus innings five times during an eight-start stretch.|
Sonny Gray Cincinnati Reds SP
|Sonny Gray is yet another pitcher whose 2019 season turned on a dime, leading to a 1.94 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 11.0 K/9 over his final 15 starts. And while his profile, namely the typically high ground-ball rate and better-than-ever strikeout rate, do make him out to be a high-end pitcher, he's twice taken us down this path before only to explode spectacularly. Exercise caution.|
Chris Paddack San Diego Padres SP
|Chris Paddack has a changeup that could challenge Luis Castillo's for best in baseball and an outstanding concept of the strike zone for such a young pitcher. One area where he falls short, though, is his tendency to put the ball in the air. He's still incomplete developmentally, needing to establish a reliable breaking ball and continue to build up his innings.|
Hyun-Jin Ryu Los Angeles Dodgers SP
|So much went right for Hyun-Jin Ryu in 2019, both in terms of staying healthy and overachieving statistically, that it would be reckless to predict another Cy Young-caliber season for him. But there may be a tendency to overreact and suggest he's not actually a high-end pitcher. A modest strikeout rate is perfectly acceptable for someone who dominates the other two of legs of the FIP triangle (limiting walks and home runs), so as long he signs with a club that gives him the requisite run support, he shouldn't have trouble living up to this ranking.|
Mike Soroka Atlanta Braves SP
|Mike Soroka presumably gets more of a pass since he's doing it at age 22 rather than 32, but peripherally, he rates as a slightly lesser version of Ryu, succeeding more by commanding the strike zone and inducing ground balls than by missing bats. With his high pitching IQ and ability to manipulate the ball, I wouldn't rule out him developing into more of a bat-misser, but how long it will take exactly is difficult to say.|
Jose Berrios Minnesota Twins SP
|Jose Berrios took a small step backward after his breakthrough 2018, and it came back to bite him hard over the final two months, when he had a 5.83 ERA. He's efficient and a workhorse, which counts for a great deal in this pitching environment, but he's lacking the sort of swing-and-miss pitch needed to be a true ace.|
James Paxton New York Yankees SP
|While he took a tumultuous path there, James Paxton finished with about the same ERA he had last year and what would have been top-10 K/9 and swinging-strike rates if he had the innings to qualify. But lacking the innings to qualify is forever the story with him heading into his age-31 season, so by now, you obviously have to factor it into the cost.|
Lance Lynn Texas Rangers SP
|Having undergone Tommy John surgery and returned to an environment ill-suited for his strengths, Lance Lynn appeared resigned to play out his days as a space-filler for pitching-deprived clubs. But he took a turn for the spectacular in his age-32 season, far outperforming his previous best efforts in both strikeouts and walks. You can't just presume he'll do it again, though, seeing as he'd never done it before.|
Corey Kluber Cleveland Indians SP
|A fractured forearm and subsequent injuries while on rehab assignment ended Corey Kluber's 2019 in early May, but considering he was a perennial Cy Young candidate for five years before that, this ranking may be a pessimistic read of the situation. On the other hand, it's a credit to the emerging talent at the position that we don't need to ask so much from a 34-year-old who barely pitched the previous year and didn't look good when he did.|
Madison Bumgarner San Francisco Giants SP
|Madison Bumgarner took steps to reverse the downward spiral that began with a dirt bike accident in 2017, regaining some lost velocity on his cutter and bringing his strikeout and swinging-strike rates closer to where they were before the injury. Of course, his successes were again mostly confined to his home starts, which is a scary thought as he enters free agency.|
Zack Wheeler New York Mets SP
|A perennial tease whose career has been defined more by what he could be than what he actually is, Zack Wheeler is nonetheless pretty good as is. He's above-average in terms of missing bats, limiting walks and avoiding home runs, and his arsenal may be too limited to expect anything more than that. Maybe his new organization is able to mine something the Mets never could, but for now, you should assume more of the same.|
Frankie Montas Oakland Athletics SP
|I may actually be higher on Frankie Montas than this if it turns out the rest of the Fantasy-playing world is, too, but I have a feeling he'll be overlooked or underestimated after his 2019 season was wrecked by an 80-game PED suspension. I seriously doubt, though, that a drug was responsible for the development of a splitter that serves as a perfect counter to his fastball, elevating both his swinging-strike and ground-ball rates.|
Carlos Carrasco Cleveland Indians SP
|Carlos Carrasco has been a fixture in the top 15 for the past few years, but it's impossible to predict what kind of impact his recovery from leukemia will have on his performance, particularly in terms of endurance. He already had a tendency to get hurt and is on the downswing of his career at age 33, so better safe than sorry.|
Zac Gallen Arizona Diamondbacks SP
|The way Zac Gallen performed over his final 10 starts -- compiling a 2.50 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.9 K/9, most of it coming after getting dealt by the Marlins -- was just a glimpse of his upside. Command was his calling card in the minors, and walks have been the biggest issue early in his career. He may have Aaron Nola potential once he gets it sorted out.|
Max Fried Atlanta Braves SP
|Typically when a pitcher exceeds expectations, a look at his xFIP reveals it isn't supported by the underlying ratios, but Max Fried is one of those rare cases of breaking out and underachieving at the same time. A victim of both bad BABIP and bad home run luck, his 3.32 xFIP ranked ninth in all of baseball, ahead of Walker Buehler and Jack Flaherty, among others.|
Eduardo Rodriguez Boston Red Sox SP
|My loose definition for an "ace" in these days of the quick hook is a pitcher with the capacity for 200 innings and 200 strikeouts, which are both marks Eduardo Rodriguez achieved for the first time in 2019. It may mean I need to tweak my definition slightly -- the ERA and WHIP weren't quite up to snuff -- but except for maybe the 19-6 record, it doesn't look like he overachieved in any way.|
Matthew Boyd Detroit Tigers SP
|You may remember Matthew Boyd began 2019 showing big breakout potential, and his K/9 and swinging-strike rates both ultimately ranked in the top 10. But he was dead last in HR/9, and it's hard to discount too much given his extreme fly-ball tendencies. Factor in the likelihood he's still pitching for a miserable Tigers team, and it's hardly a sure thing he takes another step forward.|
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