Pitchers to Reach for in 2019 Fantasy Baseball Drafts
While the title says pitchers, it could say starting pitchers instead. There are a few relief pitcher-eligible hurlers listed below, but all are projected starters. As FanGraphs’ Alex Chamberlain tweeted out last month in response to Alex Fast’s Pitcher List article about the position’s changing landscape, closers are historically a bad investment. I’m not opposed to nabbing a top-flight reliever around their ADP (or lower, if they slip), but I certainly wouldn’t advocate reaching for one. Furthermore, I’m even less inclined to advocate reaching for a less stable, middle-tier closer.
The following starters, however, are worth grabbing before their ADP in order to assure yourself of their services. A few names should look familiar from my previous preseason pieces. Instead of rehashing what I’ve already written, I’ll link to the other posts where I discussed them. Having said that, I felt it was worth pounding the table for them one more time.
Carlos Carrasco (SP – CLE) – 37.0 ADP, SP11
Among qualified pitchers since 2016, Carrasco ranks 16th in ERA (3.33), 10th in FIP (3.21), sixth in xFIP (3.14), seventh in SIERA (3.26), 11th in WHIP (1.12), 12th in strikeout percentage (27.8%), fourth in swinging-strike percentage (13.7 SwStr%), and tied for 19th in innings pitched (538.1), according to FanGraphs. During that three-year span, he’s also been a model of consistency, sporting an ERA low of 3.29 (2017) and an ERA high of 3.38 (2018).
From a fantasy ace, you want a high floor and a high ceiling. Carrasco brings both to the table. He has bested 190 innings in each of the last two years, too. He’s a top-10 fantasy starting pitcher — my eighth-ranked SP, to be exact — and should be selected in the top-30 picks.
Jameson Taillon (SP – PIT) – 69.0 ADP, SP21
Taillon ranks as a back-end SP2 by ADP, but he’s my SP13. Last year was a breakout season in which he demonstrated workhorse ability by piling up 191.0 innings across 32 starts. The righty’s 3.20 ERA — the value of which was amplified as one of 23 starters to eclipse 190 innings — was 16th-best among qualified hurlers.
It’s usually best to look at a pitcher’s full-season statistics as opposed to putting too much stock in his most recent work. Having said that, there are exceptions to the rule. If a pitcher showcases a significant decline in velocity later in the season, it could be a sign of a hidden injury. Another exception to the rule is when a pitcher demonstrates a major adjustment to his pitch mix or arsenal. In Taillon’s case, it might be prudent to parse his 2018 stats thanks to the inclusion of a slider in his repertoire.
FanGraphs first credits him with throwing a slider in his May 11 start versus San Francisco. Brooks Baseball doesn’t credit him with throwing any sliders until May 22’s start at Cincinnati. Neither site said he deployed any on May 16 versus the White Sox. He didn’t kick up his slider usage to a double-digit percentage until May 27 against the Cardinals. In 22 starts spanning 139.2 innings from May 27 through the end of the year, Taillon ripped off a 2.71 ERA (3.20 FIP, 3.45 xFIP, and 3.67 SIERA), 1.14 WHIP, 5.3 BB%, 23.1 K%, and 11.4 SwStr%. He’s a borderline fantasy ace.
Zack Wheeler (SP – NYM) – 91.6 ADP, SP27
Wheeler is yet another pitcher whom I rank as a top-20 starting pitcher (SP16) despite an ADP outside that range. After missing the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons due to Tommy John surgery, he was rocky in his first year back. However, he not only bounced back to his exciting pre-injury form of 2013-2014, but he actually kicked things up a notch.
Perhaps the primary reason Wheeler pitched at the highest level of his career was huge strides in control. Prior to 2018, Wheeler owned a 10.2 BB% in 371.2 innings and started batters off with a first-pitch strike only 55.3% of the time. Last year, he walked just 7.4% of the batters he faced and sported a career-best 62.1 F-Strike%. Perhaps it’s a product of putting hitters behind more often, but he also coaxed a career-best 33.5 O-Swing% out of them.
Wheeler’s control gains are an exciting development for a pitcher with a high-octane arsenal who misses bats (24.1 K%) and avoids hard contact. Wheeler’s 24.8 Hard% was the lowest among qualified hitters in 2018, and before chalking it up entirely to good luck, consider the fact he posted a 29.6 Hard% in 2013 and 30.0 Hard% in 2013. His career 28.7 Hard% would have tied for the seventh-best mark last year among qualified pitchers. In other words, even if he regresses to his career mark, he still appears to possess the skill of avoiding hard contact at an elite rate. He’s a high-end SP2 with the potential to crack the position’s top 10 this season.
Charlie Morton (SP – TB) – 117.6 ADP, SP30
Morton reinvented himself as a hard-throwing, bat-missing hurler in his two years with the Astros. He technically showcased the extra oomph on his heater in an injury-shortened (17.1 innings) season with the Phillies in 2016, but he proved his new skill level over the last two years. He didn’t quite pitch enough innings to hit the qualified pitcher mark during that two-year stretch, but he did best 300 innings (313.2 in the regular season and another 25.2 innings in the postseason).
Among the pitchers who’ve pitched at least 300 innings since 2017, the reinvented righty ranks 17th in ERA (3.36), 18th in FIP (3.53), 16th in xFIP (3.49), 17th in SIERA (3.61), tied for 16th in WHIP (1.18), 11th in strikeout percentage (27.7 K%), and 20th in swinging-strike percentage (11.5%). From a skills perspective, he’s an easy top-20 starting pitcher. After baking in the likelihood of finishing between 150-170 innings, he checks in as my SP20. Morton should be selected among the top-100 players in fantasy drafts.
Tyler Glasnow (SP/RP – TB) – 167.2 ADP, SP48
I wrote in great length about Glasnow among the starting pitchers with relief pitcher eligibility, and he’s my 30th ranked SP for this year. I’d be willing to pull the trigger on him more than 50 picks earlier than his ADP.
Joe Musgrove (SP – PIT) – 225.2 ADP, SP64
Musgrove’s 4.06 ERA in 19 starts spanning 115.1 innings last year isn’t too shabby, but it also fell short of his ERA estimators (3.59 FIP, 3.92 xFIP, 3.93 SIERA, and 3.43 DRA). It’s possible Musgrove, even without skills growth, cracks the top-50 starting pitchers this year. Yet there are also reasons to believe in huge growth in 2019. Last year’s 11.4 SwStr% would have checked in at 21st among qualified pitchers if he pitched enough innings.
The righty has two top-shelf put-away pitches. According to FanGraphs, his slider generated a 17.6 SwStr% and his changeup sported a gaudy 24.7 SwStr%. Despite yielding a .331 wOBA to left-handed batters and a .267 wOBA to right-handed batters last year, his changeup (51 wRC+ allowed last year) should give him the weapon necessary to keep lefties in check. The goods are there for a breakout, and a pitch-mix tweak could be all that’s necessary to unlock his potential. Furthermore, even if he continues down the same path, he should provide value in line with his SP65 cost. Take a chance on growth and reach a little earlier for him.
Tyler Skaggs (SP – LAA) – 231.0 ADP, SP66
I gushed a bit about Skaggs as a post-hype sleeper a few weeks ago. He’s my 34th-ranked starting pitcher and should be popped within the first 175 picks. I wouldn’t ridicule a gamer for using a top-150 pick on him, but at his current ADP, that’s probably not necessary in most leagues.
Kyle Gibson (SP – MIN) – 288.4 ADP, SP83
Speaking of changing pitch mix and thriving, Gibson has done just that in the last season-plus. The 31-year-old righty began to figure things out in his last 11 starts in 2017, and he built on that success last year. Prior to turning the corner, Gibson was an unsuccessful sinker-heavy pitcher. Prior to getting recalled from the minors on Aug. 5, 2017, his lowest single-season sinker usage percentage was 39.45, according to Brooks Baseball. He finished 2017 using the pitch only 27.56% of the time, and last year he threw it on 33.93% of his pitches. He cut his sinker usage in favor of more four-seamers.
Gibson’s slider, curve, and changeup have all consistently missed bats since trimming down his sinkers. Maybe that’s a product of changing his fastball usage. Regardless, his slider is a nasty strikeout pitch that generated an eye-popping 26.6% SwSwtr rate. He set a career-high 11.5 SwStr% last year (10.0 SwStr% in 2017 was his previous best), and he continues to garner plenty of ground balls (49.8 % last year and 51.5% for his career).
Gibson has already demonstrated the ability and willingness to adjust his pitch mix. Scaling back the usage of his fastballs in favor of his secondary offering could unlock another jump in production. All the same, last year’s work — he ranked 41st among starting pitchers — justifies selection much earlier than his consensus ADP. He’s my 44th-ranked starting pitcher and worthy of a top-200 pick.
Matt Strahm (SP/RP – SD) – 351.8, SP104
Strahm joined Glasnow in the previously linked starting pitchers with reliever eligibility piece, and he’s rightfully creating some buzz by dazzling this spring. I’ll double down on my previous assertion that he’s a top-50 SP this year.