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2020 Fantasy Baseball Primer: Starting Pitchers

by Carmen Maiorano | @carmsclubhouse | Featured Writer
Jul 17, 2020

In a shortened season, not much has changed at the top since we last covered starters. However, many starters with previous innings restrictions will be let loose, rocketing their value skyward. We will probably see some starters go down with injury due to the shortened ramp-up and on-again, off-again nature of this season. In a chaotic season like this one, it’s best to build a safe floor with your first couple starters and then take a couple of shots later in the draft.

Below, you’ll find grades and notes for my top-100 starting pitchers. With this season being so fluid, this primer is subject to change almost daily, so be sure to monitor the FantasyPros news desk for updates, and feel free to ask me any questions on Twitter @carmsclubhouse. As a reference, SPARPs (Starting Pitchers as Relief Pitchers) were covered in the Relief Pitcher Primer.

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Grade Legend*

A: A no-doubt stud capable of winning you a category
B: A solid, consistent contributor
C: Won’t lose you the category, but won’t win it, either
D: You can do better here
F: You’re getting NOTHING

(*Grades listed are relative to the position and take positional depth into consideration.)

Tier 1

Player Team K ERA WHIP W Notes
Gerrit Cole NYY A+ A+ A+ A+ Cole’s fastball was the best pitch of last year, and going from one analytically advanced team to another won’t hurt him. I don’t think the New York pressure gets to him in this shortened season, and he should get wins in most of his starts.
Jacob deGrom NYM A A+ A A Jacob deGrom has a lower strikeout rate than Cole, and he will also likely win fewer games. With that said, he is easily the second-best pitcher on the board.
Walker Buehler LAD A A+ A A Buehler jumps Scherzer and Verlander due to volume, as I’m expecting both Scherzer and Verlander to pitch slightly fewer innings from the injuries they’ve suffered over the past year.
Max Scherzer WAS A A+ A A Despite his injury in the playoffs last year, it sounds like he is chomping at the bit to get on the mound and face real hitters. The 35-year old has to have a slight decline at some point, right?
Justin Verlander DET A A A+ A Verlander is coming back from groin and back injuries, and I’m expecting an ever-so-slight drip from last year. That still puts him square in tier one.

 
Realistically, Cole and deGrom are ahead of the rest of the pack, and you can interchange Buehler, Scherzer, and Verlander. Buehler represents the safer floor, but you can’t go wrong with any of these pitches. The goal here is to draft one of these pitchers in the early second round after you take a stud hitter.

Tier 2

Player Team K ERA WHIP W Notes
Mike Clevinger CLE A A A- A Clevinger has recovered from another injury and is now the bonafide ace of the Cleveland staff. He has one of the easiest schedules on the docket, making his floor pretty high.
Clayton Kershaw LAD A- A A A Kershaw gets a significant bump in the shortened season, as the main concern with him was that he hasn’t pitched 200+ innings since 2015. The fact that he went to Driveline this winter is the icing on the cake.
Jack Flaherty STL A A A A- Flaherty had an incredible second half last year, and I’m expecting him to continue what made it so special — reduced use of his four-seamer, and increased usage of the curve. His expected stats were right in line with what actually happened, so there’s no flukiness about it.
Stephen Strasburg WAS A- A A A- I’ve hammered this point all offseason: Strasburg tossed 235 innings (including playoffs) in 2019. It is a fool’s errand to think he’ll stay healthy all season, even in a shortened one.
Charlie Morton TBR A A A- A Morton gets a big bump due to reduced innings concerns. He pitched more than usual last year, but not quite as big a jump as Strasburg had.
Shane Bieber CLE A A- A- A- Bieber broke out last year, but his average exit velocity allowed and barrel rate allowed suggest that his ERA could increase.

 
I want my SP1 to have a safe floor, so targeting Flaherty, Bieber, and even Kershaw or Morton works well. Read the draft room. If you have a hitter who provides value in all five categories, grabbing one of these pitchers that fall relative to their ADP is smart.

Tier 3

Player Team K ERA WHIP W Notes
Chris Paddack SDP A- A- A- A- Paddack won’t have any innings restrictions this year, and I’m expecting a refined curveball after the long layoff.
Lucas Giolito CWS A B+ A- A- Giolito fixed his mechanics and increased his changeup usage in exchange for his sinker. Last year wasn’t a fluke.
Patrick Corbin WAS A A- B+ A- Corbin + slider = strikeouts. But, his average fastball (both sinker and four-seam) result in simply an above-average ERA, not an elite one.
Zack Greinke ARI B A- A- A Greinke continues to hum along, and the extended layoff may help him recover from pitching over 230 innings in 2019 (including the postseason). Easily the safest floor in this tier.
Luis Castillo CIN A- A- A- A- Castillo’s only problem is the gopher ball, and homers figure to deviate wildly in this shortened season. He could finish as a top-five starter or not even crack the top 30.
Tyler Glasnow TBR A- A- A- A- Glasnow was elite over 60 innings last year, and while he won’t have a sub-2 ERA again, the underlying metrics suggest a low-3s ERA with elite strikeouts can happen.
Corey Kluber TEX B+ A- A- A- Kluber is primed to bounce back, and his recent intrasquad outing (six innings pitched, nine strikeouts) has me thinking he has a chip on his shoulder.
Blake Snell TBR A- A- B+ B+ Snell’s skills are elite, but it’s hard to believe he’ll make more than ten starts and/or pitch more than 60 innings this year.

 
Assuming that I got one starter from tier one or two, I want my second starting pitcher to come from this tier. If your pick came from tier one, targeting a high-upside play like Glasnow or Castillo results in appropriate risk-taking. If your first pitcher came from tier two and has injury-risk associated with them (Strasburg, Morton, Clevinger), then targeting a safer play like Greinke or Corbin is a viable strategy.

Tier 4

Player Team K ERA WHIP W Notes
Mike Soroka ATL B A B+ A- Soroka’s ability to induce weak contact and strike out just enough hitters puts him in the top-20 starters, and he should get some wins on a great Braves team.
Kyle Hendricks CHC B A- A- A- This is the highest you’ll see Hendricks on a draft board. His ability to induce weak contact and low walk rate get him here, and it’s surprising that he strikes out almost as many batters as Soroka.
Yu Darvish CHC A B A- A- Darvish usually has one flaw in his game, whether that be giving up homers or walking too many batters. He won’t finish here, as his top percentile performance would put him top ten, but he could easily finish outside the top 30.
Brandon Woodruff MIL B+ A- B+ A- Woodruff displayed elite underlying metrics last year, but his injury history leaves me skeptical of making all 12 starts.
Kenta Maeda MIN A- B B+ A- Everyone loves Maeda this year, including me. Great secondary pitches, no innings manipulation, and pitches in the worst division in baseball.
Sonny Gray CIN B+ A- B A- Gray dramatically increased his strikeout rate last year by ditching his sinker and upping his slider usage. Even if only some of his metrics stick, he has a safe floor.
Aaron Nola PHI B+ A- B+ A- Nola just reported to camp after isolating from being exposed to the virus, so I’m not expecting him to exceed 65 innings.
Hyun-Jin Ryu TOR B A- A- A- Ryu’s injury history means I’m not forecasting a full season from him, but he should again be well above-average when he does pitch.
Jose Berrios MIN B+ B B A- Berrios provides a safe floor, and historically, he starts very hot. However, he needs to improve his K-BB rate to take the next step.
Trevor Bauer CIN A B- B- A- Bauer might pitch every fourth day, but that could end up hurting his value, given that he already provides good strikeout value, but lacks in the ratio categories.
Ross Stripling LAD B B B+ A- Stripling should be locked in as the fifth starter, and as a starter, he has provided a better K-BB rate than Berrios over 250+innings.
Julio Urias LAD B A- B A- Urias, even without an innings limitations, will likely get skipped for a start or two due to the Dodgers’ depth. Plus, his walk rate needs to come down.
James Paxton NYY A- B- B A- Paxton is fully recovered from his injury, but his 14%+ HR/FB rate (and underlying metrics) over the last two seasons has me slightly concerned.
Rich Hill MIN B+ B- B+ B+ Hill is ranked higher here than most, but he should dominate the AL Central. The best part is that you don’t have to get Hill in this tier. In a wild season, taking a risk with Hill as your SP4 is a smart move.

 
This tier is where the question marks start to come around. Some of these pitchers (Maeda, Hendricks) are much higher than in the Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR), but there’s something to be said about building a safe floor in an unpredictable season and then taking shots later.

Tier 5

Player Team K ERA WHIP W Notes
Frankie Montas OAK B+ B B- A- Montas is coming off an 80-game suspension, but his splitter is for real. The A’s might be cautious with his innings, however, given that he missed half the year.
Carlos Carrasco CLE B B B B+ Carrasco is ready for a six-inning workload right now, but he will probably face an innings restriction as he gets his first significant action since coming back from leukemia. Don’t bet against him, however, as he produces year-in, year-out when he’s fully healthy.
Madison Bumgarner ARI B B- B B+ Bumgarner might give up more homers moving away from San Francisco, but he should still induce weak contact and suppress baserunners.
Joe Musgrove PIT B B- B B+ Musgrove was supremely unlucky last year — his 63.2% left-on-base rate was significantly worse than the league average. If that self-corrects, he’ll be a bargain.
Robbie Ray ARI A C+ C+ B+ Ray is the strikeout extraordinaire but hasn’t been able to be a fantasy contributor in the ratio categories.
Jesus Luzardo OAK B B B B+ Luzardo tested positive for COVID-19, but he was probably going to pitch fewer than six innings a start and get skipped in the rotation once or twice anyway.
German Marquez COL B+ C+ B- A- Marquez gets dinged by Coors, but he strikes out a ton of hitters and has a solid walk rate, ensuring his WHIP doesn’t kill his value.
Jake Odorizzi MIN B+ B- C+ A- Odorizzi provides volume with a good-but-not-great strikeout rate and average walk rate, making for solid ratios.
Lance Lynn TEX B+ B- C+ A- Lynn was a monster last year, but the increase in strikeouts has to come down a little, right?
Lance McCullers HOU B B C+ A- McCullers has the potential to be a top-ten starter one day, but the Astros figure to somewhat limit his innings as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery, even in a shortened season.
Mike Minor TEX B+ C+ B- A- Minor struggled last year, but he should provide volume, leading to high strikeout and win totals.
Carlos Martinez STL B B C+ B+ Martinez seems to be locked into the rotation, even as the bullpen options for the Cardinals are dwindling with Gallegos still not in camp and John Brebbia out for the year. Martinez was a consistently good starter for multiple years, and I expect him to get back there.
Andrew Heaney LAA B+ C+ B B+ Heaney has a home run and barrel rate problem and an injury history, but he has consistently struck out hitters and presents a ton of upside.
Zac Gallen ARI B+ B- C+ B+ Gallen had a great debut last year, but it will be interesting how he adjusts back to hitters that will get a better glimpse of him this year.
Max Fried ATL B+ C+ C+ A- Fried is like Heaney, minus the injury history but add in a higher walk rate. Fried is lower on my board than most as a result. If he develops his fastball further, he’ll jump up my board in 2021.
Matthew Boyd DET B+ C+ B- B+ Boyd also has a home run problem, but he has a filthy slider and underrated changeup. Being on the Tigers limits his win ceiling.
Eduardo Rodriguez BOS B+ C+ C+ A- Rodriguez had a great barrel rate last year, but he interestingly has always had a league-average or worse home run hate. With him being ill, who knows how many innings he’ll get this year.

 
Frankly, I don’t love this tier of pitchers. I’m more likely to get my SP4 by double-tapping tier three and skipping this tier altogether. There are certainly intriguing options in this tier, but the hitting options available at this point in the draft are also tough to pass up.

Tier 6

Player Team K ERA WHIP W Notes
Anibal Sanchez WAS B C+ B- A- Sanchez has a high floor but a low ceiling. The vet doesn’t do anything special, but he doesn’t do anything poorly, either.
Luke Weaver ARI B B- B- B+ Weaver was having a breakout 2019 until his forearm injury, so I would be surprised if he makes more than 10 starts this season.
Alex Wood LAD B- B- B- B+ Wood was out most of last year with a back injury, but the Dodgers are committed to having him in the rotation. Like Sanchez, he provides slightly above-average value in all categories. He probably won’t pitch more than 55 innings.
Miles Mikolas STL C+ B B B+ Mikolas had a vague arm injury, so I’m not expecting him to pitch more than 55 innings either. He provides great ratios, but nothing in strikeouts.
Nate Pearson TOR B- B- B- B+ Pearson will be called up if the Blue Jays start out hot, and could get 50 innings this year. Those innings should be loaded with strikeouts.
Dustin May LAD C+ A- B- B May had a great debut last year, but he probably won’t make much more than five starts this year, which limits his innings. Expect great ratios when he does pitch.
A.J. Puk OAK B- C+ C+ B Puk should get a similar number of innings as Luzardo, but he lacks the control and command that Luzardo has.
Dylan Bundy LAA B+ C+ C+ B+ Bundy remains an enigma, but he should give up fewer homers going forward.
Garrett Richards SDP B C+ C+ B+ Richards is always injured, but he provides great strikeout value whenever he’s on the bump. He does have a home run problem, which limits his ceiling.
Brendan McKay TBR B- B- B- B McKay will start the season out of the rotation, but the top prospect should get a handful of starts and provide value across the board.
Shohei Ohtani LAA B- B B- B Ohtani will pitch somewhere between 40-45 innings this year, and he should be elite in every category when he does pitch.
Jose Urquidy HOU B- C+ B B+ Urquidy is ill, and his status for Opening Day is in jeopardy. Otherwise, he would have a higher ranking — his changeup is fantastic and he has great control.
Dinelson Lamet SDP B+ C+ C+ B+ Lamet is essentially the opposite of Urquidy — tons of strikeouts, but tons of walks. He only has 187 innings pitched in the majors, so he may need to adapt as hitters figure him out.
Mitch Keller PIT A- C+ C B+ Keller was awful in the bigs last year, but he was very unlucky on balls in play. His dominant strikeout rate and decent walk rate give him plenty of upside.
Caleb Smith MIA A- C C+ B+ Smith was farther up my board in the spring, but after realizing he was lucky on balls in play last year, he falls down a bit. Nonetheless, he’ll start every fifth day, which should give him plenty of strikeouts and potential for wins.
Masahiro Tanaka NYY B C B- B+ Tanaka might miss a start after taking a comebacker to the head, but he’s fortunate that’s the worst-case scenario. Tanaka always gives up dingers, but his low walk rate suppresses his WHIP.
Anthony DeSclafani CIN B C+ B B Desclafani is in the rotation, but he also has a home run problem that gets magnified in his home park.
Marcus Stroman NYM B C+ C A- Stroman is a groundball maestro, which leads to a high BABIP and WHIP. His lack of strikeouts, despite his durability, also limits his ceiling.
Sandy Alcantara MIA B C+ C B+ Alcantara is all about volume, which helps in two categories. But, he walks too many batters to reach the next tier.
Sean Manaea OAK B- C+ B- B+ Manaea was dominant returning from injury last year, but he’s basically Stroman without the durability and groundball rate.
Pablo Lopez MIA B C+ C+ B+ Lopez is basically Manaea (so, a lot like Stroman), but he allows harder contact.
Jon Gray COL B+ C C B+ Gray would be so much higher if he pitched for any other team. Too many base hits and homers does him in.
Ryan Yarbrough TBR B- C+ B- B Yarbrough should open and follow his way into 50+ innings. Despite his horrid September (7.52 ERA), his slightly above-average skills are helpful.
Yonny Chirinos TBR B- C+ B B Chirinos should also accumulate 50 innings, but he has a barrel rate issue. On the other hand, he has a strong average exit velocity, so he doesn’t give up as many other types of hits. A tradeoff between WHIP and ERA.
Dylan Cease CWS A- C C- B+ Cease’s best pitch coming up in the minors was his fastball, but it was by far his worst pitch in the majors. He’s been working on it during the extended layoff, so he presents the most upside in this tier.
Adrian Houser MIL B C+ C B+ Houser is going to get volume and provides a safe floor, but he probably won’t win you your league.
Marco Gonzales SEA B C+ C B+ Gonzales has great control and limits homers, but his lack of strikeouts limits his upside.
Kevin Gausman SFG B C+ C+ B Gausman moving to San Francisco should help his ratios, but he first needs to prove he’s consistent enough to be in the rotation.
Julio Teheran LAA B C+ C B+ Teheran’s walk rate kills his WHIP, but he should provide enough volume to help with wins and strikeouts.
Griffin Canning LAA B- C+ B- B Canning is the opposite of his new teammate — he has an average walk rate will have his innings limited this year as he deals with an arm injury that continues to get patched, but not fixed.
Collin McHugh BOS B- C+ C+ B McHugh will likely get starts this year, but he’s not yet ready for Opening Day and should have his innings limited.
Spencer Howard PHI B- C+ C+ B Howard was rumored to be in the rotation back in May, but he’ll probably be capped around 45 innings. He also needs to improve his walk rate.
Dallas Keuchel CWS B C+ C A- Keuchel will eat innings, but that’s about it at this stage of his career.

 
This tier is filled with volume-heavy, weak ratios pitchers. This is the tier to start taking risks with young flamethrowers like Keller, Lamet, and Cease. If you took your shots early in the draft, then settling for veterans like Keuchel or Gonzales could work…but only if they’re your SP6 or 7.

Tier 7

Player Team K ERA WHIP W Notes
Zack Wheeler PHI C+ C+ B- B Wheeler is expected to have a newborn shortly, and he’s contemplating sitting out the season. He will either finish as a top-40 SP or not pitch at all.
Jordan Montgomery NYY C+ C+ B- B Montgomery will get a shot in the rotation after recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2019, and anyone starting for a stacked Yankees team is worth rostering.
Nathan Eovaldi BOS B C C+ B+ Eovaldi is back in the rotation, and he should provide strikeouts if he stays healthy. Even if he stays healthy, can he limit the homers?
Aaron Civale CLE B- C C+ B+ Civale is a product of Cleveland’s amazing pitching development, but won’t be more than an SP6/7 unless he starts striking guys out.
Mike Foltynewicz ATL B C C+ B+ Foltynewicz doesn’t strike out enough hitters to make up for the walks homers. The Braves are also rumored to not let their starters stretch out due to their dominant bullpen.
Zach Plesac CLE B- C+ C+ B+ Plesac is similar to his teammate Civale — he needs to up his strikeout rate to stand out in fantasy. However, he does have a spot in the rotation and will pitch against the two weakest divisions in baseball.
MacKenzie Gore SDP B- C+ C+ B Gore may not be in the rotation on Opening Day, but he will likely pitch 40-45 innings if the Padres stay in contention. The top pitching prospect in baseball will strike guys out the moment he takes a big-league mound.
Yusei Kikuchi SEA B C- C B+ Kikuchi can’t possibly do worse than last year (5.46 ERA), and reportedly has increased velocity. His HR rate is bound to come down.
Reynaldo Lopez CWS B C- C+ B+ Lopez should be in the rotation most of the year with Michael Kopech opting out, but he needs to be more consistent and establish at least one above-average skill.
Rick Porcello NYM B C- C+ B+ Porcello is an innings-eater who won’t help your ERA. That said, he should provide strikeouts and wins in an unpredictable season.
Johnny Cueto SFG B- C C+ B Cueto has a chance to resurrect his career, but he was very rusty at the end of 2019 and hasn’t pitched much since 2017.
J.A. Happ NYY B C- C B+ Happ, like Montgomery, will start regularly for a great Yankees’ squad. There’s no ceiling here, but he should get some wins.
Chris Bassitt OAK B- C+ C B Bassitt is behind the other starters in Oakland, but he should get at least 50 innings on an injury-prone staff.
Jeff Samardzija SFG B C- C B+ Samardzija is a workhorse, which you know means wins at strikeouts if you’ve made it this far. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Matt Shoemaker TOR C+ C+ C+ B Shoemaker should stick in a poor Blue Jays’ rotation, but he’s only pitched 137 innings over the last three seasons total.
Josh James HOU C+ C+ C+ C James still isn’t in camp, which all but does him in for the last rotation spot. However, he will provide plenty of strikeouts and decent ratios when he does pitch. This is a high-upside play.
Steven Matz NYM B- C- C B+ Matz follows the volume rule, and he’s this far down the list. That should say enough.

 
At this point in the draft for roto leagues, I’m targeting upside and fading all innings-eaters. In other formats like best ball, these volume-heavy starters can provide safe floors and lets you take risks elsewhere. Starters outside the top 100 with upside include the Tigers quad of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Spencer Turnbull, and Tarik Skubal; Patrick Sandoval, Sean Newcomb, Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield, and Forrest Whitley.

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Carmen Maiorano is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Carmen, check out his archive and personal fantasy blogand follow him @carmsclubhouse.

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