Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Starting Pitchers (2023)
Should fantasy baseball managers spend up or spend down for starting pitching?
I’ve heard compelling arguments from smart people on both sides of the aisle, and I don’t know that there’s a definitive answer.
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Catchers
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: First Basemen
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Second Basemen
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Shortstop
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Third Basemen
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Outfielders
Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy
Some fantasy managers reject the notion that we should have a pay-up or pay-down pitching strategy going into our drafts and auctions. One school of thought is that we should simply focus on value-hunting. Another approach is to do the opposite of whatever the competition is doing: If starting pitching is expensive, then capitalize on the value elsewhere and cut corners on starters; if starting pitching is cheap, then scoop up a bunch of top starters.
I’m an avowed spend-down guy. I’m not adamant that it’s the “right” approach. It may not be the right approach for you personally. But allow me to make the case for spending down on starting pitching.
Hitters are generally more predictable than pitchers. There are exceptions, of course. Max Scherzer has been quite predictable over his long, illustrious career. When Scherzer is healthy, he consistently makes hitters look silly.
But then there’s Jose Berrios.
Berrios was on one of my dynasty teams for several years, so I followed him closely and watched as many of his starts as I could.
Early in his career, Berrios gradually increased his strikeout rate and reduced his walk rate. He made incremental gains in velocity and groundball rate. In 2021, he posted a career-low 3.47 ERA, led the American League in batters faced and finished ninth in the AL Cy Young voting. It seemed as if Berrios was still in the ascending phase of his career. He aced the eye test, too.
Then, in 2022, the wheels came off. Berrios’ hit rate and walk rate jumped. His strikeout rate plummeted. He yielded home runs at an alarming rate. He finished the season with a 5.23 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. Berrios was toxic to fantasy rosters. What’s frustrating is that there was no clear reason for the decline. Berrios had some bad luck on batted balls, but not that bad. There were no reported injuries. It was an inexplicable collapse.
Granted, Berrios was an extreme case of volatility, even by the standards of MLB pitchers. But make no mistake: There is a great deal of year-to-year volatility in starting pitcher performance. We routinely see starting pitchers’ ERAs go up or down more than a full run from year to year. Pitcher win totals often aren’t correlated with ERA and WHIP. A pitcher’s hit rate and gopher ball rate might oscillate wildly from year to year. Good luck mastering the dark art of pitcher evaluation, which is more alchemy than science.
Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Starting Pitchers
I don’t claim to be a great evaluator of pitchers. Other analysts parse pitcher metrics far more carefully than I do. They’ll bump up a pitcher in their rankings if he adds a new pitch or gains a few decimal points’ worth of velocity. I mostly focus on strikeouts and walks because I think those two stats tell us more about pitcher performance than any other.
Ultimately, I prefer to invest more heavily in hitters because I find their performance more predictable. It seems imprudent to invest heavily in unpredictable assets, and pitching is a volatile asset.
Pitchers are to fantasy baseball what running backs are to fantasy football. Hitters are to fantasy baseball what wide receivers are to fantasy football. (Other fantasy analysts have made this comparison, so I’m not claiming it as my own.)
That’s not to say running backs are completely unpredictable. But every year, we see running backs come out of the fog to give fantasy teams a lift. Jeff Wilson, Jerick McKinnon, Tyler Allgeier, and D’Onta Foreman were afterthoughts in 2022 fantasy football drafts but were valuable at times during the season. There are few such examples at wide receiver. There are unexpected variations in receiver performance but rarely do we see an obscure receiver turn into a valuable fantasy contributor. That’s mostly how it is with hitters, too.
Nestor Cortes, Cristian Javier, Tyler Anderson and Martin Perez were all outside the top 100 in pitcher ADP last season (in some cases well outside the top 100), and all had impactful fantasy seasons. Berrios, on the other hand, had a top-20 pitcher ADP and produced negative value.
This is not a recommendation to eschew top pitchers entirely. Not at all. But it’s possible to spend less capital on starting pitchers than your rivals and still be highly competitive in the pitching categories. Good luck trying to spend less money on hitting than your rivals and still be competitive in the offensive categories.
Let’s take a look at the starting pitcher tiers. In addition to the rankings and tiers themselves, I’ll offer a few words about some of the players from each tier.
Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings: Starting Pitchers
Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitchers Tiers & Draft Advice
Corbin Burnes, the 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner, has given us three consecutive years of sub-3.00 ERAs and big strikeout totals. For my money, he’s the safest bet among MLB starters.
Gerritt Cole’s first few starts and last few starts of 2022 were atypically bumpy, but Cole was terrific for most of the season, racking up an MLB-high 257 strikeouts and yielding only 6.9 hits per 9 innings. His only kryptonite is the gopher ball. Cole gave up an AL-high 32 home runs in 2022.
Sandy Alcantrara is a finesse pitcher in comparison to his fireballing tier-mates. The Miami ace and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner hasn’t struck out a batter per inning since making his first MLB start in 2018, but he has pinpoint control and does an excellent job of keeping the ball in the yard. Alcantrara is also a serious workhorse, with 65 starts and 434.1 innings over his last two seasons.
- Brandon Woodruff
- Shane McClanahan
- Aaron Nola
- Spencer Strider
- Cristian Javier
- Julio Urias
- Max Scherzer
- Shohei Ohtani
- Shane Bieber
- Zack Wheeler
Brandon Woodruff has produced an ERA of 3.05 or lower in each of the last three seasons, and his WHIP over that span is 1.01. Woodruff piles up the strikeouts, too, although poor run support has kept his win totals modest in recent years.
The only issue with Shane McClanahan is that he dealt with a late-season shoulder impingement. But there’s so much else to like about this 25-year-old. McClanahan had a tidy 2.54 ERA and 0.93 WHIP last season, and he gave up just 6.3 hits per 9 innings.
Spencer Strider’s rookie season for the Braves was dazzling, with 202 strikeouts in only 131.2 innings, a 2.57 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP. He just needs to keep the walks down and show that he can hold up over a full season.
Cristian Javier didn’t start the 2022 season in the Astros’ rotation, but his filthy stuff was destined to earn him a spot eventually. He struggles with control at times, but Javier has allowed just 5.7 hits per 9 innings since breaking into the big leagues in 2020.
Future Hall-of-Famer Max Scherzer will turn 39 in July but is still dominant. He twice missed 2022 starts due to oblique injuries, however, and good health isn’t a given at his age.
Shohei Ohtani put together a remarkable season in 2022, finishing second in the American League MVP voting and fourth in the Cy Young voting. As a pitcher, he increased his strikeout rate, decreased his walk rate and posted a sparkling 2.33 WHIP. With his dual hitter/pitcher usage, you would imagine that his 28 starts and 166 innings in 2022 represent a usage ceiling.
- Justin Verlander
- Jacob deGrom
- Carlos Rodon
- Max Fried
- Luis Castillo
- Joe Musgrove
- Alek Manoah
- Dylan Cease
- Kevin Gausman
- Yu Darvish
- Zac Gallen
- Framber Valdez
- Tyler Glasnow
- Triston McKenzie
- Chris Sale
- Luis Severino
- Nestor Cortes Jr.
- Clayton Kershaw
Justin Verlander was fantastic in his return from Tommy John surgery, leading the AL in wins (18), ERA (1.75) and WHIP (0.83). He’ll play his age-40 season in a pitchers’ park with the Mets.
Jacob deGrom will be drafted earlier than I’m willing to take him. There’s little question he’ll be phenomenal when healthy. I’m just not comfortable with the risk calculus this aging superstar presents. deGrom has made just 26 starts over the last two seasons while dealing with a litany of injuries.
Alek Manoah didn’t post big strike numbers, but a low hit rate resulted in 16 wins, a 2.24 ERA and an 0.99 WHIP on the heels of a solid 2021 debut. Manoah clearly doesn’t mind working inside — he’s led the American League in HBPs in each of the past two seasons.
After posting a 4.22 ERA in 2021, Yu Darvish had a 3.10 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP over 30 starts in 2022. His 194.2 innings were the most he’s pitched since 2022. Do you dare bet on another season of good health for the 36-year-old Darvish?
Framber Valdez was a workhorse for the Astros last year, pitching 201.1 innings and collecting 17 wins. Valdez induces a ton of groundballs and rarely gives up homers. He’s not a strikeout artist, though he managed a career-high 194 whiffs in 2022.
Chris Sale returned from Tommy John surgery last year only to have a line drive break a finger on his pitching hand in his second start. Sale is a massive injury risk but is likely to be very good while healthy. The same could be said of two other denizens of this tier, Luis Severino and Clayton Kershaw, who both pitched well in their abbreviated 2022 seasons.
- Logan Webb
- George Kirby
- Logan Gilbert
- Lance Lynn
- Robbie Ray
- Dustin May
- Kyle Wright
- Freddy Peralta
- Joe Ryan
- Blake Snell
- Pablo Lopez
- Chris Bassitt
Logan Webb put together another strong campaign in 2022, though the increased strikeout rate that we saw from him in 2021 didn’t stick. Webb was more of a pitch-to-contact guy in 2022. The good news is that most of that contact was on the ground. Webb rarely gives up the long ball.
Robbie Ray has managed to keep walks under control in each of the past two seasons, but his K/9 rate dropped to 10.1 last season, and his ERA rose to 3.71. I’m always worried that the control skeletons in Ray’s closet could start rattling again.
The Braves’ Kyle Wright finally lived up to his lofty prospect pedigree in his age-26 season, racking up an MLB-high 21 wins thanks largely to a knee-buckling curveball. Perhaps the next step is for Wright to cross the strikeout-an-inning threshold.
Blake Snell was mostly solid in 2022, though his control issues always border on alarming. I’d be willing to roster him again, but the problem is that every draft room has a manager ready to overpay for Snell based on memories of his 2018 Cy Young season in Tampa.
I’m probably too low on Chris Bassitt, who’s posted some tidy ERAs and WHIPs over the last three seasons, but I still have concerns about his durability.
- Hunter Greene
- Charlie Morton
- Nick Lodolo
- Sonny Gray
- Jordan Montgomery
- Jeffrey Springs
- Jesus Luzardo
- Brady Singer
- Tony Gonsolin
- Lucas Giolito
Charlie Morton’s ERA jumped by a full run, from 3.34 in 2021 to 4.34 last season. His hit rate and walk rate ticked up, too, and he’s now 39 years old. The skill set isn’t terrible, however, and Morton could be a bargain if you can get him in the end game.
Nick Lodolo finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, flashing swing-and-miss stuff in 19 big-league starts. He walked 3.4 batters per 9 innings, however, and also plunked 19 batters. I’d be more enthusiastic about him if he didn’t make so many of his starts in the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
After a nightmarish 2021, Jesus Luzardo developed a forearm issue in May of 2022 but was sharp over the second half of the season, showing off his prospect pedigree. Luzardo could be on the verge of posting big strikeout totals for the Marlins.
When you post a 2.14 ERA for a team as good as the Dodgers, you’re bound to have a sterling record, as Tony Gonsolin proved with his 16-1 mark. Even with that spotless ERA, it’s pretty amazing that Gonsolin won 16 games while pitching only 130.1 innings.
- Lance McCullers Jr.
- Jack Flaherty
- Jon Gray
- Jose Berrios
- Reid Detmers
- Frankie Montas
- Miles Mikolas
- Andrew Heaney
- Drew Rasmussen
- Grayson Rodriguez
- Zach Eflin
- Nathan Eovaldi
You’ll find a lot of injury risk on this tier, as is the case with Lance McCullers. He’ll pile up strikeouts and wins when healthy, but missed games seem to be an inevitable part of the package.
Frankie Montas was a Big Apple bust in eight starts with the Yankees, posting a 6.35 ERA in the Bronx. Shoulder problems may have been to blame. If he’s healthy, Montas could be a rich source of strikeouts and wins in 2023.
Miles Mikolas had a nice rebound season in 2022, pitching 202.1 innings with a 3.29 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. You’ll have to find strikeouts elsewhere, though.
Baltimore uber-prospect Grayson Rodriguez could be ticketed for stardom, but how many innings will he pitch for the Orioles this year, and how soon will he live up to the hype? Rodriguez would probably be a fixture in the rotation already if not for a lat injury that cost him a big chunk of his 2022 season.
- Marcus Stroman
- Kodai Senga
- Ranger Suarez
- Tanner Houck
- Aaron Ashby
- Tyler Mahle
- Hunter Brown
- Jameson Taillon
- Jose Urquidy
- Luis Garcia
- Patrick Sandoval
- Trevor Rogers
- Eric Lauer
- Edward Cabrera
- Tylor Megill
- Merrill Kelly
- Carlos Carrasco
- Taijuan Walker
- Aaron Civale
- Tyler Anderson
Marcus Stroman has provided fantasy managers with two straight seasons of rock-solid WHIPs and tolerable ERAs. He just won’t give you much in the strikeout department.
The pitching intelligentsia is excited about Aaron Ashby’s skill set, but will he have a spot in the Brewers’ rotation come Opening Day? If not, it could be a buying opportunity. Remember: Cristian Javier didn’t have a spot in the Astros’ rotation at the beginning of last season.
Carlos Carrasco wasn’t quite back to ace status last season after his hellish 2021 campaign, but he won 15 games and posted a respectable 3.97 ERA. Although he’s entering his age-36 season, Carrasco could be a useful asset for the Mets and fantasy managers alike.
- Alex Cobb
- Kenta Maeda
- Cal Quantrill
- Michael Kopech
- Roansy Contreras
- Tarik Skubal
- Bailey Ober
- Noah Syndergaard
- Justin Steele
- Ross Stripling
- Adam Wainwright
- Drey Jameson
- Mike Soroka
- Alex Wood
- Jose Suarez
Alex Cobb had some early-career success, then hit the skids for a few years. Now, he’s turned in two straight solid seasons on the West Coast, first with the Angels, then with the Giants. His 62% groundball rate in 2022 was the highest of his career.
Kenta Maeda missed the 2022 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Maeda turns 35 in April, but he was a consistently solid pitcher before the injury and could be a nice draft value.
Tarik Skubal is expected to return from flexor tendon surgery at some point early in the season. The hard-throwing strikeout artist should have a bright future if he can stay healthy, but wins will be hard to come by with the Tigers.
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