High-Stakes Leagues Draft Strategy: Starting Pitchers (2023 Fantasy Baseball)
“High stakes” may mean something different to you than it does to me. Me, I spend the majority of my time at the NFBC, mostly in 50-round draft-and-holds. I am entering my third year of competition on that site, so I hope to offer something helpful with regard to drafting pitchers in the context of deep leagues. If you’re unfamiliar, the draft-and-hold format means just that – you have to hold everyone on your roster, as there are no free-agent acquisitions during the season. In short, you’re making all your in-season additions and throwing your darts on saves men and streamers during your draft. It’s an exciting format that can reward those who are well-prepared. Of course, it can also be soul-crushing, especially if you are unprepared or if you suffer ill injury luck at a given position.
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Starting Pitching Strategy in High-Stakes Leagues
Draft Champions ADP from February is what I will reference, as the Draft Champions format feels like the gold standard of high-stakes leagues. That, and it’s a 15-team format, which is the route I feel most competitive leagues are taking. There have been 30 such drafts completed since the start of February, so that gives us a great sample to examine.
I’ll say this upfront about my strategy for drafting pitchers: I want three to four anchors, plus at least one relief pitcher that I feel I can trust. Think of an “anchor” as a starting pitcher that you won’t need to drop during the season. I want that level of trust with at least three or four of those types through the first 10 rounds of any draft-and-hold. If I don’t have three starters I can trust, it’s because I drafted two anchors and at least one high-end closer to the mix. Whether or not I have four pitchers in total through 10 rounds probably depends on my draft slot, the room, and what positions are being drafted early. I could see drafting up to four pitchers through the first ten rounds, but my preference is to not spend half of my first 10 picks on pitching. That feels like too much investment when I am confident about drafting pitchers later in most drafts.
In short, once you get past the elite starters, I tend to view pitchers like NFL Draft picks. No one really knows what is going to happen. So I just want to make sure I take some appropriate shots, which will allow me to mix and match my staff during the season. Who enters the starting lineup in a given week depends on a variety of factors, including but not limited to who is healthy, who is on a hot streak, who has a great matchup, and who has a two-start week.
The Shohei Ohtani Conundrum: Hitter or Pitcher?
You can only use Ohtani on one side of the ball in a given week at the NFBC, and you aren’t giving up his hitting production unless it’s for a two-start week or he’s pitching on a short week. When you DO use him as a pitcher, you get the double-whammy of giving up your first-round hitter. Add it all up, and Ohtani is a player I view primarily as a hitter, one who also happens to carry the injury risk of a pitcher. He’s a Round 2 pick in my book, which means I won’t have many shares in 2023. I’m sitting on just one so far, obtained early on when he fell to me at pick 15 in a 12-team league. I had to do it at least once, but this is not a strategy I recommend if you are searching for a pitcher early on in your draft.
A Tier of Their Own: Corbin Burnes and Gerrit Cole
Burnes and Cole have earned their place atop the starting pitcher rankings due to their quality and their sturdiness. They both rank inside the top six in innings pitched over the last two years, and they rank second and third in K-BB% over that same stretch. Only Max Scherzer (27.7 K-BB%) has been better, but he’s also 38 years old. Scherzer is still a worthy pick at the 3/4 turn, but if you want the skill set and the relative youth of Burnes or Cole, you’ll have to pay up at the end of Round 1 or the beginning of Round 2.
Round 2/3 Studs: Sandy Alcantara, Aaron Nola, Brandon Woodruff
Sandy Alcantara leads all hurlers with 434.1 innings pitched over the last two seasons, and he has a pristine 2.71 ERA over that stretch. His 3.19 FIP ranks 10th over that same time frame, and his only “blemish” is his 23.7% strikeout rate. What he gives you are great volume and ratios, but the strikeouts will come due mostly to the number of innings pitched. For reference, Alcantara’s strikeout rate over the last two years ranks 20th among qualified starters. It’s not that he’s bad in this regard, it’s just that he is not in the upper echelon. I still like him at the 2/3 turn if I am in the market for a considerable starting pitcher floor.
Conversely, Aaron Nola’s 29.4% K-rate over the last two years ranks seventh among qualified starters, and he ranks fourth behind only Scherzer, Burnes, and Cole in K-BB%. This is because Nola’s 4.4% walk rate over the last two years is the best mark among qualified starters, tied with Justin Verlander. Nola’s 4.63 ERA from 2021 is a statistical outlier, as that mark was not supported by his 3.35 xERA or his 3.37 FIP. He also sports a career 3.60 ERA. Nola offers a fantastic floor in Round 3.
Brandon Woodruff bears mentioning in this space as well. He ranks fifth in K-BB% over the last two seasons, and his 30.2% K-rate also ranks fifth. He’s essentially been Dylan Cease without the walks, just with a little less volume. Cease is also a Round 3 pick, for reference. But whereas Woodruff has been below a 7.0% walk rate in each of the last four seasons, Cease is a good candidate to log another double-digit walk rate in 2023. Cease has been a strikeout monster over the last two seasons, though, so if it’s the volume and the almighty strikeout you are chasing, he’s your guy. But for my part, my lean is still toward Woodruff, who I think could put it all together and has a better chance at reliability.
For the sake of recordkeeping, I want zero part of drafting Jacob deGrom at the end of Round 2 this year. Someone else can deal with that headache, especially now that there are already reports of the Rangers holding him out due to some form of tightness in his left side. If it’s strikeouts and volatility I want, I’ll take Spencer Strider instead. If it’s a reliable floor I’m seeking, give me Alcantara. Either way, I’m not centering a draft strategy around deGrom in 2023. Strider could pitch 150 innings and push for the league lead in strikeouts. If it’s “upside” I want at that juncture, he is my play over deGrom.
Round 5: Max Fried
Fried ranks 16th in K-BB% and 17th in innings pitched over the last two years. He is a very strong SP2 and the sort of pitcher you want if you are double-tapping in this vicinity after not getting an earlier starter. He’s a bit like Sandy Alcantara in that he offers great ratios without a stellar strikeout rate. But there’s still room for a little growth there, too. Fried’s chase rate bumped up to a well above-average 36.8% last year, and he allowed less contact and had a greater swinging strike rate than the season prior. One difference was adding a fourth pitch, a changeup that he threw 14.0% of the time. As a result, he threw his four-seam fastball less than ever. This shift in pitch mix meant that he either held steady or added velocity on all his pitches. As if this studly 29-year-old needed more help.
Round 7: Robbie Ray
I like the floor of Yu Darvish and Framber Valdez in Round 6, but I can’t see drafting the innings risk of Tyler Glasnow when I can wait for a round later for Robbie Ray. Ray’s 29.7% strikeout rate ranks sixth among qualified starters these last two seasons, and his 2022 performance was a worthy encore following his electric 2021. Ray eclipsed 200 strikeouts for the second year running, and his 3.71 ERA was in line with his 3.59 xERA and 3.58 xFIP. Sure, there was some good fortune involved with 2021’s 2.84 ERA, but Ray is still an excellent SP2/3 type, given all those strikeouts. And for what it’s worth, the quality of contact that Ray allowed in 2022 was actually a bit better across the board than his 2021 season. Ray’s draft slot around pick 95-100 comes after a lot of the prime power/speed-hitting options have already been drafted, so it’s a great time to draft a pitcher.
George Kirby makes for a nice consolation in the same round if you miss out, and there’s also Luis Severino sitting there, healthy, a round later.
Rounds 10-12: Pick Your Poison
Everybody has a type, right? In these rounds, there is every sort of pitcher you can imagine…except the safe kind. There is the volatility of Freddy Peralta, Lucas Giolito, and Chris Sale. There are generally sturdy veteran options in Chris Bassitt and Charlie Morton, but both come with question marks. There are a pair of Dodger options (Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin) as well as a pair of Rays options (Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen). None are bad, not in my opinion. There are just varying types of risk involved…
Can “Fastball Freddy” stay healthy? Can Chris Sale stay healthy? Will Lucas Giolito’s velocity return, and if so, will that help his production revert to pre-2022 levels? How will Chris Bassitt fare in the Rogers Centre, especially with news of fences being moved in? Can the 39-year-old Charlie Morton continue the trend of older hurlers fending off Father Time? I hope you didn’t come here for answers because the questions abound. One thing is certain, though. There is sure to be some fantastic fantasy baseball value littered within these rounds. You’ll just need to find it and assume the sort of risk that makes sense for your roster based on your previous draft choices and what your draft room seems to be prioritizing.
Rounds 13-15: Take some shots
Remember, by this time, you should already have a cluster of arms you can trust. Therefore, I would prefer the upside of guys like Grayson Rodriguez or Reid Detmers to veterans like Lance McCullers Jr or Sonny Gray. Kodai Senga, Edward Cabrera, and Andrew Heaney also offer some tangible upside due to their respective “unknown” factors.
Big picture, I would say these guys should be SP4/5 types for your fantasy baseball roster, as a good scenario.
Rounds 16-20: Don’t Ignore the Chicago Cubs
While I can appreciate the reliability of Miles Mikolas (just don’t expect strikeouts) and the new locale for Nathan Eovaldi, two names that are a bit off the beaten path are Jameson Taillon (ADP 248) and Marcus Stroman (ADP 274). Taillon is flat-out excellent for the WHIP category, which is a category I am guilty of sometimes ignoring. He won’t “wow” you with his strikeout ability, but he doesn’t walk hitters, and his career 1.21 WHIP is shiny. As for Stroman, he’s just a guy I appreciate for his grit, and there may not be a better marriage in all of MLB with his ground ball rates that should exceed 50%, with the studly infield defensive pairing of Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner behind him. Watching this new version of the Cubs is one of the things I am most excited about for 2023, and I say that as an Atlanta Braves fan. Ignore the Cubs starters at your own peril this season. There will be hidden value in that rotation.
Other pitchers of note in this vicinity are a few veterans on the move to new locations and with organizations we trust to rebuild pitcher value. They are Zach Eflin (Tampa Bay Rays), Noah Syndergaard (Los Angeles Dodgers), and Sean Manaea (San Francisco Giants). Also, in Rounds 19 and 20, I think Carlos Carrasco (ADP 284) makes sense, as well as taking a shot on Roansy Contreras (ADP 294). And don’t forget about another Cubs starter in Justin Steele (ADP 276).
Rounds 21-25: Veterans or the Youth Movement?
I won’t answer this question for you. Which way you lean will depend on what you value and your roster up to this point. But there are plenty of veteran arms in this range, as well as a ton of youth. Veterans like Kenta Maeda, Taijuan Walker, Aaron Civale, Steven Matz, Martin Perez, Alex Wood, Jose Quintana, Cal Quantril, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Adam Wainwright should all be available in these rounds. Young guns like Andrew Painter, Hayden Wesneski, Brayan Bello, Kyle Bradish, Drey Jameson, Braxton Garrett, Ken Waldichuk, and Aaron Ashby are as well.
Rounds 26-30: Avoid Trevor Bauer (for literally anyone else)
I won’t get into the politics of it, but the old adage “the best ability is availability” applies here. Instead of Bauer, there are young arms to tantalize you in the form of Brandon Pfaadt and Luis Ortiz.
Rounds 31-40: Young Guns, Athletics, and more risky options
DL Hall and Kyle Gibson have ADPs back-to-back in Round 31, and these two embody the argument at this point of your draft. While Gibson may be more of a lock for the starting rotation in Baltimore, Hall represents a higher likelihood for a more significant return on your draft day investment. Again, assuming I have established a core group of starters that I can trust long-term, there’s not much debate in these later rounds about which way I am leaning. I want the upside, folks. The Orioles have some injuries to cover in the bullpen, and that may mean that Hall’s big fastball gives them some relief innings at some point. However, Hall is still viewed as a starter long-term.
I’m a fan of Kyle Muller (ADP 487) in Oakland. You don’t have to fight the park, and the 25-year-old southpaw is a big, strong guy (listed at 6’7″, 250). As part of the return that sent Sean Murphy to Atlanta, Muller should get every chance to prove he can stick in a big-league rotation, and so far, he has drawn rave reviews in camp.
Graham Ashcraft (ADP 504) is another young guy with a big fastball and a plus slider who could pay dividends. He’s also in a bit of a dead zone for starting pitching, currently being drafted in Round 34 on average, according to February Draft Champions ADP. There’s not really another starter that catches my eye until Shintaro Fujinami (ADP 534). Stay tuned for Fujinami’s debut against the Angels on February 28, which lines him up for a showdown with Shohei Ohtani. That’s a great storyline for Japanese fans to follow and for plain old American fans like me. Plus, I’m into some cheap shares of Oakland hurlers where I can get them, and I’m curious to see how Fujinami holds up in Spring Training this year.
Sixto Sanchez (ADP 546) isn’t expected to pitch until the summer, which is a vague but fair timeline given that he hasn’t seen game action in over two years. Still, he has reportedly dropped 50 pounds and could actually be in the best shape of his life, so he’s worth mentioning. This is also the area of the draft where many are taking shots on partial seasons, as John Means (ADP 601) is just a few rounds behind Sanchez. For my part, I lean more toward Ricky Tiedemann (ADP 548) or Taj Bradley (ADP 560). Tiedemann is Andrew Painter arbitrage–that is, he could contend for that No. 5 spot in his team’s rotation sooner rather than later, but you don’t have to pay for Painter’s ADP (312). Taj Bradley is already on the 40-man roster and hurled 59 quality innings at Triple-A for the Rays last season. He’s 21 years old, and he has a lively mid-90s fastball and a cutter. It’s probable he’ll begin the season at Triple-A, but it’s also probable that he throws plenty of innings at the big league level in 2023…and at this juncture, you aren’t really expecting a full season from any of these arms, anyway.
Rounds 41-50: Luis Patino, Tanner Bibee, Stephen Strasburg
Luis Patino (ADP 641) is another piece of that great Rays pitching organization that you can snag on the cheap. There isn’t a space for him in the rotation at the moment, but he’s being built up as a starter this spring, so I’m taking note.
Tanner Bibee (ADP 657) is similar to Patino in that he doesn’t have a roster spot, but he could take one at some point in 2023. He threw 132.2 innings across two levels last year, with his final 73.2 innings coming at Double-A. Bibee was a guy known for his command in college but also as a guy who lacked enough velocity. Well, as a professional, he has added some velocity. Whereas he was sitting around 88-92 MPH in college, as a professional last year, he was sitting around 95 MPH. It’s possible we don’t see Bibee until 2024, but he’s a polished guy already with at least two pitches that could play at the big league level already (fastball, slider). I’m into taking shots if I have a solid core of arms to trust.
Stephen Strasburg (ADP 697) is the embodiment of the adage “how the mighty have fallen.” Strasburg has already experienced nerve pain in his neck and shoulder this spring, and there is no timetable for the former ace’s return. Still, at just 34 years old and with an ADP approaching 700, I’m willing to throw a dart here in the event that we see any sort of health for Strasburg in 2023.
Jack Leiter (ADP 719) might not be a smart dart to throw in 2023, given his uneven 2022 season and the Rangers’ recent spending spree on veteran hurlers. This is an organization that seems focused on allowing their young pitching prospects time to develop.
In the final round of Draft Champions drafts from February, you can find guys who have experienced success at the MLB level in Adrian Houser, Eli Morgan, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Morgan might be the most fun, despite his status as a middle reliever for the Cleveland Guardians. I like taking young pitchers who are affiliated with teams who can develop pitchers, and Morgan’s changeup is a total unicorn pitch. If he can ever develop a decent third pitch, he could prove some naysayers wrong and return to consideration as a starting pitcher.
In summary, be sure to solidify your rotation early in 2023. That doesn’t necessarily mean you do so within the first 10 rounds, but Rounds 11-20 look really important for building the middle and the back end of your pitching rotation for 2023. The second half of any draft-and-hold looks primarily dedicated to pitchers we would consider streamers, be they of the veteran or of the youthful variety. Exactly how much youth or volatility you build into your rotation likely depends on who you’ve already drafted and how into risk you are.
What say you, gamers? In this monstrosity of an article, what pitcher are you excited about that I missed? You can find me on Twitter at @HeathCapps to let me know. I would love to talk fantasy baseball or the Atlanta Braves with anyone. Baseball is here!
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