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Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Starting Pitchers (2024)

Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Starting Pitchers (2024)

Fantasy baseball and fantasy football don’t have a lot of parallels, but there’s one you might find relevant in guiding your fantasy baseball draft strategy.

Pitchers = running backs
Hitters = wide receivers

Pitchers are generally less predictable than hitters, just as running backs tend to be less predictable than wide receivers. The 2023 season was a great example of this for pitchers.

Looking back at FantasyPros’ consensus ADP data for 2023, the top 10 pitchers included Sandy Alcantara, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Shane McClanahan.

  • Alcantara won half as many games as he had in 2022, posted an ERA over 4.00 and wound up having Tommy John surgery.
  • deGrom, always a massive injury risk, made six starts before tearing his right UCL. Like Alcantara, deGrom required Tommy John surgery.
  • Verlander had a respectable season, but he fell short of expectations and didn’t provide fantasy managers with a satisfying return on investment.
  • Scherzer produced his worst ERA since 2011 and was a fantasy disappointment.
  • McClanahan pitched well when healthy but missed the last two months of the season with an injury that required Tommy John surgery.

Other disappointments and injury cases among the top 25 pitchers by 2023 ADP: Shane Bieber, Dylan Cease, Yu Darvish, Max Fried, Cristian Javier, Alek Manoah, Julio Urias and Brandon Woodruff.

The starting pitcher position is a minefield.

There are exceptions to the generalization about hitter/pitcher predictability, of course. The consistent excellence of ace starter Gerrit Cole has been quite predictable. Then there’s outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger, who’s oscillated between MVP candidate and minor league demotion candidate, batting as high as .307 for a season and as low as .165.

But even if you wanted to make the case that pitcher performance is no less predictable than hitter performance, there’s still the matter of the sky-high injury rate among pitchers. Throwing a baseball at ridiculous speeds and with outrageous spin rates takes an enormous toll on the human arm. Just ask the three top-10 starters who needed Tommy John surgery by the end of 2023.

Starting pitchers are high-risk assets, which is why I advocate a spend-down approach to the position. I want to spend more of my early-round draft capital and more of my auction dollars on stable assets than on unstable assets. Hitters are more stable assets than starting pitchers. Therefore, I’m simply not going to plow a great deal of investment capital into a volatile asset.

Plus, we see a lot of unheralded starting pitchers turn in fine seasons every year. Zach Eflin and Justin Steele were afterthoughts in 2023 fantasy drafts, but both won 16 games last season and posted good ERAs and WHIPs.

We see the same thing at the running back position in fantasy football each year. Kyren Williams and Raheem Mostert came out of the fog to be immensely impactful fantasy assets last year. It’s rare for wide receivers to emerge from obscurity to become valuable fantasy assets. It’s much the same with hitters in fantasy baseball. Yes, there are hitters who dramatically outkick their ADPs every year, but generally, hitters are far more predictable.

Some fantasy baseball analysts carefully parse pitcher metrics and will bump up a pitcher in their rankings if he adds a new pitch or gains a few decimal points’ worth of velocity. I’m no scout, so I want to keep pitcher analysis as simple as possible. Here are three things I pay close attention to in evaluating pitchers:

  • K/BB ratio: Pitchers are subject to the vagaries of luck when a batter puts a ball in play, but strikes and walks are mostly a pitcher’s doing. The higher a pitcher’s K/BB ratio, the better I feel about him. Rostering a pitcher who’s slightly walk-prone is fine as long as he racks up a lot of strikeouts — like Blake Snell, for instance. And it’s OK to roster a pitcher with a relatively low strikeout rate as long as his walk rate is minuscule, a la George Kirby. But if a pitcher doesn’t have a K/BB of at least 3-to-1, I’m probably not going to be interested.
  • Batting average on balls in play (BABIP): The hit rate on balls put into play is about 30%, and even great pitchers have trouble beating that hit rate over a multi-year period. For example, the career hit rate against Gerrit Cole is .295. But year-to-year variance in a pitcher’s hit rate allowed can be a little more valuable. Pay attention to hit rates and bet on regression to the mean. Let’s say a pitcher gives up a .347 BABIP and has an uncharacteristically bad year. The market will be down on him, but there’s a good chance his BABIP will regress to the mean, and his ERA and WHIP are likely to come down with it, making him a potential draft value. Likewise, beware the pitcher who’s coming off a good year due in part to a .260% BABIP.
  • HR/flyball rate: As with hit rate, this number is largely beyond a pitcher’s control. The average is around 13%. Home runs can obviously do substantial damage to a pitcher’s stats, so look for pitchers whose HR/flyball rate the previous season was significantly higher or lower than 13% and bet on regression to the mean.

Let’s dig into 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, Tiers & Strategy: Starting Pitchers (2024)

Tier 1

Even in an era of sky-high K rates, Spencer Strider is a historically prolific strikeout artist. He posted a K rate of 13.5 strikeouts per 9 innings last year, tops in MLB. Strider’s 3.86 ERA last season was more than a full run higher than his 2.67 ERA in 2022, which is at least partly attributable to increases in BABIP (.316) and HR/flyball ratio (12.2%). Even with the increase in ERA and WHIP, Strider led the majors with 20 wins in a season where no other pitcher won more than 17 games. With the support of a potent Braves lineup, expect Strider to keep racking up wins aplenty.

There’s a reasonable case for Gerrit Cole to be the top-ranked starter ahead of Strider, but Strider is a strikeout machine, and Cole’s strikeout rate last season (27%) was his lowest since 2017. But that’s a small nit to pick for an ultra-reliable ace who led the AL in ERA (2.63), WHIP (0.98) and innings pitched (209.0). Discounting the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Cole has made at least 30 starts in six straight seasons.

Corbin Burnes has a 2.94 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over the last three seasons, with at least 200 strikeouts every year during that stretch. The 29-year-old Burnes has never won more than 12 games in a single season, but that could change in 2023 after a trade to Baltimore that will likely give Burnes significantly better run support than he had in Milwaukee.

Tier 2

Zack Wheeler’s streak of three straight seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA ended with a 3.61 mark in 2023, but he still had a tidy 1.08 WHIP and finished ninth in the majors in strikeouts. Wheeler had a career-low 5.1 walk rate last year. He’s also been durable, with 90 starts over the last three seasons.

Promising but inconsistent during his years in Cincinnati, Luis Castillo has blossomed into a full-fledged ace in Seattle. He logged 197.0 innings for the Mariners last season, finished seventh in the majors with 219 strikeouts, and posted a rock-solid ERA (3.34) and WHIP (1.10) over all those innings. Castillo’s HR/flyball rate crept up to 12.7% last year, but a roomy home park helps mitigate home run damage.

Impeccable control is George Kirby’s calling card. The 26-year-old Seattle starter has issued only 41 walks in 320.2 career innings, and his 2.5% walk rate last year was the best in the majors. Kirby doesn’t rack up a ton of strikeouts, but his tidy ERA and WHIP numbers from 2023 (3.35, 1.04) should be repeatable.

Zac Gallen wasn’t likely to match the 2.54 ERA and MLB-best 0.91 WHIP he posted in 2022, but his 3.47 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 2023 were just fine, particularly when they came with 17 wins and 220 strikeouts. One concern with Gallen is that he logged a career-high 210.0 innings during the regular season, second-most in baseball, plus another 33.2 in the playoffs.

Injuries limited Max Fried to 77.2 innings last season, but he won 8-of-14 starts and managed to post a 2.55 ERA despite a slightly unlucky .310 BABIP. Fried managed to ratchet up his strikeout rate to 25% while keeping his walk rate at a reasonable (5.9%) level. With a high groundball rate, Fried has allowed only 34 home runs over the 428.2 innings he’s pitched since the start of the 2021 season.

Dependable innings-eater Framber Valdez made 31 starts for a second consecutive season, won 12 games, tossed a pair of complete-game shutouts, and posted a respectable ERA (3.45) and WHIP (1.13). Normally a groundball machine, Valdez “only” induced a 54.3% groundball rate last season, well below his career rate of 62.8%. But it’s not as if Valdez turned into a major gopher ball risk, yielding 19 home runs over 198.0 innings.

Tier 3

Japanese import Yoshinobu Yamamoto signed a 12-year, $325 million deal with the Dodgers and will bring a nasty pitch mix that includes a high-90s fastball, a nasty splitter and a rainbow curve that buckles batters’ knees. The 25-year-old Yamamoto won the Sawamura Award, Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award, in each of his last three seasons. He only measures 5-10, 176 pounds and is coming from a league that only required him to make one start a week, so the Dodgers might have to manage his inning judiciously.

Blake Snell is certainly a worthwhile investment, but his MLB-leading 2.25 ERA last season was fueled by an abnormally low .256 BABIP. Expect an ERA closer to Snell’s career mark of 3.20. But you can also expect strikeouts by the bunch, as Snell had 234 of them last year. He’s averaged at least 11 strikeouts per nine innings for six consecutive seasons.

Pablo Lopez had a terrific first season for the Twins, tying for third in MLB with 234 strikeouts and posting a 3.66 ERA and 1.16 ERA over a career-high 194.0 innings. The shoulder issues that dogged Lopez earlier in his career seem to be in the rearview mirror but might be worth remembering if you’re tempted to overpay.

With 65 starts over the last two seasons and an MLB-high 216.0 innings in 2023, Logan Webb has become one of baseball’s most dependable workhorses. He doesn’t collect a ton of strikeouts, but outstanding control (only 31 walks last year) and a 58.3% career groundball rate fuel consistently good ERA and WHIP numbers.

Never mind the rocky start that Grayson Rodriguez endured last season. The Orioles’ prized prospect had a 7.35 ERA over his first 10 starts, resulting in a late-May demotion to Triple-A. Instead, focus on what Rodriguez did over the second half of the season upon his return: a 2.58 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 13 starts, with just 21 walks and three HRs allowed over 76.2 innings. The overall numbers will obscure just how good Rodriguez was following his July recall. Buy, buy, buy.

Tyler Glasnow is usually terrific when healthy, but the 30-year-old fireballer battled injuries throughout his 20s. He returned from Tommy John surgery last year to make a career-high 21 starts, piling up 162 strikeouts in 120.0 innings. Given the checkered healthy history, insist on a discount if you’re thinking about rostering Glasnow.

Joe Musgrove is another starter who comes with some injury risk, but unlike Glasnow, Musgrove is fairly affordable. While Glasnow has a top-50 overall ADP, according to FantasyPros consensus ADP data, Musgrove’s ADP is barely inside the top 100. He made only 17 starts last season due to toe and shoulder injuries, but in his previous three seasons (discounting the COVID-shortened 2020 season), Musgrove made 30 or more starts. He has a 2.97 ERA and 1.10 WHIP over the last two years. Musgrove is a solid value buy.

Tier 4

After undergoing flexor tendon surgery in 2022, Tarik Skubal returned to the Tigers last July and was lights out over 15 starts, with a 2.80 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. Skubal logged 102 strikeouts and only 14 walks over 80.1, showing impressive mastery of the strike zone for a 26-year-old. Skubal looks like a sound investment going into his age-27 season, although the Tigers’ offensive limitations could hold down the young starter’s win total.

It’s hard to figure out what happened to Cristian Javier last season. After a terrific 2022 campaign in which he logged a 2.54 ERA, struck out 194 batters in 148.2 innings, and was nearly unhittable in a pair of playoff starts, Javier stumbled to a 4.56 ERA last season and averaged under a strikeout per inning. He lost some velocity on his fastball and watched his strikeout rate fall from 33% in 2022 to 23% last season. As long as Javier is healthy and pumping gas in spring training, he should be a good rebound play heading into his age-27 season.

Joe Ryan had 197 strikeouts and only 34 walks in 161.2 innings last year, but his ERA ballooned to 4.51 because of a .305 BABIP and 14.9 HR/flyball ratio. It’s possible Ryan wasn’t entirely healthy down the stretch. He had an ERA of 2.95 over his first 15 starts but then started getting clobbered before landing on the injured list with a groin injury. The terrific K/BB ratio suggests that Ryan is a strong bounce-back candidate.

Justin Verlander is a trusted brand name but beware of the possibility of age-related decline. Verlander averaged only 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings last season, and his 6.8% walk rate was his highest since 2017. Tread lightly.

FantasyPros Fantasy Baseball Draft Wizard

Tier 5

Walker Buehler is one of the best pitchers in baseball when healthy, but he missed the entire 2023 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery (his second) in August 2022, and the Dodgers say he won’t be ready for the start of the 2024 season. Manage your expectations carefully.

The surface stats Brayan Bello posted in his age-24 season weren’t that exciting — a 4.24 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. But a nearly 3-to-1 K/BB rate for such a young starter is encouraging, as is a 56.1% groundball rate. Bello had only 132 strikeouts in 157.0 innings, but with his stuff, better strikeout totals are coming.

Nestor Cortes was unable to provide a satisfying encore to his superb 2022 season due to a rotator cuff strain. “Nasty Nestor” is good enough to post a sub-3.00 ERA if his shoulder is sound, but last year’s injury woes should make you demand a discount before rostering Cortes.

An elbow issue limited Shane Bieber to 21 starts last year, and he’s now lost significant time to injuries in two of the last three years. A rapidly deteriorating strikeout rate that fell to 7.5 Ks per nine innings last season is a good reason to let someone else bet on a return to ace status for Bieber.

Tier 6

Terrific as a reliever in 2022 and much of 2023, Michael King moved into the Padres’ starting rotation last August and posted a 2.31 ERA over nine starts. King’s ERA probably won’t be as glistening over a full season as a starter, but what we’ve seen so far is exciting.

Give young Reds starter Hunter Greene a mulligan on a rocky 2023 season that was partly derailed by a hip injury. The 24-year-old Greene can really bring the gas and has notched 316 strikeouts in 237.2 big-league innings. Greene could be a big step forward in 2023.

Bryan Woo made 18 starts for the Mariners as a rookie last season and struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings while keeping his walk rate reasonable. He could be a nice growth stock in which to invest.

Tier 7

After a promising 2022 season in which he logged a 2.96 ERA over 191 starts, Triston McKenzie pitched only 16 innings in 2023 due to a major muscle strain and a partial UCL tear. The UCL issue didn’t require Tommy John surgery, but it makes McKenzie a risky investment heading into 2024, even though he entered training camp with no throwing restrictions.

Speaking of UCL problems, Kyle Bradish has been diagnosed with a UCL sprain and will start the regular season on the injured list. Bradish was stellar for the O’s last season, with a 2.83 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 12 wins. This is an ominous injury, however, so don’t overinvest.

Griffin Canning could be a sneaky later-round value. His surface numbers are uninspiring, but Canning boosted his strikeout and groundball rates in 2023 while reducing his walk rate.

Tier 8

Taj Bradley had a rough rookie year, with a 5.59 ERA and 23 home runs allowed in 104.2 innings. But Bradley has killer stuff, and the Tampa Bay organization has long had a Midas touch with pitchers. Bradley could pay off as a cheap investment.

For years, Kyle Hendricks found fantasy success as a low-strikeout control artist with good ERAs and WHIPs. But Hendricks’ strikeout rate was minuscule last season — just 6.1 per nine innings – and his ERA over the last three seasons is 4.43. Let someone else have him.

A key part of the trade that sent Corbin Burnes from the Brewers to the Orioles, D.L. Hall has a good chance to win a spot in Milwaukee’s starting rotation after making 18 relief appearances for Baltimore last year. Hall piled up big strikeout numbers in the minors, and his prospect pedigree makes him an intriguing stash in the reserve rounds of fantasy drafts.

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