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Should You Draft a Pitcher in Round 1? (2024 Fantasy Baseball)

Should You Draft a Pitcher in Round 1? (2024 Fantasy Baseball)

With this being my first article since being announced as a finalist in the FSWA Baseball Writer of the Year category, I decided why not bring back one of the articles that helped get me here. I wrote this article last January and took a deep dive into whether it was truly beneficial to draft a pitcher in round one. My conclusion at the end of that article was that, no, it was not.

Fast forward to 2024 and I think my opinion has changed slightly. This is one of those articles that could technically have a clear, cut and dry yes or no answer. The keyword there is “could”. When it comes to this topic, it’s not that straightforward.

The real honest answer is… it depends.

It depends on league type, scoring system, league size, roster size, roster construction, draft order and so much more. If you’re looking for that straightforward answer, you’re not going to find it here.

When You Shouldn’t Draft a Pitcher in Round 1

I was trying to figure out what format to write this in and I think this may be the most straight-to-the-point, but still in-depth way to do it. It’s no secret pitching was nothing short of a disaster in 2023. So many of the guys who went in the top 30 at the position ended the season either seriously hurt or way underperforming their expectations. I know I’m not the only one who got burned by the Sandy Alcantara, Shane McClanahan and Alek Manoah three-headed monster that could be had in rounds 4-6.

This was the nightmare scenario that could potentially leave many people gun-shy while drafting in 2024. Especially in the first round. And for good reason. Heading into 2023, Corbin Burnes, Shohei Ohtani and Gerrit Cole were all going in the first round based on ADP. Ohtani found a way to put up another otherworldly performance (mainly thanks to his hitting) and Gerrit Cole put up another top-10 overall season. Both of which you hoped would happen.

Corbin Burnes, on the other hand, is Exhibit A for why this scenario can go poorly. The first half he put together was rough. He found a way to rebound at the end of the season, but by that point, much of the damage had already been done.

Time Period ERA xFIP K-BB% LOB% HR/9
First Half 3.94 4.20 14.3% 70.5% 1.17
Second Half 2.71 3.31 20.7% 80.1% 0.83

Seeing your first-round pick put up an almost four ERA through his first 100 innings pitched was not what you had in mind. Not only that, the rest of his numbers were that of a pitcher you’d likely take in the 12th round or later. He did have that weird stretch early where his velocity was down and his cutter became very hittable, which we didn’t foresee. He did seem to eventually get those under control, but by that point, it was too late. Your first-round pick was not going to pan out the way you had hoped.

A crucial part of nailing your draft is getting those high-upside, can’t-miss guys early and using your later rounds to lock in guys who have the upside to take you over the top. When you whiff on those early picks, making up that elite-level production becomes almost impossible.

With all of that being said, here’s where it’s in your best interest to stay away from those oh-so-promising first-round arm talents.

When Drafting in a League Smaller Than 12 Teams

In eight- and 10-man leagues, there’s just no reason whatsoever to be taking a pitcher in the first round. Nailing these league sizes is all about playing to the strengths of your draft strategy, which should include skipping a pitcher in round one. Even the top-end guys like Spencer Strider and Cole will be there in the second round. And if you’re picking at the end of the line, don’t get cute. Take Juan Soto, Aaron Judge or Corbin Carroll, and worry about pitching after that.

When Your League Starts Five Outfielders

It is no surprise when I tell you that outfield is once again arguably the thinnest position in fantasy baseball. Now factor in that you’re playing in a league that demands you start five. Taking a pitcher early just doesn’t make much sense. At the end of the day, in your standard 12-team head-to-head league, there are going to be 60 “starting” outfielders. That’s not counting the guys like Mookie Betts, Nolan Jones and Cody Bellinger, who have multi-position eligibility and can be started in other spots. This means there’s likely to be over 70 outfielders drafted.

There is just not enough outfield depth and too much late-round pitching upside for you to worry about drafting a pitcher in round one. It’s going to get tempting with those later picks, but with five outfielders needed, you need to focus on taking one of the big guns and adjust your draft strategy from there.

When Drafting in the Top Three

There’s too much talent to pass up in the top three. Right now, the top three being drafted are Ronald Acuna Jr., Mookie Betts and Bobby Witt Jr. These guys can single-handedly dominate any league, regardless of size, scoring format, roster construction or anything else. I’ve seen Strider go as high as second in NFBC drafts and those feel like picks made by people with a bunch of drafts under their belt trying to expand their player pool. Sometimes it’s nice to mix up the player pool and get shares of guys you’ve missed out on. While understandable, that doesn’t make the pick decision any better.

If Taking a Pitcher in Round 1 Wasn’t Your Draft Strategy to Begin With

This one may be a bit more polarizing. Taking a pitcher with your first pick is something you need to prep for so you understand how you want the rest of your roster construction to go. Casual drafts can be all about drafting what becomes available to you and just working it out as you go. The difference between playing in a league and winning in a league is how well you have prepared for the draft strategies you find most successful for yourself.

When taking a pitcher in round one you need to understand you’ll be losing out on one of the elite high-end outfielders. This means you’re OF1 then becomes a player at the back end of the first tier or the beginning of the second tier – someone like Luis Robert or Randy Arozarena in the third round. Not terrible, but again, it’s something you need to be prepared for. You’re going to quickly find yourself three rounds deep staring at a roster of a pitcher, an outfielder and a corner infielder. Maybe like a Strider/Matt Olson/Luis Robert combo. At this point, life is good.

The fourth round rolls around and you notice all of the elite pitchers available. Awesome, give me George Kirby. The fifth round rolls around and you’re once again staring down the barrel of elite pitching. Cool, give me Josh Hader to lock in some saves. The sixth round gets here and, would you believe it, more great pitching sits atop your list of best available options. Let’s go all in on pitching and get Kodai Senga.

Now you’re admiring your work and feeling like your roster is doing pretty damn well for itself. You’ve locked in two amazing bats and you have a pitching staff that looks like it’s going to give your opponents nightmares. If you haven’t planned for this exact draft scenario, this is when you’re going to start to struggle.

At this point… still tons of great pitching available. You can stick to the plan and take someone like Bobby Miller or Eury Perez and hope for that great second-year progression. Or you can take… Bryan Reynolds? Great baseball player. Good fantasy baseball asset. But he now resides as the third-best hitter on your team. Not ideal if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Needless to say, it can sometimes be beneficial to continue to draft the best player available for a couple of rounds early on. But please avoid this strategy if the best available player is a pitcher and you didn’t prep yourself for how the rest of the draft may have to play out.

When You Should Draft a Pitcher in Round 1

Now to be clear, the list of times when you should draft a pitcher in the first round is going to be much smaller than when you shouldn’t. That comes with the territory. In the grand scheme of things, it is not always the best decision, but there are times when you can use it to your advantage.

Someone like Spencer Strider is one of those rare players worth bending the rules for. He’s begun separating himself from the rest of the pitching pack to the point where he almost transcends the prototypical fantasy baseball pitcher. There was a point last season where you started to wonder if he was going to break the 300 strikeouts mark. Something that hadn’t been done since 2019. Combine that with his sub 3.00 xFIP and ability to win 20 games every season and you get the lone pitcher well worth a first-round pick.

I get the argument can be made for Gerrit Cole as well. I’ll touch on this as we move on. But as of right now, Strider is the only pitcher you could take in the first round that wouldn’t take any justification.

When You’re Drafting at the Back End

In a typical 12-team roto league, if you have pick eight or later, Spencer Strider should fully be in play. At that point, all of the no-brainer, have to take them before anyone else hitters are off the board and Strider becomes a very tantalizing option.

2024 Projections Wins IP Ks K-BB% ERA
ATC 15 178 251 26.7% 3.38
Steamer 15 185 257 25.9% 3.18

If you’re going to build the beginning of your roster around one pitcher, that pitcher should have both an immaculate mustache and the ability to strike out 35% of the batters he faces throughout the season.

Now, if you’re in a 15-team or larger league, this is where Gerrit Cole should also come into play. Cole is one of the few players that time and time again has found his way atop the pitching leaderboards for fantasy. A good combination of strikeouts (24.9% K-BB rate since 2021, third highest in baseball) and ERA (3.11 since 2021) always plays. Especially when that combination also comes with the second-most wins in baseball over that same timeframe (44).

Cole should only go in the 12-15 range if you’re set on taking him in the first round. And only if Strider has already been taken.

If Your League Only Starts Three Outfielders

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of partaking in weekly mock drafts with the guys over at CBS Fantasy. It’s given me a ton of insight regarding who you can expect to take where, how other people draft, what strategies have become popular and more.

One thing that happened in the last mock caught me off guard… Spencer Strider went fourth overall in a 12-team head-to-head categories league. The caveat is that it was a league where you start just three outfielders. The person who made that pick was Ariel Cohen and his reasoning made complete sense.

In a much more shallow league, with fewer outfielders needed, top-end pitching becomes much more valuable. Instead of at least 60 outfielders being started in your traditional five-outfield league, you’re down to just 36. While the amount of pitching needed likely hasn’t changed. It becomes a big differentiator when you can grab a top-end guy like Strider early and build a solid base of pitching while still being able to roster a competent group of outfielders.

Shallow leagues are the prime territory to be “that guy” and take a pitcher named Strider anywhere after pick three. Just be prepared with this strategy in mind going into your draft so you know how to best craft the rest of your team after that.

Points Leagues

I understand points leagues seem to be the red-headed stepchild of the fantasy baseball world. Honestly, though, they’re by far my favorite format and deserve a lot more love. Especially from those of you who are here really looking to justify taking a pitcher in the first round.

Point scoring formats range pretty widely across the different platforms. Some, like Fantrax, lean heavily toward the hitting side of things. Others, like Yahoo, are built around making pitchers feel like kings. Let’s break down the number of pitchers that finished inside the top 10 on each of the main platforms.

Platform Number of Pitchers in the Top 10
Yahoo 5
Fantrax 0

If you’re in Yahoo or ESPN leagues, absolutely consider a top-end pitcher after those first three picks. Acuna, Bobby Witt Jr. and Mookie Betts will all likely be a fairly consistent top-three option regardless of format. But from that point on, both Strider and Cole are draftable in the first round on those two platforms.

Surprisingly, Cole ranked ahead of Strider on both ESPN and CBS. Strider was the top man on Fantrax and Yahoo, including a 100+ lead over second-place Cole in those Yahoo leagues.

At the end of the day, whoever you choose in the first round can be great as long as you are prepared with a draft strategy to build around it. If you want to go pitching early, join shallow leagues and take advantage of the benefit of more available outfielders later on. If you are adamantly opposed to taking a pitcher early, choose a deeper league where the temptation won’t be there. Whatever option you choose to go with, just make sure you’re as prepared as can be.

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Blake Meyer is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Blake, check out his archive and follow him @Buhhlockaye.

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