Are you excited about the universal designated hitter?
There have been mixed feeling about the fact that we will now have a designated hitter in both leagues. Some, who are tired of pitchers hitting, are excited for the increase in entertainment and offense this could have. However, some prefer the old-school “National League” style of play, and don’t like change. In my opinion, change can be good, and we just need to adapt.
With that in mind, it’s time to analyze how players are going to produce from a fantasy perspective. Usually, to do this, we would rank players based on our intuition and confidence in each player. However, there’s another way to go about this. Personally, my mind works better when working with specific numbers, rather than just looking at one whole big picture.
This is also true of fantasy baseball. Regardless of the rules, we need to adapt our strategy in order to do what it takes to win it all. Between different league sizes, different categories, and different formats (roto, head-to-head, points), every league is unique. At the end of the day, all championships count the same!
What do I mean by this? Essentially, there might be less margin for error if we focus more on how a player is going to contribute to each main category, as opposed to what their overall value is there. To help with that, I have created my own projections to help list players in order of expected production. By no means is this an objective projection system, but that is sort of the point. Being able to incorporate the context that goes into rankings allows the projection to take into account several important factors, but the overall rating is objectively created based on the value they provide in each category.
What is a Roto Score?
To come up with this, we will be looking at each player’s “roto score”. Essentially, I’ll be taking their 20-80 scale rating of their contributions of the five major hitting categories (average, home runs, RBIs, runs, stolen bases), average them out, and then adjust for position. For batting average, the grade is based on the amount of at-bats the player will have. The better the batting average, the more at-bats you’ll want to have, while the reverse is true for someone with a poor batting average. Thus, we can accurately reflect on how much a hitter’s batting average truly is going to affect your fantasy team.
In simple terms, these are manual projections that combine a subjective touch with some needed objectiveness. Rather than predict their straight-up production in these categories, I projected how they would rate in peripheral categories to come up with the final result:
- Batting Average: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), Strikeout Rate, Balls in Play
- Home Runs: Fly Ball%, Home/Run Fly Ball Rate
- Stolen Bases: Success Rate, Overall Attempts
Projecting playing time, meanwhile, is the impossible task that we, as fantasy baseball managers, need to do. Personally, I took into account previous durability, current status with their team (lineup spot, team success), as well as Fangraphs’ roster resource playing time projections, to come with an accurate plate appearance number. Since we don’t know how many games are going to be played this year, this projection is under the assumption that there is going to be a 162-game season, even if that possibility is highly unlikely.
Without further ado, let us get to the projections! Today, we’ll be focusing on starting pitchers. Usually, you’ll see fantasy baseball teams have seven starting pitchers in a standard lineup, in addition to more on your bench. Thus, we’ll split these starting pitcher projections and tiers into multiple parts. Today, in part one, we’ll get to focus on the cream on crop.
Which starting pitcher stands out as a potential value, and who should you be targeting? Let us find out!
Stats via Fangraphs and Baseball Savant
2022 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Projections & Tiers (Part 1)
The battle for the #1 overall starting pitcher appears to be a two-team race, and it’s as tight as it gets.
In my mind, Gerrit Cole takes the slight edge for the #1 starting pitcher. If you’re looking for strong efficiency coupled with close to 200 innings pitched, you can’t do much better. It was certainly a chaotic year for Cole, as he was arguably the face of the foreign-substance ban for pitchers. Once it was implemented, the 31-year-old saw the spin rate on his fastball drop notably:
As you can see, Cole’s fastball dropped around 200 RPMs in terms of spin rate. From June 1 on, Cole struggled to the tune of a 4.15 ERA, which led many to believe he was a product of the “sticky stuff”. However, this isn’t really true. Cole still posted a 31.5% strikeout rate with just a 6.9% walk rate, in addition to a 3.26 skill interactive ERA (SIERA).
Meanwhile, Cole decreased his fastball usage by 5%, while he increased his changeup usage by 9%. This helps explain how he induced ground balls at a career-high 42.7% rate. This will help him as he adjusts to his fastball not having as much ride, though the effectiveness of it didn’t suffer. If it wasn’t for him being on the COVID-injured list, he likely would’ve exceeded 200 innings pitched, which should be around the expectation for him this year (adjusted for how many games are played). He’s a good bet to lead the league in strikeouts, in addition to wins. Simply put, he’s as sure of a bet as there is.
If you’re looking for one of the most likely candidates to lead the league in ERA, Corbin Burnes would have to be in consideration. Although his 8.82 ERA in 2019 was misleading – he posted a 3.55 SIERA – he certainly felt the obligation to make some clear tweaks.
From there, the legend of Corbin Burnes’ cutter, which Pitcher List’s Ben Palmer labeled as the #1 cutter in baseball, was born. In 2020, he burst onto the scene with a 36.7% strikeout rate, 2.11 ERA, and a 3.18 SIERA. However, his sinker was still hit hard to the tune of a .419 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) and an 11.1% barrel rate allowed. Thus, why not double the usage of the cutter? If you’re looking for why he allowed just a 3.1% barrel rate and allowed just a 5.2% walk rate (more confidence) in the zone, this is why.
That being said, a 0.38 home runs allowed per nine innings is as unsustainable as it gets. Unless he takes a significant leap forward in innings pitched, it’s going to be hard for Burnes to be efficient enough to outpace Cole. It could definitely happen, though I’d prefer to keep it safe at the top of the draft. Well, as safe as you can be with pitchers.
Who else is excited to see Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom in the same rotation? I know Mets fans certainly are! Outside of age (37), there isn’t any red flag to be concerned about with Scherzer. He was actually the #1 pitcher last season, per Fangraphs’ 5×5 dollar values. Both of these pitchers are extremely effective as is and now get to play behind a great defense. deGrom’s health is a major red flag, to the point that many have taken him off their draft boards. You could be getting the #1 starter if healthy, but there’s obvious downside associated with him.
Volume is king, which boosts the stock of Zack Wheeler significantly. After not pitching in 2015 and 2016 due to injuries, Wheeler was not quite matching his high-end pitching arsenal with expected strikeouts numbers. However, that didn’t stop the Phillies, who believed they could turn him into an ace, from offering him a five-year, $118 million contract. As it turns out, they were right. Wheeler’s 29.4% strikeout rate and 12.3% swinging-strike rate were both career-high marks by a notable margin, as was his 3.18 SIERA and 213.1 innings pitched. How did this happen? It all comes back to his pitch mix:
Although Wheeler increased his four-seam fastball rate in 2020, he still threw his sinker 22.6% of the time, meaning that he was throwing a fastball 65.5% of the time- that’s far too much. In exchange for fewer changeups and sinkers, he was able to increase his slider 24.9% of the time. In other words, he became the prototypical vertical pitcher that he was supposed to be. It’s truly marvelous to see it all come together for him.
When Steamer projections came out, one of the most surprising ones was Walker Buehler projected for a 4.11 ERA. You can see why; his 80.7% left-on-base rate and .247 BABIP are bound to regress, while his SIERA (3.73) was much higher than his ERA (2.47). At the same time, this is a pitcher who has done a nice job suppressing hard contact for multiple years, which may explain the usual gap between his ERA and SIERA. At the very least, the floor is very high based on him approaching 200 innings pitched and playing on a very productive team with a strong defense. However, there may be a method to Buehler’s madness that isn’t being captured properly, though the market (P #4) is somehow even higher on him than I am.
It’s easy to forget that Shane Bieber was the third-highest drafted pitcher in the NFBC Main Event in 2021, according to rotoholic.com. He was limited to 96.2 innings due to a shoulder injury, but was very effective with a 33.1% strikeout rate and a 3.21 SIERA. All indications are that he’s fully healthy now, meaning you might be getting a discount due to concerns about the injury.
Usually, you wouldn’t expect someone coming off a career year to be a value the following year. However, Kevin Gausman appears to be the exception, as he isn’t receiving the credit he deserves. For most of his career, Gausman was a middle-of-the-rotation starter, which isn’t what expectations were for him as a former fourth overall pick. However, after being non-tendered during the 2019 offseason, he signed with the Giants, and his career took off from there:
- 251.2 IP, 3.00 ERA, 3.38 SIERA, 30% K, 6.5% BB, 15.3% Swinging-Strike Rate
There’s more to his breakout than you’d think. In 2019, Gausman was let go by the Braves and picked up by the Reds. From there, he was moved to the bullpen where he became a two-pitch pitcher, relying on his fastball and splitter. Upon signing with the Giants, he was told to continue this strategy, according to Eno Sarris of The Athletic, which is exactly what he did:
Gausman’s 2019 season splitter usage is skewed by him moving to the bullpen, while his splitter can often be misidentified for his changeup. What is most significant, though, is the decline in his fastball usage and slider usage, in exchange for more splitters. After all, we’re talking about a splitter that induced whiffs on 45.9% of the swings against it, and allowed a .193 xwOBA last year- it’s one of the best pitches in baseball!
Thus, I wouldn’t call Gausman someone who needs to “prove he can do it again”. He’s now carried this over two different years, while there’s a clear explanation for the improvement. Plus, while him leaving the Giants isn’t ideal, the Blue Jays aren’t as bad of a landing spot as you’d think. The team added a humidor last season, which likely played a significant role in Rogers Centre being the fifth-most friendly stadium for pitchers last season, according to Baseball Savant park factors.
Gausman’s home run rate will go up from last year (0.94 HR/9), but he also posted a 2.81 ERA last season, so there is room for poorer luck. While some may point to his second-half “struggles”, his 4.42 ERA came with strong underlying numbers (3.51 SIERA), while his final seven starts (31.1% K, 2.4% BB, 2.84 SIERA) should have put any concerns about that to bed. A 3.60 ERA is a more than fine expectation for him, and that’ll work with the volume he’ll provide. We’re talking about over 200 strikeouts with plenty of chances for wins with a very productive team. This is an ace being priced as a fringe sixth-round pick in 12-team leagues, based on NFBC average draft position (ADP) since the start of February. While that is still the case, take full advantage of that.
Speaking of volume, Sandy Alcantara is sure to provide that. The 26-year-old posted 205.2 innings pitched last season, and shined with a 3.19 ERA. Plus, he took some major strides forward in some key areas: swinging-strike rate (13.3%, better than Zack Wheeler), SIERA (3.68), and strikeout rate (24%). However, there are reasons for him to take a step forward this season in terms of the underlying numbers. See, Alcantara is very similar to Zack Wheeler in that his overall “stuff” is fantastic, but the strikeouts aren’t there.
The top pitch in his arsenal? A 90 MPH slider that induced a 38.3% whiff rate last year. Meanwhile, his four-seam fastball is a better whiff pitch than his sinker, which can be used as more of a complementary offering to induce ground balls. As the season went on, he started to realize this:
As you can see, from August 1 on, Alcantara made a notable change to his pitch mix; he made the slider his top-used pitch, while he incorporated his four-seam fastball more up in the zone. During that span, he posted a 28.4% strikeout rate, 15.1% swinging-strike rate, and a 3.01 SIERA. I’m not saying that you should bank on two months becoming the norm for him, but they do hint to an extra level Alcantara may reach this year. Given the volume he’s going to provide, more efficiency in terms of strikeouts could be huge, and would make him a true ace. Sometimes, you just have to bet on the arsenal winning out in the end.
Last season, Robbie Ray (260 ADP) and Logan Webb (324 ADP) were essentially non-factors in NFBC Main Event drafts, according to rotoholic.com. That’s obviously different this time around after both had major breakout years. We’ll start with Ray, the reigning Cy-Young award winner. Sure, a 90.1% left-on-base rate and .268 BABIP helped his Cy Young case, but he also made legitimate changes. The main one? A 6.7% walk rate, which is essentially half of what it was in 2019, and three times lower than where it was in 2020. With increased velocity (94.8 MPH), Ray leaned on his fastball more, while also throwing more pitches in the zone (50.8% zone). He won’t repeat a 2.84 ERA, but if his walk rate remains low enough, he can be a top-12 pitcher based on the elite number of strikeouts he’ll provide. Landing in Seattle, one of the top pitcher’s parks, doesn’t hurt either.
Speaking of pitcher’s parks, Webb benefits greatly from playing in San Francisco, which has to be factored into his projection for 2022. Meanwhile, he finally became a complete pitcher in 2021. After being a north-south pitcher with his fastball and changeup for the beginning of his career, he made some major tweaks last year:
More sinkers isn’t usually the formula to success, but Webb complemented it by also almost throwing twice as many sliders. Considering his slider had a 47.1% whiff rate this year, this is a good thing! Thus, he had the perfect combination to induce ground balls (62.2%) while also leaning one of the better putaway pitches in all of baseball. He’ll have a slightly higher WHIP, as you’d expect from being a ground-ball pitcher, and won’t have an elite amount of strikeouts. That being said, you’re likely getting a low ERA, while he showed the ability to pitch deep into games last year. I’m really excited to see how he fares next season.
Jose Berrios and Max Fried are going to provide you with a lot of volume. Their ability to work deep in games increases their chances of earning a win, while they would appear on the surface to have very high floors. Meanwhile, Charlie Morton has become one of my favorite starting pitcher targets; since signing with the Astros in 2017, he has posted a 28.5% strikeout rate and 3.59 SIERA, while he’s been as consistent as it gets- age is the only red flag. As for Yu Darvish, he certainly is a lot more volatile than Morton, though he also offers value in drafts if he continues to be picked outside the top 100. Even with a 4.22 ERA last year, he posted a 1.09 WHIP, which is a category that can’t be forgotten. With slightly better luck in terms of leaving runners on base and allowing home runs in 2022, he can be a high-end SP2 for your fantasy team.
The A’s have a trio of starting pitchers in this tier that could all get traded, but, for now, we have to assume they stay in Oakland, where they can benefit from playing in a great ballpark for pitchers. The one that stands out is also the most expensive, and that’d be Frankie Montas. As I discussed for RotoBaller recently, Montas’ splitter is an elite pitch, while his four-seam fastball is a superior pitch to his sinker. As the season went on, he did a much better job utilizing his splitter, though there is still some untapped potential there. With a new coaching staff in place, he is rather intriguing.
Blake Snell truly is the mystery that keeps on giving. After being traded from the Rays to the Padres, he was expected to perform like a frontline starter last season. Instead, the 29-year-old was remarkably inconsistent, posting an ERA around five (4.99) in the first half. However, things seemed to click over his final eight starts. In that span, he posted a 39.4% strikeout rate, lowered his walk rate to 8.5%, and posted a 2.77 SIERA. As you can see, a clear pitch-mix change happened during this span:
Snell’s changeup allowed a .392 xWOBA with just a 24.4% whiff rate last season. As he put it, he put his changeup “on timeout.” Considering that this has been a pitch he’s thrown in the past, it’s possible he brings it back next season, though it likely would be at a limited amount. Instead, look for him to utilize what Pitcher List’s Nick Pollack calls the “Blake Snell blueprint”- being a true north-south pitcher. It’s a strategy that worked for him, and with new pitching coach Ruben Niela coming over from Cleveland, there’s reason to believe Snell can get back to peak form this year. It’s a risk, and he doesn’t provide you with a lot of winning, but the ceiling remains tantalizing.
Can we give some more credit to Eduardo Rodriguez? The 28-year-old was able to make 31 starts despite missing all of 2020 while dealing with myocarditis, and although his 4.74 ERA was poor, his underlying numbers are very strong. Among starting pitchers with at least 100 innings, his K-BB ratio last year (20.4%) was tied for 21st, ahead of prominent names like Jose Berrios, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Rogers, and Walker Buehler. Really, it comes down to a .363 BABIP and 68.9% left-on-base rate in 2021, which should each regress positively for him. After signing him to a five-year, $77 million contract, Detroit is going to rely on him to go deep in games effectively, something he demonstrated the ability to do in 2019 with 203.1 innings pitched. Not only is getting a noticeable ballpark and division upgrade, but he’s also going to be the beneficiary of improved luck. Don’t be surprised if he exceed his ADP (153.9, P#56) by a decent amount.
Is Carlos Rodon healthy? How many innings can Jack Flaherty be relied on for after being limited for two straight seasons? What to make of Justin Verlander coming off of Tommy John surgery as a 38-year-old? These three pitchers could easily be top-10 pitchers, but the floor is certainly low, especially for Rodon and Verlander.
On the surface, Zac Gallen had a similar strikeout rate (26.6% K) and peripheral numbers (4.04 SIERA) compared to previous years. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The 26-year-old saw his swinging-strike rate drop three percentage points – a notable amount – while his whiff rate dropped down to 23.3%. If those numbers remain intact, it’s likely that his strikeout rate drops further.
To better understand this, we need to look at Gallen’s pitch strategy. All of his pitches have well above-average vertical movement. Thus, you’d expect a north-south blueprint, but that’s not what he’s been doing recently:
In 2020, Gallen got away with throwing his fastball lower in the zone due to decreased usage of his fastball, coupled with increased usage of his cutter, which was effective with inducing whiffs. In 2021, though, that changed; Gallen threw his cutter, which gets hit hard, less, throwing his fastball at a career-high 53.3% mark. For him to get back to inducing whiffs at a high level, he’ll need to become more of a north-south pitcher, which could easily happen now that former Astros pitching coach Brett Strom has taken over as the new pitching coach in Arizona. With his tutelage, it wouldn’t shock me to see a complete change in strategy for Gallen. Plus, as someone who threw the most pitches of anyone in the second half, the volume will be there. He’s a must-target in dynasty leagues, and could be in line for a peak season in 2022.
The six young pitchers on this list are the ones that certainly would appear to have the most upside: Shane McClanahan, Alek Manoah, Luis Garcia, Tarik Skubal, Shane Baz, and Michael Kopech. All of these pitchers have slight concerns in terms of volume (outside of Manoah and Skubal), though the likely shortened season could help them in that regard. For someone who throws a 96.4 MPH fastball, you wouldn’t expect it to be the weak-link, but that’s the case with McClanahan. On the bright side, his slider (39.9% whiff), curveball (41.9% whiff), and changeup (44.8%) are all elite whiff pitches. He and Garcia are very similar in that regard, though McClanahan is the one projected to put up better strikeout numbers.
Manoah, who is a vertical pitcher that induced a 31.5% under rate last year (weekly hit pop-ups), is going to post the lowest WHIP of the group, with a similar strikeout rate to McClanahan. That gives him the slight edge over the Rays’ lefty, though it’s essentially a coin-flip. Baz and Kopech, meanwhile, aren’t projected to pitch a high volume of innings, though should be extremely efficient strikeout artists. Especially in the case of Baz, you have to wonder if the shortened season boosts their stock.
The most complicated evaluation of them all may be Skubal. On the surface, his numbers aren’t remarkably impressive, but it’s important to remember he spent all of April finding his footing at the MLB level, shuffling between different roles. From May on, he was back into the rotation for good, where his overall numbers are impressive:
- 27.5% K, 6.2% BB, 3.58 SIERA
That’ll work! As I recently wrote for RotoBaller, Skubal made several pitch-mix tweaks throughout the season, such as ditching his splitter to introducing a sinker and changeup. This led to a notable spike in his ground-ball rate (44%), which could be another key for him unlocking his true potential:
“It’s almost a given that his 13.9% barrel rate allowed comes down significantly, especially with this tweak, which could be huge for his ERA. After all, with a walk rate under 4% from the beginning of July on, he’s in a position to post a strong WHIP, while he should accumulate enough strikeouts via his arsenal and by accumulating innings. Thus, it comes down to good ol’ gopher ball. I’m willing to bank on regression back to the mean, but are you? Skubal’s NFBC redraft ADP (196.36 since the beginning of February) is likely fair, but he’s a great target in dynasty leagues and has a lot of upside for where he’s going currently in drafts. Simply put, it’s clear this isn’t your average ninth-round pick.”
He should have the most volume of this young group and plays in the most friendly pitcher’s park. Why not take a shot on this type of upside?