So, the shift is going to be banned?
This will definitely have a notable impact on the game of baseball. All of a sudden, pull-hitters become much more valuable, especially those who pull their batted balls on the ground. Furthermore, we should see the league-wide batting average go up, which could have a tougher road ahead, especially with the universal designated hitter coming into effect as well. Personally, I don’t have a strong stance on whether the shift being banned is “good or bad” for the game of baseball, but can understand both sides.
This will also impact us tremendously in fantasy baseball. Regardless of the rules, we need to 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!
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.
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 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:
- ERA: Left-On-Base Rate, Batting Average Balls in Play (BABIP), Fly-Ball Rate, Home Run/Fly Ball Rate, Strikeout Rate, Walk Rate
- WHIP: BABIP, Walk Rate
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 two, we’ll get to dig deep to try to find the next breakout star.
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
Average Draft Position (ADP) via NFBC since February 1st
2022 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Projections & Tiers (Part 2)
|Lance McCullers Jr.||HOU||50.36||120.0||3.66||1.23||136||9|
Alex Wood and Anthony Desclafani are both coming off of tremendous rebound years in 2021, and are now coming back to the Giants after signing multi-year contracts. They are both nice targets in the middle rounds; DeSclafani for volume and stability, Wood for more upside if he can stay healthy.
Mike Clevinger, Luis Severino, and Lance McCullers Jr. are notable injury risks. Clevinger and Severino are coming off of Tommy John surgery, while McCullers appears to be behind in his recovery from a forearm injury, based on what he’s said recently. I’d actually be more inclined to take a chance on Clevinger and Severino, who are more likely to be on schedule in 2022, but there isn’t a lot of volume to be had with these three pitchers. Consider them better targets in shallower leagues.
I’m really excited to see how Logan Gilbert performs in his second season as a pro. In 119.1 innings last season, he was impressive, ranking in the top-30 in K-BB ratio (19.9%), finishing with a 3.87 skill interactive ERA (SIERA). It’d be nice to see him lean on his slider (38.2% whiff) and changeup (51.4% whiff) a bit more in 2022, though his fly-ball tendencies will work in a favorable home park in Seattle. With an improved left-on-base rate, don’t be surprised if he posts an ERA below 4.00 with a solid WHIP this year. He’s very similar in a lot of ways to Joe Ryan, albeit with more volume.
What to make of Ranger Suarez? His overall stat line in 106 innings was fantastic: 3.51 SIERA, 25.6% K, 7.9% BB. A lot of that came as a reliever, but in the 12 starts he did make, his numbers were pretty similar: 3.68 SIERA, 25% K, 7.3% BB. It’s unclear if Suarez’s ability to limit barrels is a real trait, but he did induce a 59.7% ground-ball rate thanks to a sinker than induced a negative-one launch angle last season. Expect him to allow more line drives, which will lead to more damage, while his WHIP is a concern. However, the ability to induce ground balls and the ability to get enough strikeouts makes him a decent bet, though without a lot of traditional upside.
Speaking of intriguing lefties who could post high WHIPs, Patrick Sandoval is extremely enticing. After moving into the rotation at the end of May, the 25-year-old posted a 27.8% strikeout rate, 3.84 SIERA, and a tremendous 15.2% swinging-strike rate. With a changeup that induced a 51.4% whiff rate last year and a fantastic slider (38.3% whiff), he’s able to compensate for a fastball that can be hit hard. By throwing it less than 40% of the time in July, he raised his strikeout rate to 30.6% during that span, flashing the elite potential he has. I’m a little worried about the walks, though the ceiling here is tantalizing.
The same goes for Triston McKenzie. Heading into the season, the 24-year-old was expected to make good on his former prospect pedigree for the Guardians last season. Instead, he posted a 6.38 ERA and 20.6% walk rate, leading to him being demoted to Triple-A in June.
This wasn’t the end for McKenzie, however. He was recalled to the majors at the beginning of July, and, from there, he was a changed pitcher. His walk rate (6.2%) was more than three times lower than it was before, while he had a 3.94 SIERA and a 0.97 WHIP. The change? More confidence throwing the zone. Where did that come from. Well….
McKenzie’s fastball velocity was notable down through the first three months of the season. However, that changed upon being recalled to the majors. This led to him having more confidence to throw it in the zone, leading to a drastically lower walk rate. If McKenzie can keep this improved command, we’re talking about a pitcher who is going to post a low WHIP – his fly-ball tendencies are going to lead to a lower BABIP – and have solid strikeout potential. You’re definitely betting on that, though it would appear to be a smart one to make.
Usually, 34-year-old pitchers with a career 19.3% strikeout rate wouldn’t be very interesting targets. Yet, that couldn’t be further from the case for Alex Cobb. When the Angels traded for Cobb ahead of last season, not much was made about the move- it looked like a desperate attempt to find any sort of pitching. Quietly, though, despite posting a 16.8% strikeout rate in 2020, he did raise his swinging-strike rate to 9.8%, which may have been what the Angels were betting on. As it turns out, there were correct.
In 2021, Cobb posted a 3.83 SIERA, along with a 24.9% strikeout rate and 11.2% swinging-strike rate. Wait, wasn’t this a pitcher that couldn’t miss bats at all? Yep, but that was before Cobb discovered his wonderful splitter. In 2018, his previous last full season, he threw it 26.4% of the time, and his sinker 51.5% of the time. This past season, though, the splitter usage was up to 36.9%, while the sinker usage was down to 42.1%.
Alex Cobb, Nasty 87mph Splitter. 😨 pic.twitter.com/VHCibdHJJx
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 16, 2021
Now, Cobb has signed a two-year deal with the Giants, which is important for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s a great ballpark to pitch in. Combined with his ground-ball tendencies, he’s not going to allow many home runs. Plus, this is also an organization that has been able to get the most of their pitchers, and they may instruct Cobb to lean on his splitter even more, a la Kevin Gausman. The organization clearly has a lot of faith in him by signing to a multi-year deal, and it’s easy to see why. The innings pitched is a question mark, but if it’s there, he will almost certainly exceed his current draft price (248.1).
When the Mets traded for Carlos Carrasco, they did so believing he’d be a critical part of their rotation. After all, this is a pitcher with a 3.30 SIERA from 2015 through 2021, while he had settled in as a mid-3.00s ERA type of pitcher. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury limited the 34-year-old to 53.2 innings pitched last season, and he struggled with a 6.04 ERA, though his 4.44 SIERA wasn’t bad for a down year. If Carrasco can get the command back on his slider and changeup, which could easily happen now that he won’t be coming back from an injury, don’t be surprised if he exceeds expectations this year.
Speaking of the Mets, Noah Syndergaard is no longer a member of the organization after signing with the Angels for $20 million this past offseason. They say money talks, so perhaps Syndergaard is now healthy after missing essentially all of 2020 and 2021 due to injury. Heck, he had to stop throwing his slider due to pain last season. Maybe he’s healthy, but consider me skeptical that he’s going to be back to peak form this season.
Is this the year Andrew Heaney finally makes good on his potential? Even as recently as last season, he ranked 31st in all of baseball with a 19.5% K-BB ratio. However, a 2.01 HR/9 and 67.4% left-on-base rate contributed to lead to a 5.83 ERA, well above his 3.84 SIERA. Is there positive regression to come? Remember, this is a pitcher with a 3.91 career SIERA, yet a 4.72 career ERA. Despite the fact that their ballpark isn’t optimal for pitchers who have home run issues, I’m optimistic Heaney can put it together now as a member of the Dodgers, though there’s also the downside he’s out of the rotation if he struggles. The ranges of outcomes is wide here.
Between Aaron Ashby, Luis Patino, Tanner Houck, and Josiah Gray, there are a lot of intriguing young pitchers to get excited about. Ashby is the most talented of the group, though he isn’t currently guaranteed a rotation spot. Still, if a rotation spot opens up, he could easily take off. Houck follows a similar mold to Ashby, though the team was unwilling to let him go more than four-to-five innings per start and has signed a lot of rotation depth this offseason.
Patino (22.2% K, 4.61 SIERA) wasn’t overly impressive last year in his first full season. The hope is that his overall “stuff” wins out, while he can take a step forward his command. The same goes for Gray, who allowed a 10.7% walk rate and a 12.2% barrel rate last year. That being said, he also had a 14.1% swinging-strike rate and a 30.2% whiff thanks to two elite breaking balls, while he was seen as someone with plus command as a prospect. He also is the most likely to pitch the most innings from this group, even if he’s behind currently in terms of his overall skills.
After posting a 3.29 ERA in the shortened 2020 season in his first season with the Angels, expectations were high for Dylan Bundy. With a 6.06 ERA last season, he certainly failed to meet those expectations, causing his stock to fall dramatically. However, as I wrote about earlier this year, he’s definitely a pitcher to target in the later rounds.
Bundy’s slider (.234 wOBA allowed) and curveball (.252 wOBA allowed) have been strong offering for him. The same cannot be said about his fastball (.373 wOBA allowed) and sinker (.402 wOBA allowed). In 2020, he seemed to realize this, throwing those two pitches just 41.9% of the time. However, he reverted back to his career norms this season:
Plus, as Bundy’s declining fastball velocity demonstrates, he may have not been healthy throughout last season. What I said earlier this year still stands:
“After signing a one-year deal with the Twins, Bundy lands in a very strong spot for him to rebound. If his fastball velocity can get back up to where it needs to be, and, most importantly, Minnesota has him increase his breaking ball usage again, there is a lot of potential here. That may seem like a lot of “ifs”, but it isn’t as far-fetched as you may seem. Meanwhile, pitching in the AL Central, as well as the 10th-least friendly ballpark for hitters when it comes to home runs will help his home run rate. In other words, there is a lot to like here. A great way to find value in drafts is to take a chance on players falling down the draft board compared to the year before, believing a bounce back. That’s what you’re doing with Bundy here, and I’m confident he’ll turn out offering you a lot of surplus value at his current draft cost.”
|Nestor Cortes Jr.||NYY||44.82||110.0||4.18||1.23||114||5|
In addition to Bundy, Kyle Freeland and Jose Quintana were two other deep-league pitching targets I highlighted, and the case is still there. For Freeland, his increased curveball usage last season is a blueprint for more strikeout upside, while the volume will be there. As for Quintana, he’s in a great pitchers’ park now in Pittsburgh, and has several years of being a stable middle-of-the-rotation starter. Yet, both of these players are currently going past pick #600 in NFBC drafts since February.
I’d like to believe in Drew Rasmussen, but those citing his overall numbers on their own would be incorrect. He spent the first portion of the season in the bullpen, before shifting into the rotation. As a starter, he had just an 18.2% strikeout rate, which isn’t ideal considering he was limited to five-inning stints at most. Like Patino, you’ll have to buy into the arsenal, though a young starter like Tylor Megill, who has more demonstrated strikeout-to-walk ratio skills, may end up offering more value- the inning projection for Megill is more likely to be too low than it is for Rasmussen.
Jesus Luzardo remains a tantalizing talent. Could he be this year’s Robbie Ray? The true answer is that no one is this year’s Robbie Ray, but there’s reason to believe he can finally make good on his potential this season. It all comes down to this pitch arsenal. Luzardo’s curveball (.227 xwOBA, 42.6% whiff) and changeup (35% whiff) are productive pitchers for him. At the same time, his fastball (.454 wOBA) and sinker (.421 wOBA) were hit extremely hard last season. Upon being traded to the Marlins from the A’s for Starling Marte, his arsenal starting to reflect this:
- With Oakland: 59.2% Fastball, 21.1% Breaking Ball, 19.3% Changeup
- With Miami: 46.4% Fastball, 33.4% Breaking Ball, 20.2% Changeup
As a member of the Marlins, Luzardo raised his swinging-strike rate rose to 13.7%. His command suffered, leading to a 12.1% walk rate, but this is likely due to him needing time to adjust to the new changes in his pitch mix. With a full offseason with Miami under his belt, the ceiling may be through the roof, especially with his batted-ball luck (10.1% barrel, 26.2% line-drive) likely to be better. As a late-round flyer, you can’t do much better in terms of ceiling.
In this group, there are a lot of inefficient innings eaters than could offer value in deeper leagues or draft and hold set-ups. Perhaps Reid Detmers, who had a 42% strikeout rate in the minors, or Hunter Greene make an impact this season as well. Which players you have your eye on truly depends on the league format you’re in.
Here is where the run on prospects, or anyone who pitches for the Pirates, lies. Spencer Howard and Mitch Keller are two post-hype young players to keep an eye on. Howard is entering his first full season with his new team and could improve with better pitch optimization (less fastballs). Meanwhile, Keller’s velocity appears to be up, which could mean nothing, or it could mean something. Considering he’s going past pick #500, are you not going to take that small chance that it pans out for him? It’s a no-risk proposition with some potential reward.