Every single season, we see a few new names rise up into the elite ranks of starting pitchers. The fantasy baseball aces club is a tough club to gain admittance to, but if you prove your worth, they’ll open those golden doors and let you inside the clubhouse. Last year, I picked and discussed a half dozen pitchers that I believed would ascend to the elite ranks and join this mythical clubhouse during the 2022 season. Those six are listed below. I’ll be doing the same thing again this year, but breaking it up into two parts. In this, part one, I’ll be discussing a trio of National League arms that I believe can make take that next step in 2022. Leading off is a holdover from last year’s list. But who?
Last Year’s Picks (For 2022)
Alek Manoah ✅
Sixto Sánchez ❌
Dustin May – TBD
Dylan Cease ✅
Shane McClanahan ✅
Shane Baz – TBD
Alright, three out of six with two TBDs is pretty solid. Let’s see who this year’s names are for 2023.
Shane Baz would’ve been one of the six below if I wrote this before he underwent TJS. Buy-low on him if possible in dynasty leagues.
If you aren’t playing your dynasty leagues on Fantrax, you’re missing out on the deepest player pool and most customization around. For more rankings, check out Eric’s Top-400 Prospect Rankings or Chris Clegg’s Top-500 OBP Dynasty Rankings, and make sure to check out the Fantrax Toolshed Podcast for more dynasty talk!
Potential New Fantasy Baseball Aces in 2o23
Dustin May, Los Angeles Dodgers
Let’s go back to the well with Dustin May. If he wasn’t coming back from injury, I’m still a firm believer that he’d be considered a fantasy ace already. When you watch May pitch, it’s hard not to be impressed with the combination of movement and velocity that he generates. May’s arsenal now runs five pitches deep, and it looked like he was aiming to find the right balance during his six starts in 2022. May added a changeup that he only used against LHB while also decreasing his sinker usage in favor of more four-seamers and cutters.
With the cutter being an impactful pitch for him in his five starts in 2021 before getting hurt, it made sense to throw that pitch a little more in 2022. And while the surface BAA and SLG weren’t quite as good, both the xBA and xSLG on the offering were even better than 2021, despite the whiff rate dropping by more than half. Meanwhile, May’s curveball remained one of the best in the game, allowing only a .120 BAA, .171 wOBA, zero extra-base hits, and a 47.6% whiff rate. In a perfect world, I’d love to see May increase the curveball usage even more in 2023, hopefully into the 30% range. We’ve seen what can happen when a pitcher throws his best pitch more often, with Jesús Luzardo being a recent example of this with his curveball.
Even with May experimenting with his pitch mix in his half-dozen starts this season, a positive I take from it is his ability to throw all of his pitches to both RHB and LHB, with the exception of his changeup against RHB. Here’s how his arsenal broke down against each handedness.
Yes, he used certain pitchers more against certain handednesses (say that word five times fast), but having to gear up for four of five pitches with very different breaks can be a nightmare for opposing hitters. Just look at this sinker/curveball overlay for evidence of that.
Dustin May, 96mph Two Seamer and 86mph Breaking Ball, Overlay. 😳
Every hit is a minor miracle. pic.twitter.com/lDMhQcaYiI
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 22, 2022
Overall, May’s 4.50 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 22.8% strikeout rate won’t knock your socks off. And the walk rate jumping from 5.4% to 11% might alarm some. But honestly, I don’t care one bit about the surface stats as May was working his way back following a lengthy layoff due to injury. Now, with a normal offseason ahead of him, May will enter 2023 fully healthy and on a normal schedule. This is a pitcher with some of the best pure stuff in all of baseball that posted a 31.6% whiff rate in 2021 and 29.7% in 2022. May has also recorded a swinging strike rate in the 13 to 14% range in each of his last two seasons as well, albeit, in a combined 11 starts.
May just does so many things well, including limiting hard contact and inducing plenty of ground balls with a GB% above 50% in each of his last three seasons. With a clean bill of health and a normal build-up to the 2023 season, I’m expecting that we see May’s best season yet with around a 3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and a strikeout rate above 26%. That would put him in the fantasy ace discussion and there’s certainly the upside for more as well.
Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds
Now we shift to a pair of exciting Cincinnati Reds arms, starting with Hunter Greene. While always exciting, Greene’s performance in 2022 was a roller coaster ride. After posting an 8.71 ERA through his first five starts, Greene then had a few starts where he looked dominant, then a few clunkers, then a few more good starts, etc. You get the point. On July 15th, following Greene’s 18th start of the season, his ERA still sat at a bloated 5.78. However, Greene looked like a whole different pitcher down the stretch and was honestly one of the best pitchers in baseball over the final two months of the season.
Unfortunately, Greene was only able to make six starts during those two months, but those were six majestic outings. In 35.1 innings, Greene posted a 1.02 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 5.8% walk rate, and a 36.7% strikeout rate. Out of the 190 pitchers with 30+ innings over this time frame, Greene ranked 2nd in ERA, 10th in WHIP, 5th in K%, and 4th in K-BB%.
If you want an in-depth look at what changed for Greene to cause this dominance, I urge you to check out the great video below by my Toolshed co-host over on the Fantrax Toolshed YouTube channel.
A big reason for Greene’s turnaround was increased fastball velocity. Sure, he was already averaging around 98.5 mph through the first few months of the season, but Greene increased that to a whopping 99.8 mph in September. Yes, that’s AVERAGE velocity. In addition, the extra velocity was accompanied by extra spin and riding acting, making Greene’s fastball difficult to square up. In September, Greene’s four-seamer registered a stellar .140 BAA, .200 SLG, and .198 wOBA with a whopping 39.7% whiff rate. Greene’s slider remained dominant in September as well with a .115 BAA, .154 SLG, .210 wOBA, and 38.2% whiff rate.
Is a near 40% whiff rate on a four-seamer usually sustainable? No. However, if Greene comes out firing his September fastball when the 2023 season begins next April, he absolutely could continue having one of the best four-seam whiff rates in baseball to go along with his elite slider. The changeup is still a work in progress, and I’d love to see that take a step forward as well. However, two-pitch pitchers can thrive as long as the two pitchers are truly elite, as Greene showed in September.
Another big improvement for Greene was allowing fewer home runs. A lot fewer. In his first 12 starts, Greene’s HR/9 sat at lofty 2.29. That was the highest mark in baseball among the 116 arms with 70+ innings through July 25th. However, over his final six outings, Greene trimmed that rate considerably down to 0.25, allowing only one home run in 35.1 innings.
Even if that rate creeps up to a more sustainable area between 0.50 and 1.00, Greene should still be able to have plenty of success in 2023. Down the stretch, Greene was pitching just as well as Spencer Strider while using a similar arsenal to Atlanta’s rookie right-hander. And frankly, their upside is very similar as well. That’s not me saying you should value Greene similarly to Strider right now, but that could be the case by the end of 2023, as long as the Greene we saw in September is here to stay.
Nick Lodolo, Cincinnati Reds
With the Reds currently in the middle of a rebuild, they traded away the likes of Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, and Luis Castillo over the last 16 months or so. But having two elite young arms like Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo sure does ease the sting of losing a trio like that.
Greene wasn’t the only dominant Reds arm down the stretch. In six starts from 9/4-10/1, Lodolo registered a 2.48 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 7.1% walk rate, and a 34.8% strikeout rate across 36.1 innings. Overall, Lodolo had a 3.66 ERA in 19 starts with a 29.7% strikeout rate.
While Lodolo is a vastly different pitcher than Greene, he also found better results after an adjustment to his arsenal down the stretch. Lodolo threw more four-seamers and fewer sinkers in September, definitely a positive decision given the metrics on each pitch this season. Overall, Lodolo’s four-seamer recorded a .210 BAA, .360 SLG, and .312 wOBA compared to a .290 BAA, .510 SLG, and .382 wOBA on his sinker. His curveball remained consistent all season long, finishing with a .136 BAA, .280 SLG, .256 wOBA, and a 46% whiff rate. The expected metrics were even lower.
Nick Lodolo, Wicked 82mph Back Foot Breaking Ball. 🤢 pic.twitter.com/hVrHl6Oe3p
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 25, 2022
Lodolo was one of only five pitchers with a whiff rate above 45% and a BAA under .150 on his curveball with a minimum of 400 thrown. Framber Valdez, Triston McKenzie, Aaron Civale, and Corbin Burnes were the other four. If you lowered the threshold to 100 thrown, Dustin May would make the list as well.
While Greene can overpower opposing batters with his velocity, Lodolo doesn’t have that luxury. Sure, his velocity is solid at 94.4 mph on average, but Lodolo’s ability to locate his fastball well, primarily in the upper quadrants, has been key to his success. He can also turn it over into a sinker to get a timely double-play ball when needed. Lodolo was able to induce groundballs on 45.6% of his batted ball events this past season, making him one of just three pitchers to have a 29+% strikeout rate and 45+% groundball rate this season.
In all formats, Lodolo is one of my favorite targets right now. His name doesn’t quite have as much sizzle as Greene’s does, and his good but not great surface stats in 2022 cover up what he’s truly capable of to a degree. What he’s capable of is being a top 20 fantasy arm annually, maybe reaching as high as the 10-15 range. Lodolo’s ability to generate plenty of groundballs and whiffs is a great combination. Yes, pitching in Cincinnati doesn’t help, but that combination of bat-missing and groundballs should allow him to thrive in any ballpark.
Media Credit: Rob Friedman, Chris Clegg, Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire
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