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. After discussing a trio of National League arms in part one, I’ll be discussing a trio of American League arms today.
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 had written this before he underwent TJS. Buy-low on him if possible in dynasty leagues.
If you missed out on part 1 where I discussed three National League arms, you could check that out here.
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 2023
Cristian Javier, Houston Astros
When I was writing down names for these articles, Cristian Javier’s name was one of the first that popped into my head. Despite the variance in how he was used throughout the season, Javier was dominant for the American League Champion Houston Astros. In 148.2 innings (25 starts, 5 relief), Javier recorded an exceptional 2.54 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and a 33.2% strikeout rate. Out of the 72 pitchers with 140+ innings this season, Javier finished with the 3rd best strikeout rate and tied Shane McClanahan for the 7th-best K-BB rate.
From 2021 to 2022, Javier made several noticeable improvements. Most noticeable was a drop in walk rate from 12.5% to 8.9%. You’re not going to get away with a 12.5% walk rate, but sitting around 9% is much more manageable, especially given how dominant Javier can be with missing bats. Other improvements include significant drops in barrel rate, AVG EV, and hard-hit rate along with chase% and 1st pitch Strike%.
Javier’s 2022 performance was no fluke either. Many of his expected metrics were even better than his surface stats. Javier ranked in the top-5% of pitchers last season in xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, xwOBACON, and xERA.
While Javier technically has a four-pitch mix, he combines to throw his four-seamer or slider nearly 90% of the time. And when you look at the metrics on both pitches, it’s not hard to see why. In 2023, Javier recorded a .183 BAA, .326 SLG, and .277 wOBA on his four-seamer and a .121 BAA, .223 SLG, and .177 wOBA on his slider. The latter of which having a 39.4% whiff rate. Even Javier’s four-seamer registered a high whiff rate relative to other four-seamers, ranking 12th among SP (150 PA min). This wasn’t just a 2022 thing either as Javier’s four-seamer also yielded a 26.4% whiff rate in 2021.
All of Javier’s metrics and improvements from 2022 have me highly encouraged about his outlook for 2023 and beyond. He’s under team control for at least the next three seasons, and as much as I hate to speculate on wins as they’re so fluky, he’ll have a chance to rack up the wins pitching for an annual World Series contender.
The big question remaining is how many innings will he throw next season. It’s too early to speculate with any heightened level of certainty. However, with Javier nearing the 150 IP mark this season along with Lance McCullers shotty durability and the possibility of Verlander leaving via free agency, expecting him to jump up to the 170 IP range is fair. And if he adds a bit more volume to his elite ratios and strikeouts, we’re likely looking at a top-15 SP next season.
George Kirby, Seattle Mariners
When the Mariners selected George Kirby 20th overall back in the 2019 draft, much was made about safe he was and how high of a floor he had. Three years later, that’s all still true. Kirby’s upside gets undervalued too. In 25 starts and 130 innings this season, Kirby posted a rock-solid 3.39 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 24.5% strikeout rate. And of course, Kirby’s usual stellar walk rate came along for the ride at a tidy 4.1%. Out of the 90 pitchers with 130+ innings in 2022, only Corey Kluber, Aaron Nola, Ross Stripling, and Kevin Gausman had lower walk rates. Kirby also ranked 39th in K%, 21st in K-BB%, 15th in FIP, 22nd in SIERA, and 26th in xERA among the 140 starters with 100+ innings in 2022.
That was all as a rookie. Sure, Spencer Strider is the shinier toy right now, but don’t right off Kirby from jumping into the top-20 or even top-15 pitchers in 2023. His 2022 performance was a great building block and showed that Kirby has one of the highest floors of any young pitcher in the game. Having a high floor is great and all, but that doesn’t get you to ace levels for fantasy. So, why am I including Kirby in this article? Simple. I’m projecting even better numbers in 2023, especially in the strikeout department.
From July 1st through the end of the season, Kirby pitched to the tune of a 2.92 ERA, 1.81 FIP, 1.19 WHIP, 4.7% walk rate, and a 26.5% strikeout rate. In 12 starts from July 2nd through September 17th, Kirby recorded a 27.5% strikeout rate. In eight starts from July 2nd through August 24th, it was 28.6%. Am I cherry-picking sample sizes? You bet I am. But I’m doing so to show that Kirby has more strikeout upside in the tank. And did you look at the filth I provided you in the video above? Nasty. And if you look on Baseball Savant, while you won’t see elite whiff rates, what you will see are three elite names that are similar to Kirby for velocity and movement: Brandon Woodruff, Zack Wheeler, and Frankie Montas.
Now, let’s put this all in perspective before we move on to the final name on the list. I’m NOT saying that I believe Kirby will be a 30+% strikeout rate arm. However, what I am saying is that I believe he can settle into the 26-28% range given his stuff and elite command/control. If you’re receiving that strikeout rate along with low ratios and 175+ innings, that’s going to put Kirby in ace discussion entering 2024.
Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles
A rookie?! You’re damn straight! Listen, is it risky to put a rookie pitcher in an article like this? Yes. But hey, I wanted to go a tad bold with at least one of these, and if any pitching prospect is going to have the type of season to warrant an inclusion like this, it’s likely going to be Grayson Rodriguez.
All Rodriguez has done since being selected 11th overall back in 2018 is dominate every single season. We’re now four seasons into his professional career and the highest ERA he’s had in any one season is 2.68. Yes, that’s the HIGHEST mark. For his career, Rodriguez has posted a stellar 2.47 ERA and 0.95 WHIP through 292 innings with an 8.3% walk rate and a 36.3% strikeout rate. That’s about as elite as you’ll see from a pitching prospect with a sample size of this magnitude. And if it wasn’t for an injury this past season, we’d likely already have seen at least a handful of G-Rod MLB starts.
As I mentioned in the video above, Rodriguez is the most impressive pitching prospect that I’ve seen live over the past half-decade. Rodriguez mixes a four-seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup, all of which can be considered plus or better offerings. He’ll sit in the 95-97 range on his fastball with great riding life, touching 99 mph, and is able to maintain that velocity deep into his starts. His two breaking balls are distinct, differing both in break and velocity. Rodriguez’s slider is usually in the mid-80’s with sharp two-plane break, and his curveball is more around 80 mph with good depth to it.
As good as those two breaking balls are, Rodriguez’s changeup might be even better, given the velocity separation (mid-80s) from his fastball along with the fade and sinking action he gets on it. And the cherry on top of this dynamic sundae is the fact that Rodriguez shows solid feel and command of all four offerings. He’s able to land each one for strikes or use as a chase pitch outside the zone. This had led to elite Swinging Strike metrics in the minors, coming in at 18.7% in 2021 and 15.8% in 2022.
Everything one could look for from a future fantasy ace can be found in Rodriguez’s profile. And while a rookie pitcher ascending to ace or near-ace levels is a rarity, it’s definitely possible. Just look at Spencer Strider this past season for example. Rodriguez is going to be a STUD.
Media Credit: Baseball Savant, Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire
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