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Starting Pitcher Sleepers for 2023 Fantasy Baseball

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, I’m not referencing the Christmas song. I’m talking about fantasy baseball draft season. As we inch closer and closer to opening day, draft prep increases. We’re dissecting rankings, metrics, depth charts, and so much more to get ourselves ready for all of our drafts. For me, I’ve been doing all of this seemingly since the 2022 season ended, especially looking into ADP for 2023 drafts. I’ve already completed a bunch of drafts so far (Bestballs and DCs) and found myself targeting the below five names very heavily at their respective ADPs. One might call these my favorite Starting Pitcher Sleepers for the 2023 season. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the word “sleeper” but these names definitely fit the mold.

For this article, I only looked at pitchers going after pick 200 on average.

The season is not here yet, but why not get a head start and jump in a Fantrax Classic Draft contest? Get a jump on the season with a Best Ball league or maybe a Draft and Hold. Or put some green on the line with a new season-long league to try and conquer. There’s no better time than now to get your baseball on!

Starting Pitcher Sleepers for 2023

Edward Cabrera, Miami Marlins

Without question, my favorite starting pitcher sleeper or target after pick 200 is Miami’s Edward Cabrera. The electric young right-hander pitched effectively when on the mound in 2022 but was limited to only 71.2 innings due to biceps, elbow, and ankle injuries. In those 71.2 innings, Cabrera posted a 3.01 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 25.8% strikeout rate. On top of that, Cabrera didn’t get hit overly hard either, recording a 86.7 mph AVG EV and a 33.3% hard-hit rate allowed. Both marks were better than league average. However, Cabrera’s walk rate remained too high in 2022, sitting at 11.3%.

Even more impressive than his performance is the dynamic arsenal that Cabrera works with. Cabrera mixes a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, curveball, and changeup, four of which had impressive metrics last season.

Starting Pitcher Sleepers

Cabrera was one of only eight pitchers to record a whiff rate above 30% of three separate offerings last season. Even better than that, he was one of only two pitchers (Darvish) to have four offerings with a .200 BAA or less. Both of those lists are impressive ones to be a part of.

The biggest issue with these four offerings was Cabrera’s 4-seam command which led to four home runs in just 25 BBE and that bloated .576 SLG you see above. Actually, command and control in general is an area that Cabrera needs to work on to break out in 2023. As mentioned above, the walk rate remains a bit too high and would look a lot better under 10%.

If Cabrera is able to improve in that area while maintaining his ability to miss bats and induce groundballs at a near 50% clip (47.1%), we could be looking at a top-25 starting pitcher by the end of the season. That is if he can also finally put all of the nagging injuries behind him and get up near 150 innings. While there’s still some risk here, Cabrera’s upside is substantial. All the ingredients are here for a big-time breakout in 2023.

Aaron Ashby, Milwaukee Brewers

We go from one organization that develops pitchers exceptionally well to another that does the exact same thing in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, that’s also the reason why Aason Ashby’s ADP isn’t currently higher. As it stands now, the quartet of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, and Eric Lauer are locked into the rotation, and Wade Miley was recently acquired and added to the fray as well. So, for now, Ashby is on the outside looking in, likely operating as a bulk-innings reliever or spot starter to open the season. But hey, I’m not one to necessarily shy away from these types as you’ll see again later in this article.

What I love about Ashby is his ability to both miss bats and induce groundballs at an exceptional rate. For pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2022, only Framber Valdez (duh), Andre Pallante, and Alex Cobb had a higher groundball rate than Ashby’s 56.9% mark. Ashby was the only one of the four to also have a SwStr rate above 12%. You can also add in an impressive 30.1% chase rate and 29.4% whiff rate.

Ashby uses up to five offerings in any given outing, primarily working with his sinker, slider, changeup, and curveball. Even with less than stellar metrics (.278 BAA, .468 SLG), Ashby’s sinker is a major reason for that groundball rate. And when looking at his sinker heat map, there’s certainly room for improvement if he can locate it in the lower quadrants a bit more. And remember that 3-pitch/30% whiff rate club I mentioned above with Cabrera? Well, Ashby was 0.8% away with his changeup from joining that club. His best whiff rate offering was his slider with a 41.1% rate to go along with a .200 BAA, .311 SLG, and even better expected metrics.

Similarly to his teammate Freddy Peralta, it looks like Asby will settle into the 9-10% range for his walk rate, but that’s fine given Ashby’s ability to miss bats and keep the ball on the ground. Even in his current role. Ashby could get up into the 120-130 IP range, and if he moves into the rotation at any point, 150+ isn’t out of the question.

Hunter Brown, Houston Astros

See? I’m definitely not worried to take talented pitchers like this that might not be in their respective team’s rotations to begin the season. In case you’ve turned a blind eye to it all, pitchers get hurt all the time, and the number of arms on the IL only seems to increase every season. In Houston specifically, Lance McCullers Jr has had a difficult time staying on the mound for a full season. If he or anyone else in this rotation were to miss time, Hunter Brown would likely be the one to step in.

Brown pitched most of 2022 in the hitter-friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League and put up stellar numbers for the level. In 106 innings, Brown posted a 2.55 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 31.5 strikeout rate. However, he also walked 10.6% of the batters he faced. That 2.55 ERA led the PCL, and if you add in a 100 IP threshold, the next lowest was Arizona’s Tommy Henry at 3.74. Brown continued shining for Houston down the stretch with a 0.89 ERA in 20.1 innings.

Brown works primarily with a 4-seam/curveball/slider mix and can miss bats at a high clip with both of his breaking balls. Both project to be at least above-average offerings at the Major League level with Brown’s curveball easily grading as plus or better. His fastball ain’t too shabby either, sitting in the 95-97 range with impressive metrics during a small Major League sample size.

As was the case with the two names above him, Brown will need to keep the walk rate in check, but the stuff is definitely there for a nice breakout if he can receive enough innings. And if that last part is your main drawback, just remember where Cristian Javier was this time last season. Yep, exactly in the same spot as Brown is now.

With an ADP of around 250, Brown already has a solid ROI opportunity if he can flirt with 110-120 innings in this role. If (when) he slips into the rotation, that ROI opportunity grows exponentially. What can Brown do for you? A whole heck of a lot of good in 2023. That’s what.

Alex Cobb, San Francisco Giants

Fine, I’ll admit it… I just can’t quit Alex Cobb. Not with these metrics. In 28 starts spanning 149.2 innings last season, Cobb finished with a respectable 3.73 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 6.8% walk rate, and 23.9% strikeout rate. All of Cobb’s ERA indicators were much lower as well, sitting at 3.15 (xERA), 3.23 (SIERA), 2.80 (FIP), and 2.89 (xFIP). And in case you forgot when I mentioned it above, Cobb had the 3rd highest groundball rate for pitchers with at least 100 innings last season.

Working with a sinker (42% usage), splitter (42.5), and curveball (15.3%), Cobb was able to record a whiff rate above 30% on the last two while his sinker led to a lofty 61.9% groundball rate overall. Hitters had a hard time lifting the ball in general when facing Cobb, as evidenced by his launch angle allowed on each offering being between 2° and -2°.

With an ADP around 250, even a repeat performance would net a decent ROI at this spot. And if he’s finally able to convince Lady Luck to work with him and not against him for just one season, Cobb could become a massive bargain at this price tag. I’ll leave you with a quick comparison of Cobb and his teammate Logan Webb, who just happens to be going around 130 spots higher on average.

  • Logan Webb: 3.59 xERA, 3.31 xFIP, 3.56 SIERA, 14.5% K-BB, 110 ADP
  • Alex Cobb: 3.15 xERA, 2.89 xFIP, 3.15 SIERA, 17.1% K-BB, 240 ADP

Does this mean Cobb is undervalued? Webb is overvalued? Both? regardless, go get some Cobb shares in your 2023 drafts.

Justin Steele, Chicago Cubs

Honestly, I’m not sure why Justin Steele’s ADP currently sits close to pick 300 overall. Steele was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball down the stretch last season, registering a pristine 0.96 ERA and 28.2% K-BB mark after August 1st. Yes, that ERA along with his 95.7% strand rate aren’t sustainable and will surely regress in 2023. However, even Steele’s ERA indicators were in the 2.11-2.54 range during this stretch, signaling that his performance definitely wasn’t entirely a fluke.

What changed for Steele down the stretch? One area we can look at is his increased slider usage. Steele increased his slider usage to 38% in August and 36.1% in September with a sub-.160 BAA and sub-.200 wOBA on the pitch each month. Overall, the whiff rate isn’t exactly what we’d consider elite at 32.7%, but it serves as Steele’s best whiff rate offering and the increased usage helped Steele strike out more batters down the stretch. For the entire season, Steele’s slider had a 16.1% SwStr and 37.3% O-Swing.

Outside of his slider, Steele relies heavily on his four-seamer, throwing it 56.8% of the time in 2022. Combined, Steele’s fastball and slider made up 87.8% of his pitches thrown last season. On the surface, Steele’s fastball doesn’t appear to be elite, but the pitch is quite deceptive as outlined nicely here. That deception was a big reason why opposing hitters were unable to square Steel’s fastball up much at all last season. Overall, Steele’s fastball recorded a 55.8% groundball rate and puny 2.1% barrel rate.

Is Steele going to be one of the best pitchers in baseball again this season as he was down the stretch in 2022? No, probably not. However, he’s definitely a bargain at his current ADP near pick 300 and appears to be locked into a rotation spot entering the season.

Three More…

Trevor Rogers, MIA: It was a long season for Rogers, including some off-the-field issues that you know had to play a part in his poor performance. It’s way too soon to write Rogers off as an impactful fantasy arm and he looked much better down the stretch after returning to Miami’s rotation on August 31st. In a three-start stretch from 8/31 to 9/12, Rogers impressed with a 2.95 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 1.07 WHIP, 4.3% walk rate, and a 31.4% strikeout rate.

Brayan Bello, BOS: If the Red Sox are going to sniff the postseason this season, Brayan Bello needs to take that next step. Fortunately, I’m a believer that he can. After seeing Bello live multiple times in Double-A, I’ve been all-in on him being an impact Major League starter. Bello posted a 2.59 ERA over his final six starts and already has one of the best changeups in baseball (.158 BAA< .158 SLG, 44.2% whiff). The upside makes him a very attractive target after pick 300.

Andrew Heaney, TEX: It appears that the Dodgers were able to partially fix the broken Andrew Heaney in 2022. Heaney was dominant in the 2nd half with a 2.88 xFIP, 2.47 SIERA, and a 29.1% K-BB mark that ranked 4th in baseball (40 IP) minimum) only behind Jacob deGrom, Spencer Strider, and Carlos Rodon. He’s no longer with the Dodgers, but let’s hope some of that Dodger magic followed him to Texas.

Others to Consider Late: Aaron Civale, CLE | Ranger Suarez, PHI | Ross Stripling, SFG | Garrett Whitlock, BOS | Hayden Wesneski, CHC | Josiah Gray, WAS | David Peterson, NYM | Brandon Pfaadt, ARI | Luis Ortiz, PIT | Corey Kluber, BOS

Media Credit: Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sports, Rob Friedman (Pitching Ninja), Baseball Savant

Are you buying in on Eric’s favorite starting pitcher targets? For more great analysis check out the 2023 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit!

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  1. Ryan says

    Keeper league where we can keep 15 minor league players (all below still are eligible in our league.

    Which 15 would you keep (have highest long term upside)

    CJ Abrams

    Thanks so much for your thoughts!

    1. Eric Cross says

      Manzardo, Pasquantino, Mead, Jung, Abrams, Acuna, Carroll, Veen, Ashby, G. Williams, Greene, Lodolo, Tiedemann, Ryan, Rafaela. Can see going Naylor, Mervis, or Winn over Rafaela too.

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