Fantasy baseball starting pitcher primer: Breakouts, rankings and more
A new consensus has emerged on how to balance spending on hitters and pitchers to build a winning fantasy team. While most people are still going to spend no more than 30% to 40% on arms—with the vast majority of owners coming a lot closer to the lower end of that range—ace pitchers have become more popular than ever in fantasy leagues. Or, to be more accurate, early-round pitchers have become in vogue, driving up their prices higher than they already were.
Here’s the truth: there is so much value in starting pitchers between 50 and 100 in average draft position. Meanwhile, the hitters coming off the board in the top 50 of typical fantasy drafts provide the very foundation for a winning fantasy team. I love Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer and Chris Sale as much as anyone, but the opportunity cost associated with them is prohibitive. If you want Kershaw, you’re not getting Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo or Nolan Arenado. Drafting Scherzer means passing on Miguel Cabrera, A.J. Pollock and Mookie Betts. Get Sale on your team, and chances are you won’t have a shot at Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu or George Springer. That’s a price I’m not going to pay when I know the starters I can get in the middle rounds.
Here’s just a sampling of pitchers available between picks Nos. 65 and 120 of a typical draft: Jon Lester, Sonny Gray, Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamels, Danny Salazar, Tyson Ross, Marcus Stroman, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Garrett Richards, Steven Matz, Masahiro Tanaka, Francisco Liriano.
Remember that in a 12-team league, you can undoubtedly get three of these guys, and you might be able to get four or five, if you so chose.
By comparison, here’s a sampling of the hitters coming off the board between the 65th and 120th pick of a typical draft: Jason Heyward, Eric Hosmer, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Carpenter, Anthony Rendon, Brian Dozier, Kyle Seager, Billy Hamilton, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Ian Kinsler, Albert Pujols, Rougned Odor, Hunter Pence, Kole Calhoun
Now from which of those pools would you rather be drawing?
To be fair to the early pitcher drafters, it’s not like they’d miss out entirely on the hitters at the top of the rankings. It’s entirely possible to leave the first four rounds of a 12-team draft with Kershaw, Encarnacion, Charlie Blackmon and Justin Upton. Or you could grab Carlos Correa, Jake Arrieta, Joey Votto and Todd Frazier. But always give me the team that loads up on hitters in the first four rounds—Correa, Encarnacion, J.D. Martinez and Ryan Braun, for instance—and then starts picking from the value there is to be found in the middle rounds at starting pitcher. There are simply too many good names in that bunch with upside to reach the top 20 at the position to eschew the hitters that will power you to fantasy glory.
If you take pitchers early, you aren’t only limiting your offensive options at the top of the draft. You’re also precluding yourself from exploiting all the starting pitcher value in the middle rounds because that’s where you’ll have to be filling your hitter positions. And even if you go focus on hitters early but want to get in on the legitimate ace group, the likes of Dallas Keuchel, Noah Syndergaard, Carlos Carrasco, Chris Archer and Felix Hernandez are coming off the board at the end of the fourth round through the middle of the fifth in a typical draft.
I made the breakout case for Iglesias in his player profile, which you can find here. There’s no need to repeat it in this space, but understand that he is a star in the making.
Breakout, part two: Lance McCullers, Houston Astros
When the Astros promoted McCullers from Double-A Corpus Christi in mid-May last season, even they might have believed he was just filling the spot of Brett Oberholtzer, who had just gone to the DL, for the time being. After all McCullers had all of four starts above High-A ball at that point and, while promising, was still just 21 years old. He pitched well enough in his first three outings, but it was in his fourth start, an 11-strikeout, one-run complete game win over the Orioles, that it became clear he wasn’t going back to the minors any time soon.
McCullers ended up throwing 125 2/3 innings across 22 starts, compiling a 3.22 ERA, 3.50 xFIP, 1.19 WHIP and 24.8% strikeout rate, whiffing 129 batters total. His strikeout rate was good for 17th in the majors, just behind Matt Harvey and ahead of Gerrit Cole, Carlos Martinez, Zack Greinke and teammate Dallas Keuchel. McCullers’ four-seam fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he can run it up to 97-98 mph when he really reaches back. On top of that, he throws a curveball that is already one of the best in the game. Don’t believe me? Let’s ask Miguel Cabrera.
He also has a change that he threw 10% of the time, mostly, of course to lefties. They managed just a .061 isolated slugging percentage against the pitch. With that and the curve, McCullers is one of the few 22-year-olds in the league capable of negating the platoon advantage. GM Jeff Luhnow said the Astros will keep McCullers on an innings limit so he will be ready for a potential playoff run, but that just means he’ll throw somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 to 170 innings, rather than 200. Even at that volume, he should be a top-30 starter, with the ceiling to be in the top 25.
Shoulder injuries aren’t anything to be trifled with, and Smyly dealt with two separate, though undoubtedly related, ones last year, making just 12 starts in what was supposed to be his first full season with the Rays. Here’s the thing, though. He was still really good. In those 12 starts, covering 66 2/3 innings, Smyly amassed a 3.11 ERA, 3.47 xFIP and 1.17 WHIP. He struck out 77 batters and had a soft-hit rate (23.2%) on par with Jake Arrieta and Dallas Keuchel.
Smyly’s only issue is health, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Rays address that by limiting his innings. Even if they do, we’ve seen enough of Smyly since he became a full-time starter in 2014 to know what he can do with 25-plus starts. He has all the makings of being a strikeout-per-inning guy with a low-3s ERA and WHIP south of 1.20, making him a potential top-30 commodity at the position.
Deep sleeper: Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks
Corbin was comfortably on his way to becoming a well above average starter in the majors before Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2014. He returned in July of last year and, as so many have been able to do before him, picked up pretty much where he left off before the elbow reconstruction. He threw 85 innings across 16 starts, notching a 3.60 ERA, 3.27 xFIP, 1.27 WHIP and 78 strikeouts against 17 walks. His repertoire remained the same, though he did trade some of his sinkers for four-seamers. Just as important, his velocity was exactly where it had been before the injury.
This is Corbin’s age-26 season, so he’s just entering his physical prime. The lefty isn’t going to cost you more than a pick in the high-100s on draft day, but he certainly has the ability to climb back into the top-30 at his position. At the absolutely worst, he’ll be a capable fantasy staff-filler.
I understand the excitement surrounding Cueto’s move to San Francisco. He’s back in a familiar league he dominated, and he’ll get to take advantage of spacious AT&T Park for about half of his starts. I still can’t see myself buying in, even though the expected draft-day price of a sixth- or seventh-round pick is exactly where I want to start making a splash in the pitching market.
First of all, Cueto was at his best when his ground-ball rate was near 50%, so the thought of him exploiting the big outfield in San Francisco relies on him being a lesser version of himself. Secondly, his strikeout rate fell to a pedestrian (by top-20 pitcher standards) 20.3% last season, an alarming trend for a pitcher who has had arm issues and is entering his age-30 season. Cueto has always been able to get more whiffs on his four-seam fastball than the average pitcher, a nod to his deceptive motion. Unfortunately, the whiff rate on his four-seamer was the lowest last year that it has been since 2012. There are simply too many red flags to trust Cueto when you can get Sonny Gray, Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamels or Danny Salazar at the exact same price.
Giolito isn’t going to start the year with the Nationals, but his time has arrived. The No. 6 prospect according to MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, and No. 7 in Baseball America’s rankings, Giolito posted a 3.46 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 131 strikeouts in 117 innings between High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg last year.
The 21-year-old is the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball, and is being held out of the Washington rotation by Tanner Roark and Joe Ross. If either one of those guys falter, and Giolito impresses at Triple-A Syracuse, expect to see him in D.C. at some point this summer. This should be a great year for pitching prospects, and we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Tyler Glasnow of the Pirates, Jose Berrios of the Twins and Julio Urias of the Dodgers, all of whom could make their major league debuts this season, as well. In fact, it would be a surprise if Glasnow and Berrios spent the entire season in the minors. Those two are worth watching, as well, but it’s Giolito who has the highest ceiling.