2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Starting pitcher strategies, complete with sleepers and ADP review


I’ve made my views on high-end starting pitching abundantly clear already, pointing out in an earlier piece that it and stolen bases are the only real currency in Fantasy Baseball. They’re all that matters these days.

It’s an extreme way of looking at things, but an extreme environment calls for an extreme approach. And I don’t know how you could call what we’ve seen over the past few years, with drag-resistant baseballs being introduced to a fly-ball revolution, as anything other than extreme.

Most every hitter is a home run hitter now, and when there are that many opportunities for a lineup to ruin a pitcher’s day, only the best of the best can withstand it. And since the best of the best are already missing bats at unprecedented rates — another extreme in these days of extremes — the gap between them and the rest of the starting pitcher crop couldn’t possibly be greater.

And I haven’t even mentioned the innings chasm. Yeah, in these days of specialization, the best of the best are also the ones most often asked to take a third turn through the lineup. Stack that many advantages on top of each other, and it shouldn’t be a surprise the rest of the position can’t hang. High-end starting pitchers are truly the only ones who matter.

Fortunately, they’re many in number — not so plentiful that you can relax and take them as they come, but plentiful enough that you can come away with four or five if you’re committed to it. And I think I just explained why you should be.

In articles and podcasts, I’ve casually referenced 40 as the number of aces and/or near-aces, with another 12-15 who have at least hinted at that kind of potential. In actuality, it’s 37 and 20. I know because I’ve taken the time to list them out here. It’s no longer just a mysterious mass. They’re all named, one by one.

Of those 37 who we’re all pretty confident have a possible ace outcome, we’ll begin with the ones who put it on full display last year:

The pitchers who were aces last year

They’re not all on equal footing, of course. The top four — which I would rank Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer — have longer track records and higher highs, for the most part. Cole, being the youngest at age 29, is a slam dunk to go in the first round, and I’ve seen drafts where all four of them do. It’s largely a matter of opinion after that, though Walker Buehler has been deemed the one most likely to get even better.

Mike Clevinger might begin to slip with the news of his torn meniscus, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll miss more than April, if he’s out even that long. Zack Greinke and Charlie Morton tend to fall due to their 36 years of age, but the risk of a blowout is so high for every pitcher that the usual risk factors — the ones that might steer you away from a player at some other position — seem quaint by comparison. Part of the reason you have to draft so many high-end starting pitchers is that, yes, some of them will fail. But it’s the ones already exhibiting signs of decline that you should actively avoid.

To me, Clayton Kershaw is the clearest example of that. His velocity has been on the decline for several years, and he doesn’t miss bats at nearly the rate he used to. He has compensated for it well enough, but if those skills slip any further, it could cause a problem. The 35-year-old Scherzer, meanwhile, is coming off a second half that was plagued by back issues, which could be the start of him showing his age. Of the big four at the top, he’s the one I’d be most likely to pass over at the Round 1-2 turn.

So who’s next in this group of 37?

The pitchers who weren’t aces last year, but … they clearly still are

Ah, yes. We know who these guys are, right? They may have gotten sidetracked by injuries or early struggles adapting to the lower-seamed baseballs, with their slicker grip, but either the underlying numbers were still dominant or the track record makes a convincing enough case.

And you’ll notice from the ADP column that some in this group are drafted even earlier than some from the last group, mostly for reasons having to do with upside. Chris Sale is the most extreme case, having trailed only Cole and Scherzer in xFIP despite his high ERA and having delivered the second-most double-digit strikeout efforts of any pitcher despite making only 25 starts. Clearly, he’s still capable of overpowering a lineup, but arm troubles in consecutive years have called his durability into question.

Durability is also the main concern for Blake Snell, a pitchers who was looking like a perennial Cy Young contender at this time a year ago. Aaron Nola, who himself got some Cy Young love in 2018, seems like the safest bet among this group given that he stayed healthy in 2019 and dominated for the middle four months of the season. He has since voiced his dissatisfaction with ousted pitching coach Chris Young, who only oversaw him for the one year.

James Paxton’s durability concerns are more acute. He had surgery to remove a cyst from his back and won’t return until May or June. His ADP doesn’t fully account for the news yet, and obviously, you can’t count on him like you can the other 36. Given how hopeless the position becomes in the back half of mixed-league drafts, though, he’s definitely worth stashing if the discount is there.

The concerns for Paxton are obvious, but among the rest of this group, the most worrisome for me are Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. We don’t know exactly why Bauer went wrong — it could have been a grip issue, it could have been pitch selection — but he’ll need to get his fly-ball rate back down to survive in his new home in Cincinnati. Kluber and Carrasco, meanwhile, are both getting up there in years and didn’t perform well in the little we saw of them last year. Kluber is moving to what looks to like another hitter-friendly environment in Texas, where the new park has smaller dimensions than the old, and Carrasco is coming off a fight with leukemia. His fastball looked OK in a late-season stint out of the bullpen, but whether his stuff will hold up in a starting role remains to be seen. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take those three, seeing as they’re among the last of the 37 to go off the board, but you might opt for some of this next group ahead of them: 

The pitchers who are so close to being aces

*2018 stats  

Yup, these 13 round out the pivotal 37, and as you can see from the ADP column, they’re in high demand themselves.

Am I suggesting you should have your pitching staff more or less assembled by Pick 120? I am indeed suggesting just that. And remember: These ADP numbers are for traditional 5×5 Rotisserie leagues. It’ll be even earlier than Pick 120 in a Head-to-Head points league, where the demand for high-end starting pitchers is even greater.

At minimum, I want four of these 37, and I’d prefer to have five. I’ve done as many as six before and didn’t have cause to regret it. Every starting pitcher you take beyond this point is an appeal to luck. You’re counting on them to do something they haven’t done before — or at least aren’t expected to do anymore — and even that group is only 20 pitchers deep.

So what more is there to say about this group? Well, some might already consider Chris Paddack and Tyler Glasnow to be aces. They haven’t held together for an ace workload yet — and these days, it’s risky to assume those that haven’t indeed can — but the percentages are certainly there. Inning for inning, Glasnow may have been the best pitcher in baseball last year.

I’m taking a leap of faith on Zac Gallen here, who has all of 15 major-league starts to his name, but his transition was so effortless after a thoroughly dominant stint at Triple-A that innings accumulation is my only real concern for him. And like I said, it’s also an issue for Paddack and Glasnow, among others.

On the whole, strikeouts are in lower supply for this group, with Mike Soroka and Hyun-Jin Ryu standing out in particular. They have the sort of profile that can account for that shortcoming, though, keeping their ground balls high and their walks low. And in the case of Soroka, we still don’t know how high the strikeouts could get given that he’s only 22.

Madison Bumgarner is the most worrisome here, having left the comforts of Oracle Park for a more hitter-friendly venue. His home/away splits the past couple years, with his stuff on the decline, have been pretty extreme. I’d also be wary of Shohei Ohtani coming off Tommy John surgery. We still don’t really know how much he’ll pitch.

I’ve found that Sonny Gray, Frankie Montas and Lance Lynn have a tendency to fall due to their uninspiring track records, but all have strong indicators of genuine reform. I’ll have plenty of shares of each.

The pitchers who at least show the potential to be aces

*2018 stats

If you still need pitching help at this stage of the draft — and most of you won’t have heeded my advice, so you will — these 20 are as close as you’ll get to a fallback option. They’re basically your last hope for something you can count on at the position, and it of course doesn’t apply in equal measure.

The safest bets are also the lowest-impact — guys like Eduardo Rodriguez, Kyle Hendricks and Marcus Stroman. Others like Jesus Luzardo, Dinelson Lamet, Julio Urias, Luke Weaver and Lance McCullers offer big potential, but with few assurances. You want to be in a position where you can afford to grab one of that latter group as your fifth or sixth starting pitcher and maybe get another ace out of it. I’m big on all five, but especially Luzardo, Urias and Weaver.

The best of both worlds in terms of security and impact potential, though, is Max Fried, who already has a full season of starts under his belt but didn’t live up to his full potential, seeing as he had a lower xFIP than both Walker Buehler and Jack Flaherty last year. With an elite ground-ball rate and an adequate whiff rate, he could take another step forward this year, especially if he gets any help from new teammate Cole Hamels on a changeup that would neutralize opposite-handed hitters.

The most curious of this group is Matthew Boyd, whose extreme fly-ball tendencies were his downfall in this homer-happy league last year. The strikeout potential is exactly what you hope to get in an ace, though, and he doesn’t beat himself with walks either. If you can afford to take on the risk, the reward could be significant.

There are some potential rewards later in the draft, too — it goes without saying an ace or two will rise from relative obscurity this year — but the probability for those in this next group is so low and the downside so great that they’re nothing more than Hail Mary plays:

*2018 stats
^minor-league stats

Griffin Canning has the sort of swinging-strike rate I gravitate toward, so he’s my personal favorite of this group, but I also like the swing-and-miss potential of up-and-comers A.J. Puk and Mitch Keller as well as veterans Kyle Gibson and Dylan Bundy, who could both benefit from their change of scenery. Brendan McKay and Dylan Cease still have that top prospect shine and the inside track on a rotation spot, and while MacKenzie Gore, Forrest Whitley and Michael Kopech almost certainly won’t win jobs in spring training, they’re well worth stashing for their upside.

Speaking of stashables, Domingo German and Michael Pineda are two of my regulars near the end of drafts. They’re going to miss the first month or two of the season — and not for injury reasons, which means you can’t stash them in an IL spot — but if you don’t mind forfeiting the bench space, I think they’ll be relatively stable options down the stretch.





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