Is there such a thing as a starting pitcher sleeper these days?
Sure, I could look at ADP and say “Aha! That guy deserves to be higher by 30-40 picks,” but with so much information publicly available, it can be difficult to find a pitcher who hasn’t received the love they deserve before opening day.
With that in mind, I’ve chosen to select five starting pitchers who I feel aren’t getting pushed into the Top 50 Starting Pitchers by anyone, yet I’m finding myself gravitating toward them in all my drafts…save for the last one who is just for those in DC and Best Ball leagues for 2023.
Kenta Maeda (RHP, MIN)
Maeda was brilliant in 2020 with his slider and splitter getting a ton of chases + a fastball he could sneak into the zone for the strikes. 2021 came with a step-back in command, and his need for Tommy John surgery quickly became apparent. Fast-forward to today – Maeda is healthy, sitting 90/91 mph in his first spring outing, and has an ADP where you can draft him outside of your top 5 SPs. When considering pitchers to chase outside of your first five starters, you’re looking for Top 20 SP potential without a ton of ratio risk. That’s Maeda in a nutshell as his time on the bump is sure to come with a low walk rate, and even when he was hurt, he produced a 25% strikeout rate.
Take the leap that he won’t return a 9.0 hit-per-nine with his repaired elbow, leaning into Jeff Zimmerman’s theory of the 300-400 IP honeymoon period after getting TJS (pitchers pitch well and with a lower injury risk). He plays for a winning ball club with a solid defense behind him, making Maeda a late pick with little downside.
Garrett Whitlock (RHP, BOS)
There’s a common thread with pitchers I’ll take later in my drafts: a good matchup to start the year. If I’m believing in a breakout season from an undervalued pitcher, there’s no worse feeling than having them sit on your bench for over a week (if not two!) as you watch other pitchers perform better than expected. Do I drop this guy for the other one?! It’s a headache we all want to avoid, and the best way to be proactive is to draft pitchers who you can start early and make a quick decision.
Garrett Whitlock is that arm with a lovely outing planned for the Pirates to kick off his season. His sinker earned a phenomenal 5.09 PLV last year (92nd percentile of all sinkers!) as it landed gloveside and earned a ton of whiffs against left-handers. Whitlock pairs it with a whiffable slider (23% SwStr rate!) and a changeup that held batters to a .113 BAA last season. Give Whitlock a full year in the rotation as a starter, and while the 1.02 WHIP and 26% strikeout rate may not stick, he profiles out to be an intriguing SP late in drafts who could help right away.
Ian Anderson (RHP, ATL)
Update: I wrote this the day before Ian Anderson’s first spring training outing and boy oh boy was it terrible. No sliders, down two ticks, and command was atrocious as he walked three in 1.1 innings. So, I’m going give y’all yet another bonus sleeper instead before Drew Smyly.
Everything was terrible for Ian Anderson last year as our biggest fears came to fruition. His wonky command was worse as his changeup fell to a 35% zone rate, the curveball returned a near 50% strike rate, and the four-seamer was all over the place. Seriously:
But like vacuums during a 2:00 am infomercial, forget everything you know about Ian Anderson. Consider him now as the #5 in Atlanta with Michael Soroka belabored by a tight hamstring. Anderson tweaked his mechanics and added a slider to his repertoire – a much-needed addition as he struggled to get strikes with his curve – and is in a position to get a ton of innings for a winning team. Don’t forget, batters still struggle to make hard contact on his changeup (sub 20% every season), and I’m very excited to see if the walk numbers have come down at all during the spring. Considering his incredibly late 515 ADP in NFBC (since February 1st!), he’s a free shot at a legit arm for all of your 2023 season. Take the chance and if your last pick doesn’t have good control in his first start against the Cardinals, then you let him go back to the waiver wire and move on.
Brandon Pfaadt (ARI) & Andrew Painter (PHI)
I want to make sure you’re aware of both these pitching prospects. Pfaadt throws a whiff-heavy four-seamer up in the zone for the Diamondbacks and with Ryne Nelson down in velocity thus far, he may only need to beat Drey Jameson to claim the #5 spot out of camp. At the very least, he could get the call early in the year and is a worthwhile flier to take at the end of your drafts at the moment, even if you drop him before the season starts.
The same goes for Andrew Painter, who has a better shot than Pfaadt to make the opening day rotation with the Phillies understanding the necessity to win every game they can in the division with Atlanta and the Mets. Given Bailey Falter as the current #5, if Painter dominates this spring, he could make fantasy managers thrilled as soon as April and be the pick-up of the spring. Take a shot late in the later rounds.
Drew Smyly (LHP, CHC)
Do I believe Drew Smyly is an arm to hold onto for the full season? Likely not. However, if he’s pumping 93 mph and keeping the “BSB” alive with his elevated sinkers and low curveballs, Smyly will make trusting managers thrilled with his first outing against the Brewers. Keep in mind, when Smyly had his command in the second half last season, he boasted a 2.77 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 22% strikeout across his final twelve starts. That plays for a guy barely being touched in 15-teamers.
As for the pitches themselves, PLV adores Smyly’s curveball (90th percentile QP-BP%) and sinker (92nd percentile QP-BP%) and with his cutter axed, there could be something to this. Don’t hold on too tightly if things go sideways, but there’s more value here than his near 500 NFBC ADP would suggest.
Matthew Liberatore (LHP, STL)
I wasn’t joking when I said I wanted to label legit sleepers in this article and Matthew Liberatore is one I’m labeling as a mid-season addition who is getting little attention. Yes, you should be targeting Grayson Rodriguez and Hunter Brown instead but he’s gotten enough attention. Liberatore is likely the #7 SP option for the Cardinals this season after Dakota Hudson (maaaaybe Drew VerHagen?) and after a quick debut last summer, Liberatore returned with dramatically increased velocity and a new slider that has impressed me.
With a harder fastball from the left side, a solid curveball, and a possibly new slider that gets whiffs, Liberatore could snag a rotation spot and run with it when one or two of the injury-riddled starters on the Cardinals fall. This is more so for Dynasty and Best Ball leagues, but for those playing in shallower formats, at the very least you should note Liberatore for when he gets the call and intently watch his first start. This could pan out in a way his current draft stock doesn’t suggest.
Bonus: Reid Detmers (LHP, LAA)
I took a specific approach to this article, preventing myself from selecting a pitcher getting drafted inside my Top 50 Starting Pitchers, and yet here I am, waxing poetic (highly arguably) about Reid Detmers.
You likely know the story by now. Detmers had a successful 2022 spring season and performed questionably to kick off the season as he lost the feel for his slider – despite throwing a no-hitter, Detmers and his 4.66 ERA and paltry 19% strikeout rate with a 9% walk rate were nothing to celebrate. However, he tweaked his mechanics and came back to the majors in a fury, boasting a 12-strikeout game at the end of July and a 34% strikeout rate with a 1.50 ERA and 1.03 WHIP across the first six starts upon his return.
That’s the man we’re chasing. a 23-year-old who has gotten his slider back and pairs it with a strong, elevated four-seamer and a lovely hook that can now be saved as a #3 pitch. The tools are there for Detmers – it’s just about time on the hill at this point. This is the year.
Bonus Bonus: A Few More To Watch In Spring
I can’t help myself – there are some pitchers who I’m going to be sooo in on if they look healthy with solid velocity this spring, especially with their ADPs well past 200 at this point. Tyler Mahle was once a 200 strikeout guy and if his velocity is 94-95 mph, he’s a strong play even if he hits the IL in the middle of the year (the spring performances should still be valuable!). Michael Kopech had knee surgery and may be able to maintain 97 mph heaters instead of dancing between 93-97 mph throughout the year. Jameson Taillon may have a smooth road to being a solid ratio arm with a bigger emphasis on breakers that pushes his strikeout mark closer to 25%. Both Noah Syndergaard and Sean Manaea are reportedly throwing harder than ever and it would be wise to take a chance late to see what their first starts look like. And finally, James Paxton may actually be healthy and would get the Pirates first.
There are so many pitchers this year who could perform at a high level and it feels like this spring is more important than ever for us to fine-tune our draft rankings before the start of the year. Stay on top of it with my Plus Pitch Podcast and best of luck with your drafts.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Design by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)
Hi Nick – Great article. Thanks. Would you mind answering one keeper question please: I can keep 2 of Kwan, Italian Breakfast (Vinny P), Christian Walker, or Kirby as 13/14 round picks in a 13 team 5×5 roto. What’s your view? Thanks