Many factors go into making a starting pitcher an enticing fantasy option. Strikeouts are part of the equation, so too is pure stuff, not to mention the ability to limit runs and base runners.
But there are other factors too that, while perhaps not quite as significant as strikeouts and walks, still can play a part in making a pitcher that much better from a fantasy standpoint.
Factors like how competent are the fielders behind said pitcher, or if the starter is generally throwing to a good (or bad) pitch framer. The stadiums matter here too. Maybe not as much, but if a pitcher is constantly throwing in a pitcher’s or hitter’s park, it’ll make an impact.
They might not be the most inherently obvious factors when analyzing players but they can be incredibly useful in identifying the pitchers you want to populate your roster with.
Those factors are particularly relevant this time of the year with pitchers fresh off switching teams via free agency. Some have landed in indifferent or worse environments, but others have improved their surroundings, considerably in some cases. That’s all the more notable considering some of those pitchers were already quality fantasy (and real-life) options to begin with.
These are those pitchers.
Cobb was arguably at his best in a Major League uniform during the 2021 season. Once again relying on a sinker to induce grounders, he turned in a 3.76 ERA and a stellar 2.96 FIP in 93.1 innings while missing bats at an improved rate. The veteran finished above league average in swinging strike percentage for just the second time in his career and had an above-league average K/9 rate for the third time since debuting in 2011.
The 34-year-old did all this despite playing for a Los Angeles team that posted some of the worst fielding metrics in the league, including the worst Def (-32.2) and the eighth-worst collective DRS metric (-29).
Cobb also found all that success playing his home games at Angel Stadium, a ballpark that leans much more towards being hitter-friendly than pitcher-friendly. Per Statcast, Angel Stadium has the eighth-highest park factor in the league over the last three seasons.
He also racked up eight wins in just 93.1 innings (18 starts) despite being limited by injury and pitching for a 77-win Los Angeles team. Pitcher wins might be antiquated in actual baseball, but they’re obviously still going strong in fantasy.
Cobb did it all in 2021 in about the worst possible environment for a pitcher, certainly in fantasy.
In fact, his season, while very good, was very much a story of “what if?”
What if he pitched for a team with a better defense?
What if he pitched in a more optimal ballpark?
What if he stayed healthy?
What if he played for a more competitive team?
The answers might just surface this coming season. Cobb signed a two-year deal with the San Francisco Giants prior to the lockout, which per Spotrac has a club option for the 2024 season. The Giants, as it happens, tick three of those boxes. And tick them with aplomb if that’s at all possible.
No one will mistake San Francisco for an elite fielding team, but they finished in the top 12 in both Def (12th, 1.8) and DRS (11th, +32). That should help Cobb significantly.
So too should the new digs. Oracle Park is about as pitcher-friendly of a venue as you can find in baseball, tying with the A’s Oakland Coliseum and the Mariners’ T-Mobile Park in having the lowest park factor in baseball since 2019 according to Statcast.
And the Giants, as a team, might be one of the best teams, if not the best team, that a free agent starter could land on for fantasy purposes. San Francisco as a team won a league-best 107 games. Their starters accounted for 58 of those victories, the fifth-highest total in baseball. What’s more, San Francisco supported four starters with double-digit pitchers wins. Only three other teams, the Astros, White Sox, and A’s, did that last season. That the Giants also scored 81 more runs than the Angels last season shouldn’t hurt Cobb’s fantasy prospects either.
Anyone with Eduardo Rodriguez in a dynasty league was likely overjoyed that the hurler departed one of baseball’s most competitive divisions during the offseason. Well, unless they support the Red Sox.
Leaving the rugged American League East is, in most cases, generally a good thing for pitchers. You’ve got the Yankees, a team that even in a down year hit the eighth-most home runs in baseball. They also still employ Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, two hitters singlehandedly capable of ruining a pitcher’s ERA. The Rays scored the second-most runs in baseball last season thanks to an extremely deep and versatile team and the Blue Jays have finished no worse than seventh in runs scored in each of the last two seasons. In fact, Toronto led all teams in wOBA during the second half last season with a collective .349 wOBA. Tampa Bay wasn’t far behind in third with a .339 metric. Even the Orioles, despite being in a lengthy rebuild, have the fourth highest park factor at Oriole Park at Camden Yards according to the good people at Statcast.
Now Rodriguez joins the Tigers and a much more appealing set of fantasy opponents for division matchups.
The White Sox will by no means be an easy matchup, but Rodriguez also gets to pitch against the Royals, Guardians, and Twins, teams who finished the second half ranked 23rd, 24th, and 25th respectively in on-base percentage for inter-division games.
Cleveland, Minnesota, and Kansas City were matchups to target for streaming starters last season, and now a frontline starter like Rodriguez gets to face them all on a regular basis.
And he’ll get to face them with a better pitch framer too.
What do they have in common you might ask? They’re the only catchers with a higher runs from extra strike metric than Tucker Barnhart, Detroit’s new catcher, last season.
That’ll certainly help Rodriguez as the left-hander threw exclusively to Christian Vazquez last season. Vazquez wasn’t a bad pitch framer by any stretch but was more around league average with both his runs from extra strikes number (0) and his strike rate (48.9%).
In his last season in Boston, Rodriguez won 13 games. That number shouldn’t be too far out of reach on a Tigers team that has improved considerably this winter.
Things could change if the Rangers continue to be aggressive in adding players coming out of the lockout, but for now, Texas doesn’t look like a team that is going to provide new ace Jon Gray with elite run support or win totals. Still, there’s plenty to like about Gray moving to Texas.
Simply put, the Rangers have an elite pair of pitch framers in Jonah Heim and Jose Trevino. They also play in a park that looks decidedly like a pitcher-friendly stadium if last year’s numbers are anything to go by. That pairing in itself should be a significant boon to any pitcher’s fantasy prospects, but when it’s a pitcher like Gray with an elite slider, it’s even more notable.
Among qualified catchers, only Narvaez had a higher runs from extra strike number (+10) than Heim and Trevino (both +8) last season. Only Tomas Nido had a higher strike rate.
This isn’t really a commentary about Gray leaving Coors Field, but more that Globe Life Field was decidedly below league average last season across the board where park factors are concerned, per Statcast.
Steven Matz landed in St. Louis this winter on a four-year deal and should immediately slot in as a mid-rotation starter after Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright. Like his new rotation-mates, Wainwright, in particular, Matz should benefit greatly from the Cardinals’ group of above-average fielders across the infield dirt.
Pairing a quality ground ball pitcher with an elite infield defense is certainly ideal, and for Matz, it could lead to fantasy success as well as real-life success.
Last season, Wainwright was the 10th-best scoring starting pitcher in ESPN head-to-head fantasy baseball leagues. Part of that had to do with a lower ERA. Part of that also likely had to do with the veteran hurling 206.1 innings, the third-highest number in the league, and having more opportunities to accumulate points, but it’s easy to see the blueprint for success here. Induce a bunch of ground balls and the Cardinals infield will convert them into outs.
Right now, Wainwright has an ADP of 184.88 as the 69th pitcher off the board, per NFBC. The veteran is grouped in and around fellow starters like Clayton Kershaw, Jose Urquidy, Tarik Skubal, and Hyun Jin Ryu.
Matz, meanwhile is considerably farther behind, with an average draft position of 270.54, or as the 97th pitcher off the board according to the same publication. He’s grouped with starters like Aaron Civale, Josiah Gray, and Marco Gonzales.
Admittedly, Matz has never thrown more than 160 innings in a season, so the sample size isn’t identical. However, in an ideal setup, he has the chance to be even more effective next season.
Photos from Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerGuyBoston on Twitter)