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Justin Dunbar’s Top Five Starting Pitching Targets

These five starting pitchers are optimal targets for 2022 drafts.

In real-life baseball, there is an idea that a good pitching staff can make the difference when it comes to winning a championship. We’ve seen teams like the Nationals center their team around heavy investments to their rotation en route to the championship, while teams like the Guardians and Rays built successful teams with pitching being their foundation.

That being said, this isn’t a principle that all teams believe in – we’ve had several teams (2019 Twins) be successful by out-slugging their opponents. Really, there doesn’t appear to be a clear way to build a championship team. Rather, you just want to build the best team possible.

This transitions us perfectly into fantasy baseball. Some fantasy managers believe in drafting two stud pitchers at the top of the draft in a strategy known as “pocket aces”. Meanwhile, 0thers, such as our own Nick Pollack, like to center their team around offensive categories, looking to wait for pitching later.

What strategy is best? For me, going to the draft with a rigid strategy can lead to you missing out on players. Rather, you want to have a flexible approach, looking to find as much value as possible with every pick. Reading the draft room and adjusting based on that is key to building the best team you can.

Constructing a strong pitching rotation in fantasy baseball can be quite difficult. Between injuries and overall volatility, pitcher performance can be very difficult to predict on a yearly basis. A pitcher like Aaron Nola, for instance, can post the fifth-highest K-BB ratio and a 3.37 FIP, but still finish with a 4.63 ERA due to poor batted-ball luck and a low left-on-base rate. Meanwhile, Shane Bieberwho was the third-highest drafted pitcher in the NFBC Main Event, per Rotoholic.com, missed most of the season due to injury – he had no previous injury concerns.

Despite all of these challenges, if we want to get to the top, we’re going to need the pitching staff to support it! In my opinion, targeting these five pitchers can help you get there! These are five intriguing players as is, but when you factor in price, it’s very likely they provide surplus value for in drafts this year. Who are these aforementioned targets? Let’s dive right into it!

ADP Data via NFC.shgn.com (Drafts since February 1st)

Stats via Baseball Savant and Fangraphs

 

Kevin Gausman (TOR)

 

2021 Stats (192 IP): 2.81 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 29.3% K, 6.5% BB

ADP: 72.94 (P25)

When he was drafted with the fourth overall pick in the the 2012 draft, expectations were high for Kevin Gausman to emerge as a future frontline starter. Sadly for Orioles fans, that never came to fruition with them, but he’s finally realized that potential.

Following the 2019 season, in which he struggled to the tune of a 5.72 ERA with the Braves and Reds, Gausman found himself non-tendered. That being said, the Giants still saw something in him, signing him to a one-year, $9 million deal. As it turns out, they were able to look beyond the ERA in 2019.

See, Gausman was moved to the bullpen with Cincinnati, where he posted a 32.9% strikeout rate and 26.8% K-BB ratio. During this stretch, he became a two-pitch pitcher, relying on a strong splitter, while decreasing the usage of his fastball. Usually, this would be seen as something that would only work in the bullpen, but San Francisco disagreed. When they signed him, they instructed him, per Eno Sarris of The Athletic, to continue with that pitch mix, which he did:

Note that his 2019 pitch usage is skewed by his time with the Reds, while his splitter can often get misidentified for his changeup. Regardless, starting in 2019, we start to see rely less on his average slider, leaning on what is one of the best pitches in the majors by most statistics- 45.9% whiff rate, .175 wOBA allowed. Seriously, just take a look at this:

Things couldn’t have gone better for Gausman in his two years as a Giant. He posted a 30% strikeout rate with just a 6.5% walk rate, which also came with a 15.3% swinging-strike rate. Furthermore, his 3.38 skill-interactive ERA (SIERA), as well as all of his ERA indicators, were quite strong. Add in the durability he demonstrated with 192 innings pitched last season, and it was all there for last season’s seventh-most valuable pitcher in standard 5×5 leagues, according to Fangraphs.

With a clear pitch-mix change, it’s clear we should be buying into this breakout, especially since a) he always had the talent to become this type of pitcher and b) it occurred over multiple seasons, not just one. Yet, there still seems to be concerns about a few factors of his profile.

One of them is his 2021 second-half performance, where he posted a 4.42 ERA. That being said, all the underlying numbers (27.7% K, 5.9% BB, 3.51 SIERA) were still strong, and he was fantastic over the final seven starts of the year: 31.1% K, 2.4% BB, 2.84 SIERA. Really, these second-half “struggles” were related to batted-ball luck (.352 batting average on balls in play/BABIP), which was expected natural regression after he allowed a .212 BABIP in the first half. Rather than fading him due to recency bias, simply take his whole season into account, especially since the underlying numbers didn’t change much at all. In fact, downgrading him because of this would be falling into arguably the most common fallacy in fantasy baseball.

It would have been better if Gausman had stayed in San Francisco, and especially if he had stayed out of the AL East. On the bright side, the Blue Jays may no longer be playing in the hitters’ park they used to. Prior to the 2021 season, they added a humidor, and it appeared to have a clear effect. After being one of the more friendly stadiums for hitters, Rogers Centre was actually the fifth-most friendly stadium for pitchers, per Baseball Savant park factors. His home run/fly ball rate may go up, but we’re talking about a pitcher who posted a 2.81 ERA last season- there is room for the ERA to go back up.

Considering that he’s being drafted as the 19th starting pitcher, the market is expecting heavy regression from last season. However, that does not appear to be warranted. Based on his breakout over the past two seasons, there aren’t any indicators that his ERA should be any higher than 3.50, while his low walk rate leads to a low WHIP. Add in over 200 strikeouts with plenty of win potential playing for one of the best offensive teams in baseball, and I don’t see him falling out of the top-15 for starting pitchers.

His total history may not suggest he’s an ace, but there’s a clear method behind his recent madness. While others find nits to pick, such as his second-half “struggles” and his new team, you can take advantage by securing an ace at a discount price. Consider him a perfect target as an SP1 for teams who want to wait on pitching, and it’s clear why the Blue Jays signed him to a $110 million deal, even though they could have potentially re-signed  Cy-Young winner Robbie Ray to a similar deal. Money talks, but I expect Gausman’s pitching to do most of the talking in 2022.

 

Charlie Morton (ATL)

 

2021 Stats (185.2 IP): 3.34 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 8.6% K, 7.7% BB

ADP: 98.4 (P36)

Not all pitchers become frontline starters immediately. Kevin Gausman is an example, but before him came Charlie Morton, who set the bar for blooming later than expected. When the Astros signed him following the 2016 season, he was a sinker-baller who didn’t miss many bats, had just pitched 17.1 innings the season prior, and had little perceived upside. From there on, though, he has become much more than that.

By favoring his four-seam fastball more than his sinker, and continuing to rely on his curveball, Morton tapped into his strikeout potential. Just look at his splits before and after signing with the Astros:

The Career Revelation For Charlie Morton

Since 2017, Morton has been as close to an ace as you can get. Meanwhile, he’s been as consistent as it gets if you look at non-2020 seasons, where he pitched just 38 innings:

Charlie Morton Since 2017
It’s actually remarkable how consistent Morton has been, particularly if you look at his SIERAs over the past three seasons. Morton finished in the top-20 in fantasy baseball value for starting pitchers from 2017 to 2019 and finished 21st in 2021. There’s a reason the Braves chose to sign him to a $20 million extension for this upcoming season.
There was some reason for concern with Morton heading into 2021- his velocity went down to 93.4 MPH, and continued a downward trend from 2018. However, his average fastball velocity this season was up to 95.5 MPH, allowing it to be particularly effective (.292 wOBA allowed) this season. Furthermore, the added velocity on his sharp curveball also helped; he induced a whiff on 40.1% of the swings against it. Simply put, his arsenal was as good as ever.
Morton may be 38-years-old, but there are no signs of decline coming whatsoever, especially with the velocity uptick last season. He misses bats, doesn’t walk a lot of batters, and induces a lot of ground balls (49.5%) playing behind a strong defense. Then, you factor in the wins he’ll get for playing for a strong team and accumulating innings, and it’s hard to find any major wart with him outside of the age. Don’t be surprised if he finds his way back into the top-20 starting pitchers for a fourth consecutive full season. Morton may not be the sexy pick, but he might be the necessary one! From there, all you can do is sit back, and say: “Good luck, Charlie!”

 

Chris Bassitt (OAK)

 

2021 Stats (157.1 IP): 3.15 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 25% K, 6.1% BB

ADP: 141.5 (P50)

As an analyst, when it comes to pitchers, there are always some red flags to look for in starting pitchers. Did they have a high amount of runners left on base? Was their batted-ball luck better than you’d expect? If that’s the case, you’d generally expect regression from the pitcher. Yet, despite all of this, I remain high on Chris Bassitt coming into this season.
Following two straight seasons with an ERA much lower than his underlying numbers would suggest, regression was expected to finally come back to bite Bassitt in 2021. Instead, it was more of the same. With a modest BABIP allowed (.271), a low home run/fly ball rate (9.2%), and a high left-on-base rate (78.2%), everything went right for him to post a 3.15 ERA.
So, is 2022 where it all comes to backfire for him? I’m not sure. We’ve now had three straight years, or two straight full seasons, where Bassitt has overachieved his ERA indicators, and it makes you wonder if there is more going under the hood there than expected. For whatever reason, he’s been able to continue to keep his barrel rate allowed and hard-contact numbers down. Although batted-ball numbers aren’t sticky year-to-year for pitchers, there might be a method this madness for him.
According to Owen McGrattan at Fangraphs, Bassitt’s fastball has a very low vertical approach angle. In other words, the angle of his fastball comes across as very flat at the top of the zone, allowing him to miss bats and induce pop-ups at a high rate. Meanwhile, as someone who relied on a variation of a fastball (sinker, cutter, four-seam), he’s able to keep hitters off-balanced and induce favorable contact in the best two ways possible: via ground balls and pop-ups. This is an approach Lance Lynn has used to succeed, and it appears that Bassitt has followed that.

This helps explain how the 33-year-old has been able to overachieve his ERA estimators, which has been known to be true for several fastball-heavy pitchers. Even with this, I’d still be somewhat worried about him keeping this up. Luckily, his skills are improving.

Chris Bassitt’s Minor Pitch-Mix Tweaks
These changes to his pitch mix may seem insignificant, but they do capture two things- slightly less reliance on one of his poor pitches (cutters), and the increased usage of arguably his top-two pitches. This minor change adds to his improvement from 2019, where he threw three sliders all year. Thus, it’s no surprise that he was able to post the highest swinging-strike rate of his career (10.1%), which complements all his other skills and allowed him to post his best strikeout rate (25%) yet.
The cherry on the top? Bassitt’s home ballpark in Oakland has been the most friendly park for pitchers over the past three years. This also helps explain why he’s been able to keep his home runs down, and is something he’ll continue to benefit from this year. Now, if he gets traded, my optimism for him certainly declines. Hopefully, we see him stay in Oakland.
Prior to getting hit in the head on a line drive, Bassitt was on pace to pitch 200 innings. With around a 24-25% strikeout rate, he’s quietly on track for a strong amount of strikeouts, while the benefits of his ERA and WHIP come into place more thanks to the innings pitched. There aren’t many pitchers you can draft after pick 140 who are both strong in terms of efficiency and are likely to give you a lot of innings pitched. Bassitt provides you with both of those. Once again, he might not be the flashy option, but he’s the steady, reliable workhorse that can really help your team a lot. Sometimes, it’s the non-flashy picks that you put you over the edge. Assuming he stays in Oakland, assume that’s the case with Bassitt this season.

 

Eduardo Rodríguez (DET)

 

2021 Stats (157.2 IP): 4.74 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 27.4% K, 7% BB

ADP: 153.62 (P56)

It’s been quite the journey for Eduardo Rodríguez over the past few years. For the first four years of his career, the 28-year-old was marred with inconsistency, and never started over 24 games or pitched 140 innings. However, with 203.1 innings pitched and a 3.7 Fangraphs wins above replacement (3.7) in 2019, it appeared he finally put it all together.

Unfortunately for Rodríguez, things took a turn for the worst after that. Prior to the 2020 season, he was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscles. He missed all of 2020 due to this, and his future was also in question. As of February, though, he stated that he had fully recovered, and it showed during the 2021 season.

Considering that he didn’t pitch in 2020 and his health condition, it was very encouraging to see Rodríguez start 31 games for the Red Sox in 2021. Meanwhile, he did so at a high quality. His SIERA (3.65), strikeout rate (27.4%), and walk rate (7%) were all the best they had been for his career, and create plenty of optimism for him moving forward. After all, according to Dan Richards in an article he wrote here at Pitcher List, K-BB ratio and SIERA are the two top predictive measures for future ERA.

Despite all of this, Rodríguez didn’t produce a lot of fantasy value last season. Both his 4.74 ERA and 1.39 WHIP were certainly below-average and made it very difficult to roster him last year. On the bright side, there are plenty of reasons for optimism this season. There are a lot of indicators to suggest that the lefty was notably unlucky last season. For starters, his .363 BABIP allowed was extremely high, while his 68.9% left-on-base rate was much below his career norms (74%).

This is what makes Rodríguez signing with the Detroit Tigers massive for his fantasy outlook. Fenway Park is notorious for helping spike higher BABIPs – it had the third-highest batting average on contact factor, per Baseball Savant. Now, he’ll pitch at Comerica Park, a significantly more pitcher-friendly park; the defensive upgrade at shortstop from Xander Bogaerts to Javier Baez also cannot be understated here.

Then, there’s the benefit of playing in the AL Central. Last season, Rodríguez allowed 20 home runs, which was two higher than what he was expected to allow. Those numbers will be even lower based on the ballparks he’ll be pitching at frequently. In terms of home run park factors, four (Cleveland, Kansas City, Detroit, Minnesota) of the five AL Central ballparks rank as average or below. Furthermore, outside of the White Sox, the lineups of these AL Central teams aren’t particularly strong. That’s a far cry from the AL East, where he constantly had to match up with the Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays.

With a naturally better ERA and WHIP due to improved batted-ball luck and a higher amount of runners left on base, Rodríguez should be able to average much more than the 5.03 innings per start next season. We’ve seen him eclipse 200 innings before, and 180+ innings are certainly in the cards. With an above-average strikeout rate, that’s going to lead to a lot of strikeouts, while his ratio numbers should be strong. This is a talented pitcher that now has a chance to unlock his potential in a perfect change of scenery, and I’m all here for it. If fantasy managers see his “struggles” last year as a red flag, take advantage of what could be a career year for the 28-year-old.

 

John Means (BAL)

 

2021 Stats (156.2 IP): 3.62 ERA, 4.62 FIP, 22.7% K, 4.4% BB

ADP: 225.01 (P86)

As a rebuilding organization that doesn’t have a lot of consistent maj0r-league contributors, the Orioles have the opportunity to give chances to players who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a chance. This helps explain the rise of former 11th-round pick John Means, who has not squandered his opportunity to solidify himself as a quality starting pitcher.

In 348.2 big-league innings, Means has posted a 3.82 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. Meanwhile, he’s posted a strikeout rate over 22.5% for two straight years and kept his walk rate under 4.5% in that time. However, this isn’t what you’re interested in. Rather, you want to know if this is something that we should expect moving forward. In my opinion, yes.

What immediately stands out for Means is his career .247 BABIP allowed. While that number is almost certainly too low to expect to continue, there is reason to believe it won’t regress all the way back to the .280-.295 BABIP allowed that projections have him pegged for. Per our Pitcher List player pages, Means’ career expected BABIP allowed is just .268, and it can help be explained by the batted balls he allows.

Pop-ups or poorly hit fly balls are classified as “poorly/under”. In 2021, batted balls under this trajectory produced just a .070 batting average. That works well for Means- he has allowed a 34.8% under rate for his career, as well as an 11.5% pop-up rate. Combine a modest BABIP allowed with a low walk rate, and you suddenly get an above-average WHIP.

As for his ERA, a low BABIP allowed should help Means continue to produce high left-on-base rate allowed numbers, but he needs to stop surrendering the gopher-ball: he has allowed a career 1.70 HR/9. Luckily, he’ll be pitching in a much more favorable home park next year:

Per Nathan Ruiz of The Baltimore Sun, the Orioles are moving the fence back about 26.5 feet, which is a notable change. After all, this is the same ballpark that ranked second in home-run park factor last year and helps explain why Means has allowed seven home runs over expectations over the past two years. Assuming he isn’t traded, he’ll suddenly benefit from playing in a pitcher’s park, which will surely benefit, a la Chris Bassitt.

Upon the crackdown of foreign substance use (aka “sticky stuff), Means saw his spin rates drop, as well as his effectiveness. That being said, the spin rates almost normalized by the end of the year, and it’s clear he started to adjust to the new rules- he also dealt with injuries during this time, which can’t be understated. With a full offseason to adjust, I don’t see this as a major concern, and was encouraged to see him adapt with decreased fastball usage by the end of the year:

I’m not advocating for Means being an ace. That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if he finished as a top-40 starting pitcher, and he’s currently being drafted past pick 200. As someone who can help stabilize your WHIP and should provide some steady volume, you could do much, much worse. This season, I’m recommending you use your magic beans to take a chance on Means. Hopefully, you do so wearing your lucky jeans!

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

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