For those unaware, I put out my way-too-early starting pitcher rankings back on October 9th. I openly discussed how it should be treated as a rough draft. It was far from final and more of a guideline for myself through the off-season before I put out my official Pitcher ListTM ranks the first week of February.
But these rankings don’t just change suddenly one cold night late in January. My feelings and perceptions of starters are often fluid and two months removed from my initial rankings (despite the games played tally of a bit fat zero laughing at me in all of its glory) my thoughts about six different starters have shifted dramatically.
1. Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) – #5 –> #10
This isn’t such a drastic drop, but I think some people looking at the ranks will come with an early bit of skepticism seeing Clayton Kershaw up at #5.
The criticisms are pretty easy to buy into. Kershaw hasn’t thrown more than 180 innings since 2015, while he’s witnessed his strikeout rate plummet to 24%, his overall whiff rate drop to 11.0% – its lowest mark since 2010 – and his fastball velocity drop to a mediocre 91 mph. For reference, the southpaw often deemed the “best pitcher on the planet” sat 93 mph and higher in his heyday.
I wrote about Kershaw’s early struggles last year, presenting the idea that if someone is going to fix his decline, it would be Kershaw. He is the exception in the world of starting pitching and he’s even come out this winter to say that he’s working to regain his lost velocity.
I’m not ruling out the chance, though sticking Kershaw at #5 is betting on a legit rebound and that just doesn’t seem right. He’s still an ace and will provide strong innings when on the mound, but there’s a safer floor via more innings and elite strikeouts/ratios in guys like Aaron Nola, Trevor Bauer, and Gerrit Cole.
2. Nathan Eovaldi (Boston Red Sox) – #52 –> #38
The more I look into Eovaldi, the more I’m buying into him as a strong #3/#4 for fantasy squads. His faith in his cutter – a pitch Eovaldi began trusting at the end of his Yankee tenure and carried into a 30%+ usage rate in 2018 – gave him freedom inside of his repertoire. Instead of relying on his upper 90s heater in the zone, Eovaldi can now turn to his cutter for strikes, using his fastball frequently upstairs. His four-seamer jumped 3.5 points in swinging strike rate from 7.2% to 10.% as a result with a significant six-point bump in O-Swing, while his cutter settled into a remarkable 62% zone rate. And when your cutter moves like this at 93mph, you can understand Eovaldi’s faith pumping it into the zone:
I originally grouped Eovaldi with the other “swing for the fences” type plays, but as a believer of his new approach, he deserves to be one tier higher in the “non-elite arms that will still provide above average ratios and strikeouts” tier. You know, the Freelands, Hendrickses, and anti-Liriano types that are what Tobys want to be.
3. Michael Fulmer (Detroit Tigers) – #49 –> Mid 60s
My adoration for Michael Fulmer is well documented and it showed a bit in this ranking. In retrospect, it’s not that I don’t believe there is a ceiling in Fulmer’s future that he hasn’t hit yet, but moreso that banking on that outcome while his health stays intact is a little foolish at this point. He’s coming off knee surgery, hasn’t found his changeup since 2016, and hasn’t quite gotten the swing-and-miss success from his slider quite yet.
Simply put, there are better tickets to buy including Andrew Heaney, Julio Urias (yes, baking in the relatively few innings he’ll actually give you), Jimmy Nelson, and Shane Bieber. I wouldn’t be shocked if I owned Fulmer in multiple places next year, but it’ll be in one of the last rounds of the draft, not somewhere in the teens.
4. Touki Toussaint (Atlanta Braves) – #51 –> Early 80s
Touki Toussaint has a wonderful curveball. It makes batters quiver in the box as it swoops in for a strike early, and it makes them shake their heads walking back to the dugout when he throws it late.
We’re going to see this pitch pop up on our daily Nastiest Pitching GIFs articles for years to come…but maybe not so much in 2019.
The Braves already have a stuff rotation with Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, and Julio Teheran. For the fifth rotation spot, I’m inclined to believe his Triple-A teammate Mike Soroka has a better chance of grabbing the first open slot, not to mention the sea of young arms ready to challenge Soroka and Toussaint in Bryse Wilson, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Kyle Wright, and Kolby Allard. The Braves have a lot of young starting pitching depth. To add more pessimism – why not – the Braves are also in a position to sign a starter this off-season, including Dallas Keuchel.
But let’s say Touki gets the job and gives you 20-25 starts. I’m not so certain those innings will return the quality of a Top 40 starter. Touki’s curveball is excellent, but his fastball command is questionable and will feel the effects of having a low 90s heater constantly when his misses locations. His third pitch comes in a splitter, which is the least consistent pitch in the majors. We saw its quality undulate in the short time we had with Touki this year, and I don’t expect that to change coming from a pitcher who struggles with fastball command.
If you’re chasing a young Braves starter, chase Soroka, armed with a fastball he changes speeds, movements, and locations with effortlessly. And if Soroka is off the board, I have to imagine there will be arms with an easier path to their upside than Touki in the final rounds.
5. Alex Reyes (St. Louis Cardinals) – #95 –> Mid 40s
At the end of my ranks I grouped all pitchers that had injury questions marks as we entered the winter, with Reyes leading the charge. It’s become clear that we should expect him healthy for Opening Day (six months recovery from June surgery) and around the mid-40s, I’m willing to chase about 150 innings of strong production. The skill set is still there and even injured, he flashed an excellent slider and strong heat in his 2018 debut.
There are questions about the Cardinals rotation, though the 4/5 spots are in question, with the rugged injury histories of Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha making me believe Reyes will have his opportunity to lock a rotation spot through the season. This may warrant an early 50s rank with all this in mind, but considering I see #2-esque production as a possibility when he’s on the hill, Reyes gets elevated into the Top 50.
6. Yusei Kikuchi (Free Agent) – Unranked –> Late 40s
I’ve come out and said that there were a few pitchers that should have been on the October list but were simply missing (Dereck Rodriguez, Steven Matz, Jakob Junis, and Marco Gonzales), but this not including Yusei Kikuchi just isn’t right as he could turn into a #5 arm for your squad…or better. There isn’t a whole lot of information yet (Adam Garland talked about Yusei Kikuchi here), but the consensus is that he should be treated more than we did Miles Mikolas at this time last year. Considering Mikolas was slotted around the late 50s/early 60s, it seems proper that Kikuchi should be hovering the late 40s before the aforementioned “lottery picks” tier.
I wish I had more to say about Kikuchi, but I want to hold back before I get to really watch the guy go in Spring Training. I might be shying away from him in drafts simply because he isn’t as much of a known quantity, but if he’s falling to the 50s where I’m already chasing upside recklessly, I’ll be taking Kikuchi first.
(Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)