With the yearly update here at Pitcher List marking the true beginning of the website’s pre-season, it’s my pleasure to begin the unveiling of the official Pitcher List fantasy baseball rankings.
I’ll be posting my Top 20 rankings each day for the next six days, with a special 150 pitchers closing them out on Monday.
All rankings will be with 12-teamer, 5×5 head-to-head leagues in mind, and hopefully my blurbs for each player will help those outside the standard format to adjust accordingly.
I’m so glad baseball is back.
Tier 1: Core Four
I feel weird even talking about this again. We’ve already exhausted five months of the off-season debating Bossil Fuel over here, not to mention that I have zero intention drafting a pitcher from this top tier. Stud high floor batters are simply too valuable!
1. Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees) – …but if I am forced to take an SP first, it’ll be Cole. Simple answer: he will likely strikeout the most batters and earn most Wins while having very similar ratios to that of his peers. I understand the argument for deGrom’s ERA sitting lower, especially with a haze regarding Cole’s movement to New York from Houston.
Nevertheless, his skill set is unparalleled. His heater is the most dominant pitch in the game, returning a 16.7% SwStr rate across 1800 thrown. Paired with a slider that is even deadlier. It’s a one-two punch that changes velocity, movement, and eye-level. You don’t really need more when Cole is in rhythm. But he does have a curveball for strikes, a proper third option. All is right in the world when he is dealing.
Due to their strong bullpen, maybe the Yankees do elect to keep him around the 200 IP mark instead of pushing over the edge. Still, 200 frames with his elite ratios and strikeout rate? Yeah, that’s the floor you want.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 2.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 36% K rate in 200 IP
2. Jacob deGrom (New York Mets) – I have no problem drafting deGrom, or anyone else in this first tier, over Cole. There’s a case to made everywhere and, in the end, your season won’t be won/lost based on choosing the right one (Save for an injury, the bane of all our existences.). Your success hinges on finding the right players later in the draft and during the early portion of the season. But let’s say you’re considering deGrom, he’ll do just fine. Three seasons of 200+ innings is the volume floor you want, while two straight sub 1.00 WHIPs with a rising SwStr rate and a 2.43 ERA during the juiced ball era? Yeah, that’s all kinds of wonderful. The reason he’s not #1 is the fewer strikeouts and fewer Wins. It’s close – if you feel like chasing your Lamet/Ray/Boyd types later, deGrom may be the better fit – but I’m leaning Cole here.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 2.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 31% K rate in 200 IP
3. Justin Verlander (Houston Astros) – You’re going to happy with Verlander. Another 200+ frames? Sure, he’s averaged nearly 215 frames in his last three seasons. Strikeouts? Why not? He raised his strikeout to over 35% after improving his slider vastly and even pulling back on his stellar heater to make room for it. Health? That’s a good question – he can’t do this forever – but he’s pitched over 200 frames in all but one season since 2007 and he has what I believe are the best mechanics in baseball. If anyone can age gracefully, it’s Verlander.
Fine, he’s not going to post a .218 BABIP that led to a 0.80 WHIP. But he’ll also likely not post a horrid 1.45 HR/9 either, and on top of his stellar fastball/slider, his changeup and curveball do just fine as backup. You’re going to be satisfied across a whole lot of volume. It’s the floor you want, just without the same ceiling as Cole or deGrom.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 2.80 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 35% K rate in 210 IP
4. Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals) – I know this is the floor tier, but I found it hard to project Scherzer for more than 180 innings. Even though Verlander is older, Scherzer turns 36 at the end of July and has a back injury on record. It’s the tie-breaker at this super close stage of stud arms, even if I’m allowing Scherzer’s career-best 16.3% SwStr and 35% strikeout rate go to the wayside.
That being said, there were a few other areas that seem a bit…contentious. I’m not one to buy into Baseball Info Solutions’ hard contact rates much, but Scherzer’s 36% clip last year was a career-high by a longshot. We’re talking a 29% career mark and the surge of harder hit balls led to his worst BABIP since 2012 and a WHIP over 1.00. Not saying it’s a death sentence, we’re simply looking for little things to discern who to take and it sticks out.
But hey, everything is still wonderful. His fastball is good as its been while his slider is as beautiful as being true to thyself. There’s even a possibility his cutter and curveball were hit with bad luck last year and things will be even better in 2020. I want Scherzer to be #1 again and there’s a good chance he could be. It’s just not the dart I’d throw.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 2.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 33% K rate in 180 IP
Tier 2: Please Don’t Be A Toad
This is where it gets interesting. There are so many talented pitchers here, but oddly enough, they all already have warts. COME ON. Not that you’ll be upset owning these arms, but there are clear problems with each one. It makes it even easier than usual for me to skip on by and chase arms from the next tier at a much cheaper cost. But let’s say they fall or, you know what, there just isn’t a bat you want?
5. Walker Buehler (Los Angeles Dodgers) – Take Buehler. No, I don’t expect him to be like Jacob deGrom one day and give you the sub 2.50 ERA and 0.95 WHIP with close to 200 strikeouts. It’s just not what he does. Buehler lacks that ZOMG secondary pitch, instead featuring a trio of hey that’s a pretty nice shim-a-gadoo in his cutter, curveball, and slider. Not one of these pitches hit a 20% SwStr rate, but his cutter was a fantastic nullifier in the zone, his slider was a wonderful chase pitch, and his curveball does it all.
Then there’s the four-seamer. Mmmm more like the shut-the-door-seamer as it holds both a career 33% strikeout rate and a key to my heart. Elite velocity? Check. Confidence to throw it for strikes? Check. Elevation like U2? OH THAT’S A CHECK. It slices, it dices, it has a strong emotional capacity like Pisces. But seriously, the floor the pitch creates allows Buehler to be a jack-of-all-trades with his secondary stuff and keep strutting through innings easily.
He’s the one with the fewest warts in this tier by a longshot, and the clear #5 in my book.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 29% K rate in 200 IP
6. Mike Clevinger (Cleveland Indians) – Did you realize how good of a fastball Clevinger had in 2019? Fast made a great point of it during his Top 100 SP podcast and man…it was dope. 13% SwStr despite a 57% zone rate and it held batters to a stupid low .192 BAA. Across 1,000+ pitches as a fastball. YOU DON’T SEE THAT.
And I don’t buy that Clevinger is injury prone. They’ll let him fly out there constantly in Cleveland. I don’t see a reason that he can’t go 200+ this season. Oddly enough, the biggest question is his secondary stuff. Between his slider, changeup, and curveball, not one of them returned above a 40% O-Swing or 40% zone rate. In other words, Clevinger couldn’t get into a groove with any secondary pitch to turn it into a true #2 offering.
It’s weird to say given how many filthy breakers we’ve seen from Clev, and maybe over a full season he’ll get there. If I felt more confident that his slider will hint a 45% O-Swing with its 21% SwStr rate, then I will hear the argument for #5. For now, however, I’ll just expect him to get there while figuring out his curveball and changeup to be there when he needs them to be. It’ll come with a worse WHIP as he isn’t as efficient with strikes as Buehler, but the strikeout upside is just a tinge better.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 32% K rate in 200 IP
7. Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox) – Yeah, I’m doing it. Last year blows my mind. It’s wild. Wild! Sale put us through all kinds of anxiety as he was hurling a casual 93mph early in the season, clearly holding himself back with each pitch he threw. Thing is, he was still really really good. Yeah, the 4.40 ERA stinks. A lot. It was also a 3.00 SIERA (20% HR/FB rate? Get out of here) and he still put up a 1.09 WHIP (How dare he!) and more strikeouts than Walker Buehler in 147 frames. UNREAL.
I’m giving Sale this ranking because I’m expecting Sale to be healthy. There have been a total of zero reports stating he wouldn’t be ready to go. I have to believe that we’re not going to see the same soft-tossing stuff again. And hey, even if we do, last season should have been better in the first place. So don’t expect his production to go as poorly, rather anticipate close to 180 frames of elite quality. So all that’s different about Sale from, say, Cole, is about 25 frames. That’s…pretty great, no?
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 2.90 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 35% K rate in 175 IP
8. Shane Bieber (Cleveland Indians) – Oh Bieber. Bieber Bieber Bieber. I feel like I should love Bieber. He has two breaking balls that each returned a 23%+ SwStr rate last year. That alone should make him stupid appealing. Then his fastball returned a 15+ pVal last year… and I’m starting to talk myself into him.
Wait wait, right. That four-seamer? It way overperformed. A 60% zone rate with just a 5% SwStr mark is a bit suspicious. Its .261 BABIP just doesn’t seem right when batters when a near 90% contact rate. I don’t believe this is a heater that is overpowering and shooting fear into batters. There are times when he embraces the up-and-in approach well, but there are times he hangs around too often down in the zone and he should get punished.
And here’s the thing, if Bieber isn’t returning a 15 pVal with his four-seamer, the breakers are going to suffer as well. It’s a 35% zone rate on the slider and sub 30% on the curveball, and you really don’t want Bieber leaning on his changeup to find a strike.
It feels a lot like Carlos Carrasco’s prime, the standard of Cleveland where they have questionable heaters but excellent junk. And I don’t think this will collapse on Bieber, but there’s more to be concerned about than I’d like to trust this early. So to #8 you go, right in front of Flaherty (who is just as puzzling) and Strasburg. What a weird year.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.40 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 30% K rate in 200 IP
9. Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals) – Health health health. We just don’t know anymore with so many pitchers and I want to throw my hands up and say “Ya beat us! We can’t bake in what we don’t know!” Yet I find myself inside drafts leaning one guy over another because he’s clearly riskier than the other. So I can’t have a cake and eat it. Heck, I can’t even look at a slice. The cake is a lie! I’m so sorry to make that overused reference. With Strasburg, it’s hard to throw away that 2019 was his only of his last five above 175 frames and 28 starts. That’s not the volume floor you want in an early pick.
At the same time, he changed his approach to go more curveball heavy and it was wonderful, earning his 3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 30% strikeout rate. I don’t think the quality is going to change much at all, maybe slightly better if the juiced ball isn’t in play (even if his fastball velocity is declining slightly). So you’re getting quality, it’s just the amount of innings in question. Give me Sale’s instead.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.20 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 30% K rate in 175 IP
10. Jack Flaherty (St. Louis Cardinals) – I really thought I’d be out on Flaherty, but the more I wrote about him, the more I started to come around. Slightly. Best argument in his favor? Despite the lack of depth in his repertoire, he’s still produced for two straight years. His worse 2018 season still came with a 1.11 WHIP and 3.57 SIERA. That was the worse season!
Now, Flaherty is an odd case. He had a wretched first half, then soared beyond belief in the second and we’ve come to terms with the fact he was unlucky early and a bit lucky late. Life is a spinning coin, isn’t it? So we see the 2.75 ERA and sub 1.00 WHIP and 30% strikeout rate and think “okay, see that’s the result of everything evening out, he’s still an ace!”
In the first half, Flaherty’s slider was an average pitch, not falling to the bottom of the zone like he wants, while he was far from spectacular with his heater. Not terrible with fastballs, but his questionable strong secondary stuff did little to amplify it.
Second half Flaherty? That was a man in rhythm. Four-seamers where he wanted them, sliders down, always down, sinker surprising right-handers constantly inside and generating outs, and even his curveball wasn’t so bad for a moment. It was glorious, beautiful, and very unsustainable.
So the warts are clear. We don’t know who Flaherty truly is. I’m a bit hesitant given the repertoire isn’t as polish as any of the arms above, but I do think he can go 200 frames of overall quality innings. All he needs it to hit his stride for a month or two and be average the rest. That plays.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.40 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 30% K rate in 190 IP
11. Blake Snell ( Tampa Bay Rays) – I’m really struggling this year in figuring out how to place guys inside the Top 20. Here’s Snell, a pitcher one year removed from a sub 2.00 ERA and Cy-Young stuff to return a 4.29 ERA and 1.27 WHIP across just 107 frames. Those innings are a bit deceiving as well, with eight starts returning under four frames. That’s not what you paid for in the slightest last season and I find it hard for me to rank him Top 10 when last year was such a disappointment.
Okay, this is truly maddening. Forget all the luck that pointed to a poor season (rise in HR rate to 15%, inflated .343 BABIP, low 72% LOB rate). Forget the likely babying of Snell that we’ll see from the Rays that likely caps his ceiling at 190 innings. His stuff was flat out unheard of. Guess who had the highest SwStr rate of any starter last season? Snell with a 17.7% mark. That’s STUPID. But he also failed to have a secondary pitch hold a 30%+ zone rate, forcing him to throw more heaters for strikes…which turned into more hittable pitchers and a ridiculous .383 BABIP on four-seamers.
So we have a pitcher who misses more bats than any other starter and has a Cy-Young under his belt…but he also had health problems. Although he has nasty stuff, he was unable to harness it when he needed to. That last part is so such a heavy weight on a floor that I can’t put him Top 10. It’s the largest range of outcomes among any starter in the Top 20 and I don’t blame you if you want to take the dive. There’s just too much uncertainty for me.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.30 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 31% K rate in 175 IP
12. Patrick Corbin (Washington Nationals) – Look at us. Talking about warts and here comes the good ole frog. He knows what he is and is perfectly content. Corbin has a slider and fastball and they are both wonderful. Well, the slider is stupid wonderful, and the fastball can be full of wonder, but together, there are overall wonderful.
It’s been an ERA hovering 3.20 the last two years and sure, that sounds about right for Corbin. And hey, back-to-back season of 200 frames? Sure, why not another? Save for a rough patch last year where he couldn’t locate his heater, Corbin was a steady-eddy and I’m thinking that walk rate comes down a bit since he’s past the blip. Honestly, this is the most boring yet likely smartest pick you can make. Why chase all the risks when you have great production through the year?
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.30 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 30% K rate in 200 IP
13. Luis Severino (New York Yankees) – Some are afraid of touching Severino. I understand that after he missed nearly all of 2019 with an injured rotator cuff. Then again, we can acknowledge he’s a different pitcher since his 2017 breakout and he hasn’t been bad since. 2018 was a step back. Even then he posted a 3.39 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with a 28% strikeout rate, and even that endured the hardships of July/August where he was completely lost.
And that’s the thing. I feel terrible that Severino never got his chance to redeem himself proper in 2019 for that questionable second half in 2018 and his stuff is unreal when he’s cooking. Before the stumbles, it was a 1.98 ERA and 30% strikeout rate, pounding the zone with confidence.
I don’t think he’s that arm, but I see a whole lot of volume with a fantastic floor (better than those behind him!) and a whole lot of room to grow. Now if he could learn how to better wield that fastball from Cole…DON’T GET ME STARTED.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.30 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 29% K rate in 190 IP
14. Yu Darvish (Chicago Cubs) – I see Darvish a lot like Flaherty. A maddening puzzle. How much we should put stock into a second half? It’s been around for ages and sometimes it works (look at Corbin and Bauer performing in 2018) and sometimes it doesn’t (look at Marquez and Wheeler last year). I’m more inclined to believe in Darvish’s second half from 2019 as it came with a change in release point on his fastball, which bumped his velocity a full tick to 95mph and granted a ton more control.
The shift turned Darvish into a stud. We’re talking 15% SwStr rate, 0.81 WHIP, 38% K rate with just a 2% walk rate (WHAT!), and a 2.76 ERA paired with a 2.45 SIERA. It was bonkers and wonderful and I want to buy into it.
Darvish has been an inconsistent arm throughout his career. I do believe he’s settled into an approach that will stick into 2019, with a wonderful cutter he trusts often, an array of wipeout secondary pitches, and now a fixed fastball. It just seems right – Darvish has it figured out now after searching the seas far and wide for ages. Sure, he’ll allow some more HRs from time to time, but the more I look into that second half, the more I see things I like, including a knuckle-curveball that is filthy that he learned from Craig Kimbrel and earned a near 6.0 pVal in just 13 starts.
It’s all there, this is the time to buy back into Darvish.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.50 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 33% K rate in 180 IP
15. Luis Castillo (Cincinnati Reds) – Come, get yer warts! This one is a bit simpler – I don’t trust Castillo’s fastball command as he’s a slinger. His changeup is the best thing since Jason Bennetti started announcing, and the slider is coming along nicely as well to ensure the strikeouts are alive, but man that heater. He can’t find the zone with his four-seamer (just a 46% zone rate!) and while his changeup is certainly there to clean up the mess, the 10%+ walk rate seems much closer than a 6% clip. His sinker is oddly better at finding the zone and induces a 33% O-Swing (woot!), but I need to see a heater ala Buehler, Scherzer, or even Clev where it hits the zone constantly without fear. I don’t think we’ll get that with Castillos across body delivery.
And more about that slider. There is room to grow here and it could mean Castillo jumps into a comfortable Top 10 spot even with the questionable fastball. But for now, with a fastball that I expect to go in-and-out through the year and a slider that still needs development, Castillo is a solid Top 15 arm, but just outside the true ace category.
So what you’re getting is a 30% strikeout rate and a mid-3s ERA with upside to hit 3.00 and keep his WHIP inside 1.10. I’m so happy we can all agree Castillo is a Top 20 arm instead of this crazy man doing it entering 2018. I was too amped, okay? I’VE LEARNED.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.45 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 30% K rate in 190 IP
Tier 3: A Whole Lot of Kings
In the tier above, we saw aces that have their issues holding them back. Here we’re going to see a lot of arms that aren’t quite there but maybe could take that step, some forward for the first time, some reclaiming their former glory.
16. Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) – Kershaw is obviously part of the latter but health, that horrible mistress is everything. His 2019 season was delayed due to a back injury and shockingly cruised through the end without another hiccup. Wild. It wasn’t the Kershaw of old, with his first 3.00+ ERA season since his rookie year, but it was still heavily productive, with a 3.03 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 27% K rate across 178 frames. That’s great! Wonderful! And we expect it to get worse, don’t we. His fastball had already dropped nearly two ticks and fell another half-point last year and we wonder if he’ll be able to curb his rising homerun rates as mistakes are happening more frequently than ever.
Well, maybe not. His slider picked up in a big way, regaining its chase rate a full ten points to 50% (beautiful!) as its SwStr followed suit for a strong six-point leap to 20% again. That’s lovely and dandy and maybe he did deserve a better season last year…but that fastball. Oy, that heater just isn’t placed on the edges like before. It’s just not the same.
It feels like we’ll be lucky to get another 180 IP season from Kershaw. So let’s say it’s 170, the strikeout rate will likely dip a touch, a higher WHIP, slightly higher ERA…that’s not looking so pretty. Still very much worth your while, just not the impact starter you really want.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.30 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 26% K rate in 170 IP
17. Corey Kluber (Texas Rangers) – We’re scared of Kluber. He had a bad April (he very often does), then had a comebacker that fractured his forearm, then had an oblique setback during rehab. It’s what we call a lost season.
But now Kluber is back. Don’t be afraid of the super small sample from last season, remember this is a pitcher with two unreal pitches in his curveball and cutter, while he figures out how to get by with his sinker. There’s little doubt that Kluber can go 200+ without another freak injury stopping him, and those that are staying away are missing an ace who had back-to-back sub 3.00 ERA and sub 1.00 WHIP. I just don’t see how Kluber is suddenly outside of the Top 20 because of seven starts and an injury that should never have happened.
This is your steal, get Kluber and make sure to not freak out during April if it goes poorly. It’s supposed to go poorly.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.40 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 26% K rate in 200 IP
18. Charlie Morton (Tampa Bay Rays) – We were just talking about health and we’re going there again. I sat here and thought a good while about how many innings to expect from Morton and I just can’t see anything close to 180 again. This was literally the first time above 180 in his twelve-year career at age 35. Now a year older, I can’t say I think last year wasn’t an outlier. Of course it is, it just doesn’t make sense otherwise. But fine, even 165 innings of Morton is still a wonderful thing. He upped his curveball usage and we all rejoiced, especially when it was better across more pitches thrown. That’s a double whammy of success.
I’m surprised to see Morton still favor sinkers among his mix, especially when his four-seamer is easily the better offering, featuring a 58% zone rate and 12% SwStr rate, but it may be a product of searching for a third offering. Last year, his slider stepped up for about 300 thrown and did well, finding the zone over 55% of the time as Morton had a good rare option for strikes.
So it all works. The four-seamer is strong, the curveball definitely is, and a sprinkle of sliders and sinkers should get the job done. I’m not sure he’ll be able to keep up a 0.69 HR/9, though, and a few more homers will push the ERA/WHIP up just a bit. It’ll still be quality innings and hopefully for more than the 165 I’d tally him for.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.40 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 28% K rate in 165 IP
19. Carlos Carrasco (Cleveland Indians) – It’s early February. I have no extra information than anyone else about what will happen to Carrasco. As of right now, I have to assume two things A) He’s healthy and B) the Indians will have him be a starter. Why wouldn’t they? They have a clear hole and Carrasco has done it for so long and so well.
Alright, he’s a starter out of the gate, what does that mean? Well we can expect a sub 3.50 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP and 27% strikeout rate across about 180-190 frames. I mean, that’s what he’s done and he’s as as consistent as they come, really. Even in his weird 2020, he still earned a 15% SwStr rate overall, shockingly for a small 80 IP sample where he dealt with Leukemia during it.
He still has a pair of filthy options in his slider and changeup, and he’ll work around his fastball per usual. Be happy about it, you’re getting an SP 1b for the cost of a #2.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.40 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 27% K rate in 180 IP
Tier 4: It’s Party Time
20. Lucas Giolito (Chicago White Sox) – I honestly didn’t think I was going to have Giolito this high up, but there just wasn’t someone else that truly deserved it. He begins a tier of super fun exciting arms, some will go earlier than I’m down for (Giolito, Paddack, Nola), while there are a ton that I’m just so excited to own (You’ll find out later).
Giolito gets the nod at the top. While I don’t want to pay the premium for him, I can grasp that he can outperform my conservative projection. His fastball was incredible at the top of the zone last year and his changeup was magnificent. There’s room for slider growth as well that can really tie the room together and push Giolito to a 3.00 ERA.
Still, I have a few concerns. Giolito’s changeup outperformed. It found the zone over 50% of the time and held a 22% SwStr rate. That’s stupid good. So stupid, in fact, I don’t see it happening again. Without that changeup being that elite, I wonder if his heater will take a small step back, while needing more from his slider. It could work out just fine, I just haven’t seen how to dominoes will fall.
Still, the AL Central has the Tigers and Royals and possibly weak Indians to feast on, and it could be heaven owning Giolito this season. I just can’t shake the feeling he performed as good as we’ll ever see last year.
Nick’s Reluctant Projection: 3.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 28% K rate in 180 IP
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm)