Okay kids, this is the big one, the important one. Every fantasy position is important, but some are more important than others. If you solve the pitchers, you generally own the season.
Starting pitchers are to fantasy baseball as running backs are to fantasy football. Taking them early always requires a leap of faith, given the injury risk and volatility of the position. But be mindful of the slugging percentage — if you crush any premium pitching pick, you get more category pull than a hitter will bring.
We’re in changing times on the mound, as MLB clubs have significantly altered how they approach the position. A great pitcher might be asked for seven innings; the lesser guys are commonly hooked before those juicy third and fourth trips through an order. The ERA-qualifying pitcher has become a rare commodity. Last year in the Yahoo Friends & Family League, only two of 14 owners pushed past the 1400-inning cap. Back four years, half of the league maxed out.
I’m going to be proactive with Max Scherzer this year; I’ve already picked him as early as fourth overall, and once I lucked into him at 11th. Catching up on offense isn’t as hard as it used to be. In the LABR Mixed Draft (where I did not prioritize pitching, perhaps to my downfall), 15 of the first 41 picks were starting pitchers.
Leagues and divisions are a nice way to break ties on the mound. When in doubt, an NL East pitcher is better slotted than a pitcher in any other division. I also love Astros pitchers, since they get mostly favorable parks (Minute Maid is definitely a pitcher’s park) and never have to face their own rugged offense. And in the NL West, you avoid Colorado and attack elsewhere; Arizona has a stripped roster and a humidor in play.
I’m not saying you can’t take AL East pitchers, but you better be sold on talent and setup. Those parks can bite you.
Which starting pitcher is a strong buy for the 2019 fantasy season?
Andy: If you’re kinda/sorta buying the Padres this season, following the addition of Manny Machado, then it makes sense to look for bargains in the team’s starting rotation. Joey Lucchesi had a terrific first year overall — he struck out 145 batters over 130 innings — but his full-season ERA spiked after a single rough start against the Dodgers in late September. This kid definitely passed the eye-test from the moment he made his debut. In a healthy season, Lucchesi can easily give us double-digit wins, 170-plus Ks and a 1.25-ish WHIP. He’ll deliver an easy profit at his ridiculous ADP (217.8).
Scott: While I wouldn’t say I have Shane Bieber Fever, I’m at least running a temperature. His 4.55 ERA can’t be taken at face value, not when FIP suggests 3.23 and SIERA says 3.45. The K/BB ratio is dreamy (he also struck out a batter per inning) and the strand rate was unlucky. The Indians are no super team, but they’re the overwhelming favorites in a watered-down AL Central. Bieber is your gift at the tables, holding a Yahoo ADP of 167. (For a similar pitcher at a slightly more expensive price, consider America’s Sleeper, Nick Pivetta.)
Dalton: Ross Stripling ended last year on a poor note (thanks to tipping his pitches) and is currently without a spot in the Dodgers’ starting rotation, but that just means a hidden monster could be flying a bit under the radar. Injuries will almost certainly take care of L.A.’s enviable crowded rotation, and Stripling proved last year he can take full advantage, when he recorded an impressive 136:22 K:BB ratio over 122.0 innings. His xwOBA ranked top-10, sandwiched between Gerrit Cole and Noah Syndergaard, pitchers whose price tags are obviously much more expensive. It also helps being on a team most systems project to record the most wins in the National League. Stripling may not throw enough innings to be considered a true ace, but he’ll pitch like one when he’s on the mound.
Conversely, who do you think will be a fantasy bust at the position?
Dalton: I’ve advocated taking Clayton Kershaw No. 1 overall in fantasy drafts in the past, but I’ve moved him outside my top-25 starters after his latest issue was revealed, which was shoulder soreness that might have been caused by an effort to increase velocity (something he’s seen drop each of the last three seasons). He’s dealt with a laundry list of injuries lately, failing to surpass 175.0 innings in a season since 2015, and early signs are anything but encouraging for a rebound. Kershaw isn’t just a risky fantasy investment, he’s a ticking timebomb who’s still not falling far enough in drafts to be worth the gamble.
Scott: Prices and opinions have started to shift on Stephen Strasburg, but not enough for my liking. He remains the big boat of fantasy starters; the two best days are when you buy him and when you get rid of him. Strasburg has failed to earn his average draft cost in four of five seasons, and he’s missed his component-suggested ERA in three-quarters of his seasons.
Strasburg averages 163 innings over the last seven years, with one year over 183. His ERA is 3.19 over this point, his WHIP 1.10. Those are good numbers, not needle-pushers. You can find similar stats from cheaper options. (If you’d like another pan, you can add Clayton Kershaw to my Do Not Draft list, for all the reasons D3 outlines.)
Andy: Rich Hill is a very good pitcher with a remarkable professional backstory, so this isn’t going to be a particularly harsh paragraph. Let’s just keep in mind the fact that Hill will be turning 39 next month, injuries have been a consistent issue for him and he hasn’t pitched more than 135.2 innings since way back in 2007. He could very well pitch half as many innings as the top-tier arms. Hill’s ratios should be useful enough, but he’ll be a headache for fantasy purposes. For me, he’s untouchable in deep leagues, where the free agent pool won’t offer acceptable placeholders.
Let’s look ahead. Which pitching prospect do you think will have an impact as a starter in 2019?
Dalton: Jesus Luzardo is unlikely to start the year in the majors, but the 21-year-old is ready to make a fantasy impact whenever the A’s give him the call. The lefty possesses a plus fastball with advanced command that helped him mow through Double-A last season with a 2.29 ERA and an 86:18 K:BB ratio over 78.2 innings. Luzardo is one of the elite prospects in baseball and should benefit from a pitcher’s park and an Oakland defense that was one of the best in the league last season. He’s going to be fun to own for years to come.
Andy: Forrest Whitley is the easy answer here, as he ranks as the game’s consensus top right-handed pitching prospect. He’s a 6-foot-7 flame-thrower coming off an excellent Arizona Fall League season (2.42, 36 Ks, 7 BB, 26.0 IP). Whitley has served a drug-related suspension, but he’s clearly a candidate to make his MLB debut for Houston in the season ahead. His arrival will be an actionable fantasy event, no question.
Scott: You expect college pitchers to be ready for the majors quickly, and that’s likely the case with Atlanta’s Kyle Wright. He averaged a strikeout per inning over two minor-league levels last year, and saw a cup of coffee with the Braves. His control needs some tightening, but there’s a juicy upside here, with three quality pitches and easy heat in the mid-90s. (If you can wait another year or so, Casey Mize looks like a can’t-miss ace for the rebuilding Tigers.)