With fantasy baseball drafts heating up, I started a new article series last week where I look at 3-4 starting pitchers who are going right in the same ADP range and breakdown who I feel most confident in and why. The goal here isn't so much to make you agree with me as to help us all together think analytically about these pitchers to make a decision in our drafts that we feel most comfortable with.
Today we're going to look at three starters who are going in the fourth round of 15-team drafts. These are all guys who make up the final tier of SP1s based on ADP but two of them have never been drafted this high before and feature prior injury concerns, so there is some uncertainty about who is the best bet in this range, if any. I should note that Nick Pollack from Pitcher List and I also covered these guys on the most recent episode of the On The Corner Podcast, and you can check out that episode in the next few days (we'll tweet it out and it's available wherever you get your podcasts).
So who are the arms and who is my favorite?
All ADP data is taken from NFBC drafts from January 1st through January 22nd, which is 67 drafts.
Tarik Skubal - Tigers (ADP: 49, SP12)
Despite pitching just 80.1 innings in 2023, Skubal is now going as a top-50 pick because he was downright dominant in those 80 innings, posting a 2.80 ERA (2.77 SIERA), 32.9% strikeout rate, 28.4% K-BB%, and 14.9% swinging strike rate (SwStr%). All of that is tremendous, and a clear improvement from what we saw in 2022, so should we feel confident taking Skubal inside the top 50?
Well, for starters, we love to see that his four-seam velocity increased from 94.1 mph in 2022 to 95.8 mph in 2023. That's important because the pitch doesn't come with really strong extension or Induced Vertical Break (IVB) or Vertical Approach Angle (VAA), so he needs to velocity. With the added velo, he racked up a 14.6% SwStr% on the four-seam, a 2.40 Defense Independent ERA (dERA), and a 41.3% O-Swing, which was 99th percentile.
Skubal was also able to hold much of the velocity gain throughout the season; however, he did dip from 95.9 mph to 95.5 mph in the final month of the year. Considering he only threw 80 innings, there is some concern that, over a full season, his fastball velocity may dip closer to 95 mph, which would still be an improvement from 2022, but would cause some concern about whether or not it can it help to maintain the huge strikeout gains that he posted in 2023.
The reality is that nothing about the metrics and shape of the pitch suggests it should have missed as many bats as it did. That leads me to a potentially major question that Nick brought up when we spoke on the podcast.
Skubal made just 15 starts last season and his final eight opponents were: @CLE, CHC, NYY, @CWS, CWS, @LAA, @OAK, and KCR. That means over half of his total starts on the season were against some of the worst offenses in baseball. In those eight starts he registered a 1.88 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 37% strikeout rate, and 4% walk rate. So how much of his success was due to his changes and how much was due to his schedule? That's the question each drafter needs to ask him/herself if you're preparing to take Skubal as your SP1 inside the top 50.
For my purpose, I believe in the changes to an extent. I think some of the fastball gains will hold, but the strikeout rate will come down. I also believe that Skubal has always had a really good change-up, which is important for a lefty pitcher. In 2023, the pitch had a 29% SwStr% and 40% CSW, and, more important, he threw it 24% in 2023 after throwing it just 15% in 2022.
However, Skubal's slider is just fine. It was 1.7 mph softer in 2023 and with less drop, and while that led to less hard contact allowed, it also missed fewer bats and had a 4.16 dERA compared to a 2.84 dERA in 2022. He throws the pitch in the zone a lot and it has just a 17.9% putaway rate to righties, which means it's a below average swing-and-miss pitch to vast majority of the batters he'll face. That means he really needs to hold these fastball gains or the only real strikeout pitch he'll have for righties is a change-up and that worries me. If the four-seam loses velocity or doesn't continue to out-produce what the extension/approach angle/shape say it should, Skubal could see real strikeout regression.
I'm certainly not out on Skubal, but I can't take him in the top 50 and I'm not entirely comfortable taking him ahead of both of these other pitchers.
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Aaron Nola - Phillies (ADP: 50, SP13)
It's interesting to pair the potentially exciting breakout of Tarik Skubal with the seemingly boring retread of Aaron Nola. Despite having an impressive 3.72 career ERA and 1.13 career WHIP, Nola has seemingly fallen into this pattern of inconsistency over the last few years. In 2023, he had a frustratingly poor season with a 4.46 ERA (3.75 SIERA), 25.5% strikeout rate, 19.8% K-BB%, and 11.8% SwStr%.
After hovering around a 30% strikeout rate every year since 2020, that's a major dip. Plus, he allowed the highest barrel rate of his career and registered his lowest SwStr% since 2019. So is this the beginning of a decline for Nola?
I just can't be sure of that. For starters, he's only 30-years-old, has shown no meaningful decline in his velocity, and has been no more injury prone. There are no age or health red flags, so it must be with his pitch mix right?
Well, a big issue is his four-seam. The pitch allowed a 41.2% Ideal Contact Rate (ICR) in 2023 after posting a 36.4% rate in 2022. He's throwing the pitch up in the zone more, which are is a good thing, but it's missing fewer bats and getting hit harder. Perhaps the main issue is that he has just a 15.6% inside location to righties, according to Pitcher List, which is in the 9th-percentile, while throwing the four-seam to his glove side 58% of the time. That means Nola loves to keep the four-seam away from righties rather than burying it in on their hands, and that's an issue because when hitters can get their arms extended, they can do damage. Hence the 1.3 and 1.5 HR/9 rates from the last two seasons.
The good news is that Nola seems to understand this and started using his sinker more as the year when on and using it inside to righties more as well. He threw the pitch inside to righties 40.1% in 2023 as opposed to 16% in 2022. If he can jam hitters inside with that, it should keep them off his four-seam and allow him to keep burying that curveball low and away.
However, here is where we may be getting to another issue. Nola's curveball has lost horizonal movement almost every year but saw a big change in 2023 (image courtesy of Brooks Baseball).
This appears to be a bit of an issue here as Nola's SwStr% on the curve fell to 18.1% in 2023 after being at 21.6% in 2022. Similarly, Nola's putaway rate on the curve to righties was 20.9% in 2023, which was still 76th-percentile but a far cry from the 25% mark in 2022 and 26.8% rate in 2021. So Nola is losing horizontal bite on his curve and has been less effective at getting righties to strikeout on it over each of the last three years.
Considering the movement trend has been happening for so long, it's unclear if Nola has plans to do anything about that, and that's where I get concerned because the pitch is really his only consistent swing-and-miss pitch, especially to righties. Nola has some room to improve with his four-seam/sinker usage, but the curveball is being asked to carry a lot of weight and it's possible that it can't support that weight anymore. For me, I'd be more comfortable with Nola as an elite SP2 in fantasy.
Freddy Peralta - Brewers (ADP: 56, SP14)
The last pitcher we'll talk about today is Freddy Peralta, who perhaps has the highest upside of the arms in this group but also has thrown over 150 innings just once in his career. Now, I want to start off by also pointing out how misleading that stat is. People will constantly talk about his lack of innings or how oft-injured he is, but it's important to remember that Peralta was not a full-time starting pitcher until 2021. So he's had three seasons as a full-time starter and has thrown 144.1, 78, and 165.2 innings. That averages out to 129.1 innings per season as the Brewers usually pull him after six innings.
Now, injuries certainly play a part in his evaluation process and will continue to because of his cross-body mechanics. However, we need to keep in perspective that we're dealing with three seasons and two of them were mostly healthy or healthy enough for us for fantasy baseball based on where he's going in drafts.
In 2023, Peralta made 30 starts and posted a 3.86 ERA (3.45 SIERA), 1.12 WHIP, 30.9% strikeout rate, 17.8% K-BB%, and 14.4% SwStr%. He also allowed an elite 35.2% ICR, which means he missed a lot of bats and didn't get hit hard. He also was one of the best pitchers in baseball over his final 17 starts, posting a 3.21 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 36% strikeout rate across 95.1 innings from June 18th on.
So, did anything change?
The short answer is: not really. Peralta threw his change-up 6% more in the second half and it posted a 19.2% SwStr% in the second half as opposed to a 7.8% rate in the first half, but it seems like Peralta was simply more effective in the second half, which his underlying metrics suggested would be the case in the first half and was why many people were writing him up as a second half breakout.
Peralta boasts four pitches with at least a 14.5% SwStr% rate or higher. He attacks righties with a four-seam and slider combo and then has a four-seam, change, curve approach to lefties. Since his slider is his best swing-and-miss pitch, his strikeout rates to righties are higher, but his dERA and hard hit metrics are actually better against lefties because he has a more diverse arsenal (image courtesy of Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard).
It also seems that Peralta struggles to elevate his four-seam against righties with just a 47.7% high location, according to Pitcher List, but a 62.3% rate against lefties. While he don't love that he's primarily a two-pitch arm to righties, if he's able to elevate the four-seam more, he could see better overall results against right-handed hitters. Or he could work on using the curve more but keeping it away, since he throws it glove side just 37.8% of the time against righties (24th-percentile) and keeps it middle far too often.
At 27-years-ols, I still think there is room for Peralta to continue improving and, as I mentioned in last week's article, there is risk littered amongst almost every starting pitching being taken after the top four or five since so many of our usually SP1 targets are out for the season with injuries or will miss at least half the year. Given that there is more inherent risk in drafting a starting pitcher this year then we've seen in some time, I'm not going to be excessive in punishing "risky" pitchers while propping up "safe" ones since their safety is relative and not something I can bank on. I'd rather take a pitcher who I know will perform near SP1 level when he's on the mound since my plan is to grab elite hitters early and wait on starting pitching to see which starters happen to fall to round 4-6 range.
For my money, Peralta is the most consistently stud arm amongst these three and each has major questions. Peralta's questions are mainly around innings, but we don't know if Nola can get the whiffs back on his curveball or figure out his four-seam issues. We don't know if Skubal can hold his abnormal four-seam results or if his success was the result of an incredibly easy schedule. While I'd likely get more innings from Nola, and could potentially get better overall results if Skubal continues to perform above the norms for his pitch mix/shape, I'd rather take the quality 130-160 innings I feel good about getting from Peralta then hope I get value from Nola because he pitches worse than Peralta but stays healthy for 190 innings.
1) Freddy Peralta - SP12
2) Aaron Nola - SP13
3) Tarik Skubal - SP14 (I go back and forth on him and Nola)