With fantasy baseball drafts heating up, I started a new article series two weeks ago where I look at 3-4 starting pitchers who are going in the same ADP range and break down 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 decisions in our drafts that we feel most comfortable with.
You can find my look at third-round starters here, my take on the tail-end top-10 starters here, and my analysis of pitchers bring drafted as fringe SP1s here. Today we're going to look at four starters who are going near the end of the fourth round or top of the fifth round of 15-team drafts. These are all guys who make up the top tier of SP2s based on ADP, but two of them are pitchers who I think could easily finish the season as SP1s in most formats.
So who are the arms and who is my favorite?
All ADP data is taken from NFBC drafts from January 30th through February 6th, which is 14 drafts.
Grayson Rodriguez - Orioles (ADP: 64, SP18)
There's been some movement since my last article, when Blake Snell was going off the board at pick 65 as the 18th starting pitcher. Snell has now fallen behind Rodriguez, Gilbert and Senga and is going pick 73 as SP21, which is basically right where I have him ranked; however, I do have him ahead of some pitchers who are listed here. But I digress; let's talk about Rodriguez.
He's seen a jump of more than 10 spots in ADP over the last few weeks, and I'm not sure if it's just because people are talking about how good Baltimore will be now that they have Corbin Burnes or if more people are just recognizing how good he was in the second half of last season. Once the top pitching prospect in all of baseball, Rodriguez struggled to start the year and then was sent to the minors. When he came back up on July 17th, he seemed like a different pitcher.
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A big part of that is due to a velocity bump across all his pitches. While some of that is likely just warming up as the season goes on, I think it’s also a young pitcher having the confidence to throw his arsenal and not aim it. We can only speculate on the psychology of players when we don't talk to them, but it is common for pitchers to get promoted to the big leagues and try to be more "fine" with their pitches because they know how much more dangerous MLB hitters are. When you look at Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard graphic below, you can see a noticeable velocity bump on all of Rodriguez's pitches. That coming mid-season tells me that he was just "letting it rip" a bit more than he was earlier in the year.
The harder version of his change-up took off some vertical movement, but the arm-side run was still there, and the pitch continued to miss bats while limiting hard contact, with just a 1.4% barrel rate allowed in the second half, compared to a 7.1% barrel rate in the first half. He still throws the pitch up in the zone a bit more than I'd like, but he keeps it away from both righties and lefties, which limits the damage.
The biggest bump in performance was with the slider, which was 2.2 mph harder in the second half. The added velocity also increased the vertical break on the pitch and led to a 6.5% jump in swinging strike rate (SwStr%). That's huge for me because his only swing-and-miss pitch to righties had been a change-up, and I just can't get excited about a righty primarily using a change-up to get swings and misses against righties. Now the slider has a 16.5% SwStr% against righties and that gives him a safer floor to me with more strikeout upside.
There were also some big changes with his fastballs as he essentially stopped throwing a mediocre cutter and also stopped throwing his four-seam exclusively at the top of the zone. That took off some precious Induced Vertical Break (iVB) and SwStr% but made the pitch more valuable overall since it was used to attack hitters all over the zone, helped him get ahead in the count, and also gave up less hard contact.
All of those changes led to a 2.58 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 24% strikeout rate across 76.2 inning in his final 13 starts. Considering none of those changes feels flukey or unsustainable, it’s pretty clear how good this version of Rodriguez can be. I still think there is room to improve against lefties since he doesn't use the slider against them at all, but that only makes me dream more on Rodriguez's potential upside. What if Corbin Burnes helps him with his cutter?
Logan Gilbert - Mariners (ADP: 67, SP19)
I thought I was a fan of Logan Gilbert this season and then I saw his ADP, which has climbed significantly higher than I expected. Maybe we need to call it the Eno Sarris bump. Now, when Eno is in on a pitcher, you should take notice because he's a smart dude, but I still have my reservations about Gilbert going this early. To this point in his career, we have yet to see him have a good four-seam and solid breaking balls at the same time.
His four-seam has actually gotten worse in each of the last three seasons as he's focused on developing his secondaries. Each year he's lost iVB, allowed more hard contact, and seen his peripherals get worse. In 2023, he had his lowest swinging strike rate on the pitch with just a 9.3% mark. Gilbert's four-seam has above average velocity and extension and iVB, so why does it not perform as well? A lot of it could be location. If you look at the heat maps below, courtesy of Pitcher List, you can see that Gilbert elevates the four-seam way more against lefties than righties.
That's a common occurrence for some pitchers who don't feel comfortable elevating to same-side hitters for fear of hitting them or having the pitch yanked for a home run if it catches too much of the plate. That's probably why it seems like Gilbert throws the fastball up and away to lefties. All of which is an approach that limits the whiff rate on his four-seam. But since the four-seam allowed an 11.8% barrel rate in 2023 and had a 5.05 Defense Independent ERA (dERA) and 4.47 pFIP (which is Alex Chamberlain's predictive ERA metric), I'd say a tweak in that approach is necessary.
That being said, his slider in 2023 was the best he's ever had. What was once an 83.4 mph slider with 6.5 inches of horizontal movement has become a true gyro slider at 88.7 mph with just 0.8 inches of horizontal break. It resulted in an excellent 17.5% SwStr% in 2023 and had the lowest barrel rate allowed of his MLB career. Sadly, there wasn't anything consistent to go along with it. Gilbert introduced a splitter in 2023 and while it posted impressive whiff rates all season long, the command of the pitch wavered in the second half and it became a pretty poor offering that gave up some hard contact and he couldn't locate for strikes.
All of which is to say, we've seen Gilbert flash a plus four-seam, slider, and splitter and a fine show-me curveball. However, he's never had all of those at the same time. Could he? Sure, and maybe this is the year he will. However, sometimes when pitchers spend so much time worrying about the grip, spin, and extension on one pitch, it causes them to lose some feel for another, so it's also entirely possible that Gilbert won't be able to harness everything at the same time. He maintains a solid floor as a good command pitcher who has never had bad ratios, but he just isn't a lock to hit the ceiling that people envision for him.
Kodai Senga - Mets (ADP: 68, SP20)
Wow, so we're really carrying over second half splits here, huh? Senga was solid in the first half of the season, posting a 3.31 ERA and a 29.5% strikeout rate in 89.2 innings, but he also walked 4.72 hitters per nine innings (12.3% walk rate), which led to a 1.28 WHIP. You simply can't roster that kind of WHIP with a pitcher you hope to be an ace, or even your SP2, and especially not a pitcher who is likely going to give you a high innings total because you'll feel that WHIP even more.
In the second half of the year, Senga rebounded with a 2.58 ERA, 28.6% strikeout rate, and 1.15 WHIP; although, he did still have a 9.6% walk rate. So the question at this value is really centered on how much of his improved command do you believe in?
It's certainly reasonable to say that Senga was adapting to a new league, a new baseball, and a new home country and then it took a while for him to adjust. However, he also walked three batters in five innings in his final start of the year and four batters in six innings in a September start against the Twins, so it's not as if his command issues were simply fixed.
In truth, the command likely never will be consistent for Senga because his primary offering is that ghost fork which is so deadly, but also misses the zone so often. That's kind of how splitters work. They're designed to drop out of the zone and gets swings-and-misses, but it's also why a pitcher like Kevin Gausman consistently runs a high WHIP because they're harder to control.
The other concern for Senga is that his four-seam gets hit really hard and there were too many outings where his command of that pitch seemed to leave him too. The good news is that Senga started to use his cutter more as the season went on, and the pitch proved to be really good at limiting hard contact, particularly to lefties. Righties didn't consistently hit it hard, but he allowed a much higher barrel rate on the cutter to right-handed hitters, which is why he gets more whiffs against righties, but has worse ratios.
Beyond that cutter, he really doesn't have much as the slider and curve have yet to show anything. So Senga has an elite ghost fork, a solid cutter, and a fairly average fastball that gives up hard contact and doesn't miss many bats. That's an arsenal that will be successful when the ghost fork is working, but could be tough to stomach if his command of that pitch wavers at all. I think you'll see hot stretches and rough patches, and I don't see Senga finishing with a sub 1.20 WHIP, which makes it hard for me to take him this high.
Bobby Miller - Dodgers (ADP: 74, SP22)
With Miller, the conversation begins with his incredible raw stuff. Among all starting pitchers who threw a minimum of 100 innings last year, Miller ranks seventh overall in Stuff+ (the leaderboard can be found on FanGraphs).
Now, the presence of Graham Ashcraft so high on this list is a great reminder that Stuff+ needs to be taken as part of a larger context. Ashcraft has great Stuff+ because his two pitches are quite good; however, he only has two pitches and they both move in the same direction - away from righties - so right-handed hitters hit him really hard. Same goes for Hunter Greene, who also basically has just two pitches; yet, the other names on this list are pretty special.
Another thing to take from this chart is that, since 100 is the demarcation line for Stuff+ that separates an average pitch from a good pitch, Bobby Miller has five pitches that rank above average for Stuff+. Yes, all five of his pitches are above average and the four-seam and slider are particularly elite. If you want to use a different metric, Pitcher's Lists's PLV has Miller with four above-average pitches, but it dislikes his change-up. This is not a Graham Ashcraft situation.
Miller also marshals that entire arsenal, as he doesn't use any pitch over 30% of the time. That gives him an incredibly deep arsenal of pitches to work with so he can attack hitters based on scouting reports and also based on what pitch he has the best feel for on a given day. The four-seam comes in at 99.1 mph but also has above average extension, iVB and Vertical Approach Angle (VAA). He really turned to it a lot more in the second half of the year, moving away from the sinker as his primary fastball. That's part of the season he saw a bump in SwStr% in the second half of the year, and I think the four-seam could miss even more bats if he threw it upstairs more often, but the Dodgers don't love doing that.
The sinker itself doesn't get tons of arm-side run, but it also has elite iVB and VAA and he is more comfortable throwing that inside to righties than his four-seam. He also uses the sinker up in the zone to lefties, so it misses more bats there. Considering his change-up is also far more effective to lefties, with a 15.4% SwStr% and just 2.4% barrel rate allowed (compared to 11.1% barrels to righties), Miller has an arsenal that plays against both righties and lefties, which you love to see from a pitcher this young.
Lastly, I think there is room for growth in his slider. Both Stuff+ and PLV love the pitch, but the performance hasn’t been there yet. It certainly hasn't been bad, but it just hasn't been consistent; yet, it’s clear he’s tinkering with the pitch. He introduced a sweeper in July and August and then faded it out in September, but his regular slider also dropped over 1.5 mph and added slightly more break as the year went on. All of which makes it apparent that he’s working on finding the right mix with that pitch which would allow him to take a huge jump in SwStr% on it.
I believe some of that could be improved by his location. If you look at the heat maps below (courtesy of Pitcher List), you can see that Miller throws the pitch exclusively off the plate away from righties, which is good; however, I think he could catch more of the corner. Right now everything is off the plate, which means that hitters can also see the pitch start away and know that it will land out of the zone.
I'd also love to see him keep the pitch lower, as there's too much red in the middle and top of the zone against both righties and lefties. Still, the pitch has been good so far and has the potential to be even better. With such a deep arsenal, and MLB success behind him, I love the idea of backing Miller to take another step forward in his development.
1) Bobby Miller - SP14
2) Grayson Rodriguez - SP15
3) Logan Gilbert - SP23
4) Kodai Senga - SP26