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 decisions in our drafts that we feel most comfortable with.
You can find my look at third-round starters here, and my take on the fringe top-10 starters here, but 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, and 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 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 8th through January 29th, which is 67 drafts.
Framber Valdez - Astros (ADP: 58, SP15)
I actually have Framber ranked the lowest of the bunch we're going to discuss today, so this ADP is too high for me.
On the surface, Framber was solid in 2023 with a 3.45 ERA supported by a 3.70 SIERA. He posted a solid 1.13 WHIP, 17.7% K-BB%, 24.8% strikeout rate and 11.6% swinging strike rate (SwStr%). You have no issues with any of those, but the strikeout and SwStr% metrics are just slightly above average, so that doesn't present the typical upside you might see from a fantasy SP1 or high-end SP2. Additionally, Framber had a below average 28.1% CSW and an average 39.1% Ideal Contract Rate (ICR - which is barrels plus solid contact plus hard groundballs divided by batted ball events), so there are some red flags here for me.
Framber is a sinkerball pitcher whose sinker got hit really hard last year, with a 40.6% ICR. That's 36th-percentile in baseball. His change-up also allowed 48th-percentile ICR and his cutter took a big step back in 2023 in terms of hard contact. Last year, Framber threw his cutter almost three mph faster than in 2022, and it saw a noticeable uptick in SwStr%, finishing with a 21.7% mark. However, it also posted a 41.7% ICR after posting a tremendous 27.1% rate in 2022. The cutter was also much worse against righties, with a 46.4% ICR. He throws it mostly low in the zone to righties, and over 50% of the time with two-strikes, so he basically is using it like a slider, but that also means he doesn't throw it much to righties, only using it 9% of the time. So, to the majority of hitters he faces, it's a sparingly used strikeout pitch that also gets hit really hard. Not ideal.
His curve remains a strong pitch, with a 18.7% SwStr% to righties and a 1.69 Defense Independent ERA (dERA). Given that his sinker gives up lots of hard contact to righties, and he doesn't use his cutter much, that puts a lot of pressure on his changeup and curveball to get righties out. As a result he upped his changeup usage against right-handers and it had a fine 14.8% SwStr%. However, the pitch also lands in the middle of the zone 33% of the time, which is way too often and might be why it had a .250 batting average versus righties. So that means Framber really has one pitch that I feel confident in against right-handed hitters, and that makes me uneasy at this cost.
All in all, I think Framber is a solid pitcher with a good curve, but I worry that the rest of his arsenal lacks a consistently plus pitch. He also gives up a lot of hard contact on most of his offerings and while that hasn't come back to bite him so far, and I don't expect him to fully implode, if I'm taking a pitcher this high in drafts, I don't really want it to be a guy who both gives up hard contact AND doesn't really miss a lot of bats. For me, Framber is more of a low-strikeout arm with a 3.50-ish ERA and 1.20 WHIP. That’s a solid pitcher for your fantasy rotation, but that’s a firm SP2 for me, so I can’t take him above a lot of the pitchers he’s going ahead of.
Knock your draft out of the park with the 2024 Rotoworld Baseball Draft Guide, featuring rankings, projections, expert analysis, mock drafts and much more. Click here to buy now and use code BASEBALL24 for 10% off.
I have Fried as my 13th ranked starter, so I see him as a good value at his cost. I think he’s being unfairly punished as being injury prone due to last year when he started the season late after battling a forearm strain and then ended the season dealing with a blister issue. However, those two things are not related. Dr. David Geier, who's an Orthopedic Surgeon, broke down the typical recovery of a forearm strain in pitchers and mentioned that they "almost always heal without surgeries." He mentioned that recovery typically requires rest and physical therapy, which we know Fried did early last season and then most likely did this offseason as well. Dr. Geier mentioned that when pitchers come back on the mound and throw without pain, then they should feel good about having recovered from the injury.
Additionally, a study of MLB and MiLB forearm flexor injuries in 2017 showed that just 19.4% of MLB pitchers who sustain a forearm injury will have subsequent arm injuries, and that was using pitchers who just took the median amount of rest, so included some pitchers who returned to the mound too early, which we know Fried didn't. The study also indicates that the timeline of concern for potential re-injury in really within a year, and Fried will be a year removed from his injury in early May. All of that makes me feel as though Fried has only a modestly increased injury risk, and as I've said many times this year, almost every starting pitcher in this range carries some sort of risk. Fried previously had three straight seasons of at least 165 innings (not including the COVID-shortened 2020 season), so he feels like a safe bet for 160 innings. Given how much uncertainty there is at the top of the starting pitcher ranks I'll take 160 innings of elite production from a starter who has a 3.03 career ERA.
I understand that Fried doesn't pop in Stuff+ metrics, but Eno Sarris has been on record as saying that Stuff+ becomes less influential when a pitcher has a pitch mix of five or more pitches. Well, Fried has plus command of five pitches and used each of them at least 12% of the time. He keeps his four-seamers inside to righties with some cut-action, which is why it has just a 34.1% ICR and why I think the batting average allowed on it will go down in 2024. He uses his sinker armside, and a big-breaking curve to post a crazy-low 22% ICR in 2023. He then rounds out his pitch mix with a solid changeup and slider.
He also posted a 25.7% strikeout rate, which was his highest mark as a full-season arm. While his SwStr% didn't change, I think the increase strikeout rate is tied to a few approach changes. According to Pitcher List metrics, Fried had the highest Low Location rate (LoLoc%) of his career and also kept the ball out of the middle of the strike zone more than he ever has. That helped lead to the lowest zone contact rate he's ever allowed and continued to post incredibly low ICR rates.
Other than refining his approach, Fried also leaned on the change-up more in recent years, which is great because it had a 19.6% swinging strike rate last year since Fried commands it incredibly well and keeps it away from righties at a 99th-percentile rate. None of this is to suggest that Fried is now a major strikeout arm, but I believe he can be a 25% strikeout rate pitcher, which isn’t bad when paired with his elite ratios and strong team context that could lead to a high win total.
I’m more than happy to take 150-160 innings of Fried given the uncertainty at the starting pitcher position, and then I’ll target strikeout upside arms in later rounds to pair with him.
Logan Webb - Giants (ADP: 62, SP17)
Ranking Logan Webb will certainly come down to where you stand in regards to chasing upside or finding comfort in a safer floor. Last year, Webb registered a 3.25 ERA (supported by a 3.16 SIERA) with a 1.07 WHIP, 19.2% K-BB%, and solid 36.2% ICR allowed. He didn't miss a lot of bats, with just a 9% SwStr%; however, since he threw 216 innings, that added up to 194 strikeouts, which was 18th most among starting pitchers. While that total is nice, it certainly relies on him accumulating a ton of innings and given all we've talked about with starting pitching being inherently risky, it's hard to just pencil Webb in for 200 innings and assume you're getting that kind of strikeout production.
Yet, even if we say that Webb will give us 180 innings, we know that those have been elite innings for ratios over the last three years. A big part of that is due to Webb continuing to lean into his change-up more. He threw the pitch 31% of the time in 2022 but upped it to 41% of the time in 2023, which was his most-used pitch. It gives up just a 31% ICR and 1.78 dERA while registering a 14% SwStr%. Perhaps more importantly, the pitch still has success against righties. It gets fewer swings-and-misses than against lefties, but it allows just a 29.8% ICR and induces a 72.3% groundball rate.
Webb also tweaked his slider a bit in 2023, adding more horizontal break and throwing the pitch almost two mph harder than in 2022. Yet, it's unclear if that was a positive development. The pitch allowed a 5.8% barrel rate and 33.3% ICR in 2022 but gave up a 12.8% barrel rate and 46.3% ICR in 2023. Webb also saw the swinging strike rate on the pitch drop 3.4% overall; yet, it earned a better PutAway rate in 2023 perhaps because he was throwing it more often in two-strike counts to righties.
Overall, I don't think Webb's tweaking of his pitch mix has added any strikeout upside, and it also makes me believe that the increased HR/FB rate and slight ERA bump from 2021 and 2022 were earned because of those changes to the slider. Still, Webb pitches in a great home park and walked just 31 hitters in 216 innings, so his control will likely keep his WHIP down. There's certainly some value in locking in secure ratios and a solid bet at lots of innings with an early round pick and then chasing strikeout upside later, but make no mistake, if you do take Webb, you need to be prioritizing strikeouts with the next few starting pitcher picks.
Blake Snell - Padres (ADP: 65, SP18)
Blake Snell's fantasy value is incredibly hard to pin down because we all know he's coming off of a career-best year that he won't replicate, and we also have no idea where he'll pitch. We also know he's thrown over 130 innings just once since 2018, and has never had a BB/9 under 3.19 in a season. Those are all legitimate concerns.
We also know that Snell has been really good for most of his career, with a 3.20 career ERA and 29.7% career strikeout rate. As a result, there are many things to like about Snell. Both his curveball and change-up took big steps forward in 2023 with each improving their SwStr%, allowing fewer barrels, and posting better dERAs. He also threw each pitch more often, which was particularly important with the change-up since it had a 25.2% SwStr% to righties and allowed just a 25.5% ICR. Considering it became his second most-used pitch to righties in 2023, it was also a key reason why he had more success against righties than he has in recent years.
Many people have also noted how well Blake Snell pitched to Gary Sanchez, who became his personal catcher for much of last year. A big part of that, in my opinion, was also change-up usage. Snell had a 1.29 ERA in 100.2 innings pitching to Sanchez, and in those innings Sanchez called fewer fastballs and more change-ups than when Snell threw to any other catcher. That could be comfort with Sanchez or it could be Sanchez's belief in the pitch, but it's worth noting.
However, even with an improved pitch mix, there are some major concerns with Snell. The first is obviously the walk rate. Last year, he posted a career-worst 13.3% walk rate; however, his WHIP was just 1.19 because he didn't allow a lot of hits. Given that his .256 BABIP last year was well below his .288 mark, you have to expect regression to the norm, which will mean the WHIP will jump back into the low-to-mid two's unless he fixes his control issues.
Snell also had a high left on base rate of 86.7%, which would indicate that he got lucky when the batters he allowed to get on base failed to score. For example, if you look at his splits on FanGraphs, you can see that, with no runners on, Snell’s OBP allowed was .305 and his OPS allowed was .617 OPS; yet, with RISP, the OBP dropped to .251 and the OPS was a crazy-low .470. While some pitchers certainly pitch better with runners on base, and Snell may have done so, it's also not sustainable for him to be so much better with runners in scoring position. That will mean more runs next year and higher ratios.
Lastly, there are legitimate concerns about how many innings Snell will throw, and it's not even because of injury. Since Snell has issues with his command, he averages 17.6 pitches per inning, which limited him to 5.6 innings per start in 2023. In fact, he only threw seven innings three times. If you get low innings totals from a pitcher who has an injury history, you can at least replace that pitcher in your lineup with a waiver add or a streamer. If you get low innings totals because your pitcher struggles with command then you can't do anything but take the low totals. All of that, plus the uncertainty about what type of ballpark or team context Snell will find himself in for 2024 have me a bit lower on him than his current draft cost, but still not lower than all the names on this list.
1) Logan Webb - SP12
2) Max Fried - SP13
3) Blake Snell - SP22
4) Framber Valdez - SP25