Fantasy Baseball: Why starting pitchers are the enemies of happiness in 2022

Starting pitchers are just the worst.

If we all agreed to take a year off from drafting this position in fantasy baseball, who would even complain? Not me, certainly. I cannot officially endorse any starting pitcher in 2022.

Simply put, these guys betrayed us last season — well, OK, not Corbin Burnes or Walker Buehler or Brandon Woodruff. And yeah, Zack Wheeler was helpful. But pretty much everyone else let us down. The bust rate on early-round starters was astonishing. Every tier at this position was treacherous.

However, I'm told by the fantasy engineers that it's too late to reconfigure Yahoo public leagues to eliminate pitchers, so we're going to have to deal with them again this season.

On behalf of the company, I apologize. We appreciate our fantasy users and regret any pain or inconvenience that pitchers may cause this season.

MLB made life unusually complicated for pitchers in 2021

We should acknowledge, of course, that Major League Baseball itself created all sorts of problems for pitchers last year when the league decided at mid-season to dramatically limit the use of substances that enable better grip and spin rates. While you might reasonably support the intent of the substance crackdown, the implementation was messy (and sometimes comical). Several high-profile pitchers complained about the disruption and its unintended consequences; Tyler Glasnow made a compelling case that the ban led to changes in his pitching mechanics resulting in a UCL tear.

We can't definitively say Glasnow is wrong.

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Whatever your thoughts on MLB's abrupt enforcement of rules related to sticky stuff, it's clear the crackdown did not affect all pitchers equally. Certain pitchers stumbled initially after the change, then recovered. (We're looking at you, Gerrit Cole.) Other pitchers lost spin without dramatically losing fantasy value. And then there are guys like Yusei Kikuchi, who was a near-ace before the substance crackdown (1.04 WHIP) and unplayable thereafter (1.61).

Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees is one of the top starting pitchers in fantasy baseball
Gerrit Cole was one of the pitchers affected by the substance crackdown and suffered in fantasy baseball. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

As if we needed additional variables to consider with starting pitchers, beyond injuries, age, velocity, batted-ball luck and the thousand other things we traditionally fret about. Without any spring data or game action as of this writing, we can't possibly know how any individual pitcher may have altered their arsenal or approach. The lockout adds yet another layer of uncertainty to a position already known for huge variance.

Again, this spot is absolutely the worst.

The best pitcher in baseball clearly is not ranked appropriately

Another terrible thing about starting pitchers is that the best of them, Jacob deGrom, is maddeningly difficult to rank for fantasy in 2022. His ulnar collateral ligament is either fully operational and entirely un-torn, or it's still damaged, a season-wrecker waiting to happen, and you definitely shouldn't draft him anywhere near his ADP. We've narrowed it down to those two things.

Shrug.

Like a coward, I have deGrom slotted as my SP7, a spot where he will definitely not finish. When healthy, deGrom is a tier-of-his-own pitcher, a one-of-one talent. No one else is doing stuff like this:

If you believe the elbow problems are behind him, then he should be the unrivaled SP1 and you should arguably draft him first overall. But if you feel the most likely scenario is that last year's elbow issues are only the beginning, then deGrom should be buried in the ranks. He's either the SP1 or he's a do-not-draft, but he is not, in all likelihood, the SP7. That ain't happening. But we have to find some way to express both risk and reward in our rankings; occasionally, this leads to nonsense.

It sure would help to have in-game visual evidence of deGrom's full recovery, but — alas — there's no telling when that might happen.

Anyway, deGrom unquestionably has the highest ceiling at a position that is truly the worst.

If you're looking for a workhorse starter ... well, don't

At some point in the recent past, Yahoo actually bumped up the innings maximum in public rotisserie leagues from 1,250 to 1,400, where it stands today. We did this in part because 1,250 used to be outrageously easy to reach. Also, the low innings cap meant that prime Johan Santana and Randy Johnson were borderline unfair.

But, um ... perhaps it's time to revisit the old innings max. One of the defining characteristics of present-day pitchers is that they don't do very much pitching. (This is an observation, by the way, not a complaint. I'm not sure anyone ever should have been tossing 260 or 300 innings. If a guy is throwing triple-digit fastballs and mid-90s sliders, 175 frames for sure seems heroic.) Last year, only four major league pitchers reached 200 innings and nobody threw more than Wheeler's 213.1.

Ten years prior in 2011, 39 players threw at least 200 innings and 10 guys tossed more than 230.

The further back we go in time, of course, the more the innings were piled on the arms of top starters. Fifty years ago, nine different guys topped 285 innings and four threw 300-plus. In fact, if you'd somehow been playing fantasy baseball in 1971, you could have reached 1,250 innings with as few as four pitchers. Mickey Lolich struck out 308 batters in 376.0 innings that year. It was, to say the least, a radically different time.

It's hardly reasonable to forecast any individual starter for 200 or more innings in the season ahead. Sandy Alcantara, Jose Berrios and Wheeler are the only pitchers to have topped 190 in both 2019 and 2021. There are no workhorses to be found, folks. They have vanished from the earth. In order to reach 1,400 total innings responsibly, you're going to need to deploy a few elite non-closing relievers; starters alone won't get you where you're trying to go.

Because they are seriously the worst.

So what's the draft plan at this dreadful position?

Drafting a starting pitcher in the first round seems utterly ridiculous in a year in which none of them are as bankable as, say, peak Clayton Kershaw. Who would you even take in the first? Burnes? He pitched 167.0 innings last season, a career-high. Cole? His second-half ERA was 4.14 and he gave up 18 earned runs over his last 19.2 innings, playoffs included. Let's not pretend there's some no-doubt league-winner here.

And the only thing sillier than taking a starter in the first round would be to draft pocket aces, burning your first two selections on a position that hates you. If you go that route, you're passing on the game's most reliable high-end hitters — the four- and five-category stars who serve as anchors for the best fantasy rosters.

[Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP]

But if you're the sort of zig-when-they-zag fantasy contrarian who can't resist a low-probability draft strategy when you see one — and are thus determined to snag an early-round starter — then you should probably just target deGrom. When he's right, he's the filthiest, hardest-throwing ace in the player pool. (Honestly, if we were ranking strictly for roto formats, deGrom would probably be my SP1. Even if he only gives us 90-100 innings, the quality of his contributions will be obscene.)

You won't catch me drafting more than two starters in the first 8-10 rounds in any league this year, not after the pitching horrors of 2021. These guys are all outside the circle of trust. Just give me one of the less expensive semi-aces in the third — someone like Lucas Giolito or a bounce-back candidate like Aaron Nola — and let me build a rock-solid hitting foundation with my early picks. I can probably talk myself into taking an old-dude draft discount on someone like Charlie Morton beyond the seventh (but please don't consider that an on-the-record endorsement).

Beyond that point, I'll draft at least one enigma (Nick Pivetta? Jesus Luzardo?), one prospect (Roansy Contreras? Hunter Greene?) and a small collection of talented underachievers who I won't mind cutting when they struggle mightily.

Remember: Your fantasy team's starting pitchers are actively trying to hurt you at all times, even the good ones. They are irrefutably the worst. Minimize the pain they can inflict by showing restraint near the top of your draft.