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State of the Position: Starting Pitchers in 2020

Heath examines starters with a fantasy baseball slant.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Similar to last week’s state of the outfield, there are so many choices to be had among starters. Yours truly is going to attempt to take a macro-level view of things, and then bring the conversation back down to earth.

Where have all the hosses gone?

The prevailing idea in the fantasy baseball world is that innings don’t really matter anymore—not with the advent of loaded bullpens and workload management. On an instinctive level, this feels true. There don’t seem to be many workhorses left. To be safe, though, I went back a few years just to see. Here are the number of guys who threw 200+ innings in each of the last few years:

2012: 31
2013: 36
2014: 34
2015: 28
2016: 15
2017: 15
2018: 13
2019: 15

I was just going to go back five years, but doing so meant I started with the 28 dudes from 2015. I wanted to see if that was an outlier or part of a downward trend. And the results are in, and it appears to be a trend. For example, from 2012-2015, an average of 32 men hurled 200 or more innings. From 2016-2019, that number plummets to just 14 on average. So less than half as many guys are reaching 200 innings in the latest four-year stretch as there were in the previous four years.

Which begs the question....how many guys are projected to hurl 200+ innings in 2020? Let’s consult your friendly neighborhood ATC projections, brought to you by Ariel Cohen—aka last year’s most accurate fantasy baseball ranker per FantasyPros.

Cohen’s projection system has a disturbingly low THREE pitchers projected for the 200-inning threshold. Names you may know, in Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, and Justin Verlander (i.e. the top three pitching options in my book). I’m honestly not savvy with projection systems on the whole, as far as what goes into projecting volume. So let’s check two other prominent systems and compare...

Steamer projects eight men to achieve said feat in 2020, adding Max Scherzer, Shane Bieber, Stephen Strasburg, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Minor to the previously named trio. THE BAT has nine men projected for said feat, adding Eduardo Rodriguez and Aaron Nola into the mix.

Quality over quantity?

No matter what goes into those projection systems (which are a little low compared to recent history) I think we should all get the point. We can’t expect many arms to reach this milestone. Hence, you can consider a guy like Tyler Glasnow around pick 70 overall, even though his career-high for innings in the majors is 111 23 innings back in 2018. Glasnow did fling a combined 155 innings as recently as 2017, too. The aforementioned projection systems have Glasnow landing anywhere between 147-166 innings this year, which sounds great when you consider last year’s sparkling 1.78 ERA (2.26 FIP) and monstrous 33.0% strikeout rate. For reference, THE BAT has Glasnow reaching 199 strikeouts over 166 innings, which is just nutso to me. Probably he won’t have a sub-2.00 ERA, but sub-3.00 looks like a given—with a copious amounts of strikeouts. I’ll take that, and I did take that in League 8 of The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational, with Glasnow as the first man on my pitching staff at pick 70 overall.

So in a nutshell, you can consider the studs early on in your drafts this year. And you’ll need to do so, as pitching gets pushed up more and more. That trend has worsened given the rash of injuries to the pitcher ranks, too. Mike Clevinger, Blake Snell, Luis Severino, James Paxton, Miles Mikolas, and Griffin Canning are just a few of the names that come to mind. Obviously there are varying degrees of injuries in that grouping, but I’m just making the point. What was already a highly valued commodity that was being pushed up now has less supply.

All that said, it’s not just the 200-inning studs who merit serious consideration, especially not when there are so few of them. So let’s follow the typical State of the Position format, as I give you a few names I’ve landed on frequently in my own drafts. And maybe some that I’ve not landed, but wish I had.

Washington Nationals v Houston Astros Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Elites: Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler

Yep, that’s how I rank them. Though I’ll confess to wigging out over Scherzer given last year’s end-of-year ailments. Namely, the back strains and whatnot. Yikes. Still, it’s tough to ding him much right now given the clean bill of health and the history of being a total workhorse. Even if Scherzer “only” throws 170 innings in 2020, they’ll be of elite quality and the quantity would still probably place him inside the top 50 starters volume-wise if 2019 is any indication.

And for reference, the last time Scherzer threw fewer than 170 innings was in his rookie season, all the way back in 2008. If you subscribe to the idea that staying healthy is a bit of a skill, then join me in not forgetting about Scherzer this year. Buehler is clearly a man on the upswing of his career—and on a phenomenal Dodgers team—but in my book he’s got a little bit more to prove before I slot him ahead of a hoss like “Mad Max.” But the truth is you just plain can’t go wrong in this grouping. Drafting any of these guys as your top arm at their respective ADPs is very advisable.

MLB: FEB 19 Philadelphia Phillies Photo Day Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One to Target: Zack Wheeler

Wheeler is fresh off the huge payday, joining Aaron Nola for a formidable enough 1-2 punch in Philly. The Phillies could have targeted two lesser arms to bolster that staff, but it would seem that they already like their ability to round out the remaining spots in the rotation this year (Spencer Howard, anyone?). Anyway, in Wheeler I see a safe enough floor. Still just 29 years old, he has managed 182 13 and 195 13 innings in his last two seasons. So we’ve got the potential for a top 10 or so finish volume-wise (if recent history and current projection systems can be believed). Wheeler set a career-best with a 6.0% walk rate in 2019, the culmination of a general downward trend in walk rate over the course of his career. In Wheeler I also see some upside, in the form of getting away from the Mets organization, for starters. I also see a guy who has beefed up his chase rate in the last two seasons (33.5% and 34.1%). Wheeler’s also consistently improving his ability to get first pitch strikes. Just peep this F-Strike% over the course of his career: 52.0%, 54.4%, 60.9%, 62.1%, and 65.8%. For reference, last year’s 65.8% mark was eighth in the MLB among starters, behind Scherzer, MadBum, Tanaka, Porcello, Kershaw, Greinke, and Hendricks. Wheeler’s average exit velocity allowed in each of the last two seasons also ranks inside the top 10% of the MLB. I love his mix of floor and upside.

San Diego Padres v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

One to Avoid: Chris Paddack

Count me out on Paddack. I’ll do my best not to cite innings concerns given the opening sentiment. But if I were going to cite innings concerns, I probably would. What’s his realistic ceiling? 170 innings, tops? That feels like a best case scenario after Paddack hurled a career-high 140 23 last year. Meanwhile, his FIP (3.95), xFIP (4.05), and SIERA (3.83) paint a bit of a different picture than last year’s 3.33 ERA. Paddack also allowed a .202 BAA on a startlingly low .237 BABIP. His 76.9% left on base rate was also much higher than the 72.3% MLB average. Paddack would’ve ranked 20th in baseball last year, had he qualified. Lastly, he relies heavily on two pitches, his four-seamer (61.1% usage) and his changeup (28.5%). Calling his curveball (10.4% usage) a third pitch is generous, though. While the heater and changeup have greater than a 25% K-rate each, the curve plummets to only 17.8%. The heater (.205 BAA) and change (.190 BAA) also far surpass the curve in batting average (.267 BAA). Look, I’m not saying Paddack is a bad pitcher. But right now he’s a two-pitch guy who I expect to regress some...and his ADP of 57 is really steep. I’d rather go up a bit and snag Giolito if I needed an ace-level pitcher. Or if I was in the market for a No. 2 starter around Paddack’s juncture, I’d lean towards Aaron Nola instead.

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Sleeper: Matthew Boyd

I snagged Boyd in Round 11 of The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational at pick 160. He’s my fourth starter, and I’m pretty happy with it. His current NFBC ADP is around 166, so I didn’t have to buck ADP to grab him. Perhaps it’s a symptom of a good player being on a bad team, but we need to start getting over that stigma. Boyd is 29 years old and absolutely has top 40 upside in the starting pitcher rankings, if not much higher. Just check Boyd’s HR/FB rate over the last four years, and see which one doesn’t fit: 12.9%, 10.6%, 11.2%, and 18.2%. Add in last year’s bouncy ball, and I’m in on Boyd. He’s been just fine with regard to homers prior to last season, he’s already touching 95 mph this spring, and last year’s nasty 30.2% strikeout rate plays really, really well. Only 10 qualified starters had a strikeout rate over 30% in 2019. Of those 10, four are first round picks (Cole, deGrom, Verlander, Scherzer). One is a top 30 pick, in Shane Bieber. Giolito (49), Darvish (60), and Morton (61) are all essentially top 60 picks. Robbie Ray (153) and Boyd (166) are the guys with the filth who you can snag much later, which is interesting as both are lefties who rely heavily on their four-seamers and sliders. I’m in on both of these two in 2020, but especially Boyd given that I can snag him a little bit later.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Prospect to Watch: Nate Pearson

Jesus Luzardo still qualifies as a prospect and has an expectant ADP in the 120s, which makes him a fine upside play for your fake teams. But that’s too easy of a call, so I’m rolling with Pearson. There’s already speculation—or pressure, rather—on the Blue Jays to do the right thing by Pearson and let him break camp with the big league club. In other words, do what the Padres did with Paddack last year. Let the guy pitch, since he seems to be ready. Pearson has an 80-grade fastball, as he is packing 100 mph heat in that laser, rocket arm. He has even touched 104 mph once, but regularly sits at 98-101 mph. He’s also toting a 60-grade slider, which is efficient to both handedness of hitter. He’s got the arsenal and the build of a power pitcher, as he stands in at 6-6, 245 pounds. For reference, his changeup (89 mph) is faster than plenty of fastballs...

Pearson’ ADP of 440 isn’t prohibitive, and I can’t honestly tell you what to expect from him in 2020. There are plenty of others with a better pathway to playing time and impact. But the guy I’m watching is Pearson. I want to see the power arm in the bigs. There’s also a lot of age at the back end of that Toronto bullpen, so I don’t think it’s crazy to think that Pearson works is way into a high leverage role at some point in 2020. For you deep (or dynasty) leaguers, I think that’s relevant.

That’s it for yours truly this morning. Back to TGFBI-ing and RazzSlam-ing. It’s a great day to have a bit of time off. So, ask me anything this morning! Have a great day mining for some starting pitching, and be sure to roll back around later today for Mark’s bold predicitions!