2019 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Preview: Openers for Mediocrity

by Joe Buttgereit
2019 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitching Preview

Like outfielders, the starting pitcher position is very deep, yet, it produces so many questions on draft day. Before I get into the preview, it’s essential to know your league’s rules prior to making decision on pitching. Is it points or roto? Does it use quality starts or wins? These details can make a bigger difference than you may think.

Last season was a very underwhelming season for starting pitching. We also saw the introduction of the “opener”. It’ll be interesting to see whether that becomes more prominent in years to come making an impact on fantasy baseball; but for now, we won’t worry about that. I’m interested to see if the offensive boom we’ve been seeing of late is here to stay. Also, the prominence of high-leverage relievers being used in earlier innings is making it that much more difficult to make wise selections on draft day.

I put a lot of stake in innings eaters to start my rotation. Then, fill out the backend/bench with high-risk/high-reward types while following the waiver wire throughout the season to snag the guys that get called up and perform well in their debuts. All that aside, there’s one glaring question surrounding this position; and that question is answered first below.

2019 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Preview

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When should you select your first Starting Pitcher?

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This question has many levels to it. Firstly, I am a firm believer in building my team around offense and getting good value pitchers later. This is simply because over the course of a 162-game season, there are plenty of injuries requiring teams to dip into their farm systems for spot-starts and long-term rotation help. This produces an opportunity for highly touted prospects to be acquired via free agency that can make a real impact on your fantasy team.

Secondly, if I’m sitting with the 9th pick and Max Scherzer is available, I’m taking him. I understand that goes against my original philosophy, however, he is that good.

Fantasy-wise, he is that much better than everyone else. On that same note, he’s the only guy I’m using a first round pick for. I believe there is enough value in the lower tiers of starting pitchers that I’d prefer to use my early-round picks on guys that are the best players available in that slot that’ll provide production every day; not once a week.

Was 2018 the new norm, or an anomaly for Blake Snell?

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I’m hesitant to believe Snell will be a perennial Cy Young candidate moving forward. This is mainly because this wasn’t expected. I’m not saying he’s not a good pitcher, because he is. But he was never this good. He had one year in the minors that blew everyone away; 2015 he finished the year with 1.44 ERA in 23 starts (25 appearances).

Excluding that season, his other four full seasons, he had a 3.47 ERA in over 300 innings. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just not a number that blows you away between single-A to triple-AAA.

Another thing he changed in 2018 was his pitch usage. Prior to last season, he threw his changeup and slider at equal rates in the big leagues (12.8% slider, 11.5% changeup). Last year, he threw his changeup much more often, to the tune of 20.2 percent of the time; dropping his curveball usage to 9.1 percent.

Sure, a lot of pitchers do this when they improve on a pitch, but I’d like to see him do it again before I crown him the best in the American League. It’s possible that hitters needed that season to commit to the fact that he was no longer throwing a curveball as often and they’ll be able to adjust, and he’ll become a 3.00+ ERA pitcher again.

Will we see a surplus of minor league pitchers making an impact in 2019?

Last year was the year of the rookie hitters. Guys like Ronald Acuna, Jr., Juan Soto, Miguel Andujar, and Gleyber Torres made a significant impact on teams making a playoff push down the stretch.

I believe this year, we’ll see a similar impact from pitching call-ups. The obvious names are Forrest Whitley with the Astros and Brent Honeywell with the Rays. There are also some guys that got a taste last season like Mike Soroka with the Braves and Justus Sheffield with the Mariners.

I’m expecting quite a few guys to get their call this season and making a Major League impact. This is partly the reason for my answer to the first question, I believe there will be enough guys available throughout the season that’ll make an impact on your fantasy teams that it’s not necessary to reach for pitchers on draft day.

Players on the Rise

Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

Nola is one of my personal favorite pitchers to watch. He doesn’t have a devastating pitch to the extent of Scherzer’s fastball, Sale’s slider, or Kershaw’s curveball; but he knows how to pitch. He has been slowly improving each season since he’s entered the big leagues.

The biggest thing he changed in 2018 was roughly a four percent decrease in fastball usage and translated that into a four percent increase in his changeup. While this seems insignificant, it does make a big difference to the batter. The slight change in speed keeps the hitter unbalanced and questioning his pitch recognition.

This relayed into a drop in hard-hit ball percentage. After averaging nearly 29.0% in his first three seasons, it dropped to 25.1% last season. I believe this has a lot to do mixing up his pitches just a little bit more than he did previously. Due to that, his HR/FB percentage went down from about 13.4% to 10.6% and his strikeout percentage went up from 25.3% to 27.0%. These are certainly numbers that are sustainable and it’s easy to forget he’s only 25 years old.

Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

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Is there a more perfect pitcher for Clayton Kershaw to pass the baton to as he enters the back nine of his career? Enter flame-throwing Walker Buehler who earned the right to start game 163 for the Dodgers in 2018. To add the cherry on top, he hurled a gem; he got into the seventh inning allowing just one hit to earn the Dodgers the NL West title.

A true five-pitch pitcher with an upper-90’s fastball and swing-and-miss slider; it’s exciting to watch. The one improvement he needs to make, and I think he will, is to miss the barrel of the bat more often. He has devastating stuff and has the calm confidence on the mound you want from your ace, however, he produced a hard-hit ball percentage of 35.4, which is higher than you’d like it to be.

Buehler boasted a career 12.4 K/9 in the minor leagues before having it drop to 9.9 in his first big league season. I expect him to improve on this number as he learns to attack Major League hitters and he’ll be competing for Cy Youngs for years to come.

Players on the Decline

Jake Arrieta, Philadelphia Phillies

Arrieta completely resurrected his career when he left Baltimore for Chicago in 2013. He peaked in 2015 when he went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA en route to his only Cy Young award.

His ERA, innings pitched, strikeout total, and record has gotten worse in each season since. He’s had two consecutive years of over 14.0% HR/FB, which is a shockingly high number for someone of his pedigree. Over the course of the last few seasons, as his strikeout percentage has dropped to 19.1% after being at 25.3% over the previous four seasons, his walk rate has remained relatively the same.

The result of this is simple. Hitters are making more contact against him. This doesn’t bode well for a pitcher that doesn’t have an overpowering fastball. The velocity separation isn’t the same as it was 2-3 years ago, and his numbers are reflecting that. We’ve seen it with guys like C.C Sabathia and Felix Hernandez; you lose the zip on your fastball when you were originally a fastball-pitcher, it’s tough to overcome down the stretch of your career.

Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers

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It’s tough to do this to someone as young as Fulmer, but the numbers don’t lie. It appears he peaked as a rookie. Since winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 2016, he has seen declines in each of the seasons since.

The startling stat is his walk rate. It has jumped to 8.2% in 2018, which I believe is due to the realization that his pure stuff isn’t enough to get hitters out and tried to work around the corners and was unsuccessful. The lack of pure stuff has resulted in a spike in hard-hit ball percentage to 39.5%.

Obviously, injuries have cost him innings over the course of the past two seasons, but I truly don’t believe that is the reason for his poor performance. The only for him to get out of this decline is a change of scenery. It certainly doesn’t help that the Tigers don’t have much when it comes to talent around him on the field and it doesn’t look to be trending up anytime soon.

Players on the Horizon

Forrest Whitley, Houston Astros

Whitley’s debut will be the most anticipated pitching debut in 2019, and it’s possible it might not come. I’m willing to say that it will come, at some point.

The Astros’ rotation doesn’t appear to be complete, and even once it is, it’s improbable to have five starters each make 32 starts. At some point, they’ll need a spot-starter or someone to take the place of a guy that hits the DL in the summer.

Enter Forrest Whitley. Lost most of 2018 due to a suspension and some minor injuries, but flashes when he’s on the mound. He’s got over-powering, swing-and-miss stuff that rightfully lands as the top pitching prospect in baseball. A career 13.3 K/9 in the minor leagues which improved as he moved up through the ranks.

It’s only a matter of time before we see it with the big-league Astros, and it’ll be exciting to watch it all unfold.

Brent Honeywell, Tampa Bay Rays

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Honeywell is back, seemingly healthy, and ready to roll. He missed all of 2018 following Tommy John surgery as spring began; however, he has been invited to Spring Training with the Rays to begin this season.

Prior to last season, the numbers were there: a career 2.88 ERA in four minor league seasons, 9.9 K/9 and just a .230 average against. He was the clear top pitching prospect in the Rays organization, and he was en route to making a 2018 debut in the big leagues prior to the injury.

This is going to come down to health. We saw what he was capable firsthand at the 2017 Futures Game where he won the game’s MVP award. He hurled two scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out four before becoming the first pitcher to ever win the award. The Rays have an excellent track record of developing pitchers, and Honeywell may wind up being the crown jewel.

Players to Avoid

Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays

Stroman, while I love his attitude on the mound, has been trending in the wrong direction for a couple years.

While 2017 was a good season when judging by the cover; the underlying numbers suggest otherwise. He finished with a 3.09 ERA while surpassing the 200-inning threshold for the second year in a row. However, he was continuing down a dangerous path that began in 2016, when his strikeout rate began to drop, and walk rate began to rise. Both have been trending the wrong way since.

Last season, while injury-riddled, was telling. His fastball usage dropped to below 50.0% and he began throwing a lot more off-speed and breaking stuff. Stroman more than doubled the usage with both his curveball and cutter. This resulted in his hard-hit ball percentage to jump to 33.2% and pull-hit ball percentage rose to 47.0%.

The rise in these numbers show a trend that hitters are timing up the pitches better and making stronger contact. It’s a dangerous trend to have, especially when you look at the division that Stroman will spend most of his time pitching against. He holds a career ERA of 4.08 against AL East opponents.

As always, follow me on Twitter @joebuttgereit for fantasy sports news and nuggets!

2019 Fantasy Baseball Position Previews
CatcherFirst BaseSecond BaseThird BaseShortstopOutfieldStarting PitcherRelief Pitcher

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019 – Fantasy Baseball Links | FantasyRundown.com February 12, 2019 - 9:01 am

[…] previews the starting pitcher position, helping you decide when to start drafting them, pitchers on the rise and falling, prospects in the […]


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