Yes, there is a legitimate concern that spring training and, subsequently, Opening Day will be delayed due to the unsettled labor negotiation in Major League Baseball. Be that as it may, this starting pitcher preview for the 2022 Fantasy Baseball season will proceed as if everything will turn out at least close to normal.
One thing that could impact the pitching landscape this year is that it seems like a forgone conclusion that the universal DH will be instituted when the dust finally settles on deliberations between the owners and the players association. The advantage, particularly in ERA, that National League starters have regularly held (2020 aside) over those from the American League is widely expected to be neutralized. In 2021, nine of the top-10 qualifying ERAs were recorded by N.L. pitchers. That is just something to keep in mind while preparing for drafts in 2022.
As far as draft preparation goes, the following analysis will largely gear toward redraft formats. If Dynasty Baseball is more your thing, check out Dave Eddy’s analysis on that front.
Who is the top SP for this year? Who is due for a bounce-back? What about former aces set to return from injury? Which hurlers are declining? Which could break out? Finally, who is just better left alone given early ADP trends? All of that and more will be discussed below.
2022 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Preview
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Is Corbin Burnes ready to be SP No. 1?
Burnes currently stands as the consensus No. 2 SP according to ADP. However, it is tight between the defending N.L. Cy Young winner and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. In fact, it would not be shocking if Burnes did track Cole down and claim the top spot as things move forward. His last two seasons combined merit consideration.
Burnes not only led the league with a 2.43 ERA across a career-high 167.0 innings last year (Jacob deGrom did not qualify due to injury limiting him to only 92.0 IP), metrics (2.00 xERA) suggest the mark should have been even better. On top of that, of all pitchers that have thrown at least 200.0 innings since the beginning of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Burnes tops the field with a 2.34 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 12.8 K/9, and 0.36 HR/9.
Now 27-years-old with a full MLB season finally under his belt, Burnes should be in line to significantly increase his workload. That should only enhance the statistical totals, especially in strikeouts and wins. With that, it is more than reasonable to select him as the top SP off the board.
Should we be concerned about elevated ERA for Aaron Nola?
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From 2017-2020, Nola had more than earned his spot among the upper echelon of starting pitchers. He has posted a 3.23 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, and 3.5 K/BB over 106 starts in that span. He actually beat all those marks in 2021 except for ERA which ballooned to 4.63.
Some of that can be explained by Nola living inside the strike zone a bit more, as his career-best 1.9 BB/9 came along with upticks in HR/9, flyball percentage, and launch angle against him. Still, as evidenced by a 3.37 xERA as well as little change in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, Nola had more than his fair share of bad breaks and lackluster defense behind him. There is little to be too concerned about here. Nola can still anchor your staff.
Buy or Sell these guys regaining elite status?
Justin Verlander, Houston Astros – BUY
Verlander tossed 6.0 characteristically strong innings on July 24, 2020. The future Hall-of-Famer has not been seen on a big-league mound since due to Tommy John surgery. He is one to watch when spring training does eventually begin, but the Astros being willing to hand him $25MM for this year and a player option for a second is a reason for optimism. Even entering his age-39 season, he is not one to bet against and his ADP sits outside the top-100 overall at present.
Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox– BUY
Sale finished in the top-5 of A.L. Cy Young voting six consecutive years from 2013-2018. Then, 2019 saw him limited to 147.1 innings while posting a career-worst 4.40 ERA. Tommy John surgery followed in March of 2020, and he did not return to the bump for Boston until August 14, 2021.
Sale impressively proceeded to go 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA and 52-to-12 K/9 across 42.2 innings from that point forward in the regular season. That success has him right back among the top-20 SPs in ADP and a top-10 finish is certainly not out of the question.
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals – SELL
Strasburg has thrown just 26.2 innings since the Nationals claimed the 2019 World Series title. In that time, he has largely sat by and watched his team slide from the top of the MLB down into full rebuild mode. That is not a promising development, as there is likely to be little reason for the team to push his innings.
Unlike Verlander and Sale, it has been one health issue after another with Strasburg for years. Since his MLB debut all the way back in 2010, Strasburg has managed to reach 160 IP just four times. Does he possess elite talent? Yes. Can you rely upon him? No.
Luis Severino, New York Yankees– BUY
Severino will turn just 28 later this month. That is obviously to his advantage. Still, it is reasonable to be very cautious with a guy that has managed to throw just 18.0 big-league innings in three years. Six of those innings came in relief late last September.
It was a small sample, but the results were notable nonetheless, as Severino surrendered no runs on two hits and a walk alongside eight strikeouts. The two-time All-Star utilized a three-pitch mix (fastball, slider, change) and averaged better than 95 mph on his heater.
Noah Syndergaard, Los Angeles Angels– SELL
The Angels bought Syndergaard for $21MM back in November after he pitched just 2.0 total innings over two years. That does not mean fantasy owners should be spending high on him this year. Unlike Verlander’s case with the Astros, Syndergaard really has not warranted an “elite” label in fantasy terms since 2016.
Yes, at 29-years-old, he still has plenty of time to course-correct his career, but even when he was presumably healthy in 2019 (career-high 197.2 IP), Syndergaard gave fantasy investors little to be happy about aside from the 202 strikeouts that came with a 4.28 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Of the 26 pitches Syndergaard threw after returning late last season, 15 were fastballs which averaged 94.7 mph. That is a good three mph dip from his career norm.
Which names to look for in the late rounds?
Steven Matz, St. Louis Cardinals
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For the most part, Matz really enjoyed calling Toronto home and pitching in the A.L. East last year. He went 14-7 with a quite respectable 3.82 ERA (4.09 xERA), 8.6 K/9, and 3.35 K/BB over 150.2 innings. That earned the lefty a four-year/$44MM pact with the Cardinals to work in a much more pitcher-friendly division and with the support of excellent defense. Matz could turn out to be a serious bargain.
Alex Cobb, San Francico Giants
Granted, injury history is a major concern with Cobb, but the investment is so minimal that it really does not matter. San Francisco is the place where average pitchers become good pitchers. Cobb was actually even a little better than average over 18 starts for the Angels in 2021, putting up a 3.76 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and career-best 9.5 K/9 across 93.1 innings. Cobb still induces a ton of groundballs (53.3%) and the homers he was allowing over the previous three seasons with the Orioles (1.7 HR/9) disappeared last year (0.5 HR/9).
Starting Pitchers on the Rise
Logan Gilbert, Seattle Mariners
It appeared that Gilbert might be running out of steam a bit in his rookie campaign late last August, as he struggled through three straight starts to close out the month. However, the first-round pick from 2018 rebounded strongly in September.
With this team red hot and rather surprisingly competing for a spot in the playoffs, Gilbert turned in a 2.70 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 31-to-8 K/BB rate over his final 33.1 innings of the season. Following 24 starts (119.1 IP) in which he posted a 9.7 K/9, 12.4% swinging-strike rate, and 4.57 K/BB overall. the plan is obviously for the 24-year-old to see a substantial uptick in work load this year.
Patrick Sandoval, Los Angeles Angels
After struggling to a 5.33 ERA over his first 76.0 big-league innings between 2019 and 2020, Sandoval did not get another shot at cracking the Angels rotation until May 17 of last year. He would make the most of that opportunity though, rolling to the tune of 3.39 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 9.7 K/9 in 14 starts before a back injury ended his season prematurely in mid-August.
During that 14-outing run, Sandoval also produced an outstanding 15.3% swinging-strike rate and limited opponents to a meager .215 batting average. 93-mph heat, a mid-80s slider, and dominant changeup give Sandoval a great repertoire to rack up whiffs. Yes, the back injury is something to consider, but Sandoval is currently the 67th SP off the board and outside the top-200 overall in ADP.
Starting Pitchers on the Horizon
Joe Ryan, Minnesota Twins
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Ryan was selected in the seventh round of the 2018 draft by the Rays and looked like a star in the making in the Tampa Bay system until the franchise dealt him away to Minnesota for Nelson Cruz last summer. The Twins called Ryan up for five September starts and the 25-year-old righty showed he was ready for the show. In his first 26.2 MLB innings, he fashioned a 4.05 ERA (2.99 xERA) to go along with an excellent 0.79 WHIP and 30-to-5 K/BB rate.
Ryan has earned a spot in the Twins rotation, but his innings could understandably be limited following just 92.2 between the minors and majors in 2021. Still, 120-130 frames could pay big dividends for fantasy owners. Ryan has yet to break the top-200 overall in ADP, but his talent level could have him in top-100 territory in years soon to come.
Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays
Unlike Ryan, the word is fully out on Baz (ADP 123 overall). An amazing 113-to-13 K/BB alongside a 2.06 ERA in 78.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A will gain serious attention. Pretty much matching the numbers in your first three big-league starts and earning a postseason start to boot will rev the speed on the hype train off the dial.
Baz surrendered just three runs on six hits and three walks while punching out 18 over 13.1 innings for the Rays during the final couple weeks of the 2021 regular season. Like Ryan, Baz is likely to see a low-100s innings cap. What he might very well do during those innings is no less worth the price of admission.
Starting Pitcher to Avoid
Hyun-Jin Ryu, Toronto Blue Jays
After a three-year run as one of the game’s most consistently strong performers on the mound, Ryu experienced a virtually across-the-board regression in his age-34 campaign. Do not be fooled by a 14-10 record. The veteran lefty’s ERA (4.37), WHIP (1.22), HR/9 (1.3), and hard-hit rate (41.6%) all escalated significantly.
Additional warning signs for Ryu include a nearly two-point decrease in swinging-strike rate to a mere 9.7% as well as close to a three-tick increase in average exit velocity. Ryu is slotted as a 15th-round selection in 12-team leagues according to current ADP, but viewing him as a late-round flyer is more appropriate.
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