A wise man once said, “He who says he can and he who says he can’t are usually both right.” That was Confucius, who also once remarked to a bright young pupil on a particularly overcast day in 531 BC that “He who places his livelihood in the hands of starting pitching health is indeed the king of fools among us all.” I can assure you he said both of those things, and I can assure you that I will do my best to heed his insightful words as I reveal the pitchers on my 2023 All-COVID Team.
Like I said, Confucius was a wise man. He would have never dared use ESPN’s rankings to set up his fantasy baseball draft board. No, he would likely make his way to a site like Razzball, where he would study my 2023 All-COVID Team with great satisfaction before stumbling across this post. At this point, he would likely faint out of mere displeasure.
Projecting the top pitchers in fantasy three years from now is an asinine task in nature. Experts such as Grey who are able to nail preseason fantasy pitching rankings year-by-year have achieved quite a feat as is. To venture further into the unknown is, quite frankly, setting oneself up for failure. But, to heed my good friend Confucius’ words, I will be “he who says he can,” and I shall be right.
On a season-by-season basis, I would much rather project and predict pitching over hitting. The game of baseball begins on the mound. When a pitcher holds the baseball on the rubber and stares in, the game, theoretically, is pure and untampered with (*cough*). There is nothing to react to, no split-second decisions to be made – none of the same variables that occur with performance at the plate. There are also numbers, underlying metrics such as pitch value, average exit velocity against, spin rate, the list is endless – that allow us to make it look like bold predictions are being made (such as Tyler Glasnow in 2019, Blake Snell in 2018), when really there is hard data to back up that someone should be ranked higher than where the past bottom line indicates.
When making predictions that go several years into the future, I would prefer to project the hitters. They’re far more likely to still be healthy and operating on a foreseeable aging curve. After a couple years of production, we begin to quantify and understand what a particular player is capable of on an annual basis. This is not the case on the mound. Every year, it gets more difficult to assume a certain arm will not only remain healthy, but come equipped with the same arsenal they possessed a year prior. What I’m talking about are the questions of decreased velocity, arm action, etc.
To summarize, I am indeed the “king of fools among us all,” for I am placing my “livelihood in the hands of starting pitching health.” Last week, I broke down my 2023 All-COVID Team from a positional perspective, pinpointing the top players at each position come the 2023 All-Star Game. It was a vision which was delivered to me quite similarly to the way the angel, Gabriel, appeared to Mary to inform her she was pregnant with Jesus. Now, I tackle the same task for the pitchers. Born through the mindset created in my preceding ramblings, player age and mileage have each been thoroughly taken into account on this list. Many pitchers you might expect to be included, as a result, will instead be located in the “Outside Looking In” section.
Onward we go. As we move forward, I will continue to make colorful predictions about what players have been doing during their lengthy hiatus from baseball as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Below is the starting rotation for the 2023 All-COVID Team, fully equipped with a selection of wild card sleeper prospects. One final note: relief pitching is absent from this team. I mean, I’m not trying to make a moral philosopher roll over in his grave here or anything.
Ace: Walker Buehler
Know what Confucious would be doing during the Coronavirus pandemic? Trick question. He was born in 551 BC so he’d be doing the same old shizz. Hanging around the yard and shooting the shit with his pupils, chatting deeply about life. Even so, he could have tabbed the first pitcher on my 2023 All-COVID Team, a no-brainer right up there alongside his ideal of self-cultivation.
This was one those I-don’t-even-need-to-look-at-the-periphs-picks that you just scratch off the top of your head during a brief walk of the dog. A quick run of my memory banks and simple personal knowledge of the game returns a search of Buehler, Jack Flaherty and Shane Bieber as obvious picks to crack the top five starting pitchers come 2023. But Buehler was the most straightforward of the bunch.
Check the boxes as we go. Age? 25 at present, 28 come the 2023 Midsummer Classic (albeit less than a month from 29). Who is the best pitcher today? If you say Gerrit Cole, guess what? 29 years old. deGrom? Even older. 31. Check. Performance? Ranked 12th on the Razzball Player Rater in 2019 and 41st in 2018, when he threw just 137 1/3 innings during his rookie season in the Majors. Across his two-plus seasons, Buehler owns a 3.12 ERA/1.04 WHIP/129 ERA+/3.10 FIP with 378 strikeouts in 329 innings pitched. That comes with a 10.3 K/9, 1.8 BB/9 and 0.9 HR/9. Please cut into your steak, sir or madam. Looks good? Yes, we know.
But since you’re clearly here looking for in-depth analysis as opposed to the bantering of a common peasant (also the name of my 472-page poetry compilation), let’s dive a little deeper. Buehler’s fastball ranks in the 87th percentile of the MLB in velocity and the 93rd percentile in spin rate, while the curveball is in the top 4% of the league in spin rate. That’s what we’re looking for in the modern pitching climate and the arsenal, which also includes a slider/cutter, sinker and oft-seen changeup, has worked brilliantly for him thus far in his career. In 2019, Buehler produced an xwOBA (against) that finished in the 86th percentile of the MLB. As with most players, every underlying metric you look at won’t fill your eyes with visions of sugar-MadBums dancing in your Headleys, but the vast majority do with Buehler.
In his Top 20 Starters for 2020 Fantasy Baseball, Grey ranked Buehler sixth behind only Cole, Jacob deGrom, Flaherty, Bieber and Max Scherzer. Two of those we will talk about shortly, and the other three will be 32 (Cole), 35 (deGrom) and 38-going-on-39 (Scherzer) come 2023 – which I can assure you is not nearly as cute as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” For the same reason Grey placed Buehler at No. 6, I have optimism for his health over the next three years, and that is the Dodgers’ reluctance to push starters well beyond 200 IP. Health is impossible to project for pitchers, which makes this entire project not only difficult but a likely lose-lose situation for me – but Buehler will be a top five starter come 2023 if healthy, and you know it. Another lose-lose situation: taking your date to the local roller rink for a few hours. What’s the best case scenario there?
No. 2 Starter: Jack Flaherty
Fun fact: Flaherty spent the Coronapocalypse building a gardening empire with staff-mate Adam Wainwright. During the long layover, their massive enterprise grew from 1,500 acres to over 3,000 – more than doubling in size. Another fun fact: barring a miracle, the latter closely resembles Wainwright’s ERA for the upcoming season. Third fun fact: I recently learned that a muffin top is, in fact, NOT a hairstyle.
The same knock will not be laid upon the Cardinals young, budding ace. You already know about Flaherty’s 0.91 ERA in 99 1/3 innings in the second half of last season. You also know that isn’t sustainable over the course of a full season and that it was aided by a .206 BABIP. This was already explained to you by Grey when he ranked Flaherty No. 3 in his Top 20 Starters for 2020 Fantasy Baseball.
Although he’s already broken out big-time (3.01 ERA/1.03 WHIP with 413 strikeouts across 347 1/3 combined innings in 2018 and 2019), Flaherty is entering his third full season in the Majors in 2020 and is only 24 years old. Come the crux of the 2023 season, which is, after all, what we’re debating here, he’ll still be just 27. Let’s run through some of the strong underlying numbers from 2019 that make us even happier: 86.1 MPH avg. exit velocity against (top 9% of MLB), .254 wOBA (top 7%) and a 30.3% hard hit % (top 9%). Flaherty has no problem missing bats consistently, evidenced by a 10.6 career K/9 and a K% that ranked in the top 15% of the MLB in 2019. Batters struggle to square him up and when they do, the contact is relatively weak. Flaherty has never amassed 200 innings in a season, but he reached 196 1/3 frames last year, making 33 starts to follow up 28 starts in 2018.
The arm has proven to be pretty durable and capable of remaining off the injured list. Signs may point to regression from 2019’s second half, but even so, I don’t see anything that tells me Flaherty isn’t capable of top five starting pitcher production come 2023 – besides the uncontrollables, like the emergence of new young starters that strengthen the competition pool. Sure, you’ll have issues getting shares of him in 2020 redraft leagues due to his steep price, but if you’re a big keeper/dynasty leaguer such as myself, he’s a great centerpiece to have in your rotation moving through the next three-to-four seasons.
No. 3 Starter: Chris Paddack
Out of this group, Paddack was not one of those I-don’t-even-need-to-look-at-the-periphs-picks that I penciled into my brain while picking up dog crap. Originally, I had him in the “Outside Looking In” section. After doing my due diligence, I had to include him here, and I will tell you why.
Paddack was a rookie in 2019 and threw 140 2/3 innings in the Majors with a 3.33 ERA/0.98 WHIP/127 ERA+/3.95 FIP and 153 strikeouts. That line also comes with a 9.8 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9. We like the basic numbers, and so does Grey, ranking him as the No. 12 starting pitcher for 2020. So why the boost looking ahead to 2023?
Paddack just turned 24 in January and will therefore be just 27 at the time of the highly-anticipated 2023 Midsummer Classic. Which, by the way, I should definitely be getting some credit for promoting, even though we don’t even know where it will be held. Anywho, excuse me as I allow Grey to do some of my work for me:
“He had the 12th best fastball and 14th best changeup. Expected batting average on those two pitches was under .200. There were only two pitchers with an expected batting average for all their pitches under .200 (Verlander, Cole).”
That is an excerpt from Grey’s profile of Paddack in his 2020 preseason rankings. Paddack already has two deadly offerings in his heater and change – the only question is whether the breaking ball will become a powerful enough of a weapon as he progresses through his career. It’s a fairly average pitch, ranking 43rd in the majors in 2019 – and Paddack isn’t exactly a modern-day poster boy for spin rate like Buehler is, ranking in the bottom 10% of the MLB in that category. Still, his xwOBA, hard hit % and xBA (against) all rank within the top 20% of baseball, and the guy has a proven ability to command the strike zone and rely on his bread and butter when needed.
While not as electric and confident as a pick as the previous two arms, Paddack cracks the No. 3 spot in the rotation for my 2023 All-COVID Team.
No. 4 Starter: Shane Bieber
Bieber almost got bounced from the 2023 All-COVID Team because the level of contact he elicits scares me more than running into Travis Hafner in a dark alley. Anyone remember that guy? Starting DH on my Century All-Scary Team, that’s for sure. Was that a potential idea for my next piece? Depends on how long this quarantine lasts. Still, there’s too much to like about Biebs, and he fits into that range of guys I’m targeting in this post who project to be in their prime years come 2023, with evidence that past performance is sustainable.
He also goes by the names “Not Justin” and “2019 All-Star Game MVP.” Wielding elite command, Bieber pitched to a 30.2 K% and 4.7 BB% in 2019, with the latter ranking among the top 5% in the MLB. That came with strong bottom-line results, as he finished with a 3.28 ERA/1.05 WHIP/144 ERA+/3.32 FIP to go along with 259 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings. He finished fourth in the American League Cy Young voting and likely first in your heart if you drafted him as a value pick in 2019 – his first full campaign in the Majors after a 20-game, 114 2/3 inning stint in 2018.
The bad? The average exit velo off Bieber in 2019 was 90.4 MPH, which ranked in the bottom 4% of the league. Paired with this was a 43.1% hard hit % that also ranked in the bottom 5% of baseball. But, I mean… it’s going to happen, right? If you’re only walking 40 guys in 214 1/3 innings of work over a full season, isn’t a little extra hard contact only natural? I think that’s the case, but you have to at least be aware of the full picture if you’re putting a lot of capital into obtaining Bieber in a keeper or dynasty format.
Nevertheless, Bieber is the No. 4 starter on the 2023 All-COVID Team. Shane actually spent the Coronahiatus practicing a parody rendition of “What Do You Mean?” to sing to Terry Francona if ever asked to issue an intentional walk in regular season action. Free pass, Tito? What do you mean?
No. 5 Starter: Tyler Glasnow
Remember, the Astros are cheaters and lit him up in the ALDS. Yeah, we don’t really have any evidence of misconduct from the ‘Stros during the 2019 postseason. But who knows, really? In other news, has anyone else been getting Houston hitters at crazy good value in drafts because no one else seems to want to be associated with them? Seriously? Those people can keep sitting up there on their high horses, acting like being a crappy person matters in fantasy baseball.
Meanwhile, I will be down below on my regular-sized horse buying on Tyler Glasnow and filling my rosters with shares of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, drafting them three-to-four rounds post-value. All I can say is, hopefully Glasnow will not be known as Tyler’s-arm-is-glass-by-now come the 2023 season. We very well could be saying that. But we can dream, right? That is why I have strategically placed him in the No. 5 starter spot, with several emerging minor league prospects to follow, all capable of filling in his role in the rotation.
Luckily, Glasnow spent the entire Coronahiatus trapped inside the Rays Spring Training facility. Team personnel cited this as a “technological glitch,” but many with insight into team operations opined that it was indeed an orchestrated endeavor to keep the young right-hander free from any harm.
Okay, okay, okay. What matters: .179 xBA (top 2% of MLB), .294 xSLG (top 2%), .222 wOBA (top 1%), xwOBA (top 1%), 33.0 K% (top 9%) 2.29 xERA (top 2%). The first four represent how poorly opposing batters fared against Glasnow in 2019, with the latter two showing just how legitimate his dominance was. Fastball velocity? 95th percentile with above-average spin rate. Curveball spin rate? 95th percentile. I could go on, but all the boxes are checked, except for the health. He threw just 60 2/3 innings in an injury-reduced 2019 campaign – one that saw him register a 1.78 ERA/0.89 WHIP/250 ERA+/2.26 FIP with an 11.3 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9. He didn’t undergo Tommy John surgery, which is concerning, but he’s apparently back to health, and that postseason performance was just a fluke anyway, right? Astros are cheaters, yadda yadda.
It’s guys like Glasnow that make this undertaking a troublesome task. Confucius would not be happy with this decision, but all things considered, I’d rather gamble on Glasnow long-term in a keeper or dynasty league than I would a lot of the other aging veterans you might argue for in this spot.
Wild Card Prospect: Casey Mize
As the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, Mize is not an unfamiliar name. He’s a consensus top-15 prospect in baseball and Grey went over him briefly this past November while profiling Mize and fellow Tigers prospect, Matt Manning.
That said, Mize comes with concerns. He had some shoulder trouble in college that returned in mid-2019, being described as “shoulder discomfort” by the organization. Mize was subsequently shut down by the Tigers in August after he returned from the stint with diminished stuff. Still, the upside is evident, and we’re weighing him against an extensive crop of veteran pitchers who will be in their thirties come 2023. Therefore, I’m calling it a wash. Already my second wash of the day. Healthy AF over here. Let me ump the Arizona games.
Mize came out of college with three pitches that all rated at 60 or higher on the 20-80 scale: 60-fastball, 60-slider and 70-splitter. The heater sits around 93-95 and touches 97, while the slider can also be manipulated into a cutter with harder bite. His splitter is his best pitch, sitting in the mid-80s and having dynamic downward movement. Mize has tremendous command of all of his pitches, which has been backed up by a fairly steady and successful upward trajectory through the Minors. In 2019, he pitched to a 2.55 ERA/0.94 WHIP with 106 strikeouts across 109 innings at High-A and Class-AA.
There’s room for growth in the strikeout department, although The Itch did express some concerns about a lack of velocity variance. What’s more? If everything goes as expected, Mize will debut sometime in 2020, with his first full season occurring in 2021. That means his third full season as a Major League pitcher will be in 2023, otherwise known as the fantasy sweet spot. I like the arm, think it’s ace-caliber and 2023 could bring along Mize’s prime. Don’t be shocked if he pitches his way into becoming a top five fantasy pitcher three years from now. Also don’t be shocked if we’re still waiting on Ozark’s fourth season three years from now. They. Take. Forever.
Wild Card Prospect: MacKenzie Gore
It would be totes adorbs to dive into Manning and Tarik Skubal to pay homage to the entire Tigers trio, but we’re going to spread the wealth a tad here. If you want more on those guys, you can check out The Itch’s Top 2020 Prospects for Detroit’s organization.
This brings us to one of the more intriguing pitching prospects the game has encountered in a long time: San Diego’s Mackenzie Gore, ranked by The Itch as the No. 9 prospect heading into the 2020 fantasy season. Drafted out of high school, Gore was selected third overall by the Padres in 2017. You’ve probably heard this all before. 11-0, 0.19 ERA, 158-to-5 K-to-BB ratio his senior year Whiteville High in North Carolina. Since then, he’s been pretty solid, albeit his 2018 season in Single-A was meh.
Gore came equipped with a 60-fastball, 60-curveball, 60-slider and 60-changeup out of high school with plus-control. That profile has been backed up by a 12.0 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 across 183 innings in the Minor Leagues, including a 2.56 ERA/1.01 WHIP. This arm is tremendous, with potential to debut in 2020 – putting him in his third full season when the 2023 campaign rolls around. Maybe I should have thrown him in that No. 5 spot, but that’s where the strategy comes in here. Love Gore in dynasty formats, and can see him being a key guy to draft or scoop up in even shallower keeper leagues with five-plus slots to play with.
Main concern: with the quarantine restrictions, Gore found it hard to practice his unique delivery indoors. He resorted to his front yard, where he subsequently bumped into fellow North Carolina native Chris Archer, which then resulted in him contracting Chris Archer Syndrome, which makes the inflicted physically incapable of achieving an ERA below 4.00 for anyone’s fantasy team. Luckily, he recovered with the help of team doctors and returned to dominance well in advance of the 2023 season.
Wild Card Prospect: Nate Pearson
Pearson’s stuff is elite: 80-grade fastball that sits at 98-101 MPH in starts, rumored to have touched 104 MPH in Arizona Fall League action. While I’d personally like to inspect that radar gun, I’m impressed either way. Rounding out the arsenal is a 60-slider, 50-curve and 55-changeup. Pearson has a career 2.3 BB/9 in the Minors, so the 55-command grade appears to be fairly accurate.
In 2019, Pearson started in High-A and progressed all the way to AAA, firing 101 2/3 innings of 2.30 ERA/0.89 WHIP ball with 119 strikeouts. The AAA sample size of that was just 18 innings, in which Pearson gave up six earned runs and struck out 15. As the 29th overall pick in 2017, Pearson’s work in 2019 represents the majority of his pro career. In 2018, he pitched just 1 2/3 innings due to a freak injury in which he fractured his forearm on a come-backer.
The Itch previously referred to Pearson as “a bully to the bullies” when mulling through his Top 2020 Prospects in the Blue Jays organization. Indeed, he is capable of churning out the best MLB career of this bunch, and should debut sometime in 2020. Pearson will be another one of those guys embarking on his third full season in the Majors come 2023 (barring injury), a season in which he won’t turn 27 until the month of August. Quick! Name as many things that won’t turn 27 until August 2023 as fast as you can! Go! A Game of Thrones, the novel. The Ramones’ last-ever public performance. 7th Heaven starring Jessica Biel. Internet Explorer 3.0. And I’m out of ideas. Feel free to contribute in the comments section.
Back to Pearson. If you’re in a serious dynasty or even modest keeper league, your league-mates are likely all over him already. If they’re not, I’d scramble to get a share if you’re looking to build for the future, as he is the final wild card prospect to gain mention on my 2023 All-COVID Team.
Outside Looking In: Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Luis Castillo, Blake Snell, Jose Berrios, Forrest Whitley, Zac Gallen, Aaron Nola, Lucas Giolito, Mike Soroka, Matt Manning, Mike Clevinger, Brandon Woodruff, Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, Dinelson Lamet, Tarik Skubal