A new week, a new group of players to rank!
Welcome to this week’s edition of 2023 Top Keepers. The focus this time around is on starting pitchers.
As a group, I like starting pitchers more than relievers. At least with starters you don’t get the wild inconsistency that you get from relievers. Yes, a starter can have a bad year or one can come out of nowhere to have a great season. But as a whole, there is a little more projectability with this group.
Sticking with Youth
Unlike my top relievers’ list, where talent is the top factor in determining who the top keepers are, age plays more of a factor in these rankings. When it comes to keepers, I am giving a little more weight to dynasty leagues, and age plays a huge factor in that. If 27-year-old Zac Gallen is comparable to 31-year-old Kevin Gausman, then give me the 27-year-old Gallen.
Injuries also knocked pitchers down a little more than they do in my position rankings. I’m always a little weary of pitchers coming back from injuries. I probably shouldn’t since they always seem to bounce back these days. But nevertheless, I am not one to easily change my ways. So sorry, Jack Flaherty, for being in Tier 5. But perhaps you should stop getting hurt or at least post great numbers when you return from an injury.
A quick note: ages are as of now and obviously the team is who they played for this past season. Teams may change for 2023, ages certainly will.
Anyway, enough of the banter. Let’s get rolling with the Top 2023 Keepers – Starting Pitchers edition.
After making nine starts combined in 2020 and 2021 for the Marlins, Braxton Garrett was given a chance to showcase his talent and I like what he did. Garrett made 17 starts for the Marlins and posted a 3.58 ERA and 9.2 K/9. His biggest area of improvement was his control, going from 5.9 and 5.3 BB/9 in ’20 and ’21 to 2.5 BB/9 this past season. He has room to still improve, but I see him as a solid starter to have on your roster.
If Ryan Pepiot is out there, grab him. Not sure if there will be room in the Dodgers’ rotation for him next year, which is why he is listed in this tier, but eventually he 24-year-old righty will secure a spot. He held opposing hitters to a .194 average against his fastball and a .107 average against his changeup and posted a 10.4 K/9 ratio in his nine appearances (seven starts) for the Dodgers.
Lefties on the Rise
Reid Detmers struggled the first three months of the season but showed what why he was a top prospect for the Angeles in July and August before fading in September. During July and August, Detmers posted a 1.97 ERA and 1.23 WHIP with a 10.8 K/9 rate. The only real blemish, which is something he struggled with much of the season, was a walk rate of 3.5 BB/9. Once he cuts down his walks, he can be a solid No. 2 level starter.
In a dynasty league, Tarik Skubal certainly deserves to be listed where I have him ranked. In a plain keeper league, where it may be harder to stash players long-term, then Skubal is probably over ranked. I have him here because of his dynasty value. Before suffering a flexor tendon injury that could see him miss much of next season, Skubal was having a nice season for the Tigers with a 3.52 ERA and 1.16 WHIP while lowering his BB/9 rate down to 2.4. Opposing batters also hit only .237 against Skubal with a paltry 1.9% home run rate.
I’ve always liked Skubal and I remain high on him going forward.
|47||Lance McCullers Jr.||HOU||29|
You could call this tier the Injured Pitchers tier.
Three Dodgers and three Marlins appear in this tier, and all of them battled injury or had their season end early due to injury. Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, and Lance McCullers Jr. all missed time due to injuries.
Walker Buehler is in the same category as Skubal – his injury will likely see him miss much, if not all, of the 2023 season. If you can stash him, he is an obvious grab. When healthy, he is one of the best pitchers in the game as he has already finished in the top 10 of the Cy Young voting twice.
Back From Injury
Dustin May returned to the mound for the Dodgers in August from Tommy John surgery and immediately showed he can still throw some nasty pitches. His fastball velocity was in the 87th percentile while his fastball spin rate was in the 82nd percentile and curveball spin rate was in the 100th percentile. His 4.2 BB/9 rate was a little alarming and needs to get back to his career numbers for him to move into Tier 3 or higher.
Andrew Heaney suffered a shoulder injury in April and was limited to 14 starts and 16 appearances overall. But when he was on the mound for the Dodgers, he was outstanding. He posted a 3.10 ERA, 1.087 WHIP and a 136 ERA+. Even more impressive was the 13.6 K/9 rate. The Dodgers have a way of turning pitchers around when they join the organization, and Heaney is one of those pitchers. He may not be a long-term keeper, but for one additional year, he is worth keeping.
Arm Injury? What Arm Injury?
McCullers didn’t appear in his first game with the Astros until August, but once back in the rotation, he looked like the pitcher who finished seventh in the Cy Young voting in 2021. In eight starts he had a 2.27 ERA, a 171 ERA+ and a 9.4 K/9 rate. Known for his slider and curve, he held opposing hitters to a .185 average against his slider and a .116 average against his curveball.
While he ended the year rostered on only 71 percent of teams in Yahoo and ESPN leagues, he would be the ace on many other teams, not the third or fourth pitcher like he was in Houston this year. He finished the year throwing like he did in 2021, meaning he should be a keeper and a likely candidate to perform like a Tier 2 pitcher next season.
Young pitchers rarely come in and dominate Major League hitters. The learning curve between the minors and majors is large. An example of that is Hunter Greene. Looking at his 2022 stats, he shouldn’t be in Tier 3, much less ranked. For the season, he went 5-13 with a 4.44 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP. From April through July, he had monthly ERAs of 6.00, 5.81, 5.46 and 5.16.
But over his last five starts (one in August, four in September/October) he showed everyone what he is capable of. In 29 innings of work, he allowed only two earned runs on 13 hits and seven walks for a 0.62 ERA and a 0.69 WHIP while posting a strikeout rate of 14 K/9. I am a fan of Greene and really like his upside.
Another Red on the Rise
Nick Lodolo has several areas of his game he can approve, but there is no reason not to keep this lefty on your team. In 19 starts as a rookie, he finished with a 3.66 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP and had a very impressive 11.4 K/9 rate. He ranked in the 87th percentile in K% and 81st percentile in Whiff%, thanks in large part to a 46% Whiff% on his curveball.
For Lodolo to make the leap to ace or solid No. 2 starter, he is going to have to command his pitches. He walked 3.4 batters per nine this year and hit 19 batters in 103.1 innings of work. When he learns to command his pitches, he is going to be a top starter on any fantasy staff.
If you had a fantasy staff composed of only Tier 2 pitchers, you’d win a lot of pitching categories.
George Kirby had a solid rookie season for the Mariners, going 8-5 with a 3.39 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. The right-hander doesn’t walk anyone, issuing 22 free passes in 130 innings of work, while striking out 9.2 batters per nine. While Kirby throws strikes, he does give up more than a hit per inning. Perhaps that is because he throws six pitches, none of which overpowers any hitters. I think if he cuts his selection down to four pitches and concentrates on those, he will become a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter on a fantasy staff.
Teammate Logan Gilbert cut his ERA from 4.68 in 2021 to 3.20 during his second season with the Mariners, but his strikeout rate actually decreased, and his walk rate increased. Gilbert started to throw a sinker this past season to go along with a fastball, slider, curve and changeup. But opposing hitters had a .333 batting average against the pitch. Like Kirby, if Gilbert throws out on pitch and masters one of his breaking pitches, he has a great chance to become a Tier 1 pitcher.
A Pair of Astros
Javier, who also has been used out the bullpen at times, had a 2.54 ERA and 0.95 WHIP this past season with an 11.7 K/9 rate. The righty ranked in the 92nd percentile or higher in xERA/xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, K% and curve spin. Despite throwing fastball that averages 93.8 mph, opposing hitters had only a .183 average against that pitch and managed only a .121 average against the slider and .226 average against his curve.
Meanwhile, Valdez will likely finish in the top 5 in Cy Young voting this season after going 17-6 with a 2.82 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and a league-leading 201.1 innings pitched. Like Javier, Valdez can spin the ball as his curve spin was in the 90th percentile and limited opposing hitters to a .146 average with a 45.4% Whiff%. He also ranked seventh in the AL in strikeouts with 194.
Can He Repeat?
The biggest question surrounding Spencer Strider is can he repeat what he did this season. If he can, then he will easily be a Tier 1 pitcher for years to come. All he did was post a 13.8 K/9 rate, striking out 202 batters in 131.2 innings. He yielded only 86 hits and 45 walks for a 0.99 WHIP and finished with a 2.67 ERA. As you can see from the chart above, his percentile rankings were off the charts. I think Strider repeats his success and is a no-doubt keeper.
This tier can really be broken down into three groups. The first group consists of Aaron Nola, Luis Castillo, Alek Manoah, Max Fried and Brandon Woodruff. Out of this group, I really love the upside of Manoah.
Blue Jays’ righty doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters (8.2 K/9), but he doesn’t allow baserunners as he had a 0.99 WHIP one season after posting a 1.05 WHIP as a rookie, and when Toronto needed him most, Manoah delivered. In the month of September, he went 4-0 with a 0.88 ERA and 0.85 WHIP.
The Geriatric Unit
Cole was the only member of this group to remain healthy all year and is the youngest pitcher at age 32. All he did was lead the American League in strikeouts with 257 and was second in innings pitched with 200.2. About the only blemish he had was the 33 homers he allowed. But if that is your reason not to keep him, then you’re crazy.
DeGrom is still putting up great numbers, like his 102 strikeouts in 64.1 innings of work and his 0.75 WHIP. DeGrom’s problem is his inability to stay healthy the last two seasons. He was limited to 15 starts in 2021 and made only 11 this year. Is this a trend or just a blip on the radar? For now, I am going with a blip on the radar.
Verlander simply defied Father Time enroute to a likely Cy Young Award this season. After making only one start in 2020 before undergoing Tommy Surgery and missing all of 2021, Verlander returned to the mound to post a 1.75 ERA and 0.83 WHIP with a 9.5 K/9 rate. Verlander features a 4-seam fastball, slider, curve and changeup. These were the batting averages opposing hitters had against those four pitches – .194, .188, .158 and .167. Verlander will hit 40 next year, but he shows no signs of slowing down.
The Pick a Name from a Hat Group
Where do you go wrong with Shohei Ohtani, Dylan Cease, Shane McClanahan or Corbin Burnes? I can easily switch around the rankings of these four pitchers and be happy with the order. You can basically rank them as 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D.
We all know Ohtani is just a freak. He can hit, he can pitch, he can run. There really isn’t much more that can be said about him.
Cease finally put everything together in his fourth season with the White Sox. In the last four years his ERA has dropped from 5.79 to 4.01 to 3.91 to 2.20 while his WHIP has followed the same path, going from 1.55 to 1.44 to 1.25 to 1.11 this year. He still allows too many walks (a league-leading 78 this year for a 10.4% walk rate) but he allowed only 126 hits in 184 innings of work and had an 11.1 K/9 rate.
I love McClanahan. The lefty followed up a solid 2021 rookie campaign with a fantastic 2022 season. The All-Star posted a 2.54 ERA and 0.93 WHIP with a 10.5 K/9 rate and 2.1 BB/9 rate thanks to a four-pitch mix that hitters can’t handle. His fastball produced a 24% Whiff% while hitters had a 44.6% Whiff% against his changeup and 46.4% Whiff% vs. his slider.
And the Top Pitcher is…
It would have been tough for Burnes to match his 2021 Cy Young season, but he came close. He finished with a 2.94 ERA and NL-leading 243 strikeouts in 202 innings of work. For the second straight season he posted a sub-1.00 WHIP (0.965). Burnes threw his cutter 55.4% of the time this season and hitters managed only a .213 batting average and he limited opposing batters to an overall average of .197. Meanwhile, his curve, changeup and slider produced whiff percentages of 47.7, 46.7 and 49.7.
If you like Ohtani as the top pitcher or Cease or McClanahan, I have no argument against that. But to me, I’ll take Burnes as he enters the prime of his career as the top keeper.
Next Week – Catchers
That’s a wrap on the 2023 Top Keepers – Starting Pitchers edition. Let me know your thoughts on who I may have left off that you think should be ranked or who is not ranked where you think they should be.
Next week: 2023 Top Keepers – Catchers.
Thanks for reading!