Welcome back to baseball!  Did you know the end of the NFL regular season officially kicks off the fantasy baseball preseason?  Well, it does!  Take my word for it.  We’re about a month away from the four most anticipated words in a baseball fan’s lingo, “Pitchers and Catchers report.”  Soon thereafter, fantasy baseball drafts will start up in earnest.  Many of us who live baseball 24/7/365 have been drafting for weeks.  Others who split their time between the two fantasy seasons (let’s be honest, does anybody really care about fantasy basketball/hockey?) are starting to come back now.  If you’re part of this latter group and feel behind in your prep, don’t fret.  All of us at @Razzball are here to help you get ready.

This weekly article will be all about pitching.  Each Monday leading up to Opening Day, I’ll dive into a pitching topic that interests me (and hopefully you as well) all in the name of preparing for fantasy baseball drafts.  The recipe will include a heavy dose of expert rankings and draft trends, a generous helping of analytics, a smidgeon (maybe more) of personal opinion, and perhaps a dash of hyperbole every now and then (the first one is for you fantasy basketball/hockey fans).  Whatever it takes to prepare your pitcher lists for fantasy drafts and kick off the 2023 baseball season in style, I’ve got you covered.

Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below as well.  I’m always open to answering questions and exploring players or pitching topics that are on your mind.  This is a two-way street.  Let’s take this ride together!  So, without further ado…

For this first installment, I’m going to look at some arms currently drafted amongst the top 20 SP in early NFBC drafts.  Many of these pitchers filling the top 20 are names we know and love, including Corbin Burnes, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, etc.  We may agree to disagree on where they fall on the list, but there’s no debate they belong there.  Some of the others?  Well, one can make cases both for and against them being within the top 20.  As Spring Training kicks off and more fantasy drafts are conducted, we’ll undoubtedly see a lot of movement in these ranks.  As of the first ~85 NFBC drafts though, the pitchers below are amongst the first 20 SP to come off the board.  Will they remain or give up the chair to another hurler?  Let’s explore.

Dylan Cease, White Sox: Dylan Cease is currently the #8 SP coming off the board with an average ADP of 38.  The high draft spot is attributed to the dominant 2022 season and runner-up showing for the AL CY Young award.  Cease made major strides in his pitching last season, accumulating almost 20 more innings pitched (184 IP) over his career high in 2021.  At the same time, he maintained an overall strikeout rate (K%) over 30%, due in large part to a dominant slider (21% swinging K (SwK) rate) and lowered the number of earned runs (ER) allowed by more than 35%.  These are elite numbers any way you slice it.  Despite this, there’s some reason to pump the brakes just a bit.  During the 2nd half, Cease saw a drop in his K% (from 34% to 27%) along with an increase in both his xERA & xWHIP.

Both xERA and xWHIP remove some of the variables not controlled by a pitcher to provide a better representation of their true skills.  Taken together, these numbers make an argument that Cease is human after all and tired a bit with the increased workload.  Unlike so many pitchers, he’s not generally considered an injury risk so don’t be too alarmed by what you’re reading here.  At the end of the day, he projects to be a dominant SP once again, worthy of a top 15 SP projection for sure, but it may be best to expect some regression from the lofty 2022 numbers.                

Carlos Rodon, Yankees: Carlos Rodon dons the pin stripes after inking a six-year, $162 million contract last month.  Rewinding a year, you’ll recall Rodon bet on himself and signed a one-year contract with the Giants for the 2022 season.  The timing of the bet worked out marvelously for Rodon as he did his best to get beyond the early-career injury label by hurling 178 innings and posting a 2.88 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 237:52 K:BB ratio.  In fact, only new teammate Gerrit Cole (257) and Corbin Burns (243) logged more Ks on the season.  As expected, these two gentlemen are consistently amongst the top three pitchers drafted so far.  On the other hand, Rodon is currently just outside the top 10 as the #12 SP being drafted around pick 50 overall.

Last season, Rodon threw a 4-seam fastball 61% of the time, averaging a career-high 95.6 mph and occasionally topping out slightly over 100 mph.  His secondary pitches included a slider (31%), curveball (6%), and changeup (2%).  Each is generally league average or better.  Based on launch angle, Rodon is considered a flyball pitcher, inducing flyballs or line drives on 64% of balls in play.  His barrel percent allowed was 6%, slightly under the league average of 7%.  He also allowed an average exit velocity of 88.5 mph, slightly over the league average of 87.7 mph.  He only allowed 12 HRs during the 2022 season with a majority of those to left or center fields.  This provides some optimism to Rodon owners when you consider half of his games may come at Yankee Stadium with the short porch in right field.

With so many analytics suggesting “league average”, the statistic that stands out to me is his SwK rate.  As a general benchmark, a SwK rate of 10.5% is the popular threshold to identify potential dominance on the mound.  Rodon’s SwK rate has been between 14.3% and 15.5% over the past two seasons.  Ok, worries averted!

On the qualitative side, we must always give brief thought to the non-baseball aspects of signing with the Yankees.  Specifically, what does the move to the Bronx do to your facial hair game?  Unlike his SP-mate Cole, Carlos Rodon’s grooming analytics has never been rated above league average to my knowledge, so I’m not overly concerned here.  I will admit though, he does look significantly less intimidating in the presser.  Let’s hope it doesn’t translate to the mound.

Overall, Rodon has strung together two strong seasons in a row and if he continues to remain healthy, drafting him near 50 should provide very nice value to his fantasy owners.

Cristian Javier, AstrosThe last time we saw Christian Javier, he was blanking the Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series.  In that game, he kept the potent Phillies lineup hitless through six innings, turning it over to the bullpen who finished what would become only the second no-hitter in World Series history.  Javier’s gem in Game 4 put a cap on a stellar post season that saw him spin a microscopic 0.74 ERA with 16 Ks over 12.2 innings.  If you haven’t noticed yet, we all tend to have very short memories, especially when it comes to our favorite athletes.  So, Javier’s post-season accomplishments have clearly injected helium into his early ADP, which finds him coming off the board as the #19 SP at pick 70.  Are we seeing a young pitcher becoming a star here or is there something in the underlying numbers to suggest the post-season run is not sustainable?  Let’s take a look.

On the season, Javier tossed 149 innings, striking out 194 batters with a 2.54/0.95 ERA/WHIP.  Each of these setting new career-best MLB numbers for the young right-hander.  His K% remained consistent throughout the season, sitting between 32%-34%.  His control was stable throughout as well, indicated by a consistent BB% of 9% throughout the season.  The league-wide average BB% was 8.2% so there is some room to tighten this up a bit.  But overall, a strikeout rate minus walk rate ratio (K-BB%) of 24% in 2022 suggests Javier’s control is reproducible (the league-wide K-BB% in 2022 was 14.2%).  He’s proven to be tough against left-handed hitters, allowing a paltry .189 batting average against (BAA).  If you think that’s good, he was even better against right-handed hitters, with a minuscule .147 BAA.  As you may surmise, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was also better than the league norm.  Considering these numbers and a quick look at his 2022 percentile rankings for other important pitcher analytics, illustrated by our friends at Baseball Savant (baseballsavant.mlb.com), confirms Javier should be on everyone’s draft radar this Spring.

There’s one final set of analytics I’ll include for Javier, and this is digging deep.  It relates to his percentage of dominating starts and disaster starts.  We prefer to see a wide gap between the two, leaning toward the dominating starts of course.  In 2021, Javier had just such a gap, with his dominating start percentage 4x better.  In 2022 however, his percentages for both were the same.  We won’t know what 2023 has to offer here until it happens but it suggests to me that his fantasy owners may endure a short rough patch every now and then.  Most pitchers do so it’s really nothing that should turn you off here.  If this occurs again early in the season, I’ll be labeling him a significant “BUY” candidate for all non-owners and a “STRONG HOLD” for those already invested.

Overall, based on this short summary, his underlying analytics suggests we should expect a similar, or even better, version of Christian Javier in 2023.  In fact, I contend drafting him at pick 70 may be considered a steal by the Fall.

Zac Gallen, Diamondbacks:  For my final SP review today, let’s look at Zac Gallen who is currently the #20 SP at an ADP of 74, four spots after Rodon.  Gallen owners endured a Jekyll-and-Hyde ride during the 2022 season.  During the early months, he pitched to a 3.40/1.05 ERA/WHIP and managed a K/IP of 0.939.  Not awful numbers but not what we like to see from a front-line starter.  We all know Gallen is no stranger to injury, after spending 67 days on the IL in 2021 and suffering from a bout of shoulder bursitis in the Spring of 2022.  So undoubtedly, these early season numbers were influenced by the previous injuries.  After the break, though, he was able to put those health issues in the rear-view mirror.  Over his final 102 IP, he pitched to a cool 1.85/0.80 ERA/WHIP and saw his K/IP rate jump to a 1.127.  Remember, we all tend to have very short memories, especially when it comes to our favorite athletes.  So, clearly, his early ADP reflects the second half numbers with little regard to the injury risk.

Like Cease above, Gallen’s xERA and xWHIP are telling stats to analyze.  Unlike Cease, however, Gallen’s numbers got significantly better during the second half.  So why is this a telling stat to me?  Let’s take a deeper look.

His xERA during the second half, and thus his full season xERA, is significantly lower than the 2022 NL average xERA of 3.87.  This gap suggests his true ERA should regress toward the mean, which was 3.87 in the NL last season.  Also, Gallen is amongst the leading WHIP overperformers of 2022, defined as the difference between his WHIP and xWHIP.  In English, this means Gallen was the beneficiary of hit rate luck and therefore is predicted to regress back toward the mean.  Remember, these analytics are predictors, not guarantees, of future results.  But there’s enough history to show we should pay attention to them.  These numbers, coupled with his injury risk, mean I will probably pass on Gallen at an ADP of 74 and consider other pitchers I like that are going later, such as Joe Musgrove (ADP = 82), Triston McKenzie (ADP = 91) and even Logan Webb (ADP = 115).

You Made It!

If you are still with me, I applaud you.  There’s a lot of data packed into this article.  There are also a lot of acronyms.  Writing this, I once again confirmed to myself that I love acronyms (ok, I may have a problem and should seek help).  If you’ve ever explored the world of baseball analytics, you found out quickly that it’s a realm of acronyms.  BABIP this, SwK that!  ERA versus xERA!  Etc., etc. etc…  For many of us, our eyes gloss over quickly and skip to the summaries.  Don’t feel bad, we’ve all been there.  Did you study Shakespeare or purchase the Cliff Notes?  Me too!  Again, nothing to be ashamed of here.

With this in mind, I’m going to provide my version of Cliff Notes for my favorite pitcher analytics in next week’s article.  I’m hoping it will give you an appreciation for the information at our fingertips and make it all a little more useful for pre-season and in-season roster management.  It’ll be fun, trust me!

Before I sign off though, I want to give another plug for all the great stuff available at Razzball.  For those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock for the past few years, Grey (@Razzball) is one of the very best in the business in his rankings.  You’ll find everything you need on the Razzball site (RIGHT HERE) so do yourself a favor and head over there often as he populates the information.  Bottom line: If it’s not on his page, you don’t need it for draft prep.  The best part of this – FREE!