3 pitchers who will absolutely win you your fantasy baseball league this season
Written by: Jake Floriolli
[Source: Quinn Harris - USA TODAY Sports]
It is time for part two of “Fantasy Baseball League Winners” and this time, starting pitchers are the focus. As one of the most volatile positions on your fantasy team, it cannot be understated how important it is to have a reliable pitching staff.
So without further ado, let’s jump right into it.
1. Dylan Cease (CWS, SP)
Easily classified as a “breakout” last season, Chicago White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease had a 3.91 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 226 strikeouts in 165.2 innings in 2021.
After forgettable 2019 and 2020 seasons where he made a combined 26 starts, Cease was able to drastically lower his walk rate while generating more strikeouts last season as he made himself a fixture in fantasy baseball lineups.
But what was the driving force behind Cease’s breakout last season, and more importantly, are these improvements sustainable?
Looking at Cease’s pitch mix, he decided to throw his curveball more often as his usage percentage for the pitch increased 6% in 2021. In addition to Cease throwing his curve more often last season, he was also able to throw the pitch for strikes more often as his in-zone percentage increased nearly 12% last season with the curveball.
With the combination of throwing his curveball more often and finding the zone more frequently with the pitch, Cease generated a 22.1% chase percentage with the curve in 2021, an absurd 16.4% increase from 2020.
And it was not just the curveball that Cease was able to generate more whiffs with either. In 2021, Cease had a higher swing and miss percentage on all four of his pitches which ultimately resulted in an increased strikeout rate.
As you can see below, Cease’s slider and 4-seamer were nasty in their own regard as the two pitches generated a ridiculous number of whiffs last season.
The improvement in strikeout rate is here to stay for Cease if he continues with his current pitch mix, but Cease’s underlying metrics indicate that he can provide good ratios as well.
With an xERA of 3.63, SIERA of 3.57, and FIP of 3.41, it is clear that Cease pitched better than his numbers indicated last season. An ERA of 3.50, a WHIP of 1.20, and 200 strikeouts next season is certainly not out of the question. And with an ADP of 74 in NFBC drafts, Cease is more than worth his price.
2. Michael Kopech (CWS, SP)
Our next league winner just happens to be another pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. Once ranked as a top pitching prospect, Michael Kopech struggled to stay healthy early in his career as he missed all of 2019 after having Tommy John surgery and then opted out of the shortened 2020 season.
Last season, Kopech found himself as a member of the bullpen as he was eased back to action. In 69.1 innings last season, Kopech was an elite strikeout pitcher as he posted an eye-popping 13.3 K/9. Kopech’s 3.50 ERA and 1.13 WHIP were solid in and of themselves, but the underlying metrics indicate that Kopech might truly be an ace in the making.
Looking above, you see that Kopech clearly performed better than his surface-level statistics demonstrate. Diving deeper into those Statcast expected metrics, Kopech ranked 7th among qualified starting pitchers in xwOBA and xERA while ranking 4th in xBA.
In addition to the glowing Baseball Savant page, Kopech also did a fantastic job last season preventing zone contact. In fact, Mets starter Jacob deGrom was the only starting pitcher (min. 60 innings) to have a lower Z-contact% than Kopech last season.
Take a look at Kopech’s arsenal below and you can see how well he can mix his pitches and generate whiffs.
The case for Michael Kopech being a fantasy baseball league winner in 2022 is not a matter of talent, but a matter of usage. It is yet to be determined if Kopech will be starting this season in the bullpen or rotation, however, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn stated in November ”...we were able to find a way to use [Kopech] in the bullpen but still get him the occasional start, get him stretched out some and put him in a decent position entering this season to be in the rotation."
With an ADP higher than 150th overall, Kopech is well worth the price of investment as a true fantasy baseball ace seems to be emerging in the Southside of Chicago.
3. Aaron Ashby (MLW, SP/RP)
The Milwaukee Brewers rotation is currently flooded with talent. From Corbin Burnes to Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, the recent success of these Milwaukee pitchers may be overshadowing another budding superstar in the organization: Aaron Ashby.
Last season Ashby pitched in just 31.2 innings while making four starts and nine other relief appearances. Ashby’s surface-level numbers do not provide much reason for optimism with a 4.55 ERA in 2021, however, a deeper look into the statistics tells a different story.
In 63.1 innings in triple-A last season, Ashby put up an astounding 36.2 K% with an xFIP of 2.26 all while having a .370 BABIP and sub-65% LOB%. And despite a poor ERA in the majors last season, Ashby’s strikeout gains managed to carry over with an 11.08 K/9.
Despite the small sample size, Statcast metrics were quite fond of Ashby’s 2021 major league season. With an xERA of 3.01, xwOBA of .269, and .330 xwOBAcon, Ashby certainly pitched better than his numbers indicate.
Looking below at a quick comparison of Ashby and teammate Brandon Woodruff, you can see that the two are quite comparable regarding several metrics.
Part of what drove Ashby’s underlying success was the effectiveness of both his slider and changeup with whiff percentages of 42.0% and 34.6% respectively. Additionally, there are no reasons to believe that Ashby will be unable to maintain the swing and miss capabilities of his slider and changeup.
As many pitchers saw their spin rates drop mid-season due to the pine tar crackdown, Ashby was able to improve his spin rates on every pitch throughout 2021 as you can see below.
There is undoubtedly a lot of risk with Ashby in 2022, as most notably, he is not guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation to begin the season. But once given an opportunity, expect Ashby to take full advantage and ultimately join Burnes, Woodruff, and Peralta in the early rounds of fantasy drafts next season.
Statistical and Visual References: Baseball Savant, NFBC, Fangraphs, Twitter