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Fantasy Baseball 2024: Are We Really Without Starting Pitcher Aces?

Don't sleep on Bregman, Machado in fantasy drafts
Eric Samulski and Scott Pianowski highlight why fantasy managers should target Alex Bregman and Manny Machado in 2024 drafts despite coming off seasons that weren't up to either veteran's standards.

Much of the talk heading into the 2024 season is that we’re seeing a lack of starting pitcher aces. With injuries to guys like Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Brandon Woodruff, Shane McClanahan, Sandy Alcantara, Robbie Ray, and others, the top 15-20 pitchers on most preseason lists are filled with names who are inspiring more questions than confidence.

I’ve written a few articles so far this offseason suggesting that the added uncertainty at the top of the starting pitcher landscape might cause us to lean into some risk a little bit more than we would have in the past. Yet, before we get even farther into draft season, it seemed to be the right time to check and see if the assumption that I fully believe - that there is more risk in starting pitching this year than in years past - is even an accurate one.

METHODOLOGY

In order to do that, I tried to evaluate whether this year’s crop of top starters differed from what we’ve seen in the past either in terms of durability or performance. I first used the Wayback Machine to pull up the Pitcher List Top 20 Starting Pitcher lists for the previous preseasons. I then cross-referenced that with the FantasyPros lists (posted by CBS) to make sure I was getting as accurate a pre-season top 20 as I could.

Then, thanks to Ariel Cohen, I was able to get the ATC projected innings for the top 20 starters for all of the years post COVID. I will try to get the rest from Ariel at a later date, but he was generous with his time and he will need to dig even further into his archives for the pre-2020 data. However, those projected innings should tell us if our expectation of durability or “workhorse” nature of the top starters has changed.

I also looked at the SIERA, strikeout rate, and win totals of the previous seasons prior to the ranking. The thought behind this is to see if the crop of top 20 pitchers had previously shown a level that was significantly different from what we’ve expected from our top 20 pitchers in the past. Adding that production element to the projected innings should be able to give us enough of a sense of if we’re drafting “aces” this year that haven’t produced at the level we’re used to expecting.

There are some obvious caveats here we should address before we dive in. For starters, it’s hard to identify a consensus top 20 starting pitcher list for any season let alone past seasons. I did my best, but you could probably make valid arguments that some preseason top 20 starter was left off one of my lists. For this season, I plugged ATC projections into Tanner Bell’s SGP sheet and used the top 20 starters by value based on those calculations. You may not agree with that method, but it made sense to me. Also, I’ve removed all 2020 stats from the comparison below since most starters made seven or more starts, and that’s too small of a sample size to draw a major conclusion from.

With that out of the way, let’s see if this year’s group of top 20 starters is any worse than what we’ve come to expect from our top tier arms.

Projected Innings

2021202220232024
Total Projected IP3,5813,5023,6053,523
Projected IP per SP179.05175.1180.25176.15

When it comes to projected innings from our top starters, we’re within the general range we’re used to seeing. The average top 20 starter is projected for four fewer innings than last year, but it’s right in line with 2022, so it doesn’t seem like we’re getting fewer innings out of our top starters than we’re used to. Yes, this included Tyler Glasnow and Max Fried, two pitchers people have major injury concerns with. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t innings risks with this year’s group, but there seem to be no more than in previous years.

So that’s one piece of evidence for this group being similar to previous groups of aces.

Previous Season Wins

2021202220232024
Previous Year WinsN/A247258240
Prev Year Wins per SPN/A12.3512.912.6

Obviously, as mentioned before, this is not applicable for the 2021 season since we were coming off a COVID-shortened 2020 season where no pitchers got near their usual win total. However, this year’s group of top 20 starters has a collective win total that’s right in line with past seasons. You may notice that the total wins appear low and that’s because it’s only from 19 pitchers, not 20. Since Yoshinobu Yamamoto was not an MLB pitcher last year, I decided to forgo his stats from Japan and just divide the total by 19. If I added the 21st-ranked pitcher instead, it would have been Kodai Senga, who had 12 wins, so that total would be 252 total wins from the top 20 arms. Again, perfectly in line with previous years.

In fact, if you go back before the pandemic to the 2020 preseason (when we were in that haze of optimism that let us believe a normal season would exist) the average win total for the top 20 starters the year before was just 11.7 wins. Blake Snell, Luis Severino, Corey Kluber, Tyler Glasnow, and Shohei Ohtani were all ranked in the top 20 that season and coming off injury shortened seasons or no seasons at all. Meanwhile, Mike Fiers won 15 games in 2019, but I digress. Anyway, we seem to be right in line with previous norms in terms of drafting a top tier of starters that have proven win value from the year before.

So that’s now two pieces of evidence that this group is not materially riskier or worse than what we’re used to.

Previous Season SIERA

2021202220232024
Previous Year SIERA3.383.363.083.49

OK, so we’re starting to see something here. The average SIERA for this year’s top 20 starters is the highest it’s been over the last four years. That’s including the Happy Fun Ball 2021 season that led to poor pitching stats and the COVID-shortened 2020 season which was weird in so many ways. Let’s see how it compares if we go even further back.

20152016201720182019

2020

Previous Year SIERA2.892.953.493.39

3.21

3.50

OK, so the pitchers in this year’s top 20 are coming off the second-worst average SIERA performance since 2015. That definitely seems notable. Obviously, some of that has to do with the way the game is changing. I mean, look at those numbers in 2015 and 2016. That’s absurd. However, even as more offense becomes common in baseball, the top 20 pitchers ahead of the 2022 and 2023 season were coming off much better collective performances when it comes to SIERA. Since SIERA is generally accepted as the best predictive ERA metric, that certainly says something to us. The metric trusts this group less than it’s trusted a group in the last five years.

When you look at the individual numbers, what stands out is the lack of truly elite ratio pitchers. In years past, there were plenty of starters with sub-3.00 SIERAs. Heading into last season, eight pitchers were coming off a sub-3.000 SIERA season. Heading into 2022, there were four. Heading into 2020, there were four. Heading into 2019 there were seven, and there were five heading into 2018. Heading into this year, there are just two pitchers coming off a sub-3.00 SIERA season, and one of them, Tarik Skubal, only threw 81 innings. That suggests a much thinner tier of truly elite starting pitchers than we’ve seen in quite some time.

So this is our first piece of evidence that suggests this group may not be up to our previous standards. As of now, the wins and innings appear consistent, but the ratios are worse; however, that can maybe be explained by changes to the game, so we won’t overreact yet.

Previous Season Strikeout Rate

2020202220232024
Previous Year K%32.731.230.727.9

OK, so now we have yet another interesting datapoint here. The top 20 starting pitchers heading into this season are coming off years where they combined for a significantly lower strikeout rate than the top 20 starters of the previous two years. Again, I didn’t include 2021 in this because strikeout rates over the COVID-shortened 2020 season don’t feel usable here, but I included the 2020 preseason list, which had the strikeout rates from 2019. With that information included, you can see a pretty steady decrease in strikeout rate among the top starters over the last five years. It’s actually a bit staggering.

Perhaps because fewer of the starters we’re taking in this elite tier are truly dominant, we feel that they’re not as good. We’re certainly getting lower strikeout totals from them than we’re used to in the past, which does ding their overall fantasy value a bit. So, in a sense, even though we didn’t see any massive difference in win totals or innings, we’ve now seen a noticeable decline in SIERA and a big loss of strikeouts from what we’re used to getting with our aces. Potentially getting less help in our ratios and strikeouts from our aces is not nothing and certainly impacts the way that we draft the rest of our rotation later on in the draft.

Familiarity

I think another key reason that we view this year’s fantasy baseball aces as unproven or risky is because so many of them are unfamiliar to us in this spot. In fact, only 12 of the 20 names in this year’s top 20 have entered a season as a top 20 pitcher before. All of Pablo Lopez, Zac Gallen, George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Max Fried, Zach Eflin, Tarik Skubal, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto have never gone into a season as a top 20 starter before. Additionally, Spencer Strider, Freddy Peralta, Tyler Glasnow, Framber Valdez, and Logan Webb have all appeared just one other time.

While that may not seem like a big deal, I believe it’s something we’re subconsciously registering given how many familiar names we’re no longer seeing. When I went back through the top 20 rankings as far back as 2015, I started to see the same names over and over again. We got used to seeing pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale, and Yu Darvish ranked inside the top 20. There was some sense of comfort from that because it allowed us to believe in some year-over-year consistency that we don’t feel that we’re seeing right now.

For reference, I made a table of the starting pitchers who appeared in the most preseason top 20s from 2015 to today. I included 2020 preseason rankings in this because, thanks to the Wayback Machine, I was able to take the PitcherList rankings from late January when we didn’t yet know we were going to have a shortened season, so the rankings should not have been impacted by any of that later news about workloads or players sitting out. You’ll see a lot of names that are either still pitching or just recently stopped pitching but are no longer viewed as elite starters.

Name# of Top 20s2024 Status
Max Scherzer9Hurt
Gerrit Cole8Top 20
Jacob deGrom7Hurt
Aaron Nola6Top 20
Yu Darvish6Age/Durability Concerns
Clayton Kershaw6Hurt
Chris Sale6Recently Hurt
Corey Kluber6Retired
Carlos Carrasco6Recently Hurt
Stephen Strasburg6Retired
Zack Greinke5Maybe Retired
Luis Castillo5Top 20
Noah Syndergaard4Age/Durability Concerns
David Price4Retired
Zack Wheeler4Top 20
Brandon Woodruff4Hurt
Justin Verlander4Durability Concerns
Shane Bieber4Durability Concerns
Walker Buehler4Durability Concerns
Jon Lester3Retired
Matt Harvey3Retired
Jack Flaherty3Age/Durability Concerns

With so many of those names not realistic options for us to draft early in 2024 drafts, it seems as though we’re undergoing a changing of the guard that is making people feel more inherent risk with the top level arms. There are a bunch of new kids on the block, and we’re not yet sure what to make of them.

Final Takeaway

So do we have fewer aces at our disposal in 2024? Well, for the most part, yes and no. Even if we have slightly fewer projected innings, that could also be attributed to a philosophical change with MLB teams and not with durability concerns from this year’s top starters. Similarly, the win totals are in line with previous seasons and give us no pause. Yet, we’re now drafting top tier starters from a pool that has given us fewer strikeouts and worse underlying metrics than we’re used to. As a result, we feel a lack of confidence in these names, and it’s understandable. We have slightly less talent to choose from, but it is mostly made up of pitches that don’t have a long track record, which means we’re more prone to our personal biases regarding whose recent performance is “real” or not; hence why some people believe we’re seeing a major talent deficiency.

This jives with my opinion so far this offseason. I don’t view these arms as worse, but I do view them as riskier because we are seeing worse previous results and have far less of a track record of success to go off of. However, that doesn’t make me want to reach for a pitcher like Cole, Burnes, Wheeler, or Castillo, who have been on these lists so many times. I’m certainly happy to draft them, and I have in a few places, but I won’t force it. I am also confident in identifying which pitchers in the top 20 I feel most confident in and will wait in the draft and try to snag two of them in close succession if need be. Your risk preference for that is entirely personal, but it does feel like, if you want a pitcher that feels stable, there are far fewer options than we’re used to seeing in previous seasons.