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Fantasy Baseball SP ADP Battle: Chris Sale, Bailey Ober, Justin Verlander, Hunter Greene

Bellinger returns to best possible spot with Cubs
Eric Samulski and Scott Pianowski react to Cody Bellinger's decision to re-sign with the Chicago Cubs and assess the rest of the fantasy outfield picture.

With fantasy baseball drafts heating up, I started a new article series a few weeks ago where I look at 3-4 starting pitchers who are going in the same ADP range and break down who I feel most confident in and why. The goal here isn’t so much to make you agree with me as to help us all together think analytically about these pitchers to make decisions in our drafts that we feel most comfortable with.

You can find my look at third-round starters here, my take on the tail-end top-10 starters here, my analysis of pitchers being drafted as fringe SP1s, my analysis of young studs with the potential to rise up rankings, and my breakdown of some elite SP2 targets. Today we’ll look at a group of pitchers who are being drafted as SP2’s but have flashed SP1 upside at times.

I also posted my complete top 100 starting pitcher rankings, with blurbs on each arm, and you can read that here.

All ADP data is taken from EARTH drafts, which were 11 industry drafts (for money) held in February. All are 15-team leagues, so I think this gives a strong indication of how ADP might settle in the coming weeks.

Editor’s Note: Knock your draft out of the park with the 2024 Rotoworld Baseball Draft Guide, featuring rankings, projections, expert analysis, mock drafts, and much more. Click here to buy now and use code BASEBALL24 for 10% off.

Chris Sale - Braves (ADP: 130, SP32)

I pretty clearly have Sale as the best pitcher of this bunch, and that was before he came out looking electric in his spring debut. We’ll get back to that performance in a second, but my initial belief in Sale was centered around the fact that he was more effective in 2023 when you look under the hood than we thought.

Sale Stats

Sale’s strikeout rate, K-BB% rate, and WHIP compare favorably to Freddy Peralta, who most people are ranking inside the top 20. The batting average allowed and BABIP separate the two a bit, but Peralta had a 3.45 SIERA while Sale had a 3.51 SIERA, so they had much closer 2023 seasons than I think people initially expect. Granted, this is a surface-level analysis, but we’ll dig in deeper below.

Sale posted a well above-average swinging strike rate (SwStr%) of 14.3%. He had an elite 31.5% CSW, and he still posted above league-average called strike rates despite some concern about his overall command and inability to hit his spots. He did post just a 44% zone rate, which was below league average, and a slightly above-average 65.4% strike rate, so he certainly didn’t have his usual command. However, he was rusty after battling injuries in previous years and seemed to lose feel for his pitches now and then. This led to harder contact than you’d like to see, but his overall Ideal Contract Rate allowed (ICR) was 37.3%, which is better than the league average.

So even with all of those issues last year, he missed more bats than average, gave up less hard contact than average, and got more called strikes than average. That’s pretty good for somebody without their best stuff.

One of the bigger concerns heading into this season was fastball velocity. Sale would come out last year and start a game sitting at 95 mph and then drop to like 91 mph out of nowhere in the next inning. Yet, despite that, similar to what I said above, the pitch performed well enough, even against right-handed hitters who should have theoretically feasted on his slower fastball. Now, in spring training he’s already come out sitting 94-95 and has 18 inches of run on the pitch. That led to seven whiffs on 11 swings in his first outing and has me optimistic that he didn’t fully lose the velocity on that pitch.

The other issue was that the command of his slider wasn’t great last year, not getting inside on righties enough but leaking out over the plate, which is why it got hit harder. To me, I believe this was also just a result of him battling with consistency. The pitch wasn’t significantly changed from previous years; he just had worse command of it, which, for me, comes back to rust again.

Then, we have the component that is hardest to quantify, which is the mental side of the game. He’s been open about not playing up to his contract in Boston and said he was upset about how he performed. For a player as competitive as Sale, that means he’s likely been attacking this offseason with something to prove. Now that he’s in Atlanta, he finds himself with better team context and I think, even if we get 140 innings, they’ll be 140 really good innings, so I’m in on Sale in 2024.

Bailey Ober - Twins (ADP: 132, SP33)

Ober lacks the upside that Sale has, but I think he’s less volatile and a good bet to throw 160 innings, even though the Twins have seemed to not want to push him too far in the past. The 6'9" righty is an intriguing pitcher to analyze because he came up through the minors as a command specialist before adding velocity. Even though he doesn’t light up radar guns now, Ober’s previous command skills enable him to consistently get his fastball up in the zone with a 100th percentile hiLoc% (high location). His long frame allows him to get elite extension on the pitch, so his fastball remains hard to hit even though it’s just 91.3 mph.

Ober fastball

He pairs that with a changeup that grades out incredibly well on Pitcher List’s PLV grades. The pitch not only misses bats with a 17% SwStr%, but he pounds the strike zone with it and doesn’t mind keeping it near the middle of the zone because it plays so well off of the four-seam. Ober also started to rely on the change-up more in 2023, which is something we love to see given how effective it’s been.

The slider is the pitch that was slightly less effective for him. It missed bats at a below-average rate and also got hit harder than average with a 42% ICR. The good news is that the pitch wasn’t bad to right-handed hitters. It posted a 17% SwStr% and 36% ICR, so Ober’s only real clear weakness is that his slider is less effective to lefties. Considering he throws it only 10% of the time to lefties and has a great change-up he can rely on, that really shouldn’t concern us too much.

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Justin Verlander - Astros (ADP: 137, SP34)

Obviously, the big news with Verlander is that he’s been slow to ramp up this spring while battling shoulder soreness and is likely not going to be ready for Opening Day. While that’s not uncommon for pitchers at this time of the year, it’s a bit worrisome when you think about Verlander being 41 years old this season with plenty of injury concerns in his wake. Yet, his ADP is also at a point where nobody is drafting him expecting to get the Justin Verlander of old, so perhaps he can remain a good value at this price?

Justin Verlander improved a lot in the second half of 2023. Perhaps it was coming back to Houston and having his personal catcher, Martin Maldonado (who will not be in Houston this year) or maybe it was something more. A big change that I noticed was that Verlander got his fastball up in the zone more, which increased his iVB and jumped his SwStr%. Verlander may have experienced a slight dip in velocity and doesn’t get great extension, but he has elite vertical movement on the pitch and keeps it up in the zone 59% of the time so, like Ober, his fastball will play up even without elite stuff. It might not get back to the strong 16% SwStr% marks from 2018 and 2019, but he was effective with a 10.4% SwStr% on the pitch in 2022 and that’s in line with what we saw in the second half last year.

A bigger concern for me is the swing-and-miss he’s losing on the slider. Not only is it down from 2018-19 but it was down significantly from 2022 as well. The pitch graded out better on PLV and its Stuff+ was at 127, which was the sixth best slider in baseball last year. The concern appears to be more about location since he wasn’t able to get the pitch glove-side as much as he did in 2022. The pitch caught much more of the plate, which led to more contact but it also wasn’t good contact with just a 28.1% ICR. So even when the pitch wasn’t missing bats, it wasn’t hurting him.

Lastly, Verlander started throwing his curve a little softer and with more downward bite, which led to more weak contact, even though that didn’t get many swings and misses either. Part of that is also due to location, not getting down in the zone as much as we’d like to see, but, again, even without his best stuff, he still posted a 3.22 ERA in a bad year but also a 21.5% strikeout rate.

All of that says to me that we’re going to get a version of Verlander that will not miss bats like he used to, but also won’t give up hard contact and can still produce solid ratios. If you believe that improved command on the slider can lead to a return of some swing-and-miss, then Verlander can perhaps get to a 23-24% strikeout rate. That’s not the 28-33% rates we’re used to seeing, but he’s also not being drafted as that pitcher anymore. As long as you’re not buying into the idea that you’ll get an ace version of Verlander this year, I think he can be a boring but stable presence in your rotation.

Hunter Greene - Reds (ADP 138, SP35)

Everybody loves to dream on the upside of Hunter Greene because he throws 100 mph and has a wicked slider, and then the news came out that he was adding both a curve and a splitter this offseason, and the hype is building again. I covered Greene’s potential two new pitches at length in my breakdown of his arsenal here, so I encourage you to read that for a more in-depth analysis of why I’m tepid on Greene this season.

For starters, despite the velocity, Greene’s four-seam fastball is not as good as we think.

Greene fastball

Sure, a 13.2% SwStr% is solid but it gives up tons of hard contact because it has below-average extension and IVB. He also has below-average zone rates on the four-seam and slightly above-average strike rates, so it’s not really a pitch he commands all that well. He gets well below-average called strikes on it and allows 44% ICR on the pitch, so Greene is either getting a swing and a miss on his fastball or it’s getting hit hard. That’s not ideal for a pitch he throws 55% of the time.

That hard contact is not as prevalent for the slider, and he does have league-average strike rates on the pitch but it’s not quite an elite pitch which it needs to be when it’s shouldering this much weight. Hitters don’t chase it out of the zone much which could mean they’re looking for it and happy to react to his fastball. It could also mean hitters are sitting on his fastball and just sitting on the slider when they see it. Either way, it’s the downside of Greene only having two pitches he can rely on.

Since Greene only throws a change-up 5% of the time, he essentially brings the Spencer Strider profile to the mound but with worse command and a fastball that is far more hittable. As a result, he has a 40% ICR overall and a 9% barrel rate allowed. He also has a 44th-percentile zone rate and a 41st-percentile strike rate, so he has real trouble commanding his arsenal. His called strike rate is well below the MLB average, so he only gets swings and misses or gets hit hard. He also has some interesting reverse splits, with a .264/.332/.492 career slash line allowed to righties and a .210/.309/.402 slash allowed to lefties. That carries over with swinging strike rates too since he has a 14.5% SwStr% to righties and a 15.6% swinging strike rate to lefties. However, both of those rates are solid, so Greene certainly does not need more swing-and-miss to his game.

That’s why I was so off of Greene coming into the year. While it’s nice to hear he’s looking to add more pitches into his arsenal, I need to see them first, and I’m also not sure he’s adding the right pitches. As we covered above, Greene seems to need a pitch he can command for strikes that will both steal some called strikes and perhaps keep hitters off of his four-seam, which allows far more hard contact than the slider.

That’s not the splitter.

The splitter is a swing-and-miss pitch that is often used instead of a change-up to attack opposite-handed hitters. Adding a pitch like that, which gets swings and misses but is designed to not be thrown in the zone, is not adding much to Greene’s pitch mix. Yes, it might create more deception with the four-seam and help the four-seam allow less hard contact to lefties, but the reason the four-seam allows hard contact is that hitters sit on it and expect that Greene won’t throw other pitches in the zone with consistency. If he’s adding another pitch that he can’t throw in the zone, I don’t believe that’s going to make his four-seam better.

As a result, I’m far more interested in Greene being able to throw a curve. A successful curveball can be located for called strikes, which is exactly what Greene needs. The velocity gap in a good curveball to Greene’s slider and four-seam would also add more diversification to his pitch mix and allow him to toy with a hitter’s timing, which is everything for a successful hitter. Additionally, depending on the shape of the curveball, it can be used on both sides of the plate, which means it can be a weapon against righties as well as lefties, which is what Greene needs.

The takeaway is that I can see myself moving Greene up my rankings if I see him throwing a good curveball and see that he commands it with enough confidence that he’ll be using it regularly in his arsenal. If he’s still going to be 95% fastball and slider then I won’t be taking him on my team and certainly not at his current draft cost.

Eric’s Rankings

1) Chris Sale - SP29
2) Bailey Ober - SP33
3) Justin Verlander - SP37
4) Hunter Greene - SP46