A crucible is a trial or challenge faced by a protagonist, where they endure a challenge and come out new and improved. Kind of like the time Grey brought us to Chucky Cheese as a “team building” exercise. Naturally, we all started sumo wrestling in the ball crawl pit, only to find that Grey had released several crocodiles among the balls. Where did he get the crocodiles, you ask? I dunno, I didn’t ask — I spent most of the evening consoling Son after he lost his big toe. But after that “Chucky Crocodile” experience, we emerged as a bonded team, readier than ever to do battle on the fantasy baseball front.
A lot of you are in that fantasy crucible right now. About 50 games remain in the season; I round up because I only work in base ten numbers. So, about 10 starts remain for your favorite hurlers, constituting about 25% of the season. Rankings fail more than ever now: playoff teams will rest their aces, non-playoff teams will give cups of coffee to their minor leaguers, and a quick search of the baseball news sites indicates some teams are talking six-man rotations already.
Of course, “rotation” can be loosely construed because minor league relievers are plentiful and can eat up plenty of innings. From August 17, 2021 until the end of the 2021 season, Paul Sewald made 26 appearances and made 26 IP. Comparatively, Logan Gilbert — the top starter for the Mariners last year — made 8 appearances and pitched 42 IP in the same span. Over on the White Sox, Michael Kopech made 16 appearances and notched 23 IP in the same span. Kopech pitched as many innings over the final bit of 2021 as did Carlos Rodon, who ran out of steam and watched his fastball velocity plummet. Sometimes, your fantasy dream is as much about letting go of players who have run out of steam as it is about finding new, shiny players.
Which is a long way of saying: I’m dismissing the ordered rankings from here onward. There are many reasons for this, but here’s the summary:
Rankings are mere hints at the likelihood of success: A top-ranked pitcher has a 60% chance, at best, of a superior fantasy outcome every time they take the mound. Which means, that even aces have a 40% or upwards chance of having a performance worthy of the fantasy gutter. Gerrit Cole’s July featured a 5.00 ERA. Corbin Burnes’ last four starts feature a 4.00 ERA. From May until July, Lucas Giolito’s ERA was around 7.00. These were the consensus SP1, SP3, and SP10 on the year. Meanwhile, some of the top pitchers over the past month have been Merrill Kelly (career 4.30 ERA), Jeffrey Springs (a converted reliever)…and Kyle Freeland (plays for the Rockies). This is why you need longitudinal data — or, data collected over time — to understand the best pitchers. Because if we based data over just the past month, then Kyle Freeland is a better pitcher than Gerrit Cole.
Rankings tend to “lock-in”: With only 50 MLB games left in the season, there’s not enough forward data to move a player if he suddenly turns sour. For example, Spencer Strider has a 14+ K/9 since becoming a starter. If he puts in a sub-par 8 K/9 for the rest of the season, his cumulative 11-ish K/9 rate will still be higher than almost every other starter out there, and Strider will retain a superior rank even if he’s out of gas.
Some of your aces may not play like aces: As I talked about last week in my 2022 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitchers article, there are a bunch of notable pitchers who have a strong reason to take a break during the playoff stretch. For example, the Angels have talked about trading Shohei Ohtani — do we think the Angels will run Ohtani full steam when they’re not making the playoffs? Last year, we watched Carlos Rodon run out of steam and his fastball dropped nearly 5MPH — he still finished in the top 15 SP. Rankings don’t reflect these changes.
Of course, if you love rankings and simply can’t live without a list in your life, you should navigate up top and purchase a Razzball premium subscription for $7 a month.
Let’s dive in!
News and Notes
Jameson Taillon: Big “meh” recommend here. He’s available in ~20% of leagues, but he’s getting that magical Yankees win luck. Over his past 5 starts, he’s produced a 3.76 ERA with a near 10 K/9, but the FIP and BB/9 are lagging, and he’s been chased before the fifth inning in 2 out of his last 5 starts. The Yankees have a pretty lax schedule through the end of August, so if you’re in a league where Taillon is still available, he’s worth a speculative add in redraft leagues.
Tarik Skubal: Kinda weird the Tigers were trying to trade him, and then two weeks later he’s shut down for the season. Skubal’s off to see an elbow specialist and will not pitch again in the 2022 season. The good news is that Skubal is one of the better young pitchers in MLB, and the Tigers are preserving his arm. The bad news, is that Skubal is under team control until 2027, which means he’s likely stuck on the Tigers until Grey runs for Mayor Los Angeles on the Boba ticket. Drop and move on in redraft, and be cautious in dynasty.
Nick Lodolo: After the Reds jettisoned their rotation, Lodolo’s spot in the rotation became concrete for the rest of the year, and he’s been making an impressive K/9 contribution so far. Since his return in July, he has a great 12+ K/9, and a dismal 5+ BB/9. Perhaps more interesting, is that his .400+ BABIP indicates a major regression incoming. Of course, the question is whether that regression will come in time for your fantasy playoffs. Even if he manages a (comparatively poor) 4+ BB/9, Lodolo’s K prowess could make him a fantasy playoff asset. Acquire and start.
Jose Berrios: We’ll always have July, right? For about a month, Berrios righted his disastrous 2022. Then came August — named after the Roman Emperor of Dwindling Returns — and Berrios completely collapsed like my Bitcoin holdings. Sure, he decimated Detroit, but he effectively threw batting practice to teams like the Twins and the Guardians, notching a 15+ ERA and striking out 2 of 41 batters faced. Yeesh. This got me thinking about position players who have pitched better than Berrios, and surprisingly, there are some good outings from J.D. Davis and Chris Davis in the past decade. That said, you would quite literally be better starting J.D. Davis at SP than Berrios right now, so it’s time to end the charade. Release Berrios in all redraft formats. Dynasty managers should strategically evaluate Berrios for 2023. For years, Berrios has been one of the most reliable SP2 on the market, and often performed SP1 duties for hitter-heavy teams. Berrios is only 28 and signed to a rich contract that will keep him in Toronto Blues for the foreseeable future. The Blue Jays will work hard to reclaim their prized starter, and there’s plenty of runway for Berrios to figure himself out in 2023. That said, dynasty managers in a good position to take on risk might want to “Buy” Berrios and see if some time off in the winter fixes everything.
Mike Clevinger: Clevinger finally started racking up IP for fantasy teams, but it’s a bit frightening: over his last five starts, he has a 4.64 xFIP to go along with a subpar 7.6 K/9. His 3.03 ERA over that period is nice, but we need to temper expectations. In his last start against the Nationals, Clevinger walked more batters than he struck out, and his fastball velocity has been a bit lower than it was earlier in the season. I’d be cautious deploying Clevinger in the future — he missed all of 2021 following Tommy John surgery and he seems to be the classic case of “needs a break” in 2022. Believe it or not, he’s three years older than Jose Berrios, so even dynasty managers need to ease back the “buy low” signal. For 2023, Would you rather acquire the 28-year-old Berrios or the 32-year-old Mike Clevinger? Clevinger is a free agent after this season, so expect him to push hard for IP during the fantasy playoffs — although those IP might not be usable. Start at your own risk.
Merrill Kelly: Sporting a 1.94 ERA with a nice 2.69 FIP since July 6. There’s some risk here with his low-ish K/9 and his true skill stats outpacing his ERA, but Kelly is racking up IP and he’s available in a bunch of leagues. His strength of schedule going forward is kind of dismal — the Giants, the Cardinals, and possibly Phillies — but if you’re desperate for a pitching play, Kelly is worth a shot. Tentative add for redraft leagues or streaming option.
Ranger Suarez: Available in about 25% of leagues, with a slightly better profile than Kelly. Over Suarez’s last six starts, he has a 2.06 ERA to 2.81 FIP, and his 8.2 K/9 is a notch better than Merrill Kelly. Everybody loved Suarez coming into the 2022 season, but his spring training got derailed to some visa issues. Over his first 15 starts, Suarez turned in a pretty blah stat line for fantasy managers, with a 4.33 ERA and a BB/9 rate nearing 4. So, there’s risk with Suarez as well — he’s got a higher upside than Merrill Kelly, but also a bigger drawdown than Kelly. Tentative add for redraft leagues or streaming option.
Sandy Alcantara: The man who needed no strikeouts. So that wonderful K/9 rate that we’ve seen boom and bust throughout the year is currently in a bust. Over his last two games, Alcantara has whiffed a total of seven batters for a flimsy 3.8 K/9. But keep in mind, even with his K/9 hot streak in July, he still has a cumulative 7.29 K/9 since June. I’m like a broken record on this, but if a pitcher doesn’t generate strikeouts, then it’s up to the eight defensive players on the field to generate those outs. Alcantara has allowed a sub-par 42% hard-hit rate since July, with a swinging strike rate sitting at a pedestrian 10.7%. Alcantara has the second-worst K/9 rate amongst starters in the past two weeks — worse than Johnny Cueto, Antonio Senzatela, Kyle Gibson…and Jose Berrios. Remember what I wrote 700 words ago about Jose Berrios being worse than a position player pitching? There’s the yin and the yang to batted balls. Whereas Berrios is tossing meatballs for the home run derby, Alcantara’s just killing worms with a near 60% ground ball rate over the last two months. But limiting damage is a skill! You shout from the rafters. Sure. Let’s compare: over the past 6 weeks, Alcantara’s ground ball % is sandwiched between Marcus Stroman and Graham Ashcroft. Elite! His CSW% is 66th among MLB starters, sandwiched between Sean Manaea and Kyle Gibson. Elite! Just so we’re clear, none of this is elite. This is just the continuance of Sandy being Sandy — and this happens in fantasy sports sometimes. Perhaps the most notable example is Rick Porcello, the plucky starter who won a Cy Young, went 11 consecutive years of 170+ IP, rarely K’d batters, and is now unemployed. Rick Porcello is one year older than Mike Clevinger. That’s all. So, let Sandy start — he’ll do his thing. Dynasty managers should take heed of those Alcantara comps though.
DL Hall: Plus: struck out 6 in 3.2 IP. Minus: Finished with a 12.27 ERA. The Orioles admitted that they wanted Hall to get a taste of the majors to know what he has to work on for 2023. The club invited (not called up) Grayson Rodriguez to watch Hall’s performance, indicating that Gray-Rod could get that cup of coffee all fantasy managers are seeking for the playoffs. As for Hall — he probably wasn’t ready for the limelight right now, as his AAA numbers still featured a near 6 BB/9 and a FIP north of 4.00. But the Orioles weren’t looking to pad stats — they were looking for Hall to understand that his timetable to the majors could be as early as next spring. If Hall shows up again in 2022, he’s a streamer.
Jacob deGrom: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that our favorite hero is back and K’ing everybody in sight. As expected, he’s putting in about 5-6 IP of work per outing. Fantasy managers should temper those IP expectations for the fantasy playoffs though: the Mets want deGrom for the real MLB playoffs, and they have a six-game lead in the NL East right now. As deficient as the Mets trainers have been over the past years, the case for workload management on deGrom is obvious: multiple shoulder and elbow injuries that kept him from MLB play for over a year, and deGrom has a player option on his contract this year. So, keep those 6IP outings in your sights, and fingers crossed that deGrom stays healthy. If you’ve got an IP cap in your league, deGrom is your cheat code right now.
Best of luck as we enter the fantasy crucible!