Top 11 starting pitchers for (fantasy) baseball
In an era where starting pitchers around the majors are throwing fewer innings and managers are getting more creative with their rotations, finding stability at the top of your fantasy staff can anchor your team as you deal with the myriad of injuries and illnesses that inevitably strike at pitchers throughout the year.
Here’s a look at the top 11 starting pitchers as far as I see them going into the 2022 season. Securing one of these players, as long as you don’t overdraft, could well be the key to winning your fantasy league.
The projections below are based upon ZIPS projections courtesy of Dan Szymborski at fangraphs.
Corbin Burnes (Milwaukee Brewers)
Burnes had a 2.00 xERA, combined with 12.6 K/9 and a 1.8 BB/9 in 2021, which are some of the best peripherals you could hope for. Burnes’ 1.63 FIP last season was basically the best by a starting pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999. Part of this success can be attributed to the incorporation of a cutter, which he turned into a devastating signature pitch during his Cy Young award winning 2021. Burnes’ performances and results say he is the best pitcher in baseball on a per-batter basis, the only thing hindering him for fantasy baseball purposes is the Brewers desire to ease the strain on their starters by using six-man rotations.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 11-5, 2.77 era, 1.05 whip, 204 k’s, 156 innings
Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees)
With some distance since the Spider Tack controversy we can objectively see that his spin rate was affected. When you look at his traditional or advanced stats his numbers were a little down across the board but his overall profile as an elite starting pitcher wasn’t affected. He’ll enter spring healthy and is a solid choice as the number one starting pitcher in fantasy. Cole's advanced stats of 12.06 K/9 and a 2.03 BB/9 are slightly below Burnes in 2021, a good enough reason to keep him behind Burnes in the rankings.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 16-7, 2.82 era, 1.02 whip, 248 k’s, 182 innings
Max Scherzer (New York Mets)
Last season Scherzer went 11.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 2.46 ERA, 2.97 FIP with a .247 BABIP. Which at 37 years old is remarkably consistent and in-line with his career stats. The low BABIP indicates we could see his ERA rise in 2022 should all things be equal or neutral, however Scherzer still possesses one of the best power fastball/slider combinations in the majors. There will come a year when he shows signs of a career decline but there is nothing in his profile to indicate we are there yet, and the New York Mets will be looking for him to extend his run as one of baseball’s greatest pitchers.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 12-7, 3.08 era, 1.01 whip, 231 k’s, 169.3 innings
Brandon Woodruff (Milwaukee Brewers)
Woodruff is rocking three devastating pitches with one of the best 4-seam fastballs in combination with a nasty changeup and curveball. His advanced stats of 10.59 K/9, 2.16 BB/9 show a pitcher that deserves to be recognized as elite despite the Brewers pitch management that limited him (and Corbin Burnes) to 180 innings pitched. The Brewers are sitting on the best one-two punch in baseball.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 11-6, 3.08 era, 1.05 whip, 187 k’s, 157.7 innings
Zack Wheeler (Philadelphia Phillies)
We know that Scherzer possesses one of the best fastball/slider combos in the majors, but he is run close by Wheeler. Wheeler has always had a dominating fastball, showcased in his breakout season with the Mets in 2018. What has changed? His slider and curveball both took a step forward last season with the Phillies. There are two ways to look at Wheeler right now: one can view last season’s league-leading 213 ⅓ innings as a breakout year and he is about to become one of the best in baseball. Or the inning toll he has suffered makes him susceptible to a down year, he has already experienced shoulder soreness in November. High risk, high reward.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 14-7, 3.23 era, 1.11 whip, 201 k’s, 192.3 innings
Jacob DeGrom (New York Mets)
In 15 games last season DeGrom was on track with a season for the ages. Injuries and arm troubles cut his season short and the risk that this continues has to be factored in when considering him in any fantasy leagues. At 34 years old, his age is another consideration. He’s no spring chicken. On the flip-side, look at those numbers! He posted a 14.28 K/9, 1.08 BB/9, 1.08 ERA and a 1.24 FIP which is all kinds of incredible. DeGrom was unhittable and by all accounts is entering spring training healthy.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 9-3, 2.28 era, 0.89 whip, 183 k’s, 130 innings
Aaron Nola (Philadelphia Phillies)
Nola’s 4.63 ERA last season hides the fact that, if you squint, a case can be made that Nola was a better pitcher than teammate Zack Wheeler last year. His 11.11 K/9, 1.94 BB/9 places him in the top 5 of qualified pitchers with respect to his peripherals. What held him back last year was a GB% at 40.5 (the lowest of his career) and a FB% 40.5 (the highest of his career) that wasn’t in line with the type of pitcher he has shown. Can he keep the ball down this year? Well there are six years of experience that suggest he can. If Nola does make the adjustments required, he could be a star in the making and give the Phillies a one-two punch to rival the Brewers.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 12-7, 3.46 era, 1.11 whip, 217 k’s, 184.7 innings
Walker Buehler (Los Angeles Dodgers)
There are some concerning issues with the season that Buehler posted last year. His 9.19 K/9 was the lowest of his career and his fastball velocity is trending down. Not good signs. However, the right-hander is coming into his prime at 27 years old, taking on the role of staff-ace that was Clayton Kershaw’s responsibility for so long. It also can’t be underestimated what pitching behind the murderers-row that is the Dodgers lineup will do for him and his win totals. Expectations are high and Buehler looks ready to become one of the game’s best.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 12-6, 3.23 era, 1.05 whip, 205 k’s, 189.3 innings
Lucas Giolito (Chicago White Sox)
Expectations are a funny thing, Giolito was drafted as one of the top-5 starting pitchers in all of baseball and by that standard he was disappointing in 2021. Looking beyond last season’s expectations we can see a career best 2.62 BB/9 coupled with a 10.13 K/9 rate. Much like Walker Buehler above, he is entering his prime at 27 years old, with three pitches that all rate above average. He’s a staff ace, has shown durability and is playing on a team that should offer some run support. He’s slowly turning himself into a fantasy ace.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 13-8, 3.36 era, 1.09 whip, 217 k’s, 174.3 innings
Freddy Peralta (Milwaukee Brewers)
You know how I mentioned that the Brewers have the best one-two punch in baseball? Let’s make that the best one-two-three. This is an aggressive ranking for a player who broke out in a big way last year in only 144.1 innings. He often gets overlooked behind the other staff aces on the Brewers but if he can increase his innings - a big if where the Brewers are concerned - his stuff is filthy as indicated by a 12.16 K/9 rate and solid across the board pitch values for his fastball, curveball and slider. Batters struggle to hit him, if he’s available in your fantasy league in the early-to-mid-rounds don’t hesitate to snap him up.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 10-6, 3.59 era, 1.15 whip, 198 k’s, 143 innings
Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels)
I had to fit him in somewhere, what more can be said about Shohei’s remarkable 2021 season? The AL MVP and historic two-way player is a fantasy unicorn, and the requirements of your fantasy league will determine how valuable he truly is. In the real world his greatness and potential (he is entering a pitchers prime at age 27 after all) can’t be overestimated. With a fastball that he can ratchet up to 100mph, Ohtani actually improved as a pitcher in the second half of the season to the tune of a 2.84 ERA, a 27.6 K% and eight quality starts over 10 games. All bets are off when you have his kind of ability. A generational talent that, simply, would be fun to draft and watch.
ZIPS PROJECTION: 6-4, 3.63 era, 1.20 whip, 132 k’s, 111.7 innings