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A Year to Remember: MLB Pitchers Who Had Career Years in 2022 Fantasy Baseball

Jon Anderson here, back with another offseason fantasy baseball piece. We have been looking at players from 2022 that had standout years either positively or negatively. I checked on players that we expect to bounce back in 2023 after really disappointing seasons in 2022 in these two articles:

Pitcher Bounce-Backs
Hitter Bounce-Backs

Now we are looking at players that are coming off seasons that were at or near their career-best outputs, and we will talk about what to do with them for 2023.  I covered hitters in this piece, so check that out if you haven't. For now, we will move forward and look at some pitchers that are coming off of career years. Let's get to it.

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Career Year Pitchers and What To Do With Them

Framber Valdez, Houston Astros

The lefty ground-baller posted career bests in almost every statistical category in 2022. Most notably, he made a career-high 31 starts and posted a career-low 2.82 ERA. We have long known Valdez as a guy who can get deep into games and limit damage given the ridiculous ground-ball rates he's able to post (60%+ most of the time). What we needed to see from him was some improvement in strikeouts and walks. Early in his career, he really struggled with the walks and wasn't able to get a ton of strikeouts to counteract that - but in 2022 he made serious gains in both categories:

 

The continued separation between those two lines is incredibly important to see. It's really hard to believe that a pitcher can post a really great ERA without something close to a 20-point difference between the K% and BB%. Valdez still isn't there (23.5% - 8.1%), but he got much closer, and he did without sacrificing any of the ground balls that are so valuable to maintaining a low ERA (66.5% GB%).

Valdez also reached a new career-best swinging-strike rate at 11.3%. That mark is still below the league average, and I don't think it's likely to change given that he has so much success with the sinker and it's not likely to change (the sinker is the easiest pitch to make contact with, so any pitcher throwing a ton of those pitches will likely be on the lower end of SwStr%).

Next season will be Valdez's age-29 season, which is right there in the sweet spot. His floor is pretty fantastic with the proven ground-ball rate and clear improvements we've seen him make, and the team around him will continue to be elite. All of this makes Valdez a perfectly fine fantasy pick for your team next year, even though the price will certainly come way up.

Verdict: I don't like to buy high on pitchers, but Valdez seems like a really safe and solid option for fantasy next year - and those pitchers aren't easy to find at any price.

Justin Verlander, Houston Astros (will be a free agent this offseason)

At age 39, Justin Verlander just posted the best ERA+ of his Hall of Fame career, and it happened after he lost nearly two seasons to injury.

I am a data guy, that's what I'm good at. Most things in sports can be explained at least somewhat well with data and correlations and testing and all that - but there are rare exceptions where the numbers just don't mean as much. Verlander is clearly one of those exceptions. A few things don't really jive with Verlander, statistically:

  • Almost no 39-year-old has ever pitched this many innings, to say nothing about how elite those innings were
  • Very few pitchers can miss that much time and come back and immediately dominate like this
  • Verlander's 27.8% K% and 4.4% BB% were very good, but not quite the super-elite level of K-BB% that you would expect to see with a 1.75 ERA
  • His 27.9% CSW% and 13.0% SwStr% don't stand out either

If it weren't Justin Verlander we were talking about, I would take all of the above and say that the guy is an easy fade next year. But it is Verlander, and it's probably not the right take to just write him off immediately.

THAT SAID, he is going to be drafted as a top-10 starter next year. That means you will be taking him to anchor your fantasy pitching staff, and you will be really, really reliant on him putting up another elite year (obviously he doesn't need to get anywhere near a 1.75 ERA to justify a top-25 pick, but you do want something around 2.50 or so). There is almost no "upside" for pitchers taken in the first couple of rounds - the key there is just to get a guy that stays healthy and pitches very well.

Ask yourself this - do you want to bet that many chips on a 40-year-old?

Another not overly relevant note: Verlander will be a free agent, so he could very well land on a different (and worse) team.

Verdict: Verlander will probably be an ace until he just gets bored of it, but I would rather invest in a younger pitcher as my SP1.

Nestor Cortes, New York Yankees

Nasty Nestor was one of the biggest surprises of the 2022 fantasy baseball season. The 28-year-old came into the year without a ton of Major League experience (172 innings), but a bad career 4.66 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP in that time. He was always a strong pitcher in the minors with a career 2.57 ERA down there with a very strong 4:1 K-BB ratio, but needless to say - nobody expected Cortes to put a top-50 season as a starting pitcher.

The question is - was it legit?

The first thing we look to is the K-BB% ratio, and that checks out nicely for Cortes (26.5% K%, 6.2% BB% - a 20.3% K-BB%).

The second thing to look at is the underlying advanced metrics:

  • 12.4% SwStr%
  • 29.6% CSW%
  • 5.3% Brl%
  • 34.2% GB%

I am pretty underwhelmed here. Cortes has six pitches in his bag, but really only uses three of them (the four-seamer, cutter, and slider account for 92% of his pitches). None of those pitches look all that fantastic:

  • 4-Seam: 13.3% SwStr%, 31.1% CSW%, 5.8% Brl%
  • Cutter: 13.6% SwStr%, 27.2% CSW%, 5.0% Brl%
  • Slider: 8.4% swStr%, 34.2% CSW%, 4.3% Brl%

It seems fair to say that Cortes got it done with command and deception, as is the case with most people who repeatedly outperform their peripherals. Maybe he can replicate this success next year, I don't have a great feeling about it - but I would say there's a lot more risk here than people may think on draft day.

Verdict: A history of mediocrity prior to 2022 - and nothing overly impressive in the arsenal. Maybe he is one of these guys who have succeeded despite the lack of great stuff - but I would rather not take the risk.

Tyler Anderson, Los Angeles Dodgers (will be a free agent this offseason)

Anderson was another guy who really bolstered fantasy squads in 2022, as he was undrafted in most leagues and went on to post a 2.57 ERA with a 1.00 WHIP while winning 15 games for the Dodgers. He has been a career "blah" for fantasy purposes - although his career is largely tainted by pitching four years with the Rockies. Here are the career numbers, with the Rockies years highlighted in purple:


So we took an entire run off of his previous career-best ERA and dropped the WHIP down to an elite mark of 1.00. The bad news is that he posted a bad strikeout rate of just 19.1% - although that is slightly helped by the huge gains he made in the walk rate as well.

I don't think Anderson will be drafted as a top-30 pitcher or anything like that as he enters his age-33 season, especially given his likely departure from Los Angeles via free agency. I think the fantasy baseball community is much sharper than that. However, your league might have that one guy who only looks at stats from the previous season - and that would have that person eager to draft Anderson much too soon.

Kyle Wright, Atlanta Braves

Right there with Cortes and Anderson as a breakout fantasy pitcher in 2022 was Kyle Wright. He made 30 starts for the Braves and went for a strong 3.19 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP while winning 21 games. His xFIP was 3.58 and the SIERA was 3.48 - so that supports him as an actually-good pitcher, but we should always be a little bit hesitant to buy into these "out of nowhere" breakouts.

Prior to 2022, Wright had posted a horrid 6.56 ERA in 70 Major League innings. He had struggled mightily with the walk (6.2 BB/9) and gave up a lot of long balls (1.9 HR/9). He patched both of those things up in 2022 (2.6 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9) at the age of 26.

I have little doubt that in 2023, Wright will look more like his 2022 self than his 2018-2021 self, but it is tough to forgive a guy for three seasons of mediocrity after just one good season. The question is where is the floor and where is the ceiling? Here's a look at his pitch arsenal:

Woah baby - that's a lot of curveballs! He might be the only starting pitcher in the league to lead his arsenal with a curveball to this extent (34% to 24%). That is not an easy thing to do, and I would have some doubts that he can keep that up while not losing some ground on the walk rate. That said, all five of these pitches worked fine for their own purposes. I like pitchers with the four-seamer and sinker combination, so there are definitely some possible routes for adjustment moving forward.

I think the price will probably be RIGHT on WRIGHT here, and maybe there is some extra upside given his age and arsenal depth - but if I had to bet, I would bet that 2023 goes a bit worse than 2022.

Verdict: I won't yell at you for drafting Kyle Wright next year, but he won't be a priority pick for me.

Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks righty had a career-best year in 2022 at the age of 33. Het threw 200.1 innings and put up a nice 3.37 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP while winning 13 games and staying healthy all year (33 starts). His ERA indicators were a bit worse than the actual ERA, but they weren't egregious:

  • xFIP: 3.85
  • FIP: 3.65
  • SIERA: 4.01

What I don't like is the middling 22%-8% K%-BB%. That's not a terrible ratio, but it does leave the door open for the ERA to inflate significantly next year if he has less batted-ball luck (.269 BABIP in 2022). This is a guy who spent most of his professional career in Korea and didn't make it to the Majors until he was in his late twenties. As unfair as it may be to say, that doesn't bode well for him.

His "stuff" is mediocre with a really, really low 9.7% SwStr% and a 26.6% CSW%. There just really isn't anything exciting in his profile, and he's on the wrong side of 30. I don't think people will draft him aggressively at all next year, but I do feel confident that his ADP will be too high for my taste.

Verdict: No thanks on Kelly even at the anticipated low price.

Martin Perez, Texas Rangers (will be a free agent this offseason)

Perez has been in the Majors (up and down) since 2012. The best effort he put forth in ERA prior to 2022 was the 2013 season, when he made 20 starts for the Rangers and put up a 3.62 ERA. In 2022, he made 32 starts and put up a 2.89 ERA at age 31.

That doesn't make a lot of sense. His career ERA is now 4.43. The good news is that he posted a career-best strikeout rate in 2022, the bad news is that it was still just a 20.6% K%. Not good, and it came with a league-average walk rate.

He is a free agent, and will surely end up in someone's rotation, and this is another guy that will still be pretty cheap given the sharpness of the field - but Perez is a super easy guy to be out on at age 32 with a fresh contract.

Verdict: Let someone else chase that career year.

That's it for career-year pitchers, hope it helped! Keep it locked on RotoBaller as the team and I bring you fantasy baseball content all offseason long!



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