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Top Early-Season Pitching Standouts - Analyzing Hot Starts for Fantasy Baseball

Garrett Crochet - Fantasy Baseball Waiver Wire Pickups, Closers and Saves

We're only a week into the regular season, and the pitching landscape is already buzzing. Some of that is negative, unfortunately, but we also have plenty of pitchers off to hot starts this season that are exciting to look into right now.

Some of these arms are younger and breaking out, while others are veterans emerging in new roles or bouncing back after subpar seasons in 2023.

Below, I have broken down 10 pitchers off to hot starts through their first start or two and how I'm valuing them moving forward.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:

 

Early-Season Pitching Standouts

Garrett Crochet, Chicago White Sox

Out of the three high-upside southpaws transitioning to the rotation this season, most of the hype was geared toward A.J. Puk and DL Hall. However, it's been Garrett Crochet who has dominated out of the gate while the other two have struggled. In his first two starts, Crochet has a stellar 1.68 ERA and 0.69 WHIP in 13 innings with a 2.1% walk rate and 33.3% strikeout rate. He even dominated a loaded Atlanta lineup his last time out.

While the upside has always been there with Crochet, who was the #11 overall selection in the 2020 draft, his dominating like this out of the gate is a tad surprising. The question now is, can he keep it up? Maybe not to this degree, but Crochet features a 97 mph fastball, mid-80s slider, and low-90s cutter that can all miss bats along with the occasional changeup. The bat-missing ability has always been there, and if Crochet can continue to limit the free passes, the upside is a Top 25 starting pitcher long-term.

Shane Bieber, Cleveland Guardians

When reports of Shane Bieber's increased velocity surfaced this offseason, intrigue for the former Cy Young award winner began picking back up. Fortunately, he's carried that increased velocity over into spring and the regular season with two impressive starts out of the gate. In 12 innings so far, Bieber hasn't allowed an earned run with a 0.92 WHIP and 20 strikeouts to just one walk. Bieber has always been a control artist, even when struggling, but it's highly encouraging to see the velocity and strikeout rate back up so far this season.

After two straight seasons with an average fastball velocity of 91.3 mph, Bieber is sitting at 92 mph through two starts this season. He's also missing a ton of bats with his slider, changeup, and cutter, all having a whiff rate north of 40 % right now. Overall, Bieber has recorded a 71.7% zone contact rate and a 36.7% whiff rate. It's only been two starts, but the arrow next to Bieber's name is certainly pointing up. Maybe he's never a fantasy ace as he was a few years ago, but Bieber could still return the Top 25 SP value.

Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles

As someone who has been extremely high on Grayson Rodriguez for a while, it's not surprising to see him pitching like an ace. After some early season struggles last season, some additional time in Triple-A was exactly what Rodriguez needed to get back on track. After six innings on one-run ball and nine strikeouts in his 2024 debut, Rodriguez now has a 2.13 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 6.3% walk rate, and 25.4% strikeout rate over his last 12 starts dating back to last season.

Even with the success down the stretch last season, we've seen a new-look Rodriguez this year with a different pitch mix. He's completely ditched his slider while throwing more changeups and curveballs. Those offerings had a whiff rate of 60% and 50%, respectively, in Rodriguez's first outing on March 30. Rodriguez has the elite fastball velocity and bat-missing ability to be an annual Top 5 fantasy SP and perennial American League Cy Young award contender. As long as he locates his fastball well, he's going to be a stud.

Bobby Miller, Los Angeles Dodgers

Right in the same tier as Rodriguez long-term is Bobby Miller, who tossed six shutout innings with 11 strikeouts in his 2024 debut. He was able to rack up 11 strikeouts with only a 22% whiff rate in that outing. We'd all love to see Miller's whiff rate tick up, which it absolutely can with his nasty stuff, but Miller could still post a good strikeout rate without a lofty whiff rate.

As mentioned, Miller possesses elite stuff. He has a 4-seamer and sinker, both above 98 mph on average, along with a mid-80s changeup, low-90s slider, and low-80s curveball. Miller pitches in four velocity bands and combines his plus command and elite pitch movement to keep hitters off balance and limit hard contact. This is a no-doubt Top 10 starting pitcher in the making who could provide that value this season.

Cole Ragans, Kansas City Royals

With so many big names getting bit by the injury bug, we have plenty of open spots in the fantasy ace club right now, and Cole Ragans is doing a great job of snagging one of those spots while also showing that his late-season breakout in 2023 was no fluke. In 84 innings since being traded to Kansas City and entering the rotation full-time, Ragans has posted a 2.46 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 9.6% walk rate, and 31.4% strikeout rate. In 2024, he struck out 16 in 12.1 innings while allowing just two earned runs.

What I love about Ragans' arsenal is that he used all five pitches against both right-handed and left-handed batters. He can also miss bats, with all five offerings registering a whiff rate of 23.8% or higher in 2023. I'm not sure what anyone else needs to see at this point. Ragans has been pitching like an ace since the 2023 trade deadline and needs to be valued as such moving forward.

Brady Singer, Kansas City Royals

Another Kansas City Royals arm that dominated in his first outing of 2024 was Brady Singer. After a breakout season in 2022, Singer struggled to the tune of a 5.52 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 159.2 innings last season while seeing his strikeout rate drop to 18.9%. On top of that, Singer allowed a 91 mph AVG EV and 48.6% hard-hit rate last season, both of which were in the bottom-6% for pitchers.

Singer is doing his best to put 2023 in the rearview mirror, though, tossing seven shutout innings with 10 strikeouts in his 2024 debut on Sunday against a solid Twins squad. We've seen Singer switch up his pitch mix a bit this year, throwing more four-seam fastballs and sliders with fewer sinkers. This has been a needed change, as Singer's sinker allowed a .339 BAA, .555 SLG, and .406 wOBA last season. I'm not necessarily saying that he's going to bounce back to 2022 levels, but Singer has made tangible changes and could be in store for a decent bounce-back season in 2024. However, he's the name on this list I'm the least willing to buy in on.

Nick Pivetta, Boston Red Sox

If I were to wipe any baseball memories before July 2023 from your mind, you'd probably think Nick Pivetta is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Well, since the beginning of last July, he has been. In 93.2 innings over this timeframe, Pivetta has recorded a 2.97 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 6.3% walk rate, and 35.3% strikeout rate. Only Freddy Peralta has a higher strikeout rate and K-BB rate than Pivetta during this span.

I'll admit, I was a bit hesitant to buy in at first (who wasn't?), but I'm definitely buying in now. Pivetta mixes a 4-seamer, sweeper, cutter, and curveball (occasional slider as well) in four different velocity bands, and all four pitches can miss bats. In 2023, Pivetta has a whiff rate above 30% on four offerings, and only his cutter has a BAA above .220. Although he's made some pitch mix adjustments in 2024 so far, it's more of the same dominance from Pivetta. It's time to ignore any hesitations you may have and buy into Pivetta as an impact fantasy arm.

Kutter Crawford, Boston Red Sox

One of my biggest targets, both in dynasty and redraft leagues this offseason, was Kutter Crawford. In 2023, Crawford was one of just five starting pitchers to have a strikeout rate above 25%, a walk rate below 7%, and an xERA below 3.50 across at least 120 innings. The other four were Gerrit Cole, Pablo Lopez, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin, all of whom were Top-100 draft picks this spring, while Crawford's ADP was outside of the Top 200.

Like every other Boston starter outside of Brayan Bello, Crawford dominated in his 2024 debut, striking out seven over six scoreless innings. Crawford's pitch mix has also adjusted a bit this season under the guidance of Kyle Boddy and Andrew Bailey, going with more sweepers and fewer fastballs. I'm not anticipating Crawford rising to elite status, but what we saw in 2023 was legitimate, and he could easily return Top 40 SP value this season. I've been 100% buying in and that isn't changing any time soon.

Garrett Whitlock, Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox pitching staff is truly off to a dominant start to the 2024 season, as evidenced by having FOUR of them in this article. That's right, and we still have one more to go after Whitlock. In his first outing of the season, Whitlock allowed just one earned run in five innings while striking out eight. Gelling with the status quo in Boston, Whitlock threw his changeup, slider, sweeper, and cutter 71.6% of the time with only 28.4% usage on his sinker after throwing that offering 52.5% of the time last season. Whitlock didn't even use a slider or cutter last season, so these two new offerings bring more diversity to his already solid arsenal.

While Boston has yoyoed with Whitty's role over the past few seasons, they appear committed to him in the rotation this season, especially after Lucas Giolito's season-ending injury. We can count on Whitlock for a low walk rate, and he's been an above-average strikeout arm throughout his career as well, and that might tick up in 2024 due to increased usage of his secondary offerings. Health is still an issue with Whitlock, but if he can stay healthy, we could see him return similar value to someone like Jose Berrios.

Tanner Houck, Boston Red Sox

Alright, we've finally made it to the last Boston arm on this list. With Giolito out for the season, Houck became locked into the rotation and dazzled in his 2024 debut. In six innings, Houck allowed just three hits with zero runs, zero walks, and 10 strikeouts. Yes, it was Oakland, but this was still a highly impressive outing from Houck and, honestly, the best I've ever seen him from start to finish in a start.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Houck's pitch mix has changed this season. He's ditched the 4-seamer (9.9% usage in 2023) and threw more sinkers and splitters in his first outing of 2024. He's always been able to miss plenty of bats with his slider, and establishing the splitter as another out pitch could really elevate Houck's game in 2024. This is only one start, so I wouldn't go overboard, but the upside is definitely here for Houck to be an impact fantasy starter this season.

 

If you enjoyed this article and want to see Eric’s rankings, analysis, and more, check out Eric's Toolshed Fantasy Patreon.



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