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Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Battles: Aaron Nola vs. Corbin Burnes, Dylan Cease vs. Sonny Gray, and Cole Ragans vs. Grayson Rodriguez

Aaron Nola - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, MLB Injury News, DFS Lineup Picks

It's easy to fall into the weeds when examining fantasy baseball starting pitchers, especially when considering which one we prefer based on the numbers. We'll look at three pairs of starting pitchers who fantasy managers valued highly in ADP. Should we be starting or benching these starting pitchers? What do their skills look like?

In each section, we'll present the argument for each starting pitcher, with a closing verdict that summarizes the data. Though this won't serve as a huge deep dive into each player and their arsenal, it will provide a skill-based examination of each starting pitcher.

We have a beefy article, so let's dive into these starting pitcher battles.

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


Aaron Nola vs. Corbin Burnes

The Argument for Nola

Aaron Nola has a track record of eating quality innings the most (1,149.2 IP) since 2018 among starting pitchers. The closest pitchers behind him include Jose Berrios (1,095.1) and Zack Wheeler (1,094.2). Among the starting-pitcher leaders in innings with a 15 percent strikeout minus walk rate since 2018, only four had a strikeout minus walk rate above 20 percent with over 900 innings. That list includes Nola, Gerrit Cole, Kevin Gausman, and Max Scherzer.

From a skills and durability standpoint, it's hard to find starting pitchers that rival Nola. Aside from respecting Nola's career, one concerning area in 2024 involves his lowest swinging strike rate since 2016. From 2017 to 2023, Nola's swinging strike rate hovered in the 12-13 percent range.

Nola's curveball remains his top whiff pitch, evidenced by his 16.5 percent swinging strike rate, nearly two percentage points below his career average. However, Nola's swinging strike rates on the changeup (5.1 percent) and cutter (6.7) have reduced in half compared to the career norms. For context, Nola's career swinging strike rate on the changeup sat at 15 percent, with the cutter at 13.8 percent.

We've noticed a gradual downtick in vertical movement over the past few seasons on the curveball and changeup, aligning with the slight decline in the swinging strike rate. Since Nola commands pitches well, the locations haven't changed much from looking at the heat maps.

The Argument for Burnes

While Corbin Burnes hasn't had the extensive track record of Nola, he posted three elite to near-elite consecutive seasons. Burnes joining the Orioles caused fantasy managers to have more intrigue with the home ballpark and team context changing positively. Like Nola, Burnes typically rocked an above-average strikeout minus walk rate. However, we've seen the strikeout minus walk rate gradually decline from 30 percent (2021) to 23 percent (2022) to 16 percent (2023).

The strikeout minus walk rate in 2024 at 17 percent looks similar to last season. Unsurprisingly, Burnes' swinging strike rate went from elite to above average for him since 2021. Since the skills have slightly eroded for Burnes, the xERA in 2021 (2.56) and 2022 (2.87) went from elite to solid, evidenced by his 2023 xERA (3.78) and 2024 (3.36).

Though the above visual shows the whiff rates, it aligns with the swinging strike rates. Interestingly, Burnes traded whiffs on the curveball for the slider. In 2024, Burnes' slider had a 25.1 percent swinging strike rate compared to 19.8 percent in 2023. Meanwhile, he lost whiffs on the curveball, given the 14.1 percent swinging strike rate in 2024 compared to 18.4 percent in 2023. In the peak seasons of 2021 and 2022, the cutter and changeup were on another level, declining by 4-7 percentage points on the cutter and 6-7 points via the changeup.

The slider retained vertical movement levels of 35-36 inches. However, the curveball dropped by around six inches more than in 2022, typically leading to more whiffs and weak contact. That contradicts what we usually find when pitch-level swinging strike rates rise or fall. Regardless, the curveball remains effective against lefties (.168 wOBA), with the slider allowing a .249 wOBA versus right-handed hitters. Burnes still possesses above-average skills in several areas, though it may not be at the elite levels of 2021 and 2022.


Verdict of Nola vs. Burnes

Nola's xERA of 3.54 hints at regression based on the 2.77 actual ERA. There have been some luck factors (BABIP, strand rate) in his favor, with a decline in strikeout skills after tons of consistency. Burnes has been dominant to begin the season, though the strand rate hints at luck factors in his favor. Regardless, Burnes rocks above-average skills with his strikeout minus walk and swinging strike rates. Since Burnes boasts more strikeout skills, with Nola seeing a noticeable decline, the edge goes to Burnes for which starting pitcher will finish as the better-ranked pitcher between the two.


Dylan Cease vs. Sonny Gray

The Argument for Cease

We know Cease has the stuff to be a dominant strikeout arm, but sometimes consistency can be an issue due to the control. Cease's walk rate improved in 2024, yet the 37 percent ball rate doesn't align. In 2021, Cease's ball rate of 37.7 percent remained similar in 2022 (37.8 percent) and 2023 (38.2 percent). That indicates the strikeout minus walk rate might be unsustainable, with slight regression coming in the walks closer to the career average.

The strikeout stuff for Cease is still elite, with a 15.1 percent swinging strike rate. Cease's slider leads the arsenal, with a ridiculous 20.6 percent swinging strike rate, while the curveball serves as his second-best pitch for whiffs at 12.1 percent (2024). His slider typically highlights the arsenal, with the changeup and curveball mixing in as the next highest whiff option.

One way to see a pitcher's stuff from a movement standpoint involves their vertical break or horizontal sweep percentage on a given pitch. That shows us how much better this pitch moves versus the average offering. Unsurprisingly, Cease's slider, four-seamer, and curveball typically generate above-average levels of vertical movement, supporting high whiff rates.

The Argument for Gray

Though it's unfair to Gray, he sometimes feels like the definition of a skilled and somewhat boring starting pitcher. After finding success with the Twins for two seasons in 2022 (3.08 ERA, 16 percent K-BB rate, 125 BPX) and 2023 (2.79 ERA, 16 percent K-BB rate, 132 BPX), Gray made gains in 2024. After an xERA of 3.65 (2022) and 3.70 (2023), Gray's 2.83 xERA in 2024 sits below his actual (3.01) for the first time since 2021 with the Reds.

Gray's strikeout rate ballooned to a career-high, with the swinging strike rate following suit, evidenced by a career-best 13 percent. His slider (24.1 percent) and curveball (10.4) look similar to the career averages in swinging strike rate. However, Gray's cutter (15.2 percent) and changeup (11.3 percent) increased by about two percentage points from his career norm.

Part of the improvements on the cutter involves him using it more often against right-handed hitters. That's evident in the cutter usage of 26 percent in 2024, up from 18.2 percent in 2023. The results improved against right-handed hitters, given the .166 wOBA in 2024 and .271 wOBA in 2023. It's likely a mix of luck and Gray locating the cutter better since the movement profile hasn't shifted much.

Interestingly, Gray's changeup usage remained the same compared to 2023, around 13.5 percent versus lefties. The luck factors and movement profile look similar, so the slight shift in results and swinging strike rate against left-handed hitters may be fluky.


Verdict of Cease vs. Gray

Cease possesses more strikeout upside than Gray, though Gray's balance of control with the peak swinging strike rate suggests the skills support the gains in 2024. Fantasy managers can't go wrong with either, and Cease probably warrants more name value than Gray. Since both have above-average to near-elite skills in several areas, Cease will be the better option in season-long rotisserie leagues, with Gray having more per-inning value based on each of their health track records.


Cole Ragans vs. Grayson Rodriguez

The Argument for Ragans

Ragans lit up the fantasy world toward the end of last season and continued that success into 2024. Most skill metrics look similar or better, with a 21.7 percent strikeout minus walk rate with the Royals (2023) to 22.5 percent (2024). The same goes for his swinging strike rate, evidenced by his 15 percent with the Royals in 2023 and 14.4 percent in 2024.

Ragans' changeup has been deadly, with a 25 percent swinging strike rate, four points above his career average. That's especially true against right-handed hitters, with a .249 wOBA, though the numbers regressed slightly from 2023 (.197 wOBA). Meanwhile, the slider took a slight step back, given the 14.6 percent swinging strike rate in 2024 compared to 25.5 percent in 2023. Hitters haven't been chasing the slider as much in 2024, dropping over 16 percentage points to 32.6 percent.

Ragans increased the four-seamer (53 percent) and slider (35.4 percent) by 8-9 percentage points to left-handed hitters. It might be sample size noise from 2023 to 2024, and same-handed hitters may have adjusted to the slider thrown more often. The slider pitch shape hasn't changed much from 2023, so it's likely a matter of the location of the breaking ball. That's evident in the visual below.

Ragans continued to throw the slider 50-53 percent of the time down and away to left-handed hitters. However, when Ragans threw the slider low in the zone, hitters crushed it, evidenced by the .414 wOBA in 2024 compared to a .218 wOBA. That's odd because the slider zone rate fell from 41.8 percent (2023) to 36.1 percent (2024). It looks like something fixable for Ragans, so expect some adjustments on the slider location.

The Argument for Rodriguez

Rodriguez is living up to the prospect hype in 2024, though the 3.84 xERA in 2024 hints at regression, given the actual ERA of 3.27. Interestingly, Rodriguez had a nearly identical xERA in 2023 (3.89). That likely means most of his skills remained similar, with luck factors shifting in his favor in 2024. The strikeout minus walk rate (18 percent) hovers near the 2023 numbers, but the swinging strike rate increased by over one percentage point to a near-elite range of 14 percent.

Rodriguez's main change came via ditching the sweeper for a traditional slider. He replaced the sweeper for the slider with similar usage, or it might be a pitch classification change on Baseball Savant.

It could be a mixture of the sweeper and the old slider since the 2024 slider drops 34 inches and breaks over five inches. Last season, Rodriguez's sweeper moved vertically 36.7 inches like the current slider, yet over six inches of sweep as expected.

Rodriguez's slider (18.2 percent) and changeup (18.8 percent) have a nearly identical swinging strike rate, leading his arsenal from a whiff standpoint. Interestingly, Rodriguez's slider and changeup have worse batted-ball results than expected.

Against right-handed hitters, his slider allows a .352 wOBA with the changeup's .167 wOBA. Right-handed hitters rock the four-seamer, given the .412 wOBA. His four-seamer has an average induced vertical break (16.4 inches), yet possesses tons of arm-side run, which should lead to weaker contact. That gives him one relatively effective pitch against same-handed hitters.

Meanwhile, the changeup allows a .361 wOBA versus left-handed hitters, with the four-seamer having the best results (.228 wOBA) among the pitches he throws most often (four-seam, changeup, and curveball). That suggests the swinging strike rates on the slider and changeup may dip closer to the 2023 numbers around 15 percent, which is still serviceable.


Verdict of Ragans vs. Rodriguez

The overall profile comparison makes it an easier selection of Ragans based on the strikeout skills from a floor and ceiling standpoint. From a pitch-level stuff comparison, Ragans edges Rodriguez. The key to unlocking a small step forward for Rodriguez might involve lowering the four-seamer usage while using more sliders and changeups. It's within the range of outcomes for Rodriguez to take another step forward in the latter half of 2024 and into the following season. However, Ragans checks more of the skill and arsenal boxes than Rodriguez.

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