Don't have an account?
Join the Best Live Fantasy Chat Community!

Lost password? [X]

Receive free daily analysis:


Already have an account? Log in here.


Forgot Password


Where Are The Elite Starters? Looking for 2019’s deGrom

Researching elite starters has taught me a number of things about pitcher development. One of the most valuable has been the reminder that progress is never linear.

Blake Snell and Justin Verlander present recent examples of that. Verlander has been in “obvious decline” on two occasions now, and both times he’s bounced back. 2016 Blake Snell displayed impressive talent but limited control. He was then relegated to AAA for portions of 2017, lost strikeouts, and saw his ERA increase, but we all know what he did in 2018.

Despite the inconsistent nature of growth, we do see patterns in those pitchers who emerge as elite starters. In parts one and two of the series, I worked to assemble a methodical approach for identifying pitchers who were more likely to emerge as elite starters. If you want to read more about the methodology, check out those articles. In this space, I want to focus on what it reveals about starters for this coming season.

Editor's Note: Get any full-season MLB Premium Pass for 50% off. Exclusive access to our Draft Kit, premium rankings, projections, player outlooks, top sleepers, dynasty and prospect rankings, 15 in-season lineup tools, and over 200 days of expert DFS research. Sign Up Now!


Hunting for Upside

Looking at about twenty different stats, I saw a few baseline elements that spanned nearly every pre-elite season. In the vast majority of cases, pre-elite starters offered at least a 3.54 FIP, a 3.7 xFIP, 150 innings pitched, and a swinging-strike rate of 11.0%. There were exceptions to those, but they were statistical outliers. There were many other metrics involved, but those elements offered clear parameters for my search.

To be clear, the system would never have predicted Blake Snell’s Cy-Young performance, but it would have given far more confidence in drafting Max Scherzer in 2013 when he broke out or Aaron Nola last season. I didn’t design it to evaluate a player’s likely outcome. I designed it to indicate the possibility of whether a pitcher looked like a potential elite starter. A positive score means that a pitcher had better than average indicators for a pre-elite starter. A neutral score means the pitcher looked exactly like a pre-elite starter, and a negative score means that a pitcher had below average indicators for a pre-elite starter.

The data offers a way to gauge these players more objectively, but there are reasons not to treat the data as an absolute barometer. For instance, the system likes Alex Wood, and I think he’s undervalued, but there’s a near zero chance that he emerges as an ace. On the other hand, Zach Wheeler has a negative score, but his -1.2 score is easily explained by his return from injury.

Without further delay, here are the numbers…

Pitcher ADP Z-Score
Max Scherzer 4 14.3
Jacob deGrom 11 20.7
Chris Sale 15 15.6
Justin Verlander 22 9.4
Corey Kluber 24 9.1
Aaron Nola 25 10.9
Gerrit Cole 27 6.3
Blake Snell 29 1.9
Trevor Bauer 33 5.5
Luis Severino 34 -1.0
Carlos Carrasco 36 9.3
Walker Buehler 38 2.2
Clayton Kershaw 41 2.9
Noah Syndergaard 42 4.3
Patrick Corbin 50 9.7
James Paxton 54 4.8
Jameson Taillon 56 -1.9
Stephen Strasburg 62 -5.2
Mike Clevinger 63 -2.4
Jack Flaherty 65 -6.9
Zack Greinke 66 -3.0
Jose Berrios 74 -6.1
German Marquez 78 0.3
Alex Wood 90 -3.9
Zack Wheeler 92 -1.2
Mike Foltynewicz 93 -9.2
Miles Mikolas 96 1.9
Luis Castillo 114 -10.5
Charlie Morton 119 -5.4
Nick Pivetta 150 -9.1
Andrew Heaney 169 -5.8
Marco Gonzales 275 -7.3


The Obvious Candidates: Nola, Bauer, Cole, Snell

Aaron Nola, Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole, and Blake Snell are names that don’t surprise anyone. All four of them are getting plenty of attention as potential Cy-Young candidates for this season. Which one you prefer depends on your tendencies. There’s very little mystery around them, but I’ll address what the formula suggests about each one.

Nola and Snell are the most obvious names here because their 2018 seasons already met the definition for elite performances. Nola’s only potential weakness is his walk rate. However, there’s scant evidence of control issues, and his 69.4% first-strike rate supports that.

For Snell, the issue is a simple case of control and efficiency. Snell’s 57.1% first-strike rate and 62.2% strike rate are well below the performances of other elite starters. The only other elite starter who was close to those numbers was Dallas Keuchel who had the most pronounced drop-off after his elite season. The good news for Snell is that he improved both metrics in the second half. Plus the Rays are a pitching organization that just moved to lock in Snell with a long-term contract.

Bauer was excellent last year, but the formula’s primary issue with him was the missed time from his stress fracture and the fact that the Indians clearly limited his innings in those final two starts. Additionally, if he’s actually found a way to emulate Carlos Carrasco’s changeup – and Bauer claims that he has – he’ll be even better this season.

Gerrit Cole’s 6.3 z-score is less gaudy than Nola’s, and there’s less hype on him than Bauer, but he’s still only 28, which is right around when lanky guys finally get everything synced up. At the least, owners can look at his strikeouts, K%, and FIP and have a clear sense that Cole is a virtual lock to be a top-ten pitcher.


Shopping for deGrom: Picks 50 and Up

I mentioned in the previous article that most elite starters finished in the top-100 players the season before they emerged. Aside from the four pitchers above, these are the players most likely to return elite-level value.

Patrick Corbin: Z-Score 9.7 (ADP 50)

Why the Formula Likes Him: On the most basic level, Corbin employs a skillset similar to Chris Sale (they use a strong fastball and slider mix to generate swinging strikes and groundballs). Corbin’s peripheral numbers all compared favorably with those of Scherzer, Sale, and deGrom. In 2018, he ranked 6th in K%, 5th in K-BB%, 4th in FIP, 2nd in SwSt%, and 1st in O-Swing%.

Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Corbin’s mediocre .281 xwOBA and his 6.0 IPS were below standard for the pre-elite pitchers, who usually show more dominance based on batted-ball data and go deeper in their starts.

Final Thought: Corbin makes a perfect target for this season. His numbers compare favorably to Nola, Kluber, and Verlander, but he's available two rounds later. Corbin’s ability to induce groundballs (48.5% GB%) is among the league’s best, and it helps to account for his mediocre xwOBA. He gives up some harder contact, but it tends to be on the ground. Health is a concern, but he’s been my favorite SP target in leagues so far.


Zach Wheeler: Z-Score -1.2 (ADP 92)

Why the Formula Likes Him: Wheeler gets ground balls, limits fly balls, induces infield flies, generates whiffs, and provokes swings at pitches outside the zone. That’s a ton of ways to manipulate batters to sit back down.

Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Wheeler’s xFIP is worse than we'd expect to see, and as a player returning from injury, he also lacks volume and hasn’t shown the ability to go deep into games.

Final Thought: If you want my guess on this year’s Jacob deGrom, it’s Zach Wheeler. I wish there were a higher swinging-strike rate, but the volume should take care of itself this season.


Jameson Taillon: Z-Score -1.9 (ADP 56)

Why the Formula Likes Him: Taillon has already demonstrated the ability to get lots of outs and to get them late in the game. His .214 wOBA on the third time through the order was exceptional. There’s probably some noise built in there, but Taillon’s ability to limit balls in the air and induce grounders is almost identical to deGrom’s.

Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Taillon’s weakest attributes were his volume (191 IP) and his xFIP (3.58). Both of those numbers fall below the thirty-third percentile for pre-elite pitchers. Given that xFIP rewards groundball pitchers like Taillon, it’s worrisome that his number is that high.

Final Thought: By my interpretation, Taillon isn’t particularly likely to provide an elite performance in 2018, but the data may be skewed by his continued recovery from the cumulative effects of cancer and Tommy John surgery. That’s a lot of physical and emotional trauma for someone who is still only 27 years old. A reasonable assessment recognizes that Jameson Taillon is an ass-kicker, and even if his 2019 is not an elite season, it should be very, very good. Like Bauer’s new changeup, Taillon’s grit isn’t baked into these numbers. The last cancer survivor with a season like Jameson Taillon was Jon Lester, who went on to be a top-10 pitcher for years.


German Marquez: Z-Score 0.3 (ADP 78)

Why the Formula Likes Him: Marquez leverages his strong swinging-strike rate (12.6%) with strong GB/FB ratios. His FIP (3.40) was almost exactly the average for pre-elite pitchers, and his xFIP was slightly better (3.10). Moreover, Marquez has demonstrated the ability to eat innings over the last two seasons.

Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: The formula doesn’t care about Coors Field, but it does care about inconsistency. Marquez’s has struggled in his third time through the batting order, and he’s failed to execute his pitches consistently. Both of those issues give us cause for concern.

Final Thought: As Paul Sporer argued a couple of weeks ago, “Coors Field is undefeated” against pitchers. However, Coors Field now has the handicap of the humidor, and I’m not sure that it’s ever met an opponent as talented as Marquez. It’s worth remembering that Marquez is only 24 and that he was a Kluber Formula candidate last year. He did not come out of nowhere. Among these four players, Marquez probably represents the greatest range of potential outcomes this season. Sometimes you throw a Hail Mary and it gets intercepted, and sometimes David Tyree makes a Helmet Catch. It’s worth noting that from June 30th on, Marquez’s performance was almost good enough to generate elite value even without the volume of a full-length season. However, the added difficulty of adjusting to Coors Field may be enough to complicate Marquez’s growth.


Honorable Mentions

Carlos Carrasco: Need an ace-lite? Draft Carrasco. You’re going to love his floor. I guarantee it.

James Paxton: The Yankees knew what they were doing when they acquired Paxton. In a world where only 60 pitchers reach 160 IP per season, Paxton’s health isn’t a liability. If Paxton ever reaches 200 innings in a single season, he’d either be an elite pitcher or extraordinarily close. However, I’m guessing the Yankees are planning on keeping Paxton’s IPS below 6.0, which will make it difficult for him to take the next step.

Noah Syndergaard: Among these six pitchers, he’s probably the best candidate to win the Cy Young if he can stay healthy. If…

Walker Buehler: Give him another 50 innings and two more outs per start, and he instantly becomes an elite starter. However, the news this Spring already suggests he won’t make it to 200 innings.

Mike Clevinger: Looks an awful lot like a poor man’s Walker Buehler.

Jack Flaherty: Misses the FIP cutoff and barely makes the IP cutoff. However, the rest of the numbers suggest he might be on the cusp. Managers looking for a “dark-horse” candidate to ascend to the elite level should consider him.

More Sabermetrics & Fantasy Baseball Strategy

More Recent Articles


Best Waiver Wire Pickups from 2019

Each and every year we see an incredible number of players step foot on the NFL gridiron. Just in 2019, using Play Index, a total of 2,025 players took part in at least one game while one (Emmanuel Sanders) did the impossible and played 17 (!) games in the regular season as he was... Read More

Tight End VOS (Values Over Starter): 2019 Season In Context

The 2019 fantasy football season is over. That is not something we like to say considering the empty path we have ahead of us until we reach draft season again in eight months. The good thing about it, though, is that we have plenty of time to analyze what happened during the past few weeks... Read More

Biggest Surprises of 2019: Running Back

The 2019 NFL season was an interesting year for the running back position. Christian McCaffrey was the overall RB1, but some of the other top players fell below expectations. That led to some interesting final results when the final season standings came around. And while some of those -- Dalvin Cook as the RB3, Leonard... Read More

Quarterback VOS (Values Over Starter): 2019 Season In Context

The 2019 fantasy football season is over. That is not something we like to say considering the empty path we have ahead of us until we reach draft season again in eight months. The good thing about it, though, is that we have plenty of time to analyze what happened during the past few weeks... Read More

2019 RotoBaller NFL Challenge - And The @Fleaflicker Winner Is...

What a season, RotoBallers. Fantasy football is always a fun, interesting, and long season - filled with injuries, breakout players, and different strategies. It takes stamina and endurance to win the marathon, and we're here today to recognize those who pulled it off. With 343 teams - across two divisions - competing to be crowned champ... Read More

Introducing the 2020 Rookie Tight End Class

Out of all the skill positions, tight end is the one where rookies have the most issue making an immediate impact. But there's still always some value at every position in every NFL Draft, and the 2020 one is no exception, even if people are very down on this year's crop of tight ends. Let's... Read More

Can a New Coach Fix Baker Mayfield in 2020?

Another season has passed and another disappointment by Browns fans has been realized. Baker Mayfield got the head coach he wanted in Freddie Kitchens in 2019. In 2020, hopefully he's got the one he needs in Kevin Stefanski. Last season, under Kitchens, Mayfield had a coach he could control and manipulate. He did just that... Read More

Wide Receiver VOS (Values Over Starter): 2019 Season In Context

The one (and only) good thing about fantasy football season ending is that we have plenty of time to analyze what happened during the past few months and put performances into context to prepare for next season. As football is an ever-evolving game, though, it makes sense to assess how good players were in fantasy... Read More

The King's Keeper Corner: NFL Postseason Impacts on Player Outlooks

With a break in the postseason NFL action, it is time to reflect on what we have seen in the playoffs so far and how certain performances will affect fantasy football outlooks in keeper and dynasty formats. How players respond and what they deliver at the most intense and critical times of the season can... Read More

Introducing Value Over Starter Football Metrics

When it comes to fantasy sports, we're always looking for the highest possible Return On Investment or ROI. This concept is easy to understand: in both Daily Fantasy and re-draft/fantasy leagues, ROI would come down to how many points a player returns relative to his salary, or the price you paid (given his ADP on... Read More

Biggest Breakouts of 2019: Quarterback

2019 was a very interesting season of fantasy football, to say the least. It's safe to say no one was banking on the season that we saw from Lamar Jackson but he wasn't the only one to stand out. At the quarterback position, we saw some really exciting players start to shine and some older... Read More

Goodbye Runners, Hello Pass-Catching RBs: 2019 Season Trends

As the 2019 summer kept going we all had two things in our minds with regard to September's fantasy drafts and both of them were related to running backs: Where in the world are Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon and when will they be back? It made sense back then (and it still does now,... Read More

Where Does 2019 Rank Historically Among ADP Movers?

I have worked on a season-review series of articles in which I have analyzed the biggest winners and losers in terms of ADP entering draft season compared to the end of the year final results. It was plenty of fun looking back at the gambles most of us took which ultimately paid off, but also... Read More

Biggest Busts of 2019: Tight End

2019 was not the record-breaking season for tight ends 2018 was. San Francisco’s George Kittle (most receiving yards for a TE in a season) and Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz (most receptions for a TE in a season) did not break the records they set last season, although both were fine for fantasy players. Kansas City’s Travis... Read More

Rushing Quarterbacks Are Becoming Necessary

The 2019 fantasy season is over. We are all thinking about what to do come 2020 draft day. So let me ask you something. What if I offer you the chance of drafting a quarterback who is a lock to finish the season with 270 fantasy points? Would you take him and make him your... Read More