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Starting Pitchers Breaking Out for Fantasy Baseball - The New Strikeout Kings

kyle wright fantasy baseball waiver wire pickups draft sleepers pitchers

We are nearly one month into the season and most starting pitchers have three or four starts under their belt. Some big names have dominated out of the gates, while others have faltered. And some lesser-known pitchers have made a splash by piling up some big strikeout totals. I do daily strikeout projections for DFS and sports betting, so I am constantly looking at pitchers' strikeout rates and trying to gauge if they can hit their props in the right daily matchups.

When you glance at the league leaders in strikeout rates, Corbin Burnes, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Carlos Rodon, and Dylan Cease are names you expect to see. And they're all off to great starts of course, but this article is not about those pitchers.

Instead, I wanted to focus on the pitchers who are enjoying a big uptick in their strikeout rates and see if there's reason to believe that they can sustain their newfound success. I'll examine their SwStr%, CSW%, and walk rates as well as take a look at which changes they may have made to their pitch mixes in an attempt to gauge just how fluky these hot starts are.

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The New Fantasy Baseball Strikeout Kings

When doing my preliminary research for this piece, I went right to the leaderboards and sorted every starting pitcher by strikeout rate. Then I removed all of the proven strikeout masters like Burnes, Kershaw, etc... Here is the list that I ended up with and it consists of a few different types of pitchers.

We have some guys who have already been good strikeout pitchers who have taken it to the next level this year. These pitchers have made only modest 2-5% increases to their strikeout rates, but in doing so have moved up into that elite tier of being a "strikeout pitcher."

Then we have some pitchers here who have made major gains and are now striking hitters out at a significantly higher rate than they did last year (or in previous years). These are the guys who will draw the most suspicion from fantasy owners as to their ability to keep replicating these results - and rightfully so. Small sample sizes can be deceiving and we are talking about only 20-25 innings pitched for most of these pitchers so far. It's a long season and major league hitters will figure pitchers out eventually if they're using gimmicks to get strikeouts early in the season.


From Good to Great, K-Rate Risers

Let's first take a look at some of the less surprising pitchers that made the list. These pitchers have made only modest gains in their strikeout rate, but it's pushed them up into the 28-33% range where we see elite strikeout pitchers.

Kevin Gausman - 33.6%

I'll start with the guy who's having the best overall year of perhaps any pitcher in baseball so far, Kevin Gausman. He was already really good at missing bats last season when he finished with a 14-6 record, 2.81 ERA, and a 29.4% strikeout rate.

This year he's been even better and while it's only been five starts, his 22.4% SwStr has been simply incredible. Gausman has yet to allow a walk, too, in his first 31.2 innings pitched. And I mentioned this in a tweet the other day, but it's not like he's had nothing but cupcake matchups either. He's faced the Red Sox twice, Yankees, Astros, and Rangers.

The key to Gausman's late-career renaissance has been his splitter, which has been regarded as one of the best of its kind in the majors. He has a 38.4% SwStr% with it this season, which is up from 25.8% last year. It's also producing more ground balls with a 68% GB%, up from 59% last year. Basically, his splitter, which was already really good, has been incredibly filthy this year and he uses it against lefties incredibly effectively.

But I think the biggest reason for him being so unhittable has been the improvement to his slider, which he uses against RHH. He's using it about 15% of the time, which is up from only 5% last year and the returns have been great. It's carrying a 26.6% SwStr% and a 35.9% CSW%.

Gausman is pounding the zone with fastballs and has the third-best first strike rate at 73%. He's getting ahead of hitters and then getting them to chase either the splitter or slider, both of which have been very effective. I'm not sure if he can sustain this pace all season, but we also have never seen this variation of Gausman before. He's refined his arsenal and is pitching as well as anyone in the game. It feels like the sky is the limit on what he could do and I wouldn't sell high on him. I have futures bet on him to win the American League Cy Young this year and I think it's well within his range of outcomes.

Nestor Cortes - 32%

I promise I won't write a novel about each of these players, but I am a huge Gausman fan and pretty happy for him that he's dominating like he is so far. Cortes worked out of the bullpen for part of the year last year for the Yankees but also made 14 starts. He pitched well enough to earn a spot in the rotation to start the year.

Cortes opened some eyes earlier this month when he struck out 12 Orioles in only five innings.

He followed that up with an 8-strikeout effort against the Guardians, too. But he feels like he's the least likely of this group to be able to sustain such a high K%. He's relying on too many called strikes as his SwStr% is only around 9-10%. He relies a lot on deception and uses multiple different deliveries and arm angles to mess with hitters' timing.

His slider right now has a 26% called strike rate but only a 1.6% SwStr%. And we've already seen the strikeouts start to disappear in his last two starts as he struck out only three batters against KC and Toronto.

My buddy Jon Anderson wrote about him here (as well as Gausman and others) and mentions how he doesn't see his strikeouts as sustainable either. I think he can continue to be a really good pitcher, but we are most likely going to see that strikeout rate settle and come back down to around where he was last season (27%).

Nathan Eovaldi - 28.1%

I was a big fan of Eovaldi going into this season and if you drafted him anywhere near his ADP, you have to be thrilled with the return thus far. He's out to the best start of his career with a 2.51 ERA and a minuscule .96 WHIP. He's not walking anyone and has increased both his SwStr% and K%. His velocity has held steady and he's throwing his curveball and slider more often and seems to be ditching the cutter. He has one of the smallest increases on the list here, but jumping from 25% to 28% is a big deal and could result in an additional 25-30 strikeouts over the course of 180 innings. Hold firm on Eovaldi, I think there's plenty of reason to believe he can keep it up.

Josiah Gray - 28.7%

Gray is a little bit like Cortes in that we have only a small sample size of data to work with for him as an MLB starting pitcher, but I am even less confident in Gray's ability to keep up his hot start.

The SwStr% is fine at 11%, but you would expect it to be a few points higher for someone with that K%. My biggest issues are the walks and the loud contact he allows. He's getting plenty of swings and misses on his curveball and slider (both over 40% whiff rate), but his fastball is getting smashed. His velocity on the four-seamer is down 1.2 MPH from last year and that pitch is getting barreled up by opposing hitters at a 13.5% rate.

One look at his game log reminds you that this is a young pitcher who is still very inconsistent. He has some potential, but I don't think he's likely to keep this up. I think he's realistically a 24-25% strikeout rate guy and he needs to fix the walks if he's going to become a reliable fantasy asset.

Chris Bassitt - 28.1%

I really like Bassitt and I'm happy to see him thriving in New York. He's in the same boat as Eovaldi as he jumped from the 25% range to 28% so far this year. His 11.7% SwStr% is the best of his career and he's one of those guys who can throw five different pitches and locate all of them. His curveball is super slow and guys just can't sit back on it.

But as far as offspeed pitches go, his slider has been the best one with a 20% SwStr%. He continues to evolve as a pitcher and his stats each year of his career show that gradual improvement. I'm not sure he can sustain the 28% strikeout rate, but I think he's an excellent pitcher who is going to be a boon to your team's roster even if he does dip back into that 23-25% range.


Strikeout Rate Standouts - Are They For Real?

Shane McClanahan - 39.3%

Note: These stats do not count McClanahan's start against Seattle on 5/5.

It's a real joy to watch McClanahan pitch. The 25-year-old Tampa lefty is your 2022 leader in strikeout rate thus far. That's the type of rare territory usually only occupied by Corbin Burnes or Gerrit Cole. He's compiled an 18% SwStr% in the process so he's getting plenty of whiffs while keeping his walks relatively low.

Mac throws four pitches - a four-seamer that sits around 96-97 MPH but can touch 100 when he needs it to, a slider, curveball, and changeup.

One thing that I noticed in looking at his pitch data is that he's kept his fastball velocity up while lowering the velocity of each of his offspeed pitches. His slider averages 88 MPH, his changeup is about 87 MPH, and his curveball comes in around 82 MPH. All three pitches have SwStr% above 20%, which is a great sign for his ability to keep missing bats. He uses his changeup more against RHH as it moves down and away from them and his slider to lefties as it sweeps across the zone and away from them.

The 12% leap in K% is probably not entirely sustainable. But even if we assume that he regresses about halfway to where he was last year we are still looking at 33-34% and a huge year from Mac. He's got Cy Young talent and I'd be thrilled if he were on any of my teams. His stuff is electric and I don't see any reason why he can't continue to mow down hitters at an elite rate.

Eric Lauer - 36.6%

We have a series of three lefties at the top of the list with Mac, Lauer, and Luzardo. We are looking at a really small sample size with Lauer as he's made only four starts, but a 36.6% K rate certainly has fantasy managers' attention. Lauer started off the season in a fairly normal fashion with five strikeouts against Baltimore and Pittsburgh but then has since struck out 13 Phillies and 11 Cubs in his last two starts.

Lauer is a guy who has always hovered around a 20-23% strikeout rate, so what gives? Well, it looks like he has ditched his changeup entirely (which was his worst pitch last year), and is throwing fewer fastballs, and more breaking balls.

The velocity is up 1.2 MPH on his four-seamer, which has a ridiculous (and unsustainable) 43.5% whiff rate. We are not talking McClanahan heat here, Lauer is throwing 93-94 with his heater which is good, but something hitters are used to seeing quite often. He's walking fewer hitters, so the improved control suggests he has better command of his pitches.

But this big K% feels pretty fluky to me. His breaking pitches have been good, but not great and he's not going to keep blowing a 93 MPH fastball past hitters. He's definitely due for some major regression and I think he probably drops the most of these top three. However, if he can level off around 25% and maintain the solid control you're still looking at a really productive pitcher assuming he can stay healthy. The Brewers rotation is absolutely loaded right now and it just might be Adrian Houser who ends up the sixth starter/long man as Aaron Ashby has been dynamic, too.

Jesus Luzardo - 34.1%

Note: These stats do not count Luzardo's start against San Diego on 5/5.

He's back! After several seasons of looking lost and getting shelled, the talented young lefty looks like he has rediscovered his strikeout prowess and could be one of the steals of the draft if he keeps it up.

Luzardo has been piling up strikeouts early on by going to the curveball as his primary pitch. I'm not sure that's entirely sustainable, but he's throwing it 42% of the time and pairing it primarily with a 97 MPH fastball that seems to jump out of his hand. He also throws a two-seamer and changeup, with the change being a nice compliment to his arsenal and having a 24% SwStr% thus far.

The high SwStr% isn't a new development for Luzardo. Even in 2020 and 2021, he was hovering around 13-14%. There are some red flags here in Luzardo's data. He's walking 11% of hitters and getting by with a relatively low BABIP of .236. The heavy curveball usage worries me a bit too in terms of his arm holding up for the whole season. I don't think he's going to be this good for too long, but it's also not like we haven't seen him pitch really well before either. My best guess is some regression to the high 20's for his strikeout rate as he settles in this year, but the early returns are certainly good.

Kyle Wright - 30.6%

Now we finally get to someone who has created great optimism and skepticism at the same time! Mr. Kyle Wright has seen the biggest increase of anyone on our list for this piece and firmly belongs in the category of "we've never seen him do this before, hold on just one second."

So why is Wright striking out hitters like he's an ace and not a guy who had hovered around 17-20% for his first few big league seasons. It really has to do with his revamped breaking ball, check it out.

He's basically ditched his slider and is throwing this curveball or "slurve" or whatever you want to call it. It's been effective with an 18% SwStr% and a remarkable 41.3% CSW%. He's throwing it a ton, too, nearly 33% of the time, and using his sinker, four-seamer, and changeup to complement it.

Wright has already slowed down in the K department after that torrid start to the year. He only whiffed three Mets over seven innings and allowed nine hits in that game. While the new pitch mix is certainly going to help his effectiveness and probably makes him a legit option for your rosters this season, the heavy curveball usage feels a bit gimmicky and as I mentioned with Luzardo you have to worry about how long he can get by doing that. I think we see him settle into the 24-26% range where you would expect to see a guy who throws in the mid-90s with a plus breaking ball.

Paul Blackburn - 25%

Am I allowed to admit that I had really no idea who this guy was before the season? I mean, how many of you did? Blackburn had made only 17 career starts before 2022 and had an ERA over six! This is a pretty cool feel-good story as he's been really good for the Athletics thus far and is only one of a few bright spots for their franchise this season.

My buddy Eric does an amazing job with these videos, so be sure to follow him on Twitter. I've had some success with betting his strikeout prop so far this year since it's been coming in really low, but let's not kid ourselves here - Paul Blackburn is not a strikeout pitcher. He's a sinkerball pitcher who throws 91-92 and his improved curve is leading to more whiffs. He hasn't pitched into the sixth inning yet in five starts yet.

He may or may not be someone who is useable in fantasy leagues this year, but I'm going to predict he ends up regressing a bit further and we see him settle into a 20-22% strikeout rate. If he keeps the ball on the ground, he could certainly still be viable for fantasy, but my expectations are pretty low.

Bruce Zimmermann 24.5%

Zimmermann brings up the rear here and probably would have been left off this list if not for him making a 5% increase in his K rate, going from below to average to above average in the process.

The key to Zimmermann's early success has been an increase in changeup usage. He's throwing it more than ever (32%) and getting plenty of whiffs (31% whiff rate). His fastball velocity is down a tick and he's sitting around 90-91 MPH on his four-seamer.

His slider is very effective against lefties, but the changeup is his primary offspeed pitch against righties and he usually sees 7-8 RHH every time out. He's still getting hit hard when batters make contact, making him a fairly risky starter to use in fantasy, especially against good lineups.

I have to rank him similarly to Blackburn in that I would definitely snag them in leagues and use them while they are running good, but with fairly low expectations going forward as I don't think either of them are likely to be this good or prolific at striking out hitters all season long.

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In 2024, fantasy football managers are all about wide receivers, but we’re also about value. With prices skyrocketing everywhere else, we don’t want to pay above market value for a player. We also don’t want to pay for a player at the cost of their 90th-percentile outcome. We need the potential to get a positive... Read More

Ty Chandler - Fantasy Football Rankings, Waiver Wire Pickups, Draft Sleepers

Aaron Jones, Ty Chandler - Fantasy Football Outlook for Minnesota Vikings RBs in 2024

The Minnesota Vikings offense will look a little different in 2024. Quarterback Kirk Cousins left in free agency, and the team replaced him with first-round pick J.J. McCarthy. McCarthy or free-agent signing Sam Darnold will start the year as the Vikings quarterback. Even the running position has changed for Minnesota this offseason. They released Alexander Mattison -- who started the 2023 season... Read More