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Starting Pitcher Fantasy Baseball Breakouts Who'll Continue To Improve in 2024

Kyle Bradish - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, MLB Injury News, Betting Picks

There seemed to be no shortage of rookie starting pitchers impressing last year. And the danger with drafting them on the back of a solid debut season is whether or not they can back it up. That's even truer for more established starters who debuted before 2023 but had their best season in the majors last year.

Here, we're going to take a look at three such starting pitchers. The trio all pitched in the MLB before last year but had a breakout campaign. And all three are set to be even better in 2024. That's the only criteria for inclusion; debut before last year, and have a breakout last year.

Don't forget to keep up to date with all your preseason fantasy baseball needs by following RotoBaller on X and checking out RotoBaller.com for all your draft preparation. Without further ado, here are three fantasy baseball breakout starter pitchers set to excel in 2024.

Be sure to check all of our preseason fantasy baseball rankings for Roto, Points, H2H, dynasty, best ball, prospects and more:

 

Zach Eflin, Tampa Bay Rays

Eflin added his name to the long list of pitchers who the Rays have got the best out of. In his first season in Tampa Bay, Eflin made 31 starts (177.2 IP) and had a 16-8 W-L record, 3.50 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 186 Ks. In case you were wondering, they were all career bests. After totaling 181.2 IP across the prior two seasons, Eflin managed to stay relatively healthy in 2023, only missing a couple of weeks with a minor back issue.

Concerns about his knees dissipated as the season went on and Eflin's performances made him one of the bargains of 2023 fantasy drafts (ADP ~282). With a current ADP of 89, the pitcher is still only being drafted as an SP2/3 as the fantasy community doesn't seem too sure that he can repeat his 2023. If anything, he can be even better. Eflin had a 3.12 xFIP, 3.30 SIERA, and 3.11 xERA, so he could have had an even more impressive breakout.

The reason for Eflin's breakout season may lie in his pitch usage. As we can see from the below graph (courtesy of Baseball Savant), Eflin used his curveball a career-high 26.5% of the time. Given it had a .216 xwOBA against it, that usage increase seems smart. The pitcher also notably used his sinker less (31.9%), which led it to having a career-low .273 xwOBA against it.

Eflin's projected innings total in 2024 varies between 148.0 IP to 184.0 IP. Assuming he showed the same good health as he did last year, he should end the year around 180.0 IP again. If he does that, he should have no problem matching last year's numbers. With a bit more fortune, Eflin should outperform his 2023 and could end up being an SP1.

 

Kyle Bradish, Baltimore Orioles

Bradish is a reminder that if a pitcher's first time in the majors doesn't go well, we shouldn't just write them off. After posting a 4.90 ERA in 2022 (117.2 IP), the 27-year-old emerged last year as an ace in the Orioles rotation. He was a big reason why Baltimore won the AL East for the first time in nearly a decade. In 30 starts (168.2 IP), Bradish had a 12-7 W-L record, 2.83 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 168 Ks.

It may seem foolish to suggest Bradish will improve on his 2.83 ERA considering he had a 3.53 xFIP and 3.76 SIERA. And it's not the ERA I'm expecting improvements in, although I do believe he will still have an ERA nearer to 3.00 than 3.80. Bradish cut his fastball usage almost in half, from 44.5% in 2022 to 22.4% in 2023. Given it had a .398 xwOBA in 2022 and a .427 wOBA in 2023, the less the pitcher uses it, the better.

It looks like Bradish and the Orioles realized that early in the season. In his first four starts of the season, he used his fastball 50.2% of the time, with it being used more than 50% of the time in three of those four starts. Bradish gave up 10 earned runs in 14.2 IP across those four starts. After that, he used it more than 50% of the time in just two of his next 26 starts, in which he had a 2.51 ERA. One of which was his two-inning outing to end the season.

That change also helped Bradish increase his strikeouts. The four-seamer had a 15.0% Whiff% last year and he had a below-average 22.9% K% in the first half of the season. In the second half, Bradish posted a 27.3% K% while maintaining his very good walk rate (6.7% BB% in the first half and 6.4% BB% in the second half).

It's not advisable to solely look at someone's second half as a sign of improvement. But the fact Bradish relied less on his disappointing fastball and the results improved is promising for 2024. The Orioles boast a very good offense and Bradish should certainly get more wins than the dozen he tallied in 2023. The acquisition of Corbin Burnes may help relieve some pressure on Bradish having to be an ace. He should be able to take the next step in 2024.

 

Justin Steele, Chicago Cubs

You could argue that Steele had his breakout in 2022 when he had a 3.18 ERA across 119.0 IP (24 starts). But question marks remained over whether he could repeat that across a full season of at least 30 starts. Well, he did. In 30 starts (173.1 IP), Steele had a 16-5 W-L record, 1.17 WHIP, and 176 Ks. Yet, he's still not being drafted in the top 100 picks with an ADP of ~104.

Steele replicated his 24.6% K% from 2022 while cutting down the walks with a 5.0% BB% (9.6% BB% in 2022). That allowed him to mitigate the slight increase in quality of contact he allowed. As we can see below, despite giving up more hard-hits and barrels, Steele's miserly walk rate ensured his ERA stayed low. His 3.32 xFIP and 3.61 SIERA also back up the notion that he wasn't just lucky and was good at limiting quality contact.

A big change in Steele's numbers was the 5.6 percentage points increase in his Chase%. Much of that was from his improved fastball usage. Although the 28-year-old's four-seamer doesn't grade well in many metrics, an increase in first-pitch strikes from 59.8% to 65.5% allowed Steele to keep out of the zone more. Getting ahead in the count early helped lower his walk rate and so helped to increase the number of chases he got. It's a formula he can repeat in 2024.

Steele seemed to tire as the season went on, with a 3.41 ERA in August (34.1 IP) and a 4.91 ERA in September (29.1 IP). However, Steele had a 2.91 xFIP in August and 2.23 xFIP in September. He also had a 28.4% K% and 4.5% BB% in the final two months, so if anything, he actually pitched better from August 1. Concerns about Steele being less effective over an entire season can be discarded.

The fact he relies on two pitches (a four-seamer and a slider which combined for 96.5% of pitches thrown) causes concern. But he's now shown across a full season that he can make it work. Providing his control continues to be excellent (and why wouldn't it), Steele should have no problem continuing to be an under-the-radar fantasy asset. If the pitcher avoids some late-season bad luck, he could wind up a top-20 starting pitcher in 2025 drafts.



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