Top 100 Starting Pitchers for 2022 Fantasy Baseball

Hidey-ho neighborino! Is that phrase trademarked or just very, very old? Fine, let’s dismiss the formalities and get straight to the nitty-gritty: men who throw balls. Hard. We’re at the point in the pre-season where we understand that the MLB and MLBPA are definitely far, far away from any sort of agreement on a contract. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s actually a “realistic” contract that’s been shared between the groups and we’ll see that contract appear the first week of March, just in time for a shortened spring training and perfectly-timed Opening Day. But that’s just me spitballing labor negotiations, and what do I know other than the chords to every song on Green Day’s Dookie album? I suppose I know pitchers somewhat well, and wouldn’t you know it — I’ve got a pitcher listicle for you! A Pitchsticle!

Draft Strategy

I wrote like 97,000 words and a spec script for a Star Trek: Baseball in Space spinoff (why didn’t I call it Spaceballs? smh) last year and here’s the summary:

  • Drafting a pitcher in the first round almost never wins your standard 12-team league or industry tournament.
  • Pocket Aces (drafting two SP to start your draft) is basically the worst popular draft strategy to use, other than being purposefully sub-optimal by drafting non-consensus top players or two closers.
  • The consensus Top 10 starting pitchers — both by ADP and expert consensus — are 60-80% wrong on a year-by-year basis.
  • Most industry tournaments can be won with status quo or slightly sub-average pitcher rosters.
  • Most pitcher flops due to injury come with sufficient warning from previous injuries.

So what’s my pitcher draft strategy? Here’s how I would recommend drafting pitchers based on your fantasy baseball drafting experience:

  • It’s My First Standard League: Take your first pitcher in the third round — somebody like Aaron Nola or Shane Bieber — the second pitcher in the fifth round, and then take 1 starting pitcher for every four-ish rounds thereafter. Finish your draft with 5 starting pitchers. Use the waiver wire in the season to find good matchups for free agents.
  • Fantasy Baseball is My Bag, Baby: Take your first pitcher in the fifth round — somebody like Jose Berrios — and then take your second pitcher at value sometime before round ten. Wait until round 15 and then clean up on starters.
  • I Spent $1750 on a Main Event Team and My Spouse Wants to Divorce Me: Take your first pitcher in the third round — somebody like Aaron Nola, Shane Bieber, or a falling Jacob deGrom — and then wait until after the 15th round while stocking up on everybody else.

Variance and its Discontents

Why are there such dramatically different pieces of advice? Because confidence. Confidence is the most we fantasy baseball players can have about a player. Fantasy baseball lives on variance, which the common folk call “luck.” Statistically speaking, variance is the numerical swing experienced between time periods. Quick, math majors — what’s the average of 1 and 20? 10, right? What about a batter who goes 50-for-50 at the plate followed by a 0-for-50 streak — what’s their overall average? .500. That player that just went 15 games without a hit would still blow Ted Williams out of the water with their overall batting average, but you’d be yelling at your local fantasy analyst saying, “That bum has no business being in the league, he hasn’t had a hit in a month!”

Such is the fickleness of our favorite game.

Let’s try an exercise. Which of these situations are less appealing to you as a fantasy manager:

  • A period of 56 plate appearances in which the batter drops .100 from their batting average while hitting 3 home runs and 4 doubles out of 16 hits.
  • A period of 126 plate appearances where your premier slugger hits .202 while having 4 home runs, 10 RBI, and a .194 BABIP.
  • A period of 4 games (15% of the pitcher season) where your elite starter goes 1-2 over 21 IP with 17 walks, 16 strikeouts, and allows 13 runs with an FIP of 4.09.

So, what would you rather have: Ted Williams’ 1941 season where he batted over .400, Barry Bonds’ 2001 season where he hit 73 homers, or Nolan Ryan’s 1973 season where he struck out 383 batters? These are all historic seasons and you would argue that any of them could compete for “best individual performance in MLB history,” but here we are, taking the cynical route and wondering how that period of .333 batting average from Ted Williams ruined what could have been a campaign where he hit .430, or how Barry Bonds spent 25% of his historic season putting up Mendoza line numbers. As I point out every third article, Gerrit Cole spends about 20-30% of the season being completely unusable for your fantasy team, with ERAs and FIPs nearing the 5.00-6.00 range, yet people run to draft him in the first round.

So rather than fighting variance, we need to embrace it, and understand that projections are merely a glimpse into “likelihood.” Baseball isn’t your quality-controlled factory processed frozen dinner that looks the same meal after meal. Baseball is your New York kitchen on a Friday night dinner rush, with the kitchen staff doing their damndest to fight through that third highball to make a product you’ll enjoy, but sometimes the execution will fail. Maybe the fish supplier has a bad batch, or the spinach was a day past prime, or the chilis weren’t at their expected Scoville units. The meal was still edible but you weren’t thrilled. Either way, you still paid $90 and said, “It was OK, but we know it could be better, so we’ll try again.”

Because you know that the difference between a fantasy-poor hitter at .250 and a fantasy-rich hitter with a .280 average is…wait for it…3%, right? Over 100 at-bats, the “plus” hitter got on base 3 more times than the “minus” hitter. 28 vs 25. That’s it. That’s your wilted spinach. It was still acceptable. You still paid for it and said, “maybe next time.”

That’s variance, and that’s our game. We can be confident that players will be varied. We can be confident that bad outcomes will happen, even to good players. We can also be confident that some players will perform a certain way over the majority of their time at the metaphorical baseball kitchen. That 7 out of 10 times, they will cut the fish properly, put in the garlic at the right time so it doesn’t burn, and pick out the bad spinach from the pile. But even the best chef has an off-night, and sometimes those off-nights come all in a row.

This literary exercise aside, the lesson is: we can’t give up on pitchers after a few bad starts, and we also can’t buy-in on small sample sizes. The more evidence we have on a pitcher and their performance, the more confident we can become that they will reach their projected stats.

2022 Top 100 Starting Pitchers

Here’s the nutshell version: I take the stats that are most highly correlated with success on the Razzball Player Rater, and then I weight them using my own secret herbs and spices to create my confidence score. Last year, my confidence score slightly outpaced its inspiration model, Carlos Marcano’s speX. Because Carlos is trying to describe real-life MLB value and I’m trying to describe fantasy value, this is to be expected. However, our correlation scores among the top 100 SP were both in the 0.70 range, and by nudging the analysis in specific directions, we could improve our correlation even better. After I receive my confidence score, I then normalize it over a 200 IP sample, to get confidence per inning pitched. Lastly, I used Rudy Gamble’s IP projections as my innings multiplier, which gives us our best estimate of how a pitcher should perform over the course of the season.

Let’s pre-emptively answer questions: The confidence scale is based on an ideal pitcher ranking tops in all the categories that affect your usual fantasy baseball league. Yes, we should read confidence on a numerical scale, meaning that I am roughly 3 times more confident that Corbin Burnes will be the top performer as, say, Joe Musgrove. However, my confidence ranking is also affected by things like low-innings pitched totals in the previous year, thus the lowered confidence on Jacob deGrom and Shane Bieber. Lastly, because I have incorporated Rudy’s IP projections, you are not seeing my raw confidence totals; the raw numbers are a bit messier and need more explanation. What I aim to give the public is a simple, understandable ranking of confidence.

You’ll notice that there’s a space at spot 39, which serves to show a cutoff where your “top” pitchers are. Ideally, your fantasy baseball team will have 4-5 of these top 40 pitchers. How you acquire them is up to you. But given the current ADP of players like Adam Wainwright and Sonny Gray (170+), you can easily run a standard fantasy baseball draft without having to scroll way down to the bottom.

Eagle-eyed readers know that many of my pre-season touts appear to be pretty mundane on this list, and that’s perfectly fine. My list aims to take existing data and show who we have the most confidence in reaching that top performance; to project an outlier — like Luis Castillo or Noah Syndergaard — we have to, by definition, work outside of the matrix of expectation. Would I personally take Luis Castillo higher than SP41? Yes, I would. However, I also wouldn’t be surprised if he turns in a dud performance on the year. After all, he did finish 2022 as SP72, which was a waiver wire player in most standard leagues. I find it more than reasonable that I have Castillo ranked nearly twice as high as where he finished last year. Same goes with the likes of Chris Sale — certainly, he’ll probably outperform his lousy 71 ranking, but we don’t have enough recent data to be as confident about Sale as we are about, say, Chris Bassitt. Justin Verlander, meanwhile, benefits from his outstanding 2018 and 2019 performance combined with an under-weighted 2020 penalty; thus, we see him much higher than his injured/not-appearing colleagues past the cutline. Because I love you, I included a tab of the current NFC Average Draft Position (ADP), so you can quickly determine which pitchers are a value and which pitchers might be over-valued. You can probably see that I am extremely high on some pitchers (cough, Charlie Morton), so my system best serves players who are following a hitter-heavy draft and taking starters later than consensus.

That’s it friends! Have an awesome week, and I’ll see you in the comments.

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