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2024 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Preview: The best way to evaluate SPs and draft targets

Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees
Gerrit Cole sported a 2.63 ERA and 222 strikeouts, winning the AL Cy Young Award. He remains one of the true workhorse pitchers in baseball and one of the top SPs in fantasy. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

When evaluating pitchers, ERA can be mostly ignored, as factors outside their control greatly influence that noisy stat. Pitchers have some effect on batting average on balls in play and HR/FB rates, but plenty of luck is also involved, and that’s before we get to many other contributing factors such as umpires and home park fluctuations.

SIERA is a far better predictor of future ERA than actual ERA.

It’s best to target skills most within the pitcher’s control, like striking out batters and limiting walks; K-BB% is about as good as it gets for a quick method of assessing pitching performance. It’s also why fantasy players should focus more on hitting projections than pitching, as the latter requires far more guesswork.

Concentrating more on underlying stats can also reveal a different set of rankings than the way pitchers will be drafted, as ADP can often mirror last season’s ERA. This allows drafters to effectively attack hitting early without necessarily sacrificing upside, as it’s typically easier to find a breakout pitcher than a hitter in the middle rounds.

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While “wins” are unquestionably outside a pitcher’s control, fantasy managers shouldn’t ignore the category nor treat them as random. For numerous reasons, wins coming from starting pitchers have dropped 15% across the league over the last six years. The Pirates, Rockies and Giants averaged 26 wins by starting pitchers last season; the Braves had 66 SP wins. Fangraphs and PECOTA provide projected winning percentages to use as a tool.

Starting pitchers contribute more to your fantasy team than hitters (given the roster spots), but I’m targeting hitters early in drafts thanks to the way SPs are being treated. Spencer Strider stands out among starters and is worthy of being a top-five overall pick, but I’d argue there’s a gigantic tier after him, with huge upside in the middle rounds.

Early Target

Tyler Glasnow, Los Angeles Dodgers

If you miss out on Strider and want an early(ish) starting pitcher, Glasnow is your target if looking for upside. His well-documented injury history will scare off many fantasy players, with last season’s 120.0 innings marking a career-high in the majors. But he was something of a late bloomer and has suffered only one arm injury during his MLB career; it just happened to take years to properly diagnose. Glasnow also dealt with an oblique injury and back spasms last season; nothing arm-related. The Dodgers are comically loaded, so there’s a chance LA uses a six-man rotation, which could help keep Glasnow healthy (160+ innings are well within reach either way).

[More Baseball Positional Previews: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

All pitchers carry real injury risk, including Strider with his 48.7% workload increase year over year and the 41.2% increase in his pitch count. Gerrit Cole is undoubtedly a safer pick, but he ranked 27th in CSW last season (his lowest since his Pittsburgh days). Corbin Burnes also appears to be in decline, and he’ll be losing the league’s best defense after being traded to Baltimore. Burnes will also be playing in a far tougher division and in a new home park that will help suppress homers but hurts in strikeouts (Milwaukee has increased Ks the second most of any stadium over the last three seasons).

Meanwhile, Glasnow is arguably baseball’s second-best pitcher right now, with filthy stuff and projections to back it. Glasnow struck out a mere 42 batters over 26.1 innings during his last five starts last season, and he now gets to pitch for the Dodgers in the far weaker NL West.

Given the likelihood of wins pitching for Los Angeles, Glasnow could easily return his fourth-round ADP value even with a couple IL trips — and he could win the Cy Young (and your fantasy league) if he stays healthy.

Mid/Late-Round Targets

Michael King, San Diego Padres

King was one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers last season, including posting a 2.02 ERA with a 1.09 WHIP and 45 strikeouts over 35.2 innings (six starts) after officially joining the rotation in late August. His overall numbers need context considering he spent most of the season pitching from the bullpen, but King’s CSW would’ve ranked second had he qualified — sandwiched between Strider and Glasnow. King’s K-BB% would’ve ranked sixth — ahead of Cole.

King is legit, and he now gets to pitch in the NL West and in Petco Park after being traded to the Padres in the Juan Soto deal during the offseason. King has an injury history and is now being asked to start, but his upside is well worth a pick after the top 150.

Nick Lodolo, Cincinnati Reds

Lodolo is another young hurler with massive potential who’s available deep into drafts (after pick 200!) thanks to perceived injury risk. Lodolo’s season was ruined last year by a stress reaction in his leg that never required surgery. He also sported an unsightly 6.29 ERA, but that came with a 3.46 SIERA. Lodolo will continue to give up a bunch of homers while pitching in Great American Ballpark, but his incredibly unlucky HR/FB rate (27%) is sure to regress (no qualified pitcher has allowed even a 20% mark over the last two seasons). He also allowed an almost unfathomable .457 batting average on “topped balls,” with the league average being .174!

[2024 Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

Despite not pitching up to his previous standards (he admitted the new pitch clock was a tough adjustment) and dealing with the worst luck in baseball (his .435 BABIP was 100+ more than the next highest mark in the league and 100+ more than his expected BABIP), Lodolo would’ve ranked top five in K-BB% and CSW had he qualified.

Steamer projects Lodolo to have the eighth-best strikeout rate among all SPs in 2024, yet 55+ starters are being selected earlier in fantasy drafts.

Griffin Canning, Los Angeles Angels

Canning likely won’t rack up wins pitching for the Angels, but he’s back on the fantasy scene thanks to increased velocity last season after returning from multiple injuries. Canning posted an 11.55 K/9 (30.1 K%) with a 3.26 FIP after the All-Star break, when his 23.9 K-BB% would’ve finished behind only Strider for the season. Canning has four effective pitches and strong minor-league numbers, yet he’s going after 75 SPs are off the board in Yahoo drafts.

Top-15 Starting Pitcher Rankings

1) Spencer Strider

2) Tyler Glasnow

3) Gerrit Cole

4) Corbin Burnes

5) Zack Wheeler

6) Kevin Gausman

7) Max Fried

8) Yoshinobu Yamamoto

9) Tarik Skubal

10) Grayson Rodriguez

11) Pablo López

12) Luis Castillo

13) Zach Eflin

14) Freddy Peralta

15) Blake Snell