A quick glance at my starting pitcher (SP) fantasy baseball rankings for the 2022 MLB season should not reveal anything too wild. Wrong or right, I'm content to ride with the ECR (Expert Consensus Rankings) for the most part.
Do you really care that I have Aaron Nola four spots lower than the ECR does? Yes, Nola is an okay pitcher to own ... I suppose. But if I'm one of the last owners in a 12-team mixed league to grab a starting pitcher, he won't be my ace. And I like the upside of the four pitchers I have ranked ahead of him much more.
Where things get interesting in my rankings is further down the list, the options you look at when you need to fill out your rotational depth (i.e., leagues that roster seven or more starters). There are three SPs in this range that I have ranked 10-plus spots higher than the ECR. Let's start with Cole Irvin. His 16 percent strikeout rate won't win you any league, but he won't lose you one either. He sported a 5.5 percent walk rate, nearly 45 percent better than the league average of eight percent last year. And when he gives up hits, they're not generally hard-hit balls. He had a barrel percentage of just 7.3 percent last year. That's better than most, including Robbie Ray or the consensus No. 1 pitcher, Gerrit Cole. To be honest, I should probably move Irvin up my rankings even more.
What also makes Irvin attractive is his high floor. On the flip side is Hunter Greene, who could have a disastrous debut. But some are talking about him winning NL Rookie of the Year this season, which also tells you about his upside. He is an absolute flamethrower with a triple-digit fastball. He had a double-digit K/9 last year in the minors. If he can develop his secondary pitches just a little better, he'll be a fixture in the Cincinnati rotation. However, he will likely start the year either in the minors or as a member of the Reds' bullpen. That fact is helping suppress Greene's ADP currently to 350, giving us a potential steal of the draft.
However, both of those options pale in comparison to my favorite SP sleeper, Mitch Keller. Keller is astonishingly going about 100 picks after Greene right now. I'd be willing to bet he still returns value even if you reached for him around 250, which is 100 spots before Greene. Keller's ADP makes sense, however, as he has owns a career ERA of 6.02 and a career 1.73 WHIP. Not good, obviously. And we should question how many wins he'll get on the Pirates as well. So why am I so optimistic?
This offseason, Keller worked with the notable Tread Athletics. Last season, Keller's fastball averaged 93.8 mph. However, reports now have his fastball clocked at an average of 99 mph with a spin rate nearly 200 rpm higher than he averaged in 2021. Any time you pick up six mph on your fastball, that's pretty significant. But that's not all. His slider also averaged 90 mph with impressive horizontal and vertical movement. FanGraphs reported earlier this winter that his arsenal comped extremely close to Cole.
Meanwhile, Keller made his spring debut a little over a week ago. Not only did his fastball average 96.7 mph, but it also had an improved spin rate compared to last season. Keller averaged 2507 RPM of spin the four times he threw his slider. That is an eye-opening improvement over last season. Keller is caught in a vicious game of Pong between the analytics community and the scouting community. For example, opponents had a .388 BABIP against him last year. The analytics community would argue that is extremely unlucky, but some of that also has to be attributed to an inability to miss bats. If Keller can get that BABIP down to the "standard" .300, which I think he will, he might be the most profitable fantasy pitcher drafted this year.
Perhaps I'm too optimistic about Keller? Maybe, maybe not. Take a look at my SP rankings below and tell me whom else my outlook lands way out of the strike zone.
2022 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
— Rankings by Mark Strausberg, a member of the Athlon Network Contributor, who despite his youthful exuberance and good looks has been playing fantasy sports before Wildcats or Hoosiers even made it to VHS. Got a fantasy sports question or thought? Hit him up on Twitter @MarkStrausberg.