A couple of weeks ago I wrote about why we saw an increase in the number of usable fantasy starting pitchers in 2021.
I'm biased so I recommend reading the entire piece. However, if you're crunched for time with peak drafting season heating up, then the TLDR is that the deadened ball created a stronger mid-tier of SPs. Additionally, enforcing the ban on sticky stuff meant the best starters weren't as overpowered or consistent.
The net result has led me to starting my 2022 fantasy drafts by stockpiling bats before pivoting to these mid-tier arms. Below are four of my favorite to target.
Note that these choices differ from last week's breakout picks. For the breakouts, we're hoping for upside. With the following quartet, we're simply targeting value.
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A perennial breakout pick before it finally happened last year, Musgrove enters 2022 with an enticing floor/ceiling combo.
The 29-year-old logged a career-high 181 2/3 innings in 2021, which was the 14th highest total in the majors. He posted 203 strikeouts with a 3.18 ERA, 3.92 xERA, and a 3.65 xFIP. The fact that both Baseball Savant's (xERA) and Fangraphs' (xFIP) ERA predictors mostly back up his success is a great sign, though they do suggest he might've over performed a tad.
Still, the Statcast numbers are pretty strong. Musgrove possesses 99th percentile spin on his fastball and 88th percentile spin on his curve. His overall sliders are more pink than red, which we can live with.
The key to his success was the continued de-emphasis of his four-seamer in order to throw all four of his primary offerings at similar rates.
Musgrove's slider/curve/fastball/cutter combo is a legitimate four-pitch mix that keeps hitters guessing.
A quick look at his 2021 game log shows a lot of early hooks in addition to some inconsistent strikeout totals, which combined with last year's reinvention, signals the possibility of further upside for San Diego's newfound ace.
Riding Webb's second half breakout was a league-winning move for fantasy managers who bought in early.
Over Webb's final 14 starts, 12 of which were 6 IP or more (6 of which were 7 IP or more!), he went 7-0 with a 2.68 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP. He didn’t walk more than two batters in any start.
Webb is what pitching analysts refer to as a "slinger", which involves pitching with a lower arm slot than standard overhead throwers. When slingers get into a rhythm they can go on truly special runs, such as the second half of Webb's '21. However, their lower arm slots can be tough to maintain year over year.
Transitioning to his new delivery helped unlock Webb's sinker. This resulted in a season-long 60.9 GB%, which would've led MLB if he had the innings to qualify.
Overall, the 25-year-old finished with a 3.03 ERA, 3.20 xERA, and a 2.79 xFIP. He generates plenty of grounders, strikes out more than a batter per inning, pitches deep into games, and plays for one of the smartest organizations in baseball. Sign me up.
Fried, one of Atlanta's World Series heroes, began the 2021 campaign by allowing 14 runs in 11 innings (3 starts) before landing on the injured list with a hamstring strain.
Upon returning the 28-year-old lefty rattled off a 2.44 ERA in 154 2/3 frames. Fried was once again able to suppress contact, and the performance gave him back-to-back seasons with impressive batted ball data. This is typically a skill that shouldn't be seen as predictive, though certain pitchers have proven themselves to be outliers. Kyle Hendricks comes to mind.
Furthermore, the entirety of Fried's skill set is worth betting on. In 2021 he walked fewer batters than ever before. He has recorded a 51.8 GB% or higher in every year since 2019, which adds to the argument that he's an outlier in terms of contact suppression. Fried also logged 12 consecutive starts to end 2021; he's able to pitch deep into games.
As Paul Sporer pointed out back in February, Fried still has untapped upside if everything comes together in 2022. This is a situation where the whole is potentially more valuable than the some of the parts. If the southpaw stays healthy he could post a season with 190 innings, a 24 K% or higher, a 7 BB% or lower, tons of quality starts plus wins, and continued contact suppression.
Sensing a theme with these picks? So far all 3 of Musgrove, Webb, and Fried are strong bets to return value, in addition to possessing the capacity for more. That'll continue with...
When we last saw Morton he was leaving the field during the World Series due to a broken right calf bone. Famously, Morton recorded three outs between when the fracture took place and he actually left the game. He'll certainly add toughness to your fantasy roster.
Strong production should follow as well. Morton reinvented his repertoire midway through 2021. Through June 11th his curveball usage rate was 33.7% with a 4.50 ERA. From that point forward he threw it 38.5% of the time with a 2.71 ERA.
Back in 2017-ish, Morton was one of the early adopters of the "throw your best pitch more often" movement that has persisted throughout the past half-decade or so.
As evidenced above he spent years prioritizing his sinker with the Pirates, but it wasn't until he started using it less with the Astros that he started breaking out.
Since then, the de-emphasis has continued. Morton's 2021 turned around once he (once again) lowered the sinker usage in favor of more curves. The ageless wonder ended last year's championship run by mainly relying on his four-seam/curveball combo.
He's set to enter his age-38 campaign and is coming off the aforementioned leg fracture, but the spring results have been phenomenal. In 2021 his fastball velocity was the highest it has been since 2018, and his curveball spin rate was still in the 98th percentile. We also know there are zero workload concerns. Don't let the old man slip too far in drafts.