It’s pure chaos atop the pitching ranks in 2023, with no agreed-upon consensus No. 1 fantasy ace and a growing cult of drafters who prioritize 70-inning relievers over 190-inning starters. In a year without a vintage Pedro or Kershaw to provide clarity and order, things quickly descend into tribalism. Some of us have simply renounced all early-round pitchers, preferring to build rotations from late-game fliers and prospects, enhanced later by aggressive waiver adds. To each their own.
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We certainly have no shortage of polarizing top-of-draft pitchers to discuss, as none of these guys are entirely without red flags. Let’s begin with a player who flummoxes fantasy managers at least as much as he flummoxes opposing batters.
Go here for 2023’s most polarizing hitters.
Jacob deGrom, SP, Texas Rangers (ADP 31.5)
We can reliably say that deGrom’s innings will be of the highest quality imaginable. Hopefully, everyone can agree on that. Over the past two seasons, he’s struck out an insane 14.3 batters per nine innings while producing dead-ball-era ratios (1.90 ERA, 0.63 WHIP) with absurd control. He’s struck out over 13 hitters for every walk he’s issued over the past two years. Healthy deGrom is as good as it gets — arguably as good as anyone in the fantasy era. If we could guarantee he’d pitch 150 innings in 2023, he’d surely rank as everyone’s top starter.
And that right there is the problem. We haven’t seen deGrom reach even 100 frames since 2019 and he’s thrown only 156.1 over the past two years. Since the spring of 2021, he’s been sidelined at various times by elbow, shoulder, forearm and oblique issues. He’s actually dealing with an injury to his side/oblique right now. Projection systems are all over the place on his innings forecast for 2023. No one is about to issue any guarantees with regard to his workload. Again, all we can say is that when he pitches, for however long he goes, it’s gonna be great.
For me, deGrom is a much easier sell in a Yahoo default roto format than he is anywhere else. Around here, the public game includes a very reachable innings cap, which means that even an 80 or 90-IP season from deGrom can have immense value. Thus, he deserves a bump (or downgrade) based on your platform. Also, if you enter a draft caring exclusively about upside, this is your guy.
Spencer Strider, SP, Atlanta Braves (ADP 26.2)
So much about Strider actually resembles a classic closer, including the triple-digit velocity, the silly K-rate (38.3 K%) and the fastball/slider arsenal — and, obviously, the facial hair. And let’s not forget the post-K peacocking:
Strider is simply a joy, statistically and aesthetically. Last year, he struck out 202 batters in just 131.2 innings while delivering a 2.67 ERA and 1.00 WHIP at age 23. He’ll issue the occasional walk, but that’s less of a concern when nobody can actually hit your stuff (.179 BAA).
It’s reasonable to question whether Strider can remain a first-tier elite starter over the long haul with, essentially, a two-pitch arsenal. But on the other hand, those two pitches are both among the most overpowering in the game. He makes his way to the polarizing list primarily because no one quite knows where to peg his innings; he’s surely not reaching 200 (not that many do), and projection systems have him anywhere from 120 to nearly 170. Strider dealt with an oblique injury at the end of last season and he has a UCL repair in his recent past, but he’s perfectly healthy at the moment, enjoying a dominant spring.
If you want to join Dalton Del Don in rating Strider as no worse than the No. 3 starter entering 2023, I get it. Like deGrom (but for different reasons), Strider is another guy you can feel much better about in a traditional Yahoo default format involving an innings limit. In our game, you need to care primarily about K-rate, not total Ks.
To be perfectly honest, Bieber only makes this list because, for the second year in a row, people are going out of their way to declare they won’t draft him — like this guy over here. It’s possible this is because Bieber is a glaring exception among the early-round starters in that he doesn’t throw a zillion miles per hour. In fact, his velocity has declined in each of the past two seasons.
But, well … c’mon. Bieber managed to strike out 198 batters last season while issuing only 36 walks over 200.0 innings. His ERA was 2.88 and his FIP was 2.87. It’s tough to look at his year and decide the surface-level stats were an accident of luck. Bieber simply has command of a very deep arsenal that includes more than one highly effective wipe-out pitch. He’s something of an artist, a master technician, a tunneler’s tunneler. He’s given us four straight good-to-brilliant seasons and he’s been clowning people this spring:
Bieber is also one of the best bets to reach 200 innings among all starters, which, in the current era, is a lofty number. Even if some of you are (again) avoiding him in drafts, I consider him one of the safest high-end starters in the player pool.