Fantasy Baseball Tiers: SP Rankings, Draft Strategy, Sleepers

Separating fantasy baseball rankings into tiers for any position isn’t easy, but when it comes to starting pitchers, it’s damn near impossible. That doesn’t stop us from doing it, of course, but just know that when you’re putting together your draft strategy for fantasy’s most volatile position, you should allow for a lot of wiggle room. About the only thing we can say with absolute certainty is that there will be a lot of busts and a lot of breakout sleepers. 

What makes starting pitcher so difficult to handicap is the unreliability of wins, and, to a slightly lesser extent, ERA. Oh, and the injuries. Sure, there are similar issues with hitters, but pitchers seem to fluctuate more wildly — and their injuries seem to be more devastating. 

2020 Fantasy Baseball Rankings:
Catcher | First | Second | Third | Short | Outfield | Starter | Reliever | Top 300

So, as we always caution, take our rankings with a grain of salt. A surprise amount of wins can send a pitcher flying up the standard fantasy rankings, while a lucky or unlucky BABIP or FIP year can really affect an ERA or WHIP.

Because of this, it’s tough to recommend a specific draft strategy involving pitchers. The best of the best, like Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer, seem like sure things, but even if they stay in one piece, they might not pay off that first- or second-round price tag. Perhaps more important, offensive players can potentially contribute in five categories while a starter can contribute in just four. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a Tier-1 ace in the first three rounds, but you’ll be feeling like you’re playing catch-up on offense for the first half of your draft.

If you’re confident in your ability to draft hitters, then be all means grab a pitcher early, but as long as you get at least one hurler from the first three tiers and look for value throughout the rest of your draft, you can build a solid rotation. If all else fails, you can always play matchups and stream once the season starts. 

Depending how deep your league is, you will probably want to leave your draft with at least six or seven SPs — the last one or two of which should be intriguing late-around sleepers. Weekly leaguers playing in a five-SP/two-RP format really need just four reliable starters, as streaming at least one two-start SP every week usually makes sense. If you don’t like streaming or simply want to feel “safer” after your draft, then you’ll probably spend several early-middle and middle-round picks on starters, so plan accordingly. 

As a reminder, our sub-tiers are based on the type of production a player offers. If a pitcher is in, say, Tier 4B, it doesn’t mean he’s worse overall than someone in Tier 4A; it just means he’s better or worse in a specific category (i.e. more strikeouts, generally lower WHIP, etc.). 

Who are the best fantasy baseball SPs?

Eligibility based on Yahoo default settings

There’s a case to be made for Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole to be in Tier 1 by themselves because of their elevated K-rates, but it’s not as if the rest of these guys don’t strike out a lot of batters, too. That said, we won’t deny the impact of Cole striking out 95 more batters than Jack Flaherty in the same number of starts last year. That’s category-winning stuff.

Scherzer and Cole aren’t perfect, though. Scherzer had some minor injury issues last year and is 35; Cole has seen a noticeable decline in ground-ball rate the past two seasons and will now pitch his home games in one of the most homer-happy parks in baseball. While we still expect them to dominate, it’s possible the other guys in this tier have similar, if not better, all-around impacts. 

All six of these pitchers will likely be gone by the third round, with Cole and possibly Scherzer and Jacob deGrom going in the first. It’s difficult using one of your top-three picks on a position with so much volatility, but if anyone’s worth it, it’s one of these aces. You can wait until the second or maybe even third tier before drafting your first SP, but you’ll feel like you have a leg up on everyone else if you draft one of the pitchers below. 

If you target a Tier-1 SP, then have some specific hitter targets in mind for filling in the offensive gaps. That might mean trying to play the scarcity game and grabbing the one elite 3B who steals bases (Jose Ramirez) in the second round, or it might mean making sure you get a speedster with some power like Jonathan Villar and Adalberto Mondesi in the fourth round. It could also mean sacrificing average with a massive power hitter like Joey Gallo a few rounds later. 

Max Scherzer, Nationals
Gerrit Cole, Yankees
Jacob deGrom, Mets
Justin Verlander, Astros
Walker Buehler, Dodgers
Jack Flaherty, Cardinals

2020 Fantasy Baseball Tiers: Tier-2 SPs

Every pitcher in Tier 2 either has been or undoubtedly has the potential to be in Tier 1. If you pass on the Tier-1 pitchers and take your first SP in Rounds 4-6, you’re still going to get a stud. All of these pitchers should strike out more than a batter per inning and post good ERAs and WHIPs. 

The reason these guys aren’t in Tier 1 varies. Some have injury worries (Chris Sale, Mike Clevinger, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw); others just haven’t quite proven themselves over the course of a full season or for more than one year (Tyler Glasnow, Chris Paddack, Lucas Giolito); still others regressed last year (Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, Patrick Corbin). 

Again, these are all potential aces, and you can really take them in any order. Many would argue for Charlie Morton to be higher, but at 36, we have minor worries about his age (more so than Justin Verlander, who’s a year older but been better the past two seasons). Sale will be the last one drafted after news of the flexor strain in his left arm, and while that’s a big worry, if he does return to the mound in May as the Red Sox hope, he can still pay off a seventh-round draft position. 

Blake Snell, Rays
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Luis Castillo, Reds
Lucas Giolito, White Sox
Tyler Glasnow, Rays
Shane Bieber, Indians
Mike Clevinger, Indians
Chris Paddack, Padres
Charlie Morton, Rays
Aaron Nola, Phillies
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Patrick Corbin, Nationals
Chris Sale, Red Sox

2020 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers:
Catcher | First | Second | Third | Short | Outfielder | Starter | Each team

Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Tier-3 SPs

Most fantasy owners won’t want a Tier-3 starter as their No. 1, but it’s likely at least a couple of these guys will finish the year worthy of that distinction. Obviously, we’re taking an optimistic view of some young pitchers with questions marks (Jesus Luzardo, Frankie Montas, Lance McCullers Jr., Mike Soroka), and we’re giving the benefit of the doubt to some veterans (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Noah Syndergaard), but overall, these are very talented pitchers who we know can perform at a high level. 

The pitchers in Tier 3A should all strike out a batter per inning. Some have higher strikeout upside (Montas, McCullers, Carraco, Luzardo, Sonny Gray) than others (Jose Berrios, Syndergaard, Kluber), but they can all be considered “strikeout” pitchers. Tier 3B consists of pitchers who likely won’t get quite many Ks (but still a decent amount), but they’re safe bets in ERA and WHIP.

There’s a lot of upside in this tier, and sometimes a few of these guys — usually the veterans — will fall a little too far in drafts. Be on the lookout for that and take advantage. Getting someone from this tier to pair with a Tier-1 or Tier-2 pitcher will give you a great start to your rotation. If you passed on pitchers from the first two tiers, don’t be shy about grabbing two Tier-3 guys, perhaps on back-to-back picks. 

Frankie Montas, A’s
Lance McCullers Jr., Astros
Corey Kluber, Rangers
Carlos Carrasco, Indians
Noah Syndergaard, Mets
Jesus Luzardo, A’s
Jose Berrios, Twins
Sonny Gray, Reds
Max Fried, Braves
Luke Weaver, D-backs

Mike Soroka, Braves
Hyun-Jin Ryu, Blue Jays
Zack Greinke, Astros

Fantasy Baseball Breakouts, Bounce-Backs, and Boring Veterans: Tier-4 SPs

Tier 4 is where things really getting interesting. You have some pitchers who have been aces in the past (Trevor Bauer, David Price, Lance Lynn, Yu Darvish, James Paxton, Madison Bumgarner), and some pitchers who seem to be on the verge of breaking out (Zac Gallen, Dinelson Lamet, Joey Lucchesi, Sean Manaea). Either way, all have potential issues that are tough to ignore, which is why most will be drafted as SP3s or SP4s.

We’ve broken down this group into three tiers: Tier 4A consists of solid strikeout pitchers with decent peripherals; Tier 4B features higher-strikeout pitchers with ERA/WHIP worries (usually because of homers or walks); and Tier 4C has guys with slightly lower strikeout upside but perhaps the best ERA/WHIP potential. These sub-tiers aren’t perfect — Zack Wheeler doesn’t limit base runners as well as Bumgarner, Lynn pitched like an ace last year and should arguably be up a tier, and Darvish and Paxton aren’t as big of WHIP worries as Robbie Ray and Matt Boyd — but in general, they’re similar pitchers. 

Most owners will opt for the higher strikeout upside of the pitchers in Tier 4B. That makes sense, but this is the most volatile sub-tier, so make sure you already have some low-WHIP pitchers. Paxton (back) might be the steal of this tier if he can return by early May, but health (and pitching in Yankee Stadium) will always be a concern. 

As with Tier 3, you can make a case for taking two guys in quick succession from Tier 4. Once you get this deep into the SP rankings, it’s tough predict when pitchers will go off the board. Darvish will likely be gone, as we have him ranked lower than most sites, but someone like Jake Odorizzi could linger because, let’s face it, who’s really excited about Jake Odorizzi? Even someone like Bumgarner could fall too far, and while we’re worried about his shift in parks (he was noticeably better over his career in San Francisco), he still could easily post a 3.30/1.15 line with a solid strikeout rate.

The high likelihood that at least a couple of Tier-4 guys fall is why you shouldn’t overdraft pitchers from the first three tiers. The key is reading your draft. If pitchers are going early, then you might need to be a little more aggressive. Otherwise, clean up the values. 

David Price, Dodgers
Jake Odorizzi, Twins
Lance Lynn, Rangers
Brandon Woodruff, Brewers
Zac Gallen, D-backs
Kenta Maeda, Twins

Yu Darvish, Cubs
Trevor Bauer, Reds
Dinelson Lamet, Padres
Eduardo Rodriguez, Red Sox
Joey Lucchesi, Padres
James Paxton, Yankees
Robbie Ray, D-backs
Matt Boyd, Tigers

Sean Manaea, A’s
Zack Wheeler, Phillies
Marcus Stroman, Mets
Madison Bumgarner, D-backs
Kyle Hendricks, Cubs

Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Tier-5 SPs

Tier 5 has some potential aces (Julio Urias, Shohei Ohtani, Brendan McKay, Michael Kopech), but all have injury/usage concerns. The rest of the pitchers in this tier are undoubtedly talented, but whether it’s worries about experience (Aaron Civale, Adrian Houser, Griffin Canning) or park (Masahiro Tanaka, Tyler Mahle, German Marquez, Jon Gray, Mike Minor), it’s tough to go all-in on them. 

Tier 5A features pitchers with slightly lower strikeout upside but ones who typically fair well in WHIP; Tier 5B is higher strikeout guys who have homer or walk concerns. As is often the case with pitchers, most owners will opt for the higher strikeout guys, but don’t overlook the value of lower-ERA/WHIP pitchers. 

It’s good to have at least one of these guys on your team. You’ll be able to get them in the late-middle or late rounds, so the opportunity cost isn’t too high. Again, look for values as they come to you. 

Joe Musgrove, Pirates
Mike Minor, Rangers
Anthony DeSclafani, Reds
Julio Urias, Dodgers
Aaron Civale, Indians
Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees

Shoehei Ohtani, Angels
Adrian Houser, Brewers
Tyler Mahle, Reds
German Marquez, Rockies
Carlos Martinez, Cardinals
Jon Gray, Rockies
Andrew Heaney, Angels
Caleb Smith, Marlins
Brendan McKay, Rays
Michael Kopech, White Sox
Griffin Canning, Angels
Mitch Keller, Pirates

Fantasy Baseball Tiers: Tier-6 SPs

Instead of categorizing our Tier-6 pitchers by production, we instead grouped them by the type: Tier 6A is veterans, and Tier 6B is younger pitchers. They’re not all created equal, but if it’s one of the last rounds of your draft and you’re staring at pitchers from this tier in your queue, you will probably base your decision on whether you prefer experience or upside. 

Obviously, we’ve cast a wide net here, and the players at the top of each sub-tier have more upside than those at the bottom, but given the volatility of the position — and the fact most of these pitchers won’t be drafted, especially in shallow leagues — we grouped them into one. 

Jose Quintana, Cubs
Gio Gonzalez, White Sox
Dallas Keuchel, White Sox
Josh Lindblom, Brewers
Cole Hamels, Braves
Jon Lester, Cubs
Chris Archer, Pirates
Miles Mikolas, Cardinals
Kevin Gausman, Giants
Julio Teheran, Angels
Steven Matz, Mets
Homer Bailey, Twins
Marco Gonzales, Mariners
Brad Peacock, Astros
Dylan Bundy, Angels
Rick Porcello, Mets
Jeff Samardzija, Giants
Kyle Gibson, Rangers
Johnny Cueto, Giants
Jake Arrieta, Phillies
Mike Foltynewicz, Braves
Garrett Richards, Padres
Michael Pineda, Twins

Justus Sheffield, Mariners
Spencer Turnbull, Tigers
Zach Plesac, Indians
A.J. Puk, A’s
Jordan Yamamoto, Marlins
Ryan Yarbrough, Rays
Pablo Lopez, Marlins
Ross Stripling, Dodgers
Yonny Chirinos, Rays
Dylan Cease, White Sox
Jose Urquidy, Astros
Forrest Whitley, Astros
John Means, Orioles

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