2023 Fantasy Baseball Top 5 MLB Free Agent Starting Pitchers
Published: Nov 14, 2022
Updated: Nov 15, 2022
It’s a loaded 2023 MLB free agency class this year. Especially with starting pitching. We all saw how the Houston Astros rode starting pitching to the 2022 World Series title. Now several teams will be looking to copy that format by loading up on the top starting pitchers in free agency.
Just how deep is starting the pitching pool? Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney, and Martín Pérez don’t even make the top-five options. Clayton Kershaw isn’t listed as he was finalizing a one-year deal to stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers as of the writing of this piece. Where these top starting pitchers sign in free agency will undoubtedly affect their 2023 fantasy baseball value and where their ADP falls and fantasy baseball drafts.
Top Five MLB Free Agent Starting Pitchers
2022 Stats: 11 GS, 5-4 W-L, 64.1 IP, 14.27 K/9, 1.12 BB/9, 3.08 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 0.75 WHIP
The best starting pitcher in the majors has opted out of the rest of his contract with the Mets. Much to their chagrin. The main concern with deGrom, like most starting pitchers, is whether can he stay healthy. He hasn’t topped 100 innings in the last two full innings he’s pitched for the Mets. Perhaps getting away from the Mets will help as we’ve seen with other pitchers who leave the Mets manager to stay healthy more often. When he’s on the mound though, the numbers are phenomenally good.
The 3.08 ERA is just the second-highest mark in his career. Yep, you read that right and that’s over nine years. For deGrom, it’s not likely to matter where he pitches in terms of park factors as his pure stuff however, there are things like run-support that could keep his win total low. Though that already happens with the Mets. He’s indicated that he’s interested in pitching for the Texas Rangers but I presume that’s likely for the no state-income tax rather than anything special about the Rangers or who’s coming up in their system.
2022 Stats: 28 GS, 18-4 W-L, 175 IP, 9.51 K/9, 1.49 BB/9, 1.75 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 0.83 WHIP
What a remarkable season for this 39-year-old coming back from Tommy John surgery. He’s likely to be the AL Cy Young Award winner and on the open market thanks to opting out of his contract. If it wasn’t for deGrom being on the market, this righty coming into his age-40 season would be the top available arm. Just how good of a year was it for Verlander?
Well, if we look at ERA, it’s the first time he’s been sub-2.50 since his 2.40 mark way back in 2011. The 2.66 xERA this year is tied for the second-best of his career with that stat dating back to 2015. So how did he manage such a low ERA when his K/9, BB/9, Barrel%, and Hard Hit % were all around his career marks? His HR/9 rate (0.62) hadn’t been that low in a season of more than 20 starts since 2014 and hadn’t been sub-0.7 since 2010. Seems like he found the fountain of youth, a.k.a a year at home, rehabbing and not having to pitch every fifth day.
There’s no reason he shouldn’t see deals in the realm of the Max Scherzer deal from last year of three years and ~$42 million a year. There’s no reason not to think that he can still be an ace at the front of a rotation for a contender as he proved in 2022.
2022 Stats: 31 GS, 14-8 W-L, 178 IP, 11.98 K/9, 2.63 BB/9, 2.88 ERA, 2.25 FIP, 1.03 WHIP
The question coming into the 2022 season for Rodon was: could he repeat his 2021 year and stay healthy? Yes, and yes. Given that he essentially signed a prove-it-type contract with San Francisco in the original deal — two years with an opt-out after one — it’s not shocking to see him use the opt-out. He’s going into his age-30 season and has proven to be an elite starting pitcher for the last two years, across two different leagues, and thus he’s in line for a hefty payday. Even though he pitched 45 more innings in 2022 than in 2021, the barrel % and hard hit % remained basically the same between both seasons. However, the key difference is that even though the hard hit rate was the same, there was a large drop in HR/FB ratio — 9.6 down to 6.5 percent.
Now, this could be explained by pitching in San Francisco, where fly balls go to die, but it could be something to watch depending on where he signs in 2023. If he wants to sign with a team that can compete right away, he could go back to Chicago and make a 1-2 tandem with Dylan Cease or a few others. However, there’s a chance he could be waiting to see who loses out on the deGrom-Verlander sweepstakes.
2022 Stats: 30 GS, 15-9 W-L, 181.2 IP, 8.27 K/9, 2.43 BB/9, 3.42 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 1.14 WHIP
After declining his side of the $19 million mutual option for 2023, he’ll be a free agent just like his rotation-mate in New York. While the numbers might not be as eye-popping for Bassitt as some others on this list, he was a very solid option for the Mets and stepped up when both deGrom and Scherzer were out. It’s important to note that the underlying numbers for Bassitt were very similar, or nearly identical, to what they’d been in previous years in Oakland. His 32.8-percent hard-hit rate is identical to his career average (based on Statcast data), and K% and BB% in 2022 were all in line with what he’d done the last four years in Oakland.
What changed with the ERA is one thing, the division, and home park. The NL East is a far less pitcher-friendly division as compared to the AL West, not to mention the Oakland Coliseum isn’t conducive to offense, unlike Citi Field. Even with his pitch selection changing, his Slider and Curveball were thrown at the highest rate of his career over a full season while the fastball and changeup were at their lowest rate, the underlying numbers stayed put. Thus, it was the ballpark(s) that made the difference in the ratios. If he lands back in another pitcher-friendly home park, expect the ratios to get closer to the 3.00 and 1.00 respectively with a solid K-rate while being an innings-eating number-2 or -3 starter.
2022 Stats: 29 GS, 12-5 W-L, 157.1 IP, 7.55 K/9, 2.57 BB/9, 3.49 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.19 WHIP
It’s starting to become clear how the Mets won 100 games in 2022, isn’t it? Three of the top-five starting pitchers on the market made up 60 percent of their rotation. To be honest it’s quite surprising to see Walker on the open market as he not only opted out of his final year but the Mets also failed to offer him a Qualifying Offer as well. That only means good things for Walker as there’s no draft pick compensation attached to him now. Walker’s numbers are very similar to Bassitt’s, in fewer innings, but if we dig deeper they are better. If we take out the 19.1 innings from August in which he posted a near-7.00 ERA, his ERA drops to 3.00 on the year while the K/9 jumps to nearly 8.0 per nine and the walk rate falls to 2.2 per nine.
So while August was a painful time to bear what Walker did to your fantasy football ratios, the rest of the year was SP3 quality. The solid numbers were a product of his hard-hit rate dropping to the second-lowest rate, of any full season, of his career while the HR/FB and GB% were the best of his career. Keeping the ball on the ground, avoiding hard contact, and keeping the ball in the park (0.86 HR/9) are traits that will make Walker effective no matter where he signs in 2023. For fantasy, we’re looking at Walker as a low-end SP3 who should see an uptick in strikeouts and a slight drop in ERA and WHIP.
2022 NPB Stats: 22 GS, 11-6 W-L, 144 IP, 9.8 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.94 ERA, 1.056 WHIP
The latest great arm from the Nippon Professional Baseball league is heading to MLB. Koudai or Kodai Senga is being posted this winter for MLB teams to start negotiating with for his services. He comes stateside following his age-29 season with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, a team he’s pitched his entire career with. The track record from the right-hander is long and very impressive as he’s pitched 11 season in the NPB with a 2.59 ERA in 224 games with a 10.3 K/9 rate and 1.11 WHIP.
According to scouts, he has a four-pitch mix with a fastball that tops out at 96mph followed by a Splitter (forkball), Cutter, and Slider. The fastball isn’t his best pitch but is at least MLB-average while the other three are plus pitches. He was an ace on his NPB team’s rotation however, when he comes to MLB he’ll be likely a number-3 starter depending on where he signs. There is plenty of interest for MLB teams to get their hands on a soon-to-be 30-year-old pitcher of his ilk who might be cheaper than guys like Bassitt and/or Walker. The helium will rise for fantasy baseball drafts the closer we get to spring training, especially if he signs with a contender like the Dodgers or Padres, or Blue Jays.
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