TDG 2023 RISERS AND FALLERS: STARTING PITCHER
Every year, we at the TDG office identify Risers and Fallers from our consensus rankings. But how did we get here!? And what’s real and what’s noise? Well, the Gurus are here to help. In each “Risers and Fallers” article, the Gurus will take you on an explanatory journey as to why four players have seen a fortunate rise, or an unfortunate turn toward their demise. Thanks for reading!
RISING: George Kirby, Seattle Mariners, (AGE: 25, RANK: 20, PREVIOUS RANK: 52)
I had originally wanted to write about Spencer Strider in this article to be perfectly honest with you, but I figured that was too easy of a slam dunk to write up. The mustachioed man can hurl a devastating fastball and slider with ease, end of story.
George Kirby may be a little bit more under the radar for most folks if they aren’t truly insane like some of us degenerates, sure you may have heard of Kirby when he was coming up and was always stuck in the back of your mind, but you don’t really KNOW him KNOW him.
He doesn’t walk people, like hardly at all as he carried a minuscule 4.1% BB% throughout all 130 innings of Major League ball last year. He’s able to do this by mercilessly pounding the zone with fastballs (both a four-seam and two-seam) nearly 60 percent of the time. His secondary offerings are behind his fastballs and don’t generate a ton of swing and miss at this point (only a 14% whiff rate on his slider.) He did retool his slider later in the year to be more of a sweeping type and that did elicit softer contact with an expected slugging (xSLG) of .251 which shows that hitters are having problems with it, and it might develop into a put-away pitch.
In addition to the superhuman walk rate Kirby generally struck out a batter an inning logging a K/9 of 9.21 and a K% of 24.5%. So, he’s not going to blow anyone away and rack up insane strikeout totals but will provide enough to carry value paired with the walk rate as he had a K-BB% of 20.5% last year which puts him in the top 25 of pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown last year. There is some concern about his swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) as it was below average at 9.7% but at Double-A it was at 15% so there is hope it can rise as he gains more experience and hopefully starts to get out of the zone a tad bit more.
I like to look at a pitchers xFIP-, which is just like the FIP that we have come to know, except it adds in park variables and replaces the actual home run total from the previous year with the average home run rate on flyballs that year. Kirby`s xFIP was 84 (where 100 is league average) which ranked him inside the top 30 at the position with a minimum of 100 innings pitched.
Kirby is projected by ATC to throw 153 innings with a 3.46 ERA while maintaining his excellent K-BB% at 19.2%. If he even takes a tiny step forward this year in K% you might be looking at a top ten dynasty arm. (Ryan Epperson)
FALLING: Jose Berrios, Toronto Blue Jays, (AGE: 28, RANK: 83, PREVIOUS RANK: 22)
What the heck happened!?! Berrios is one year removed from having 200 strikeouts and a 3.50 ERA and looked like he was finally coming into his own as an ace. But `22 was the year that the fastball issues finally caught up with him. There have been a few articles on the problems with Berrios`s fastball including the excellent Ben Clemens at Fangraphs and Michael Ajeto over at Baseball Prospectus and I recommend you check them out if you want a more in depth look into his potential struggles with the four seam (not to be confused with cult hit, “Trouble with the Curve”.) Essentially, Berrios is no longer getting whiffs on his fastball in the zone.
While not losing any velocity or movement hitters are now waiting to feast on his four seamer that he threw somewhat puzzlingly 27% of the time last year which was more than in his stellar `21 campaign. Hitters had a .618 slugging percentage against it, while laying off his sinker when its in the zone.
Looking at some of the projections, they all seem to agree that it cant possibly get worse and have him regressing back to his mean of around a 4.20 ERA with a slight uptick in strikeout percentage from the previous year.
Still just 28 years old, I’m not closing the book on Berrios regaining somewhat of his prior self as the Jays are a good organization to reform pitchers (shout out Robbie Ray.) He still features a great sinker and a wipeout slider that is truly phenomenal he just must figure out how to be able to get to those pitches. (Ryan Epperson)
A couple players trading places.
It is so nice to be going into 2023 with what feels like a fresh start. No CBA concerns, lost games, or big clouds on the horizon. 2023 is coming into existence with a clean slate. Just the promise of a new season, one where we truly believe this is our year! This time for me is so wonderful with all the speculation, the reading, the discussions, the rankings, the debates, the drafts, the prospects, the breakouts, the sleepers… The risers and the fallers. This year I had the opportunity to write about starting pitchers that fit those last two things I mentioned. My riser is Cristian Javier of the Houston Astros and my faller is Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Guardians.
FALLING: Shane Bieber, Cleveland Guardians, (AGE: 27, RANK: 12, PREVIOUS RANK: 5)
Shane Bieber broke into the majors as a starter for the Guardians in 2018. He showed a lot of promise and was highly regarded as a breakout candidate for the 2019 season. He would not disappoint starting 33 games and leading the league with two complete game shutouts. In 214 IP Shane threw 259 strikeouts with only 40 walks. It felt like he was only getting started.
Shane Bieber the Sprinter.
2020’s shortened season brought more success. In the 60 game sprint we experienced he was the fastest in the AL. Going 8-1 in 12 starts, Shane had 122 strikeouts and only 21 walks in 77.1 innings pitched. Those 122 strikeouts and winning percentage led the league and he won the AL Cy Young in a unanimous vote. Detractors pointed out that AL Central opponents were all he faced that year. It made for a very easy path as he didn’t face the AL East beasts or the best of the AL West. It didn’t matter. In those 12 starts he had 11 Quality Starts and reached double digits in strikeouts eight times. The other four starts? Eight, eight, nine, & eight K’s. His short season was truly ridiculous.
Shane Bieber stumbles.
Which set up high expectations for 2021. Coming into that season he was considered one of the top three with Cole and Degrom. All three had a claim to the top spot. Bieber was a bonafide ace, and started the season with 11 quality starts in 13 games. He seemed to be cruising. Then in start 14 on June 13 against the Mariners (Go Mariners!) he exited with a shoulder injury and didn’t pitch until two late September starts that only went 3 innings each. The season ended with a 7-4 record in 16 starts. He amassed 134 strikeouts in 96.2 innings with a 3.17 era and a 1.21 whip. Shane seemed vulnerable.
Shane Bieber gets back on his feet!
When the 2022 season started there were a series of questions surrounding Bieber and for the most part he came through with flying colors. He made every turn on the bump, pitching 200 innings in 31 starts. He had a 2.88 era and his elite walk rate (he only walked 36 batters all year) returned after struggling a little in 2020 and 2021. But the season ended with some of those questions unanswered. In the shortened 2020 and 2021 season Bieber had a 41.1 and 33.1 k% which were some of the highest numbers those years regardless if the pitcher was a starter or reliever. But his fastball was declining year over year. In 2020 his four seamer averaged 94.1 miles per hour. But in 2021 and 2022 it fell to 92.8 and 91.3 mph respectively.
Shane Bieber, long distance runner?
Is Shane going to be fine without his velocity? Is the shape of his off-speed pitches, particularly his curve, going to help him overcome it? Is his shoulder truly fine? Is he going to rejoin the top tier of starting pitchers again? I think Shane’s falling out of the top ten is justified and one way or another he is going to start answering those questions with what we see this year. Personally I don’t see a return to him being an SP1 (top 12-15 depending) in most leagues. I think he is young enough to still continue to pitch for a long time at a high level, but I no longer consider him to be an anchor of any fantasy staff unless his fastball velocity returns for a whole season OR he proves he can be successful for another season with similar stuff. (Sam Wirsching)
RISING: Cristian Javier, Houston Astros, (AGE: 25, RANK: 21, PREVIOUS RANK: 134)
Cristian Javier was drafted out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 at the age of 18. After a strong season in the minors during the 2019 season, he broke into the major leagues as a starter in 2020. Starting 10 of 12 appearances, he ended the season with strong numbers. A 5-2 record with 54.1 innings with 54 strikeouts and ratios of a 3.48 era and a .994 whip. The future looked bright.
Is he really a starter, because if not…
2021 had other plans. Houston used 7seven starters that season including Javier, but he was only used as a starter nine9 times. Zack Grienke (29), Lance McCullers (28), Luis Garcia (28), Jake Odorizzi (23), Framber Valdez (22), and Jose Urquidy (20) all started more games than him. In the nine games he started, Cristian pitched 48.2 innings and racked up 58 k’s with a 3.14 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. As a reliever he pitched 52.2 innings and had 72 k’s with a 3.93 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. He had the talent and Houston has a reputation for pitching development (ignore Forrest Whitley). The question was “ Is he destined for the bullpen?”.
That answers that.
That’s where he started the 2022 campaign, in the bullpen. But three strong appearances and Dusty Baker put him in the sStarting lineup and all he did was deliver. For the regular season he made two more relief appearances when he needed to, but also made 25 starts. And boy did he makes them count. His season long stats read like an ace: 11-9 record with 148.2 innings pitched (up from 101.1 the season before) with a 2.54 ERA, .948 WHIP, and 194 strikeouts. Just a massive jump. Cristian Javier was a pitcher I was hopeful to be sneaky on in 2023 towards the end of 2022.
And now everyone will know.
My hopes to have him stay as a “sleeper” or a quiet “break out” were ruined when he pitched in game four4 of the world series. It was there that Cristian treated all of us to his best performance: 6 no hit innings with 9 strikeouts against just 2 walks. It was amazing watching him perform on the biggest stage against a team that has some serious swag in the playoffs. And he just sat them down. One by one. Javier had arrived.
Bullish on El Reptil
This season during our rankings I had Javier higher than consensus at 14. If he can keep his walk rate under 10% and his strikeout rate above 30% while continuing to limit contact, let alone hard contact, and we might just be looking at the new ace of the Astros staff. That fact makes him super desirable for me. Team context for starting pitchers accumulating wins is important and I would argue as important to draft for as saves and steals. Playing for Houston means that if he continues to pitch at this level there will be a good chance of high teen win totals while he is pitching there. If anyone is selling in your league, buy him now! (Sam Wirsching)