Navigating this era of limited starting-pitching workloads and bullpen specialization — 2022’s 32.9% quality start rate, by the way, is the third-worst since World War II, barely behind 2020’s 29.0% and 2021’s 32.6% — alone presents challenges aplenty for fantasy managers. Sweating individual pitch counts in our daily planning is tough enough, but don’t forget that seasonal workloads for starters is another key ingredient as we fine-tune our own rotations for the season’s summer months.
Here’s the painful truth: Of the top 13 starting pitchers in terms of fantasy points, eight find themselves on pace to exceed both their 2021 and previous pro career-high innings pitched totals by at least 50 frames. To extend that analysis, 10 of the top 17 and 13 of the top 29 find themselves in the same situation.
Not that that should come as a complete shock, as it’s the game’s most successful pitchers who typically garner the most usage, year after year. Pitch well and you’ll keep pitching. It’s the kind of thing that often works itself out over the 162-game, 183-or-so-day calendar, as slight slowing of hot streaks brings innings totals closer in line. But that doesn’t cover every such hard-working pitcher, as others see their workloads fall into line as a result of untimely injuries, teams extending rotations or skipping their starts, or the pitchers getting shut down entirely by September — the most critical time in a head-to-head fantasy league’s season.
This season, it’s especially difficult to gauge a potentially “overworked” pitcher. In the past, one could compare year-over-year innings totals, with every season running a generally traditional course. But then we had the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut spring training down just 23 days into 2020, an all-too-brief “Summer Camp” July warm-up leading into an abbreviated, 60-game campaign, and then this past winter’s lockout delayed the start to 2022 spring training by nearly four weeks, but the regular season by only one week. Pitchers haven’t been on a completely traditional schedule since 2019, so it makes sense that teams continue to lighten the load on their starters and that fantasy managers plan accordingly.
In this space in the past, I’ve listed the pitchers in descending order of their projected innings increases, along with a level of worry. This year, that’s tougher to do, and it might be 2024 before we can again make a “normal” year-over-year such analysis. Still, here are some of the pitchers, along with their innings increases using current paces, who most and least worry me, as well as a handful of additional notes to tuck away.
Pitchers of concern
MacKenzie Gore, SP, San Diego Padres: He’s one of only 16 current big-leaguers on pace for at least a 100-inning increase over his 2021 total, one of only four of those on pace to exceed his pro-best total by at least 50 frames, and one of only two who is younger than 26 years old (Chase Silseth). Gore has been outstanding thus far, with a near-full return of his fastball velocity, but his Padres have already shown a tendency to delay and/or skip his rotation turns to keep his innings in check, and during this AJ Preller era, they also did it with Chris Paddack (2019). I don’t see there being any way Gore exceeds 150 regular-season innings — he’s currently on track for 153 1/3 — and that means that while he’ll probably deliver top-40 caliber fantasy stats whenever available, he might have a 2-3 week period where he’s simply not.
Tony Gonsolin, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers: He joins Joe Musgrove as the only pitchers with 10 straight starts allowing two or fewer earned runs to begin the year, but Gonsolin finds himself on pace to exceed his 2021 innings total by 82. He has only once as a pro exceeded 100 innings, throwing 128 in 2018, and his Dodgers love to bake in extra rest, skip turns and/or summon spot starters to keep these kinds of things in check. Gonsolin’s skills are similarly excellent to Gore’s in the games he gives you, but I see 130, not his 150 1/3 current pace, as a more realistic final number.
Nestor Cortes, New York Yankees: He’s a tough read because he’s 27 years old, with a journeyman-like career history, but it’s relevant that he’s on pace for a 68 2/3 inning boost upon his 2021 number, as well as a total 57 greater than he has had in any of his previous nine pro seasons. Cortes’ style might be free and easy, but he’s also extremely reliant upon feel, and fatigue can have a damaging impact on such a pitching type. Of all six of these names, he’s the one who most worries me from a performance angle down the stretch, considering his workload boost and his Yankees’ likelihood of needing him in a key October role.
Shane McClanahan, SP, Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays’ 2021 innings leader was Ryan Yarbrough (155), and they haven’t allowed a 25-year-old — McClanahan’s current age — to exceed 180 2/3 frames in a season since 2014 – and, by the way, those 180 2/3 belonged to Blake Snell in his 2018 Cy Young campaign, itself a workload-capped year that cast his award candidacy into debate. McClanahan is on pace for 189 1/3 frames, a 66-inning boost over his 2021/pro-best number, in a similarly Cy Young-worthy year, but this is a team that loves to scrutinize pitch counts, hitter matchups and times through the lineup, and has rehabbing, padding-in-rest alternatives in Shane Baz and Luis Patino who can slow that innings pace.
Though he’s pacing more than 50 innings ahead of his 2021 total, Framber Valdez’s style minimizes any major worries of a decline in performance or injury later this summer. Video by Tristan H. Cockcroft
Justin Verlander, SP, Houston Astros: He’s on here for the simple reason that he’s fantasy’s top-scoring pitcher thus far, he’s 39 years of age in his first year off Tommy John surgery, and the only pitcher that age or older to reach his 207 1/3 inning pace since 2007 was R.A. Dickey (2014 and 2015), a knuckleballer. It’s just something to think about, considering the Astros like to use six-man rotations at times and might aim to save some of Verlander’s frames for a probable playoff run.
Pablo Lopez, SP, Miami Marlins: And he is on here because, for all the promising year-over-year growth he continues to show at this level, Lopez has a worrisome injury history that has largely been responsible for his never having exceeded 145 1/3 frames in a pro season. He spent time on the injured list in 2018, 2019 and 2021 for shoulder issues, which makes his current 201 2/3 inning pace a bit troubling. Lopez’s is a fingers-crossed situation, as his exceptional command elevated his statistical floor for as long as you have him, but fretting an IL stint would be understandable.
Pitchers of lesser worry
Alek Manoah, SP, Toronto Blue Jays: He’s on pace for 205 1/3 innings, a 75 2/3 frame boost over his 2021 pro total, and it’s possible the Blue Jays will want to spare some for a possible playoff run. Still, he threw 125 1/3 frames between college and the pros during his 2019 draft year, another 129 2/3 last season, he and hasn’t been taxed with an excessive number of taxing frames so far. There might be a time Manoah’s workload comes back to haunt him, but I think it’s in a future year (if at all).
Luis Severino, RP/SP, New York Yankees: He’s on track for a 145 1/3 inning boost over 2021, but that’s more a product of how lengthy his recovery from Tommy John surgery than it is a dire situation. Severino is 28 years old with 190-plus-inning seasons in 2017 and 2018, the Yankees have him on pace for an entirely reasonable 162 frames and they’ll use off days to keep him right on track for that.
Michael Kopech, RP/SP, Chicago White Sox: His 86 2/3 inning projected increase over 2021 is more a product of his relief role last year than anything, and the White Sox have him on track for a perfectly rational 156 frames. They’ve already used off days to occasionally give him extra rest, and that’s manageable for our purposes.
Final thoughts on a few others
Beneath those top 29 fantasy point scorers, a handful of other pitchers warrant attention for their projected workload increases. Seattle Mariners rookie George Kirby is on track for 164 innings, which isn’t outrageous, but it’s a near 100-frame spike and the team did limit 2021’s rookie standout, Logan Gilbert, to 124 1/3. Josiah Gray projects for a 76 2/3 inning increase, an important development considering his Washington Nationals probably don’t fancy themselves contenders and seem pretty certain to give him a premature conclusion to 2022. Speaking of non-contenders holding firm limits on their youngsters’ innings, could the Pittsburgh Pirates rein in Roansy Contreras‘ total? He’s on track for 133 1/3 innings, only one frame greater than his 2019 pro career-high, but that’s a 72 1/3 inning boost over 2021.