Brash. Bold. Brazen. Beguiling. None of these words actually apply to this game we call fantasy baseball. Except for beguiling, because that’s what Grey’s mustache does to your brain when he’s giving you a good chin wag about Fernando Tatis. Keep waggin’, Grey! Today, we’re getting ready for the fantasy baseballer (<—Grey’s mom’s word) season by looking at my bold predictions for pitcher performance in 2021. So, grab a Bold Canada Dry, set the radio to “Lo-Fi Hip Hop,” and turn your Hue lights to purplish-yellow. We’re about to get bold in here.
So, what does being bold get you in your game of fantasy baseball? For every consideration of player performance, there’s the Bell Curve. I don’t know if that’s actually capitalized because it’s a science thing or a punk band that hasn’t been formed yet. ENYWHEY. On the spectrum of outcomes where a player could be, there’s the normative outcome of where the player should be. We call that the consensus and we all applaud ourselves on the back when we get it right. Mike Trout should be pretty good and is likely a player to return first round value, but he could be great and a Top 5 player. He could also struggle due to being a tired dad and hitting in front of a lineup that would bore even Lil’ Jon. “HEY!” says Lil’ Jon, looking at the White Sox lineup as they play the Angels. But, fortune and fame favor the bold. As NPR taught me in a 3-minute review of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, it’s those people who exceed their expectations that are the difference makers. On the bell curve of player performance, you’d see that outcome on the far right side of the imaginary graph. It’s not a perfect science. But when you get it right, you win fantasy championships. Here’s Rudy talking about how bold fantasy football rankings win fantasy leagues over on the football side.
So! Today we’re looking at the left and right sides of the bell curve. Who are the players that could do really well, or could do really poorly? And how does their good or bad outcome affect our fantasy baseball strategies?
To save your eyes from reading 10,000 words at once, I’ll roll out more bold projections throughout February. Let’s start with the two boldest statements I have:
1) Trevor Bauer Finishes Outside the Top 10 SP
Let’s get the elephant in the room addressed first: Razzball isn’t high on Trevor Bauer, and it’s not just because the guy’s a flaming D-bag (which is different than a D-Back). You’ll see Bauer is drafted as SP4 over on the NFBC right now, going as high as 7th overall and the lowest as 25th overall, with an average of 16. So, most fantasy managers are taking Bauer at the turn of the first round, with the expectation that he’ll either be a partner in “pocket aces” (getting 2 starters to start the draft) or the primary starting pitcher on a fantasy team. Meanwhile, Rudy’s Razzball Steamer Projections have Bauer as SP7, Grey has Bauer at #9 on his Top 20 Starting Pitchers for 2021 Fantasy Baseball, and JKJ wrote up Bauer elegantly for this week’s fantasy baseball transactions in his Saturday Morning Post. To summarize their points, Razzballers (<–my dad’s word) are down on Bauer, and Grey is about 25%-50% lower on Bauer than the consensus rankings. Where do I stand?
I predict Bauer won’t finish in the Top 10 for fantasy baseball starting pitchers. Now, that might not sound that bold, but it’s a statement that Bauer will perform over 50% worse than the consensus ranks. Of course, when push comes to shove, I’ll have Bauer in my own Top 20 starting pitcher rankings come March. But between you and me — which is a space I hope is at least 6 feet wide — I’m worried Bauer won’t even finish in the top 20. Here’s why: batters hit his stuff hard. We can look at sample sizes in two or three year spans, and Bauer appears on the bad side of the top 50 of barrel % no matter what. Since 2019, Bauer is actually the 10th hardest hit pitcher in Major League Baseball, with a cumulative 7.9% barrel rate. In addition to that, Bauer owns the 4th highest average launch angle in MLB in the past two years, sandwiched between Madison Bumgarner, Lucas Giolito, and Mike Fiers. You’re probably thinking, “But I like Giolito! He’s my pocket ace!” Sure, that’s fine and well and I don’t blame you but I do judge you. Giolito’s BABIP was also pretty league standard in 2020; Bauer’s BABIP was .215. So, as Bauer was pitching against the decimated Tigers (keeping in mind the 2019 Tigers were one of the worst hitting teams in the history of MLB), Royals, and Brewers teams, even those weak hitters got unlucky while still managing to both smack and launch the ball. I bet you haven’t both smacked and launched a ball since 7th grade science class made you crush things in the name of empiricism. Additionally, Bauer’s left-on-base percentage in 2020 was a staggering 91%. That basically tied Shane Bieber and was 6% ahead of the next closest starter, Gerrit Cole. You wonder why a bunch of MLB teams were balking at signing Bauer, aside from his attacks on fans? They knew he was super-lucky in 2020. Also probably a bunch of pine tar on his hands. When Bauer refused to budge until given a ludicrous contract, it took one of the mega-spenders to come to an agreement. The Dodgers have never really cared much for value investing in players.
Is Bauer a good starting pitcher? Yes. He will deliver plus value to your team in most categories. However, is the value that the fantasy community is placing upon him the same value where he should be projected to perform? Probably not. If you looked at any other pitcher with the sheer amount of luck that Bauer had in 2020 and even stretching back to 2019, you’d be worried. With Statcast comps of Mike Fiers and Madison Bumgarner, you start to worry, right? So, what to do? Aaron Nola is going nearly a round later in drafts and has more wins, more starts, and a touch fewer Ks than Bauer over the past three years. For me, I’m declaring Trevor Bauer finishing outside the Top 10 fantasy starting pitchers as my first bold prediction. Let’s move on to the second:
2) Robbie Ray Finishes in the Top 50 SP
Whew, it just got hot in here. Razzball readers shouldn’t be surprised that I am bullish on the Blue Jay’s starter after I wrote my Robbie Ray highlights article. But, much of the agony and hand-wringing over Robbie Ray stems from the psychological bias against Ray that seems to be unfounded. Yes, the guy has problems with control. However, he’s just 29 years old and was jettisoned off the sinking ship of the Arizona Diamondbacks into the willing rebuild going on with the Buffalo/Toronto Blue Jays. Here’s where Ray finished in the overall fantasy starting pitching standings the past few years according to the Razzball Fantasy Baseball Player Rater: 2017 — SP9, 2018 — SP75, 2019 — SP35, 2020 — SP240. Translating that to practical terms, he’s finished as your teams’ SP1, SP7, SP3, and un-rostered. Also, Tony Disco, Carlos Martinez, Julio Teheran, and Steven Matz finished 2020 as less valuable pitchers than Robbie Ray, just FYI. So, three out of the past four years, Ray’s been a valuable pitcher and would have been rostered in just about every league format. To top it off, Robbie Ray is listed as SP41 on Rudy’s Razzball Steamer Projections, ahead of Zac Gallen, who is currently the 14th pitcher off the board in NFBC drafts. Whew! You think I’m being bold? Let Rudy school you in being bold! (EWB’s note on 2/9/2021: Rudy adjusted his ranks after I wrote this article…possibly in response to this article! Gallen is now 39 and Ray is 42. Still…nearly 20 rounds of difference in draft value to have nearly the same projections)
Ray certainly has the potential to land on the negative value of the bell curve. His 2020 was disastrous. However, the potential to land on the positive side of the bell curve comes with good arguments: over the past 3 years, Ray is 13th in total Ks and has more starts than Shane Bieber, and has the 12th best swinging strike rate over the past two years (which includes his disastrous 2020 campaign). As I noted in my Robbie Ray article above, he possesses a sinker in his arsenal that is plus value and batters simply can’t do anything with it. The problem is, he just doesn’t throw it very much because it’s not in his idiom (to quote Monty Python) of striking people out. If Robbie Ray pulled a Corbin Burnes and ditched his fastball for a sinker, we could see dramatic improvements in Ray’s outcomes. Burnes had an even worse 2019 than Ray’s 2020, and Burnes changed his pitch mix to finish 2020 as the 9th best starting pitcher for fantasy baseball. I covered this transformation in my Corbin Burnes 2021 fantasy baseball outlook. Ray is drafted as the 127th pitcher off the board right now, which is off the radar in all but the deepest of leagues. If you’re following the Razzball rankings, you’ll be able to grab Ray at the end of every draft and know that he’s got a track record and evidence of being a solid fantasy baseball pitcher. I’m staking my claim that Robbie Ray finishes 2021 in the Top 50 starting pitchers for fantasy baseball.
So! While I get drafting my next bold predictions, what are your thoughts on Bauer or Ray? Do you have some bold predictions of your own that you’d like to add? Let me know down in the comments, and have a great week!