I woke up the other day in a sweat from a dream where I drafted Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack, and Corbin Burnes as my top starters in RazzSlam. I was confused: did I do well? Did I do poorly? Would the internet validate my team or would they mock me in private chats? Could I ever show my avatar online again? I started to second guess everything about my life. “French fries should be eaten with mayo!” a voice in my head shouted. “And Mariners pitchers are smart draft choices!” My moral compass was haywire. Had I crossed the threshold from “Bold” to “Brazen?” Should I not have made sriracha Oreos? Is Zombies and Bridgerton too much for my next spec script? No! Sexy Victorian zombies are avant garde! It is the world that doesn’t understand me. Brazen is only the beginning…
This continues my article last week on my bold predictions for 2021 starting pitchers, where I predicted Trevor Bauer will finish outside the top 10 starting pitchers, and Robbie Ray will finish inside the Top 50 starters. Those predictions were bold, as I explained, because I was at least 50% deviated from the consensus on those players. Heh. Deviated. It makes me sound like the crazy one! To quickly summarize, when we look at player performance projections on a bell curve, we see areas of increased likelihood where they will finish. Sometimes, there are good reasons to believe a player will outperform their consensus projection, like Bauer’s track record of getting hit hard, or Robbie Ray’s seldom-used sinker that could become a bread-and-butter pitch. However, those projections are pretty milquetoast (I know you’re checking the spelling of that now). But! I don’t want to give you absurd click-bait advice. I could just write an article that says, “Sixto Sanchez SP1!” and that would be useless to you. He’s not gonna do that. What I want to do is reveal some unlikely scenarios that have good reason to play out. So! Let’s move on to the brazen tier of predictions for 2021 Starting Pitchers. I’ve got one deep dive and a lightning round ready for you.
Jack Flaherty Finishes as SP1
October Grey awakes on his camping trip, shakes the dried leaves from his beard, and announces to his audience of birds and spiders: “Jack Flaherty finished 2021 as the best starting pitcher for fantasy baseball. Also he made less than the league average salary after arbitration. Also also, I should have brought a change of underwear.” Is this scene unbelievable because Grey’s communing with nature, or because Flaherty is SP1? Most pundits are talking about the big 3 SP as the most likely to finish at the top of the fantasy class: Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, and Shane Bieber. I’ll add a dark horse candidate to reach the rank of Mound General: Jack Flaherty.
At 25 years old, Flaherty is entering his fifth year of MLB service and his fourth year as a full time starter. After a stunning 2019 when he tossed nearly 11K/9 while cutting his BB/9 to 2.5 with a 2.75 ERA, Grey put Jack Flaherty as his third best player on his starting pitcher rankings for 2020 fantasy baseball. Then, Covid happened, and the Cardinals missed a ton of time as the virus raged through the team clubhouse. The Cardinals missed over two weeks of games — nearly 30% of the season! With the knowledge that the team needed to play a ton of makeup games and pitchers would need to step up, Flaherty seemed stressed. He threw only 1.2 IP in his first game back. There were days when Flaherty was on track, and days when he — like most of us in the world — just didn’t have his game. He’d throw two games where he was un-hittable, and then get shelled in the next game. He’d chat to reporters that his stuff just wasn’t working. On September 15, 2020 — deep into the Cardinals’ run of makeup games — Flaherty gave up 9 ERs in 3 innings against the weak-hitting Milwaukee Brewers, who had just been no-hit by Alec Mills and his 65 MPH curveball. Flaherty’s 2020 performance was downright boring, if not ugly, and he finished as SP74 on the year, just ahead of Randy Dobnak. Blech.
Yet, among the top 25 best starters as ranked by xFIP in 2020, Jack Flaherty had the largest difference between his ERA (4.91) and his xFIP (3.42). The next closest was Tyler Glasnow. Flaherty’s barrel % remained constant with his career averages, and batters actually hit more of his pitches into the ground than in 2018 or 2019. Flaherty got unlucky with a 1.34 HR/9 and 23.1 HR/FB%, each nearly 25% more than his career average. Flaherty had an average launch angle of 9 degrees, and of the pitchers nearby to Flaherty on the launch angle charts, they all had significantly lower HR/9 rates than Flaherty: Shane Bieber (0.81 HR/9, 15.2% HR/FB%), Hyun-Jin Ryu (0.81 HR/9, 11.8% HR/FB%), and Antonio Senzatela (1.10 HR/9, 12.9% HR/FB%). Of those pitchers, Flaherty trailed only Ryu in hard hit %.
In fact, Flaherty in 2020 had a lower average exit velocity, lower barrel rate, and lower hard hit % than Shane Bieber — by a margin of 15% in the last category. The closest Statcast comp to Flaherty’s 2020 was Hyun-Jin Ryu, but Ryu ended up with a significantly lower barrel rate. Two other pitchers ended up with similar numbers as well: Kyle Hendricks and Kenta Maeda.
There are two factors that indicate Flaherty will outperform his projections in 2020: 1) his swinging strike rate, and 2) the improved Cardinals defense. In 2020, Flaherty achieved the best swinging strike rate of his career, with a 14.3% whiff rate. This resulted in a 68% contact rate — also the best in Flaherty’s career — and a significant decline in hitters making contact with pitches outside the strike zone. Additionally, the Cardinals are projected for one of the best defenses in the history of baseball, and even a performance where the starters achieved only 60% of their projected performance would still be a stunning defense. So, even though Flaherty’s 2020 looked ugly on paper — and indeed, it was ugly for fantasy managers — the numbers under the hood indicate that he’s primed for an effective year. Between his ability to miss bats, his ability to avoid hard contact and keep the ball down, and the seeming stunning defense of the 2021 Cardinals, we can see that small “blip” on the far right side of the bell curve where everything goes right for Jack Flaherty, and he finishes the year as the best starting pitcher in fantasy baseball.
Last year, I asked fantasy managers to draft Shane Bieber as their first pitcher. Bieber was going — on average — in the third round for most league formats, and was actually dropping in ADP (as in, being drafted later) as the Covid-delayed season came to the fore. Fantasy managers who trusted me were rewarded with the best starting pitcher in fantasy baseball for 2020, and a player who came nearly two rounds later than the consensus top choices for starting pitcher (Gerrit Cole who finished as SP6, Jacob deGrom who finished as SP8, and Justin Verlander, who did not play). For 2021, I’m getting brazen on Jack Flaherty as the guy to finish SP1. Grey has Flaherty ranked as his ninth pitcher on his Top 20 Starters for 2021 Fantasy Baseball, and Rudy has Flaherty 11th on his Razzball Steamer Projections.
Let’s head to the lightning round!
Zac Gallen Finishes Outside the Top 50 SP
- Come on, you know I love Zac Gallen. I even made him the star of one of my weekly pitching highlights last year! But, there’s fear in my eyes when I look at Gallen, and it’s not because he’s chucking a knuckle curve at me. Gallen has never pitched more than 80 MLB innings in a year. His ERA has been over a run below his FIP / xFIP both in 2019 and 2020. He walks a lot of batters (3BB/9 in 2020). He has 6 wins in his career. That’s right, I said career. I mean, let’s phrase it this way: since 2019, Zac Gallen has thrown 150 innings and gone 6-8 with 3.63 BB/9 and a 3.90 xFIP. And he’s being taken as the 14th starter of the board in NFC draft and holds right now. Again: I really am a fan of Zac Gallen, but with Razzball Steamer Projections seeing his WHIP near 1.30 and his ceiling of 10 wins, that’s not thrilling upside for me. Call me brazen, but I don’t think this is Zac Gallen’s year.
Hyun-Jin Ryu Finishes in the Top 10 SP
- I mean, did you read the Jack Flaherty comps above? Ryu is better at inducing soft contact than Flaherty. The Blue Jays are going to be a wild team this year, and their outlook could be extremely volatile. “I’m afraid of the AL East!” say the people drafting Gerrit Cole first, Tyler Glasnow 17th, and losing their marbles over John Means, Jordan Montgomery, Corey Kluber, Nathan Eovaldi, and Ryan Yarbrough. Ryu is being drafted as the 27th pitcher off the board at the NFC. Ryu had a tough transition to MLB when he was injured a lot when he was younger, but he’s basically made two full years of starts in a row, and since 2019 he has gathered a 19-7 record in 250 IP, and has the 16th best K-BB% rate and 7th best K/BB ratio. With an improved Blue Jays offense bolstering his wins, we can see more positive outcomes for Ryu than his current value has him slated for.
Tony Gonsolin Starts Over 10 Games
- The Los Angeles Dodgers are overloaded at starting pitcher, and the signing of Trevor Bauer pushed Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin to the bench. But, David Price sat out 2020 and was hurt in 2019, and he’s approaching 36, which doesn’t bode well for innings (summarizing from my Corey Kluber Fantasy Outlook, only Rich Hill and Bartolo Colon have had positive value recently after significant time off at that age). Julio Urias? Following anterior capsule surgery in 2017 and missing most of 2018, he’s thrown a total of 130 innings since 2019. And the Dodgers have this guy, Tony Gonsolin, who was tied for 20th in K-BB% in 2020, had a 2.31 ERA and 0.84WHIP, and the 9th best K/BB rate in MLB in 2020. Why is he not starting? Last year, the pitching-rich Dodgers used a combination of Gonsolin, May, and Ross Stripling to fill in for injuries, before trading Stripling away. Dustin May was tied for the status of second youngest pitcher in MLB last year, and he may not be ready for full-time action. Gonsolin — who is four years older than May — is in his prime and MLB-ready, and a lot of teams would be interested in his arm. The Dodgers could have openings in the rotation, or might see Gonsolin as a Stripling-style trade bait. Either way, I think there’s a small chance Gonsolin finds a spot in a rotation — somewhere — and snags fantasy value in 2021.
The Detroit Tigers Rotation Brings Positive Fantasy Value
- Finishing 2020 as SP82, Spencer Turnbull was the best Tigers starter for fantasy teams in 2020. I’ll wait while you stop laughing. In fact, Turnbull would have been the only Tiger pitcher rostered in most formats, and even he would have been off-the-radar in 12-team leagues. Yet, there’s some upside in Motown, as Turnbull finished 2020 with a FIP around 3.50 and a K/9 above 8.0 while allowing a minuscule 0.32 HR/9. Despite Matthew Boyd being a homer-magnet, he had a nearly 9.0 K/9 and the lowest launch angle of his career. Tarik Skubal had a K/9 over 10 across 7 starts in 2020, and top 10 prospect Casey Mize will probably spend significant time in the majors this year. With the rest of the Tigers rotation being fairly uninteresting, it wouldn’t be surprising to see top 20 prospect Matt Manning play significant time in the majors. With the White Sox looking like the only offensive-minded team in the Midwest, Tigers pitchers could see some easy matchups and finish the year as reasonable fantasy assets for deeper leagues and best ball formats.
All right friends! Drop your brazen predictions down in the comments and let me know what wild ideas you’ve got for 2021 pitchers.