Ahh, fantasy baseball. Coming back to writing baseball is more refreshing than a long swig of a double IPA after a day with the in-laws. It sure is good to be back, dear readers. After a seasonal hiatus during which I contributed to Razzball Fantasy Football, I’m finally back and ready to talk college draft hopefuls, prospects, rookies and beyond. Being away from you all, I felt like Pumba without my Timon. DJ Lemahieu without his chaw. Tony La Russa without someone to drunkenly yell at. You see, this is where I belong. And after reading some of Grey’s 2021 fantasy outlooks on the rookie class, there’s one debate I have been waiting and waiting to dip my Dunkaroos into: do I prefer Sixto Sanchez, Ian Anderson or Triston McKenzie for 2021 fantasy baseball? And where might be a good starting point to value each player heading into draft season?
Let’s start where this all began. Near the end of the 2020 regular season, I posed a rather serious question to our fearless leader, Grey, regarding his 2021 starting pitching rankings: will Sixto Sanchez garner serious consideration as a top-40 starter in 2021? Top 35? Not too long after, Ian Anderson put an exclamation point on his rookie campaign, which led me to write a piece about whether or not the Braves youngster could be a top-40 starter himself. At the same time, Sixto stumbled down the stretch like an overweight uncle overloaded on Christmas Eve eggnog.
Now, I won’t claim to know what Grey’s plans are in that regard, but the point is, I was 100% serious. And while I don’t yet know where his opinions lie outside of what is detailed in those fantasy outlooks, I’m happy to give an early preview by providing my own opinion.
The Case for Sixto Sanchez
First things first: yes, Sixto finished with a rather pedestrian 7.6 K/9 in 2020. However, that was largely a result of the adjustment pendulum we frequently observe with young players. What I mean by that is Sixto dominated early on in his rookie campaign before hitters eventually adjusted and began to square him up more effectively. Through his first four MLB starts to which he amassed 25 innings, he struck out 25 batters for an even 9.0 K/9. With that came two walks, yes just TWO walks, in the first 25 frames of his career, equating to a 0.72 BB/9. We’ll take a 9.0 K/9 with that level of control in fantasy any day of the week. His next start thereafter was great as well, although he only struck out four while limiting the Phillies to one run on three hits across seven innings of work. As a result, Sixto held a 1.69 ERA heading into his final two starts of the year, but the wheels fell off in those remaining games. The Nationals and Braves lit him up for nine runs (all earned) in seven total innings, during which Sixto struck out just four while walking six, effectively ballooning his season ERA to 3.46 and drastically altering his end-of-year K/9 and BB/9 (2.5) ratios. I don’t really have an analytical explanation for that two-game blow-up, other than is was two freaking games and Sixto is only 22 years of age. Shizz happens. Two-game samples don’t need explanations.
Am I making excuses for an elite prospect, something we often make the mistake of doing far too often for this caliber of player? Yes and no. While it’s true that Sixto posted a 7.9 K/9 across 335 1/3 Minor League innings, he has always produced elite BB/9 numbers while being incredibly difficult to take deep, as evidenced by the 0.2 HR/9 mark he put up in the Minors. He gave up nine home runs in parts of five MiLB seasons — a number that remained low (0.7 HR/9) at the MLB level in 2020. He has elite stuff and hitters struggle to square him up. So why haven’t we seen the elite strikeout numbers?
For one, it’s not like he hasn’t showed signs. Against the Rays on August 28, he struck out 10 of the 26 batters he faced, walking just one in seven scoreless innings against the future AL Champs. I watched every pitch of that game. He was flat-out dominant. So, we know it’s in there somewhere. But why isn’t the strikeout output occurring more consistently? Well, Sixto is primarily a fastball/sinker-changeup guy at this early point in his career, as those three pitches accounted for 74.4% of his pitches thrown in 2020. Of the remaining 25.6%, sliders comprised 17.2% of pitches while his curveball came in at 8.4%. The odd part about that is that his curveball was clearly the better pitch: it achieved a .182 BAA/.182 SLG (.125 XBA/.169 XSLG) with a 34.8% whiff rate, while the curveball was lit up for a .389 BAA/.556 SLG (.327 XBA/.510 XLG). Truthfully, it would make more sense for Sixto to rely more heavily on the curve, as his fastball consistently reaches 100 MPH (top 3% of MLB in fastball velo) and the curveball has an average velo of 85.8 MPH, which in turn creates a wider velocity band compared to the slider at 89.1 MPH. In my Rest-of-Season Rookie Starting Pitcher Rankings from August of last season, you can observe just how filthy that three-pitch combination (FB, CH, CB) can be for Sixto.
Before I give Grey more fuel to crack jokes about me being more of a novelist than a blog contributor, I’ll put on a bow on Sixto. But the point is, Sixto is young, still learning how to maximize his arsenal and possesses some attractive underlying metrics (top 19% in xwOBA, xERA and xSLG) to pair with already elite command. I’ll take refined command with early pitch-mix issues over the inverse. On top of that, if you’ve seen Sixto’s sinker, you know it’s a filthy offering, and he was actually a bit unlucky with it in 2020: .368 BAA vs. .258 XBA, .395 SLG vs. .300 XSLG. If it weren’t for workload questions relating to all 2020 rookies heading into 2021, I’d have Sixto ranked as a top-25 starter. I think there’s really something special here if he can stay healthy with all the heat he’s bringing. However, we know front offices aren’t going to want any young arm ramping from less than 40 innings in 2020 to upwards of 150, so his ceiling is somewhat capped and the same goes for Anderson and McKenzie. Still, his 47 innings pitched (regular season and postseason) are right there with Anderson (51 IP,) and superior to McKenzie (35 IP), so that factor doesn’t hurt him in this rookie face-off. If given the choice of the three for an equal price, I’m taking Sixto for 2021 fantasy baseball 100% of the time. But will the price be equal? Unlikely.
The Case for Ian Anderson
How could I prefer Sixto after Anderson just delivered a rookie campaign that featured a 1.95 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 246 ERA+ and 11.4 K/9? Especially after his dominance in the postseason, where he surrendered just two runs in 18 2/3 innings pitched and striking out 24 batters? Well, quite frankly, the same way my fiancé validates drinking White Claws with a straw: with utter stubbornness. But since I’m a baseball nerd, I’ll also use hard data on top of such stubbornness. This is something my fiancé does not do when claiming that White Claws will stain her teeth. *eye roll*
For starters, let’s not act like I am low on Anderson or dislike him as a prospect/now-rookie. I wrote an article last season titled Can Ian Anderson be a Top-40 Starter in 2021? I’m high on the youngster, but I don’t see his degree of success being sustainable this upcoming season. I mean, he did pitch to a 246 ERA+ after all. We know that isn’t going to happen in a full season in which MLB hitters have the opportunity to study and adjust to Ian Andy.
Take it from Grey: “If you could engineer a season that would benefit a guy with terrible command that no one knew about, I’d give Ian Anderson a season like we just saw.” For much of his career, Anderson has had volatile command (2.7, 4.7, 3.7, 4.3 – MiLB BB/9 totals from 2016-19) and his 3.9 BB/9 in 2020 wasn’t god awful, but left much to be desired. The walks went up in the postseason, rising to 4.8 per nine. I think this is something Anderson can refine over time, especially being in an organization that excels in pitching development such as Atlanta does, but it worries me in the short-term, and I think it could exacerbate his eventual struggles as we already know his performance is going to regress compared to what he did in 2020. To wrap it up, I’ll defer to Grey one last time: “The number of swings outside the zone generating strikes by Ian Anderson was 27.6%. If he qualified, that would’ve been the 2nd worst in the league behind Martin Perez.”
With all that taken into account, I’m still in on Ian Anderson with a price tag of ~SP45 or so, but I’m afraid he’s going to be drafted much higher than that. There are plenty of counterarguments as to why to buy higher on Anderson, such as his 99th percentile barrel % amongst other underlying metrics, but if given the choice, I would prefer to own Sixto in 2021.
The Case for Triston McKenzie
He pitches for Cleveland, so there’s that. I don’t care if you have the physique of a praying mantis or a sumo wrestler — there’s hope for you in that organization. Cleveland seems to have some type of supernatural, warlock-infused grasp on excelling in the starting pitching realm. Hell, maybe I should put him at the top of this list for the mere fact that I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a 2019 Shane Bieber-esque performance from him. This is reason number one as to why I want Tanner Burns in all dynasty leagues moving into 2021. But as for McKenzie, there’s a lot more to like aside from the organization he pitches for, starting with his 10-strikeout, two-hit victory in six innings against the Tigers in his Major League debut on August 22. In the end, McKenzie finished 2020 with 3.24 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 42 strikeouts (11.3 K/9) in 33 1/3 regular season innings. Even before then, he likely would have been ranked much higher than No. 97 in MLB Pipeline’s top-100 prospects list heading into 2020 had it not been for an upper-back strain that forced him to miss all of the 2019 season.
However, after McKenzie’s electric MLB debut, he tossed just one additional quality start on the season — a performance that came in the form of six shutout innings against Kansas City. He failed to dominate any elite offenses in the brief campaign. Down the stretch and into the playoffs, Cleveland converted McKenzie into a bullpen asset, a role he handled adequately until running into the Yankees in the postseason. That move helped McKenzie regain some velocity, as his fastball dipped from 95 MPH at the onset of the year down to 93 MPH in the span of a month — something Grey details in his 2021 fantasy outlook piece on McKenzie. His lack of muscle on his 6’5″ frame (just 165 lbs.) creates questions as to whether McKenzie can handle the demands of taking the ball every fifth day — something that his lack of a competitive season in 2019 only clouds further. He is indeed the praying mantis.
Nonetheless, the strikeouts are in elite territory (90th percentile K% in 2020, 10.8 K/9 in 329 MiLB IP) and he is a former top draft selection. When Cleveland selected him 42nd overall in 2015, they signed him for $2,302,500, which was the largest signing bonus handed out to any prep arm in the class. The fact that Cleveland thought that highly of McKenzie speaks volumes, as we’ve seen pitchers with much less fanfare achieve tremendous results in that organization. Perhaps, the lack of weight McKenzie has been able to put on is a result of the time he’s been forced to spend rehabbing from injuries in 2018 and 2019, which could lead the way for a dramatic boost in 2021 now that he’s finally healthy. Personally, I’m not super interested until 2022, at which point we’ll have a lot more data to go off of in advance of his third (albeit not full) campaign in the MLB.
As if my order of thought didn’t already destroy the mystery, I rank these three arms for 2021 fantasy baseball as follows: Sanchez, Anderson, McKenzie — although I’m interested in all three, the same way as I’m interested in an authentic Elvis Presley nose hair on ebay — for the right price. As it’s early and we don’t yet have access to any preseason ADP data yet, it’s tough to gauge exactly where we should be targeting these players. But for fun, I’m be viewing Sixto as roughly SP30-35, Anderson as SP40-50 and McKenzie in the SP50-60 range. That could change quite a bit as draft values begin to roll out and we begin to see who the 2021 bargains might be, but for now, that will do. I bid you farewell, until next week, that is. Adeiu, adeiu. To yieu and yieu and yieu.
Until next time, I’m happy to take this conversation into the comments section or on Twitter, where you can find me @WorldOfHobbs.