Hey all! It’s Blair, your 2020 Top 100 starting pitcher ranker. Glad you came along for the ride! Your fantasy season is over now, and hopefully you won the championship, or you made a dent in your dynasty league, or you just managed to stay a bit saner in the depths of the pandemic that’s been clawing away at us for the past six months.
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Since there’s no longer traditional fantasy baseball going on right now, my weekly series at Razzball is more or less done until spring training. If you want my advice on DFS or dynasty leagues or whatever, feel free to ping me on Twitter, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page, or ask one of the many other talented writers here on Razzball what their opinion of your situation is. Otherwise, I’ll provide some updates on player profiles throughout the winter and I hope you keep coming around to check them out.
As you may know, this was my first year being an “industry guy” in fantasy. Now, I’ve been playing fantasy sports since 2001, and I’ve been in industry-adjacent fantasy circles for many years, so the concepts at play were nothing new to me. In fact, in my real life job as a historian of baseball, I had been crunching player data and extrapolating it to past situations for many years. However, I had never before created my own list of pitchers and ranked them for a wider audience. So when Grey brought me on board, and I wrote my first Top 100 list, most of the pitchers there were from Grey’s own Top 100; I bumped a few players, knocked some other players down, and boom! I had a list. But it wasn’t my list. So I spent the next few weeks optimizing my research methodology, learning new ways of organizing data, and drinking a lot of rum. You know, fantasy industry stuff.
I studied a lot with Rudy Gamble — who I might add is an absolute legend for his ability to explain in understandable terms how a good ranking process should work — and I observed a lot of other rankers. I studied Matt Williams, and I studied the guys at Pitcher List, and I studied high stakes gamblers, and of course, I studied Pitching Ninja. I abused my Fangraphs membership to get as much data as I could and frame it in new ways. I talked to Coolwhip and JKJ about how they were presenting their info. What resulted was a Top 100 Starting Pitcher List that you — the Razzball readers — seemed to appreciate and find useful. It connected Grey’s daily updates with Rudy’s updated projections, and we were able to do some really great fantasy work. Of course, there were also some failures.
When it comes down to it, we’re all just predicting likelihoods of outcomes. Even the best pitcher “succeeds” like 60% of the time. And what counts as a “success” can vary by fantasy or league format. There were pitchers that had ridiculous, air-bending single-pitches that were dominating the social media spheres, yet their other pitches were getting hammered (no, this is not a Devin Williams slight…he’s goooooood). Like, Randy Dobnak and Alec Mills were incredibly useful streamers for fantasy purposes this year. No pitching coach would go out there and say, “That Dobnak, he’s a fireballer! 97 with movement! Endurance for days!” But here’s the truth: if you had left your draft with a rotation of Shane Bieber, Lance Lynn, Dinelson Lamet, Kenta Maeda, Zach Plesac, Dylan Bundy, and Marco Gonzales, you would have been laughed at by your league mates. However, that rotation — which was absolutely reasonable by ADP — would have easily won your pitching categories. And if you were following Grey’s rankings and my evolving Top 100 in the pre-season, you would have gotten all those guys at value.
So, let’s take a look at some of the successes from the 2020 Top 100 Starting Pitcher rankings:
2020 Success Stories
Shane Bieber — Bieber was the #7 pitcher off the board overall in most competitive drafts, going as the 26th pick on average. So, in a 12 team league, he was drafted somewhere around the end of the 2nd round to the mid-3rd round. Even as summer training began and some star pitchers were showing injury or signs of fatigue, Bieber remained low on the ADP scale, actually falling to the #8 overall pitcher during summer drafts. Yours truly ranked Bieber as the #1 starting pitcher during the main draft week. And, let’s click the ol’ player rater to see where Bieber ended up on the season. [puts on spectacles] Indeed! Bieber finished first on the Player Rater. Bieber finished 8-1 on the year with a 1.63 ERA and 122Ks, although his last month was rather “pedestrian” for his performance level. Now, I’m happy to take the Bieber victory lap. I think he’s opened his path for greatness in the next few years. Of course, Jacob DeGrom finished the year as my #1 SP, powered by a Mets offense that was damaging opponents pitchers. DeGrom will likely open my 2021 Rankings as the top pitcher as well; Bieber lucked into more wins than he should have. However, if you took my advice going into draft season and aimed for Bieber as your #1 starter, you would have had opportunities to take a few sterling hitters in the early rounds while grabbing your ace later. For example, by ADP on the NFC teams, you could have had Jacob DeGrom and Gleyber Torres, or Trevor Story and Shane Bieber. I think you all know how to start your drafts next year.
Yu Darvish — Going into draft week, I moved Darvish into the top 10. Given that he was drafted as the 18th pitcher by most leagues, I was, indeed, aggressive on Darvish. Probably a little bit too aggressive for my own good. However, Darvish finished as the 4th best SP on the player rater, going 7-3 with a 2.22 ERA and 88Ks. Darvish introduced some new pitches, and his pandemic-fro is looking absolutely lush. Darvish looks to open the 2021 Top 100 Starting Pitchers in the top 5.
Justin Verlander — I’m not victory lapping his injury, but I told people not to draft him. Of course, like a frightened little kid I kept him at #11 on my pre-season rankings, but if you saw where others ranked him, you knew that I was nearly twice as bearish on Verlander as other rankers. Verlander will miss the 2021 season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, and I wouldn’t own him in any fantasy format. Let somebody else take that risk.
Zac Gallen — Inspired by Grey, I kept pushing Zac Gallen up the rankings, and he started the year as my #23 SP overall. Gallen has all the peripherals to be a years-long elite SP, and the fact he went nearly a year straight of quality starts should be heralded in the history books. However, if the Diamondbacks continue to hit like garden snakes, then Gallen’s fantasy ceiling is very limited. Like Kenta Maeda below, Gallen may be the kind of pitcher that needs a change of scenery to become a regular top 10 SP. Supported by one of the worst-hitting teams in baseball, Gallen finished the year as the #37SP.
Kenta Maeda — Grey wrote a sleeper on Maeda and I was locked in. I put Maeda in the high-30s on my pre-season list, which was nearly 20 spots higher than where he was being drafted by most fantasy managers. Maeda finished as the #3 SP on the player rater, going 6-1 with 80Ks and a 2.70 ERA. Maeda might be the classic case of the “late-bloomer” who needed a smaller market team to thrive. The Dodgers certainly didn’t help Maeda’s transition to Major League Baseball, but the Twins have given him the space to thrive. Maeda will likely open the 2021 Top 100 SPs somewhere in the 10s, given the fact that he has only once pitched a full season (thanks Dodgers!), and he definitely showed signs of fatigue after his 100+ pitch no-hitter bid in August.
Dustin May — This seems like a weird victory lap to take, but almost nobody wanted Dustin May at the beginning of the 2020 season. Everybody wanted his teammate, Ross Stripling. Well, the Dodgers didn’t want Stripling, and that was because they were looking at the same pitch metrics that the Razzball team was. Stripling was a one-pitch wonder, and May had several awe-inspiring pitches. May was far younger, the rookie that the Dodgers refused to trade in the off-season. Stripling, who was 30, was the pitcher the Dodgers tried to trade in the off-season. For whatever reason, the social media sphere clambered to Stripling, who was drafted as the 78th SP. May went 20 spots later, basically a last round dart throw for deep leagues. To be fair, even I had Stripling above May in my pre-season rankings because Stripling ended up taking a rotation spot. However, I was telling people both on here, on Twitter, and on Reddit (that’s why I’m everywhereblair, yo) that they should be drafting May. Then, Alex Wood AND Walker Buehler got injured, and Stripling and May both got rotation spots with the Dodgers. By the end of the year, May finished as the 61st SP with a 2.77 ERA over 52 IP, and Stripling got traded to the Blue Jays and finished the year as the 175th ranked SP with a 5.55 ERA over 48 IP. May will likely open the 2021 Top 100 SPs above 50, and Stripling will be a dart throw.
Corbin Burnes — The first rule of fantasy analyst school is: admit when you’re wrong. Now, everybody was wrong at just how good Burnes would be. Nobody imagined he would have finished as the #10 SP and basically be un-hittable over his final starts. Nobody. But I was looking at his 2020 fastball and telling people how awful it was — and it was awful –but the story changed for 2020. Burnes basically abandoned his fastball and replaced it with a sinker. By making that one change, he went from a prospect to the hottest starter in baseball. My process was good on Burnes — his 2019 fastball was garbaggio, literally one of the worst in the league — but the results didn’t produce in 2020 because Burnes changed his approach. When changes in players happen, changes in fantasy analyst processes need to happen. I caught on about as quickly as most analysts, so I’m happy to have not missed the Burnes train. However, had I been checking for changes in pitch type earlier, it would have been easy to see that Burnes’ ranking needed adjustment. Because we’re still in smallish sample size territory, Burnes will enter the 2021 Top 100 SP somewhere below 10, but above 50, and that’s where I’ll leave it for now.
Madison Bumgarner — Looking at my pre-season list, there were a lot of misses caused by obvious injuries. There’s nothing that could really be done about those guys. However, MadBum strikes me as an Oopsie! because he sort of seemed injured but not quite. Believe it or not, the guy’s only 31 — yeah, he’s as old as, like, Ross Stripling — and his velocity plummeted from 2019. However, I jumped quickly on the “Dump Bum” Mad-wagon, and I hope you did too. That said, Bumgarner has some of the best stats in the MLB over his career, and a comeback is more than within reach. He may be worth a dynasty stash, and he’ll open the 2021 Top 100 SP as a dart throw.
Robbie Ray — He’s enigmatic, and he’s one of the top K/9 pitchers out there. I put him in the top 50 thinking he would get strikeouts, and what he got was a bit of everything –K’s, HBP, HR allowed, BB, etc. He was the perfect contrarian DFS play because some games he K’d a ton of people over a few innings while beaning others and not allowing runs; other games he was absolutely shelled. He ended up as the 281st SP on the player rater. Ray will likely not be on the 2021 Top 100 SP list, and he’ll need to show dramatic improvements in control in order to make him draftable in most formats.
Marco Gonzales — Again, I don’t think anybody saw just how good MarGo would be, especially on a cruddy Mariners’ team that was beset with barnacles. I think I saw that the Mariners missed the playoffs for like the 19th season straight, am I right? Now, I could have put Gonzales in the “victory lap” portion of this writeup, because I was twice as aggressive on my ranking of Gonzales as others were. However, nobody saw that he was going to pull a 8+ K/9 with a BB/9 below 1.0, while garnering 7W on an awful Mariners team. Even in my most recent write-up, I have him in at #52. The truth is, his peripherals just aren’t that good. Are they better than #52? Probably. I’ll take a closer look at MarGo in the off-season, and he’ll probably be in the Top 50 SP for 2021.
I hit the 2000 word count point, so that’s a fair place to wrap it up. Mistakes are how we learn, and now you’ve seen a couple players I hit on, and a couple players I missed on. Keep in mind, a lot of these hits were informed by Grey and Rudy’s rankings, so make sure you’re giving them props and kudos as well.
Going into next year, remember the following:
- Wait on starting pitching in your draft (i.e. Shane Bieber, Lance Lynn, Yu Darvish)
- Be prepared to pivot on injuries (i.e. Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg)
- Watch changes in pitch usage (i.e. Corbin Burnes)
- Pitchers with boring repertoires can be useful in fantasy (i.e. Zack Greinke).
Good luck in the fantasy off-season, and I hope to see you around! If you have any requests for pitcher profiles in the off-season, drop them down in the comments and I’ll write them up.