What is up everybody? It’s March, which means March Grey has been burrowing out from his hibernation hole (which is what he calls his pantry) and starting to educate you all about your fantasy baseball teams. DRAFT THIS, NOT THAT! The beautiful spring chirp of the March Grey bird resounds through the forest of fantasy baseballers staring at their Fantrax apps. Just as you’re about to draft Dinelson Lamet in the first round, March Grey swoops in and caws, DRAFT CHRIS PADDACK IN THE TENTH! He then lands in the nearest tree and swigs from an abandoned boba container that may or may not have been sitting there all winter serving as a transient’s chaw spittoon. Now, while Grey’s spending the rest of the week sanitizing his mouth with detergent, I’m coming in hot to give you my takes on starting pitchers for your 2021 fantasy baseball season!
Let’s find that free use graphic I made of Zack Greinke in his Royal Blues!
2021 Starting Pitcher Strategy
In case you’re just catching up to Razzball right now, I’ve been giving you some deal/no deals on some controversial pitchers, some bold/brazen predictions on starting pitchers, and the best ways to draft pitchers for best ball leagues. Now, we’re transitioning into the bread and butter of the season: roto and head-to-head leagues. Ready, steady, flow!
If y’all hung around the fantasy baseball water cooler this winter, I hope you kept your distance and washed your hands. But while you were there, did you hear about how starting pitchers were going to have fewer and fewer innings pitched in 2021? And now there’s a frenzy among fantasy baseball fans to push pitchers up in the draft rankings more than ever. Suddenly we’re seeing Jacob deGrom taken #1 overall, and people chasing pocket aces. What do I think? I think Rudy — one of the best rankers and fantasy players on the planet — has it figured out. And here’s what Rudy thinks:
I just took all pitchers down 5% in IP across the board. Top guy now is Bauer at 184 IP. I'm projecting the average 15-team mixed squad's starters to be under 1,100 IP.
It means absolutely nothing for projected $ values though unless you change your hit/pitch split.
— Rudy Gamble (@rudygamble) February 27, 2021
In other words, because we’re seeing more or less the universal sentiment that all pitchers will pitch slightly less, they move in relative unison together through the ranks. The takeaway: as long as your fantasy format continues to be a “standard” scoring system (whether 5, 6, or 7 categories or points), pitchers remain at their same draft value relative to hitters. As Rudy frames it, you want to draft about 65-70% hitters and 35-40% pitchers (there will always be some variance). So, does that mean you need to draft an elite pitcher earlier because you’ll be drafting fewer of them?
No: you don’t need a top consensus pitcher at their current ADP. Their value relative to hitters is sorted out on Rudy’s 2021 Fantasy Baseball Auction Value sheet. Maybe — maybe! — you can draft deGrom at 1.05 this year. Personally, I’m not. Actually, I lied: I just drafted him at 1.07 in the Razzball Writer’s League, where my theme was “Players I Don’t Want to Draft.” Rudy has drafted deGrom there a few times in his tournaments. You know sure as hell that Grey isn’t drafting deGrom unless he falls to pick 20. If you do draft deGrom in the first round, then you gotta do two things: 1) Don’t tell Grey because he will slam your team, and 2) don’t draft another starter until like round 11.
So! Let’s put this in bold: these are aggressive rankings. What does that mean? See, you’re reading one of the premier fantasy baseball blogs, and Rudy and Grey have their rankings “ranked” by other groups (*cough* FantasyPros *cough*). I don’t get ranked. Grey’s talked to you through all of his posts about how wonky the FP rankings are. Rudy wrote a famous post about it on the football side. Now, I’m here to tell you: these are my aggressive rankings for your 2021 starting pitchers. Rudy gives you the most likely outcome, Grey gives you the fantasy expert ranks, and I give you the stat-based-eternal-optimist YOLO outlook. While still being useful, of course. When we get to the regular season, I’ll start calming down a bit, but you’ve got the Player Rater to tell you who ranks where. What can I do to compete with the Player Rater? Be aggressive AF on my way to the starting pitcher bank! That’s the other factor as well: whereas basically every other ranker not named Grey or Rudy does their list, submits to FantasyPros, and then goes to sleep for the year, I’m giving you weekly updates on who is improving, who is struggling, and who’s about to take that exciting 5th starter spot for the Blue Jays.
I’ll write this every week, and every week people will probably ignore it: Unless I put a number next to that player, don’t worry about the order within the tier. Just worry about which tier they’re in and how they fit into your pitching plan. Stats are how the player fared in 2020 and taken from FanGraphs, then compared to Rudy and Grey’s rankings and ADP and probably my zodiac sign. I’m a Capricorn if that matters. Must make me stubborn like a goat.
- K/9 = Strikeouts per nine innings
- SwSt% = Swinging strike percentage
- FIP = Fielding Independent Pitching
- Barrel% = Percentage of Batted Ball Events that a batter connected on the barrel.
- HardHit+ = Relative to the league average (100), was a player hit harder (>100) or weaker (<100).
Tier 1: SPs likely to Finish SP1-5
Jacob deGrom and Shane Bieber are the pitchers that I think are most likely to finish in the top 5 SPs. Why am I ranking with this “likelihood” tiers? Because Rudy’s giving you the “bell curve” of where a player is most likely to perform. I’m aiming for that “right side” — or highest likely positive outcome — of the bell curve. You’ve probably read a million bits and pieces about deGrom and Bieber so I’ll save that for the other sites and skip to the fantasy implications: they’re being drafted too high. As I mentioned above, I won’t blame you for taking one of them in the first round. I would take Acuna/Tatis/Soto/Betts/Trout/Trea/Trevor/Turntables McGee before deGrom, and basically all the other top hitters in the top 20 before Bieber. If somebody else is drafting deGrom or Bieber before those hitters, give them a pat on the back: they just gave you a free fantasy stud. FREE FANTASY STUDS <– The title of every e-mail in your spam inbox. ENYWHEY. Only draft these deGrom or Bieber if you’re ready to go 10 rounds before your next pitcher in standard leagues. AKSHUALLY — If you’re the kind of manager that doesn’t want to check your team constantly or worry about the waiver wire, I’ll say it’s fine to draft these guys. Or if you’re in one of those points leagues where pitchers are forced to be twice as valuable as hitters for the sake of being “different.” For every other kind of manager, start your fantasy pitcher rotation in the next tier.
Comments: Blergh. Are there more boring 1A/1B starters than deGrom and Bieber? Their teams are meh. They throw so many strikeouts that when you watch the highlights you get bored. It’s like a movie with no tension or rising action: you just show up and everybody’s happy and there’s no ghosts and no long-lost sister and nobody needs to travel through the underworld to save the frost queen from the mighty sauce giants. Wait, I just gave away the plot to my next Chronicles of Narnia fan fiction. ENYWHEY. You set and forget these guys and don’t ever take them out of your lineup. Their draft cost is as high as it can get, and dynasty managers can consider trading them for maximum return on investment. Or you just roster them and don’t worry about your team. Enjoy the ride.
Tier 2: Draft This, Not That (points up)
These SP are likely to finish anywhere from SP1-SP30 (or even lower!). “Jiminy Christmas, EWB!” you say, spitting out your leftover eggnog into your mask. How in the world can there be so much volatility in your SP rankings? Because we’re living in a new world, anonymous internet commenter. Last year’s “Top 3 Can’t Miss Starters” all finished below SP 5. In fact, only 4 out of the top 10 starters by ADP in 2020 finished within the top 10 SP by fantasy value. Know how many of the top 10 SP by ADP in 2019 finished the season in the top 10 SP by fantasy value? Three. That’s a 30% hit rate. If you’re a batter, that’s stellar. If you’re a fantasy manager, it means you’d have a better chance just flipping a coin and finding a top 10 pitcher than by relying on ADP. How about 2018? It was a 60% hit rate on the top 10 SP by ADP finishing in the top 10 fantasy value. Wow, ADP got it right that year. Maybe 2017 was better? Nope: 40%. 2016? 40% again. So, what’s the takeaway? ADP is a trap, of course. Populism doesn’t work in politics and it doesn’t work in pitchers either. Put that shizz on my gravestone.
The takeaway is that the last time a consensus SP1 actually finished close to SP1 was in 2016, when Max Scherzer — then SP2 by ADP — finished as SP1. Also, he was taken 14th overall, or the second round in a 12-team league. In 2021, there are 3-4 pitchers off the board by pick 14 (Cole, deGrom, Bieber, and Bauer). If you’re drafting a consensus top 10 pitcher [makes teeth sucking sound], there’s a 40-45% chance — at best — that they return value in respect to their draft cost. And, to be fair, this whole “top 10 SP by ADP” experiment is pretty wonky, because the 10th SP off the board in most years occurred in round 4 or 5 of a standard draft. If you draft a pitcher in the first round and they finish in the top 10, you think, “Ain’t that sweet! A top 10 pitcher!” Until you realize the 10th pitcher off the board came four rounds later and you could have drafted Trevor Story. That’s why if you took Yu Darvish or Trevor Bauer last year — players who were just outside of the consensus top 10 SP — your draft probably started with 3-4 batters and one of the top arms in the fantasy season. So, if we can get you to re-envision a SP’s likelihood to “hit” within the top 10 — especially the top 5 — then we’re making progress on your fantasy game. You’re grabbing batters with your first 2-5 picks instead of tossing draft capital at top starters that have a worse-than-a-coin-toss chance at finishing at a reasonable value compared to their consensus draft spot.
This tier follows an order, but it’s not rigid, and it’s not like there’s chasms of value in-between each player. Grey has preached about the wonkiness of rankings for a decade now: rather than thinking about each pitcher being a discrete static entity of expected statistics production (i.e., 10 Wins, 3.50 ERA), you should think about them as one cog in a bigger clockwork mechanism. Every cog you take in your Pitcher Mechanism (which is the name of my forthcoming dystopian novel) should be complementary: if you’ve got Zac Gallen and his projected 1.30 WHIP, you’ll need to take a pitcher with a low WHIP like Hyun-Jin Ryu to complement him. If you’ve got Blake Snell and you’re afraid of reaching your IP limits, you can supplement with Lance Lynn. Maybe not those exact pairings, but hopefully you get my drift: your first pitcher sets the tone for your roster, and by picking complementary pitchers, you diversify your starters and are more likely of “hitting” on a pitcher who will finish in the Top 10, albeit at a reduced draft cost. It’s really liberating as a fantasy manager when you approach the draft worrying not about how much elite pitching you need, but rather how many pitchers have a lower ADP yet the same chance to finish as SP1 or in the top 10. Put that shizz on an Instagram post and tag it #inspiration.
And let’s get the million dollar questions out of the way. Who do I think finishes as SP1 from this tier? Minimal chance: Jack Flaherty. Median chance: Yu Darvish. Maximal Chance (also the name of my Trevor Bauer-inspired rap ground): Aaron Nola. That’s why I put Nola at #3. There’s a reason for everything!
The biggest value in this tier is Hyun-jin Ryu. Sure, I understand injury concerns and playing for the Blue Jays. Statistically, it might make you nervous to have Ryu as your lead starter. I took him as my SP1 in The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational and paired him with Jose Berrios, which combines to give me a projected 340 IP, 340 K, a WHIP around 1.15-1.20, and an ERA of [looks at projections]. OK, I’m gonna be Grey here for a minute [paints on a mustache]. Ryu hasn’t had a healthy-year-ERA worse than 4.00 ever in his career. He’s improved on his Statcast metrics every year and was one of the weakest-hit pitchers in MLB last year. He had an FIP above 4.00 one time in his career (2017…and yes his lost 2016 was above 4.00 FIP for those 4 IP he threw), and he hasn’t had an FIP above 3.10 in the past 3 years. SIERA below 4.00 the past three years as well, and a sub-1.15 WHIP three years in a row as well. And now I’m supposed to look at the projections and say, “Yes, it seems likely he’ll have an ERA around 4, a WHIP around 1.20, and an FIP near 4.00.” Come on! This is why we can’t hand our fantasy games over to an algorithm. This whole spiel above [points at previous 5 sentences] demonstrates why humans still need to go through the data and interpret and check. Sure, anything can happen with Ryu. But right now, I agree with Grey that Ryu is basically a top 10 SP going at SP30 cost. When Stephen Strasburg is coming back from a completely lost year caused by a debilitating wrist injury that prevented him from throwing any breaking balls — and he’s being drafted higher than Ryu — you’re looking at market inefficiency. You’re looking at the ADP trap where people and rankers are so afraid of going against the grain that they will draft a guy who literally couldn’t feel his hand ahead of 100 other pitchers who were healthy. Who has a better chance at finishing in the Top 10 — the guy with a 9 K/9 who induces some of the weakest contact in the league (that’s Ryu), or the guy who couldn’t feel his hand and has a chronic wrist condition and hasn’t effectively thrown a baseball since 2019 and still hasn’t pitched in Spring Training? Come on! OK, enough of my Grey cosplay. Let’s get to the Tiers and Sub-Tiers (you’ll see some coin-tosses in the “ranks”):
|Sub-Tier 1: Your SP1|
|Sub-Tier 2: Great Numbers but Riskier|
Comments: You thought you were done with this tier, weren’t you? No way, man! It’s comment time! Aw-right. Your SP1 can be anybody in that first sub-tier. I really don’t care. I like them all and could make a case for any of them to be in the top 5 SP overall by the end of the season. I don’t like that Nola, Giolito, and Bauer are basically ADP-inflated such that they’re off the board by pick 20 in most leagues. That just means you get to draft Bo Bichette, right? ENYWHEY. I’ve been targeting Ryu and Flaherty. I’m very worried about Snell’s IP upside, and slightly worried about Walker Buehler’s IP upside. No, I don’t like Gerrit Cole as much as everybody else and if my point about him spending 30% of last year with an FIP over 6 doesn’t get you a touch nervous (wait, I write about that below: save your anger for the next section!), you’ve got diamond hands. I’m not touching him in the first round. In sub-tier 2, you know I like Corbin Burnes and I think he’s got the upside potential to finish in the Top 10. Dylan Bundy is ranked outrageously high here but he made some nice strides last year and will likely be that pitcher you draft as SP2/3 and returns great value on investment. I like Sonny Gray more than Grey (you know, the Fantasy Master Lothario) but the Reds have very little upside as a team. I said the same thing about Cleveland and you didn’t take offense at my Bieber ranking, right? Overall, the differences in the “rankings” in this tier are miniscule and you can see a bunch of players are actually tied. I get to do ties because I don’t get ranked by FantasyPros. Coin toss rankings! Just choose one of those guys and don’t fret about it. Lance Lynn is just a consistent dude that’s as boring as it gets, but he’s kind of the next Zack Greinke: lots of innings gives counting stats.
Tier 3: Nobody Cares, Except You
These pitchers could finish anywhere from top 10 to 200. If you go through the historical data on where these “middling” pitchers finish, they tend to be right around the [checks notes] middle of the pack, but every year there’s a couple ugly ducklings like Zack Greinke and Marco Gonzales that end up in the top 10. Who has two top 10 SP finishes and a top 20 SP finish in the past four years? That’s Greinke, the guy who barely throws 90. He also, quite literally, tells batters what he’s going to throw, and then they foul it off six times before grounding out to the shortstop, we turn it into GIFs. MLB Moonshots, the next generation of highlights! Who wants my Moonshot of Greinke sitting next to a cardboard cutout in the stands? Nobody? OK, back on track. Who finished as SP9 on the Player Rater last year and as the third SP on your fantasy team in 2018 and 2019? Yup, Marco “Don’t Spell it with a ‘Z'” Gonzales. These players aren’t sexy, but they’re generally reliable when healthy. Of course, for every Marco and Zack, there’s a MadBum, Luke Weaver, or Eduardo Rodriguez: a good pitcher who hides an injury, or simply gets tired, or gets coronavirus and has an enlarged heart. Life happens, ya know?
There’s this pervasive sense among fantasy baseballers (<–Grey’s mom’s word) that pitchers aren’t useful unless every single time they play they throw a gem. This is of course the natural outcome of pitchers playing only every 5th/6th game: they’re so much less-utilized than hitters, they have trouble recovering from a single bad outing. I noted this in my article on Jack Flaherty: dude was left in to get pounded by the Brewers for 9 runs one day. In a season where he threw 40 IP, that destroyed his ERA. But you know what? Gerrit Cole had a 4-game stretch in 2020 where he had a FIP of nearly 6 and, a WHIP of 1.41, and 3.18 HR/9. He started 12 games last year. So, 30% of his games, he was worse than basically any warm body you could throw out there (now you can get angry!) And where are people drafting him in 2020? SP2/SP3. Aaron Nola’s last 5 starts in 2020? ERA of 4.61, 1.43 WHIP. Batters crushed Tyler Glasnow when they got ahold of his pitches. He finished his last four starts with a 45.3% hard hit rate and an 11% barrel rate against the AL and NL East. So, how do those pitchers get pushed to the top of the SP charts? It’s because they’re so unhittable when they’re “on.” There’s a whole bunch of other pitchers that are just “good.” These are the pitchers that you don’t see on Pitcher Ninja. Nobody cares about this tier. Nobody will praise your team or rosterbate with you (if you’re into that kind of thing). But, you’ll have a better chance of winning your league if these are your core performers.
|Sub-Tier 1: SP2 with Top 20 Upside|
|Sub-Tier 2: SP 3-5 to Support Your Rotation|
|4||Lance McCullers Jr.||9.16||11.4||3.7||10.3||116|
Comments: There’s sub-tiers within the sub-tiers! How convenient! If you’re wondering about numbers, I’ve given you about 60 pitchers so far, so at the end of this tier are the pitchers that I would try to roster in a 12-team standard league. That doesn’t mean you need to draft Yusei Kikuchi super early; the dude isn’t even drafted in most leagues. In the first sub-tier in the first sub-tier, you’ve got some elite K/SwSt% guys coupled with elite weak contact pitchers. Can you imagine if you put Tyler Glasnow and Zack Wheeler on the same MLB team and had them teach other things? You’d have Zyler Gleeler! Alas, you don’t have the power to make a Frankenstein’s pitcher. You do have the power to wait on your SP2 and get somebody like Tyler Mahle, Kevin Gausman, or Joe Musgrove at huge discounts. They’re all a bit rough around the edges, but imagine if you combined Brandon Woodruff and Tyler Mahle: that’s about 330 IP, 3.70 ERA, 1.15WHIP, and 10 K/9. Those numbers would have put you in the top 15% finishers of The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational. Woodruff’s being drafted in the 3rd round on average and Mahle in the 12-15th round. Think of all the hitters you can get in the meantime!
Sub-sub tiers 3 and 4 have a lot of good pitchers that come with a bit less shine. Andrew Heaney and Chris Bassitt are some nice names that will likely out-perform their ranking with a bit of luck. Dinelson Lamet is way down here because he’s having elbow issues, and I can’t recommend him any higher than a SP3. I like the concept of Chris Paddack but the numbers don’t lie: batters caught up to him last year. Tejay Antone is a sexy pick but he’s got almost no MLB track record and his numbers in the minors (3.50+FIP, 7.5-8.0 K/9) weren’t thrilling. I’m letting other people draft him. You know I’m stanning Robbie Ray and Yusei Kikuchi this year. Matthew Boyd turned in some ugly performances in 2020 but on the whole actually had a pretty good year and the best numbers of his career. Aaron Civale could be much higher in the rankings but I just don’t see a lot of upside for him. He’s been more of a floor pitcher so far in my opinion.
Tier 4: Streamers and Dart Throws
In a standard 12-team league with 23 rostered players, you probably need four-to-five core starting pitchers. Maybe six or seven, depending on how your league drafts or your level of experience/confidence in fantasy baseball. But, the thing is: if you’re going to be an active manager who checks on your team every day and is willing to look at the waiver wire, you can easily stream pitchers based upon matchup. You don’t need a bunch of elite pitchers because these deep streamers are available. Remember what I wrote above about Gerrit Cole spending 30% of the year being no better than any random Joe you found on the wire? These are the random Joes you bring in when they start against the Diamondbacks or the Marlins or the Rockies when they’re on the road. They’re not meant to be year-round pitchers, but short-bursts of inspiration to help you at the end of a matchup. Some of them even turn out to be aces over the course of the season, like Corbin Burnes in 2020. Unfortunately, many of the pitchers in this tier also have some major caveat that holds them back from being useful for the majority of the season. So, roll the dice at the end of your draft and see what happens.
|Sub-Tier 1: Streamers and Deep League SP 6-10|
|Sub-Tier 2: Dart Throws and Best Ball Pitchers|
Comments: There’s a lot to unpack in this tier. To give you perspective, the “Streamers” tier takes you to SP100 or so, representing the pitchers you would keep on the bench in a standard league or would draft as starters in deep leagues. The “Dart Throws” tier takes you to SP130 or so, and these players should only be drafted in extremely deep leagues or tournaments. There’s no rankings within the tiers because the players have such a volatile set of outcomes: you could make extremely positive cases for their 2021 performances and extremely negative cases and they’d be equally valid. Let’s do some brief commentary and then send you on your way!
Jake Odorizzi just signed with the Astros, which is a nice landing spot. He was injured most of last year, which resulted in some bad performances when he returned, but he’s still got Top 50 SP upside. MadBum fell off the rails last year but people forget that he’s only 31 — he can turn it around! Guy was ranked within Grey’s top 40 starters last year but the season showed a huge drop in velocity which seemed to stem from an injury. He could definitely recover to his career norms and produce huge fantasy value. Marcus Stroman has immense upside in this tier as well, and is likely being drafted much higher. I’m not against drafting Str0 earlier, but I am against relying on him as a core part of your rotation in standard leagues. In tournament and deep leagues, he’s a great target. Eduardo Rodriguez has some nice projections but it’s important to remember that he suffered cardiac stress from his bout with covid in a way that he couldn’t even run last year. Mask up and don’t draft EdRod at a premium. David Price and Corey Kluber are at the age where most pitchers who take a year off (basically 2 years in Kluber’s case) don’t return fantasy value. Projections may say they’re OK but history says otherwise. Draft with caution. I’m not drafting Stephen Strasburg until we see several successful outings from him. People forget he’s older than MadBum, and carpal tunnel injuries do not fare well for pitchers. If I miss on Strasburg, I’m fine with that because I see many more negative outcomes than positive outcomes. There are so many great, healthy pitchers going around Strasburg’s ADP that it makes no sense to take the guy who couldn’t feel his hand last year. If I’m wrong, I’ll own that. Vince Velasquez is always a favorite but the Phillies never want to give him a full-time job. Mike Soroka might be a good dynasty stash, but reports on his recovery from a torn Achilles are mixed. I’m not drafting him at his current cost. Framber Valdez? What happened? Football fans just watched Jared Goff quarterback the LA Rams 10 days after thumb surgery. Now Framber’s supposed to miss the whole year? I sense precaution. Framber dart throw in the last round to see if his recovery timetable is better than projected. Chris Sale will return from Tommy John about halfway through the year, but that also means that even if he hits the ground running at full speed, he’ll have the same productivity as a good middle reliever who plays the whole year. Most high schoolers throw faster than Alec Mills but he’s got a rotation spot on a high scoring team, and that could lead to some best ball points. I wouldn’t draft him in any other format, though. I’m sure there’s a bunch of guys I forgot. I know I left Mitch Keller off. Streamer. I left off Shohei Ohtani and Kouhei Arihara too. Streamers. Jameson Taillon? Hasn’t pitched since 2019. Streamer. Charlie Morton? SP2/3. Literally, tons of streamers to meet your needs. You’re gonna be so ready for DFS this year! They’ll show up next week if I get my act together. I left off most rookies because unless you’re in a draft and hold — most of which have completed their drafts — you don’t need the rookies until they’re brought up. Even MacKenzie Gore will need Lamet’s elbow to falter before he gets the call up. As much as we like to salivate over rookies, it’s important to remember that the best true rookie pitcher last year was [checks notes] Christian Javier. His FIP was near 5.00. The next best rookie? Must be Sixto, or Ian Anderson, or Mize, or Skubal, or Sticks McKenzie, right? Nope, David Peterson of the Mets. But indeed, Anderson was the third best rookie. Rookies get ridiculous amounts of hype for good reason, but you don’t need to sell the farm on them.
All right! 5,000 words later and here we are. I wanted to do something special because this is my 100th post for Razzball (across football, baseball, and basketball), so it was time to break my word count record. Not too shabby.
Drop your love notes in the comments and keep your hate mail in your desk. Let me know who you like this year, and happy drafting!
Aye, you made it this far, didn’t ya. EverywhereBlair is, well, located at home right now. He’s a historian and lover of prog-metal. He enjoys a good sipping rum. When he’s not churning data and making fan fiction about Grey and Donkey Teeth, you can find him dreaming of shirtless pictures of Lance Lynn on Twitter @Everywhereblair.