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Starting Pitcher Busts (2020 Fantasy Baseball)

by Paul Ghiglieri | @FantasyGhigs | Featured Writer
Mar 22, 2020

In fantasy baseball, we all eventually experience the deflating feeling of realizing one of our pitchers has busted. Usually, it’s a player drafted in the early rounds who fails to deliver on lofty expectations. Sometimes, it’s a buzzworthy player whose ADP shoots through the roof leading up to the draft — only to dash your hopes with each poor start.

More often than not, we hold onto these players for too long, longer even than our better judgment tells us we should. We do this because we want to believe in the same hype that led us to draft that pitcher in the first place. We want to justify our choices, no matter how misguided they become with each passing start. 

In most cases, there were signs long before draft day that the pitcher was unlikely to meet our inflated expectations. 

To be clear, none of the following pitchers are guaranteed to be busts. All of them could have stellar campaigns. Our goal is simply to highlight a few pitchers who will be taken early in most drafts and present a sobering enough picture that you should at least proceed with caution before spending an early-round pick on them.

If you decide to draft any of these arms, and they pan out, good for you. I’d rather be wrong and see a player succeed than root for one to fail. However, if these pitchers struggle to meet expectations, at least you can circle back here and find some solace in possible answers as to why they busted. 

Let’s look at some potential pitchers who may be poised to break your heart. We’ll go from top to bottom based on the current Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR).

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Max Scherzer (SP – WAS)
Let me be clear, Max Scherzer is a tremendously talented hurler. Heading into 2019, Scherzer won two Cy Youngs (2016, 2017 — and nearly a third), threw two no-hitters, and posted both a 300-strikeout season and a 20-strikeout game.

However, entering his age-36 season, age may finally be catching up with Scherzer. Neck cramps and back injuries seem to suggest he may be breaking down. Moreover, his injuries have negatively impacted his performance on the field.

Currently, he’s being drafted 14th overall on average. This means you’re passing up elite hitters like Alex Bregman and Freddie Freeman, and if they slip, perhaps even Juan Soto or Trea Turner in some leagues.

Despite a career-high 35.7 K%, his hard-hit rate allowed (35.7%) was also a career-high. He only made eight starts after the All-Star break, where he delivered a 4.81 ERA as batters posted a slugging percentage 133 points higher than in the first half.

Scherzer may once again be brilliant, but it’s never wise to bet against Father Time, and the bottom usually falls out quickly for aging pitchers. If Scherzer went in Round 3 or 4, he’s definitely worth the risk; however, his ADP almost guarantees that won’t happen.

You can’t win a fantasy league in the first two rounds, but you can certainly lose one. I prefer to invest in a younger, elite bat over an aging ace, especially one with injury woes.

Justin Verlander (SP – HOU)
Verlander just turned 37, and he’s coming off what many would call a career year in 2019.  With the exception of one season (2015), Verlander has thrown over 200 innings every year since 2007. He’s been the prototype for an ace for the better part of 13 years now.

However, he’s already slated to miss the next six weeks for surgery on a groin issue. Before that, he was dealing with a lat strain that figured to cause him to miss Opening Day. Like with Scherzer, it’s fair to wonder if the aging curve will present a noticeable cliff.

What can’t be disputed is the fact that Verlander will experience a drop in production sooner rather than later. I will fully admit that I’ve been predicting the other shoe to drop for years, but Verlander’s impeccable diet, fitness, and sleep routine, coupled with onfield adjustments, have kept him dominant on the mound.

I can’t point to any specific underlying metrics that warrant cause for concern the way Scherzer’s second half in 2019 did, but the mounting injuries and advancing age make Verlander a risky pick at his ADP (15.4 overall), especially given the elite talent still on the board around him.

Put simply, aging hurlers are statistically more likely to bust during the downside of their 30s than to remain elite. If you must leave the first two rounds with a frontline ace that has SP1 potential, consider Jacob deGrom or the ascending Walker Buehler instead.

Yu Darvish (SP – CHI)
Based on FantasyPros’ ADP (63.4, SP 20), everybody seems back in on Darvish, and I can understand why. His second half in 2019 showed he can be virtually unhittable (13.00 K/9, 0.81 WHIP, 2.83 FIP). However, the first half was an entirely different story (5.31 FIP, 1.34 WHIP). He was also scratched from a start with forearm tightness.

Darvish will turn 34 this season, and he’s battled shoulder, triceps, and elbow injuries in the past. His age and recent injury history (are you sensing a theme here with this list?) make him a prime bust candidate, even if the upside is nearly as immense as the two aces listed above.

Trevor Bauer (SP – CIN)
Heading into 2018, Trevor Bauer was getting drafted as a mid to late-round flier with strikeout upside after he posted a 10.00 K/9 and 17 wins in 2017 despite a 4.19 ERA. He went on to have a career year in 2018 (2.21 ERA, career-high 223 Ks), but he returned to disappointment in 2019 (4.48 ERA, 1.44 HR/9) as the long ball plagued him before and after his trade to Cincinnati.

Many drafters are expecting a rebound, chasing Bauer’s 2018 based on current ADP, according to FantasyPros (78.4 overall, 23rd SP). In six seasons, Bauer has exactly one year with an ERA under 4.18. Great American Ball Park is generally regarded as a sandbox for hitters, and Bauer’s flyball tendencies won’t help matters at home. He should be marginally better than he was in 2019, but SP 23 seems like a stretch.

Aaron Nola (SP – PHI)
Many drafters took Nola as a backend ace in 2019 due in large part to the high percentage of called strikes he induced in 2018. However, Nola sorely disappointed owners who reached for him at the end of the second or early third round, posting a 3.87 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. The 39.5% Hard-Hit rate allowed suggested batters were able to square him up more frequently.

Nola did enjoy a career-high 10.19 K/9, but like with Bauer, his 2018 season looks more like an outlier than the new norm when you compare it to his career numbers. Expect Nola to remain a quality fantasy starter in 2020, but expecting him to approach top-12 status may be wishful thinking.

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Paul Ghiglieri is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Paul, check out his archive and follow him @FantasyGhigs.

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