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Who Should Be the First Starting Pitcher Drafted in 2021 Fantasy Baseball Leagues?

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Dec 11, 2020

There’s little reason to worry over Gerrit Cole busting in 2021.

We still aren’t that deep into the MLB offseason as we’ve yet to hit Christmas. Trevor Bauer, George Springer, and Jt Realmuto are all still free agents. Lance Lynn was recently traded, which gave us the first “big” move of the winter, but baseball fans understandably want more transactions to analyze.

For now, all we can do is examine the value of players with the information we currently have. This piece is going to focus on the top of the starting pitcher position, and the Big 3 that has been formed in early 2021 drafts. Through 41 NFBC drafts as of this writing, we see Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, and Jacob deGrom are all going within the top 10 picks. This begs the question – is it worth taking one of these studs with your first-round selection, and if so, who should you take? Let’s dive in.

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Gerrit Cole (SP – NYY)
NFBC ADP: 6th overall
Around this time last year, Gerrit Cole signed for the most amount of money a starting pitcher has ever received – nine years and $324 million to be exact. His first season in pinstripes went well, but it wasn’t the otherworldly dominant version of Cole that we came to expect following a pair of historic years with the Astros. None of Cole’s advanced metrics ranked within the 90th percentile or better on Baseball Savant this summer (his page is filled with red for 2019, though). The freshly shaven Cole actually had the worst hard-hit rate of his career with New York, checking in at a 44.6% clip, which ranked in the bottom seventh percentile of Major League Baseball.

Despite all of this, Cole’s season-ending stats were still ace caliber for fantasy managers, as the 30-year-old registered a 2.84 ERA to go along with a 0.96 WHIP  and 94 strikeouts in 73 innings. Even when he wasn’t at his best Cole still found a way to produce, particularly when it came to racking up strikeouts.

So what went wrong then? A closer look at Cole’s game logs shows that he might’ve just been unlucky when it came to homers early on. He gave up a long ball in each of his first eight outings of the year (12 homers in total) while posting a 3.91 ERA. Then, over his final four regular-season starts, Cole gave up just two homers and registered a 1.00 ERA. For the season his HR/9 rate sat at 1.7 as opposed to 0.9 for his career. Yankee Stadium might have something to do with that or maybe it was just a fluke. Ultimately, there’s little reason to worry over Cole busting in 2021, and one could make a case that he has a better chance at wins than the next two names.

Shane Bieber (SP – CLE)
NFBC ADP: 9th overall

Now we get to Bieber, the unanimous 2020 American League Cy Young winner. The 25-year-old was simply a revelation during the shortened MLB season. When Bieber arrived at the majors in 2018 he came with the reputation of a hurler who didn’t issue free passes. This turned out to be true, and it remained the case in his breakout 2019 campaign. In ’18 and ’19, Bieber posted back-to-back 4.7% walk rates, which both ranked within the top 94th percentile of the league.

Bieber wound up walking more batters in 2020 (7.1%) but he also brought with him a 98th percentile 41.1% strikeout rate that vaulted him into the “best pitcher in baseball” conversation. This was, of course, due to Bieber’s new curveball(s) – which he paired with his elite slider – which also improved his changeup. There’s a great breakdown on FanGraphs that you can read here, and I recommend you do.

By now I think you get it. Bieber was really, really good this past year. The question is if there are any holes to poke in his profile entering ’21? There’s a couple, but they’re both minor. The first is that Bieber has a career 41.6% hard-hit rate. His 2020 clip ranked in the bottom 17th percentile of the league. As we just learned with Cole, however, that doesn’t completely sink you when you’re as good at missing bats as these guys. The takeaway is more that Bieber’s hard-hit rate isn’t that concerning because nobody ever hits him.

The other area you could nitpick is the competition Bieber faced this year, which was far weaker than the East hub that both Cole and Jacob deGrom were in. Bieber will still be in the Central next year, though, and while he’ll (probably) also face East / West coast teams, he’ll still get a lot of matchups with the Royals and Tigers. There’s analyzing and then there’s overthinking. Bieber likely won’t be as good next year, but he’s still a high-end fantasy ace entering draft season.

Jacob deGrom (SP – NYM)
NFBC ADP: 10th overall
Lastly, we get to the old man of the trio, as Jacob deGrom will turn 33 midway through the 2021 season. He comes with the best track record of the group but that could also be spun as him having the most injury risk. deGrom logged three-straight 200 IP seasons entering 2020. It took a 1.73 ERA and a special late-season run from Trevor Bauer to rob deGrom of a third straight National League Cy Young award.

deGrom’s advanced metrics were as good as ever, though. His xERA came in at 2.72 for the second straight year. It was 2.47 in 2018. His xwOBA ranked within the 93rd percentile. The biggest change from years prior was actually a far superior strikeout rate:

Year Strikeout Rate
2018 32.2%
2019 31.7%
2020 38.8%

 
The one “knock” on deGrom entering the past couple of years has been that he doesn’t strike batters out at the same rate as guys like Cole or Max Scherzer, etc. That changed this year as deGrom literally got better in his age-32 season.

So sure, if the Mets’ ace being the oldest of the bunch concerns you, then it makes sense to draft Cole or Bieber ahead of him. Just know that the metrics don’t show any slippage yet, and deGrom was a shortstop to begin his college career, so his arm doesn’t actually have that much wear and tear on it. He could also be in line for more wins if Steve Cohen spends in free agency.

Verdict

As we’ve discussed, it’s looking like we’ll have a Big 3 come spring drafts. Entering March of this year, which was somehow only nine months ago, we had a Big 4. It was deGrom, Cole, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander. That was a much “older” group and we saw injuries take their toll on Verlander while Scherzer took a bit of a step back.

There is no need to be concerned about the ages of our guys this year. It truly feels like the safest high-end tier that we’ve had in a while. As for which one to take? My early lean is Cole as he gets settled into his second year with the Yankees. I’d go deGrom second and Bieber third (there has to be some regression, right?). Note that they’re all in the same tier, though, so they’re pretty interchangeable.

We’ll discuss this more as the offseason moves along but I will be recommending that fantasy players get their pitching early in draft this year. Aces are few and far between. Heck, starters who can give you a decent workload without killing your ratios are few and far between. Cole, deGrom, and Bieber are all fantastic targets in the middle of the first round.

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Brendan Tuma is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brendan, check out his archive and follow him @toomuchtuma.

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