10 Must-Have Pitchers (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
All of the must-have pitchers featured in this space have an average draft position (ADP) north of 100. They’re available to everyone regardless of the draft slot drawn by fantasy managers. The majority of hurlers included are starters, but a pair of relievers find themselves on the list as well.
Tyler Duffey (RP – MIN): 483.0
Duffey didn’t make a seamless transition to relieving, but he has thrived in that role since 2019. His excellence coincides with dialing back his fastball usage in favor of leaning on his curve. He has twirled a 2.31 ERA, 2.72 SIERA, 0.94 WHIP, 6.1 BB%, 34.2 K%, and 15.7 SwStr% in 81.2 innings pitched over the last two seasons, according to FanGraphs.
Duffey has saved only one game in his career, but he could add to that total this year. Lefty Taylor Rogers led the club in saves with nine last season, but righties Sergio Romo (five), Trevor May (two), and Matt Wisler (one) combined for eight saves. None of those three righties are on the Twins’ roster entering 2021. Duffey is a logical candidate to soak up some or all of those save chances this season. He’s a worthwhile option to draft earlier than his ADP even if he doesn’t record any saves due to his elite ratios and strikeout work, and the saves would be gravy.
Tejay Antone (SP/RP – CIN): 331.0
Antone was a revelation for the Reds last year. He made nine relief appearances and four starts, totaling 35.1 innings. He dazzled with a 2.80 ERA, 3.69 SIERA, 1.02 WHIP, 11.3 BB%, 31.9 K%, and 13.0 SwStr%.
The 27-year-old righty has numerous bat-missing offerings. This includes a curve, a changeup, and a slider that generated a 14.1 SwStr%, 17.6 SwStr%, and 18.6 SwStr%, respectively. Additionally, he also netted a 25.0 SwStr% on the 12 four-seam fastballs FanGraphs credits him with throwing.
Antone’s talent is apparent, but his role is uncertain. Perhaps he starts. Maybe he’s a multi-inning reliever. Closing is also a possibility. Reds general manager Nick Krall mentioned Antone as an in-house candidate to replace traded incumbent closer Raisel Iglesias. Antone’s a solid pick in the worst-case scenario of him ending up utilized as a multi-inning reliever, and he’s a steal if he makes the rotation or closes.
Eduardo Rodriguez (SP – BOS): 225.0
Rodriguez is a wild card after missing the entire 2020 season due to COVID-19-related myocarditis, though he reportedly feels “100 percent.” The southpaw posted back-to-back seasons with a sub-four ERA when we last saw him, and he eclipsed 200 innings in 2019. Rodriguez amassed a 3.81 ERA, 4.11 SIERA, 1.30 WHIP, 8.5 BB%, 25.4 K%, and 11.5 SwStr% in his last 333.0 innings pitched.
E-Rod’s ADP renders him SP70. His risk after a year-long layoff is more than baked into his ADP, and I view him as a top-50 SP.
Craig Kimbrel (RP – CHC): 221.3
Last year was weird. That’s what happens when the world’s amid a pandemic. It’s impossible to quantify the impact on players of the stop-and-start nature of the 2020 MLB season. With that in mind, I’m more willing than usual to cherry-pick data and toss out rough stretches.
Kimbrel’s rough stretch was his first-four appearances. He coughed up seven runs in only 2.2 innings. He was brilliant after that. The once-elite closer rattled off a 1.42 ERA, 2.12 SIERA, 0.87 WHIP, 14.3 BB%, 53.1 K%, and 15.2 SwStr% in his last 14 relief appearances, totaling 12.2 innings. Kimbrel is my favorite cheap closer with an ADP that makes him RP30. He’s worth a top-200 selection.
Andrew Heaney (SP – LAA): 203.7
Heaney is a poster child for underperforming his advanced stats in recent seasons. His 4.46 ERA last year was well above his 4.08 SIERA. The southpaw’s 4.91 ERA in 2019 was even more out of whack from his 3.87 SIERA. I’m not ready to dismiss poor luck hurting his performance, namely because it’s not the same recurring issue causing the discrepancy. He had strand-rate struggles last year and homer problems in 2019.
Heaney’s 2018 serves as a template for my expectations this season. He made 30 starts totaling 180.0 innings in which he recorded a 4.15 ERA, 3.74 SIERA, 1.20 WHIP, 6.0 BB%, and 24.0 K%. Even a more pessimistic outlook utilizing his 4.42 ERA, 3.84 SIERA, 1.23 WHIP, 6.5 BB%, 25.6 K%, and 12.6 SwStr% is worth a look at his ADP.
Joe Musgrove (SP – SD): 161.0
The pieces all came together for Musgrove last year. The underlying stats have been there for the righty, but strand-rate problems held him back in 2018 and 2019. Musgrove’s 65.6 LOB% in 2018 and 2019 largely contributed to the small gap between his 4.28 ERA and 4.16 SIERA. He did a much better job stranding runners last year with a 77.3 LOB%. The result was a 3.86 ERA, his first ERA south of four in his career.
The changes don’t stop there, though. Musgrove not only parlayed his above-average swinging-strike rate into more punch-outs, but he also bumped up his bat-missing ability with the strikeout rate accompanying it upward. His 14.4 SwStr% would have tied new teammate Yu Darvish‘s mark for the ninth-highest if he pitched enough innings to be a qualified pitcher. Musgrove rode his bloated swinging-strike percentage to a gaudy 33.1 K%. The 28-year-old righty’s ADP makes him SP50, but I’m enamored with him and have him ranked as SP39.
Kevin Gausman (SP – SF): 137.7
Gausman returns to the Giants after accepting his one-year qualifying offer. The marriage was a good one in 2020. The veteran righty bounced back from a poor showing in 2019 to spin a 3.62 ERA, 3.24 SIERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6.5 BB%, 32.2 K%, and 15.2 SwStr% in 59.2 innings spread across 12 appearances (10 starts). There’s no smoke and mirrors here, and I rate him as an SP3, despite drafters currently selecting him as an SP4.
Pablo Lopez (SP – MIA): 125.7
Drafters are snagging Lopez as an SP4, but I’m even more bullish on his outlook than Gausman’s, and I’m currently viewing him as an SP2. Lopez spun a 3.61 ERA that was only slightly better than his 3.98 SIERA in 11 starts spanning 57.1 innings. He backed his sterling ERA with a 1.19 WHIP, 7.5 BB%, 24.6 K%, and 12.1 SwStr%.
The 24-year-old righty does a great job of keeping the ball on the ground with a 52.2 GB%. He added a cutter to his repertoire last season that was his best offering as measured by the 49 wRC+ against it, and his changeup gives him a put-away pitch with a 43.0 O-Swing% and 17.8 SwStr%. Lopez ranks as my SP23, but fantasy players don’t need to reach that early to take him. Snagging him a round or two earlier than his ADP will suffice, leaving wiggle room for him to fall short of my ranking while still turning a profit.
Charlie Morton (SP – ATL): 124.0
This particle is the second place I’ve featured Morton during the off-season. I previously discussed his fantasy outlook for The Game Day. Instead of rehashing the same points, I’ll implore you to check that piece out to see why I view him as SP30.
Dylan Bundy (SP – LAA): 100.7
Bundy is the latest success story after leaving the Orioles. He finished as SP18 in 2020 according to FantasyPros’ Player Rater. Managers aren’t buying into his change-of-scenery breakout, as evidenced by his SP34 ADP. The skepticism looks misplaced to me.
Bundy scaled back the usage of his traditionally below-average fastball in favor of his slider, curve, and changeup. The fastball surprisingly posted a plus pitch value in reduced usage, complementing his excellent secondaries. Bundy’s 12.9 SwStr% supports his stellar 27.0 K%, and he did a great job of limiting free passes with a 6.4 BB%. The 28-year-old starter impressed with a 3.29 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. While his 3.80 SIERA suggests he was a bit lucky, a top-shelf encore appears likely. I’m willing to pull the trigger on Bundy with a top-75 selection.
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