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Do Not Draft These 10 Pitchers (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Carmen Maiorano | @carmsclubhouse | Featured Writer
Jan 26, 2021

Last week, we took a look at 10 hitters that I’m fading heading into draft season. This time around, we will focus on ten pitchers who are going way too early, whether that be due to injury concerns, innings limits, or significant skill regression.

We’ll also focus on starting pitchers, as the closer market is very much up in the air. One key point upfront — you won’t find Dinelson Lamet on this list. His injury risk is already being baked into his ADP, as he’s currently the P27. Even if he barely eclipses 20 starts, he could still return value equal to your investment. However, I’m not drafting him unless he is my SP3.

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Injuries, We Have A Problem

Drew Smyly (SP – ATL)
NFBC rank (as of 12/1-1/21): 79
My rank: 134

It’s amazing what 26 innings can do to the perception of a player. He posted a career-high strikeout rate (by nearly ten percentage points, too), and he backed it up with plenty of underlying metrics.

Year Strikeout Rate Average Fastball Velo Swinging Strike Rate Walk Rate
2019 23.3% 91.2 MPH 10.7% 10.7%
2020 37.8% 93.8 MPH 14.9% 8.1%

Smyly improved across the board last year, as he reached career highs in essentially every statistic. I’m skeptical that Smyly was just airing it out in a shortened season and a contract year, and I suspect that he would have negatively regressed if he played through a normal season.

The problem, of course, is that he has not been consistently healthy at any point in his career. Let’s focus on his career starts and innings pitched.

Year Starts Innings Pitched (IP)
2014 25 153
2015 12 66 and 2/3
2016 30 175 and 1/3
2017 0 0
2018 0 0
2019 21 114
2020 (prorated) 13.5 70

No matter how lethal Smyly was in those 70 prorated 2020 innings, we can’t expect him to pitch more than 100 in 2021. If he does get to that mark, expect some regression in the strikeout department and an ERA around 4.00. Tejay Antone can put up similar ratios and strikeouts (especially if a Reds’ ace gets traded), and you can get him over 120 picks later.

Nathan Eovaldi (SP – BOS)
NFBC rank: 90
My rank: 124

I’ve already written about why I’m out on Eovaldi, and one of those reasons is his cutter. This is how it fared in 2020.

Year Cutter Velo xSLG Whiff Rate
2019 93.3 MPH .538 12%
2020 91.7 MPH .552 24.6%

That huge increase in whiff rate is nice, of course. Even though the expected slugging percentage on the pitch is bad, the whiff rate is excellent, so I lean on velocity to indicate how much I trust him. With his drop in velocity, Eovaldi may struggle to duplicate that whiff rate over a full season. To make matters worse, he increased his usage of the cutter from 22.5% to 31.1%. If that carries into 2021, he’ll struggle to carry an ERA below four.

Like Smyly, my main concern with Eovaldi is health — he hasn’t pitched over 100 innings since 2015. There’s also the concern that he maintained his velocity in a shortened season but won’t carry it over into a full season, even if he does pitch over 120 innings. If you’re going to take an injury risk at this juncture in the draft, why not target a much more talented pitcher, like Corey Kluber?

Chris Sale (SP – BOS)
NFBC rank: 89
My rank: 121

Fading Sale is all about establishing expectations. By drafting him as your SP6 in a 15-team league, you are hoping that there are no big injuries on your team for the first half of the season, as Sale won’t get more than 18 starts (most likely). News flash: injuries will be at an all-time high this year, given the unique nature of the previous season. Even scarier? The Red Sox have the third-most injury-prone rotation in baseball.

At this price point, you are baking in that 1) Sale’s recovery stays on track and 2) that he is the Sale of old once he returns. That’s unlikely, as even the best pitchers need time to build endurance and reestablish velocity. Let’s not forget, Sale’s fastball velocity dropped over a mile and a half from 2018 to 2019. What kind of velocity will we get from Sale once he returns? The strikeout upside is tantalizing, but you will probably still get more strikeouts from Ryan Yarbrough and his 20.3% career strikeout rate just because Yarbrough will likely toss over 150 innings. Yarbrough is going 20 picks later.

Lance McCullers (SP – HOU)
NFBC rank: 44
My rank: 55

McCullers’ ADP is this high for a few reasons. Most fantasy players remember his dominant 2016 season, where he pitched to a 3.22 ERA with a 17.3% K-BB rate. Further, everyone knows about his curveball, but his changeup has made awesome strides as well. He is known as a high-strikeout, high-groundball rate guy — the poor man’s version of Luis Castillo.

Let’s be clear — McCullers would be a top-35 pitcher if he could stay healthy for a full year. However, he hasn’t been able to eclipse 130 innings pitched in a single year. I’m not expecting that to change right after the weirdest year of our lifetimes. Even if he did make the jump in innings, his below league-average walk rate mitigates some of the strikeout upside. I’d rather have Tony Gonsolin, who is going 80 picks later. He has a safer innings floor, a better profile for a lower WHIP, and plays for a better team.

Non-Injury Fades

Sandy Alcantara (SP – MIA)
NFBC rank: 49
My rank: 100

I know I’m going to get some heat for this one. Alcantara has shown that he’s regularly able to go deep into games, and he had a decidedly favorable change in pitch mix in 2020. He upped his sinker usage by seven percentage points while reducing his four-seamer by the same amount. His sinker has elite horizontal movement and above-average vertical movement, which means it should continue to be a good pitch.

That said, I think the fantasy community is overlooking his K-BB rate on both ends of the spectrum. While he did improve his strikeout rate last year, it was still only 22.7%, and it wasn’t backed by any favorable plate discipline changes. His swinging strike rate didn’t increase, and his contact and swing rates stayed largely the same. Over a full season, there’s a great chance that he regresses to his previous career 20% K rate.

He also has terrible control, judging by his 10.5% career walk rate. Similar to Cavan Biggio in my last column, Alcantara gets worse in the ratio department with every inning he pitches, as he will pitch more innings than most while suffering from a below-average WHIP. A 1.30 WHIP over 180 innings is worse than a 1.30 WHIP over 150 innings. Further, despite the lengthy outings, the strikeouts likely won’t be there. I would clearly take a ton of pitchers over him, but one specific ranking that befuddles me is how Alcantara is going earlier than German Marquez. I know Marquez has Coors problems, but he should provide a better WHIP with more strikeouts.

Marcus Stroman (SP – NYM)
NFBC rank: 82
My rank: 126

Stroman tore his calf at the end of 2019 and opted out of 2020. I expect Stroman will need some time to shake off the rust that’s built up over the last 18 months. He won’t touch 200 innings this year, and likely not even 180.

However, most of the fade is simply due to who Stroman is. He has a sub-20% career strikeout rate with a slightly above-average walk rate. If you combine that walk rate with Stroman’s groundball tendencies, the result is a suboptimal WHIP. BABIP typically rises the more a pitcher induces grounders, so Stroman’s career 58.6% groundball rate is a big driver of his career 1.29 WHIP. While he may be a solid real-life pitcher, his profile doesn’t suit our roto game well — he battles the same issue as Alcantara above. I’d much rather have John Means, who is going in a similar range and has shown strikeout upside.

Justus Sheffield (SP – SEA)
NFBC rank: 103
My rank: 148

The hits just keep on rolling with these high-groundball guys. Sheffield figures to stick in the rotation all season, providing a nice floor for strikeouts and wins (even if the team behind him isn’t very good). Unfortunately, Sheffield seems to be a hybrid of Alcantara and Stroman, as he kills worms over 50% of the time a ball is put into play, and he has nearly a 10% walk rate in 94 career innings, which seems to have carried over from the minors.

His high walk rate and high groundball rate mean that he’s practically begging for a high WHIP. Compound that high WHIP over 180 innings, and that leads Sheffield to fall down my draft board. Until he starts showing more strikeout upside (which we saw in the minors), I’m much more comfortable with Masahiro Tanaka or Dane Dunning.

Triston McKenzie (SP – CLE)
NFBC rank: 67
My rank: 93

McKenzie is certainly a talented pitcher, as he has demonstrated throughout the minors. We also know that the Indians have the best pitching development in the biz. My concern comes in the form of a severe cap on his innings pitched. He pitched 90 innings in 2018, but he didn’t pitch in 2019, as he was recovering from an injury. By pitching 120 innings in the last three years combined, it’s hard to see him surpassing that number in this season alone.

While he did post an elite 26% K-BB rate, the strikeouts figure to come down based on his slightly above-average 12.4% swinging strike rate and average O-Swing%. He also saw his velocity drop significantly with each passing start, which begs the question of how long he can hold up over 162 games. Chris Bassitt is going in a similar range, and he should provide similar ratios with a much safer floor.

Nate Pearson (SP – TOR)
NFBC rank: 100
My rank: 150

Much like McKenzie, I’m concerned about Pearson’s workload. He has pitched 120 innings over the past three seasons, so I see that as his cap for this year. The Blue Jays have been signing starting pitchers left and right this offseason, giving credence to the fact that Pearson will be treated with kid gloves.

Further, despite his velocity, he hasn’t shown that he can get enough strikeouts. He also needs to work on his control, as he grades out as league-average in that department. Between the innings limits, a potential sub-23% strikeout rate, and a 10% walk rate, he isn’t someone I’m targeting until the very end of drafts if he indeed is still around.

Adam Wainwright (SP – FA)
NFBC rank: 159
My rank: 179

Wainwright is a 39-year-old free agent, so the fact that he’s going just outside the top-150 pitchers is bewildering. He did turn back the clock in 2020 by pitching to a 3.15 ERA over 65+ innings, but he was lucky in a few key departments.

Metric 2020  Average
Left on Base (LOB) Rate 78.8% 72%
BABIP .247 .300

In recent seasons where Wainwright pitched over 120 innings, his BABIP was typically around the .320 mark. His max exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate were consistent with those years, so we can reasonably assume that his BABIP would have risen to historical levels over a full season.

His fastball sat at a career-low of 89.3 MPH, and he will be hard-pressed to break 89 over a full season. Overall, his walk rate did drop significantly due to getting more chases out of the zone. That chase rate was largely due to his dynamite curveball, which features elite horizontal movement and above-average drop. But still, can you count on Wainwright’s ability to replicate this success over a full season?

At the end of the day, fantasy managers should chase upside around this time. Guys like Cal Quantrill, Luke Weaver, and Luis Patiño are going in a similar range, and I would rather chase that upside at the end game.

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Carmen Maiorano is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Carmen, check out his archive and work on RotoFanatic, and follow him @carmsclubhouse.

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