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Fantasy Baseball Second-Year Player Primer: Pitchers (2021)

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Jan 21, 2021

Last week I covered the most notable second-year hitters to read about for 2021 fantasy baseball purposes. Today, we’ll be discussing last year’s crop of rookie pitchers. It was an exciting season for prospects making their big league debuts, so let’s dive right into it.

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Ian Anderson (SP – ATL)

These days, we can’t talk about Anderson without first mentioning his devastating changeup. The 22-year-old generated 19 of his 41 regular season strikeouts with that pitch. In an era where most young hurlers utilize a fastball/breaking ball combo, it was refreshing to see Anderson attack with a different approach. The success of his changeup was a major factor in Anderson keeping hitters off balance, as his barrel-rate ranked in the 99th percentile of pitchers. Additionally, Anderson’s xERA and xwOBA both finished within the 95th percentile.

With how short the 2020 season was, I believe it’s fair to include postseason stats for players whose teams went deep into the tournament. That includes Anderson, who totaled a 1.59 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and 65 strikeouts in 51 innings when factoring in the playoffs. We can get behind that production, even if the 4.2 BB/9 wasn’t ideal.

Ultimately, Anderson’s swinging strike rate doesn’t fully back up his 29.7% K-rate. It’s no secret that he induced weak contact upon arriving to the majors (Anderson allowed a homer in his MLB debut and then kept the ball in the yard the rest of the season), but he’ll need to continue racking up punchouts to be a major fantasy factor. I prefer drafting Anderson over the next guy I’ll discuss, but both youngsters have their respective concerns.

Sixto Sanchez (SP – MIA)

It’s possible that Sanchez ran out of gas down the stretch. Over his final four starts, playoffs included, the 22-year-old allowed 13 earned runs in 15 innings pitched. This came after the electrifying rookie surrendered just six earned runs in his first 32 innings. One of the most exciting aspects of those first five starts was that Sanchez completed seven full innings in three of them.

This was a pleasant surprise for a player we simply didn’t know what to expect from due to his injury history. However, the reports on Sanchez wound up being pretty accurate. His fastball averaged a scorching 98.5 mph, but it didn’t come with much spin, which meant he had to rely on his great changeup and excellent command.

Overall, this mostly worked – up until the end, of course. The question entering 2021 is whether or not he can be a reliable fantasy producer while averaging well under a strikeout per inning (33 in 39 regular season innings). He’ll need to continue limiting hard-hit damage while also maintaining his low walk rate. An innings limit is another concern, which means I’m unlikely to pay the price it would take to draft him (128th overall in NFBC since 12/1).

James Karinchak (RP – CLE)

Back in October I wrote a piece for this lovely website discussing pitchers to buy and sell in dynasty leagues. One of the recommended “buys” was Karinchak, as I felt there was a decent chance Cleveland would move on from Brad Hand this offseason. If they did, I surmised that Karinchak would be a no-brainer elite reliever for fantasy purposes (assuming he gets the closer role). Well, the team quickly moved on from Hand, and now it’s Karinchak’s time to shine.

His Baseball Savant page in the tweet below says it all. The skills are all there, which led to “Special K” striking out a whopping 53 hitters in just 27 innings. Combine that production with a (likely) ninth-inning role and Karinchak is going to be a fantasy goldmine. At this time of this writing I’ve aggressively ranked the 25-year-old third among relievers.

Devin Williams (RP – MIL)

In 2020 Williams became the first reliever to ever win Rookie of the Year without recording a single save. Josh Hader remained the closer in Milwaukee all season long but Williams’ impact was still impossible to ignore from a fantasy perspective. 53 strikeouts in 27 innings will do that. The 26-year-old also generated four wins, nine holds, a 0.33 ERA, and a 0.63 WHIP.

Unlike the situation in Cleveland, we can’t project Williams for any saves this season. This certainly lowers his appeal in traditional 5×5 roto leagues. Yet even with zero projected saves, there still isn’t a fantasy format I’d ignore Williams in. His beyond-impressive ratios are enough to help managers in any league context. How valuable he should be considered come draft day simply depends on your league settings.

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Triston McKenzie (SP – CLE)

McKenzie was one of the best stories of the summer. His major league debut, which came on August 22nd against the Tigers, was his first competitive game since 2018. The former first-round pick was considered a top prospect before injuries took their toll in both ’18 (upper back) and 2019 (lat and pec strains). Many viewed this as confirmation bias for the widespread belief that McKenzie’s slight frame (6’5″, 175 pounds) couldn’t hold up as a starting pitcher.

Perhaps that’s still true. After all, McKenzie’s debut against Detroit was dazzling: 10 strikeouts over six innings of one-run ball with a fastball living in the 93-96 mph range. From that point on his velocity waned until he was moved to a relief role to prep for the playoffs. Talent isn’t the concern. Even his secondary offerings aren’t a concern. Fading him in drafts has everything to do with workload concerns and a (very) likely innings limit.

Cristian Javier (SP – HOU)

Javier is the cheapest of these second-year pitchers (204 in NFBC since 12/1) and for good reason. The 23-year-old burst onto the scene in his first start, totaling eight strikeouts while throwing 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball. Similar to McKenzie, this wound up being his best start of the season.

A curious case, Javier posted a 3.48 ERA during the regular season (which is right between his 2.94 xERA and 4.94 FIP). These discrepancies are due to Javier’s underwhelming strikeout and walk rates (a high FIP) combined with his ability to limit hard-hit balls (a low xERA). Similar to Anderson, Javier’s swinging strike rate doesn’t support the amount of strikeout he ended up throwing.

Second-Year Pitchers NFBC ADP since 12/1 Verdict
Ian Anderson 92 The second-year SP I’m most interested in, but also the most expensive.
Sixto Sanchez 128 Easy to fade at current ADP.
James Karinchack 107 Draft aggressively as a top-three closer.
Devin Williams 165 Draft aggressively in the right league format.
Triston McKenzie 183 Expecting severe innings limiations.
Cristian Javier 204 Profile doesn’t look special enough to be a difference-making fantasy asset.

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Whether you’re new to fantasy baseball or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Baseball 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with our Sabermetrics Glossary or head to a more advanced strategy – like How to Make Custom Fantasy Baseball Rankings with Microsoft Excel – to learn more.

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

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