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16 Pitchers Who Will Break Out Or Disappoint (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

Feb 10, 2021

 
Following a season with such limited sample sizes, evaluating pitchers is going to be harder than ever leading into spring fantasy drafts. That’s why we polled our writers for pitchers who could break out in 2021, as well as which highly touted hurlers are poised to disappoint.

Average Draft Position (ADP) referenced is using FantasyPros consensus ADP

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Q1. Which pitcher (outside top 20 pitchers) could you see breaking out into a star this season?

Dylan Cease (SP – CWS) ADP SP: 137 | Overall: 447
As easy as it would be to pick someone like Corbin Burnes, Ian Anderson, or Sixto Sanchez for a breakout year, Cease has been left for dead and is basically free, so I’ll plant my flag here. This probably won’t age well thanks to Cease’s high walk rates and low whiff rates, but there are reasons to be excited. First, Cease is a former top prospect with triple-digit velocity, an elite fastball spin rate, and swing-and-miss off-speed stuff. Moreover, Ethan Katz (the pitching coach responsible for turning around Lucas Giolito‘s career) was hired to be the White Sox pitching coach for 2021. Cease has revamped his four-seamer to add more vertical break and control. With only 26 big league starts under his belt, it’s too early to write off Cease, MLB Pipeline’s pitcher of the year in 2018. He should find the zone more frequently, and his electric off-speed offerings should play up better as a result.
– Paul Ghiglieri (@FantasyEvolves)

John Means (SP – BAL) ADP SP: 69 | Overall: 217
Means dealt with arm fatigue in an unusual ramp-up to the 2020 season, as well as his dad’s passing. I’m willing to ignore his 2020, except for his added velocity towards the end of the season (and was also being reported in Spring Training 1.0). While he didn’t consistently pitch into the sixth inning until early September, Means struck out 21 batters over his final two starts. I think he will be eager to prove himself over a full season, and the Orioles will treat him as an ace. That means he should be able to pitch around 170 innings, which will be an outlier after starters’ innings are drastically reduced after 2020. The solid ratios and strikeout upside over that many innings leads me to believe he has a shot at breaking out.
– Carmen Maiorano (@carmsclubhouse)

Kyle Hendricks (SP – CHC) ADP SP: 26 | Overall: 78
When looking at pitchers outside of the top-20, Hendricks stands out. The 31-year-old continues to display underrated consistency with a profile that isn’t super sexy. In 2020, Hendricks recorded a 2.88 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, a 20.3% strikeout rate, and a 2.5% walk rate in 81.1 innings pitched. Although he recorded his lowest ERA since 2016, Hendricks finished with an ERA ranging from 3.03 – 3.46 from 2017 to 2019. With the four-pitch arsenal (sinker, changeup, four-seamer, curveball), Hendricks outperforms the projections. The BAT projects Hendricks for a 4.07 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.06 K/9, and 1.95 BB/9 in 188 innings. I expect Hendricks to outperform this, and I’m therefore targeting him in drafts. Since Hendricks doesn’t wow us with a sexy strikeout rate, he’s already a star that should easily rank within the top-20 amongst pitchers. Hendricks provides the safety that’s difficult to find in the starting pitcher landscape.
– Corbin Young (@Corbin_Young21)

Kevin Gausman (SP – SF) ADP SP: 44 | Overall: 138
We say every winter that this will be Gausman’s year, but what if this is actually the year? The righty did his best work in 2020’s shortened season, boasting a 3.62 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 79 strikeouts, and 3.09 FIP in 59.2 innings. He enhanced his velocity on his subpar four-seam fastball and elite splitter, which induced a microscopic .142 wOBA. It’s indeed a small sample size, but he also tallied an eye-opening 25.3% K rate by upping his splitter usage in 2019. Since the start of 2019, his 15.0% swinging-strike rate trails only nine starters with at least 100 innings pitched. All of them besides the injured Justin Verlander rank inside the ECR’s top-25 pitchers. No doubt about it, I’m ready to get hurt again.
– Andrew Gould (AndrewGould4)

Max Fried (SP – ATL) ADP SP: 20 | Overall: 62
I don’t understand why Fried’s ADP is so low. He was absolutely amazing for a second straight season. Although wins are not a pitcher-only statistic, Fried was a remarkable 7-0 to go along with a 2.25 ERA and respectable 8.0 K/9. A big part of Fried’s success was limiting homers. He gave up just two during the regular season. His hard-hit rate was only 23.8%, which was one of the lowest in all of baseball. He also posted nearly 3 WAR in only 11 starts. The Braves are on a short list of World Series contenders and Fried will have to be great again for them to reach that level. Fried is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball and I would not hesitate to take him in the top-15 range.
– Travis Cain (@TravisCain_)

Tyler Mahle (SP – CIN) ADP SP: 56 | Overall: 191
Mahle broke out in 2020, posting a 3.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 60 strikeouts across 47 2/3 innings. His swinging strike percentage rose from 9.4% to 13.8%. Mahle added a slider to his pitch repertoire last season and made necessary adjustments that upped his strikeout percentage to 29.6. He’s currently 57th among all starting pitchers in the latest expert consensus rankings, but his breakout 2020 performance is no fluke. Mahle is guaranteed a spot in the rotation and his ADP continues to soar in the NFBC. The 26-year-old could be mid-round bargain and become a top-25 starter in 2021.
– Brad Camara (@beerad30)

James Karinchak (RP – CLE) ADP RP: 11 | Overall: 106
Brad Hand is gone, ushering in the Karinchak era in Cleveland. “Special K” was very impressive as a setup man last year, recording eight holds, one save, 53 strikeouts, and a 2.67 ERA over 27 innings pitched. He has the potential to be the number-one closer in fantasy baseball in 2021. Karinchak has a simple fastball, curveball mix. His curveball is almost un-hittable (56.3 WHIFF%, 10th in MLB among all qualified pitches) and his fastball is also elite (95.5 average fastball velocity, 84th percentile, 75th percentile spin rate). Prior to last season, Karinchak dominated the Minor Leagues except for a stint in Triple-A where he allowed a 4.67 ERA over 17 1/3 innings pitched. I am willing to forgive him for this because he was unlucky with BABIP (.571) and his xFIP was 1.66. The only knock against him is he has only one career save and doesn’t have experience as a closer.
– Lucas Babits-Feinerman (@WSonFirst)

Justus Sheffield (SP – SEA) ADP SP: 99 | Overall: 350
Sheffield was a pleasant surprise for the upstart Mariners in 2020. He finished the year with a 4-3 record, 3.58 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 1.30 WHIP, and 48:20 K/BB ratio over 55 1/3 innings. He was very impressive over his final seven starts, compiling a 1.67 ERA with 34 K’s, as he increased his slider usage. Opposing hitters registered a .189 xBA, .258 xSLG, and 28.5% Whiff rate off the pitch. Overall, he produced a 50% ground-ball rate and limited batters to a 3.7% Barrel rate (89th percentile). He was able to keep the ball on the ground and in the park, surrendering just two homers all season. He’s only 25 years old and should have a long leash for the eternally rebuilding Mariners. If he can continue to keep hitters off balance with his sinker-slider combo and limit the walks (3.3 BB/9 in 2020), he can massively outperform his ADP in 2021.
– Jon Mathisen (@EazyMath)

Framber Valdez (SP – HOU) ADP SP: 31 | Overall: 99
Arguably the most important factor in projecting a starting pitcher’s upcoming season is the total number of innings expected for said pitcher. Normally, a young arm will see roughly a three-year arc that builds up to a full workload. 2020’s shortened season threw a wrench into these plans, but the good news — comparatively speaking — is that every pitcher was saddled with the same cap. Valdez actually threw more innings than most because of his playoff appearances, and it might put him ahead of the curve in terms of increasing his volume. That’s all we need for a pitcher who ranked seventh-best in the league in both FIP and xFIP.
– Mario Mergola (@MarioMergola)

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Q2. Which star pitcher (top 20 in pitcher rankings) do you see disappointing this season?

Stephen Strasburg (SP – WAS) ADP SP: 22 | Overall: 66
Strasburg will turn 33 this season, and his 33 games started in 2019 were the first time he crossed the threshold since 2014. The concern has more to do with injury risk than talent, since you’ll likely need to spend a fifth-round pick to get Strasburg and projections have him pitching about 164 innings as opposed to the 209 he threw in 2019. It’s also worth noting that as good as he was in 2019, his GB% was a career-high 51%, and Steamer has that dropping more in line with his career norms (44%) for 2021. Add in the durability concerns and escalating HR/FB rate and it’s easy to see Strasburg disappointing this year.
– Paul Ghiglieri (@FantasyEvolves)

I’m probably taking the easy way out, but Strasburg is someone I expect to disappoint. In late-August 2020, Strasburg underwent carpal tunnel surgery. That said, he projects to be 100% heading into spring training. Strasburg barely pitched in 2020 with a 10.80 ERA and 1.80 WHIP in five innings, which means we can toss out his statistics. Meanwhile, in 2019, Strasburg finished with a 3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, a 29.8% strikeout rate, and a 6.7% walk rate in 209 innings pitched. When looking at his swinging-strike rate and pitch results, it appears that 2019 may be Strasburg’s outlier season. Given that he endured surgery on his throwing hand, it’s safe to fade Strasburg in drafts. Although Strasburg finished with one of his best seasons in 2019, it’s risky to consider him entering the ’21 campaign.
– Corbin Young (@Corbin_Young21)

Zack Greinke would have been my pick for a pitcher most likely to disappoint in 2021, but since he’s currently ranked 26th, I will go with Strasburg. The 32-year-old made two appearances in 2020 before being shut down for the season due to carpal tunnel neuritis. He had surgery to address the issue and is expected to be fully healthy for Spring Training. The 2019 World Series MVP is one of the top starters in baseball when healthy, but has only thrown 160-plus innings four times in his career. I would avoid the injury risk all together and take chances on Lance Lynn, Sonny Gray, Carlos Carrasco, and Corbin Burnes, all starting pitchers who are ranked within his range.
– Brad Camara (@beerad30)

Blake Snell (SP – SD) ADP SP: 15 | Overall: 46
Snell simply has too many question marks for me to take him as a top-20 pitcher. He has pitched 180 innings just once in his career, and I’m expecting around 150 this year, which severely limits his strikeout upside and wins. While many pitchers will be around this level as well, I want my SP1/2 to have at least a shot at 170 innings, which we can’t say about Snell. He also has an injury history, and the Padres have bulked up on starters to ensure that Snell’s innings can be monitored. Toss in that 9% walk rate over the past three years, and I simply see too many reasons for Snell to disappoint at this point in the draft.
– Carmen Maiorano (@carmsclubhouse)

Trevor Bauer (SP -LAD) ADP SP: 4 | Overall: 14
Drafters are fully buying into Trevor Bauer’s Cy Young Award campaign, snagging him at a No. 14 overall ADP with a No. 17 ECR. His acquisition cost could rise even higher after signing with the Dodgers. Given his career ledger, a top-20 pick is too rich for my blood. Even after 11 dominant starts against the AL and NL Central last season, Bauer still has a 3.90 career ERA. He’s posted an ERA below 4.18 in just two of seven complete seasons. He sported a 3.02 ERA after his first seven starts of 2019, but finished at 4.48 by allowing five or more runs in 10 outings. There’s too much volatility to take Bauer over Francisco Lindor, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, or even new rotation-mate Walker Buehler.
– Andrew Gould (AndrewGould4)

Tyler Glasnow (SP – TB) ADP SP: 16 | Overall: 48
Glasnow is as electric as any pitcher in baseball. He has one of the highest strikeout rates in MLB as he posted 14.3 strikeouts per 9 innings. But, the Rays just don’t give him a long enough leash to justify top-20 value. Fantasy managers tended to be frustrated with his 3-4 inning performances last year. The rewards are great with Glasnow, but the lows can drastically hurt a fantasy team. I would feel much more comfortable selecting Lance Lynn, Max Fried or Sonny Gray in this range.
– Travis Cain (@TravisCain_)

Shane Bieber (SP – CLE) ADP SP: 3 | Overall: 8
Bieber is being drafted as the third pitcher off the board. That’s perfectly reasonable when considering he was the 2020 AL Cy Young award winner and had a 1.63 ERA with 122 strikeouts in 77 1/3 innings pitched last season. His underlying metrics were strong (94th percentile xERA, 94th percentile xwOBA, 98th percentile Whiff%, 98th percentile K%, 2.04 xFIP) and support his breakout. So why is it I’m choosing him to disappoint this season? Bieber will have to face teams outside of the Central Division this season. Last year only one team (Chicago White Sox) in the combined AL/NL Central finished above 18th in runs scored, which means nine of the bottom 12 teams in runs scored played in the Central. Also, Bieber’s all-time single-season record, 41.1% K% last season looks like an outlier. He’s never had a K% above 30.2% in a full season, even in the minor leagues. So let’s say that Bieber’s K% drops back to the 30% range and his ERA regresses to the low 3.00s. Will fantasy managers be happy that they spent a first-round pick on him? I don’t think so.
– Lucas Babits-Feinerman (@WSonFirst)

Max Scherzer (SP – WAS) ADP SP: 9 | Overall: 24
Let me be clear that I still think Scherzer is a great pitcher and he should be an elite source of strikeouts, but his days of being a “set it and forget it” fantasy ace are likely over. 2020 was a weird year, yes, but he posted a 3.54 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, and 92:23 K/BB ratio (3.1 BB/9) over 67 1/3 innings. Apart from the WHIP, which was the worst mark of his career, those numbers aren’t terrible. Other than the 31.2% K rate, though, those numbers are a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from “Mad Max.” His fastball velocity (94.7 mph) and spin rate, which ranked in the 91st percentile, were stellar but his changeup had the lowest Whiff rate (26.3%) in nine seasons. Scherzer also allowed the highest barrel-rate (8.4%) of his career and the 9.7% HR/FB ratio was his worst in the last four seasons. Scherzer has been a strikeout machine over his career and he should be one again in 2021, but there are some reasons to look elsewhere for your SP1. I worry about his durability at age 36 (he turns 37 midway through the season) after throwing 200-plus innings in six straight seasons before a back injury in 2019 limited him to 172 1/3 innings pitched.
– Jon Mathisen (@EazyMath)

Lucas Giolito (SP – CWS) ADP SP: 7 | Overall: 21
Giolito has had quite the roller coaster of numbers over the last few seasons, but it appears as if he stabilized over the course of 2020. “Appears” is the operative word, as his 3.48 ERA and 3.19 FIP look solid on the surface. Underneath, we see that he had a handful of completely dominant starts — including a no-hitter — but allowed at least three earned runs in no more than six innings five times in twelve games. Most importantly, if the price to acquire Giolito is as high as a top-ten pitcher, his wild swing of numbers makes him too much of a risk. He also saw a slight uptick in hard hit-percentage and a slight decrease in soft-hit percentage, and this can spiral into a disappointing season for his asking price.
– Mario Mergola (@MarioMergola)

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