Starting Pitcher Values and Busts Based on Swinging-Strike Rates (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
There are a lot of things that go into making a pitcher great for fantasy purposes. Some pitchers excel at getting called strikes, and their pitch mix and ability to freeze a hitter make them attractive commodities. However, a pitcher’s ability to elicit swinging strikes will always be a strong barometer for his skill since hitters can’t do much damage on balls they do swing at if they can’t hit them first.
To that end, it’s useful to review swinging-strike rates (SwStr%) to see which pitchers might see a rise or fall in value. If a pitcher was really good at missing bats but struggled last year, it’s possible that a high BABIP or poor defense behind him contributed to a poor season. Conversely, a pitcher who doesn’t elicit much swing and miss may have been overly lucky with balls put in play, and it may not be wise to invest in him the following year unless he’s added a new pitch to his arsenal capable of missing some bats.
First, we should establish the difference between Whiff rate, which looks at swings and misses as a percentage of swings, and SwStr%, which looks at swings and misses as a percentage of all pitches thrown. Thus, the higher the SwStr%, the more swing and miss events we have to consider.
For the purposes of this article, we are mostly going to look at the last 162 games played spanning part of 2019 and the shortened 2020 season. This will give us a more reliable sample of data since 2020’s 60-game season, complete with all its glorious weirdness, is somewhat suspect given batters were not able to have access to in-game video, and there was very little spring training action.
The following are pitchers who had high SwStr% who may be somewhat undervalued in drafts.
Lucas Giolito (SP – CWS)
Lucas Giolito is currently coming off the board as the seventh starting pitcher, according to Fantasy Pros ECR. Can he still be a value going late in Round 2? Giolito’s 16.6% SwStr% ranks second behind only Jacob deGrom since June of 2019. A lot of the batted ball data compares favorably to Gerrit Cole, but to acquire Cole, you need to spend a top-six pick. Lucas Giolito has the upside of a top-three starter in fantasy this year, and he’s currently the 24th pick in Yahoo leagues. This kind of value allows you to emerge out of the first two rounds of your draft with an elite hitter and still roster a pitcher who could challenge deGrom for the top SP spot this season.
Matthew Boyd (SP – DET)
Matt Boyd’s stellar 2019 had many over-drafting him in 2020, and the results proved disastrous. Boyd struck out 238 batters across a workhorse-like 185 innings in 2019. Fantasy managers salivated over the prospect that if he could improve on his pedestrian 4.32 ERA and 1.23 WHIP, he could emerge as an ace. Alas, the WHIP ballooned to 1.47, and Boyd saw his ERA explode as the strikeout rate dropped, the walk rate rose, and the LD% spiked; in the end, it all amounted to giving up the most runs in the majors last year. A strained hamstring during summer camp and plantar fasciitis to close the year put Boyd’s season in the tank. He will probably never be an ace, but he has the stuff to miss bats. Boyd’s 13.8% SwStr% since June of 2019 ranks as the eight-highest mark in baseball during that span. With an ADP beyond 300, Boyd is no longer even valued as a top 100 starter heading into 2021. Finally healthy, Boyd should be able to repeat the delivery that made him a gem in 2019, making him a value in most drafts.
Kevin Gausman (SP – SF) and Drew Smyly (SP – SF)
The Giants have done an effective job of reclaiming castoffs from other teams at bargain bin prices and cultivating what they do well to make them more effective starters within the spacious confines of Oracle Park. Over the last 162 games, Kevin Gausman’s 15.9% SwStr% was top six in baseball, and Drew Smyly’s 12.6% SwStr% was a top 30 mark for pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched (albeit, a low threshold, but notable nonetheless). Gausman has an ADP of around 140 as the 44th starter off the board, and Smyly goes well outside the top 200 picks. All this is to say the underrated and overlooked Giants’ rotation should continue to offer value to fantasy managers alike in 2020.
Now, if we adjust our data to focus exclusively on 2020 data, the following arms could be big risers.
Kenta Maeda (SP – MIN)
Kenta Maeda spent many years bouncing in and out of the rotation as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and fantasy managers were rightly excited about what he could do if given a chance to max out on his innings total somewhere else. He was brilliant for Minnesota last year, going 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA in 66 IP, and the elevated 10.80 K/9 was supported by a 17.2% SwStr%. That was the third-highest mark behind deGrom and Giolito last season. It might not be prudent to assume Maeda will maintain an ERA under 3.00 in 2021. However, he’s routinely being drafted as a midrange to backend SP2. The underlying skills mean he arguably has the clearest path in that range to potentially finish as a top 12 arm.
Zac Gallen (SP – ARI)
Zac Gallen’s 12.1% SwStr% from 2020 puts him in the same company as Trevor Bauer, except Gallen has far superior command. In fact, Gallen’s Command+ grade is actually the fourth-highest in baseball, according to Eno Sarris over at The Athletic (subscription required). The stage appears set for Gallen to join an elite group of starters widely considered fantasy aces. The wins may not be there playing for Arizona, but in quality starts leagues, Gallen has major upside. It’s going to take a top 40 pick most likely to acquire Gallen, but when you consider the upside and fact you can take up to three elite hitters and still land him as your SP1, there may not be a better value.
Andrew Heaney (SP – LAA)
If only Andrew Heaney could stay healthy. That has been the refrain for most of his career. Heaney’s 12.4% SwStr% was top 16 in 2020, and he’s always been a great source of strikeouts whenever he takes the mound. Heaney will most likely struggle to post an ERA under 4.20, but that’s right around the league average these days. He’s currently getting drafted outside the top 200 picks as the 60th pitcher taken on average, but as long as he keeps missing bats at this rate and the progression from recent seasons holds, there is SP3 upside here.
Sadly, a deeper look at SwStr% does not just produce highlights. Here are some arms that could disappoint.
Brady Singer (SP – KC)
Brady Singer has first-round pedigree and actually broke camp with a rotation spot in 2020, but he only posted a 9.5% SwStr%. He relies upon called strikes to get ahead in the count and a sinker to induce ground balls and weaker contact. However, his lack of swing-and-miss stuff means that Singer must maintain elite command of his fastball because there is no margin for error. His ADP isn’t particularly worrisome at the moment (roughly around 250). Still, on a team that will probably struggle to score runs, it’s hard to see much value in Singer unless you want him as a backend starter in quality start or points leagues who may rack up innings (but little else) so long as his fastball command holds.
Walker Buehler (SP – LAD)
Walker Buehler is currently getting scooped up no later than the end of the second round. He’s widely regarded as a top-five starter for 2021, but his 12.8% SwStr% ranks 24th over the last 162 games. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that rank, you’d like to see a bit more swing and miss from a pitcher you need to spend your second-round pick to acquire. Once you factor in the limited innings the Los Angeles Dodgers will surely impose on Buehler on a per-start basis, it’s hard to justify spending such high draft capital on him despite his strong overall skills, not when you consider the upside of the alternatives going well after him.
Zach Plesac (SP – CLE)
Zach Plesac had an impressive 2020, and it has inflated his draft stock to the point where he is now the 23rd starting pitcher off the board, according to ADP. However, Plesac’s 11.0% SwStr% barely cracks the top 60 over the last 162 games. A career-low .224 BABIP and career-high 91% LOB rate, among other things, led to a sterling 2.28 ERA in 2020, but the 3.51 SIERA is far more indicative of what Plesac will most likely give you if everything doesn’t break his way in 2021. He’s still a quality pitcher who is capable of limiting hard contact, but it’s hard to see him returning top 25 starter value without a greater ability to miss bats.
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