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Unlucky 2020 Pitchers to Target in 2021 (Fantasy Baseball)

by Mike Maher | @mikeMaher | Featured Writer
Feb 12, 2021

Preparing for the 2021 fantasy baseball season will be unlike anything else fantasy managers have ever experienced. We have a bizarre and extremely abbreviated 2020 season to use as our most recent point of reference and approximately 60-80 innings to evaluate for most pitchers. That’s a tiny sample size, and we’ll have to attempt to determine the outliers from the trends.

Specifically for pitchers, one of the first places to look is the difference between the pitcher’s ERA (earned run average) and their FIP (fielding independent pitching). FIP estimates a pitcher’s performance without considering their defense, and it’s useful in determining success vs. luck. By looking at ERA-FIP numbers, we can get an idea which pitchers may have been luckier than they were good or unluckier than bad.

A negative ERA minus FIP indicates that the pitcher outperformed their expected numbers or was lucky. A positive ERA minus FIP means that pitcher was likely the recipient of some bad luck. Last week, we took a look at pitchers who were lucky in 2020. This week, pitchers with positive ERA-FIP numbers who were unlucky in the shortened 2020 season.

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Average Draft Position (ADP) referenced is FantasyPros consensus ADP

Zack Greinke (SP – HOU): 1.23 ERA-FIP, ADP: 101
We’ll start things off by talking about Zack Greinke because his 1.23 ERA-FIP is easily the highest mark from 2020. In fact, he is the only player with an ERA-FIP above 1.00. At first glance, his 2020 numbers are strange because his 4.03 ERA is his worst mark since 2016 while his 2.80 FIP is his best mark since 2015. His swinging strike % was in-line with his career average and was up slightly from 2019, his hard contact was down, and his HR/FB and HR/9 were both down from 2019. So, what gives?

For starters, Greinke’s .321 BABIP was his highest mark since 2005 (That’s not a typo. 2005, not 2015) and was over .300 for the first time since 2014. The other strange development is that opposing hitters stopped swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. As you can see in the graph below, Greinke’s O-Swing% dropped significantly in 2020, and his 29% number was his lowest since 2012. So, it’s possible some of this bad luck was earned. It’s also possible that, since we’re dealing with a small sample size, this would have all averaged out over a full season.

But Greinke is now 37 years old, and his already below-average velocity dipped again in 2020, with his 4-seamer sitting at an average of 87.9 MPH. Yes, he was unlucky last season. But was this also the beginning of the end for the veteran starter?

Framber Valdez (SP,RP – HOU): 0.71 ERA-FIP, ADP: 99
We can skip Matthew Boyd and Johnny Cueto‘s because even after bad luck is accounted for, they still had rough numbers. Staying in Houston and looking at Framber Valdez, we see a pitcher with a 3.57 ERA that both FIP and xFIP numbers say should have been well below 3.00. Valdez’s hard contact and exit velocity numbers were near the bottom of the league in 2020, so those aren’t exactly backing up the argument that he was just unlucky. But his BB% was elite and K%, xwOBA, xERA, and xSLG were all well above league average. His .314 BABIP points to some bad luck on balls in play, too. And if not for an eight-run implosion against the Angels in early September, Valdez could have very well finished with an ERA under 3.00. He is being drafted in the Top 100 in early expert drafts this offseason, but that number is likely to jump in the coming weeks as more casual drafts kick off and everyone remembers his excellent performance in the 2020 postseason.

Aaron Civale (SP – CLE): 0.71 ERA-FIP, ADP: 175
Aaron Civale had the same 0.71 positive ERA-FIP that Valdez had in 2020, and he too had an eight-run disastrous performance at the end of the season to balloon his final numbers. Civale came out of the gate hot in 2020 but cooled as the season went on. Still, his final line wasn’t terrible, and he had a sub-4.00 ERA heading into his final start. A .333 BABIP certainly didn’t help things and led to a .282 BAA. Civale isn’t the ace that he looked like to start the season, but he also isn’t the dud the stumbled towards the end of the year. He’s still just 25 years old in an organization that has shown an excellent ability to develop young pitchers in recent years, and he cruised through the minor leagues. Civale isn’t the most overpowering pitcher, but he knows how to pitch and has a good arsenal. Take the discount based on his bad luck in 2020.

Andrew Heaney (SP – LAA): 0.66 ERA-FIP, ADP: 199
Andrew Heaney had a BABIP right around league average, and most of his advanced metrics are average to below-average. He has an elite fastball spin rate, which has made him a metrics darling for a few years now. But he has had trouble staying healthy and has topped 100 innings pitched just one time in the last five seasons when he tossed 180 innings with a 4.15 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 2018. If fantasy managers knew they would be getting around 200 innings, 200 strikeouts, and a sub-4.00 ERA like Heaney’s 2020 FIP suggests, then Heaney wouldn’t be sitting at around a 200 ADP. It’s unlikely that 2021 is finally Heaney’s true breakout season, but he has more upside than many of the other arms going around the same ADP.

Dylan Bundy (SP – LAA): 0.34 ERA-FIP, ADP: 105
Fantasy managers have been waiting for the Dylan Bundy breakout for years, and they finally got a glimpse of it in 2020. Even better, his 2.95 FIP indicated that the breakout was legit. His .272 BABIP was below league average, but he cut down on walks, cut his HR/FB in half, and held batters to a .207 BAA. Is he going to repeat all of that in 2021? Probably not. But the fact that his underlying metrics backed up his breakout 3.29 ERA is a great sign. Even if Bundy is due for some negative regression in 2021, he enough steps forward in 2020 that even a step backward in 2021 is a solid pitcher. Most projections have him pegged for around 170 innings, 170+ strikeouts, and a 4.50-ish ERA. That seems a bit harsh after his 2020, but those projections are baking in his disappointing 2017-2019 years. His current ADP is likely to drop in the coming weeks, and he could be a worthwhile gamble in deeper leagues.

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Mike Maher is an editor and featured writer at FantasyPros and BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive, follow him on Twitter @MikeMaherand visit his Philadelphia Eagles blogThe Birds Blitz.

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