What To Expect From Pitchers With Small 2020 Innings Samples (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
We are in quite a strange spot here when trying to speculate about how starting pitchers will perform in 2021. We saw no more than 84 regular season innings from any pitcher last year, giving us very limited data to work with.
The toughest pitchers to get a hold of are the guys who could not even put together a full season by 2020’s standards. Because of the uncertainty, we’re seeing ADPs all over the place on guys who missed time last year.
Here we’ll highlight a handful of fantasy-relevant pitchers that didn’t see much of the mound last year and do our best to give you an idea of what to expect this year. ADPs are found courtesy of the FantasyPros ADP consensus.
Walker Buehler (SP – LAD) ADP 20
The Dodgers were pretty careful with Buehler, and he missed a couple of starts with small injuries last year on his way to just 36.2 innings pitched. In those innings, he was pretty good but not as ace-like as we’ve come to expect. His 3.44 ERA was good, his 0.95 WHIP was very good, and his strikeout rate stayed high at 28.6%. However, his walk rate came up to 7.5%, and he gave up a bunch of homers (1.72 HR/9).
The most important thing about Buehler’s 2020 was that his stuff stayed electric. He still leaned heavily on the four-seamer (53% usage), but the velocity was still very high (averaging 97). He split the rest of his arsenal evenly between a cutter, slider, and curveball, all of which achieved really impressive whiff rates. The guy has a fantastic arm, and his stuff looked great last year.
We also shouldn’t neglect to mention the awesome 25 postseason innings he threw. Against the Brewers, Padres, Braves (twice), and Rays, he posted a 1.80 ERA while allowing just a .196 batting average and a .293 slugging percentage against while striking out 39 batters.
The only questions about Buehler for 2021 should be about his innings load, and those questions exist for almost every pitcher, so I think it’s a great year to draft yourself some Walker Buehler and expect dominance.
Jack Flaherty (SP – STL) ADP 27
Flaherty may have had the weirdest year of any player in 2020. He started the Cardinals’ first game on July 24th, and then due to a COVID outbreak and an injury, he did not make another start until August 19th, 25 whole days later. After that, he stayed on schedule, starting every five days and making nine total starts.
While he was on the mound, he struggled. While his strikeout rate stayed right where it has been (29%), nothing else seemed to come together for him. He posted a 4.91 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP, both his worst numbers by far since his short 21 inning stint in 2017.
The good news is that Flaherty actually improved in a lot of important metrics. His swinging-strike rate rose to a career-best of 14.3%, while his contact rate also reached a new best at 68%. What really bit him was a slight increase in walks (9.4%, up from 7.1% in 2019) and homers (1.34 HR/9 against 1.15 the previous year), and then a massive streak of bad luck. His strand rate or his career is 79%, and that fell to 69% last year – that is very bad luck. This is all reflected by his xFIP sitting at 3.42, which was actually the best xFIP of Flaherty’s career.
So what should we expect? Well, there’s a fair question about how many innings Flaherty can throw after reaching just 40 last year. But again, that’s a question for almost every pitcher in the league, so I’m not going to read too much into that. What we see is a guy who had an ugly line in 2020 that seems to be almost wholly attributable to how derailed the Cardinals season got and how much bad luck he experienced.
You aren’t getting a huge discount on Flaherty, as he’s still the 10th SP off the board on average, but if you play in a league that is taking 2020 numbers too seriously, you could potentially get Flaherty as an SP2 on your team, which would be a very nice spot to be in.
Sixto Sanchez (SP – MIA) ADP 129
The young Marlins righty got rushed to the Majors a bit given the 2020 Minor League season cancelation. He completely leap-frogged the AAA level, throwing 39 innings in the Majors last year. There’s a chance that Sanchez could find himself back in the minors if he really struggles to start 2021, but it seems much more likely that he’s up here to stay.
So what do we know about Sanchez? We know that he had a good amount of success in his seven starts, posting a 3.46 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP, a 21% strikeout rate, and a nice 7% walk rate. You can’t be fully confident in the guy with just 39 innings under his belt, so we should try to take a look under the hood.
What’s most exciting about Sanchez is his heavy fastball. His sinker averaged 96.6 miles per hour last year, and his four-seamer averaged 98.5. Playing off of that beautifully was his elite changeup that achieved an awesome 18.1% swinging-strike rate. The icing on the cake was his 58% ground-ball rate, which is backed up by the 24% usage of that heavy, heavy sinker.
It seems to me like Sanchez has all the tools you look for when picking out an ace. Heavy fastball, strong secondary stuff, and the ability to generate lots of ground-balls. It’s still hard to predict anything with so little data, but I’m really interested in Sanchez at this price and think he could potentially be one of the most valuable pitchers to own if things go his way this year.
Joe Musgrove (SP – SDP) ADP 136
The tall righty had an awesome 2020 season, but unfortunately, it was cut short, and he finished with just 39.2 innings in eight starts. In those innings, he raised his strikeout rate by more than 11% up to 33%, which led to his career-best mark in ERA at 3.86. The walks also rose to 9.6%, which is a bit of a concern.
The thing driving these changes was a big shift in his pitch mix. He cut back on his four-seam fastball usage (from 38% to 27%) and replaced those pitches with curveballs (coming up from 9.5% to 20%). It’s not surprising, then, to see his improved swinging-strike rate (from 12% to 14.4%) since the curveball is a much easier pitch to get a whiff with.
Our biggest question for 2021 is how often he will throw that four-seamer. He got a lot of strikeouts in 2020, but he also walked a lot more batters. The team shift could also lead to some approach changes, so Musgrove is a pretty tough guy to predict for 2021. He is now pitching in a much tougher division but has a better offense behind him, so even the team change is ambiguous.
The good news is that he doesn’t cost very much, with an ADP of 136 and 40 starters going ahead of him.
Mike Soroka (SP – ATL) ADP 162
The young Braves’ righty had a really abbreviated 2020 season after he tore his Achilles in his third start. I think it’s wise to just completely ignore the 13 innings he threw last year and focus on 2019.
Soroka is a pretty easy guy to understand. He throws a lot of sinkers (31%), gets a ton of ground-balls (51% in 2019), and relies on command and infield defense for his success. His sub-20% career strikeout rate really hurts you in K/9 fantasy leagues, and the amount of contact he gives up is hurtful to his WHIP and leads to some really bad starts. However, Soroka is insanely cheap now after his lost 2020 season, and he could be a big boon to your team’s ERA and win totals late in the draft.
He is a guy to keep an eye on in Spring Training. If he appears to be in full health and back to his normal self, he is a nice guy to add to the end of your fantasy team’s rotation.
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