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Brendan Tuma’s Pitchers To Avoid (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

The word “bust” gets thrown around nonchalantly in fantasy sports. What is a bust? It is it a player who has the potential to absolutely bottom out as a fantasy asset? Or is it merely someone who isn’t worth their average draft position? From my experience, we often confuse “bust” with “volatile.”

There is some truth to that line of thought, however. If a high-variance player is being drafted early, there is inherent risk to making that selection. Still, this isn’t exactly how I view a column like this. The below names aren’t my 2021 pitcher busts. I more so view this group as landmines to avoid come draft day. For reasons outlined below the following starting pitchers will be unlikely to wind up on my teams this season.

The ADP referenced below is courtesy of FantasyPros consensus average draft position data 

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Walker Buehler (SP – LAD) ADP: 19

There isn’t anything to pick apart when it comes to Buehler’s actual performance as a pitcher. The 26-year-old has a career 3.15 ERA to go along with a 1.03 WHIP and 420 strikeouts in 365 2/3 innings. Those are very elite numbers. On a per-inning basis fantasy managers should consider Buehler a no-brainer SP1.

The issue is “Dodgeritis.” It’s obvious that the Dodgers don’t treat the regular season as life-or-death. They know they’re going to playoffs year in and year out. Therefore, they have incentive to manage their staff’s innings during the regular season. We’ve seen them juggle Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling between the bullpen and rotation in years past.

As for Buehler, LA has routinely capped his starts and skipped turns in the rotation. Last summer Buehler completed six innings just once in eight regular season starts. This time it wasn’t even just a full-on Dodgers thing, as Dustin May (3), Tony Gonsolin (4), and Julio Urias (5) all had several more outings of at least six frames.

It’s also true that Buehler wasn’t throwing during the shutdown, which is why the Dodgers were so cautious with his workload. Set to turn 27 this year, one would think they might start to loosen the reigns on him. I would agree if it wasn’t for the fact that, playoffs included, Buehler totaled just 61 2/3 innings in 2020. Can we expect more than a 100-inning jump from the organization that has treated him with kid gloves his entire career? Buehler will undoubtedly be great for the innings he gives fantasy managers, but the projected workload doesn’t rival the aces being drafted around him.

Blake Snell (SP – SD) ADP: 45

Following the trade that sent Snell to San Diego, I was admittedly bullish on what this meant for his fantasy prospects. The Rays infamously pulled the former Cy Young award winner in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series last season, despite the fact he was pitching as well as he ever had. This was the continuation of a trend for the southpaw’s tenure in Tampa Bay. Playoffs included, Snell hasn’t completed six innings in a game since July 21st, 2019.

That was a long time ago and what fantasy managers now need to decide is whether or not his former organization was holding him back. Even in his Cy Young winning 2018 campaign, Snell maxed out at 180 2/3 innings. This was the only time in his major league career that he has topped 130.

Since that breakout Snell has been a contributor for the innings he gives fantasy managers, registering the second highest SwStr% since the start of ’19 (if he qualified). It’s tempting to look at the move to San Diego as a good case of efficiency meeting added volume, such as Maeda’s arrival in Minnesota last summer, but I’m not so sure that’s the case.

Although the strikeouts are always there, Snell’s ERAs have fluctuated and the WHIP is often less than desirable. More than volume, what Snell needs is to consistently throw his secondary pitches for strikes, as he did throughout 2018 and in the 2020 World Series. There’s no doubt that Snell is as good as anyone when he has his best command, but a questionable workload with efficiency concerns give me enough reasons to shy away from his ADP.

Tyler Glasnow (SP – TB) ADP: 54

Sticking with the Tampa Bay theme, Glasnow hasn’t been quite as limited as Snell when it comes to qualifying for quality starts in recent years, but he has still completed six innings in just 9-of-23 starts since the start of ’19.

Over the past two years we’ve witnessed the full Glasnow experience:

2019 2020
Innings 60 2/3 57 1/3
ERA 1.78 4.08
WHIP 0.89 1.13

In roughly the same sample size we’ve gotten wildly different results. This is primarily due to who Glasnow is as a pitcher, as his underlying skills didn’t change at all from season to season. A two-pitch starter, Glasnow can be absolutely deadly when hitters guess wrong, but the lack of a third pitch means that he can be pretty hittable when they guess correctly.

The 27-year-old is mixing in a new pitch this spring, a cutter-slider hybrid that he believes will keep hitters off balance. As we learned from Chris Paddack last spring, adding a new pitch if always easier said than done. This is a development to monitor when it comes to Glasnow’s upside, but I’m going to need to see some regular season results before buying in.

Max Fried (SP – ATL) ADP: 74

Finally, we have a pitcher to avoid that isn’t due to workload concerns. Fried might seem like an odd choice to fade after the blossoming 27-year-old went 7-0 with a shiny 2.25 ERA in 11 regular season starts in 2020. Fried rode this performance to a fifth place finish in the National League Cy Young race, but a look under the hood reveals reason for skepticism.

The first place to look at is the 4.05 xFIP, which obviously doesn’t back up his ERA. Fried’s 2.81 xERA does, though. This is because his skill set as a pitcher relies on limiting hard-hit balls as opposed to elite strikeout and walk rates. In 2020, Fried was excellent at suppressing damage. Yet as encouraging as his xERA was, it’s also a stat that more so refers to what has already happened, whereas xFIP is considered a better indicator of future performance.

For Fried to live up to his ADP entering 2021 he’s going to need to keep up last year’s results. We also can’t rely on him for a large amount of strikeouts after he averaged under one per inning last summer. Perhaps there’s a version of him where he adds strikeouts while limiting damage, but his K% to date doesn’t suggest it. I’m generally not in favor of relying on batted-ball suppression unless there’s a longer track record of success, a la Kyle Hendricks.

Julio Urias (SP – LAD) ADP: 120

We all want Urias to be a thing. Just like every other Dodgers pitcher, when he pitches, he’s good. Since the start of 2019 he has a 2.81 ERA while working as a starter, a long reliever, a setup man, and even a closer. He’s been highly valuable to the Dodgers by being able to serve a number of roles….which is why it’s unlikely the team moves away from this approach in 2021.

As presently constructed the Dodgers have seven capable starters. We know they have their eyes on October; so whether it’s capping starts at five innings, using a six-man rotation, or creating phantom IL stints, the team has reason to delicately manage the workloads of their young hurlers.

Even if disaster strikes and the Dodgers were theoretically forced to keep Urias in the rotation all year long, I’m still not confident they would. The 24-year-old has never totaled more than 79 2/3 innings in the regular season. Coming off a deep playoff run, why would LA suddenly unleash Urias for double the amount of innings he’s ever thrown?

The final point to make is that Urias was solid in 2020, but not spectacular. He had a 3.41 xERA and a 5.06 xFIP. His K/9 jumped from 7.4 in the regular season to 11.3 in the playoffs, along with an extra mph on his fastball. However, this came with Urias pitching out of the bullpen, which is another sign that he is most valuable when deployed in a variety of ways. Factoring in all of the above I see no path to Urias receiving a big enough workload to justify this ADP.

Honorable mentions:

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

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