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High-Risk, High-Reward Pitchers (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Paul Ghiglieri | @FantasyEvolves | Featured Writer
Mar 8, 2021

Pitchers are inherently volatile. In the age of high velocity, it seems Tommy John surgery has become a rite of passage for so many young hurlers. When coupled with an increase in offense league-wide, that volatility creates high variance when it comes to choosing pitchers and trying to mitigate risk factors.

It’s common to put pitchers into three categories when preparing for a draft: elite, safe and boring, or the always exciting upside picks. Everybody knows the high-profile arms that fall under the “elite” category. Most of the “safe and boring” tier is comprised of steady but unspectacular, veterans. The “upside” tier typically causes the most excitement – and consternation – among fantasy baseball drafters and rankers alike.

The reason for this is simple. We all want top-end starting pitcher production for half the cost. Finding that kind of value allows you to allocate more draft capital to hitting. As a result, many hurlers in the “upside” tier typically see their ADP shoot up the boards the closer we get to Opening Day. Naturally, there is a ton of risk baked into this strategy, for if you fail to identify the right arms, you’ll quickly find yourself with a dumpster fire of a pitching staff.

Last year, I identified Tyler Glasnow, Dinelson Lamet, and Lance Lynn as high-reward but high-risk pitchers. In 2019, I tabbed Jack FlahertyLuis CastilloYu Darvish, and Madison Bumgarner as high-reward but high-risk pitchers to consider, along with strong mentions for Eduardo Rodriguez and Shane Bieber. All those arms returned a handsome reward for those who invested in them.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that it wasn’t all peaches and cream, as I also nominated German Marquez and Nick Pivetta as high-risk, high-reward arms in 2019 and Corey Kluber and Chris Paddack last year.

They don’t call it high-risk and high-reward for nothing.

For 2021, the following represent high-reward but high-risk pitchers on draft day. Each is worth a roll of the dice this year.

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Zac Gallen (ARI)
The concerns with Zac Gallen revolve around his walk-rate and limited sample size. In 2019, the BB/9 sat at an unsightly 4.05 across 15 starts. Last year in 12 starts, it was 3.13, which while lower, is still not ideal. Gallen’s ADP (44.8) means you’ll have to spend a 3rd or 4th round pick on him, depending on league size. That’s a heavy investment for a pitcher with less than 30 career starts. However, Gallen checks most of the boxes you want in the evolution of a fantasy ace. Gallen boasts an elite K/9 rate over 10.00 and an above-average GB%, and he also induces weak contact (28.7% Hard-hit rate was top 10 in 2020) and gets batters to chase (32.6% O-Swing% was top 20 last year). Lowering the walk rate is all that remains for Gallen to advance to a fantasy ace. Trust it will happen in 2021.

Corbin Burnes (MIL)
Corbin Burnes has elite stuff. His sinker sits in the upper 90s, and he flashes a mid-90s cutter and a slider that sits 10 mph less. Burnes has a history of getting hit hard, but he leaned on his best pitches in 2020, and catcher Omar Narvaez recently told reporters that Burnes’ changeup looked improved and “should be a big weapon for him this year.” A viable secondary offspeed pitch would easily thrust Burnes into the upper echelon of strikeout pitchers in baseball. The new pitch mix figures to elevate Burnes into a reliable SP2 in 2021, and his 13.27 K/9 in nine starts last year would have ranked third in all of baseball behind Shane Bieber and Jacob deGrom.

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Zach Plesac (CLE)
Zach Plesac joins Corbin Burnes as arguably the most polarizing pitchers heading into the 2021 season. The risk is that you may have to spend a top-75 pick to acquire Zach Plesac, and before 2020, he posted a mediocre 6.85 K/9 and 5.06 xFIP across 2 starts. Last year, Plesac cruised through eight starts with a 2.28 ERA (3.50 xFIP) with an elevated K/9 of 9.27 and minuscule 0.98 BB/9 that pointed to pinpoint control. The dramatic turnaround and small sample size have drafters asking who the real Zach Plesac is this season.  Critics will point to Plesac’s low .224 BABIP, but his BABIP numbers were always low in the minors. He didn’t have a single start of fewer than six innings last year, and a change in pitch mix and arm path adjustment allowed him to throw strikes more often and limit walks. A gamble on Plesac could produce an elite WHIP and at least average K/9, making him seem almost a poor man’s Kyle Hendricks.

Stephen Strasburg (WSH)
Coming off surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, Stephen Strasburg brings quite a lengthy injury history with him into 2021. He seems destined for an IL stint, especially when you consider Strasburg has made 30+ starts only once since 2014. However, when on the mound, he’s been very effective, and in 2019, he was outstanding thanks to a career-high groundball rate (51.1%). He’s essentially a sure bet to eclipse a 10.0 K/9, and he’s never had a BB/9 over 2.78. Even with his current ADP (70.8, SP 25) depressed coming off an injury, you’re still investing a top-75 pick in a pitcher who could be lost for the season in a moment’s notice. Nonetheless, the upside is a pitcher with 250 strikeout potential. Strasburg seemed to find his optimal pitch mix in 2019, upping his curveball usage from 19.5% the year before to 30.7%, while reducing the fastball usage from 45.4% to 28.6%. If you draft a more reliable ace earlier who profiles as a better bet to stay healthy, the slight discount on Strasburg could pay dividends.

Lance McCullers Jr. (HOU)
It’s not likely that Lance McCullers will deliver a ton of innings in 2021. However, he’s a good bet to provide solid ratios and tons of strikeouts. Look under the hood of his 2020 season, and you’ll find a 15.9 K-BB%, 32.4 CSW%, and an elite 59.7 GB%. It’s the concern over innings that has McCullers going after the top 100 picks, and it’s no secret that he has battled injuries in the past. However, the risk is mitigated by the quality of innings you will get.

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Paul Ghiglieri is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Paul, check out his archive and follow him @FantasyEvolves.

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