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When to Target Pitchers (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Paul Ghiglieri | @FantasyEvolves | Featured Writer
Mar 1, 2021

 
There are many drafters who believe strongly that you must draft pitchers early to lock in at least one “ace” for your staff, but you can find valuable pitchers at all stages of a fantasy baseball draft. However, the deeper into a draft you get, the harder it becomes to find value and production out of hurlers. Ideally, you want to emerge from a draft with at least one top arm, a few solid ones, and a few risky, high-upside pitchers. Therefore, the question then becomes when to target pitchers if you prioritize hitters early on (a strategy I have already highly recommended here on FantasyPros).

Let’s take a look at the top 12 pitchers from 2020. Rather than use fantasy metrics, since league scoring settings can vary, let’s instead use something simple like FanGraphs’ auction calculator, which largely correlates to WAR in order to get a useful but imperfect and limited snapshot of who had the best season:


It should be noted that Lucas Giolito also posted a 2.0 WAR, tied with Nola for a top 12 mark. I realize the process above is far from perfect, but it might be a stronger reflection of performance than ESPN’s Player Rater, at least. For the most part, that list above probably looks fairly similar to the top 12 pitchers in most fantasy leagues last year by the end of the shortened 2020 season. Moreover, it’s also likely that some of those names probably would not have remained top 12 pitchers over a full season. In terms of innings pitched, with the exception of Greinke, Maeda, and Bundy, all the other arms on that list exceeded 68 total innings. They were productive in virtually every format, but where were they drafted?

Here is a consensus list of the top 12 pitchers taken in most 2020 drafts, according to FantasyPros 2020 ADP data:


It could be argued that depending on league format, Cole, Buehler, Scherzer, Flaherty,  and Kershaw may not have produced an equitable return on their draft day investment. That means nearly half of the top 12 starters taken on average in 12 team leagues could be considered disappointments relative to where they were drafted. Now, in fairness, many of the arms on this list who failed to deliver in 2020 dealt with injuries or the weirdness that was a shortened season. Each arm above who failed to meet expectations has a case for why he should be viewed as a rebound candidate in 2021.

Taking the place of those half dozen or so arms that “busted,” we saw pitchers with far lower ADPs rise up to dominate. Kenta Maeda had an ADP of 53.0 in 2020, taken as a mid-range SP2 in most drafts. Dinelson Lamet (85.2), Zack Greinke (96.6), Dylan Bundy (111.2), and German Marquez (164.4) were among the biggest pitching returns on investment in all of fantasy baseball last year.

If you invested high picks on pitching trying to come away with two or three of those top ADP starters, you would have been swimming in the mud unless you took one of the five or six that didn’t fail to deliver.

None of this means that most of the top ADP starters are going to bust every year. It just means that it’s better to target hitters first since you can still find ace-level talent later in most drafts if you know what to look for while you build your hitting base with elite bats.

All of this begs the question – how do we spot the evolution of a dominant fantasy starter who can be acquired after the first few rounds?

Well, you have to ask whether or not he can throw the five-finger pitch or not.

The Five-Finger Pitch

Determining what to look for in a starter after the top arms taken in the first two rounds can be challenging. There are five underlying skills you want to consider when compiling your list of targets. I call these five skills “The Five Fingers” (coined after this great theory on human evolution from Paul Anderson from TEDEd) ) since they are the processes of what generally makes a pitcher evolve into a fantasy stud.

Imagine if you could take all the elements you want in a pitcher’s arsenal and overlay them into one pitch, one that could simultaneously strike batters out, reduce hard contact, cause batters to chase, produce ground balls, and always be commanded well… almost as if the ball could split in mid-air.

So that’s what a five-finger pitch looks like!

In all seriousness, though, while an overlay looks cool on Twitter, the attributes of a pitcher’s arsenal contain elements that can lead to fantasy success. Knowing which attributes would be most effective in making a five-fingered death pitch, then separating them and using them as a search tool to find starters is how you can find top-end value later in drafts.

First, let’s define what comprises those five fingers. A starter should ideally check as many of the following boxes as possible:

  • High K/9 Rates (strikeouts per nine innings, preferably supported by whiff rates)
  • Above Average Ground Ball% (lots of bouncers, dribblers, choppers, and worm killers)
  • Low Hard-Hit% (weak contact by opposing batters)
  • High O-Swing (how often hitters swing at pitches outside the zone)
  • Low Walk Rate (poor control or command can lead to high BB/9)

These five fingers are generally the skills that make a great pitcher. If you keep the ball in the yard by not getting hit hard, strike hitters out with “swing and miss” stuff, and don’t give free passes, you’re probably going to have good numbers and ratios by the end of the year, barring terrible luck on balls in play.

Some would argue that fly balls lead to more outs than ground balls do, and ground balls tend to lead to a high BABIP for pitchers. However, in an era with more power than ever before, the time-honored fact remains that fly ball pitchers allow more home runs and damage per batted ball event than ground ball pitchers.

It should also be noted that not all great pitchers check all these boxes. Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer, for example, don’t induce many ground balls; however, Scherzer struck out 300 batters in 2018, and Cole whiffed 326 in 2019 by throwing more breaking balls in Houston. You don’t care much about ground balls when nobody can touch you. All this proves is that fly ball pitchers like this must be able to generate significantly more strikeouts than most ground ball pitchers to mitigate the damage that can be done through the air.

For the rest of the mere mortals out there, they’ll take outs any way they can get them, and there will always be less damage inflicted on balls that are hit on the ground because you can’t hit a chopper over the fence (unless you’re on the cover of a Marvel comic book). 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 provide a larger sample of data.

The league average for ground ball rate hovers around 44%. We need to take a closer look at the top 60 pitchers in terms of ground ball rate during that span, but let’s only focus on the ones that also have notable K/9 rates (anything above 8.20, which is close to a strikeout per inning, qualifies as above average).

That’s an intriguing list of arms, many of whom were on sleeper and breakout lists last season and finished inside the top 25. If we expanded the list to include starters with K/9 upside and a GB% closer to league average (42% or greater), our list would include the likes of Shane Bieber, Tyler Glasnow, Frankie Montas, Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, Jacob deGrom, Kenta Maeda, Dylan Cease, Tyler Mahle, Chris Sale, Chris Paddack, Blake Snell, Carlos Carrasco, and Zac Gallen.

Moreover, if we just focused on 2020, Lance McCullers Jr. (59.7%, 9.16) and Blake Snell (49.2%, 11.34) really stand out.

The lesson here is that if a pitcher doesn’t induce worm killers at an average rate or better, he better be elite at inducing whiffs. It’s still safe to stray from the Five-Finger Pitch approach if a pitcher is exceptionally skilled at getting swings and misses and keeping the ball in the park. However, since HR/FB can be fluky, it’s better to use one of the fingers (low hard-hit rate) to verify that an arm you draft with a low HR/FB rate isn’t due for some ulcer-inducing regression.

If we apply the next filter and just focus on  BB/9 in 2020 to weed out pitchers prone to wildness, we see Dylan Cease (5.25 BB/9), Spencer Turnbull (4.61), Sonny Gray (4.18), Kyle Gibson (4.01), Frankie Montas (3.91), Corbin Burnes (3.62), Carlos Carrasco (3.57), Lucas Giolito (3.48), Lance McCullers Jr. (3.27), Blake Snell (3.24), and Zac Gallen (3.13) come with concerns.

However, some of those arms strike out enough batters to mitigate the free passes: Burnes, Giolito, Snell, Carrasco, Gallen, and Gray are among the league leaders in K-BB% and therefore have enough control over the strike zone and ability to whiff their way out of jams rather than relying on batted ball events to swing their way. That said, there remains some risk given the higher walk rates.

The fourth finger is Hard Hit%, and if just looking at 2020 data, it pushes McCullers (38.4%), Tyler Glasnow (38.4%), Framber Valdez (37.7%), German Marquez (37.4%), Kyle Gibson (37.7%), Dylan Cease (36.3%), Frankie Montas (35.9%), and Yu Darvish (34.2%) down, as each ranked in the top third of Hard Hit% allowed.

The fifth, and final finger, O-Swing%, places Maeda (40.8 O-Swing%), Aaron Nola (38.1%), Patrick Corbin (37.8%), Shane Beiber (37.0%), Blake Snell (35.5%), Pablo Lopez (35.1%), Hyun-Jin Ryu (34.05), Yu Darvish (33.9%), Corbin Burnes (33.4%), Luis Castillo (33.4%), Carlos Carrasco (33.2%), Zac Gallen (32.6%), and Max Fried (32.4%) among the elite as all rank within the top 30.

Conclusions

Using the Five-Finger Pitch Method, waiting until Rounds 3-4 to draft a Luis Castillo, Brandon Woodruff, Blake Snell, or Zac Gallen as your ace (or co-aces) could provide greater dividends than using a first-round pick on Jacob deGrom or Gerrit Cole if you land a few elite bats to boot. You could wait even longer and take Kenta Maeda (ADP: 53.0, Round 5), or gamble a bit by waiting until Round 6 to make Corbin Burnes, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Max Fried, or Sonny Gray as your SP1.

In a perfect world, you’re coming away with at least two or three of the aforementioned names mentioned above, giving your rotation the upside to compete with the very best. If you took elite bats in the first two rounds and immediately switched to pitching, you can still load up on three or four of those arms and remain highly competitive with your starters since it would be far from shocking if a few of those hurlers finish the season inside the top 12.

From there, you can always pair your frontline starters with a prime bounce-back pitcher such as Carlos Carrasco or Stephen Strasburg (both currently going towards the end of Round 6), or mitigate the risk and wait a bit longer for Patrick Corbin (ADP: 128.2), Joe Musgrove (ADP: 136.8), Frankie Montas (ADP: 162.6), or Lance McCullers Jr. (ADP: 125.4).

An alternative would be to add an anchor like Zack Greinke (ADP: 96.6) or Charlie Morton (ADP 117.6), who can help stabilize your pitching core before rounding out the back of your rotation with fliers on guys like Spencer Turnbull, Nathan Eovaldi, and Michael Lorenzen, and you probably have something spicy cooking.

Not all breakout pitchers fit the Five-Finger Pitch mold. If you want to go on a scavenger hunt for pitchers who overhaul their arsenal or pitch mix to speculate on the next Lucas Giolito or Lance Lynn, feel free. For example, the aforementioned Tyler Mahle (ADP: 197.8) always posted above-average GB%, but when he expanded his pitch mix in 2020, he saw his K/9 jump up to 11.33. Granted, the GB% plummeted to 29.3%, but Mahle does throw both a splitter and a cutter that are capable of inducing grounders. There are rewards to be reaped with such an approach in fantasy, but that route is arguably more hazardous and hypothetical since the sample size is often small. Still, Mahle’s ADP (197.8) hardly makes him a risk, and in fact, I’d argue he’s worth targeting for the upside.

Using the Five-Finger Pitch approach serves as a grounded guide that allows for a potentially dominant rotation with tremendous upside, one you didn’t have to sell your soul for “pocket aces” in Rounds 1 and 2 to get. If you prefer more flexibility, you can always make exceptions for pitchers you love, even if they’re only throwing with three or four of the Five Fingers. All the names mentioned have proven to be productive in fantasy. The more marks they hit, the better, obviously.

If nothing else, hopefully, you see that you can use the Five-Finger Pitch method to build a stable of legit hurlers at a fraction of the cost – a staff that could easily compete with fantasy owners who invested much earlier in pitching, allowing you to stock your cupboards with elite hitters who will be bat flipping on your opponents all season long.

If there’s a value pitcher you’re curious about not mentioned in this article, hit me up on Twitter by clicking my handle below, and I’ll let you know how he fares on the Five-Finger Pitch scale.

Note: the principles behind the “Five Finger Pitcher” are derived from a similar but less comprehensive formula developed by the Birchwood brothers over at FanGraphs to find value, who in turn expanded on Bret Sayre’s work over at Baseball Prospectus, prioritizing pitching skills that minimize downside risk. 

One key difference is that this “Five Fingers” approach places a premium on pitchers who can get hitters to chase rather than relying on called strikes; thus, it’s less reliant on catcher framing. A similar statistic, swinging-strike rate (SwStr%), can also be used. If you want to place more emphasis on called strikes, then a metric like CSW (developed by Alex Fast and Nick Pollack at PitcherList.com) can be substituted for O-swing or SwStr%.

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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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