Fantasy Baseball Draft Targets – Pitchers

Jeremy Maw
@j_maw
March 26, 2021

This weekend is the most popular time for fantasy baseball drafts. Although plenty have already finished putting together their teams, it doesn’t hurt to continue staying on top of the risers and fallers at each position. The last position to discuss is pitching. While there are plenty of theories on the best strategies, this is one of the most tilting group to roster. Injuries are inevitable. Thus, investing a top round draft pick hardly seems like a good idea. Especially considering that a top pitcher will contribute to a maximum of four categories. However, the number of pitchers who are capable of hitting the 200 strikeouts with a sub 4.00 ERA and 15 wins, is also extremely small.

Ultimately, securing an “ace” just helps us sleep better at night. Building your pitching staff around a stud makes the warts, which late-round hurlers have, much more palatable. In addition, the conversation around relief pitcher needs to be discussed. With the uncertainty of identifying “true closers” on each team, the saves category becomes a premium dominated by only a handful of pitchers. The biggest issue is determining when to take a pitcher, ensuring the rest of your team has a healthy balance.

This article will be laid out slightly differently. Although continuing to tier players, we will look at targets by rounds of fantasy drafts. This will include both starting pitchers and relief pitchers. The ADP is based off NFBC, while using ZiPS projections, off Fangraphs.com. Let’s dive into it.

Top Tier (Rounds 1-2)

Jacob deGrom – ADP 5
Gerrit Cole – ADP 7
Shane Bieber – ADP 9
Trevor Bauer – ADP 15
Yu Darvish – ADP 17
Lucas Giolito – ADP 18
Walker Buhler – ADP 21
Aaron Nola – ADP 22

Quite a big tier. Most people who enter their fantasy draft have a predetermined ace locked-in based off their draft position. For the most part, few pitchers have any real concerns. The top three are in a tier of their own and need to be considered as such. Although sacrificing a potential five-category hitter; deGrom, Cole, and Bieber are a notch above the rest at the pitching position.

One pitcher who could sneak into the the upper group is Lucas Giolito. The 6’6″ righty entered the MLB with the Washington Nationals as a highly touted prospect after being drafted 16th overall in 2012. After failing to prove any sort of success, the Nats shipped him off to the White Sox. After two more years of struggle, Giolito became one of the most dominant pitchers in the MLB by 2019. Now with a season and a half of fantastic performances, 2021 is primed for his best yet.

This will be the best version of the Chicago White Sox we have seen in quite some time. Giolito should have plenty of run support, which will lead to his projected 16 wins. After seeing an increase in K/9 over the years, the ace is projected to trail only Tyler Glasnow this season (qualified starters) with a 12.40. This number is backed up by the 2.3% increase in SwStr rate from 2019 to 2020. One concern from 2020 is the BB rate. So long as Giolito can control his command similar to 2019, he should certainly be considered a top five pitcher.

Upper-Mid Tier (Rounds 3-5)

Max Scherzer – ADP 27
Luis Castillo – ADP 28
Jack Flaherty – ADP 31
Clayton Kershaw – ADP 34
Brandon Woodruff – ADP 35
Blake Snell – ADP 46
Tyler Glasnow – ADP 49
Lance Lynn – ADP 54
Corbin Burnes – ADP 58
Liam Hendricks – ADP 58
Josh Hader – ADP 59

While there are still workhorse pitchers in the grouping, the level of fantasy production drops. What is abundantly clear, is that pitching is going early in drafts. Losing out on both of these tiers will put you significantly behind the eight-ball. This is a pretty tight knit group, in the sense I personally do not see a vast separation in projections. What does stand out is we have the relief pitcher debut with both Liam Hendricks and Josh Hader.

Blake Snell has had an interesting couple of years. Snell won the Cy Young in 2018 after showcasing an incredible arsenal of pitches. Which highlighted his four-seamer, averaging a career high 96.5 mph. Although 2019 was a “down season”, due to the 6-8 record, the Rays ace increased his K rate to 33.3% (career high). Then, in 2020, Snell enjoyed a very good season where he helped Tampa Bay to the World Series, falling short to a loaded Dodgers team. Finally, in 2021, Snell was traded across the country to the San Diego Padres and now, here we are.

Now pitching in the National League, expecting an increase in strikeouts is natural, with no DH (yet). In combination with increasing his ground ball rate to the highest of his career (49.2%) last season. Snell is an ace going in the late third rounds of fantasy drafts who can anchor a team. Waiting this long to draft your first pitcher will bolster the hitting categories early in the draft.

Mid Tier (Rounds 6-9)

Stephen Strasburg – ADP 70
Max Fried – ADP 71
Aroldis Chapman – ADP 73
Hyun Jin Ryu – ADP 74
Edwin Diaz – ADP 79
Kyle Hendricks – ADP 83
Raisel Iglesias – ADP 90
Zack Wheeler – ADP 99
James Karinchak – ADP 103
Zack Greinke – ADP 106

More relief pitchers enter the discussion in this tier. While Aroldis Chapman is still considered a top end talent in the league, there are question marks with age and supporting cast. Plus, he is never too far away from a suspension. Edwin Diaz is coming off two polarizing seasons with the Mets and predicting 2021 is a guess. For me, I will wait a little longer to snipe a closer as there is some value at the position. It is slightly harder to find those value starting pitchers later in the draft.

Although definitely a “real-life” ace, Hyun Jin Ryu may lack the fantasy ace statistics. The ratios are great and the wins should come, however the strikeouts won’t wow anyone. Two years ago, Ryu fanned 163 batters, which was his MLB-career high. That being said, 2019 was the lowest strikeout rate over the past three years. After his first season in Blue Jay threads, the Toronto hurler increased his K% to 26.2 (22.5% in 2019). While his ADP takes into consideration the strike out limitations, he remains a value in this group. There is a high probability he could finish the season in the upper-mid tier. Pitching a full season with his K% at or near the 26% mark, will leave him close to his Cy Young consideration performance.

Lower-Mid Tier (Rounds 10-12)

Dylan Bundy – ADP 114
Ryan Presley – ADP 115
Brad Hand – ADP 119
Charlie Morton – ADP 120
Lance McCullers Jr. – ADP 122
Julio Urias – ADP 123
Joe Musgrove – ADP 125
Kenley Jansen – ADP 126
Pablo Lopez – ADP 130
Sixto Sanchez – ADP 133
Kevin Gausman – ADP 136
Patrick Corbin – ADP 137

The perfect mix of old and new. Savvy vets like Patrick Corbin and Charlie Morton are combined with promising young pitchers like Sixto Sanchez. In addition, more closers make the list. Which begs the question; Do we need to invest a top 10 round pick for saves? I don’t think so.

Kenley Jansen has been pushed down draft boards and for good reason. His age has caught up with him and his patented, unhittable cutter has seen a massive dip in velocity over the years. Adding into consideration the depth at the position with studs like Blake Treinen, Joe Kelley, and Corey Knebel, one might suggest the leash is short. However, as of right now, money talks and so does experience. The fact is that Jansen has recorded at least 33 saves in each of his last six seasons (not including last year). His 12.21 K/9 in 2020 was the highest since 2017 and the 0.74 HR/9 was the lowest.

The uptick in strike-out rate can be attributed to the reduction in his cutter being thrown. From 83.9% of the time in 2018, to 74.2% in 2019, to just 63.1% last year, Jansen is relying much more on his sinker. This was by far his best pitch, owning just a 0.2 runs above average. Compared to the 3.3 rating on his cutter and 1.0 slider. Given the pedigree and resume, Kenley Jansen is still an elite level closer who can rack up the saves with the best of them. While his ratio’s wont compare to Josh Hader or Liam Hendricks, the saves should be close at a six round discount.

Low Tier (Rounds 13-)

Frankie Montas – ADP 160
Marco Gonzales – ADP 171
German Marquez – ADP 176
Alex Colome – ADP 177
Corey Kluber – ADP 186
David Price – ADP 193
Marcus Stoman – ADP 205
James Paxton – ADP 238

From the list, you can tell how important it is to lock in pitching early. There is a lot to be desired with this group. While some may come out of the season with decent numbers, there is no indication that anyone will be confidently relied upon. This is also the tier where closers become more of guess work than anything. One starting pitcher who is near and dear to my heart though, is German Marquez.

Playing in Coors Field is the career killer for starting pitchers, no doubt. We touched on this when we broke down Nolan Arenado’s outlook for the upcoming season. Below, is a chart showing the stark difference and impact from pitching at home, versus on the road through his career.

So why do I like him so much? Well, for one thing, his stuff is absolutely nasty. Year over year, the velocity continues to go up. From 2016, the fastball has increased 2mph to an average of 96.2. Meanwhile, the devastating slider introduced in 2017, jumped from 86.8 to 88.2mph. He has five pitches in the arsenal which keeps hitters guessing each time out. I fully expect the K% to increase from last season based on sheer talent if the command can come together. This is one of the more talented pitchers in the league and if he were to ever leave Colorado, his ADP would jump multiple rounds. Look to roster Marquez with confidence each time he takes the mound outside of Coors. Then grip the edge of your seat each time starts at home – or bench him.

Summary

Focus on starting pitchers early, would be an understatement. The quality of arms and fantasy production drops off significantly later in drafts. Not only that, but your competition will be looking to load up early as well. In my latest NFBC draft, 11 pitchers were selected in the first two rounds. I did not get one and it is not a great feeling.

While vast, the mid tier is hard to project. A mix of old and young does not include much to be desired. This is where the closers come into play. Just seven shut-down pitchers are projected to record at least 30 saves this season. While the category comes at a premium, waiting around a little longer for a Kenley Jansen or Brand Hand might make the most sense for your team – although there is risk associated with the decision.

In the late rounds, there is no pitcher who is going to come out and produce at a high level for you. Well, not one that we can predict anyways. Players like Kevin Gausman project well, but his nickname was “Kevin Gascan” only a few years ago when he couldn’t strike anyone out and was allowing a 1.4 HR/9. That being said, you’re going to need to take some shots and risks. Lean towards the skill and hope it prevails.

Good luck this draft season to everyone. If you ever want to chat more about rankings, strategy, or anything baseball, hit me up on twitter @j_maw.




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