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State of the Position: Starting Pitchers in 2021

A survey of the starting pitching landscape for 2021, with a fantasy baseball slant.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I am a solid five days late on the state of the starting pitcher position, but that’s what happens when real life gets...real. That, and you’re drafting for TGFBI and RazzSlam at the same time. I mean, yours truly has to make a good showing in these “expert” events. I already know I’ll be needing some BABIP luck for the TGFBI squad—but hey, you gotta be weak somewhere, right?

Related, I’m overdue on a Raisel Iglesias hype piece. Iglesias and I apparently have a special bond, as he’s found his way onto most of my rosters this draft season (both TGFBI and RazzSlam). I must like the Angels roster more than most to give him save opportunities, and I like his unquestioned role in that bullpen. I’m curious about why that bores people given the volatility of the closer landscape. I slot Iglesias firmly into the tier of relievers to trust in 2021, and that’s saying something. Anyway, more on Iglesias and others will come during Relievers Week starting on Monday. For now, let’s survey the starting pitchers.

Since we are closing out Starting Pitcher Week at the time of this writing, I’ll work to include links to the week’s content to add to your plate. Low-key draft guide style, I guess. Feel free to journey down the rabbit-hole of your choosing, gamer.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Three: Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber

Of the three, deGrom gets the nod at the top due to no universal DH. I know, hashtag analysis. In our consensus top 50 SP rankings, deGrom was the unquestioned No. 1 arm for 2021.

There’s no quibbling allowed over Cole or Bieber, though, at least from my vantage point. All three are legitimate first-round options, and my TGFBI squad is all warm and toasty knowing that “the Biebs” is the anchor of my pitching staff. Speaking of anchors...

The “Anchor” Strategy: Zac Gallen at worst...

I believe it was Scott Pianowski of Yahoo who coined the “anchors aweigh” strategy, which he has applied (for him) to the drafting of running backs and starting pitchers in fantasy sports. Basically, pay up for a stud and then let the rest of the draft fall to you (at least that’s my rudimentary take on the strategy). I’m a fan of this general idea for 2021. The elite group of starting pitchers fades quickly. If possible, I’m landing two arms early—and then I’ll let the rest of my rotation fall to me. I understand that’s speaking in generalities and every league is different, but that’s how I feel. Pay up early for pitching, and then pick your spots.

For me, if I’m in a typical redraft league or hometown tilt, I have a comfort level with loading up on hitting early and leaning into Zac Gallen as my first arm to build around. He’s the 14th starter off the board per the last 20 DC drafts at NFBC, just ahead of what I view as a more muddied picture with arms like Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Kenta Maeda. With those three I see more innings concerns. Snell managed only 107 innings in a full 2019, and then tossed only 50 innings in the sprint last year. Glasnow has never managed to stay healthy in the bigs, with a career-high 111 23 innings in 2018 and only 60 23 and 57 13 in each of the last two years. Maeda may be my favorite of this bunch, as he was consistently held down in Los Angeles due to the rotation depth of the Dodgers, but was otherwise a healthy and contributing member of the pitching staff. Last season he managed 66 23 innings in his first stint of freedom as a member of the Twins, and I feel like he’ll continue trending upward.

All that said, those three take a backseat to Gallen for me. At pick 40, Gallen finishes off the top tier of pitching for me. I’m not wigging out over workload concerns highlighted in this article. Gallen is not going to be limited any more than any other starting pitcher coming off of a shortened season. His 72 innings last year ranked 12th in the league, and his 2.75 ERA ranked 11th among qualified starters. His 82 strikeouts ranked 13th, and his 1.11 WHIP ranked 18th among qualified starters. He won’t hurt you anywhere, and his deep arsenal of pitches (four-seamer, cutter, changeup, curveball) should allow him to work deep into games for a re-tooled Arizona squad that offers an intriguing blend of youth and veteran presence. Finally, Gallen’s home ballpark is a friendly pitching environment due to the advent of the humidor, and that further increases his floor. Add it all up, and Gallen’s mix of safety and upside leaves me pretty happy to build around him in 2021.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Arms to Avoid: Dinelson Lamet, Patrick Corbin, German Marquez

Lamet is coming off of a late season arm injury, and while reports of him touching 95 MPH during bullpen work are encouraging, I’m just not buying the risk at his ADP of 100. Besides the risk of injury, there’s also the inherent risk in his profile—highlighted mostly by his two-pitch repertoire. Sure, the slider is devastating, but I just can’t pay a high price for a two-pitch guy coming off of an injury.

As for Corbin, I mentioned him in our Staff Avoids. Here’s the snippet:

A less bright picture is the 2020 one, when Corbin allowed the most hits in the league—85 over 65 2⁄3 innings, to be exact. Also less rosy are continued concerns about Corbin’s velocity. He only managed 90.2 MPH on average in 2020, and history tells us that he really needs to work around 92 MPH to be effective. He did reach 92 MPH this week in his second spring start—however, this just seems like too shaky of a situation for me to buy in. Seasons are long, and starters will be tempted to conserve a little energy to make it over the long haul. Corbin himself has already spoken of wanting to make 30+ starts this year. I don’t think he has a ton of wiggle room given the struggles we witnessed last year. I think he’ll eat innings for Washington, but I don’t think they’ll be vintage low 3.00s ERA Corbin innings. I’ll pass on him this year and let someone else be wringing their hands over his velocity.

Corbin is another guy who is heavily reliant on one pitch (again, slider) to be effective. The velocity woes and that profile are something I’m not buying.

As for Marquez, it’s a simple case of Coors Field being undefeated, at least with regard to crushing our fantasy hopes and dreams (for pitchers). Marquez’s overall numbers from the sprint season look just fine (3.75 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 73 SO). A lot of his value was tied to innings, as Marquez’s 81 23 innings ranked second to only Lance Lynn. This allowed him to rank 17th in strikeouts, at 73—despite a pedestrian 21.2% strikeout rate. However, he still allowed a 5.68 ERA and .296/.345/.414 slash line at home...compared to a 2.06 ERA and .239/.290/.366 slash on the road. Marquez IS a quality big league pitcher, but I’m not drafting a guy that I know I’ll need to “manage” for his home starts. For reference, Marquez has a career 5.10 ERA at home, compared to a 3.51 mark on the road. I’m just not interested. Give me Zach Eflin a few picks earlier, or I’ll take a dart on Aaron Civale a few picks later.

Arms to Target: Zach Eflin, Nathan Eovaldi, James Paxton

I shouldn’t have to tell you to pay up for pitching this year. You’ll want at least one arm inside the top three rounds, if not a pair of arms depending on your draft slot and league size. For that reason, I’m looking well down the ADP board at three guys to suggest.

Eflin is appealing to me due to his workhorse nature. In a typical season, he’s a guy we’d expect to go six or seven innings with regularity. In 2021, that may not be the case coming off of a shortened season—but if he remains healthy I think we’ll get top 30 volume here. Eflin’s 3.97 ERA (3.39 xFIP, 3.30 xERA) was the best mark of his career in 2020—and his 28.6% strikeout rate was a career-high. His 6.1% walk rate held steady, and he generated ground balls at a 47.4% rate, which was also the best mark of his career. His 1.22 HR/9 was a large improvement over the previous year’s 1.54 mark (as well as his career 1.51 HR/9 mark). He did this by leaning into his sinker, with a career-high 52.0% usage on the pitch. The other largest change was decreasing his four-seam usage, as it plummeted from 33.3% in 2019 to only 9.1% in 2020. I don’t think we can bank on last year’s 28.6% K-rate moving forward given the heavy sinker usage and the pedestrian 10.2% swinging strike rate...but the new pitch mix suited him well and he got hitters to chase a whopping 36.8% of the time in 2020. And if he works deeper into games than the average bear, he’ll fall into enough strikeouts to matter.

Nathan Eovaldi is a guy with high heat, as there was nothing wrong with his 97.4 MPH average fastball velocity in 2020. We’ve always known that about him, though. What was different in the sprint season was a good bit of success with secondary offerings, i.e. the curveball and splitter. With a deeper and more refined arsenal—as well as the big fastball—I think these funky Covid-19 affected seasons are the perfect time to buy a guy like Eovaldi. With so many pitchers on innings limits and the big transition league-wide to more bullpen usage, Eovaldi’s own inherent innings/injury risk isn’t as big of a deal. Add in that his ADP isn’t prohibitive at somewhere in the 220s or 230s, and he’s finding his way onto nearly all of my rosters in 2021.

James Paxton is reunited with the Mariners, but we haven’t seen him in Spring Training action just yet. He’s managed a few simulated games, and is slated to make his spring debut on Monday (tomorrow). Of note will be his velocity...after sitting around 95 MPH in 2019, he averaged 92 MPH in 2020. If the velocity is up and I can be less worried about his health, I really like taking a dart on his skill set. With an average ADP past 240, it’s the same argument as Eovaldi—you’re not having to spend much draft capital on a guy who could easily be a top 30 starter. I maintain that coming off of a sprint season is a great time to draft these guys who offer upside but have some inherent innings risk due to past injury histories.

The SUPER SLEEPER: Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers

I can’t even take credit for Peralta. I’ve been riding the coattails of my pal Jorge Montanez, who has been banging the drum for Peralta seemingly all year. Just this morning, I drafted Peralta at pick 278 in the RazzSlam. He has an ADP of 350 per the last 20 NFBC drafts, but I’m not missing out on “Fastball Freddy” this year. I can’t tell you exactly how the Brewers plan to use him—I assume piggybacking aplenty—but I can tell you it looks like it will be an electric experience with a ton of strikeouts.

The Prospect to Watch: Tanner Houck, Boston Red Sox

Inherent in this part of the column is that the prospect to watch needs to be a little sneaky. For instance, Ian Anderson at an ADP of 100 is too easy. Instead, I’d like to mention that I am unconcerned about Houck’s ability to crack the Red Sox rotation in 2021. He’s currently the odd man out, as Boston is apparently leaning on this group: Eovaldi, E-Rod, Garrett Richards, Martin Perez, and Nick Pivetta.

That’s right, sports fans. I’m supposed to believe that the above five-some stays healthy AND effective in 2021. Ooooookay. Enter Houck, at some point, to save Boston’s season. The 24-year-old will likely start at Triple-A, but injury or ineptitude should bring him up soon enough. He could also pitch so well in the spring that he forces Boston’s hand. He’s a fastball/slider guy, and I still have nightmares from how much he carved up my Braves last year. There are some velocity happenings here, too. Houck touched 98 MPH over his three innings this week (3 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 3 SO) after maxing out at just 96 MPH in 2020. Manager Alex Cora called the velocity “eye-popping.” Just read the tea leaves here, gamers. You may have to “watch list” Houck if your fantasy bench is short, or stash him if you’ve got the space. Just make sure you’re first in line for this young Boston arm in 2021.

What say you, ladies and gents...which arms are you targeting or avoiding in 2021?