You’ve probably heard many fantasy analysts, myself included, say that valuing players in 2021 is going to be more difficult than ever. Strap in because you’re going to hear it more and more as we get deeper and deeper into draft season. While the sentiment is certainly accurate, it also creates some excellent values that are just waiting to be capitalized upon in 2021 fantasy drafts. In particular, I’m referencing rookie pitchers that struggled during their Major League debuts in 2020.
Last season, we had a plethora of exciting top pitching prospects debut throughout the shortened 60-game season. Some, like Sixto Sanchez and Ian Anderson, excelled in their limited time and now find themselves as top-125 picks in 2021 drafts, with Anderson as a top-100 pick.
It’s crazy what one abbreviated season can do to a player’s value. If we hop into our time machine and go back 12 months, the pitching prospects I’m about to discuss below were all ranked and regarded similar or even higher than Anderson and Sixto. Now, they’re being taken anywhere from 125 to 300 spots later in drafts.
I’ll tell you though, I’m glad this has happened. Some of these arms did burn me in 2020 leagues, but that’s all ancient history now. The year 2020 is thankfully in the rearview mirror and 2021 drafts are our focus. And in 2021 drafts, these exciting arms are all being taken after pick-250 and possess the upside to vastly outperform their ADPs. I’ve been scooping up at least one or two of these pitchers late in drafts and will continue to do so in every draft from now until opening day.
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Potential Late-Round Breakout Pitchers
Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays
NFBC ADP: 255.3
Out of all the names on this list, Nate Pearson is the one I’m investing in the most this draft season. The big 6’6 right-hander demolished the minor leagues to the tune of a 2.19 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, and 31.1 K% and went toe to tow with future hall of famer, Max Scherzer, in his Major League debut. In that start, Pearson fired five shutout innings, allowing two hits and two walks while striking out five in the no-decision. His next three starts weren’t nearly as impressive though, combining to allow 12 earned runs and 10 walks over 11/1 innings.
That small sample-size and terrible final three starts have markedly suppressed Pearson’s ADP so far in 2021 drafts. As of now, his ADP sits at a very reasonable 255.3 in NFBC drafts as the 78th pitcher off the board. Some of the names around him are less than inspiring.
The only real intriguing option in the above picture that is going near him is MacKenzie Gore for me. Just look at the four starters in front of him. They’re always hurt. Sure, Pearson has dealt with injury issues of his own, but not nearly to the extent of those other four.
With Pearson, I just can’t ignore the two 70-grade offerings in his electric four-seam fastball and devastating slider. Those have been his bread and butter throughout his professional career and are a major reason why he had that gaudy strikeout rate in the minors. Both his curveball and changeup have been inconsistent and were seldom used in his brief debut with Toronto, but both have flashed average to above-average in the past. More consistency from these two offerings would go a long way for Pearson in 2021 and beyond.
At the very least, he should give you elite strikeouts from his post-250 ADP with ratios that shouldn’t kill you this season. And if everything clicks, which it definitely could, we could see Pearson drafted in the top-100 in 2022 drafts, just like we’re seeing with Sixto Sanchez and Ian Anderson this season.
Michael Kopech, Chicago White Sox
NFBC ADP: 269.4
Michael Kopech is the one pitcher here that is different than the others mentioned. He didn’t struggle in 2021, he just didn’t pitch at all, opting out of the shortened COVID season. Honestly, I don’t think that was a bad move for Kopech who missed all of 2019 as well while recovering from Tommy John surgery in September 2018. Now, the young flame-thrower will be more than 2 1/2 years removed from surgery when the 2021 season kicks off in a few months. For fantasy purposes, there’s very little risk involved in drafting him at his current 269.4 ADP. I mean, how often can you find an arm with this much upside as the 82nd starting pitcher off the board? Not often.
The big question surrounding any TJS arm is whether or not they look the same post-surgery. That answer has been yes more frequently than it used to. With Kopech, he eased doubts by hitting triple-digits several times in his first cactus league outing way back in early-March before play was shut down due to COVID-19. But Kopech is much more than just a beautiful fastball. So much more. On top of his triple-digit cheddar, Kopech has shown two different sharp breaking balls that impress, the slider especially, and a changeup that flashes above-average as well.
Michael Kopech painting 101mph on the corner for the strikeout after showcasing a stellar curveball and slider.
I can't wait for his 2020 MLB debut. pic.twitter.com/7MGGIaZbAx
— Nick Pollack (@PitcherList) March 10, 2020
The arsenal is filthy, but Kopech has been held back a bit by his inabilities to pound the zone consistently and hit his spots with all of his pitches, mainly his fastball. That led to a less than stellar 11.8% walk rate in the minors. But do you know what was stellar? His 31.2% strikeout rate. While he has shown some improvements in the command department over the last couple of years, it’s not like he’s going to turn into Shane Bieber any time soon. Especially in 2021, expect a higher WHIP, but his ability to miss bats should keep his ratios from hurting you.
It’s looking like Kopech will have the inside track for the #5 spot in the White Sox rotation in 2021, so make sure to keep him in mind as you get into the later rounds of your drafts. The upside here is substantial and outweighs the risk associated with this late ADP.
Spencer Howard, Philadelphia Phillies
NFBC ADP: 371.7
Alright, let’s talk about Spencer Howard’s ADP for a second. At 371.7, Howard is an absolute steal. I don’t care how bad Howard was in 2020 in a small sample size. Howard’s upside at this price tag is an ADP I’m going to gobble up all damn day with some salt and pepper on it for seasoning. Maybe even a little cayenne pepper, because this ADP is spicy.
There’s no way to sugarcoat Howard’s 2020 performance. But with that said, it was only six starts and the underlying metrics weren’t nearly as bad. Howard’s xERA of 4.45 was nearly a run and a half below his 5.92 surface ERA and he finished in the 70th percentile or better in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate.
— Mike Rosenbaum (@GoldenSombrero) October 17, 2019
Avoiding the barrel has been a strength of Howard’s throughout his professional career and helped him amass a solid 3.28 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 32.8% strikeout rate in the minors. Well, his plus fastball, elite changeup, and above-average to plus slider helped too. Howard was even better in 2019, posting a 2.03 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 34.8 K%.
It’s not just the arsenal that has me excited about Howard in 2021, it’s his above-average command and control as well. Howard posted an 8.6% walk rate in the minors while exhibiting the ability to locate his fastball and mix all of his pitches well. While the ceiling might not be quite as high as Pearson or Kopech, Howard has the tools to develop into a #2 starter with a high floor as well. He’s still projected to make the Phillies rotation in 2021 and I’m going to be scooping up a lot of shares late in drafts. Join me, would ya? Well, unless you’re in my leagues. If you are, back off!
Casey Mize, Detroit Tigers
NFBC ADP: 350.7
Following the unfortunately common theme here, Casey Mize’s Major League debut wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. In seven starts spanning 28.1 innings, Mize recorded a 6.99 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, and an uncharacteristic 9.8% walk rate. That’s not the Mize we knew and love in the Detroit farm system, especially when it comes to the walk rate. Plus command and control have been strengths of Mize’s dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Auburn. If you combine his collegiate and minor league stats, Mize had a 4.4% walk rate.
Now, in 2020, Mize’s pitch mix was a bit different than what I saw in my live looks from 2019. In those looks, he worked with a four-pitch arsenal consisting of a 4-seam fastball, lesser-used sinker, splitter, and slider/cutter hybrid. In 2020, he incorporated a curveball 10.1% of the time and threw basically as many sinkers as four-seamers, both used a tad over 1/4 of the time. It was a small sample size, but neither the sinker nor the curveball yielded positive results. Mize’s sinker had a .342 xBA, .606 xSLG, and .434 xwOBA while the curveball was downright atrocious with a .393 xBA, 1.461 xSLG, and .697 xSLG. In addition, Mize’s filthy splitter got hit hard, which isn’t normal for him.,
There aren’t any Major League stats I can list here to make you feel good about drafting Mize in 2021. But it was only seven starts. As we’ve seen time and time again, rookie pitchers take a bit longer than hitters to find their footing in the Majors. Sixto Sanchez and Ian Anderson are exceptions to the rule, not the expectation. Clayton Kershaw had a 4.26 ERA and 1.50 WHIP his rookie season, before reeling off a decade of sub-3 ERA seasons. I’m obviously not saying Mize is going to to the same, but Mize’s advanced feel for pitching and plus command/control give him a higher floor than most pitching prospects we see debut.
In the long run, he’s more of a high-floor arm than a high-upside stud since he doesn’t have a tasty strikeout rate, but winding up with Kyle Hendricks stats is a distinct possibility. Another distinct possibility is that Mize starts 2021 in Triple-A, which is one of the forces driving down his ADP. But do we really think Jose Urena or Michael Fullmer are going to hold Mize back for long if he looks good in Spring Training and to start the season? Heck, if he looks good in Spring Training,m Mize is likely in the rotation along with Skubal while one of the aforementioned duo shifts to a swing/long relief role. In deeper leagues, I’m definitely scooping up some Mize shares along with Skubal as well.
Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers
NFBC ADP: 290.7
Speaking of Skubal, he’s currently the one already slotted into Detroit’s rotation according to Roster Resource. He’s also a lefty than can touch the upper-90’s. And that’s always exciting, right? On top of the fastball, Skubal also features a plus mid-80’s slider, an average changeup that flashes above-average, and will mix in the occasional curveball and cutter as well. Here’s some of that filth from 2020.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 6, 2020
In general, I’m not sure I’d say that Skubal pitched poorly in 2020. Sure, his 5.63 ERA might disagree with me, but a lot of that was due to Skubal getting bit hard by the longball, allowing nine in 32 innings. Outside of that, Skubal recorded a 1.22 WHIP, 8.2 BB%, and 27.6 K%. Issues with the longball aren’t something that Skubal has dealt with as a pro up until 2020. In his 145 minor league innings, Skubal surrendered only seven home runs. For those of you following along at home, that’s two less in 113 more innings.
It’s hard to imagine that HR rate staying that high, or even anywhere close. I’m expecting we see a much better Skubal in 2021 and potentially a top-50 fantasy arm at the end of the season.
Shane McClanahan & Luis Patiño, Tampa Bay Rays
NFBC ADP: 441.1 (Patiño), 626.2 (McClanahan)
These are two arms I’m going to group together. Why? Because I highly doubt that Tampa Bay is going to give them both full-time rotation spots during the 2021 season. That would go against everything we’ve learned about how the Rays operate over the last several years. But with that said, there’s a legit chance that one of these two receives a rotation spot or both still pitch significant innings this season, maybe piggybacking each other in the same game. It’s the Rays, we never know. But what we do know is that both Shane McClanahan and Luis Patiño have the upside and the suppressed ADP to return a solid fantasy value.
Everyone was clamoring for a MacKenzie Gore debut in San Diego last season, it was Patiño that got the call. That’s what you call an “embarrassment of riches” when your second-best potential callup is still a no-doubt top-10 pitching prospect in the game. While the surface results of a 5.19 ERA, 1.85 WHIP, and an ugly 16.5 % walk rate don’t inspire much confidence, Patiño was and is a much a better pitcher than that. According to Baseball Savant, Patiño’s xERA was more than a run lower at 4.15 and his .191 xBA was significantly lower than his .257 BAA.
Heading into the offseason, I was off on Patiño for 2021. Not because of skills or talent, but because I didn’t expect him to get a ton of run in the rotation for the Padres in 2021. Now in Tampa Bay, the path to regular innings still isn’t crystal clear, but it’s definitely clearer than it was in San Diego.
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) August 23, 2020
Some bad luck played into Patiño’s 2021 performance, but the lackluster command and control that he displayed played a significant part as well. You don’t need me to tell you that a 16.5% walk rate isn’t going to get the job done. If Patiño can reign in his command, big things could be in store. We’re talking about a pitcher with two plus to double-plus offerings in his fastball (96.7 mph in 2020) and slider (47.8% whiff rate), that posted a strikeout rate around 30% in each of his last two minor league seasons (2018 and 2019). If he gets significant innings, the strikeouts alone will give him value from his basically free ADP. Don’t expect strong ratios quite yet, but something in the vicinity of 4.00/1.30 seems realistic.
While I like Patiño a bit more for 2021 and beyond, Shane McClanahan deserves our attention as well. The former 2018 first-round pick debuted in the playoffs to mixed results, but showcased his plus mid to upper-90’s fastball and wipeout slider. He’s likely behind Patiño in the pecking order, but keep an eye on him. Keep an eye on how the back-end of the Rays rotation shakes out in spring training.
Media/Link Credit: Pitcher List, Baseball Savant, Mike Rosenbaum, David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire, Minor League Baseball, MLB Pipeline, Fangraphs, Roster Resource, Mize/Pearson videos are my own.
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