As the 2021 Major League season nears the finish line, we fantasy baseball degenerates are already looking ahead to 2022. I’ve even already done a 10-round 2022 early mock draft. Crazy? Maybe. But it’s had my mind racing with thoughts for 2022, especially on the pitching front. Every season, an arm or two will ascend to elite status occupied by fantasy aces. In 2021, we’ve seen arms like Sandy Alcantara, Julio Urias, Trevor Rogers, and Freddy Peralta make this leap. Who could make that same leap in 2022? Below, I discussed six names I believe have a shot at doing so.
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Potential New Fantasy Aces in 2022
Alek Manoah, Toronto Blue Jays
While many of the heralded prospect callups in 2021 struggled, Alek Manoah has been one of the few that has excelled. Through 17 starts, Manoah has a 3.39 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.1 BB%, and 26.6 K% in 93 innings of work. This after spanking Triple-A hitters in three starts allowing just one run with 27 strikeouts in 18 innings.
Manoah has really developed into a well-rounded arm with three pitches that can generate whiffs. He’ll use all four pitches to both RHB and LHB as well with the exception of his changeup to right-handers (only 16 thrown to RHB). Manoah’s fastball has averaged 93.7 mph this season with a .216 BAA and 32.5% whiff rate. He’ll work that pitch up in the zone regularly and turn it over into a 92.8 mph sinker that he consistently runs into right-handers and away from left-handers. And as a surprise to no one, Manoah’s slider, which garnered plus or better grades in the minors, has continued to be a weapon for him with elite horizontal movement, a .146 BAA, and .311 SLG, albeit, with only a 34.8% whiff rate.
Alek Manoah is a baaaad man. pic.twitter.com/z5AikS7CSb
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2021
The four-seamer, sinker, and slider have accounted for 90.7% of Manoah’s pitches this season which is positive when you see that all three have a BAA under .216, a SLG under .343, and a wOBA under .300. As it stands now, Manoah has what it takes to settle in as a top-30 caliber fantasy arm longterm. And that’s likely where he’ll be drafted next spring. But if he wants to take that next step and emerge as a top-20 arm and potential fantasy ace, his changeup will need to improve and I’d like to see him try and get hitters to chase that beautiful slider a bit more outside the zone. He’s only an adjustment or two away from being a sub-3.00 ERA, 28-30 K% arm.
Sixto Sánchez, Miami Marlins
Just because he missed the entire season, we shouldn’t rush to write off Sixto Sánchez as a potential future fantasy ace. Coming into 2020, he was already being drafted as an SP2 in 15-team leagues, and I fully believe he can at least get back to that level, and maybe even higher. When searching for future frontline starters in the minors and early in a pitcher’s MLB career, Sixto checked off many of the boxes we look for. He features three pitches that can be considered plus in his sinking mid to upper-90s fastball, mid-80s changeup, and mid to upper-80s slider that will sometimes be classified as a harder cutter. But even with the elite velocity and filthy offerings at his disposal, Sánchez has underwhelmed in the strikeout department. Sixto recorded a 22.1% strikeout rate and 20.9% during his 2020 MLB debut.
Honestly, I’m in the same boat now as I was with Dustin May a year ago. Sixto has the stuff to post a much higher K rate if he learns how to sequence better and get hitters to chase outside the zone at a higher clip. If this happens, Sánchez could experience a similar breakout in 2022 that May did in 2021 before his injury. If you can buy low in dynasty or get Sixto as your SP4 in 2022 drafts, I’d be all over that.
Dustin May, Los Angeles Dodgers
Speaking of Dustin May. After saying many of the same things about May entering 2021 as I did about Sixto above, May made the changes we all hoped to see and was enjoying a major breakout campaign to start the season. In five starts, May posted a 2.74 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 6.5 BB%, and 37.6 K%. Obviously, five starts is an extremely small sample size, but the improvements May showed in those five starts have me extremely excited to see if those gains can stick after he returns to the Dodgers rotation, sometime around May or June.
Dustin May, 88mph Curveball (ball/just off the plate) and 99mph Two Seamer (backwards K), Individual Pitches + Overlay.
Curveball = 13" of break
Two Seamer = 20" of run
This what that looks like. pic.twitter.com/7X7dz6WB7L
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 26, 2021
Three big improvements that we saw with May earlier this season were in his zone contact rate, chase contact rate, and whiff rate. All three metrics improved exponentially from 2020.
Again, it was only five starts, but the May we saw in those five starts showed us he’s capable of being a frontline starter and fantasy ace. Another big change that helped spark this performance was an adjustment to his arsenal pitch usage. May decreased his sinker usage and increased both his 4-seam fastball and curveball usage. While the sinker is aesthetically pleasing and makes for plenty of great Pitching Ninja gifs, it simply hasn’t been an effective offering. That remained the case in 2021 (.306 BAA & .583 SLG), but the decreased usage limited the damage. On the flip side, May’s 93.0 mph cutter and 86.6 mph curveball posted a 45.2% and 51.2% whiff rate respectively with a combined 41.5% usage.
Simply put, if this version of Dustin May returns in mid-2022, we very well could be drafting him as a top-15 pitcher in 2023.
Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox
I’ve been hesitant to rank Cease too highly due to his inconsistent command and control, but the upside cannot be ignored. In 30 starts this season, Cease’s 4.09 ERA and 1.26 WHIP won’t stand out, but his 31.6% strikeout rate and 34.2% whiff rate certainly will. Both marks ranking in the top 9% of the league this season. Cease has also registered an above-league-average chase rate, chase contact rate, and zone contact rate.
Dylan Cease's 8th, 9th and 10th Ks. pic.twitter.com/VoSDWfSzKp
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 18, 2021
With Cease, the problem has been his fastball. On the season, Cease has a .266 BAA on his fastball with a .453 SLG, .275 xBA, and .498 xSLG. He’s also allowed an average 90.7 mph exit velocity and 21° launch angle on his heater as well. But on the flip side, all three of Cease’s secondary offerings (CB, SL, CH) have a whiff rate above 40%, a BAA of .211 or below, and an xBA of .157 or below.
Cease has shown he can be an elite source of strikeouts with a 31.6% K rate on the season and has dropped his walk rate from 13.3% to 9.8% as well. If he can command his fastball better, Cease could reach new heights in 2022. He’s got the elite fastball velocity (96.7 mph) and spin rate (2544 rpm), so some additional command would go a long way.
Shane McClanahan, Tampa Bay Rays
Outside of Manoah, Shane McClanahan has been the most impressive rookie pitcher in the American League this season. In 23 starts, McClanahan has recorded a 3.51 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7.4% walk rate, and 27.9% strikeout rate. As with Cease above, three of McClanahan’s offerings had a whiff rate above 40% this season while his fastball left a bit to be desired. Overall, McClanahan’s fastball has a .317 xBA, .566 xSLG, .410 wOBA, 54.3% hard-hit rate, and 94.1 mph average exit velocity.
It doesn’t matter how many whiffs you generate with your secondaries if your fastball is performing like that. And even though he has a 43.9% whiff rate on his changeup, McClanahan has struggled with the pitch due to inconsistent command. That’s been his issue all around. McClanahan has had a knack for leaving his fastball over the heart of the plate too often and has been hit hard when he’s not missing bats. On the season, McClanahan’s 10.6% barrel rate, 44.7% hard-hit rate, and 91.4 mph average exit velocity rank in the bottom 11% of baseball.
Sorry, I’m sure this isn’t sweet-talking you into targeting McClanahan in 2022 and beyond, but let’s remember the positives. McClanahan has two plus breaking balls and three pitches total that he can miss bats with at a high clip. If he, like Cease, can improve his fastball in 2022, McClanahan could really take off and finish as a top-25 arm.
Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays
How about we add in a top-3 pitching prospect that just made his debut against a loaded Toronto lineup and looked highly impressive. In five innings, Baz allowed just two hits and two earned runs with zero walks and five strikeouts. Baz landed 78.5% of his 65 pitches for strikes and ended his outing with a 33% whiff rate and 32% CSW, both very good marks.
In the first inning along, Baz struck out all-star outfielder George Springer and 2021 AL MVP candidate, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
First inning of his career, 2 strikeouts.
Shane Baz is looking nasty. pic.twitter.com/iCpmmovVOn
— MLB (@MLB) September 20, 2021
Not a bad way to begin your Major League career. If anyone could tame the Toronto juggernaut in their debut, Baz certainly would’ve been near the top of the list. And low and behold, he did just that. Prior to his MLB debut, Baz carved up the upper levels of the minors, posting a 2.06 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and 37.9% strikeout rate in 17 starts while dropping his walk rate from 10.8% in 2019 all the way down to 4.4 % this season.
Baz worked primarily with his fastball and slider in this outing, both of which are considered 60 or 70-grade offerings. He averaged an elite 96.9 mph on his four-seamer, topping out at 99.5 mph on that strikeout of Vladdy above. With these two elite offerings along with a serviceable curveball and changeup to offset them and much-improved command and control, Baz has elevated from a #3 starter with high strikeout upside to a potential SP 1/2.
With a few starts under his belt this season, Baz very well could experience a 2022 breakout similar to what we’ve seen from Alek Manoah and Trevor Rogers this season. Baz is for real and I’d be trying to acquire him in as many dynasty leagues as possible.
Media Credit: Rob Friedman, MLB, Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire
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