2021 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Busts
How’d that Sir Mix-A-Lot song go? I like big busts and I cannot lie? Wait, no, that’s not it. It can’t be because who likes big busts in their fantasy baseball drafts? I know I sure as heck don’t. Drafting a player early who underperforms and “busts” can make or break your fantasy season, especially in the pitching department. Each draft I’m in, I try to avoid the riskier arms or the ones I think aren’t worth their ADPs. That’s what this article is all about as I discuss a total of a dozen arms that I’m avoiding and could wind up as starting pitcher busts in 2021 relative to their ADPs.
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2021 Starting Pitcher Busts
Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays
NFBC ADP: 51.9
Each season, I try to figure out the immense love for Tyler Glasnow in fantasy drafts. Sure, he has a great fastball/curveball combination. That’s wonderful. Make him a closer then. As a starter, two pitches isn’t a recipe for long-term success. And despite his usual lofty ADP, Glasnow has exactly one elite season under his belt. Actually, it was one elite 12-start season, not a full 30+ start campaign. In that 2018 season, Glasnow recorded a 1.78 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 33.0% strikeout rate before getting destroyed by the Astros in the ALDS. In every other season, his ERA has been 4.08 or higher, albeit, with elite strikeouts. Those strikeouts have caused most to ignore the career 4.43 ERA on draft day each season. But let’s call a spade a spade here. Glasnow is pitching’s version of Giancarlo Stanton. Plain and simple. But let’s go back to the pitch mix.
In 2020, Glasnow threw his fastball of curveball 95.3% of the time, with his changeup having only a 4.7% usage rate. That’s actually the highest usage rate in the last three seasons. But if Glasnow is only going to jump his changeup usage 1.2%-1.7% every season, I’m going to be an elderly man before it’s up to a decent rate. Using it 4.7% of the time equates to four or five times over an 80-100 pitch outing. It’s not just the usage of the pitch that’s a problem either. Outside of a 32-pitch sample size in 2019, Glasnow’s changeup simply hasn’t been effective. In fact, the last time Glasnow recorded a strikeout with his changeup was in 2017. That was way back in my first year writing for Fantrax.
There’s no doubting that Glasnow’s curveball is elite with the 5th best whiff rate, 7th best putaway rate, and #1 K% in baseball. However, his fastball allowed a .468 xSLG and .246 BAA in 2020, both regressions from 2019. The strikeouts are always going to be elite, which still allows Glasnow to provide solid value, but there’s zero chance I’m drafting an arm this risky as a back-end SP1 or high-end SP2, which is where Glasnow is being taken on average (SP16 in NFBC drafts). I’d much rather target an arm that has a better track record of durability and more than one great 12-start stretch under his belt. If I can get Glasnow as my SP3, great. But we all know that’s not going to happen. Once again, Glasnow is one of my top starting pitcher busts for the upcoming season.
Framber Valdez, Houston Astros
NFBC ADP: 89.6
When compiling my initial list of names for this article, Framber Valdez was one of the first I wrote down. In no universe am I going to consider him at his current 89.6 ADP on NFBC. Maybe if you added 50-60 picks to that, I might bite. Might.
If curveball effectiveness was a fantasy category, Valdez would be gold. With a 33.5% usage rate in 2020, Valdez’s curveball finished with a .138 xBA, .215 xSLG, .189 xwOBA, 41.9% whiff rate, and 37.0% putaway rate, making it one of the best curveballs in baseball. Unfortunately, the rest of his arsenal didn’t follow suit. Outside of the curveball, Valdez registered an xBA above .300, an xSLG above .484, and an xwOBA above .350 on both his sinker (54.8% usage) and changeup (9.7% usage). This wasn’t just a 2020 issue either as 2019 told a very similar story.
Valdez also finished with a 5th percentile exit velocity, 4th percentile hard-hit rate, 38th percentile barrel rate, and 33rd percentile whiff rate. What helped him in a big way was his 60% groundball rate. That marks the third straight season in the Majors that he’s had a groundball rate of 60% or higher and his sinker is a major reason for that. But with his curveball being his only effective offering, repeating his 2020 success is going to be extremely difficult without better results from his changeup or especially the sinker. Valdez should still be a solid mid-rotation fantasy arm in 2021, but taking him as a back-end SP2 or high-end SP3 is just downright risky in my eyes.
Dustin May, Los Angeles Dodgers
NFBC ADP: 159.7
Well, a certain podcast cohost of mine won’t be pleased with my inclusion of Dustin May, but it needs to be done. While May might only be drafted as a back-end SP3/high-end SP4 (SP-47 on NFBC), I think it’s going to be tough for him to even provide that level of value. My reasoning is simple and can be described in three bullet points.
- May overperformed in 2020
- May’s strikeout rate remains very low
- May pitches for the Dodgers and is not guaranteed regular starts on significant innings in 2021
In 2020, May finished with a 2.57 ERA in 56.0 innings. However, his 4.62 FIP, 3.98 xFIP, and 4.30 xERA tell a completely different story. I’m not worried about his ERA imploding, but a mid-3 ERA would cause May’s value to drop even further. It’s not like he has Glasnow’s sexy strikeout rate to fall back on either. After posting a 23.2% strikeout rate in the minors, that has dropped to just 20.8% in his 90.2 Major League innings. Out of the 207 pitchers that have thrown 90-plus innings since the start of 2019, May’s K rate is tied for 142nd best. Basically, every arm around him with the exception of Zach Eflin isn’t even fantasy relevant in 2021 either.
99 mph with movement?
Yes, Dustin May just did this … AGAIN pic.twitter.com/EcfgE2YhNP
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 11, 2020
It might be puzzling to see May this low with his K rate when you watch him blaze in nasty 2-seamers or cutters that end up as viral gifs on Twitter. But as I detailed in my Dustin May article from last August, his pitch mix doesn’t translate to a higher strikeout rate. Here’s a blurb from that piece…
“In each of his abbreviated seasons in the Major Leagues, May has thrown his two-seamer (sinker) a hair over 50% of the time. No matter how nasty a two-seamer is, it’s simply not a big swing and miss offering. You can see that above with May’s 13.1% whiff rate in 2019 and 12.7% this season…… In reality, the big swing and miss offerings are breaking pitches (curveball/slider) and offspeed pitches (changeup/splitter) with more emphasis on the first group. May has thrown his curveball around 10.5% of the time in the Majors so far and you have a better chance at hitting the lotto than seeing him throw a changeup (one in 2020, seven in career).”
With all this said, May is a fairly safe arm thanks to his solid command and plus control (5.2 BB% in MiLB, 5.8% in MLB), but I’m out at his near top-150 ADP. As it stands now, Roster Resource has May in the 5th spot of the Dodgers rotation behind Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias, and David Price. We know Buehler, Kershaw, and Price are locked into the rotation and Urias likely is as well. That leaves May to duke it out with another talented young arm, Tony Gonsolin, for the remaining spot. As we’ve seen with the Dodgers recently, it shouldn’t shock anyone if both May and Gonsolin got starts in 2021 and finished in the 100-140 inning range.
If May pitches to a 3.50 ERA with a below-average strikeout rate, that’s just not enough to justify taking him as your SP3 or SP4 in drafts.
Triston McKenzie, Cleveland Indians
NFBC ADP: 175.8
The Cleveland Indians have become a pitching factory over the last half-decade, and the latest success to debut for them is Triston McKenzie. The tall and lean right-hander tossed 33.1 innings (six starts, two relief appearances) in 2020, recording a rock-solid 3.24 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 7.1 BB%, and 33.1 K%. It might seem odd that I of all people am suggesting that an impressive rookie is a bust for 2021 leagues, but there are plenty of concerns for me when it comes to McKenzie.
First off, the words McKenzie and durable don’t exactly mesh well. McKenzie, who is only 23, missed all of 2019 with back issues. That, paired with his extremely slight frame has me worried about his long-term durability as a starting pitcher. We saw a glimpse of that in 2020 as McKenzie seemed to wear down with each passing start, despite still finding success. When McKenzie made his Major League debut on August 22nd against the Detroit Tigers, his average fastball velocity was 94.5 mph and topped out at 96.5 mph. With each passing start, that average velocity dipped, finishing at 90.7 mph in his 6th and final start on September 19th.
|Start||Date||Usage||Avg FB Velo||Min||Max|
On top of that, McKenzie didn’t fare as well his second time through the order.
- 1st Time Through Order: .149/.259/.319, .259 wOBA, 3.19 ERA
- 2nd Time Through Order: .255/.296/.529, .349 wOBA, 4.73 ERA
That’s the one big issue I have with McKenzie in 2021. I could sit here and also tell you that his changeup got hammered in 2020 to the tune of a .288 xBA, .717 xSLG, and .414 xwOBA, but his other three pitches (Fastball, Curveball, Slider), were all effective with an xwOBA under .300 and both breaking pitches recording a whiff rate of 34.4% or higher. McKenzie is talented with good stuff, but I have major doubts about him being able to hold up over a full six-month season and pitch effectively in months three, four, etc.
Others I’m Avoiding At Their ADP (Inside Top-200)
Zach Plesac, CLE (59.2 – SP19): This isn’t me saying Plesac isn’t a good pitcher. This is me not overreacting to a very good eight-start sample size. Plesac’s xERA was over a full run higher and his fastball wasn’t overly effective (.321 BA, .577 SLG, .377 wOBA). If he’s a mid-3 ERA pitcher with around a strikeout per inning, I can get that a few rounds later.
Dinelson Lamet, SD (68.7 – SP23): There’s no doubting that Lamet has one of the best sliders in the game (.080 BA, .144 wOBA, 51.4 K%), but both his four-seamer and sinker had an xBA pushing .300 and there are concerns about his elbow. Lamet experienced bicep soreness late last season and got PRP injections in his elbow this offseason. For a mid-SP2, the risk is just too high.
Zack Wheeler, PHI (89.9 – SP 30): To justify this ADP, Wheeler would need his ERA to hold and his pre-2020 strikeout rate to return. According to Razzball’s Player Rater, Wheeler was the 154th most valuable player in 2020 and 40th most valuable starting pitcher. If his ERA returns to pre-2020 levels and closer to his 3.64 xERA and/or his K rate doesn’t go back up, he’s not going to be worth this ADP or even anywhere close to it.
Julio Urias, LAD (107.9 – SP34): While I’m not as concerned here as I am with May and Gonsolin, I can’t see the Dodgers fully unleashing Urias with no restrictions in 2021. On top of that, Urias has dealt with multiple arm/shoulder issues over the last few years and saw his strikeout rate dip to a below-average 20.1% in 2020. Too much working against him to be a high-end SP3 for me which puts him squarely on the starting pitcher busts radar.
Frankie Montas, OAK (154.6 – SP45): While Montas wasn’t as bad as his 5.60 ERA, there’s still a lot of red flags here. Montas continues to use his sinker nearly 40% of the time to very underwhelming results and his normally dominant splitter got hit much harder in 2020 despite a better whiff rate and putaway rate. His walk rate also jumped from 5.8% to 9.7% last season. I’ve been thinking for a while that his 2019 half-season of dominance was a mirage and he hasn’t done anything to make me change my mind. If this is a 4.00-4.50 ERA pitcher with a little over a K per inning, I can get that 50 picks later.
Marco Gonzales, SEA (158.3 – SP46): With an xERA of nearly four (which is where his ERA has been most of his career before 2020 and a K rate that looks like it should regress as I mentioned here, Gonzales isn’t anyone I’m going to target within the top-200 picks. A 4.00 ERA and below-average K rate just aren’t appealing to before the later rounds.
Mike Soroka, ATL (168.2 – SP49): I’m a big fan of Soroka for real-life purposes but his lower K rate limits his fantasy value and he’s coming off a major Achilles injury. For 2021, I’m more in a wait and see how he does mode, which means I won’t be getting him in any of my drafts.
German Marquez (177.6 – SP52): Is he still going to be pitching half of his starts in Coors Field? Yes? Pass. And can people please stop with the “he’s an ace away from Coors” narrative? He’s not! Unless you think a 3.51 ERA and a 23.2% strikeout rate (8.6 K/9) is worthy of the “Ace” tag.
Media/Link Credit: Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, Razzball, MLB Pipeline, Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire
Like the heads up on these starting pitcher busts? For more great rankings, strategy, and analysis check out the 2021 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!
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