Can you feel the excitement in the air? The calender has finally turned to 2021 and that means fantasy baseball draft season is ramping up. Step numero uno in your path to a fantasy championship is having a strong draft. Hitting on your waiver claims and making trades is important as well, but nailing your draft makes in-season management just a little bit easier. No one wants to leave their draft muttering the words “Well, I have a lot of work to do if I want to win this league.” That’s a terrible feeling. When it comes to crushing your draft, one key part is hitting on some sleepers which is what we’re going to talk about today with my starting pitcher sleepers for the 2021 fantasy baseball season.
For this list, I looked at arms outside the top-200 in ADP on both Fantrax and NFBC that I think can vastly outperform their draft slots.
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2021 Starting Pitcher Sleepers
Drew Smyly, Atlanta Braves
2021 ADP: NFBC 234.3 | Fantrax 287.8
We kick off our starting pitcher sleepers for 2021 with a guy that doesn’t even have a real vowel in his last name. Honestly, I never thought I’d write a sleepers article that included Drew Smyly. Before 2020, the last time he was fantasy relevant was way back in 2015 when he posted a 3.11 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 10.4 K/9 in 12 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays. Since that season, Smyly struggled in 2016, missed 2017 and 2018 due to Tommy John surgery, and was atrocious in 2019. So bad that he was released by the Rangers mid-season. The Giants gave him a shot in 2020 and he performed admirably (3.42 ERA in 26.1 IP), leading to him signing with the Atlanta Braves earlier in the offseason.
A major reason for Smyly’s success in 2020 was his improved repertoire. No bleep, right? Right off the bat, you’ll see an increase in velocity and spin rate on all three of his pitches. Not just minor jumps either. Smyly’s fastball went from 91.2 mph/2086 rpm to 93.8 mph/2249 spin, his cutter from 86.7/2041 to 89.3/2296, and his curveball from 77.4/1950 to 80.0/2153. Two to three mph and 150+ rpm jumps aren’t minor. Smyly also ditched his seldom used and rarely effective changeup in 2020. And as you can see below, the results followed suit.
Another key part of Smyly’s success in 2020 was limiting the longball. A higher home run rate had hampered Smyly for basically his entire career before 2020, even during his lone good season in 2015 with Tampa Bay. In 2015, 2016, and 2019, his HR/9 was 1.5, 1.6, and 2.5 respectively. In 2020, that number dropped to a career-best 0.7. Most notable in all of this was the fact that he didn’t even allow a single home run off his four-seamer after allowing a whopping 21 in 2019.
As Smyly’s velocity and spin rates rose in 2020, so did his whiff rate and putaway rate on each pitch. Out of the 91 pitchers that qualified on Baseball Savant, Smyly’s curveball had the 10th highest whiff rate (50.0%), 7th highest putaway rate (36.0&), and 5th highest K rate (54.0%). Some of the names directly around him on these lists were Shane Bieber, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Gerrit Cole, and James Karinchak. His cutter, while not quite as impressive, still registered as an above-average cutter in baseball as well. Smyly talked about his curveball recently and why it’s such an effective pitch for him.
Opposing hitters posted a 50 percent whiff rate on Drew Smyly’s curveball last season.
What makes that pitch so effective? pic.twitter.com/MmR6eBTUcK
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) November 18, 2020
As someone that has never really bought into Smyly, I am now. With an improved four-seamer and cutter to pair with his plus curveball, Smyly now can attack with three above-average or better Major League offerings and get whiffs/strikeouts with all three. While I’m not crazy about his landing spot in the hitter-friendly NL East (WAS/PHI/NYM/MIA all top-9 in OPS vs LHP) or his prior injury issues, I’m anticipating plenty of strikeouts from Smyly in 2021 and solid ratios as well. Don’t go too crazy on him in drafts, but I can see a path to a finish as a top-50 or better SP this season.
John Means, Baltimore Orioles
2021 ADP: NFBC 226.2 | Fantrax 216.0
If you look at the surface stats of John Means, you’ll probably get bored and gloss on over to the next name on whatever list you might be on. Or you’ll just see the “BAL” next to his name and lose interest. Don’t. While there’s no denying that Means didn’t have a great season on the surface with a 4.53 ERA across 10 starts, but he actually pitched much better than that ERA would indicate.
To start, Means xERA was 3.09. That was good for the 14th best mark in baseball, right in between studs like Lucas Giolito, Gerrit Cole, Sixto Sanchez, and Tyler Glasnow. Means also posted the 7th best (out of 133) xBA (.194), 37th best xSLG (.381), 13th best xwOBA (.262), and the 12th best WHIP (0.985) out of the 111 pitchers with 40-plus innings pitched in 2020.
A big reason for Mean’s success in 2020 was a much-improved fastball. Means added 2.1 mph to his fastball from 2019 and the results followed suit. His xBA dropped from .263 to .129, xSLG from .495 to .268, and xwOBA from .342 to .201. On top of that, Means increased his 4SFB whiff rate and putaway rate 10.7% and 6.5% respectively.
Now, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows here. The improved fastball is definitely encouraging, but Means’ secondaries aren’t major swing and miss offerings. All three (curveball, slider, and changeup) had a whiff rate above 20%, but none exceeded 27.8%. Means’ fastball actually had the highest whiff rate, which is not something you see often. Furthermore, all three had a putaway rate under 17.4%.
They’re not bad offerings by any means (see what I did there), and the curveball finished with an excellent .178 xBA, .191 xSLG, and .168 xwOBA, but I’m not sure we should be expecting a major jump in strikeout rate this season. But what we can expect, is a strikeout rate around a K per inning, strong ratios, and Means’ usual strong walk rate (4.0% in 2020, tied for 8th best in MLB). He’s being taken as the 62nd SP off the board, but I think we’re going to be seeing his name finish as a top-50 SP in 2021.
Elieser Hernandez, Miami Marlins
2021 ADP: NFBC 247.5 | Fantrax 260.0
In an episode of the Rates and Barrels Podcast back in November, Eno Sarris and Derek Van Riper had a fun episode where they did a pitcher stat/metric draft. DVR let Eno go first, and with the 1.1, Eno took K-BB% as his top pitching metric. How does that tie into this article? Well, in 2020, Elieser Hernandez finished with the 21st best K-BB% out of the 323 pitchers that amassed 20-plus innings. On top of that, Hernandez posted a 3.16 ERA and 1.01 WHIP across his six starts with the Marlins before a lat strain ended his season. This wasn’t a fluke either as Hernandez had an xERA of 3.23 and an xBA of .216.
Hernandez was able to succeed in 2020, mostly on the strength of his 4-seam fastball and slider, a combo he threw 94% of the time last season. Usually, I’m opposed to these mostly two-pitch pitchers, but let me tell you why I’m buying into Hernandez in 2021.
First, these two pitches were effective in both 2019 and 2020, especially the slider. Hernandez’s slider has registered an xBA below .170, an xSLG below .300, and an xwOBA below .220 in each of the last two seasons. His fastball, while not as dominant, still posted a .259 xBA in 2019 and .234 in 2020. While the velocity might not knock your socks off at 91.3 mph, Hernandez’s command of the pitch has made it a solid offering for him throughout his professional career.
Secondly, Hernandez has shown a decent changeup in the past. In both 2018 and 2019, while throwing the pitch between 10-15% of the time, Hernandez had an xBA below .175 and an xwOBA below .270. He nearly ditched the offering in 2020, throwing it only 6% of the time. If Hernandez can reestablish his changeup while maintaining his fastball/slider combination and low walk rate, he going to be a great value for where he’s being taken around pick 250 in drafts. He’s flying very much under the radar right now while everyone talks about Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara, and Pablo Lopez. Don’t make a mistake and forget him at the end of your draft. Hernandez is one of my favorite starting pitcher sleepers this season.
Adbert Alzolay, Chicago Cubs (354.8/350.3)
2021 ADP: NFBC 354.8 | Fantrax 350.3
While I’ve never been one to rank Adbert Alzolay too highly in my prospect rankings, he’s one of my favorite sneaky starting pitcher sleepers to target in deeper drafts. Although both are extremely small sample sizes, Alzolay overhauled his pitch mix from 2019 to 2020.
2019: 4SFB 57.3%, Slider 21.8%, Changeup 20.9%
2020: 4SFB 30.0%, Sinker 22.2%, Slider 39.8%, Changeup 8.0%
Alzolay cut his 4-seamer usage nearly in half and added in a sinker which replaced a big chunk of that drop. Neither pitch was overly effective though as both had an xwOBA over .400. In addition, Alzolay dropped his changeup usage 12.9% despite it still being a good offering for him. Again, we’re talking a very small sample size, but he’s only allowed one hit in 16 at-bats off his changeup while in the Majors.
Adbert Alzolay’s new slider 🔥
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) September 25, 2020
The only pitch that saw an increase in usage from his 2019 arsenal was Alzolay’s slider. If you’ve seen his slider or the metrics on it, you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that an increased usage was the right call. In 2020, Alzolay’s slider recorded the 8th best xwOBA (Min 25 PA) in baseball (.155) along with the 3rd best xBA (.091) and 4th best xSLG (.138). This was already a good pitch for Alzolay in 2019 but rose to new heights after a grip change this offseason that resulted in a 1.8 mph velocity jump as well. And as you can see above, the pitch is downright filthy.
All the pieces are here for a nice 2021 campaign from Mr. Alzolay. To do so, he’s going to need to throw more strikes and drop that career 15% walk rate, and improve the effectiveness of both his four-seamer and sinker. These two kind of go hand in hand. Hitting his spots will be crucial, but if that area improves, we might just have a great late-round sleeper on our hands who outperforms his ADP by a sizeable margin.
Seth Lugo, New York Mets
2021 ADP: NFBC 333.6 | Fantrax 274.0
The next sleeper on my list posted a 5.15 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 2020. Doesn’t that make you just overwhelmed with excitement to go draft Seth Lugo? Of course it doesn’t. But what if I told you that if you took out two blowup outings (1.2 IP/6ER @ PHI on 9/17 and 1.1 IP/6 ER @ WAS on 9/27), Lugo’s ERA and WHIP drop to 2.41 and 1.04 respectively? That looks significantly better, doesn’t it? Dumb question, right?
Even after doing that, there’s not a lot of numbers I can throw at you with his expected stats that will excite you. But what is exciting to me, is the pitch mix that Lugo brings to the table.
You don’t often see a guy that has spent most of his career as a reliever attacking hitters with a five-pitch arsenal. And while none of them are pitches you can call “one of the best (PITCH TYPE) in baseball”, all five have registered a whiff rate above 20% in each of the last two seasons. Four of those, changeup excluded, have registered a putaway rate above 20% as well. Lugo did a great job mixing his pitches in 2020, using each more than 10% of the time.
This is a starter’s repertoire and it looks like there’s a chance he’s going to stick in the Mets rotation full-time in 2021. I’ll admit, I was concerned about Lugo’s 2021 role when the offseason began, but the Mets signing Trevor May to setup for Edwin Diaz certainly eased those concerns in a big way.
As of now, Lugo is penciled into the back of the Mets rotation and is one of my favorite late-round fliers for 2021 drafts. Even if the ratios aren’t elite, something around a 3.75 ERA and around a 30% strikeout rate seems reasonable for Lugo in 2021. If he does that, he’ll push top-50 status at season’s end. When it comes to starting pitcher sleepers, Lugo is one of my favorites for 2021 drafts.
Others Starting Pitcher Sleepers to Target
Michael Lorenzen, Cincinnati Reds
Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds
Tanner Houck, Boston Red Sox
Dane Dunning, Texas Rangers
David Peterson, New York Mets
Media/Link Credit: Marquee Sports Network, Baseball Savant, Fox Sports Braves, Kevin French/Icon Sportswire
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