With an average draft position in the NFBC Main Event of 260, no one could have predicted that Robbie Ray was going to be the 2021 American League Cy Young award winner. However, that’s exactly what happened!
With a 6.62 in the shortened 2020 season, Ray wasn’t a coveted commodity heading into that offseason. In fact, when the Blue ays signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal, the consensus was that it was an overpay and that he may end up in the bullpen. Instead, he posted a 2.84 ERA and 32.6% strikeout rate in 193.1 innings pitched. What a turnaround!
The key to Ray’s turnaround? He turned his biggest flaw, command, into one of his strengths. Between 2019 and 2020, Ray posted a 12.9% walk rate. In 2021, however, he nearly cut that in half. Meanwhile, he also allowed fewer barrels and home runs, and benefitted from a few other factors- a .268 batting average on balls in play allowed (BABIP) and a 90.1% left-on-base rate, both of which likely will regress this season.
Whether Ray continues to be an ace or not, that’s not the point I’m trying to highlight here. If you drafted Ray or picked him up last season, you were certainly quite pleased with that return on investment. Now, he’ll be drafted much higher, leaving you to have to find the next pitcher to follow in his footsteps.
To be fair, to expect any pitcher to go from not being drafted highly in drafts to winning the Cy Young is asking way too much. Still, Ray’s ascension reminds us to not give up on pitchers coming off of a poor season, especially when improvement can be made. All of these pitchers had ERAs over 5.00 last year. That being said, if they can tweak the one flaw they have, they, like Ray, can take their skill set to the next level in 2022. If you draft them late in drafts, there is plenty of upside that can lead to them giving you a tremendous return on investment. Who are these three diamonds in the rough? Let us dive right into it!
Three Pitchers Who Could Be This Year’s Robbie Ray
Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles Dodgers
When projecting ERA for the following season, according to Dan Richards of Pitcher List, the two best metrics to use are K-BB ratio and skill interactive ERA (SIERA). From that lens, Andrew Heaney comes out looking strong.
If we solely looked at his K-BB ratio, Heaney’s adjusted ERA would be 3.69. Meanwhile, his SIERA was around that range as well at 3.84. When comparing that to his 5.83 ERA, it’s clear something went incredibly wrong last season. Right away, we can see that he had a 2.01 HR/9 and just a 67.4% left-on-base rate, and project improvement.
To be fair, Heaney’s career 4.72 ERA is significantly higher than his career 3.91 SIERA. Why? He’s had home-run issues (1.62 HR/9) throughout his career, while he’s allowed a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) over .300 over the past three years. That’s what happens when you allow more barrels (8.5%) and flares/burners (25.6%) than league average.
The good news? Batted-ball data like allowing barrels and hard contact can be relatively unstable for pitchers. Why? Command isn’t extremely sticky from year to year, and it’s not as though Heaney’s sample size is remarkably large. After signing him to an $8.5 million contract, the Dodgers certainly believe in him, which should definitely raise some eyebrows.
With Los Angeles, Heaney will get to likely play behind a very strong defense, which should lead to a lower BABIP allowed. With the skills he has demonstrated based on his strikeout rate and ability to limit walks, there’s a lot of upside if he’s on the right side of the home run and overall batted-ball variance.
One area where Heaney can improve is on the first pitch. Last season, he had a 67% first-pitch strike rate, well above the league-average 60.6% rate. This might seem like a positive, but I’m not sure it is. See, on the first pitch, hitters posted a .393 weighted on-base average (wOBA) in 2021. For Heaney, though, that number rises to .552. While Robbie Ray needed to throw the ball more in the zone, Heaney would actually benefit from following a Blake Snell blueprint, and relying more on chases. After all, he ranked in the 91st percentile in the chase rate, so why not take advantage of that skill set.
Finally, Los Angeles can also make tweaks with Heaney’s pitch mix. His curveball has been a true weapon for him, with a whiff rate of 35% or higher, with a career .261 wOBA allowed. Yet, he only threw it 22.6% of the time. With the Dodgers, I’d like to see Heaney raise that usage up significantly, whole leaning less on his changeup and becoming more of a two-pitch pitcher. Los Angeles hasn’t been shy with this type of development before (condensing the number of pitches a pitcher throws), so I’m confident this is a change that can actually happen.
When all else fails, bet on a player who has shown the ability to strike batters out while not walking batters. Heaney’s home-run issues and problems with command are well-documented, but all it takes is one year of some batted-ball luck for his upside to be tremendously high. The Dodgers signed him for a reason, and when it’s all said and done, I think we are going to be wondering why we didn’t see this coming- the skills are all there. I would not be surprised to see him put it all together with his new team in 2022.
Jesus Luzardo, Miami Marlins
Heading into 2021, Jesus Luzardo was expected to become the ace of the Oakland A’s pitching staff for years to come. After all, this was a pitcher who MLB.Com ranked as the #2 pitching prospect and the 12th-best prospect in all of baseball as recently as 2019, and he more than held his own with a 4.05 SIERA in his rookie season in 2020. Based on the looks of it, everything was trending positive for the young lefty.
Then, the train fell off the rails. In his first five starts, Luzardo struggled to the tune of a 5.79 ERA, and then found himself on the injured list after hurting his hand raging from a video game. Upon returning late in May, he found himself in the bullpen, where he struggled further. By the middle of June, he was sent down to the minors.
That is where he would stay until he was traded to the Marlins in exchange for outfielder Starling Marte. With a 6.44 ERA and 4.96 SIERA, it’s not like he was particularly impressive with Miami, but he quietly was making under-the-radar improvements. The 24-year-old’s fastball (.454 wOBA) and sinker (.421 wOBA) were each liabilities last season, while his curveball (.227 xwOBA, 42.4% whiff) and changeup (35% whiff) were true weapons for him. Once he get to Miami, he started to embrace this:
As you can see, Luzardo drastically increased the usage of his elite curveball, at the expense of his poor fastballs. This is a very positive change in utilization, and it isn’t a surprise that he was able to raise his swinging-strike rate to 13.6%. So, why wasn’t he able to be effective in Miami? It all comes down to his control.
With the Marlins, Luzardo’s 12.1% walk rate was quite high, while his 22% strikeout rate didn’t match up with his strong swinging-strike rate. While this might seem concerning, it is also completely understandable with a drastic change in pitch usage. With a whole offseason to work on this, I’d expect him to be more comfortable with the pitch mix, leading to fewer walks. After all, this is a pitcher who never had issues with command in the minors, so it wouldn’t seem likely that his problems stick.
Meanwhile, I’d expect Luzardo’s 10.1% barrel rate and 26.1% line-drive rate to come down, especially with the change in pitch mix. He made his mark in the minors inducing plenty of ground-balls, and that was expected to continue to be the case until 2021 came. I know it’s hard to write off what was such a poor season, but this is still a 24-year-old with immense talent. He simply may be a tweak in command away from reaching his full potential, and while his floor is quite low, you want to bet on a talent like this late in drafts. When you google “late-round upside” in the 2022 fantasy baseball dictionary, Luzardo’s name should come up.
Dylan Bundy, Minnesota Twins
In a lot of ways, Dylan Bundy was the exact opposite of Robbie Ray. Whereas Ray’s 2020 was disastrous, Bundy flourished, posting a 3.29 ERA and a 2.95 FIP. As a result, he was seen as the Angels’ ace coming into the year, and it was easy to buy-in. After all, this is a player who was the #4 overall pick in the 2011 draft, and he ascended to being MLB.Com’s #2 overall prospect in 2013! Injuries and struggles got in his way initially, but the narrative that a change of scenery was what he needed to unclog his true potential seemed legitimate.
Then, 2021 happened. In 90.2 innings pitched, Bundy posted a 6.06 ERA, while his strikeout rate fell to 21.2%. This made Bundy one of the greatest fantasy disappointments of the 2021 season, and we’re now left wondering what went wrong. Really, it all comes down to his pitch mix.
See, Bundy’s breaking balls are premium assets for him. His slider (.234 wOBA allowed) and curveball (.252 wOBA allowed) have been borderline elite offerings, while his fastball (.373 wOBA allowed) and sinker (.402 wOBA allowed) have been the opposite. In 2020, the 29-year-old did a great job lowering his fastball+ sinker usage to under 42%, while raising his breaking ball usage in the process. In 2021, though, he reverted back to his old ways:
In 2021, Bundy’s fastball+sinker usage rose to 51.6%. While this mainly came at the expense of changeups, he did lower his slider rate (21.1%), while he doubled his sinker rate (17.2%). This is troubling, and something I expect his new team, the Minnesota Twins, to fix after signing him to a one-year, $4.5 million contract.
After all, Minnesota has a history of getting the most of pitchers with ineffective fastballs by utilizing their off-speed pitches. For example, let’s take a look at Kenta Maeda. The 33-year-old was a Cy-Young candidate in 2020 and was still a high-caliber pitcher in 2021 based on underlying numbers, and it also ties to his pitch mix:
Maeda’s slider and split-finger are easily his top-two pitches, and you can see that Minnesota had him embrace it. For Bundy, this should mean a lot more off-speed pitches, particularly his slider. The blueprint for how to get the most from him is already there, but now, he gets to go to the team that can better maximize it; Minnesota is also a much better ballpark to pitch in than Angel Stadium. With a better pitch-mix in 2022, expect a significantly improved version of Bundy. None of these pitchers are likely to win the Cy Young award like Ray did, but like the rest, Bundy offers the chance to find surplus value at the end of drafts. In a no risk proposition, pull the trigger!