Fantasy Baseball's 2021 Breakout Pitcher Will Be ...

The quest to find the next impact arm! Which potential breakout player should you target on draft day?
Author:
Publish date:

Each fantasy baseball season, the goal is to find the best impact arms late in drafts to complement your starting rotation foundation. Most of the time, these types of breakthrough pitchers come from the minors. In some years, a veteran arm with a successful resume will be discounted in drafts due to a disappointing year (Justin Verlander in 2008), most likely tied to an injury.

Before each draft season, the pitching pool looks enticing at the front end, almost forcing fantasy owners to roster at least one foundation ace. By the end of each year, it seems like one-third of the secure arms fail to live up to expectations. 

Of the final top 20 starting pitchers from 2019, nine players were busts last year – Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Max Scherzer, Jack Flaherty, Walker Buehler, Patrick Corbin, Mike Clevinger, and Zach Greinke. Eduardo Rodriguez also opted out due to Covid concerns.

Flaherty was hurt by the Cardinals not playing for two or more weeks, leading to his pitch count being limited over his first four starts after the layoff. The Dodgers didn't push Buehler's pitch count over his nine starts (he never threw more than 92 pitches) while also missing a couple of weeks with a blister issue.

READ MORE FROM SI: The 2021 Breakout Hitter is ...

Verlander and Clevinger ended up having TJ surgeries on their right elbows. Both Corbin and Greinke had regression from the previous success. 

Injuries led to the lost year by Strasburg and down seasons by Scherzer and Morton.

When searching for my breakout pitcher, I'm looking for a high ceiling while also offering the ability to create an edge in WHIP. 

In 2019, Shane Bieber came into the draft season with a disappointing rookie year in ERA (4.55) and WHIP (1.334). His walk rate (1.8) and strikeout rate (9.3) suggested a much better arm, which was supported by his minor league resume (16-6 with a 2.24 ERA and 260 strikeouts over 277 innings). Bieber only walked 19 batters in his minor league career.

Chris Paddack, San Diego Padres 
Jesus Luzardo, Oakland Athletics
Sixto Sanchez, Miami Marlins

 Despite Chris Paddack's Efforts, Padres Remain Only MLB Team Without a No-Hitter--IMAGE

With controlling WHIP risk in mind, the top three pitchers with breakout upside for me are Jesus Luzardo, Chris Paddack, and Sixto Sanchez. Each player has ace upside once they show the ability to handle 30 or more starts.

Luzardo flashed electric upside in the minors, where he went 14-7 with a 2.53 ERA and 234 strikeouts over 195.2 innings. He walked only two batters per nine innings with an excellent strikeout per nine rate (10.8). 

In his 12 appearances with Oakland in 2020, his ERA (4.12) and WHIP (1.271) fell short of expectations while serving up a few too many home runs (nine over 59 innings). Over his time with the A's, Luzardo set a healthy floor in his command (2.5 walks and 9.5 strikeouts per nine). 

Oakland's franchise is a lot different than many teams in the league. They will lean on their young players, especially pitchers, as they don't expect to pay them a considerable contract once they near their free agency years. 

I expect Luzardo to make 30 six-inning starts with the talent to post a sub 3.00 ERA with over 200 strikeouts. 

Marlins pitcher Sixto Sánchez throws against the Nationals at Marlins Park.

Sanchez had a late start to spring training due to a false positive test for Covid, which has kept his draft point from moving up.

He comes to the major with plenty of success in the minors (23-18 with a 2.58 ERA and 294 strikeouts over 335.1 innings. His walk rate (1.7) was elite while still lacking a difference-maker strikeout pitch (7.9 strikeouts per nine).

Miami called him up to start on August 22 last season, leading to five great games (3-1 with a 1.69 ERA and 29 strikeouts over 32 innings). Sanchez gave back his shining moments over his final two starts (nine runs and 18 baserunners over seven innings) due to fade in his command (six walks and four strikeouts).

Sanchez offers a high 90s fastball with an electric changeup. Once he finds the right breaking pitch, his strikeouts will move to an electric level. 

READ MORE FROM SI: 3 Pitchers Poised for a Breakout Season in 2021

Paddack also ended up being a bust in 2020 as many fantasy owners drafted him as a cheat ace in the high-stakes market. From January 1 to February 15, he had an ADP of 110 as the 40th pitcher drafted (35th starting pitcher) in 12-team leagues in the high-stakes market. His ADP moved up only five spots overall over the last 3+ weeks, but someone was willing to pay 58th overall pick for him.

After struggling in his sophomore season, the ugly duckling in the Padres' starting rotation looks to be Paddack. He went 4-5 with a 4.73 ERA and 58 strikeouts over 59 innings. His failure/regression came from a losing battle with home runs allowed (14 over 59 innings). Paddack also struggled with the long ball in 2019 (1.5 per nine innings).

Oakland Athletics Jesus Luzardo

The stats a fantasy owner should be focusing on are his WHIP (0.981 in 2019 and 1.220 in 2020) and command (1.9 walks per nine in his career).

Paddack finished last season with four disaster starts (21 runs, 33 baserunners, and nine home runs over 16.1 innings), leading to a 6.85 ERA on the road. In San Diego, he went 3-2 with a 3.44 ERA and 34 strikeouts over 36.2 innings.

His average fastball (94.4) is more than serviceable in velocity but batters creamed his four-seamer (.323 with 11 home runs over 127 at-bats). Paddack continues to have a plus changeup (.206 BAA) while losing the feel for his curveball (.308 BAA) and cutter (.500 BAA).

In 2019, Paddack offered elite success with his four-seam fastball (.204 BAA) despite allowing 14 home runs over 289 at-bats.

Over three seasons in the minors, he went 13-6 with a 1.82 ERA and 230 strikeouts over 177.2 innings while only walking one batter per nine innings.

Paddack is a stud with foundation ace upside. I love his combination of command and elite changeup. Once he solves his command problem in the strike zone (home runs allowed), Paddack will post a sub 3.00 ERA and make a push toward 250 strikeouts. 

For anyone looking for a crumb, please take a look at Shane Bieber's rookie season and his improvement over the next two seasons. 

Paddack has the command to push to elite ace status, and the Padres are a much better team in 2021. In 2019, he made 26 starts for San Diego, leading to 140.2 innings. His next step is a full season of starts with an exceptional edge in ERA and WHIP, making him my breakout pitcher of the year.

In the 2022 draft season, all three of these pitchers should be drafted inside the first 45 picks, with Paddack shining the brightest. 

READ MORE: 2021 Fantasy Baseball Hub

Each fantasy baseball season, the goal is to find the best impact arms late in drafts to complement your starting rotation foundation. Most of the time, these types of breakthrough pitchers come from the minors. In some years, a veteran arm with a successful resume will be discounted in drafts due to a disappointing year (Justin Verlander in 2008), most likely tied to an injury.

Member Exclusive

Get Access to Our Exclusive Content