Starting pitching is flying off draft boards in the first and second rounds in the high-stakes market, which will trigger a second run in pitching over the final days in March. Controlling ERA and WHIP is a big part of having success in fantasy baseball. Here’s a look at the top 12 pitchers projected at Sports Illustrated in 2021 ranked by SIscore:
Starting Pitchers Nos. 1 to 12
The top 12 starting pitchers average came to a 16-7 record with a 2.82 ERA, 1.027 WHIP, and 257 strikeouts over 199 innings. Gerrit Cole led the way with a SIscore of 14.17.
The front of the pitching in 2021 is loaded with talent and upside, but all options won’t be equal when the season ends. Each year at least a third of the top arms underachieve or get injured. Identifying the potholes is extremely difficult if all the choices appear to be healthy before the season.
The fantasy market has gravitated toward Jacob deGrom as their top ace this season. His fastball continues to rise, and the Mets should be better offensively. He needs to win more games to outlast Gerrit Cole as the best pitcher in New York. DeGrom has a complete package with almost a sure thing feel. The Debbie-downer in me has a whisper that he may be the top dog that battles an injury in 2021. His quest to hit triple digits on the radar gun in a season where he’ll turn 33 has a bait and switch feel. If he stays healthy, deGrom will reward fantasy owners with a difference-maker season.
Gerrit Cole looks to be the ace with the highest upside in wins. The Yankees will score a lot of runs, and their bullpen should maintain many of his leads. Cole stumbled out of the gate in 2020 while looking elite in the postseason.
The pitcher with the best chance to control WHIP in the first round is Shane Bieber. His command slipped slightly in 2020 compared to his first two years in the majors, but Bieber added many more swings and misses. He walked well under 1.0 batters per nine innings in the minors, suggesting he could have more starts than free passes this season. A fantasy owner may feel like they won the bronze medal on the ace pitching side on draft day, but the payoff podium doesn’t award their metals until the end of the year.
Trevor Bauer has an elite feel, and the move to Los Angeles should be a positive to his game in all areas. In the past, walks have been an issue in many seasons, which is my only concern. Bauer has all the tools to repeat his success from 2020 if he continues to throw a high number of strikes. He wants the ball every fifth day and will fight to pitch deep in games. Wins should be a given with LA having the best offense in the National League.
There is no doubt that Yu Darvish has been electric over his last six months of pitching. His command is much improved, and starting for the Padres’ rising offense should be a big win for his success. I can’t love every one of the top arms, and there has to be a drop off in value and success somewhere.
I have a weakness for pitchers with elite changeups as I feel they have less chance of being injured than a high-volume slider guy. Lucas Giolito isn’t quite that yet in his command despite his skyrocketing strikeout rate. The White Sox are a much better team, and he will be electric if/when his walk rate closes in on 2.5. Batters hit .205 or less against his fastball, changeup, and slider over the past two seasons. Giddy Up!
Aaron Nola comes into 2021 with a better career resume in command than Lucas Giolito while owning a workhorse-type arm. His strikeout rate continues to rise despite issuing more walks than his first four years in the majors. Nola dominated in 2018, which lights a candle to move toward that direction with a few more strikes thrown.
The tease arm in the top-12 starting pitching rankings has to be Walker Buehler. The Dodgers brought him along slowly last year, which led to a disappointing fantasy season. Buehler dominated in the postseason, signaling another race for his glory this year. He pitched 180 innings in 2019, which bodes well for his value this year. The hope is Los Angeles doesn’t piggy-back one of the other developing arms behind his games, setting up fewer that inning than expected. Buehler has explosive upside if given the ball for an entire season of starts.
Luis Castillo brings an elite fastball and one of the best swing and miss changeups in the game. He could go from middling ace to difference-maker in ERA and WHIP if he could shave off 25 walks over 200 innings. His ceiling will be much higher in strikeouts with better command.
After a down 2020 season, Max Scherzer drew the taboo card in the early draft season. Fantasy owners from a front draft position bet on his career resume while hoping for a bounce-back season. After hitting 97 in a spring training start, there has been a much bigger fight to own Scherzer in March. His resume is elite, and he looks motivated to be part of the top ace conversation in 2021.
Over his last 35 starts, Brandon Woodruff gained elite status. His command is now elite with a rising strikeout rate. The only missing link on his resume is the length of his success. Woodruff did battle a back issue early in spring training, but he looks good to go for the regular season.
In 2019, Jack Flaherty delivered an electric final three months of the regular season, which should have led to repeated success last year. The Covid issues with the Cardinals cost him innings, starts, and winning stats. St. Louis should be better offensively in 2021, and I like the direction of their bullpen. If I’m rostering one of the elite front bats this draft season, Flaherty has a circle next to his name as my cheat ace.
Starting Pitchers Nos. 13 to 24
This season the Dodgers would like to get six innings a game out of Clayton Kershaw. He’ll win his share of games while providing an edge in ERA and WHIP.
Twenty-two starts into his major league career; Zac Gallen proved he could get major league batters out while being tough to hit. His next step is improving his command, which will, in turn, lead to a higher ceiling in strikeouts.
Blake Snell almost has a risk/reward feel. After a dominated season in 2018, his stats haven’t been the same over the past two years. He continues to get his share of strikeouts while issuing a few too many walks. The Padres should give him more leash this year, leading to more innings and strikeouts. In 2019, Snell did battle an elbow issue that required surgery.
When the lights go on in the live high-stakes events in Las Vegas, Tyler Glasnow will be the second-tier arm with a chance to reach electric status. Tampa won’t let him pitch deep in too many games, which does put a ceiling on his upside. If Glasnow makes 32 starts, he’ll win a good portion of his matchups with a run at 225 strikeouts.
Lance Lynn may not beat the top arms in ERA and WHIP, but he makes up for this shortfall by pitching deep in games. Lynn doesn’t feel suitable as an SP1, but I have no problem coming out of the draft with him as my second ace,
In the early draft season, Stephen Strasburg was almost a gift in drafts based on his ADP. Unfortunately, a calf issue in mid-March pumped the brakes on his move up draft boards. The Nationals expect him to be ready for opening day.
I know how well Hyun Jin Ryu has pitched over the previous three seasons, but I’m going to let him beat me in 2021. The Blue Jays will play some of their season in a hitter-friendly park, and a full-year tour of the AL East will lead to some subpar games.
Sonny Gray suffered a back injury in mid-March, which may cost him a couple of starts in April. I downgraded him three starts until I have a better upside on his status.
Starting Pitchers Nos. 25 to 36
Jose Berrios has underachieved his ceiling over the past couple of seasons despite flashing improving command before 2020 and a respectable strikeout rate. He brings a steady feel with the talent to improve.
The first breakout candidate in this grouping is Jesus Luzardo. He has all the tools to be an impact ace once Luzardo makes a full season of starts. The A’s will never pay him, so they will ride him hard if he can handle the innings. For now, Luzardo looks to be on pace for 180 innings with a run at 200-plus strikeouts. His ERA and WHIP should beat half of the listed SP2 options.
I would avoid Carlos Carasco at all costs this year. He is going to miss multiple months with hamstring and elbow issues.
Dinelson Lamet brings plenty of intrigue based on his breakthrough in 2020. The Padres don’t expect him to be ready for the regular season due to a slow recovery from an elbow injury. His fastball looks in line in March, but I’m fearful of a setback with his elbow. Only worth a flier at a discount.
The Braves found a gem in Ian Anderson, and he saved them late season and in the postseason. His next step is throwing more strikes. Anderson offers a plus changeup, and his strikeout rate grades well despite many free passes.
Chris Paddack gained momentum in early March after looking sharp in spring training. He has elite command with a chance to push higher in strikeouts. Last year his fastball was a mess, which should be corrected in 2021. Paddack did struggle on March 18th, stalling his climb up draft boards.