Fantasy Baseball Slack and Forth: Bounce-Back Pitchers for 2021

Following an abridged 2020 MLB campaign, 2021 might be one of the trickiest fantasy baseball seasons in recent memory. When it comes to player evaluation, how much of 2020 was “real,” and how much should be chalked up to small-sample noise? Under the tough circumstances, should players who struggled last year get a mulligan?

Earlier this week, I chatted with my fellow numberFire colleagues, Jim Sannes and Austan Kas, to discuss which hitters they're targeting as bounce-back candidates in season-long drafts this spring.

On Thursday, we went through the same exercise but turned our focus to pitchers. Check out what we had to say.

Kenyatta Storin: Alright, guys, I’ll start things off with a guy who’s going right around pick 100 in March NFBC drafts: Chris Paddack.

After a very strong rookie campaign that resulted in a 3.33 ERA and 26.9% strikeout rate, he really fell off in both departments last year with a 4.73 ERA and 23.7% strikeout rate.

But the good news is his SIERA only budged slightly (3.83 to 3.91) and his swinging-strike rate was similar (11.4% to 11.1%). He also got unlucky with home runs, giving up a bloated 25.0% HR/FB rate.

Furthermore, even if you throw all those peripheral stats all out the window, the key is that the Padres realized that Paddack’s fastball didn’t have the same movement in 2020, causing that pitch to go from an asset to a liability.

With Paddack working on that issue this offseason, we can hope for a season closer to what we saw in 2019 — plus he’s still just 25.

Jim Sannes: I can get behind Paddack here. It wasn't just the fastball. It also seemed like his curveball experiment was rough.

He realized that, though, and cut down the usage on it over his final seven starts. In that time, his strikeout rate was 25.5% with a Paddack-y 5.7% walk rate. It's always concerning when a dude relies on just two pitches, but between him and Dinelson Lamet, it seems like the Padres have a better lock on it than others.

Austan Kas: I'm totally good with Paddack, too. And like you said, Kenyatta, he's 25. There could be a jump from him. But even if he doesn't make said jump, he should provide a good return at his ADP.

Kenyatta Storin: I’d add that we probably aren’t getting a massive drop in ADP for him when you look at those going around him. But I think that says more about the nature of the position than anything else — beyond the first handful of guys, things drop off very quickly. At least we can point to plenty of positives with Paddack.

Austan Kas: They do fall pretty quickly this year.

Jim Sannes: My pick might be a bit more controversial because it does require a leap of faith. I like Frankie Montas quite a bit.

The "leap of faith" part is because Montas opened the year testing positive for COVID-19. He initially wasn't expected to be ready to start the year, but as of Wednesday, it seems as if things trending in a more positive direction. And his skills were still good despite a down year last year.

His strikeout rate was just 0.8 percentage points lower than his 2019 breakout, and his swinging-strike rate was actually a hair higher. He just had issues with walks and hard contact.

Montas is actually going after Corey Kluber in March NFBC drafts, so I think we're getting more than enough of a discount to be okay with the risks he carries.

Austan Kas: Montas going after Kluber feels so wrong.

Kenyatta Storin: I can get on board with Montas, too, and frankly, I don’t necessarily even hate Kluber. And I’m not overly concerned with the COVID part, as well.

Austan Kas: Do you think the higher fly-ball rate Montas gave up last year was flukey?

Jim Sannes: If I'm going to bet against any advanced numbers being fluky in a shortened year, it'll be batted-ball numbers. They take longer to stabilize, and there wasn't some big shift in Montas' pitch mix outside of reduced velocity. So it's noteworthy, but it's not going to push me off, personally.

Kenyatta Storin: He also got unlucky with home runs (17.5% HR/FB rate is pretty high)

Austan Kas: I've always been a sucker for guys who get ground-balls and miss bats. That was him in 2019.

Jim Sannes: *closes Zack Godley tab and nods*

Kenyatta Storin: lol

Jim Sannes: Who's your pick, Austan?

Austan Kas: Haha I wish it was Zack Godley.

Kenyatta Storin: So far, we’re two for two — will Austan ruin that now?

Austan Kas: I'm willing to give Stephen Strasburg a pass on 2020. A year after helping the Washington Nationals win it all, which included a career-high 245 1/3 innings, counting the playoffs, Strasburg threw only 5 innings last year due to numbness in his hand. That sounds really bad -- and it is -- but Stras has reportedly been trending in the right direction this offseason and made a spring debut this past Tuesday. Assuming no setbacks, Strasburg should be in for another strong campaign.

The 2019 season feels like forever ago, and it's easy to forget how good Strasburg was -- so let me remind you. He pitched to a 3.49 SIERA, 29.8% strikeout rate, 6.7% walk rate and 13.4% swinging-strike rate. The swinging-strike rate was a career-best clip, and Stras has posted a strikeout rate between 28.7% and 30.6% in each of his last five full seasons (not counting 2020). And in 36 1/3 frames of the playoffs in 2019, the dude was righteous -- 33.1% strikeout rate, 2.8% walk rate and 2.46 SIERA.

All in all, as long as Strasburg's spring continues to progress well, he should provide a nice return at his ADP of the 26th pitcher -- a number that will surely creep into the teens if he keeps showing signs of good health.

Jim Sannes: We should have known the "hot Strasburg" narrative was fixing to explode in a year the entire season was played in the summer.

Sweaty Strasburg?

Sweaty Stras?

Either way, we should have a name for this.

"Strasburg in heat" makes it seem like something very different.

Kenyatta Storin: This chat has taken an unexpected turn.

Jim Sannes: This may be a flakey answer, but I prefer to get my exposure to Strasburg in DFS. That way, I don't have to care as much about the injuries. I'm someone who tries to be on the "fade-the-injury-prone-tag" as often as possible, but it's so hard to shake that with Stras.

Austan Kas: That's fair.

But I like the discount we're currently getting. If he jumps back up to his usual range, I'd be more timid.

Kenyatta Storin: I’m wary of guys coming off injury but… I just don’t feel that safe about most guys anyway, so I think it’s totally fine to take him where he’s at. The pitching landscape is also such that I think we’re expecting a lot of guys to be pitching fewer innings in general, so taking these risks might not be as costly as when there were a whole bunch of 200 IP guys. Now, we’re probably okay with guys more in the 160 range.

Jim Sannes: Part of the reason I'm okay being lower on Stras is that I can get Sonny Gray even a bit later. Weird to be off of Stras due to injuries but then pump Gray, but whatever. It's my life.

Though the "everybody will have reduced innings" angle is a good reason to be in on Stras. I agree with Kenyatta there.

Austan Kas: I almost went with Gray as my guy.

Jim Sannes: One other thing I'll say for Stras is that things fall off quite a bit after Gray. So if Strasburg were to slip even a bit, I'd be good embracing the risk and taking him.

Kenyatta Storin: I will say — just in a general sense — that because of all this risk, I don’t mind grabbing an ace or two early (I did Jacob deGrom and Yu Darvish as “pocket aces” in my TGFBI draft) and then loading up on bats before jumping back into the pitching pool.

Jim Sannes: That feels like a strategy that should be viable most years. The hit rate on third-tier starters is pretty gross, so we should broadly try to avoid it. I agree that it's more appealing this year than most.

Kenyatta Storin: I don’t necessarily have a strong take for him, but what do you guys think of Patrick Corbin? On paper, he’s a good value at ADP (130ish), but the velocity was way down last year and has been down so far this spring.

Jim Sannes: I'm not actively seeking him out, so I'm probably in the same camp as you. The one thing I'd say in Corbin's favor is that his velocity seems to fluctuate more than that of other starters. He had a stretch a few years ago where it shot down for a month or two and then rebounded. It's possible we've just seen a longer hiccup that could eventually correct this time.

Austan Kas: I'm definitely not all the way out on him, but there are a few guys in that ADP range -- like Montas or Kevin Gausman -- I like more than him.

Jim Sannes: My body is ready for Gausman to obliterate my feelings once again.

Kenyatta Storin: It sounds like Corbin is also working on his changeup this spring (for what it’s worth)

Yeah, I think Corbin is a guy where I’ll take him if the pick is right, but I’m not targeting him, which seems to be where you guys are at.

It looks like we’re mostly on the same page with these guys, but it also highlights what a minefield the position is!

Jim Sannes: #TeamZeroPitcher

Austan Kas: Except Gausman.

Jim Sannes: #TeamCloneGausman

Kenyatta Storin: I think you guys mean Darvish.

Jim Sannes: If I could have cloned Yu, the deed would already be done.