With the start of Major League Baseball back for 2021, it’s also that time of the year when everyone likes to look into their crystal ball and tell the world future that they foresee over the next few months of the season. The staff and crew here at RotoFanatic have done their research, computed their calculations, driven their DeLoreans, and now bring you their candidates for their Dark Horse Cy Young and Dark Horse MVP winners.
There is a big difference between last year and now, with the number of games to be played as the first and foremost biggest change. Whereas last season saw a miniature 60 game schedule, we go back to our regularly scheduled program and get 162 games in 2021, meaning that teams are going to strategize a bit differently. We may see multiple six-man rotations, closer-by-committees, multiple platoon splits, and a multitude of prospect call-ups this year, all leading to the possibility of additional opportunities for players to step up and produce. On the contrary, we could see an increase in injuries due to the fact that these players are human beings, and almost tripling their output from a year ago could have a toll on their bodies.
With so many unknowns out there, it can be difficult to predict the future. That’s where we here at RotoFanatic come into play. We’ve crossed our t’s, dotted our i’s, and looked over the data twice. We took what we know and made the best possible decisions here, while also shooting for the stars at the same time. We know that some of these are long shots, but that’s what makes it fun and is the very definition of a dark horse. We all picked players that we think should take the next step forward and see if they end up taking a leap. So sit back, relax and enjoy. And who knows, one or more of these could actually pay off.
Dark Horse Cy Young
Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins
For Cy Young, Sandy Alcantara meets the terms of this article quite nicely. The key for him is continuing to lower the walks and increase the K’s. In his lone full sample size of 197 IP in 2019, he had a K-BB% of 8.4 with a SwStr% of 10.8. Shout-out to my fellow Rotofanatic pal Crosby Spencer for the following tidbit: Gerrit Cole went from 8% SwStr% to 16% and the K’s followed by doing so with his breaking stuff. Alcantara has an excellent 4 seamer, and he has actively said that he plans to use it more. This probably won’t lead to Cole-type whiff numbers, but he can certainly get his K9 over 9 for the first time in his career in 2021. If more K’s replace fewer walks, the sky is the limit for this opening day starter who is still only 25 years old!
Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
Despite all the relative hate projections seem to have for him Kyle Hendricks has yet to post an ERA above 4 at the major league level. He has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball over the last five seasons and last year was certainly no different. He might not get the love of some of the other aces around the game since he will never post the gaudy strikeout numbers but The Professor certainly belongs on the shortlist for best pitchers in the game. The Cubs offense seems poised for a bounce-back campaign and I could see Hendricks racking up big innings totals compared to his peers leading to large win totals. The win is certainly a stat of the past but it may be hard to bet against Hendricks winning the Cy Young if he leads the league in wins and once again continues to post a low-3’s ERA. I love watching Hendricks work and this season will be no different.
Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins
My love for Maeda knows no bounds. Similar to Tucker, I feel like Maeda is well-known in fantasy circles, but largely forgotten about to the casual baseball fan. Maeda is elite in both StuffERA and rfCommand, according to the #DataMonster, ranking in the 99th percentile in both metrics in 2020. His innings likely will not be limited since the Twins will be battling the White Sox all summer long for the AL Central. As a result, I’m expecting 180 innings with a 3.30 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 28-29% strikeout rate. He will be the ace of the team by season’s end, and a known quantity to everyone.
Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers
I love Brandon Woodruff this year. In 2020 he led MLB in starts with 13. Ignore the win-loss record and instead look at his peripherals: 3.05 ERA, a minuscule .99 WHIP. He raised his K rate to 11.1 and lowered his walk rate to 2.2. A 31.1% K percentage. He used the changeup, sinker, and slider a little more, while slightly reducing his four-seamer usage whole adding more spin to it. Relatively unknown outside of Milwaukee or fantasy circles, look for him to step through the superstar door in 2021.
Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox
Phil Goyette (@PhilOfSports)
The White Sox off-season acquisition is turned loose by new manager Tony La Russa, and winds up leading the AL in innings pitched, quality starts and wins. Marries his 2019 control (6.7% BB rate) and home run suppression (.90 HR/9) with his 2020 BABIP luck (.242 BABIP allowed) to post a sub 3.00 ERA. Leads White Sox to AL Pennant. I’m not crying, you’re crying!
Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
If there’s one thing I look for in the off-season, it’s the changes that players make to improve. Now sure, every off-season we read a lot of blurbs about a lot of changes that a lot of players make. They don’t always pan out but reading about what Ohtani did really impressed me. Before all else, he changed his diet and even went as far as to eating more foods that reacted best with his body to help produce physical results while aiding in his body’s recovery. He also challenged himself to leap higher and produce more leg strength and form, while in the process also upping his body weight to 225 pounds.
Unhappy with his 2020 season, he began throwing bullpen sessions and participated in batting practices much earlier than usual, thus aiding in his timing and balance with his new body. Finally, he visited Driveline, which is to me, always a positive for pitchers. In the case of Ohtani, he understood better when to rest, when he was at his peak, and subsequently redeveloped and maintained an entire workout regimen for himself. When he returned to camp, manager Joe Maddon noticed a difference in his arm stroke, a much more fluid arm motion, and a significant boost in his velocity, which was near 97 miles per hour. When he took the mound in Spring Training, he outdid himself velo-wise and went over 101 miles per hour, en route to striking out 14 batters over eight innings of work.
— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) February 27, 2021
Don’t let his 7.88 ERA during Spring Training fool you either, as it ballooned up after a bad outing (albeit due to a blister). And while he does pose an injury risk this year, the fact is this: Ohtani has blazing stuff, he’s much more aware of himself, he’s had a full offseason to recover (something that he didn’t have last year) and he’s more focussed and aware than ever. Manager Joe Maddon wants to use him often, so maybe Ohtani puts it all together and wins a Cy Young.
Dark Horse MVP
Yoan Moncada, 3B Chicago White Sox
Where the hell did the term dark horse come from anyways? I have no idea. However, I do know what a dark horse MVP and Cy Young winner should be. The player should either be someone outside the top 10 players at their position, a player with talent that hasn’t quite reached their full potential yet, or a fella who has had some bad luck through injuries or other unfortunate circumstances, but is ready to put it all back together.
For MVP, my selection is Yoan Moncada. From the moment I watched him three rows behind home plate against the Charleston River Dogs in 2015, I knew one day he would be a unique talent in MLB. His incredibly broad shoulders spoke to me as if whispering gently in my ear that Moncada was not long for the minors. His shoulders were wise. He had his break out in 2019 with a historic BABIP of .406 (not seen since WWII) supporting his .315 average along with 25 taters and 10 steals. Evil Covid-19 slowed him down last year. I mostly ignore his 2020 and flash forward right back to the MVP trail where he was originally progressing towards in 2019.
Michael Conforto, OF New York Mets
When Michael Conforto first came up he looked like a future MVP candidate. He was an all fields hitter with above-average power which allowed him to become an integral member of a WS team. In only 400 at-bats in 2017, he showed what the potential looked like posting a wRC+ of 147. Over the next two years, the shape of the production changed and the AVG dropped. He was still about 20% better than average but he was selling out for more power and it seemed to hurt his overall game. In 2020 however, Conforto seemed to get back to his early career approach, posting a pull rate of 32% down from the 40%+ numbers he posted in 18 and 19. It led to an average of over 300 and a wRC+ of 157.
Conforto is poised to hit in the middle of what should be among the best lineups in baseball and if he maintains this all fields approach this should allow him to post a well above average AVG with 30+ power and a legit chance at 100 runs and RBI. Conforto is one of the best hitters in the game and a massive season for both him and Mets could propel him to an MVP.
Next up in my #2021PlayerBreakdowns Series is:
Michael Conforto, OF
New York #Mets
27 years old (28 on 3/1/20)
Drafted: 2014, Round 1; Pick 10 (NYM)
Let’s get started…
— Matt Williams (@MattWi77iams) November 14, 2020
Kyle Tucker, OF Houston Astros
We obviously know that Tucker projects to be an elite talent in fantasy, but he’s relatively under the radar in the real-world of baseball. While he will likely start the season in the middle-third of the lineup, he should quickly move up once he inevitably starts raking. For starters, he ranks well above-average in our #DataMonster metrics, as he’s in the 77th percentile in wOBA, 69th in expected location wOBA, and 80th in influenced wOBA. His plate discipline is also elite. A 25/25 homer/stolen base season is on the table to go with 170 combined runs and RBI. Additionally, I expect his average to climb to .275+. If he can do this, he will be the one carrying the Astros to a division crown as Jose Altuve gets older and their youthful rotation shows its cracks.
Tim Anderson, SS Chicago White Sox
This may seem like a homer pick, but Tim Anderson is poised for another growth year. With the injury to Eloy Jimenez, the White Sox will need their offense to step up, and Anderson will be crucial. Anderson sits atop that lineup and hit .322 last year with a career-high OBP of .357. He chipped in ten home runs and five steals. Tim Anderson is a fierce competitor who is the clear team leader on an up-and-coming team. Look for 25+ home runs, 25 steals, a .280-.290 average, a ton of runs, and lots of bat flips. Teammate Jose Abreu won the MVP last year, and “TA” could join him this year. The guy just absolutely murders fastballs: .352 in 2019, .368 in 2020.
Nolan Arenado, 3B St. Louis Cardinals
Phil Goyette (@PhilOfSports)
Everyone assumes a big ding in production moving away from Coors, but Arenado is energized by the move to a contender. He brings his Gold Glove defense to the Lou, pairing with DeJong to be the best infield left side in the Show. Also has a full season of good health, (he’s still not 30 years old), slashes .300/.375/.550, and hits 35 home runs in a bounce-back campaign.
Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
Perhaps this is the year he puts it all together on the mound AND behind the plate. His .190/.291/.366/.657 slash line for 2020 is very misleading for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that he was playing injured all season. A lot of people forget the fact that, just because he was still in the lineup for the Angels, he was still recovering from forearm soreness last year, and thus his year was a lost one. Still, he finished with seven home runs and seven steals over 175 plate appearances, which is still quite substantial. Even better, his 162 game average puts him with 30 home runs, 18 steals, and a .269/.340/.503/.843 line.
While he won’t play a full 162 games in 2021, Maddon hasn’t shied away from using him more than we’re accustomed to, where he would rest the day before, the day of, and the day after he started a game on the mound. In fact, more than once this Spring he batted in games where he pitched.
As mentioned in my Cy Young talk about his off-season, Ohtani’s increased strength and mobility will only help him be a better fantasy player this year, giving him increased power at the plate with an affinity to steal. He cruised through Spring Training this year as he batted .571 with five home runs and two steals over 32 plate appearances, and while the pace that those numbers represent won’t be what we see this season, I don’t see why he can’t outproduce the RotoFanatic Projections of him, and swat more than 25 home runs and steal at least 15 bases this year while maintaining a batting average close to .280 for the Angels.
After all, that’s said and done, what do you think of our picks? Who is on the right track? Who is way too far out in left field? Who would you pick? Let us know on Twitter at @Roto_Fanatic and give us your thoughts.