Here is a prospect question that applies to those of us who play in redraft, keeper, and dynasty leagues: Which rookie pitcher will be the most valuable fantasy player in 2021?
I’m going to track the answer to that question throughout the season with the rookie ladder. Today we introduce the initial pitchers’ rookie ladder for the 2021 season. This is my first best guess as to where the 2021 rookie class will finish in terms of fantasy value at the end of the 2021 MLB season.
I’m sure that there will be plenty of twists and turns along the way, full of pop-up surprises and high prospect pedigree disappointments. So, I will be checking in bi-weekly to update the ladder rankings and provide notes on each player as the season progresses.
What went into the initial projections?
I started with a simple concept. My initial premise is that the rookie who will have the most productive 2021 season is the player who combines skill with opportunity. So then I broke each of those concepts down into smaller component parts.
For ‘skill’, I looked at a number of publicly available projections for the 2021 season. I used strikeouts per nine (K/9), walks per nine (BB/9), and groundball rate (GB%) projections from Derek Carty’s “THE BAT”, and FanGraphs “Steamer” projections to fill out the initial pitcher skill evaluations. Then, for pitchers with MLB data, I pored over their Statcast pages to look at things like fastball velocity, active spin rates, and pitch usage.
For opportunity, I started by looking at each player’s expected role for his club on FanGraphs RosterResource. This was the basic starting point, and a player projected in a starter’s role for the 2021 season gets an initial bump in the rookie ladder.
I also considered whether each player was on his organization’s 40-man roster, as well as the number of option seasons he has remaining. The reasoning being that a player that is currently on the team’s 40-man roster and has less than his full complement of three option years is more likely to be used at the MLB level than a player who is currently not on the team’s 40-man roster.
Finally, I looked at the playing time situation ahead of each of these players on the depth chart and used my own judgment as to whether the prospect in question could replace the MLB talent currently in front of him.
Then I squinted, looked at my google sheet with mock seriousness, and shuffled some players around applying my own biases. The result? Your first rookie ladder of the 2021 season:
|Player||Team||Role||40-man?||Proj. K/9||Proj BB/9||Proj. GB%|
Ian Anderson – SP – Atlanta Braves
K/9 Projection: 9.4
BB/9 Projection: 3.7
GB% Projection: 47.4%
I shall not succumb to the temptation to fill in this blurb with Jethro Tull puns.
The Braves took a rather outlandish shot on drafting Ian Anderson 3rd overall in the 2016 MLB draft. He was a prep righthander out of cold weather Rexford, New York. But the Braves organization did its homework in scouting Anderson and developing him throughout the minors. When the club needed him in a big spot in 2020, Anderson responded with aplomb.
At first blush, Anderson’s 94 mph fastball, while above-average, doesn’t feature eye-popping velocity. And his changeup features a vertical movement profile that’s about 10% worse than the MLB average changeup. Ultimately neither of these facts really matter.
Why? Well, Anderson possesses elite extension on his fastball. You can see it when you watch him pitch. He’s able to contort his torso in such a way so as to release the ball extremely close to the plate, creating an absurd 7.3 feet of extension on the pitch. Then, he tunnels the changeup with the fastball extremely well. Finally, he repeats his delivery so uncannily well that it’s hard to tell two deliveries apart when overlaid on top of each other:
Ian Anderson, 96mph Fastball (foul) and 89mph Changeup (swinging K), Overlay. pic.twitter.com/Q6CeWv8jDV
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 24, 2021
The only real warning sign with Anderson so far is spotty control. It’s probably related to his delivery, which is designed to maximize extension but can result in him missing his spots at times. But even with the control, If he puts in a full season of work, it’s hard to not envision him as the most profitable rookie pitcher in fantasy baseball this season.
Sixto Sanchez – SP – Miami Marlins
K/9 Projection: 8.0
BB/9 Projection: 2.5
GB% Projection: 51.4%
Sixto Sanchez would probably be atop the leaderboard if we were looking for the most giffable rookie pitcher for 2021. He leaped into the consciousness of the average Big League fan in 2020 by flashing a diverse repertoire of filth. His ability to deal was already known to minor league observers. But, his ability to continue that mastery of his arsenal in his debut season was impressive indeed. As I remarked to a friend, he was just throwing every pitch in and around the zone and everything was moving like crazy.
Sixto will have a delayed start to his 2021 campaign, as the team has already shipped him off to minor league camp to start the season. Blame it on visa issues early in the spring and then a false-positive COVID-19 test result upon finally reporting to the team. His throwing program was behind and as a consequence, he wasn’t fully ramped up by Opening Day. He will be slotted into the Marlins rotation as soon as his arm is built up.
Triston McKenzie – SP – Cleveland Indians
K/9 Projection: 9.7
BB/9 Projection: 2.9
GB% Projection: 38.6%
With a build like a string bean, “T-Mac” was at times dominant in his minor league career in the Cleveland system. However, he also dealt with numerous injuries as a professional, including back, pectoral, and rotator cuff problems. He sparkled in his MLB debut against the Tigers on August 22, punching out 10 batters over 6 innings of work. For a brief moment, the health concerns went to the back of everyone’s mind. However, as the season wore on, those concerns reared their ugly head again:
You can see the precipitous decline in McKenzie’s average fastball velocity, dropping down about 4 mph over the course of the season. A velocity surge over his two games seems encouraging, but you have to remember that those were games in which he appeared out of the bullpen.
If his health holds up, McKenzie has the stuff to hang with Anderson and Sixto any day of the week. The trick will be how Cleveland manages him during his first full season of MLB action. The club seems to see him as part of their big league rotation, so he will likely get the opportunity to show us what he can do in 2021.
Tarik Skubal – SP – Detroit Tigers
K/9 Projection: 9.6
BB/9 Projection: 3.4
GB% Projection: 37.6%
This left-hander might go down as the deep find of the 2018 MLB draft. Detroit selected Tarik Skubal in the 9th round of the draft, but it’s pretty clear now that he possessed day one talent. Skubal simply shredded the competition in the minor leagues, as hitters at the lower levels simply could not keep up with his plus fastball. The fastball is a huge weapon. It sat at 94.4 mph in 2020, but Skubal can reach back and touch 98 with it when needed. The pitch eats up in the zone with a 98% active spin rate. This means that it’s thrown with near pure backspin, causing the pitch to frequently jump over hitter’s bats up near the letters.
Detroit has committed to using Skubal in the rotation to start the 2021 season. His success in a starting role might come down to the development of his changeup. He worked on a new changeup grip all offseason. It is a needed pitch for Skubal, who is generally death to left-handed hitters, but has a little more palatable look to opposite-handed batters. Right-handed hitters slugged .577 against him last season, so the changeup will need to be effective to give him options.
Casey Mize – SP – Detroit Tigers
K/9 Projection: 7.4
BB/9 Projection: 3.0
GB% Projection: 42.1%
Like fellow Motor City rookie Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize has also made the opening day starting rotation. When researching this piece, I was a little surprised by the skepticism of Mize’s K/9 projections. Similar to fellow ladder-mate Sixto Sanchez, Mize is maybe a little more likely to pitch to contact, relying on his diverse arsenal of offerings to lure hitters into swinging at junk, making his life easier on the mound.
Lurking within Mize’s deep arsenal is a double-plus splitter that should be an out pitch for him at the MLB level. There is a very real possibility that the numbers we are relying on to evaluate Mize are tainted by the fact that he has been keeping the splitter in his back pocket during his professional career thus far. It has certainly seemed that way this spring. Watching Mize, he’s focused on using his breaking stuff, four-seam fastball, and cutter to put hitters away. He’s been effective without heavy reliance on the splitter, and his fastball velocity is up as well. Don’t be surprised to see him climb this ladder as the season wears on.
Dane Dunning – SP – Texas Rangers
K/9 Projection: 8.5
BB/9 Projection: 3.3
GB% Projection: 46.3%
Dane Dunning was a bit of a surprising addition to the White Sox playoff push in 2020. Then, this offseason, he was shipped off to Texas for right-handed veteran Lance Lynn. The White Sox were trying to bolster their rotation for an even deeper playoff run in 2021. However, in the trade, they may have moved a pitcher who can contribute in a big-league rotation for many years.
Dunning generally made his living in the minor leagues off his sinker, a pitch with some nice boring action that he can use to generate groundball outs. However, in his MLB debut, it was his slider that stole the show:
Dane Dunning, Filthy 83mph Slider…and Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/h36BHs93yJ
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 10, 2020
The slider elicited an elite 43.5% whiff rate last season. It drops off the table due to a vertical movement profile that features 12 percent more drop than the MLB average. He also mixes in a slower, downer curveball that drops 16 percent more than MLB average. So Dunning has progressed from a contact-manager to a contact-manager with a side of dominance. If he can rack up the innings this season, he might also be quick to climb this ladder.
Garrett Crochet – RP – Chicago White Sox
K/9 Projection: 9.2
BB/9 Projection: 2.9
GB% Projection: 43.2%
On pure stuff alone, Garrett Crochet probably sits alone atop this list. His fastball beguiled every hitter he faced in 2020. He threw the pitch 84% of the time and it just didn’t matter. Between his elite velocity and a funky arm-angle and stride combination, he managed a 40.5% whiff rate on the pitch. And he frequently throws the fastball right in the middle of the zone:
The team has stated that Crochet will work only from the bullpen in 2021. This limits his ceiling on the ladder, as it’s very difficult for a non-closing rookie reliever to be the most valuable arm for redraft leagues. However, the team still plans on trying to let Crochet work in the starting rotation in the future. If that comes to fruition, he could leap up in dynasty league value substantially.
Nate Pearson – SP – Toronto Blue Jays
K/9 Projection: 8.9
BB/9 Projection: 2.6
GB% Projection: 40.2%
With Nate Pearson, the talent is not really in question. His big-time stuff includes a fastball that runs up to 100 mph and a turbo slider that he throws 90+. It’s the type of dominant material you would expect from an elite closer, except that the Blue Jays are trying their hardest to see if it will work for Pearson in the starting rotation.
And that’s also the rub with Pearson. He has just had issues staying in sync and healthy due to his XL frame (listed 6’6” 245). One issue that comes with the frame is a delivery that can be inconsistent at times, leading to control issues. The other issue is just general health, meaning that 2019 is the only season in his professional career where he’s logged full-time work. He’s expected to miss the start of the 2021 season with a groin injury, as his throwing regimen has only worked up to long tossing at this point. If he can keep himself on the mound, there’s no reason he can’t jump up this list as the season progresses.
Trevor Rogers – SP – Miami Marlins
K/9 Projection: 9.4
BB/9 Projection: 3.0
GB% Projection: 46.1%
Miami’s southpaw hurler had a rough go of it in 2020, but once you dig beneath the surface stats you can see there is a lot to like with Trevor Rogers in 2021. He’s been the subject of several deep dives this offseason, so you can find further detail on him. But the snapshot is this: he added a couple of ticks of velocity in his MLB debut, and it makes everything in his arsenal play up. Especially his changeup, which could be a borderline elite pitch.
Rogers has made the opening day rotation for the Fish. He should have the opportunity to run with a starting role all season. He also has a good history of making consistent starts in his minor league career, posting 72.2 innings over 17 starts in 2018 and 136.1 innings over 23 starts in 2019. The recipe is here for a shock takeover of the top of the rookie pitching ladder.
Dean Kremer – SP – Baltimore Orioles
K/9 Projection: 8.3
BB/9 Projection: 3.7
GB% Projection: 39.7%
“Dealin’” Dean Kremer has secured a place in the Orioles OD rotation. It’s well deserved, as Kremer showed us last summer that he’s more than capable at handling MLB hitters with his arsenal. His command for a cutter, in particular, is going to make him an effective option in the starting rotation:
Dean Kremer, 96mph Fastball (foul) and 88mph Cutter (Swinging K), Overlay. pic.twitter.com/BJIqpOzens
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 6, 2020
He’s slotted in the middle of the Orioles rotation, and really has no one pressing him for the spot at present. While he might not post eye-popping numbers, he has the upside to acquit himself just fine in the middle of a big-league rotation.
Daulton Jeffries and Adbert Alzolay have both obtained a gig in the starting rotation to kick off the season. Both pitchers should be watched closely, as if they start out well they will start climbing this ladder.
Kohei Arihara seems to have secured a rotation spot as well. My info on him is scant, so I’ll take a wait-and-see approach before bumping him up at all.
Michael Kopech and Josh Fleming will both start the season in long relief roles, but for very different reasons. Kopech is building his way back from both Tommy John surgery and a 2020 season-long opt-out, so the team is likely to be very patient with him. Fleming is going to be used as a weapon in a variety of roles for Tampa, so ‘long relief’ is really a catch-all term for him here.
Then, there’s a big pile of arms that could land starting roles but have been shuttled down to minor league camp for at least the start of the season. Of this group, Spencer Howard and Nick Lodolo have the best chance to climb the ladder if given the opportunity. Luis Patino, Deivi Garcia, Brailyn Marquez, and Adonis Medina are more likely to appear in relief than a starting role in 2021.