Baseball season cannot come soon enough. In the meantime, it’s rankings season. And here is my first attempt at ranking the 2021 top 10 starting pitchers for fantasy baseball. This is the first in a multiple-part series ranking the top 100 starting pitchers.
Tier 1 – The Super Aces
We all know who the top three pitchers are for fantasy baseball heading into the 2021 season. It’s just a matter of which order you prefer them in. And deciding who you prefer should not be a task taken lightly. While each of these pitchers will perform well-above the average fantasy SP, you are guaranteed nothing when selecting a starting pitcher.
1. Jacob deGrom
ADP: FantasyPros (7) – NFBC (7.48)
What you can almost guarantee is that Jacob deGrom will be the best pitcher on the planet at any given moment in time. The top three can be argued in any order, but deGrom gets the nod for his ultra-consistency.
Jacob deGrom also excels where few other modern aces do: in HR rate. Including 2020 and 2019, deGrom has allowed a HR/9 of just 0.86, while Cole and Bieber are both well over 1.0.
2. Shane Bieber
ADP: FantasyPros (8) – NFBC (9.18)
There can be no arguing that Bieber was the best pitcher on the planet in 2020. And it is entirely possible that he repeats in 2021, because his combination of stuff, command, and plan of attack is an absolute masterpiece to see on display. If deGrom goes off the board first, Bieber is one hell of a fallback option.
3. Gerrit Cole
ADP: FantasyPros (6) – NFBC (6.33)
There can of course be no arguing that Cole was the best pitcher in baseball during 2019, over a much larger sample size than Bieber was in 2020. However, the change in venue to a more offensive division and home field certainly hurt Cole in 2020 and I’d rather not pay for a repeat of anywhere near 2019.
Tier 2 – Elite
4. Max Scherzer
ADP: FantasyPros (24) – NFBC (29.64)
I am clearly much higher on Scherzer than most. But I’d rather be a year too late than a year too early in moving on from Mad Max as a top-tier ace. No, his 2020 was not on the same level as the torrid pace Scherzer set from 2012 to 2019, which saw him strike out at least 230 batters per season.
Beginning in 2015, his first season in Washington, Scherzer posted ERA’s below 3.00 in five consecutive seasons until the streak was broken in 2020.
Some will say this is the beginning of a decline, but Max’s velocity and strikeouts were right in line with his career numbers. I believe it is much more likely that Scherzer remains a Super Ace than continues to decline into a high strikeout, high ERA starter. So, I am happy to be the first person in the room to select Mad Max.
5. Yu Darvish
ADP: FantasyPros (17) – NFBC (17.74)
The only argument against Yu is volatility—which is completely valid, and it makes you not quite 100% comfortable when selecting him. However, the ceiling is sky-high for Darvish, which values him at SP5 for my money. He has all the skills of an elite fantasy #1 and this is the best version of him we’ve seen yet.
6. Trevor Bauer
ADP: FantasyPros (15) – NFBC (16.02)
Oh Trevor, how can we ever trust you? In 2019, as experts predicted, Bauer tinkered his way into undoing his 2018 success. But Bauer set the baseball world on fire in 2020, making the case that his 2019 will eventually look like an outlier.
Trevor Bauer’s xERA of 2.07 in 2020 was in the top 1% at Baseball Savant. His upside is the best pitcher in baseball.
But Bauer makes Yu Darvish look mild-mannered when it comes to his volatility. Hope for the best, plan for the worst with Trevor Bauer. At the end of the day, his upside is worth the price you will pay to acquire him.
7. Walker Buehler
ADP: FantasyPros (18) – NFBC (19.78)
The pieces are all there for Buehler to elevate into the Super Ace tier. His ceiling is as high as Darvish or Bauer with a higher floor, so it would be easy to move Buehler up a spot or two. He just needs to prove himself over a full season. But with the Dodgers, he may not get that opportunity any time soon.
The toolset and upside of Walker Buehler are still just enough for me to keep him ahead of Lucas Giolito.
8. Lucas Giolito
ADP: FantasyPros (21) – NFBC (19.52)
Consistent K-BB% of 24% past two seasons. But a few too many walks keeps his ERA in mid 3’s and prevents him from being a Super Ace.
However, his strikeout rate keeps him clearly in the elite tier. And if you need a reason for optimism, his xERA improved from 3.44 in 2019 to 3.04 in 2020.
9. Luis Castillo
ADP: FantasyPros (30) – NFBC (27.79)
Luis Castillo has all the necessary ingredients to be a legit fantasy ace: elite stuff, double-digit K/9, limits walks, and has a high groundball rate. He has also shown that he can do it over 190 innings in 2019.
This ranking comes down to personal preference. Watching Castillo’s starts in 2020, I witnessed a lot of bad defense behind him. That is obviously an inconsequential sample size, but the Reds ranked bottom third in the league in UZR and FanGraphs Defense.
Castillo also seems slightly more volatile than most on this list. But the fact that he has proven he can manage a full ace’s workload lands him one spot ahead of #10.
10. Brandon Woodruff
ADP: FantasyPros (44) – NFBC (35.31)
Woodruff was a legit ace throughout 2020, and both the peripherals and the Statcast numbers back it up. In addition to the numbers, the way Woodruff went about his performance lends itself to future sustainability.
Woodruff increased his curveball usage from 1.9% to 6.4% to give him four established pitches. He relies mainly on an excellent four-seamed fastball and pairs it with a cutter that he throws about 30% of the time. In 2020, his changeup usage went up to 17.5% as his slider usage dropped to 10.9%.
The fastball, cutter, and slider all rate as positive P-value pitches for Woodruff. And both his change and curve improved from 2019 to 2020.
One of the knocks on Woodruff heading into the 2020 season was the lack of a deep repertoire, but he has silenced those critics with a four-pitch mix that worked wonders in the shortened season. The only thing holding Woodruff back from nearing the top 5 is proving he can do it over 180 innings.