We begin with the final player in the elite tier, Aaron Nola:
11. Aaron Nola
ADP: FantasyPros: (23.3) – NFBC (22.94)
In 2020, we may have seen the best version of Nola yet. The problem for me is that Nola is being pushed up the board so far that you’re paying full freight for a legit fantasy ace. Aaron Nola has always been someone that I doubted, so I wanted to do a deep dive into his career, starting with his initial draft scouting report.
Here is a not so brief history of the twice-drafted LSU Tiger:
Aaron Nola has been a perplexing pitcher to me ever since he was drafted. Reading scouting reports heading into the 2014 MLB Draft, it seemed that Nola was a prospect with a very high floor, but one that would likely be more of a #3 starter in the big leagues, and thus, I was a little uninterested when the Phillies drafted him.
Now, that evaluation was terrible on my part, as Nola has been an excellent selection for Philadelphia. A year after being drafted, he was up in the show and posted a 3.59 ERA in 2015 with a 1.20 WHIP. He did allow 1.27 HR/9 and his FIP was 4.04, to go along with a middling 7.88 K/9.
So again, I was uninterested in 2016, and Nola rewarded that fade with a 4.78 ERA in 111 IP. However, he increased his strikeout rate by a full 2.0 K/9, increased his GB% from 47.6 to 55.2, and lowered both his FIP and xFIP to 3.08.
The full breakout wasn’t quite ready in 2017, but Nola Lowered his ERA back to 3.54 and retained the strikeout gains, with 184 K in 168 IP. Finally, those that invested in 2018 were fully rewarded with Cy Young-worthy season, as Nola went 212.1 IP, 224 K, 2.37 ERA, and 0.87 WHIP.
While it appeared that Nola might have entered another realm, the ERA estimators were not buying it. His FIP was 3.01, xFIP 3.21, and SIERA 3.40. So the pullback in 2019 was expected, but despite the ERA rising to 3.87, Nola again eclipsed 200 IP and set a new career-high in strikeouts at 229.
Then in 2020, Aaron Nola continued to remake his repertoire, and the results could potentially put him on the level of Super Ace.
For some perspective, here’s a clip on his pre-draft repetoire from Aaron Nola’s scouting report:
“Nola has an effective repertoire that includes a two-seam fastball that sits between 92 and 94 mph, an infrequent four-seam fastball, a very good changeup and a curveball that can be very effective. He mixes and matches well between those pitches.
Everything works off his sinking fastball. The pitch results in a good percentage of ground balls, always a great sign for a pitcher.”
It’s interesting to see how tight Nola’s distribution of pitches has become since his rookie season. His changeup and curveball have always been his two best pitches, and those are featured nearly equally around 27-28%. What was once his most frequently used pitch, the sinker, has now been relegated to his least used pitch at around 20%. Nola also mixes in the four-seamer 25% of the time, which had a career-best swinging-strike rate in 2020. As a whole, Nola’s 13.4% swinging strike rate was also a career-best
My takeaway from this graphic combined with Nola’s historical stats is that he finally knows exactly how he wants to attack hitters.
Here were the results in 2020:
- SIERA: 3.25
- xERA: 3.38
- xFIP: 2.79
- IP: 71.1
- K: 96
- K%: 33.2
- BB%: 8
- SwStrk%: 13.4
- ERA: 3.28
- WHIP: 1.08
- xWHIP: 1.09
Nola might not be quite on the Super Ace level, but he’s knocking on the door. And for that reason, he is being drafted incredibly high, routinely going at the end of round 2. As much as I am on board with Aaron Nola as a legit fantasy ace, it looks like I’ll be out on him again in 2021, having ten pitchers ranked ahead of him.
Near Elite Tier
12. Clayton Kershaw
ADP: FantasyPros: (29) – NFBC (30)
Clayton Kershaw will likely never go back to the stretch of his four-year prime when he was the best pitcher in baseball. But the current version of Kershaw is still damn good, and he feels a bit undervalued heading into 2021 drafts.
In 2020, Kershaw put up his highest K% since 2017 at 28.1% and paired that with his lowest walk rate since 2016 at 3.6%, top 3% in MLB. Kershaw has always been an elite command pitcher, but in 2020 his K/BB returned to 7+ for the first time since 2016.
While no one can expect Kershaw to repeat his rate stats from 2020 (2.16 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), his expected stats are still Ace-worthy: 3.11 xERA, 1.02 xWHIP. When paired with a minuscule walk rate and K/9 over 9.0, the only question is, how many starts will Kershaw make?
The reason we have to ask that question is the reason you can draft him at a discount. Personally, I am perfectly happy to pay market value for one of the all-time greats while he’s still in his groove.
13. Tyler Glasnow
ADP: FantasyPros: (50) – NFBC (50)
I’ll pay the extra dollar for Glasnow (or the extra $4 or $5 considering his ADP compared to where I have him). He has Super Ace upside, and his massive strikeout potential gives him a reliable floor.
Just like Kershaw, Tyler Glasnow had a 3.11 xERA last year. Unlike Clayton, however, Tyler’s actual ERA was 4.08. But despite the bloated earned run average, Tyler Glasnow created significant value for fantasy owners with a startling 38% strikeout rate. Among starting pitchers in 2020, only Shane Bieber and Jacob deGrom had a higher K-rate.
The problem with Glasnow, though, is putrid command compared to those two Super Aces. After impressing with a 6% walk rate in 2019, nearly cutting his walks in half, Glasnow regressed to a 9% rate in 2021.
For most starting pitchers, that walk rate would be a death sentence to the bullpen. For Glasnow, it simply represented an incredible 31% K-BB %, rather than a rate that would lead the league.
No starting pitcher outside the top three has a higher strikeout potential than Glasnow. And if he can show continued improvement in his command, he will be an easy top 10 option at the position in 2022.
14. Jack Flaherty
ADP: FantasyPros: (28) – NFBC (29.4)
I’ve never been too high on Jack Flaherty when it comes to the fantasy community as a whole. In the past I’ve recognized him as an easy top-20 option, but I had no illusions of him making the top 10. And looking at his ADP compared to the other starters around him, it appears I won’t have much of Flaherty in 2021.
If that is the case, what will I be missing out on? Flaherty was the victim of some bad luck last year, and his strikeout rate was firmly in tact at 10+ K/9. But the walk rate rose back above 3.0 and his expected stats said he deserved around a 3.50 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Those numbers are perfectly fine when paired with his strikeout rate–but not in the second or third round.
By the end of the year, I could look foolish for having him this low. But I need Jack Flaherty to prove who he is over a full season before ranking him among the elite.
15. Kyle Hendricks
ADP: FantasyPros: (80.0) – NFBC (85.28)
Career 3.12 ERA in 1047 innings pitched. Do I need to say more?
He’s one of the most bankable assets in fantasy baseball and has earned this ranking over the course of what has already been a brilliant career.
But just in case you remain unconvinced on the Professor:
Hendricks had a career-high K-BB% in 2020 (17.8%) and a career-high Swinging Strike rate at 11.6%. While those numbers won’t blow you away, we already know that blowing batters away is not part of Hendricks’ game. But improvements in those stats are driving further gains in his fantasy value.
K/BB Past 3 Seasons:
- 2018: 3.66
- 2019: 4.69
- 2020: 8.00
At $23 in the 2021 Baseball Forecaster, Kyle Hendricks is tied with Clayton Kershaw at 6th overall in auction value. Here’s the Forecaster writeup for Hendricks:
“Each season, he renders the xERA column more irrelevant. It starts with elite control and command, but hitters also can’t get good wood on his pitches, especially change-up and curveball. GB% reverted to strong previous level, and though he’ll never be a K artist, even bumped up SwK. At this point, it’d be a surprise if the beat doesn’t just keep going on.”
16. Kenta Maeda
ADP: FantasyPros: (58.0) – NFBC (48.93)
There is no questioning that Maeda was legitimately Ace-tier in 2020. The peripherals and Statcast numbers all back it up. The only real question is can he do it over 200+ innings? If so, he moves into the elite tier. Ranking him here is a bit of a straddle. He is bound to regress, but Maeda owns the skills he showed in 2020, and that gives him Ace-upside.
17. Hyun-Jin Ryu
ADP: FantasyPros: (69.4) – NFBC (74.83)
Three straight years of a FIP between 3.00 and 3.10. Two straight years of a 3.32 xFIP and three straight with an xFIP below 3.32. Ryu is what he is: an elite run-preventer with a near elite combo of GB% and command that can strike out a batter per inning. That’s well worth paying the going rate.
18. Corbin Burnes
ADP: FantasyPros: (63.4) – NFBC (60.43)
Corbin is one of the most misunderstood players heading into 2021 fantasy drafts, but that has not stopped anyone from selecting him as one of the top 20 pitchers off the board. By ADP, Burnes is currently SP19. So his ranking here is not any kind of anomaly.
Corbin has always featured elite spin rates on his pitches. And striking batters out has never been a problem. This alone gives Burnes a solid floor to fall back on. The problem that was screaming to be corrected for Burnes was his home runs allowed. And after working with the Brewers’ coaching staff heading into the 2020 season, it appears that Burnes has turned a corner that could soon land him in the top 10.
19. Zack Plesac
ADP: FantasyPros: (78.8) – NFBC (66.73)
Elite at preventing walks, combined with a 14% swinging strike rate = recipe of a future ace. Could be Kyle Hendricks+. However, the price to acquire Plesac means paying for a continued breakout. I am a huge fan of his skill set, but I will only want to acquire him if he falls a bit below his ADP.
20. Blake Snell
ADP: FantasyPros: (45.8) – NFBC (46.92)
Snell is not someone I want to target early among the top 20 options. The main problem for me his high variability. He could win the Cy Young in 2021 or throw 150 innings with a 4.15 ERA. You know you’re getting the strikeouts, and that certainty combined with his upside are what keep him inside the top 20.
But Snell walks too many batters for my liking and his 2020 Statcast numbers paint the picture of a flawed starting pitcher. He is clearly out of the elite tier due to his fragility and lack of proven experience pitching deep into games.