A New Ballgame: How We Should Approach Starting Pitching in 2021

After 2020, how do we project starting pitching in 2021?

Coming off a 60-game season that was more of a sprint than the marathon of a normal 162, conversations about workout plans, training, and endurance have been raised this off-season. Questions about the likelihood of a 200-inning season have been met with a range of answers from some believing almost nobody will reach that mark while others say it could be the usual range.

If you’ve been paying attention, teams have revealed their opinions about this too. Within their actions, we have an idea of how fantasy owners should be approaching starting pitching as well. 

 

The Work Load

 

Every team and every fantasy owner most likely has that guy that they rely on to go out every fifth day and give them innings and pitch well.

There were reservations that those guys, the Coles, the deGroms, and the Scherzers, would be allowed to work into games as freely as they had been in the past during the 2020 season. They were, and those teams were grateful for it.

Outside of the elite group of starters, however, there were more bullpen days. Teams relied more on the depth of their bullpens than they did in the past. Just look at the World Series matchup. The Dodgers and Rays both used their bullpens in a variety of ways to get to that point. For the past few seasons now, this has been a growing trend.

Here’s a line graph that shows the average innings pitched per across the league from 2010-2019.

Data Visualization by @Kollauf on Twitter

Now, what happens when the season is not a sprint, but a marathon again?

The concerns in 2020 were built on the idea that starters did not have the time to build up the stamina to pitch deep into games. This time around, it’s that starters didn’t pitch enough last year to be used to the lingering effects of a long season. Polar opposite reasons but the same skepticism.

Pitchers throw harder than they ever have before, and it’s possible pitchers were letting loose more last season because they didn’t have to worry about having enough bullets in game 150 as it was never coming. Teams might manage their starters differently early in the season than they have in years past. We’ve already seen the number of starters working over 200 innings a season drop just in the past decade. Coming off a short sprint could affect it even more.

How does this affect your drafting strategies? I’m glad you asked, gracious reader!

We should be paying attention to full pitching staves more than we have in the past. Guys who normally would be starting may be relegated to the bullpen to follow openers until they get into starting shape or to save their innings throughout the season. We could see more strategies like what the Yankees did with Jonathan Loasiga in 2020. Start for three innings then turn it over to the bullpen for the rest of the way.

Instead of that, we could see it be four or five innings and then go to the bullpen. The new target for innings should be 170 instead of 200. Draft high-end pitchers early and think that you are going to get 170 innings instead of 200. That means a new “qualified season” could be close to 130. That’s not what it will be, of course, as rules are rules. But still, that’s how I would approach drafting starting pitchers. So which teams should we be paying attention to? 

 

Teams to Watch

 

The most obvious answer to the previous question is teams like the Dodgers, the Padres, and the Yankees. The Dodgers have Tony Gonsolin, who I am very fond of, as their sixth starter in the depth chart. If the Dodgers wanted to, they could go with a six-man rotation to open the year to help spread out the innings and give pitchers a little more rest.

Seattle has already confirmed that they will be opening the season with a six-man rotation. Since they are confirmed, let’s take a look at the Seattle rotation with 2020 numbers.

Seattle Mariners Rotation

(Chris Flexen’s statistics are his KBO statistics)

The Mariners feel they have six pitchers who could give them quality innings as well as potential reasons to want to manage those innings.

Marco Gonzales is the only pitcher there that has reached 200 innings in a single season before, granted he’s one of the few that has had the chance to reach that figure as well. Justus Sheffield showed his first glimpse of MLB promise since his MLB debut back in 2018. Yusei Kikuchi is a sleeper favorite of ours at Pitcher List but will benefit from a change in workload. 

James Paxton is trying to recover his velocity and hasn’t ever been healthy enough to pitch a full season. Chris Flexen returns to baseball in America and if his changes in the KBO are legit, maybe one of the best-positioned pitchers in baseball to work a lot of innings. Logan Gilbert also remains an option to start as well if they decide to move Justin Dunn to the bullpen. 

The point with all of those Mariners pitchers is that they will need more time to build back up to regular work every fifth day.

Almost every team in baseball is going to face this problem with at least a few pitchers on their team. The White Sox are another team to pay attention to. While the front three of the staff, Lance LynnLucas Giolito, and Dallas Keuchel are all capable of giving the length in a start and over the long season, the team is going to test some of the depth behind them.

Guys like Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Cease are still going to get opportunities to start even with the return of star prospect Michael Kopech who has been regulated to the bullpen according to new Manager Tony LaRussaCarlos Rodon may also find his way into the rotation to make starts consistently for the team. All of this is to say that don’t be so quick to sell off starting pitchers who may not fit into the five-man rotation on opening day, as they’re going to get more chances than they normally would. 

 

Players to Target

 

You’re probably reading this thinking, “If you’re sure that teams will be cautious then who should we be looking for in drafting?” This is a great question!

There are a few guys who come to mind that will have an opportunity to make consistent starts right now and could still find their way into more starts as the year goes on if teams start to become more traditional with their starter usage. 

The first player I think you should be targeting is Deivi Garcia of the Yankees. Garcia made waves as a prospect in 2019 for his strikeout games in the middle of the year. When he got his shot in the big leagues in 2020, Garcia did well. He had one big blow-up start but outside of that one start, he had a 3.73 ERA. The 21-year-old prospect is competing for the fifth spot in the rotation with Domingo German, who is returning from a domestic violence suspension.

Clarke Schmidt was sat down for three weeks with an apparent elbow injury, thus leading to a clearer path for Garcia to the rotation. German’s stuff and lack of stamina due to his missed time may play better in the bullpen, but even if it doesn’t there’s a chance Deivi makes the opening day roster regardless to give the Yankees starters some additional rest, especially considering the injury history of Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber. Deivi is a name to watch and one you should be looking to draft. 

The next pitcher is someone I’ve already mentioned, James Paxton. Paxton is very risky but a good late-round target. Health has always been his biggest foe throughout his career as he’s never qualified for an ERA title. As already mentioned, the Mariners are being cautious in their approach with all of their pitchers and one would assume that applies even more so with Paxton.

He has velocity concerns as he only reached 94 mph three times in 2020. He was recovering from back surgery and as the starts went on, Paxton’s velocity slowly came back. He still managed to have 28.9 K% with a sub 8% walk rate in his small sample. His whiff rate and chase rates were both in line with his career numbers. If his velocity is back, James Paxton is a great late-round target who could see limited innings due to workload. 

While I could continue my off-season push for Tony Gonsolin, instead I’ll stay within the division and talk about San Francisco Giants pitcher, Logan Webb. Fangraphs has Webb slotted into the fifth starter role. The Giants have six main starting pitching candidates with newcomers Anthony DeSclafini, Alex Woodand Aaron Sanchez. Webb partnered with Codify baseball this off-season and was someone to look out for taking a step forward.

He doesn’t get a lot of swings and misses mainly because his fastball wasn’t good enough to set up his other pitches. His changeup has the makings of a great pitch and one that I would recommend he continue to develop. Webb could be regulated to the bullpen if any of those three names outpitch him as the season goes on, but he is going to get the chances to start and is projected to have around 110 innings. That’s enough for me to be willing to take a chance. 

A few other names are recovering from an injury like Chris SaleLuis Severino, and Noah Syndergaard who, if healthy, may fare better than most in their return from Tommy John surgery. They didn’t have to train themselves differently in 2020 because they weren’t even playing.

While everyone goes crazy over Jacob DeGrom’s dramatic increase in velocity, we have to see if that’s because of a short season and he was just letting loose, or if he made legitimate improvements in his game to get more velocity. 

Dinelson Lamet has warning signs of surgery, but he and the Padres insist he is healthy, which could be a ticking time bomb. Will the Padres finally see the debut of MacKenzie Gore? So many questions, so many possibilities. Starting pitching is going to be fun in 2021. 

 

Max Greenfield

Former Intern for the Washington Nationals, now a Going Deep Writer analyzing the next possible breakout pitcher.

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