We all have our guys. The ones that sting when they go to soon to another manager (how could they?!), the players who you rotate from team to team and present a welcome sign of “home.” It’s not your team until they are a part of your squad.
Covering starting pitchers as my thing, there have been many across the years. James Paxton, Luis Castillo, Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Jacob deGrom, Patrick Corbin, and Trevor Bauer have all carried those labels in years past and this year, we have a new crew that I find myself gravitating toward in every draft.
Lance Lynn (Texas Rangers)
The chaos surrounds us. Organizations like the Braves are limiting their starters’ workload to begin the season, players are opting out, and of course, many are absent in camp as they endure COVID-19. A fog has risen upon opening weekend, making us wonder who will be able to produce at their peaks the fastest, who can be who we thought they were (thanks Dennis Green) from the first pitch of the season.
I think Lance Lynn is one of those guys.
In his first Summer Camp performance, Lynn went a full six innings and dominated to the tune of eight strikeouts and zero walks. He even said after the performance that “it gets me ready for what I want to do to be ready for Opening Day and be full-go with no restrictions. I am right where I want to be.” It’s where we want you to be too, Lynn.
A fully prepared Lynn is a wonderful idea. After a rough four starts to launch his 2019 campaign, Lynn was one of the surprise stories of the season, returning 180.2 frames of excellence thereafter with a 3.24 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 30% strikeout rate. His four-seamer held a remarkable 14% SwStr rate despite finding the zone over 64% of the time. You really don’t see that. Ever. Lynn confidently featured fastballs in the zone and batters couldn’t handle it.
Pairing with heat was a refined cutter that failed to allow a single long ball across 532 thrown and a curveball that surprised batters enough to carry a 41% strikeout rate. The repertoire is there, the stamina is ready, and I’m finding myself eyeing Lynn in all drafts this summer.
Kenta Maeda (Minnesota Twins)
There are few joys quite like a burden lifted, an impedance removed, a wave of weightlessness that allows you to conquer what’s ahead.
Embellishments aside, Maeda has been removed from the shackles of not only Dodgeritis, shifting from the rotation and bullpen routinely to our chagrin,
but of the limitations created by his contract, rewarding him as he hit inning milestones during the season. In a shortened season and those milestones out of reach, expect the Twins to let Maeda fly in the rotation and that’s a wonderful thing. Update: I’ve learned that contract incentives are automatically prorated, which means Maeda will still have milestones to hit this season. I don’t believe the Twins will act on this in a contention season – I’m still targetting Maeda – but it should be noted.
Maeda’s overall 14.6% SwStr ranked seventh among all pitchers with 150 innings last season, fueled by a deadly mix of changeups and sliders. His 27% strikeout could even see a possible uptick given the 40%+ O-Swing rates on each of those secondary offerings, reaching as high as 47% (!) on his changeup. Filthy stuff, truly.
Let’s not overlook his team, either. The Twins have a lovely schedule ahead of them, ranking as the third most benefited by the revamped 60-game schedule in Mike Petriello’s excellent article. Win chances will be harder to determine across many starters being limited early and a larger emphasis on middle relievers, propelling Maeda up my draft boards.
Wins? Check. Strikeouts? Check. Solid ratios? Check. You want Maeda.
This one shouldn’t be long, if you’ve followed our podcasts or articles in 2020, it’s little surprise that I’m touting a pair of Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers. They revamped their analytics department in the off-season, moving from a two-seamer focus to an embrace of secondary pitches and elevated four-seamers.
That’s music to the ears of both Musgrove and Keller, who each have secondaries that should raise an eyebrow or two. Musgrove had a trio of offerings in 2019 that posted a SwStr rate above a 16% clip in his changeup, curveball, and slider, while Keller’s slider and curveball each displayed their ability to miss bats and earn outs.
I’ve found myself more focused on targeting Musgrove here given two factors: a better all-around repertoire including a stronger heater and the Pirates’ reliance on Musgrove as their #1 arm. That outlines a higher ceiling for innings and starts as he will be slotted as their opening day starter. More starts, more opportunity for success, more leagues I’ll roster him.
That doesn’t mean I’m pushing Keller aside as he’s selected plenty rounds later than Musgrove. Look for an improved heater that won’t be relied upon nearly as often (thankfully, after allowing a 217 wRC+ last season!), giving him a chance to reach his 3.19 FIP from last season. He’s a great upside play to make.
Sonny Gray (Cincinnati Reds)
I wasn’t always high on Gray. Back in early February, I was questioning his second-half legitimacy as his four-seamer was still underwhelming and it seemed as if his slider and curveball were performing at unsustainable levels.
Then I saw this interview with Trevor Bauer on the great R2C2 podcast. You should really watch it. In short, I grasped that Gray polished his breakers once Bauer arrived and utilized slow-motion cameras and a few tweaks. Gray exploded after with his August and September combining for a 1.78 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 31% strikeout rate across ten starts and 60+ frames.
There are still some concerns about the heater and his walk rate that will make it difficult to hold a sub-1.10 WHIP (nearly 12% across this stretch!), but like Lynn, Gray’s schedule is fantastic with an excellent offense behind him. He’s the Opening Day starter. The Reds are notorious for allowing their starters go deep in games.
These are all things that you want, especially in a truncated season. You’ll be happy to get production in the first week of the year instead of waiting for your arms to get ready. There’s no time to waste!
Caleb Smith (Miami Marlins)
Yes, I’m back on the Smith train. Alex and I had the fortune to sit down with Caleb back in April and discuss his 2019 season and beyond. The most illuminating discussion was his journey last season, where he outlined how his mid-season hip injury led to his depressed second-half production and declining velocity.
Thing is, Smith’s pre-injury 2019 was stellar. He held a 3.10 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 34% strikeout rate, and a sub 8% walk rate, all while holding a near-93 mph average four-seamer. Music to the ears of fantasy managers everywhere as he came at a very low cost in drafts. Fortunately, that cost has returned after his second half was pulled down by injury, making me all kinds of excited to add him to the roster past the 16th round.
There’s a chance Smith doesn’t get quite into the same groove as spring 2019, but you don’t need to reach high as Smith has been drafted as late as the 340th overall pick in NFBC drafts. As the ace of the Marlins’ staff — another organization that has had few hesitations to let their starters go deep into games — Smith makes for a high ceiling arm who can help managers right away, facing the Phillies and Orioles in his expected first two starts.
Let’s all become agents of Smith this summer.
Kenta Maeda Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire | Lance Lynn Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire | Joe Musgrove Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Featured Image by Alyssa Buckter – alyssabuckter.com