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Micah Henry’s 2021 Bold Predictions: Pitcher Edition

It’s that time of year again! Bold predictions are easily one of the more entertaining subjects in fantasy sports. Why? Because they encourage discussion and help fantasy owners feel good about their players. Then there are the times when one’s bold predictions come to fruition, giving them automatic bragging rights.

But through it all, the most important thing to remember about bold predictions is the bold part. These scenarios are most likely not going to happen, but if they do, whoever predicted them rightfully deserves a nice pat on the back. If they don’t, who cares! Bold predictions are purely a fun exercise that helps keep fantasy owners everywhere excited about the upcoming fantasy season. With all that being said, in this piece I am going to breakdown seven bold predictions surrounding pitchers for the 2021 fantasy season. Some of these predictions may be shocking at first glance, but the good news is that’s the whole point! Without further ado, let’s get bold!

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Bold Predictions: Pitcher Edition

Shane Bieber posts an ERA north of 4.00

Coming in hot! Shane Bieber has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball over the past two seasons. Since the beginning of 2019, he’s earned a 2.84 ERA (3.12 SIERA) and 381:61 K:BB (27.7% K-BB) over 291.2 innings pitched. Over this time span (45 starts), he’s allowed more than four runs to score just five times. Armed with exceptional command, knee-buckling breaking pitches, and all the confidence in the world, Bieber has been an absolute menace to opposing batters as of late.

So, why will he all of a sudden post an ERA north of 4.00 in for the second time in his professional career? His tendency to give up hard contact is going to come back to bite him more than it has in previous seasons. Since 2018, Bieber has allowed at least a max exit velocity of 112.1 mph, a barrel% of 6.1, and 37.7% hard hit rate. In 2020, every home run he allowed, but one, come off the bat at an exit velocity of at least 105.5 mph. These not so fun metrics raise an intriguing question, why does Bieber allow so much hard contact?

Well, despite his excellent command, his four-seam fastball gets hit hard when batters make contact with it. Over the past two years, the pitch has allowed at least an average exit velocity of 92.1 mph. As indicted by the contour plots below, Bieber consistently throws his four-seamer around the heart of the strike zone.

Shane Bieber 2019 Contour Chart

2020 Contour Chart

This allows batters to make solid contact against the pitch whenever they can catch up to it. In 2021, batters are going to lay off his hard pitches less and as a result, the pitch is going to allow more home runs and big hits than it has in past seasons. No batters likes being consistently dominated, so I expect teams to come in with a game plan every time they face Bieber–with that game plan being to attack his four-seamer whenever they can. The ratios will still be above average, as will the innings pitched, but in 2021, we are going to see what happens when hitters stop letting his four-seamer freeze them up. And at the end of the day, a 4.01 ERA really isn’t all that bad.

Mitch Keller is the most productive starter in the NL Central

More productive than Brandon Woodruff, Sonny Gray, Corbin Burnes, and Luis Castillo?! You heard it here first folks, Keller is going to produce like an ace in 2021. In his minor league career (539.1 innings pitched), Keller earned a 566:170 K:BB and a superb 3.12 ERA (3.20 FIP). Dominating hitters with a four-seamer-curveball combination, Keller regularly earned big strikeout totals. His four-seamer sits 92-95 and can max out in the upper 90s, while his curveball has exceptional depth and bite to it. He also throws a slider that is effective and is working on a changeup that he’ll likely need to properly develop to reach that next level as an MLB starter.

As a young arm, his arm slot doesn’t always remain consistent between his offerings and as a result, his control can get away from him at times. Mixed with him not having a true offspeed offering, this can lead to blow-ups as he now becomes more predictable and hittable. After a solid rookie campaign, Keller struggled mightily in 2020. But between COVID-19 and an oblique strain he dealt with, it’s possible Keller just wasn’t all the way there mentally or physically. Nonetheless, despite an odd first 69.2 innings pitched of his MLB career, Keller has the talent and stuff to make it work going forward. In 2021, his changeup will look much improved, as will his control and overall confidence on the mound. And by seasons-end, it will be hard to argue against him being the most productive starting pitcher in the NL Central.

Aaron Nola finishes as the SP1 in all formats

Biased? Maybe, but Nola has as much talent as any pitcher in baseball right now. Armed with one of the best curveballs in the game, a diving changeup, and two above-average hard pitches, there are few flaws in his arsenal. All his offerings have above average movement and even more importantly, he can command them all well. From a pure talent and pitchability standpoint, Nola is an ace. Given these skills, Nola entering his prime years, and having a solid offense to support him, 2021 is the year we see him finish as the SP1 in all formats.

Points leagues, category leagues, it won’t matter. In 2021, he’ll finish with career highs in innings pitched, K-BB%, and WAR. There will be other pitchers who perform admirably, but Nola will be the most consistently effective starting pitcher in fantasy baseball. Moreover, given his strong command, elite strikeout ability and his tendency to limit hard contact, there’s no limit to how effective he can be when it’s all clicking. Interestingly, in 2020 Nola threw his changeup more than any other pitch for the first time in his career and the results produced some career high marks. In 2021, Nola will be on a lot of championship rosters and in most cases, you can land him as your fantasy SP2.

The Orioles’ starters finish 2021 with better cumulative stats than the Padres’ starters

That’s right, we’re doing team-to-team predictions too–individual players won’t get all the glory. But please, take a second to re-read that heading again to fully grasp just how crazy this bold prediction is. As of today, the Orioles starting rotation consists of Keegan Akin, Alex Cobb, John Means, Dean Kremer, and a 5th spot that’s still up for grabs. Meanwhile, the new-look Padres feature a star-studded rotation headed by Yu Darvish, then Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack, and Joe Musgrove. Not to mention they have arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball in MacKenzie Gore lying in wait. So how on earth will this Orioles staff finish with better cumulative stats than the Padres’ staff? The Orioles staff will be more durable.

The Padres are loaded with pitching talent, but Lamet, Snell, and Darvish all have their fair share of durability concerns. You never want to see someone get hurt but there are ominous signs that not every star in the Padres’ rotation is 100% healthy. Beyond all of this, there’s also a chance we see other young, talented Orioles pitchers such as Zac Lowther or DL Hall up at some point in 2021. With a mix of durability issues for the Padres staff and a young Orioles staff that’s ready to perform, the Orioles’ staff will outperform the Padres’ staff in 2021.

Pete Fairbanks leads the MLB in saves

You mean the relief pitcher who blew both of his save opportunities in 2020? Yes, that guy. The Rays enter the 2021 season with no clear leader to close–a common trend in that clubhouse. As of today, the top candidates to close are Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson, and Fairbanks. Both Castillo and Anderson have at least seven career saves with Fairbanks having just two. So from a logical standpoint, one of them should be the go-to guy in Tampa Bay. Alas, both Castillo and Anderson will likely be a little disappointed when they see Fairbanks getting the majority of the saves opportunities early-on and thriving.

Standing at 6-foot-6, 225 lbs, Fairbanks’ presence on the mound can strike fear into an unexperienced batter. He throws from a very high three quarters arm slot, which is a borderline overhead delivery. Armed with a four-seamer that sits in the upper 90s and can touch 100 mph, as well as a devastating slider with elite break, he has the stuff to consistently close out games. He doesn’t possess elite command over his four-seamer likely due to the pitch’s velocity and elite spin rate (2432 RPM), which is well above average for a four-seamer. This inconsistent command does hold him back some, but in 2021, it’ll be one of the areas he’s improved in the most.

The Rays have a solid offense that’ll score plenty of runs. It’s also an offense with good depth, allowing Kevin Cash to continue to play matchups more often than other teams. Due to the Rays’ offense, closer situation, and Fairbanks’ natural talent, he’s going to be able to runaway with the Rays’ closer job in 2021. More than that, he’s going to runaway with the title of best closer in baseball as he leads the MLB in saves.

Tarik Skubal outproduces Max Scherzer

This prediction likely classifies as *very* bold and rightfully so. I mean, Scherzer has been a top-5 fantasy option every year since around 2013. When he’s in a groove, he’s arguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball, yet Tarik Skubal is going to outproduce him in 2021? Yes, he will.

Skubal has been dominating hitters his entire professional career. Over his first 38.1 minor league innings pitched, he earned a 53:7 K:BB (33.6% K-BB) and a microscopic 0.70 ERA (1.21 FIP). Then, upon his arrival to Double-A in 2019, he was even better. He struck out 10+ batters in six of his nine starts, displayed decent control of the strike zone and was producing like a budding ace. This high strikeout ability was clear over his first 32.0 MLB innings pitched, but so was his tendency to allow too many flyballs and hard hits, while also displaying shaky command at times. He’s far from a finished product, but I don’t think it will take long for things to start clicking for him at the major league level.

In regards to Scherzer, he’s thrown over 2300.0 innings in his MLB career and this mileage may be starting to catch up to him. Over the past couple seasons, he’s had to deal with a handful of injuries, including a back strain and injured hamstring. As good as he is and has been, it’s important to remember that Scherzer is still a human being. I don’t think it’s realistic to predict Scherzer staying healthy for a full season at age-36. Between Scherzer’s durability concerns and Skubal developing into a solid big league starter, Skubal is going to be able to outproduce Scherzer in 2021.

Josh Hader fails to record 10 saves

Personally, I believe Hader is the most effective relief pitcher in MLB and I’m sure others share this sentiment. From his deceptive delivery to his devastating slider, Hader is virtually untouchable in the later innings when everything is clicking. Since 2018, he’s converted 81.6% of his save opportunities. He hasn’t been perfect, but more often than not he got the job done. Signed through the 2021 season, Hader will continue to be a very strong asset for the Brewers, but not as their primary closer. Why? Because Devin Williams exists.

The reigning NL Rookie of the Year, Williams has the stuff, command, and mound presence to succeed as an MLB closer. His four-seamer’s upper 90s velocity plays beautifully off of one of the best pitches in baseball, his changeup. With well above-average movement matched with Williams’ solid command of the pitch, it’s easy to understand why his changeup is so lethal. Williams knows it’s his best offering, as he threw it 38 more times than his four-seamer in 2020. Normally a changeup plays well off a high 90s fastball simply because of the changes in velocity. But when you have an above-average changeup and an upper 90s fastball, it’s even more difficult for batters to make contact against you. In Williams’ case, his changeup allowed just two hits in 2020, two softly hit singles.

What works for our fantasy teams isn’t always what works best for an MLB team. Craig Counsell knows that Hader is capable of pitching multiple innings in a row. Given the emergence of Williams, it might make a lot more sense to have Hader lock down the 6th-7th-8th innings. Then in the 9th inning, you bring in Williams to close out the game. In 2021, we’ll be seeing a new primary closer in Milwaukee and a very good one at that. Hader will still have fantasy value due to the occasional save opportunity and excellent ratios, but 10 saves may very well be his ceiling for as long as Williams is around.

Did you enjoy Chris’s look at the Atlanta Braves Top Prospects? For more great rankings, strategy, and analysis check out the 2021 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!

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