The Dynasty Guru’s 2021 Top 200 Dynasty League Starting Pitchers: Pitchers to Target
This is a companion piece to our annual Top Dynasty League Starting Pitching series. The opinions below are my own and do not reflect the TDG consensus.
Targeting Starting pitchers is extremely league dependent. First, is your scoring set-up Rotisserie or Head-to-Head? If Roto, what is the innings cap? If Head-to-Head, are there daily or weekly moves allowed? All of this matters, because you will read a lot about successful experts that draft starting pitchers with their first two picks and win their leagues (and then proceed to tell you all about it all off-season). I compare this to business leaders who succeed wildly and sell everyone their secret to success and never factor in all the failures, of themselves and those in similar situations, that inevitably occur. But what you will not usually hear are whether league set-up dictated that strategy (scoring type, number of teams, categories, etc) and how important in-season management was to winning said league, among many other mitigating factors.
This season my strategy is targeting pitchers with K/9 rates at or under 10 in middle rounds and drafting high upside middle relievers and setup men (every team in the big leagues carries at least seven, making it the most populous position on a roster. Many of these relievers are not well known, and usually the turnover from year-to-year is massive. Populated by wash-out prospects, middling 30-somethings, overseas returnees, and the like, and usually featuring one dominate pitch, adding these guys off waivers or taken with your last picks can pay big dividends. In leagues that reward points for holds many of you are most likely already doing this, but if you are not, 2021 is a great season in which to start.
Even if a massive 30-team, 60-player roster draft I completed recently, my last seven or so picks were middle relievers with decent-to-high strikeout ability. If these guys are available in that large a league, they are available in yours. Here is the hard part; looking at their low ownership numbers and wanting to replace them with a player with higher ownership numbers. The fewer teams in the league, the higher propensity of even better high-strikeout middle relievers are available, the easier the strategy is to implement.
So, while high strikeout guys are all the rage (with good reason), targeting the guys who are not as (well) known for their flame-throwing prowess can still provide excellent statistics that can make them a lot more valuable than they appear at first glance. A bonus is that hitters are striking out more than ever so even guys with middling strikeout rates may see an inadvertent bump. Thus for the upcoming season, I suggest targeting the following four pitchers: Kyle Hendricks, Aaron Civale, Patrick Corbin, and Marco Gonzales. They all prove all valuable at their current ADPs and for Dynasty purposes as well, so are my targets for 2021.
Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs, (Age: 31 Rank: 42)
Since coming up with the Cubs in 2014, Hendricks has never posted an ERA above 3.95 (in 2015, his second season) or a FIP above 3.88 (in 2017). The remarkably consistent Hendricks, with a career strikeout rate per nine innings (K/9) of 7.58, is getting faded thus far in early drafts to the tune of a current NFBC ADP of 88, or the 28th drafted starting pitcher. His 2020 ERA of 2.88 will be hard to replicate (and should not be expected) but he has previous seasons of 3.03 and 2.13 so an ERA around 3.00 is possible.
Another statistic that showed how good Hendricks was in 2020 and how he has improved over the last few seasons is Strikeouts per Walk (K/BB), and Hendrick’s rate in 2020 was 8.0, which was tied with Kenta Maeda for second in the big leagues. Only ten players had a K/BB over 5.0 into 2020; with 3.0 being above average and 4.0 well above average. Quality starts has been replacing Wins as a statistical category in recent years (though I personally find them both equally archaically arbitrary) and Hendricks had ten quality starts (out of 12 games started) in 2020, which was tied for second along with Shane Bieber, Trevor Bauer, and Lance Lynn; good company to say the least. While the Cubs may not win many games, Hendricks can earn Quality Starts for the savvy manager as well.
We have not even spoken about his WHIP, which was 1.00 in 2020 and a career 1.10, which helps any fantasy team, in any sized league. Lastly, Hendricks is a modern workhorse, with innings pitched since 2015: 180, 190, 140, 199, 177 and 81 in 2021 (which was third in the big leagues). If you want to take Hendricks as your number two starter and go with a flame thrower in early rounds I will not argue (especially 12-team leagues and fewer), however it may be better to go with another high-floor hitter instead and make Hendricks your ace.
Aaron Civale, Cleveland Baseball Team (AGE: 25 Rank: 63)
Aaron Civale has a shorter body of work than Hendricks but has a similar profile in terms of Quality Starts, K/BB, and WHIP, among others. Drafted in the third round by the Indians back in 2016, seven of Civale’s 12 starts in 2020 were of the Quality variety, and he went six innings in all but his last start of the season (where Pittsburgh lit him up, weird). Including that start Civale had a 4.74 ERA (4.03 FIP, 3.92 xFIP) for 2020, removing it lowers his ERA to 3.99, which is much more in line with his 3.63 FIP and 3.88 xFIP.
Pitching in 74 innings in 2020 (good for sixth overall in the league), Civale had a WHIP of 1.32, which is not great. However, his 2019 WHIP of 1.04 and career minor league WHIP of 1.10 belies that 2020 number, and suggests a correction is in order. In his 2019 minor league season his K/BB was 4.67, and 5.47 for his entire minor league career, which supports an elite K/BB at the big-league level, where he already has a career 3.59 K/BB, albeit in only 131 2/3 career innings.
With a strikeout potential not possessed by Hendricks, Civale’s 8.39 strikeout per nine innings rate is better than Hendricks in any season (high of 8.35 back in 2015). in his first taste of the big leagues in 2019 Civale pitched to a sparkling 2.34 ERA (with a more accurate 3.40 FIP and ugly 4.61 xFIP) with three wins and six quality starts in ten games started. The ability to improve on his outlying stats while a part of one of the top organizations for pitcher development only makes Civale’s future look bright. While Civale only pitched 42 innings at Triple-A patience is required if his 2021 season does not start out as well as hoped; but if he continues building on his promising 2020 (which is what we are expecting), you are getting quite a value with his current ADP at NFBC of 185 as the 55th Starting pitcher off the board which means some of your fellow managers are seeing that 4.74 ERA in 2020 and passing. In Dynasty leagues I have sent out initial offers and suggest you do as well.
Marco Gonzales, Seattle Mariners (Age: 29, Rank: 82)
After an excellent college career at Gonzaga, Gonzales was drafted in the first round by the St Louis Cardinals back in 2013. The former top-50 prospect finally found his groove in 2020 after being traded to the Mariners in 2017 for outfielder Tyler O’Neill. He made it to the majors in 2014 but a shoulder injury and Tommy John surgery robbed him of successful 2015 and 2016 seasons, respectively. In 2020 Marco Gonzales led the league with an eye popping 9.14 K/BB, and also had a 3.10 ERA, 3.32 FIP, an 8.27 K/9, six quality starts, and a 0.947 WHIP to boot.
Now six years removed from Tommy John surgery, Gonzales is poised to be the ace for the Mariners this season. A strong 2021 should move Gonzales up even higher and he has the talent to collect quality starts, an up-and-coming team to collect Wins, a great WHIP, sub 4.00 ERA helps any fantasy team. Being drafted in the same group as Civale and Corbin, his current ADP in NFBC leagues is 160 as the 50th starting pitcher off the board. Some of your league mates may already be believers but it is worth an inquiry to find any of the non-believers and pounce.
Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals, (Age: 31, Rank: 43)
A down 2020 has drafters dropping him into the third tier of starting pitchers, but a return to low-end number one/high-end number two is not out of the question in 2021. Corbin’s career season in 2018 with the Diamondbacks led to a long-term deal with the Nationals, and while 2019 was not as productive as 2018, it was still plenty good enough for us to rank him 20th overall among starters. In 2019 Corbin had an ERA of 3.25, FIP of 3.49, a K/BB of 3.40, and a WHIP of 1.18 over 202 innings, solid but not as strong as 2018.
In 2020 everything looked subpar, although an ugly 4.66 ERA does not look as bad with a FIP of 4.17 and an xFIP of 4.12. Another (small) silver lining was a BABIP of .362, well higher than his career average of .311. It is very hard to overlook Corbin’s 1.57 WHIP, however, which was the worst of his career. Corbin lost 1.7 miles off his fastball from 2019 to 2020, though only .6 miles different from his career year of 2018, so this is not necessarily a sign of decline or a death-knell for his fastball going forward. The Nationals as a team struggled in 2020 and a subpar year from Corbin in the nation’s capital was even more under the microscope, which often does come with a 2021 annual salary of $24 million. Public perception may focus on that dollar amount, but it matters not for fantasy purposes.
With the highest strikeout rates of this group, he is being drafted just before Gonzales and Civale as opposed to around Hendricks. As such, the most value to be had in 2021 of the four may lie with Corbin. A pitcher who will benefit from a full Spring training and regular schedule should show a positive return to form at his 2019 levels (expecting 2018 is going to lead to disappointment). If Corbin pitches well in the spring expect his ADP to rise like the temperature.
The aforementioned four starting pitchers are already very good SP2’s in 12-team leagues and fewer, and pairing them with a high strikeout SP1 is a great strategy. In larger leagues, combining them with high strikeout middle relievers and setup men can be the way to finish well in your league’s pitching categories in 2021. Based on their ADPs, I suggest choosing two of the four in back-to-back early-middle rounds (5-8 depending on league size) while taking elite hitters in the lead-up rounds. It will be difficult to watch the sexier names go, Buehler’s and de Grom’s and even Flaherty’s, but let them, and take hitters with higher floors or major upside. In Dynasty leagues, as long as you can weather the fewer strikeouts (much easier to do in head-to-head leagues), all are them are on my target list for the upcoming season and next couple.