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Baseball’s pitching environment is changing, and it now looks like the era of the high-volume ace — think 215 innings or more — is over.
What this implies for fantasy baseball is a growing need to mix and match your pitching staff, get the most out of each game your particular pitchers produce, and look for value on that side of the ball anywhere you can. You can’t just “set it and forget it” with your pitching staff anymore, especially with workloads like these:
Sandy Alcantara, Walker Buehler, Adam Wainwright, and Zack Wheeler were the only four pitchers to reach 200 innings in any entire season in 2021. There were nine less than in the season after that, 2018.
A total of 180 innings were pitched by a record-low 20 pitchers, 12 more than in 2018.
The ERA championship was won by a record-low 39 pitchers, six less than in 1955.
The 55 pitchers who threw 150 innings or more equaled the modern-era record, which was established in 1951 and duplicated in 1955.
Only at the 140-inning mark were no records broken in 2021, but even then, the 68 players who did so were the fewest in 61 years.
The reason for all of this is clubs’ growing desire to maximize the value of every inning they can get out of their pitchers — and, sure, the fact that this is the first full season after the pandemic-shortened 2020 helped. Teams are increasingly yanking ineffective Pitchers who start games from games, especially after they’ve made two trips through the opponent’s lineup, and replacing them with hard-throwing, elite-skills relievers who give them the best chance to overpower hitters. There may be some springback to innings totals in 2022, but “innings eaters” appear to be a thing of the past, as teams are increasingly yanking ineffective Pitchers who start games from games, especially after they’ve made Make no mistake: this tendency is about strategy as much as it is about keeping armaments.
In order to compensate, we must adapt in fantasy baseball, treating innings pitched as an increasingly strong measure of pitching success — they literally equal outs, after all, which is a pitcher’s most important duty — but more importantly, valuing the contributions each of our pitchers makes with the innings they deliver. Fantasy teams will progressively flip over staffs, stream starters, plug in useful relievers, and perform lineup “homework” as the game evolves in this direction, and it’s vital that you stay up with what will undoubtedly become a trend in our own league.
So, how does a fantasy manager go about doing this? Simple: lean on the aces, who deliver the most bang for your buck, but surround them with a staff of strong-armed, “huge bang for the buck” pitchers on the back end. Finding value in pitching is, in my opinion, more crucial than ever.
That’s where my piece, which I write every year, comes in. Reviewing the previous season’s statistics for pitchers whose typical rotisserie numbers were disappointing, falling out of line with their real talent, is one of the finest methods to find draft-day value on the pitching side, not to mention build a list of useful in-season acquisitions. Wins, saves, and ERA were formerly widely used as signs of success, but as we go further into the twenty-first century, we know that a pitcher’s ability to miss bats, throw strikes, and command the strike zone are the genuine indicators. A pitcher’s roto numbers should improve over time with those talents, even if they didn’t in 2021.
These are my yearly “Kings of Command,” pitchers who have fulfilled a strict set of statistical benchmarks proving mastery of these abilities.
Baseline figures for Kings of Command
During the 2021 major league season, pitchers who qualified for inclusion outperformed the big-league averages in all of the following categories, as noted below. While serving in that particular capacity, Pitchers who start games must have faced at least 200 hitters, and Pitchers who throw in relief must have faced at least 100 batters.
Pitchers who start games
The swinging-strike rate (SwStrk percent) must be at least 12.0%. 60.5 percent or greater first-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk percent) 2.77 or greater command rate (K’s per walk or K/BB)
Pitchers who throw in relief
12.7 percent or greater swinging-strike rate (SwStrk percent) The striking rate on the first pitch (1stPStrk percent) is 59.2 percent of the time. 2.35 or greater command rate (K’s per walk or K/BB) 20.5 percent or greater put-away rate (Strikeouts per 2-strike count)
Using these thresholds, only 96 pitchers (43 starters and 53 relievers) met all of these criteria in either role. Among them were the National League’s Cy Young Award winner, Corbin Burnes, seven of the top eight Pitchers who start games on our ESPN Player Rater (and 12 of the top 18 in terms of fantasy points scored), and each of the top three relievers using either scoring method.
The nine pitchers listed below, on the other hand, qualified despite garnering much less attention. They all compared well to the headline-makers in terms of raw abilities, implying that everyone may be one tiny tweak, enlarged position, or just improved luck away from a fantasy breakout in 2022.
My yearly “Kings of Command” are listed alphabetically, along with their Player Rater finishes and fantasy point totals based on ESPN’s standard scoring system for 2021.
2021 Player Rater: SP134/511th overall 2021 fantasy point total: 153 JT Brubaker, Pittsburgh Pirates (SP126)
Why he’s on this site: Brubaker had a solid start to the season, earning six quality starts, a 3.82 ERA, and a 4.41 K/BB ratio in 14 appearances through the end of June before succumbing to gopher-itis and a slew of ailments. Despite a difficult second half, the right-hander had above-average full-season rates of 13.0 percent swinging strikes, 3.39 K/BB, and 7.1 percent walks, and he adds a nasty slider, with a 24.5 percent swinging-strike rate among pitchers who threw at least 500 of them. At the very least, Brubaker’s pitching-friendly surroundings, PNC Park, considerably improves his matchups potential.
How he might improve: Staying healthy, since Brubaker missed most of 2019 due to a forearm ailment, in addition to the thumb and shoulder issues that ruined his 2021 second half. Another area where he can improve is his home run rate, as 4.6 percent of batters he’s faced in his two big-league seasons have hit him for a home run, the fifth-highest percentage among pitchers with at least 171 2/3 innings.
Logan Gilbert, Seattle Mariners 2021 Player Rater: SP90/319th overall Fantasy Point Total for 2021: 227 (SP82)
Why he’s on this site: Gilbert’s first taste of the big leagues didn’t seem to be anything spectacular at first sight, as indicated by his above-mentioned fantasy results and 4.68 ERA. However, look under the surface, and all of the right-underlying hander’s skills indications were in line with his stellar minor-league performance, with his 4.57 K/BB from his May 13 debut forward ranking 15th among the 87 pitchers with at least 100 innings over that time frame in the majors. Gilbert’s four-seam fastball, in particular, was outstanding, with Statcast rating it at minus-19 runs over average, the fifth-best rate among four-seam fastballs in the league for the entire season.
What he could do better: He has to work on his secondary offerings, as his slider and changeup were responsible for 10 of his 17 home runs, but that should improve with time. Gilbert would also benefit if he could reduce any or both of his 32.8 percent fly-ball and 44.6 percent hard-contact percentages, since the two combined might be terrible in terms of home runs.
Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles Dodgers 2021 Player Rater: SP129/479th overall 2021 fantasy point total: 195 Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles Dodgers 2021 Player Rater: SP129/479th overall 2021 fantasy point total: 195 Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles (SP96)
Why he’s on this site: The Dodgers saw what sleeper-seeking fantasy managers saw in Heaney when they signed him to a one-year, $8.5 million contract in November (the first big move by any club this offseason). With a high-spin, 13.4% swinging-strike fastball and 15.7 percent swinging-strike curveball, he boasts borderline-elite swing and miss stuff. His 14.3 percent swinging-strike rate over the previous three seasons combined ranks 12th best among 79 pitchers who made at least 50 starts. Although I pointed out that there are major distinctions that discourage the comparison, folks instantly tossed out the “2022’s Robbie Ray” comparisons at the time of the signing.
How he can improve: Heaney has to cut down on the home runs, as he let allowed one to 4.7 percent of batters he faced from 2019 to 21, the fifth-highest rate among pitchers with 50 or more starts — but it won’t be easy. The Dodgers may prefer to work with him on pitching out of the stretch, since his.289/.336/.515 batting averages in such circumstances over the previous three seasons are a big part of the issue.
Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies 2021 Player Rater: SP40/149th overall fantasy point total for 2021: 375 (SP29)
Why he’s on this site: Nola, the “one of these names is not like the others” entry, had a top-five fantasy starting season (2018) and three top-20 fantasy starter seasons (2018-20), but his typical rotisserie season in 2021 was a bust. He had the second-worst ERA (4.63) and innings-per-start average (5.7), and he gave up 1.30 HR/9, his lowest career rate, but his 5.2 percent walk and 5.72 K/BB rates were personal bests. Nola’s appearance on the list serves as a reminder that even the best players in the game can have horrible luck with their stat lines, and if he’s dropping even halfway to that SP40 positional finish in your draft, he’s a complete value given his still-excellent raw talents.
Can baseball decide to use the universal designated defensive replacement as a way to better him? The Phillies’ full disregard for defense this winter may make it difficult to fix Nola’s stats in 2021, but his 66.8% strand rate should improve, and it’s quite improbable he’ll produce an ERA more than a run and a quarter higher than his xERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. One area where he should improve is his career-high (by far) 27.0 percent fly-ball rate. Better placement with his fastball would help, as it currently has a.522 projected slugging percentage, the lowest of any pitch he’s thrown since 2015.
2021 Player Rater: Bailey Ober, Minnesota Twins SP112/414th overall 2021 fantasy point total: 176 (SP109)
Ober reached Minnesota for real last June on the basis of four impressive Triple-A starts (2.81 ERA), a sneaky-elite changeup, and arguably of the greatest control in the Twins’ minor-league system, despite never being considered a top prospect. Ober maintained his precise control and the quality of his changeup, his walk rate 5.0 percent and his changeup earning a 30.8 percent called-strike rate, ninth-highest among pitchers who threw as least as many as he did in 20 major-league starts. Though he isn’t a high-ceiling pitcher, his command and variety of pitches offer him a real shot for a breakout in 2022.
How he can improve: Ober, like Nola and many of the other pitchers on this list, has to cut down on the fly balls, which he threw 34.2 percent of the time as a rookie. While he’s mostly a fly-baller, that’s still a lot more than he allowed in the minors. Ober also needs his changeup (his best pitch) to function better than it did in his first 10 starts (a 14.4% swinging-strike rate, no walks, and a.188 BAA) (7.8 percent swinging strikes, 6.3 percent walks, .333 BAA).
Chris Paddack, San Diego Padres 2021 Player Rater: SP116/439th overall 2021 fantasy point total: 165 Chris Paddack, San Diego Padres 2021 Player Rater: SP116/439th overall (SP118)
Why he’s on this site: Paddack’s fantasy productivity has slipped from his fantastic first four months in the major league, when he had seven wins, seven quality starts, and a 2.78 ERA in 18 appearances to open 2019, with just 13 wins, 15 quality starts, and a 4.90 ERA in 42 starts and one relief appearance afterwards. Despite this, his underlying analytics haven’t moved far from his early success, with his swinging-strike rate (12.7 percent, up from 12.2 percent) and average fastball velocity (94.4 mph, up from 93.9) both improving throughout his slump. Paddack may have gotten more attention in fantasy drafts if it hadn’t been for a UCL sprain that stopped his 2021 season early, but recent indicators suggest he’s fine again.
Paddack’s continuous improvement of the curveball, which he threw a career-high 12.3 percent of the time and produced a.163 BAA (supported by a.205 Statcast predicted batting average) and 19-of-99 Ks from, is critical to his recapturing the future-ace potential many saw in him three years ago. He may also increase his 63.6 percent first-pitch strike rate to closer to 69.8 percent in 2019-20, as well as pitch better with runners on base, with his 60.7 percent strand rate in 2021 falling well short of his combined 76.4 percent rate in 2019-20.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers 2021 Player Rater: SP73/264th overall Fantasy Point Total: 298 for 2021 (SP49)
Why he’s on our list: Perhaps no pitcher improved his skill set more last season than Rodriguez, despite the fact that those gains went completely unnoticed. He’s improved his swinging-strike rate in each of his last five seasons (excluding his 2020 season due to myocarditis and comparing his 2021 to 2019 in that pattern), had the lowest walk rate of his career (7.0 percent) in 2021, and had the biggest gap between his actual wOBA allowed (.330) and his Statcast expected wOBA allowed (.330) in the majors (.288). Rodriguez then signed a huge free-agent deal with the Tigers, where he’ll play primarily AL Central opponents, with the AL Central averaging 4.48 runs per game last season (compared to the AL East’s 4.82).
What he could do better: Rodriguez’s 1.27 ERA/xERA split (4.74 ERA, 3.47 Statcast xERA) was also the second-widest in that direction among ERA qualifiers, as indicated by the aforementioned wOBA stats and his 1.27 ERA/xERA split (4.74 ERA, 3.47 Statcast xERA). Given his injury history, more volume would be beneficial, albeit he’s now two years out from the heart problem and did have a 203 1/3-inning season in 2019.
2021 Player Rater: SP69/255th overall 2021 fantasy point total: 260 Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers (SP68)
Why he’s on this site: Skubal has already played three productive “half-seasons” at this level, and has made remarkable progress in each of them, while not being considered nearly the quality prospect that Casey Mize or Matt Manning were at the time of their 2020 big-league debut. Skubal’s xFIP was 4.81 in 2020, 4.37 in the first half of 2021, and 3.61 in the second half of 2021, owing in large part to his remarkable increases in walk and ground-ball rates. After producing a 3.89 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 10 starts over the last two months of last season, he’s become a popular sleeper, but with increasing skill-related numbers to back him up.
How he could improve: He has a lot of options, which is why he’s such a popular choice. He can keep his control improvements since his second-half walk rate was just 3.7 percent. He can continue to improve against right-handed batters, who batted.237 against him with a 28.3 percent strikeout rate in that 10-game season-ending split, but still slugged.481. Skubal’s fastball, which has been consistently 94.3 mph in the majors but yielded a.291 batting average (and.306 xBA) and 22 home runs last season, needs to demonstrate the potential it showed in the minors.
Tyler Wells, Baltimore Orioles 2021 Player Rater: RP81/336th overall fantasy point total for 2021: 147 (RP92)
Why he’s on this list: He’d be the lone “closer” on this year’s list if it weren’t for the Orioles’ decision to stretch him out for a rotation tryout this spring. Wells’ fantasy worth would be higher right away if he were the team’s closer, which he almost certainly would be if he had a successful camp, but in his first season back from Tommy John surgery in May 2019, he produced sneaky-good command stats that could play in any capacity. His 5.42 K/BB ratio ranked 17th out of 338 pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched this season, as he only walked 4-of-133 hitters after Memorial Day.
How he can improve: Wells has always been a high-fly-ball pitcher, but his 39.7% rate, which was fourth-highest among pitchers who faced at least as many batters as he did, was absurdly high even for him. Bringing it down even significantly would help, but he’d also benefit from better with runners on base, like Heaney did in 2021, when he surrendered.288/.322/.563 rates.
The master list of qualifiers for Kings of Command
Listed below, with Pitchers who start games on the left and Pitchers who throw in relief on the right in ascending order of their 2021 Statcast expected ERA (xERA), are all 96 pitchers who met all of the Kings of Command criteria.
2022: Kings of Command
The “fantasy baseball player profiles” is a new book that tells the story of how some players in the MLB used to be kings of command. The stories are told from the perspective of each player and the author, who is an author for ESPN.
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