Let's begin by taking a moment to recognize how fantastically nutty last year's pitching stats were, up and down the leaderboards. We knew going into 2020 that the combination of an imbalanced schedule, various opt-outs, and a 60-game mini-season could make things gloriously weird, and the numbers didn't disappoint. Three different qualified starters posted sub-2.00 ERAs, including a guy who struck out fewer than six batters per nine innings with an xFIP of 3.98 (Dallas Keuchel). Max Fried managed to go 7-0 despite pitching just 56.0 innings. A pair of relief pitchers — Matt Foster and Peter Fairbanks — came this close to leading all of MLB in wins.
It was wild, as anticipated. The game's elite starting pitchers still managed to deliver good-to-great seasons for the most part, except for those who suffered injuries (Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg). Even in a truncated season, the starting pitchers selected in the opening rounds of your fantasy draft were, generally speaking, plenty productive.
If we go back a year to 2019, when we last experienced a normal full-season schedule, the top-of-draft pitchers who remained healthy were, again, excellent. Four of the top-five starters selected in an average draft — Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer — managed to produce top-10 positional finishes. Eleven of the top-20 starters in terms of ADP delivered top-20 seasons (five of 20 had their years derailed by injuries.) Each of the top-six starting pitchers in the final ranks were among the top-20 in preseason ADP.
That's not to say, of course, that an ace can't be found later in a draft. In fact, in 2019, Shane Bieber, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Charlie Morton were all typically selected outside the top-100 picks, yet all produced stellar seasons. Lucas Giolito and Mike Soroka had breakout campaigns after going undrafted in nearly all mixed leagues.
Your best bet is to spend an early round pick on a starter
So it's certainly possible to find high-end pitching contributors outside the opening rounds. But the safest place to shop for dominant starters is still, without question, at the top of your draft. Gimme Cole, deGrom, or Bieber in the first, if possible. As a general rule, the upper-tier starting pitchers have been a bankable, reliable group (except when they break, which is no simple thing to predict; it can happen at any age or mileage). Somewhere in the first three rounds, I'm looking to snag a starter (or two) who can reasonably deliver 190 or more innings with a stellar K-rate and glittering ratios. It helps, certainly, if they're in a winning environment.
After choosing the foundational pieces of a fantasy rotation, however, I'm willing to ignore most (but not all) of the middle-tier arms, then grab a few late fliers and low-buzz vets. It isn't actually essential to have a fully built fantasy rotation entering the season, because talent will definitely go undrafted. You can (and should) plan to continue building. In mixed roto leagues, I'd be content to enter the year with two no-doubt aces and a collection of quality relievers — both closers and non-closers. Control the ratios early; add the counting stats carefully as the season unfolds. With so many teams now relying on relief pitchers as openers, it's not difficult to find excellent relievers with SP eligibility.
If you're reaching for starters, consider these guys
Adding JOE MUSGROVE may not have even been one of the ten splashiest things the Padres did this offseason, but it has a chance to be among the team's most impactful moves. He may have only started eight games for the Pirates last season, but his swing-and-miss numbers were phenomenal. He posted a career-best 12.48 K/9 with a swinging-strike rate of 14.4 percent. The whiff rate on Musgrove's curve — a pitch he used with greater frequency in 2020 — was a ridiculous 53.2 percent, making it the fifth most difficult pitch in the game to touch. He and Bieber were the only two pitchers to post a whiff% of greater than 50 percent on two of their pitches. I'm buying Musgrove in a big way now that he's a member of the Pads.
DYLAN BUNDY is entering a contract year (for whatever that's worth) and coming off a terrific mini-season for Los Angeles. He has the look of another leave-Baltimore-and-thrive success story. Bundy struck out 72 batters over 65.2 innings, delivering a 1.04 WHIP and 3.29 ERA (2.95 FIP) while almost never giving up loud contact (8 barrels, 5 HR). He's a former blue-chip prospect with a deep arsenal and nothing about his 2020 performance seems fluky. I'm still interested.
If you want to dive deeper into the player pool, 25-year-old ADBERT ALZOLAY re-arrived in the big leagues last year with a brand new weapons-grade slider ...
... and he struck out 29 batters in 21.1 innings. Walks have certainly been an issue, but he's a clear breakout candidate, available in the end-game.
Starting pitchers to fade at the draft table
The easiest fade among starting pitchers is anyone currently recovering from an arm injury — and yeah, unfortunately, that means Chris Sale and Luis Severino. As Scott Pianowski will often tell you, don't run to trouble. It rarely pays to be overly optimistic on injury recovery timelines. No matter where I rank the rehabbers, I'm likely to pivot to another position when their names reach the top of the queue. We probably have to throw DINELSON LAMET onto the watch list as well after his late shutdown in 2020, though he's recently declared himself 100 percent. A few positive spring reports on Lamet would help the cause, though we need to keep in mind that a dozen starts basically finished him last summer. MIKE SOROKA has been the subject of plenty of good reports as he rehabs from Achilles surgery, but he's no lock for opening day. He's the rare NL pitcher we'd feel better about if MLB went to the universal DH; the Braves surely don't want to see Soroka hitting or running the bases.
I also haven't been able to talk myself into COREY KLUBER now that he's entering his age-35 season, coming off various injuries and pitching in a hitter-friendly environment. He'd lost a tick of velocity when last we saw him (not that velocity is everything for Kluber), another sign of age. Vintage Kluber was of course absurdly dominant, so we can't completely rule out a resurgence. But good luck finding a projection system that loves him in 2021.
If you play in any sort of format that caps your innings for the season — and that's Yahoo's default in roto — then you can't mess around with DALLAS KEUCHEL-types. You need to be thinking K-rate with pretty much every pitcher, and, again, Keuchel didn't even reach 6.0 K/9 last season while posting unsustainable fantasy ratios. You just can't carry guys like this and expect to compete in Ks.
One last thing: I don't want to dissuade you from drafting any Dodgers pitchers, because they've collected a group of aces and near-aces and someday-aces. But I do want to point out that LA hasn't allowed anyone, Kershaw included, to throw even 185 innings since 2015. I'd be shocked if a healthy Trevor Bauer didn't top that total this year (with ease), but it's a team with uncommon pitching depth and seemingly unlimited resources to acquire additional talent. We shouldn't expect any Dodgers starter to finish at or near the top of the innings leaderboard.