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2021 Fantasy Baseball Pitching Awards

corbin burnes fantasy baseball rankings MLB news sleepers DFS lineup picks

The World Series is underway, promising us a new champion this year. It will be followed soon thereafter by the announcement of the 2021 MLB Awards. Among those are MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, and the usual annual hardware that is doled out to those most deserving.

For fantasy baseball purposes, we view things from a slightly different perspective. It's not just about who is most valuable -- as always, we go deeper than that.

In this piece, we will highlight players who may not earn postseason accolades but deserve recognition from the fantasy community for their contributions.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!


Best Draft Value

It all starts with the draft and finding that mid-to-late rounder that produces like a first-rounder. That's the kind of value we're talking about. Here are pitchers drafted outside the top 100 overall that were potential league-winners in 2021.

Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants
Tyler Mahle, Cincinnati Reds

We have to broach the topic of what constitutes "value" in the most appropriate way. Zack Wheeler was indisputably a top-10 SP in all formats and was drafted as SP25 with an industry-wide ADP of 87 overall. All these candidates were taken outside the top 100, however, and provided top-20 SP production so they were arguably better values on draft day. There are various ways to quantify this using whatever formula you desire but to me there is a clear winner regardless of methodology.

Julio Urias won a Major League-high 20 games and was the only pitcher to reach that mark. Nobody else even won 18 games. A 2.96 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 195 K all put him in the same neighborhood as the best pitchers of 2021. While Gausman bests him with 227 K, I put more weight on the advantage in wins since it was so significant.


Biggest Draft Bust

Players who were injured for the majority of the season won't be considered. It may have been a wasted pick but the term bust implies a poor draft decision and overall disappointment based on expectations. No Trevor Bauer either. We're looking at guys who actively tanked your standings in roto leagues.

Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels
Jesus Luzardo, Miami Marlins
Zach Plesac, Cleveland Guardians

I'm going to do NotBurtReynolds a solid and scratch Bundy off the list. He looked fine in April but then got blown up to the tune of 13 ER in consecutive starts in early May and followed it up with two more poor starts. By that time, Mike Trout was already on the IL and it was clearly time to abandon ship on Bundy and the Angels so we had a chance to get out before further damage was done.

Similarly, Luzardo was hit hard in his first outing of the year and never recovered. Another IL stint and subsequent trade to Miami relegated to nothing more than a stash on dynasty teams.

That makes our winner none other than Zach Plesac, who parlayed a dominating 55-inning short season in 2020 into an ADP within the top 100 overall. Over a full 2021 season, his ERA rose nearly two and a half runs, his WHIP rose by .40 and his K% fell to a measly 16,7%. He continued to eat up innings with mediocre outings and never provided value to fantasy teams. Plesac at least kept his WHIP respectable at 1.20 thanks to a low walk rate but he was mostly an albatross in the rotation for fantasy teams.


Best Waiver Wire Pickup

The sleeper that woke up. The breakout performer of 2021. For this category, we will only consider players that were outside the top 250 overall ADP through the month of March. Obviously, ADP data varies across platforms and league size affects availability so there will be players that were added in some leagues that weren't available in others. The intent here is to identify a player who was an afterthought in the preseason that became an integral part of winning rosters.

Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox
Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox
Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays

Trevor Rogers, Miami Marlins
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

There were too many deserving candidates to narrow the list to three and this might be the toughest category to decide. Early in the year, Rodon was the runaway winner. He posted a 0.58 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, and 44-9 K-BB over his first five starts. He missed a couple of weeks in August and then saw his innings limited in September, allowing others to catch up to him.

Adam Wainwright had a career revival for the ages and ended the year hotter than anyone. What's remarkable is that he lost his first three starts of the season but ended on a six-game winning streak and finished with 17 victories, second-most in the bigs. His strikeout totals leave him a bit behind the rest of this pack, though.

Like most Marlins pitchers, Trevor Rogers is both helped and hurt by being in Miami. A favorable home park and placement in an organization that knows how to develop pitching work in his favor but lack of run support and competitive environment hold him back. Ultimately, Rogers was tremendous on a per-start basis but held a 7-8 record and pitched 133 innings total.

Dylan Cease led the league with a 12.3 K/9 and 32 games started, proving to be an extremely valuable workhorse. He also led the league in wild pitches (12) and barely kept his ERA under 4.00 which drops him just below our winner in this area.

Give Toronto pitching coach Pete Walker credit for reigning in Robbie Ray and his trademark wildness and helping him to lower his walk rate down to a 6.9% mark. His impressive campaign came after a 2020 season where his walk rate ballooned to 17.9% and his 1.90 WHIP put his rotation spot into question. He led the majors with 248 strikeouts and finished with a 1.05 WHIP, leading the Blue Jays to the verge of a wild card spot. Anyone who took a chance by adding him even after he walked six batters in his second start of the season was greatly rewarded. It's possible Ray himself gets awarded with some hardware. If nothing else, he'll be rewarded financially wherever he plays next year.

Late-Season Savior

These pitchers may have been late-season pickups, bench stashes who suddenly became must-starts, or simply guys who turned it on at the right time with a blazing September to help fantasy teams down the stretch.

Alek Manoah, Toronto Blue Jays
Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants
Ranger Suarez, Philadelphia Phillies

In his MLB debut, Manoah shut out the Yankees over six frames on May 27. After that, he was either dominant or playing soft toss on any given start. It looks like he cured his gopheritis down the stretch, though. In his last four starts spanning 26 2/3 innings, Manoah only allowed one homer and struck out 35 batters while posting a 1.69 ERA. He happened to earn a victory in each of those four starts, two of which came against Tampa Bay. That's a great sign for his 2022 value but not quite big enough of a sample size to win this award.

If only we could count Webb's playoff stats... He dominated the mighty Dodgers lineup twice in the NLDS, allowing one ER in two starts that each lasted seven innings or more, striking out 17 and walking one batter in the process. But that didn't help fantasy managers during the season. Webb kicked off the year in rough fashion and then settled down before missing all of June on the IL. He came back stronger than ever, posting a 1.41 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 41-7 K-BB rate in August. He slipped a bit in September but was still steady with a 3.75 ERA and 39 K in 36 IP. Webb became an SP2 anchor in many rotations but the final two weeks of the season weren't his best, so the unlikely winner of this award is a converted reliever who was much farther removed from the fantasy radar than the other two candidates here, both of whom were high-end prospects.

Ranger Suarez began the year in Philly's infamously bad bullpen. He posted solid ratios but was moved to the rotation just after the trade deadline once the team moved Spencer Howard, as they were already trying to fill a spot for the injured Zach Eflin. At first, his outings were brief; only once did he pass the five-inning mark in a game in August. Then a light switched on and magic happened. Suarez was lights out the rest of the way, allowing just five ER in his final 39 innings with a 0.95 WHIP. The only downside is that he only notched four wins after the All-Star break but his out-of-nowhere dominance for a player you could slot in at RP was simply awesome.


Most Valuable Reliever

While many leagues are converting to SV+HLD and we acknowledge the points league players who don't rely on saves nearly as much, the most popular format remains 5x5 roto and thus, these candidates will be evaluated from that lens.

Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox

What about Josh Hader?? He fell just behind our three finalists in saves but also tossed just 58 2/3 innings whereas the other three all had at least 64 IP under their belts. Only two closers finished with more strikeouts than Hader and that makes this decision easy because one of them was Liam Hendriks. The other was Raisel Iglesias, for those playing at home.

Hendriks fulfilled every expectation the Sox had when they signed him in the offseason and helped guide the pitching staff to the second-best team ERA in the American League. It was a bumpy start to his tenure in Chicago as he gave up two runs in his first appearance of the season, another run two games later, and finished April with a 4.35 ERA and four HR allowed in his first 10 innings. It was lights out the rest of the way. Hendriks' 38 saves were tops in the AL and one behind Melancon for the Major League lead. In most cases, spending early draft capital on a closer comes back to bite you but in this case, it was well worth it.

Most Valuable Starter

Same as above. Which SP helped fantasy managers the most from beginning to end?

Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
Max Scherzer, Los Angeles Dodgers
Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

First of all, honorable mentions to players who nearly missed the cutoff here including Zach Wheeler, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and others.

On to the winner, which is a very tough call. It's no wonder the Dodgers posted the lowest ERA in the majors when Mad Max was brought on to fill in for an injured Clayton Kershaw. By the way, Julio Urias won 20 games and was also a top-five SP. The addition of Scherzer wasn't enough to lead them to another championship but his strong work between both coasts puts him as a strong runner-up to his teammate.

As impressive as Corbin Burnes was for the Brew Crew, Walker Buehler gets my vote. Their ratios are nearly identical and Burnes struck out 22 more batters but Buehler notched five more victories and pitched 40 more innings. I'd argue that wins are more valuable in roto leagues since it's easier to make up the difference in Ks. Looking at it from a points league perspective, Buehler edges out Burnes 684-668 because of that difference in innings. Burnes definitely wound up being the better draft pick because he was taken about 40 spots later on average but in terms of overall productivity, Buehler has the ever-so-slight edge.

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