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I Could've Been a Contender: Re-Evaluating Top Pitching Prospects

We get sucked in every year. Even if we try to talk ourselves out of it, we don't seem capable of following through. We see the GIFs of nasty strikeouts or read about dominance at the minor league level and we start fawning over the next big pitching prospect. We follow his progress as he tears through over-matched hitters, and then we scoop him up, thinking that we're getting a leg up on our competition. Then we get burned.

Each fantasy season, waiver wires are littered with names of former top pitching prospects that have been abandoned by some formerly lovestruck manager. The truth of the matter is, it's really hard to pitch in the major leagues. For every Ian Anderson or Shane McClanahan who comes up and immediately earns a regular spot in a starting rotation, there are plenty of guys who find themselves back in the minors or toiling for one inning at a time in the bullpen. However, just because the transition is hard doesn't mean that the adjustment will never happen. Just this year alone, we've seen pitchers like Adbert Alzolay, Julio Urias, Freddy Peralta and more begin to deliver on their talent years after they were the new, trendy young thing.

So how do we know when it's time to give up on the former top prospect or give him a second (or third) chance? That's what we'll try to unpack here. This list is filled with former top-100 pitching prospects who haven't quite met expectations in their stints in the Majors. I'll dig into their performances a little bit and then give you my opinion about whether or not you should keep the faith or leave them on the waiver wire for somebody else.

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Casey Mize, Detroit Tigers

Recently the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, Mize has been inconsistent in his major league career, compiling a 4.50 ERA and 19.9% strikeout rate in his first 86 innings. While not the level of struggle that many of the other pitchers on this list have endured, Mize's early returns have caused many fantasy managers to start re-evaluating their expectations for the 24-year-old. The biggest adjustment may be in the strikeout numbers we anticipate from him going forward. Mize struck out 120 batters over 123 minor league innings, numbers that aren't particularly impressive given the gaudy totals we've seen from other top arms. The issue is that many expected those numbers to improve as he developed as a pitcher. That hasn't really been the case yet.

In his debut last year, Mize had a 19.5% strikeout rate, 10.1% swinging strike rate (SwStr), and 23.9% CSW. His numbers have improved only slightly in 2021 to a 20.4% strikeout rate and 26.8% CSW. Those are still below average results, and he has actually taken a step back with some of his pitches. The splitter, which many believed to be his best pitch, has actually lost 10% on its whiff rate and 12% on its PutAway rate, while the slider (which is an evolution of the cutter he threw in 2020) has seen a 3% increase in whiff rate but a 6% decrease in PutAway rate. So even though Mize is allowing less hard contact, he hasn't really shown the swing-and-miss stuff that would get fantasy managers excited and elevate him to the fantasy stud that so many wanted him to be.


Contender - kind of. Mize is known for tinkering with his repertoire and working on his pitches until he gets them how he likes them. The improvements he's made this year show that he has the mental approach to be an effective major league pitcher. I just don't think you're going to ever see a guy who lives up to the expectations of the "top pitching prospect in baseball." He isn't that type of dominant arm that's going to carry a fantasy rotation. He's a good arm who will be a high floor, low ceiling type of pitcher who simply won't have the consistently high strikeout totals to be one of the top two arms on your fantasy squad. 


Chris Paddack, San Diego Padres

We all know the Chris Paddack story by now. The swaggering Texan burst onto the scene in 2019 thanks to one of the best change-ups in the minor leagues. He registered a 26.9% strikeout rate and a 3.33 ERA over 140 major league innings and had people dreaming of an even better future. Then he introduced a cutter, lost the feel for his fastball, stopped throwing his curveball altogether, and we've seen inconsistent results since then.

We got excited in early May when it seemed like Paddack was starting to throw his curve more often, but the pitch seems to have stabilized around 12% usage for him, which isn't quite what many of us have been hoping for. The pitch has a .091 batting average against, 33.8% CSW, and -0.76 deserved ERA (dERA). There is still something about the pitch that Paddack and the Padres don't like enough to warrant throwing it more. Perhaps it's that it only has a 10.8% SwStr, but it has a 42.1% whiff rate and is still useful as a strike pitch. I can't really see any argument for allowing him to continue as a two-pitch pitcher, especially when his fastball has lost vertical movement when compared to any fastballs of similar velocity and extension. This causes Paddack's fastball to appear flatter, which is why it has a .295 xBA and .498 xSLG this year, compared to a .209 xBA and .387 xSLG back in 2019


I still think the talent is there, but Paddack is essentially a one-pitch pitcher now. Even his rebound, which has seen him register a 3.09 ERA in the month of May has also seen him compile only a 7.71 K/9 and 22% strikeout rate. Until he starts using the curveball more or finds the life on his fastball again, that might be the version of Paddack we're most likely to see. It's worth rostering in fantasy leagues, but it's nothing close to the excitement we felt in 2019. I'm still hopeful for more, but it's been two years of the same stuff, so maybe my optimism is misplaced.


Spencer Howard, Philadelphia Phillies

After dominating A+ and Double-A in 2019, we were all eager to see what Spencer Howard could do in his major league call-up in 2020. While the six starts weren't overly impressive, there was still optimism heading into 2021. Now over two months into the season and the Phillies continues to limit his innings with the right-hander throwing just 13.2 innings across six appearances and three starts. However, there remains a lot to be optimistic about.

For starters, Howard has a strong pitch mix with a 95 MPH four-seam fastball that almost perfectly mirrors his curve. He also throws a changeup that pairs well with the fastball and a slider, which is actually his best breaking pitch.

It's also clear that Howard possesses swing-and-miss stuff. Visual evidence aside, he has also seen his SwStr jump from 9.8% last year to 12.2% this year, his whiff rate rose from 25.6% to 30.8%, and his overall CSW has gone from 27.1% to 31.2%. He has a CSW over 30% on every single one of his pitches, including 34% and above on the four-seam, changeup, and slider. He's also been limiting hard contact with a 3.1% barrel rate and .184 xBA.

A few of these metrics are certainly skewed by him pitching in shorter spurts, and he does have some control issues with a 17.2% walk rate, but I also think that is inflated by the approach of pitching in shorter bursts and throwing all out.


Contender - longterm - but pretender for 2021. The Phillies simply aren't going to push Howard this year. They've said as much. I wouldn't expect him to go longer than four innings in many of his starts, which makes him tough to use in fantasy leagues except deep leagues where he has accrued RP eligibility. However, if you're in a keeper or dynasty league and people have soured on Howard, I would absolutely be trying to add him. The repertoire is there and he has shown clear signs of improvement in his second crack at the big leagues. He'll be only 25 in 2022, and it could be a big year for him. 


Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Keller was once one of the top pitching prospects in the game and even put up a 3.56 ERA and 28.2% strikeout rate at Triple-A in 2019. He also had two crazy years in the majors when, in 2019, his actual results (7.13 ERA) were not supported by his predicted results (3.47 xFIP) and in 2020, where his actual results (2.91 ERA) were nowhere near his predicted results (6.57 xFIP). He's made it easier on us this year by being just flat out bad.

His SwStr remains a poor 8.4% and his CSW sits at 24.9%. The swing-and-miss stuff from his minor league days simply doesn't seem to have carried over, mainly due to the lack of depth in his arsenal. Keller added a slider a few years ago when he was in the high minors and that pitch quickly became his main strikeout weapon. It has remained his best pitch with a 16.9% SwStr this year to go along with a 30.6% whiff rate and .252 xBA. However, part of the reason those results aren't better despite the high SwStr% is because he doesn't have other pitches to keep hitters off of the slider. The fastball has fine velocity, but gets hit relatively hard and has a 5.46 dERA. The curve has a solid CSW thanks to a high called strike rate, but has a 5.04 dERA thanks to a .343 xBA.

So what you get is essentially a pitcher with some control issues who has one strong pitch and decent velocity on his fastball. That sounds like a potential reliever or...


Pretender. I think Keller could emerge as a solid reliever where he can pump 96-97 with the fastball and use his slider. However, the idea I left you hanging with before is also that Keller may find success by following the path of former teammate Tyler Glasnow. When we had Eric Cross on the Catcher's Corner, we mentioned how poorly the Pirates have developed pitching and then in researching for this article, I came across this great piece by Brett Barnett looking at the similarities between the former teammates. Now, I wouldn't go ahead and actively try to get Mitch Keller in leagues, but I would love to see him freed from Pittsburgh where an organization can refine his arsenal and hone in on a good third pitch.  


Corbin Martin, Arizona Diamondbacks

One of the co-headliners in the Zack Greinke trade, the Diamondbacks really need Corbin Martin to pan out. After missing all of 2020 while recovering from Tommy John, Martin began the year at Triple-A before being called up to the majors for two starts. While those two starts ended with a 9.00 ERA across nine innings, I would caution against reading into it too much. I actually think there is promise in Martin's arsenal.

He's mainly a fastball, changeup, curve pitcher with below-average CSW on all of his pitches in his brief major league stint. However, the curve has been a solid pitch for him in the minors and had a 42.9% whiff rate in his brief major league exposure. A lot of that has to do with how well it mirrors his fastball.

You can also see how the changeup has a similar trajectory as the fastball and many minor league scouting reports actually view that as his best secondary offering. You can see why from this clip during Martin's MLB debut pre-Tommy John.

In his minor league appearances, he's also shown a good, hard slider, which he throws around 88 MPH with tight break. The pitch acts more like a cutter so he can use the pitch to both righties and lefties. He didn't throw it much in his two starts, but the sample size was so small and much of the damage done against Martin in those two outings was because he left his fastball middle-middle too often.


Contender. I'm still in on Martin. I think he has at least three plus pitches and possibly four if we can see that slider carry over to the majors. I like the way his pitches play off of one another, which means there will be a fair amount of deception to his arsenal. I think Martin will get another crack with the Diamondbacks over the summer, and I'd keep an eye on him. Remember that this is a 25-year-old coming off of Tommy John surgery, so the command is going to take time to get right. Once he can start moving away from the middle of the plate and locating with a bit more precision, I think he can become a useful fantasy arm. 


Daniel Lynch, Kansas City Royals

Daniel Lynch had a very brief stint in the majors this year, getting clobbered for a 15.75 ERA in only three starts. I watched his debut in full and put together a detailed video breakdown which gives more insight into my reactions that I can do here, so I encourage you to check it out.

While my optimism for Lynch clearly didn't pan out after three starts, I'm not discouraged. Even with those dreadful MLB numbers, he still put up a 11.5% SwStr and 27.6% CSW, which should be way worse given the surface level results we see. He was also able to induce a 38% O-Swing% but suffered with a 90% Z-Contact rate and 23.5% barrel rate, which simply tells me that he was catching too much of the plate against major league hitters and they were doing damage.

He was likely able to be way less precise with location in the minors and get away with it because he has electric stuff, but he'll need to improve that command at the major league level. That is likely why you won't see him reach the heights of guys like Shane McClanahan or Alek Manoah. However, Lynch still has a strong slider and a plus fastball, which gives him a solid floor. If his changeup is able to gain more consistency, he can become an even more reliable starter.


Contender. He's not going to be the talent of the guys I mentioned above or like Ian Anderson bursting onto the scene in 2020, but I think Lynch will be a solid fantasy asset likely as early as this summer. I worry that his lack of consistency will prevent him from truly breaking out and reaching his ceiling, but he has a solid arsenal of pitches and two pitches in the change and slider that can miss bats. Think of him kind of as you did Dylan Cease: the talent is there and some starts and electric but others are maddening. However, the Dylan Cease we're getting right now is also why you keep the faith in pitchers who have this type of raw ability. 


Triston McKenzie, Cleveland Indians

McKenzie was a solid prospect but not really one that we expected much from when he was called up to the majors in 2020 after only throwing 90 innings at Double-A in 2018. However, the lanky righty pitched to a 3.24 ERA with a 33.1% strikeout rate and 26% K-BB% in an electric 33.1 inning debut. In 2020, we saw the strikeout rate remain (32.2%) but everything else crater as the 23-year-old lost a feel for his secondary pitches and put up a 19.1% walk rate and 6.26 ERA before getting sent down.

Looking at Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard shows the disturbing evidence that McKenzie couldn't command his arsenal this year. He had a BB% of 21.1% on his fastball, 17.9% on his slider, and 14.3% on his curve. As he struggled to locate the secondary offerings, he started leaning on his fastball more, but the pitch is only 91 MPH with below average movement, so it led to a 5.28 dERA on the pitch with five home runs, and a deserved Hard Hit% of 21.2%.

Considering McKenzie is 6'5" and only 175 pounds, I worry that the lack of command and the fastball velocity dip we saw this year are less about talent and more about his frame not being to hold up to a major league workload. You can hide durability concerns in the minor leagues when you have the raw stuff McKenzie does because your mistakes or lower velocity baseballs don't get punished the way they do in the majors. His O-Swing%, Chase rate, and Swing% were both down this year, which suggests that major league hitters had a better report on him and were no longer going to chase his offerings out of the strike zone. McKenzie's Zone% also fell to 41.9%, which simply isn't going to cut it at this level, but make no mistake about it, the raw stuff is still there.

Despite his struggles McKenzie had a 22.1% SwStr on his slider and 19.4% SwStr on his curve, with CSWs over 35% on both. But if he can't locate the pitches then we may not truly ever see the whole package come together.


Pretender. Remember that his strong results in 2020 were in only 33 innings and of the six starts he made, half of them were fewer than five innings. In fact, the Indians ended the year with him throwing two multi-innings stints out of the bullpen where he gave up one hit across four innings while striking out six and walking none. To me, that's a sign of his future. I simply don't think McKenzie has the build to hold up over a full season as a starter, but I think he has the stuff to be a strong reliever and that will be where he ends up when all is said an done. Perhaps even as some team's closer.


Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays

Nate Pearson may go down as the classic "What could have been" story. In 2019, the big right-hander seemed a lock to be a top of the rotation arm. However, like McKenzie, Pearson's build may keep him from getting there. Unlike McKenzie, Pearson is a hulking figure at 6'6" 250 pounds. Over the last two years, we've seen the consequence of that kind of frame without elite conditioning as Pearson has seemed to struggle with one injury after another.

This year, he has also given up too much contact in Triple-A, registering a 7.24 ERA across three starts despite a 42.4% strikeout rate. A lot of that likely has to do with him finding his rhythm after coming back from another soft tissue injury, but it's not going to expedite this path to the majors if he's giving up so many runs in the minors.

When healthy, we all know how well the stuff plays for Pearson. He routinely hits 100 MPH with his fastball and has a filthy slider, which makes for a near-unhittable combo.

He's still developing the changeup as a third pitch, which is why many people think the bullpen is Pearson's best home. However, the pitch has shown flashes, and the Blue Jays have done strong work with Robbie Ray and Steven Matz this year (not to mention the improvement Manoah made at the alternate site last year), so I'm inclined to believe in them.


Contender. I know many people see a dominant closer here, but I think Pearson can get his body in order and stick in the rotation. As a husky fella myself, I know that it sometimes takes a while to figure out how to truly maintain your level of fitness over the long haul, but I think that's a better situation to be in then the one McKenzie finds himself in. Pearson is only 24. It took his teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. a couple of years to truly get a hold on a MLB-level fitness program and we've even seen other oft-injured post-hype breakouts like Carlos Rodon after he came into this season in much better shape. I would look for Pearson to be up in the summer,but maybe expect some bumps along the way. However, I am excited about him coming into the 2022 season with a full offseason of conditioning and MLB player development. 

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Hey, RotoBallers! With Super Bowl LVIII in the books, the 2024 NFL offseason has officially begun. It's never too early to start preparing for fantasy football, and here at RotoBaller, it's always fantasy football season here at HQ. We are already looking ahead to the 2024 season, and that starts with the NFL Draft and... Read More

Ja'Marr Chase - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News, DFS and Betting Picks

Top Fantasy Football Rebound Candidates For 2024 Including Patrick Mahomes, Josh Jacobs, and Drake London

We may be in the heat of basketball season, but we're discussing a different kind of rebound today. Some of the most talented athletes in the world have suboptimal seasons but there's often a bounceback year in the near future. The talent isn't waning, the circumstances surrounding them have been altered. Below we dive into... Read More

Jayden Reed - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, Waiver Wire Pickups

Early 2024 Wide Receiver Sleepers And Draft Targets For Fantasy Football

There should be a lot of changes atop the wide receiver group in fantasy football next year. Players like Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams, and Cooper Kupp will all fall in drafts, while Puka Nacua will fly up drafts boards in 2024. Nacua will go from undrafted in 2023 to a likely top-20 pick this upcoming... Read More

Dan Campbell - NFL Head Coach, NFC, Detroit Lions

FFPC Dynasty Fantasy Football Orphan Teams: An Authentic Challenge

At its very core, the game of fantasy football is intended to deliver a unique experience in which you are an NFL owner, general manager, and head coach, all in one role. Seasonal fantasy football replicates the responsibilities in fun, user-friendly packaging, but fantasy football dynasty leagues appeal even more to a savvy fantasy player... Read More

2024 Dynasty Rookie Mock Draft: Fantasy Football Studs, Sleepers, and Values

Football never sleeps at RotoBaller! With the Scouting Combine underway and the NFL Draft season heating up, the countdown is on for 2024 fantasy football. We're taking a first look at how things might shape up in Dynasty fantasy drafts with our first Rookie Mock Draft of 2024. RotoBaller analysts Brandon Murchison and LaQuan Jones... Read More

Dak Prescott - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News, DFS Lineup Picks

Biggest Quarterback Surprises - Fantasy Football Year In Review

The 2023 fantasy football season is in the rearview mirror. While the upcoming fantasy season is still months away, it’s never too early to start preparing. One of the more critical things fantasy players can do to prepare is look back at the previous season and look at trends and surprises. Let’s look at the... Read More

Tyjae Spears - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, Waiver Wire Pickups

Early 2024 Running Back Sleepers And Draft Targets For Fantasy Football

Running backs have always dominated the first round of fantasy drafts, but that has changed in recent years. Taking a wide receiver in the first round has become a more likely strategy by fantasy managers. In 2024 drafts, more wideouts should be going in the first round than running backs. However, that doesn't mean running... Read More

Latest Updates on Injured NFL Quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Anthony Richardson, Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson, and Daniel Jones

The 2024 offseason is still in the early stages, but it's time to check on six franchise quarterbacks who suffered major injuries during the 2023 campaign. A franchise missing its quarterback to begin a season can mightily derail its chances to win, creating a massive hole to climb out of. We have the latest injury... Read More