Fantasy Baseball 2021: Starting Pitcher Sleepers To Target Part 1

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

Even with football taking over the American sports world for the time being, fantasy baseball never sleeps, so it’s important to continue doing research throughout the offseason so you’re as prepared as possible to dominate your drafts this Spring. 2020 wasn’t a full season, so using only 2020 stats to identify players you may want to target in your 2021 drafts is ill-advised. Using a sample size that leaks into a player’s past seasons will help you better analyze their performances and what we could possibly expect from them in the near future. With all that being said, this is part one of a four-part series that will highlight a total of twenty starting pitching sleepers for the 2021 fantasy baseball season. In this first piece, I am going to dive into five starting pitchers who are not currently being considered top tier options, but have the talent and potential to exceed expectations in the upcoming fantasy season. Let’s get to it!

Freddy Peralta, 24-years-old, Brewers

Fun fact: in 2018, Peralta threw 1,381 pitches over 78.1 innings pitched, 77.5% of those pitches were his four-seam fastball. In 2019, that percentage rose to 78.4%. It’s clear Peralta has relied heavily on his fastball to begin his MLB career, but it leaves those on the outside looking in asking why? Well the short answer is, his fastball is an above average offering. He’s thrown the pitch 2,727 times in his MLB career and he has never earned a SwStr% less than 10.9% in any season. Additionally, it has earned a 29.7% strikeout rate (17.6% K-BB), a .230 batting average against and has a whopping 56.1% zone. The high zone% and consistent SwStr% indicates that Peralta is getting plenty of swings and misses on his fastball when he throws it in the zone, with an impressive 79.1% Z-contact rate on the pitch helping us get a closer look at the full picture: Peralta throws his fastball a lot, he throws it in the zone a lot, and batters do not make a lot of contact against the pitch when thrown in the zone. It feels like this should be the other way around, throwing a fastball excessively in the zone should lead to an abundant amount of contact, so what makes Peralta’s fastball so special?

Well, it seems batter’s cannot catch up to his fastball when he throws it up in the zone compared to lower in the zone. Per Brooks Baseball, since 2018, Peralta has earned a whiff% of about 28.9% in the upper third of the strike zone, compared to just 9.0% in the bottom third of the strike zone. This is due to his fastball’s ability to generate a lot of RPM, or revolutions per minute. Peralta’s fastball RPM marks were at 2,416 in 2020, 2,454 in 2019, and 2,389 in 2018. In fact, his fastball’s spin MLB percentile ranking has never been below the 80th percentile in any season since his MLB debut. When a batter faces Peralta and Peralta throws one his fastball’s up in the zone, the pitch appears to have a rising effect due to it’s high spin rates. This makes it harder for the batter to square up the pitch and make solid contact. The higher a fastball’s velocity and the higher its spin rate, the more likely it is the pitch generates a healthy amount of swinging strikes and that is exactly what has happened throughout Peralta’s career up to this point.

Now, let’s make all this information make more sense. Perlata’s fastball velocity averaged just 91.4 mph in 2018, but rose up to 94.1 in 2019 and 93.4 in 2020. Does this mean…Yup, you guessed it! In 2019 and 2020, his fastball earned a 14.0% and 14.6% SwStr, respectively. With his fastball increasing in velocity mixed with above average spin rates, batter’s are having an even harder time making solid contact against his fastball, specifically when he throws it up in the zone as aforementioned. Even more, over the past two seasons, his fastball has earned a 118:42 K:BB, along with a 16.8% K-BB in 2019 and 29.1% K-BB in 2020. With his fastball earning a 14.7% K-BB in 2018, it is clear that his fastball’s effectiveness is growing stronger with experience.

But is his fastball his only useful offering? Of course not! He also possesses a curveball and a slider. He did test a changeup in 2018 and 2019, but he didn’t throw it once in 2020. His curveball has earned a 33.6% K-BB and 10.0% SwStr since his debut, while his newly founded slider that he started throwing in 2020 earned a 27.9% K-BB and a whopping 20.8% SwStr. He only threw it 144 times over 29.1 innings, but adding another effective pitch to his arsenal is a very positive sign for his development as an effective starting pitcher. It is noteworthy that he has worked primarily as a long-reliver since early 2019, but taking the pressure off a young pitcher like Peralta by bringing him into the game later and letting someone else start could he helping him fine tune his stuff more comfortably. And based off the numbers, it seems he is developing well.

Heading into 2021, the Brewers currently have Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff as their clear 1-2 punch. That leaves Adrian Houser, Josh Lindblom, Brett Anderson, Brent Suter and Peralta competing for a spot in the rotation for 2021. The Brewers signed Peralta to a five-year, $15.5M extension last February, so their plans for him are long-term, and I believe 2021 is the year we begin to see Peralta blossom into a solid starting pitcher and reliable fantasy asset as the Brewers plans for him begin to unfold. Due to the current uncertainty surrounding his immediate 2021 role, he’ll likely be a late-round selection in drafts this offseason, making him one of the more ideal sleeper options of the 2021 season. His fastball is only going to continue to improve the more he uses it, as will his slider and curveball, and hopefully his changeup.

However, as intriguing as his potential is, there are still some question marks about his game. He’s yet to earn a groundball rate over 35.0%, so he does allow a healthy amount of flyballs which has led to 25 home runs allowed over the first 192.2 innings pitched of his MLB career. This is understandable given his tendency to throw a lot of fastballs and to throw those fastballs up in the zone. His control isn’t perfect and sometimes he misses his spot and batter’s punish him for it. So while you may see more flyballs out of him than you want, he doesn’t allow a lot of hard hit balls (36.9% career hard hit rate), meaning over time, it’s likely his FB% and GB% will even out to respectable rates. With all that being said, don’t leave the 2021 offseason without at least one share of this budding stud. In dynasty leagues, go grab him today if you have the roster space. I always advocate for buying talent, and Peralta is talented AND is flying under-the-radar, so get yourself some shares while his price is cheap. His time is coming, and it’s coming soon.

Zach Eflin, 26-years-old, Phillies

I’m a Phillies fan, so it only felt right to include a young Phillies arm. Everyone knows about Spencer Howard and his potential, but does everyone know how good Zach Eflin is and could be?

Well let’s start from the beginning of his MLB career. Over his first 255.2 innings pitched, he earned just a 11.2% K-BB, a 40.6% groundball rate, a 4.61 SIERA, and 8.4% SwStr. Over his last 222.1 innings pitched, he’s earned a 14.3% K-BB, 45.1% groundball rate, 4.49 SIERA, and a 9.3% SwStr%. These are not huge improvements, but it is clear he has been a marginally better pitcher over his last 222.1 innings pitched.

In his rookie season, Eflin threw his four-seam fastball the most, along with a slider, sinker, changeup and curveball. This deep pitch arsenal early-on in his career was already a promising sign that he could eventually develop into a strong starting pitcher and a pitcher who can work deep into games. He demonstrated the latter skill in his first MLB season, pitching a complete game twice, with one being a complete game shutout. In 2017, he then pitched 7.0+ innings four times, in 2018 he did it three times, in 2019 eight times, and in the shortened 2020 season, three times. In all, he’s pitched 7.0+ innings in 23.8% of his career starts. Eflin’s ability to keep his pitch count low while getting plenty of groundball outs allows him to regularly go deep into games, which is great for his real life and fantasy value. In fact, he’s never thrown more than 110 pitches in any career start. When Eflin pitches, he wants to go the whole way every time. One of the only things that’s been keeping Eflin from being a top starting pitching asset is his ability to consistently rack up strikeouts? Well guess what? In 2020 he earned a career high 28.6% K (22.4% K-BB).

Before 2020, he earned 8+ strikeouts just six times over 419.0 innings pitched. In the shortened 2020 season, he did it five times. A reason for this could be because in 2020, he significantly decreased his four-seam fastball usage, throwing it just 83 times and making it his fourth-most used pitch. Before 2020, his four-seamer was his most used pitch in every season but 2017, when it was his second most used pitch. So what replaced his fastball? His sinker was used the most in 2020 and as one could guess, he earned a career high groundball rate as a result (47.4%). His second and third most used pitches were his slider and curveball, respectively, with his curveball being the superior offering, earning a 45.0% K-BB and 20.3% SwStr. Also in 2020, he earned a career low 3.50 SIERA and 3.97 ERA.

For the first few seasons of Eflin’s career, he was a young starting pitcher tinkering with his arsenal and trying learning how to properly utilize it to get the best results every time. Well in 2020, it appears Eflin is closer than ever to figuring out what exactly works for him, and that seems to be utilizing his sinker and breaking pitches the most, while keeping his four-seamer and changeup at the backend of his arsenal. Not mention the fact that his sinker’s velocity was at a career high 94.2 mph mark in 2020. The 2020 season was a small sample size, so how he utilizes his arsenal early-on in 2021 will need to be watched closely. But if he can use it similarly to his 2020 campaign, Eflin could be one of the best value picks of the 2021 offseason. His spot in the Phillies rotation is all but locked in and you won’t have to break the bank to acquire him in drafts. Don’t hesitate to draft Eflin in the later-rounds of 2021 drafts, because this could be the last season he’s universally considered a backend starting pitching option.

Brailyn Marquez, 21-years-old, Cubs

At 6’4″, 185 lbs, Marquez has a promising frame for a lefty. Mix that with a four-seam fastball that has increased in velocity every year since 2016, topping out a 102 mph in 2019, then we see that we have a very intriguing young arm ready to make his name known in the MLB. The Cubs signed Marquez when he was just 16-years-old, and at the time he was already pumping out a low 90s fastball, so the Cubs knew they had picked up a special talent. He also possesses a slider but some call it a “slurve”, as well as a changeup that is still very much developing. Due to Marquez’s pitching style, lefties have a hard time connecting with his slider as it can drift away from them and can get them chasing, or he can use the pitch as a front-door offering and get batters caught looking. While with righties, he has to throw his slider down because it drifts towards them, and if he misses his spot up in the zone he could get punished for it, especially vs experienced MLB hitters. His fastball will only continue to improve vs LHH and RHH as he learns to better control it and his changeup’s development will be key for his future success as an MLB starter.

Over the last ten starts of his 2019 season in Class A and Class A+, he earned a 24.4% K-BB, 1.68 ERA, .193 batting average against, 0.99 WHIP, and 2.30 FIP over 53.2 innings pitched. This performance gave the Cubs the confidence to call him up in September 2020 before he even experienced AA or AAA. Understandably, he struggled in his first showing against MLB hitters. He went just 0.2 innings and allowed five runs on two hits, walking three batters and striking out one. From a pure luck standpoint, it was very unlucky that all five batters that got on base scored a run, so the outing wasn’t as terrible as the 67.50 ERA makes it seem, with the outing’s 12.42 SIERA highlighting this. One positive we can take from this outing was that his fastball’s velocity was as advertised, topping out at 99.6 mph and he got Jose Abreu swinging on a 99.4 mph fastball for his only strikeout of the game. He didn’t get the chance to appear in any further 2020 games, but it’s almost a guarantee Marquez will see more innings in 2021, whether that is out of the bullpen or the rotation.

Heading into the 2021 season, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish are locked into the rotation while José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are heading for free agency, with Jon Lester possibly following the same route if the Cubs decline his $25M option, which is probably the right move. Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay will be returning next year and are also candidates to join the rotation. If free agency goes as expected, that could leave one or two rotation spots open for Marquez to claim if he shows he can handle the role with a strong Spring Training. If the latter comes into fruition, Marquez automatically becomes one of the more intriguing late-round options of the 2021 season. However, the more proactive move would be to target him earlier in the offseason, anticipating that he will earn a rotation spot, for he will likely be cheaper before his rotation spot is confirmed. Marquez is a very promising young arm and I believe one day he’ll be universally considered a top-40 starting pitcher, if not better. He’s one of the most ideal sleeper options for the 2021 fantasy baseball season and you’ll be kicking yourself if he has a breakout campaign, but you faded him due to his uncertainties.

Braxton Garrett, 23-years-old, Marlins

I will always advocate for wanting a young pitcher who knows how to command and successfully sequence their pitches at young age over a pitcher who can throw a 105 mph fastball that makes everyone who sees it go “Wow!” It doesn’t matter if you can throw a 105 mph fastball if you cannot consistently locate it. You’ll give up walks and hits when you miss your location, resulting in you giving up runs and not having good overall numbers. There are numerous examples of pitchers who throw hard but struggle to command their electric fastballs, or even their breaking and offspeed pitches. Well Braxton Garrett is not one of them, mainly because his fastball sits in the low 90s and tops out in the mid 90s. But as a whole, Garrett has very promising command and control of his pitch arsenal for a 23-year-old. He unfortunately had to deal with Tommy John surgery in 2017, missing the remainder of that season, along with missing the entire 2018 season, so his development has been delayed. He returned in 2019 and earned a 3.54 ERA (3.79 FIP), 17.5% K-BB, and .234 batting average against over 106.2 innings pitched. Furthermore, he earned 6+ strikeouts in 12 of his 21 starts, showcasing his ability to consistently earn strikeouts by throwing his pitches where he wants them to go.

As aforementioned, Garrett possesses a fastball that typically sits in the low 90s. He also throws a solid changeup and one of the better pitches in the minor leagues, his curveball. His curve sits in the high 70s, low 80s, has a sharp bite to it and generates plenty of swings and misses, especially since Garrett understands how to command it. In 2020, the Marlins gave Garrett a chance to showcase his skills at the MLB level and though his overall results were not as pleasant as he probably would’ve liked (5.87 ERA, 4.98 SIERA over 7.2 innings pitched), his curveball was as good as advertised in this very small sample size. He threw 42 of them and earned a 33.4% K-BB, 83.3% GB, and 16.7% SwStr. Over a full campaign , that ground ball rate will obviously come down, but it’s not hard to imagine the K-BB% and SwStr% staying around those levels.

The Marlins possess a plethora of talented pitchers, including Sixto Sánchez, Sandy Alcántara, Pablo López, and Elieser Hernández. They also have José Ureña, Trevor Rogers and Nick Neidert, with the young, but talented Edward Cabrera lurking. With the first four likely locked into the rotation for 2021, that leaves just one spot available. If Garrett wants to crack the rotation by Opening Day 2021, he’ll need to have a very strong Spring Training. Given his talent, it is very reasonable to predict that he could be the 5th starting pitching option for the Marlins. All these factors point towards Garrett being a true sleeper starting pitching option for 2021 fantasy drafts. If you see him available in the later rounds and you need starting pitching depth, don’t be afraid to grab him and ride the talent out for as long as he performs if he does indeed crack the starting rotation. If he starts the year in the bullpen, it is still likely he’ll earn some starts as the season goes on.

Daniel Ponce de Leon, 28-years-old, Cardinals

If you look at Ponce de Leon’s 2.70 minor league ERA over 524.0 innings pitched, but then take a glance at his 12.6% K-BB over the same time span, you wonder how exactly he consistently limited runs, especially given the fact that he allowed 3+ walks in 38 of his 96 career minor league starts. He has never had great control but his slightly above average strikeout ability and ability to not allow too many home runs has helped him keep his ERA down. Fast-forward to his first 114.1 MLB innings pitched and he’s allowed 3+ walks in 9 of his 20 career starts, highlighting how his control problems have spilled over into the MLB. Yet, despite this mediocre control, only once has he given up more than five runs in any out his MLB outings. Ponce de Leon can thank his fastball’s backspin, solid secondary pitches, and ability to limit hard contact for this success.

Ponce de Leon’s fastball has sat around 93.5 mph over his MLB career thus far, topping out at 97.6 mph. The pitch earned a 15.7% K-BB in 2018, 15.4% K-BB in 2019, and 22.5% K-BB in 2020, has never allowed a batting average higher .203, and has a 14.7% SwStr over 114.1 MLB innings pitched. Furthermore, seeing that the pitch has never earned a BB% less than 12.9%, one can conclude that its above average backspin is what is giving the pitch that edge top rack up strikeouts despite Ponce de Leon’s inability to consistently control it. Similar to Freddy Peralta, Ponce de Leon racks up a lot of whiffs on the pitch when he throws up up in the zone as opposed to down in the zone. Per Brooks Baseball, over the span of his entire career, he’s earned a 30.6% whiff rate when throwing his fastball in the upper third of the strike zone, as opposed to just a 10.2% whiff rate on fastballs thrown in the bottom third of the strike zone. The rising effect on his fastball, given its backspin, makes it a very tough pitch for batters to locate higher in the zone, and thus they swing and miss a lot when they see the pitch. However, due his tendency to also miss his spots with his fastball, it can allow a lot of flyballs and home runs. To be specific, he’s allowed 16 home runs in his MLB career and 13 of them have been off his fastball, with the pitch allowing an unpleasant 50.0% flyball rate on 1,365 pitches thrown. That’s not good and Ponce de Leon will need to improve on that number as he continues to work on controlling the pitch. Luckily, he also possesses a curveball and cutter that are proving to be very effective pitches, as well as a changeup that is still very much developing.

His curveball and cutter have earned 56.7% and 56.5% groundball rates over his MLB career, respectively. His curveball has mesmerizing bite to it and often gets batters looking as it drops into the strike zone while his cutter is a decent offering that can fool a batter who was sitting on his fastball. Armed with a high spin rate fastball that should only get better as he continues to learn to control it, an effective curveball and cutter, as well as a developing changeup, Ponce de Leon has a deep enough arsenal to eventually become a reliable long-term starting pitching asset. In 32.2 innings pitched in 2020, it appears Ponce De Leon may have taken another step in becoming a reliable real life and fantasy starting pitcher. His BB% was still high, but he threw his best pitches the most for the first time in his first three seasons, his curveball and fastball. Over his last four starts of 2020, he earned a 3.36 SIERA and 27.8% K-BB, but did allow a very high 60.0% flyball rate, resulting in four home runs allowed over that span. So while it seems like he’s figuring out which pitches to throw more, he still needs to learn how to consistently locate those pitches to limit flyballs and home runs. Nonetheless, he went 6.0+ innings twice over that four-start span in 2020, a feat he accomplished just three times between 2018-2019, showing that he is gradually growing as a starting pitcher.

The Cardinals rotation for 2021 is unclear outside of Jack Flaherty, but there are a lot of arms who’ll likely want a shot come Spring Training. Kwang-Hyun Kim, Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Alex Reyes, Austin Gomber, and Dakota Hudson are some of the names that will be looking to enter the rotation. Given this competition, it is imperative that Ponce de Leon continues to throw his fastball and curveball the most going forward. He also needs to continue to actively work on controlling his pitches better, for given the Cardinals depth, there likely won’t be a very long leash for a starter who’s struggling start-after-start. In 2021 fantasy drafts, Ponce de Leon will again be a late-round starting pitching option, but this may finally be the year your dart throw hits the bullseye. He’ll be practically free to draft, and while he may hurt your whip more than you like in roto leagues, his strikeout ability could allow him to have some big games. All these reasons points towards Ponce de Leon being one of the most intriguing sleeper options of the 2021 season. This is a talented pitcher who should only continue to improve with experience. Target Ponce de Leon in 2021 drafts and don’t be surprised if he ends 2021 with career high numbers and metrics across the board.

In this #FantasyBaseball piece, I laid out five sleeper starting pitcher options to target for 2021 drafts. Did I miss someone? Who is your favorite player out of these options? Please let me know! You can find me on Twitter @FantasyCentral1

Thank you all for your support, and stay safe during these wild times, I’ll be praying for you! Much love and God Bless.

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