It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2021 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2021 fantasy baseball season.
For the seventh year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first installment of the series was batting average sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at possible WHIP sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Fantasy owners, especially those new to the game, often have a bias toward ERA given that it’s the category most often quoted as we learn the game. However, WHIP is just as important, with recent pitchers like Joe Musgrove making a living on fantasy rosters for their WHIP contributions.
It’s simple enough to say that good control creates a WHIP asset for fantasy owners, but the table below is proof. The following table shows data from pitchers with at least 10 major league starts in the given year, proving just how important control is to finding pitchers who will help your WHIP.
Note: 2020 omitted due to small sample size.
Based on the yearly WHIP average at the bottom of the table, it’s clear that finding pitchers capable of producing sub-2.5 BB/9 is key when uncovering potential value for the category. With that fact in mind, here’s a rundown of eight names to track in 2021 for fantasy leagues of varying sizes.
Mixed League Sleepers
Aaron Civale, SP, Indians
Civale had a strong rookie season in 2019 for Cleveland, posting a terrific 2.34 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 10 starts. Unfortunately, his second time around the league wasn’t as smooth in 2020, allowing a league-high 82 hits and seeing his ERA jump to 4.74 in 12 starts. The regression shouldn’t come as a huge surprise for a pitcher who has below average fastball velocity and was never seen as a top prospect. Still, we saw some encouraging signs in a follow-up performance that make him a worthy fantasy addition in 2021.
Civale’s biggest statistical asset is his control, and it only got better in 2020. He posted an elite 1.9 BB/9 and 4.31 K/BB ratio, but obviously Civale wasn’t as much of a WHIP asset (1.32) with the high hit rate. His unlucky .333 BABIP should provide some solace that Civale will improve, and his minor league track record shows the elite control is far from a fluke, with a 1.4 BB/9 for his career. With any soft thrower there are obvious questions about being too hittable at the highest level, but Civale’s 7.9 K/9 through 22 career starts is more than adequate to regain his status as a solid WHIP pitcher. His ADP is currently about 188 in NFBC leagues, which seems viable given the high floor with his control.
Josh Fleming, SP, Rays
With several injuries to their starting rotation in 2020, the Rays turned to some lesser-known pitchers. Fleming was one of the starters, going 5-0 over seven regular season appearances with a 2.78 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 32.1 innings. The lefty is another astute find by the Rays, as a fifth-round pick out of small Webster University in St. Louis back in 2017. He’s seen a quick and direct climb up the minors with a nasty sinker and excellent control, posting a 64% groundball rate with the Rays last year, along with a brilliant 1.9 BB/9. Fleming also showed great control in the minors with a 1.6 BB/9 in six seasons.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves with Fleming, as the fantasy upside is very limited. He never posted a 7.0 K/9 in the minors and has well above average velocity with a fastball that averaged just less than 91 mph last season. Still, the control-groundball combo can certainly work in the majors, as it does for pitchers like Randy Dobnak and Brett Anderson, and Fleming could have an opportunity to win a rotation spot now that the Rays have traded Blake Snell and lost Charlie Morton in free agency. Fleming is basically free in mixed leagues at this point, with a current ADP of 533, but has a chance to be a nice fit as a reserve in deeper mixed leagues.
Jordan Montgomery, SP, Yankees
The Yankees pitching staff got a lot of attention in the shortened season with Gerrit Cole’s continued dominance, Masahiro Tanaka’s strong year, and an influx of young talent. Returning from Tommy John surgery, Montgomery was one of the weak links in the rotation with a final ERA of 5.11 in 10 starts due to some inopportune long balls, but he did make a solid four-inning start against the Rays in the ALDS. Montgomery also did other things well, showing elite command and control with a 5.22 K/BB and 1.8 BB/9 over 44 regular season innings. The control was far better than what he showed earlier in his MLB career, but isn’t out of step with his minor league performance. The lefty had a solid 2.6 BB/9 in five minor league seasons, showing his control to be one of his biggest strengths.
There is even more good news from Montgomery’s shortened 2020 season after looking closer at the numbers. He showed career-best fastball velocity, with his sinker up about one mph, and most of his ERA metrics (FIP, xFIP, SIERA) show a sub-4.00 ERA. We shouldn’t take lightly the impact that Yankee Stadium can have on a pitcher’s ERA, but last year’s trends over a small sample size show near ace potential. With the bonus of likely wins on a good team, Montgomery would seem like a bargain with an ADP of 232.
Jose Urquidy, SP, Astros
You’ll have to excuse me for mentioning Urquidy in this space for the second consecutive year. His 2020 season was almost ruined due to COVID-19, as the right-hander didn’t appear in a game until September, but he did salvage his season with five regular season starts and four more appearances in the playoffs. Just as he did late in 2019, Urquidy impressed with his nasty changeup, along with a fastball that played well at 93 mph. As we saw in the minors, Urquidy also showed off outstanding control with a 2.4 BB/99 in 29.2 innings after posting a 1.5 BB/9 over 41 innings in 2019. His minor league history reflects a similar story with a career 1.8 BB/9, helping him post a 3.37 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 323.1 innings.
The long ball remains a concern for Urquidy that could inflate his ERA. He’s had extreme flyball rates above 40% in consecutive seasons, which nearly match what he’s done in the minors. However, control this great is tough to come by, and Urquidy is all but guaranteed a rotation spot heading into 2021 after the success he’s shown in MLB thus far. The control shows a major WHIP asset for fantasy managers for a very reasonable price with an early ADP of 213.
Single League Sleepers
Jaime Barria, SP, Angels
Barria’s development in the majors has been somewhat frustrating to this point. He was a relevant player in his 2018 rookie season, going 10-9 with a 3.41 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 26 starts. Since then, he has struggled to maintain a roster spot in the majors. He was one of the league’s worst pitchers in 2019, with a 6.42 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over 82.2 innings, but last season showed better results in limited duty with a 3.62 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over 32.1 innings, including five starts. Still, the right-hander hasn’t done anything to draw major attention, and was shuttled up and down between the majors and alternate camp in 2020.
With three years of MLB experience, it’s easy to forget that Barria is still only 24. It’s also easy to overlook what was a quality prospect not too long ago, with a terrific career 1.7 BB/9 in the minors and very good track record until his struggles at Triple-A in 2019. His control also showed improvement last season, albeit in a very small sample of innings with a 2.5 BB/9, and he’s continued to pitch effectively this offseason in the Dominican Winter League. His mediocre strikeout rates limit the upside (7.4 K/9 for his career in the minors and majors), but he still has a chance to be a solid back of the rotation starter and WHIP asset on a team desperate for starting pitching depth.
Alec Bettinger, SP, Brewers
With most teams intent on cost cutting this offseason, upper minors depth is more important than ever. If the Brewers are looking for their next man up in the rotation, Bettinger is a strong candidate. The right-hander had a breakout season at Double-A Biloxi in 2019 with a 3.44 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 26 starts over 146.1 innings. The former 10th-round pick’s control has improved considerably since he pitched at Virginia, with a 2.2 BB/9, along with a 9.7 K/9, in 2019.
Recently, the Brewers added Bettinger to their 40-man roster, an indication that his time could be coming in short order. He showed a velocity increase during his breakout season, and it remains to be seen where there stands now one year removed after the lost COVID-19 season. However, being on the 40-man roster is a great sign that Bettinger will be a big contributor in 2021, with the hope that his velocity and new found control of the strike zone holds with the jump. He looks like a late-around flier for NL-only leagues.
Daulton Jefferies, SP, Athletics
Jefferies made his MLB debut last season, and it wasn’t pretty. He allowed five earned runs in only two innings in what was his only professional appearance of the year. Even great pitchers have struggled in their MLB debuts, so it’s nothing to get too discouraged about yet. In fact, there is so much to like here that the poor initial outing could work to the advantage of fantasy managers looking to acquire Jefferies cheaply.
The former first-round pick out of Cal has had his share of injuries during his pro career, but he’s been a master of control when healthy. His breakout 2019 season between High-A and Double-A included an incredible 93/9 K/BB in 79 innings, good for a sweet 10.6 K/9 and 1.0 BB/9. This is hardly a smoke-and-mirrors situation, either, as Jefferies averaged 95 mph on his fastball during his MLB debut. One would expect his transition to go smoother as he gains experience given the pinpoint control, but first Jefferies has to stay healthy.
Sean Hjelle, SP, Giants
Hjelle’s stands at 6-foot-11 with excellent control, a profile that screams Chris Young. The former second-round pick out of Kentucky had a terrific 2019 season between three levels with a 3.32 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 28 starts, posting an 8.7 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 for the season. Hjelle not only throws consistent strikes but has also produced impressive groundball rates in the minors, with a groundball-to-flyball ratio of well over 2.00 in 2019.
Lacking top-shelf stuff, Hjelle is a lesser known prospect, but one that projects to have a high floor with his skillset. The excellent control has been one of his calling cards going back to college, and the Giants might be able to give Hjelle an opportunity soon with a young back-end of their starting rotation as things sit now. We can’t rule out an eventual mixed league contribution, but for now Hjelle looks like a nice flier as he will soon make his MLB transition.