The truth is we don't know the legitimacy of any player's performance in 2020. Those numbers count for something, sure. The data is on its way to making the case for or against each player. But with only a 60-game slate, it feels incomplete.
This is especially true for pitchers, most of whom figure to have made between nine and 12 starts by the time the season ends. It doesn't take much to skew the data over that sample. There's a reason we usually take three times as long to sort out who's good and who's bad, both on an individual level and a team level.
We discuss some of these confounding pitchers on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast. Follow all our of podcasts and subscribe here.
What it means is we're going to have to play more hunches in 2021 — absorbing the data, yes, but maybe not always interpreting it at face value. Projecting requires us to consider not just what did happen but what might have happened had the season been allowed to play out like normal, and for some pitchers, that's easier to say than others.
To that end, here are 12 pitchers who I think will be impossible to rank with great confidence:
It's not that anyone has reason to question whether Walker Buehler is good — or great, even. It's that the Dodgers have so overmanaged his workload the past two seasons, in such basic ways as declining to build him up ahead of time (conventionally speaking, anyway), that it's fair to wonder how long before he'll reach midseason form and how much of him you'll actually get. That second issue could be a crippling one for many young starters, in fact, given how big the jump in innings figures to be.
You wouldn't think two months would be enough time for a tale-of-two-seasons scenario, but how else would you describe Sonny Gray's 2020 — one in which he had a 1.94 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 11.9 K/9 at the end of August? Bad starts happen, of course, and because of the short season, it's taken only two for his numbers to wind up where they have, but it's actually a four-start stretch in which his slider, the pitch that was so transformative for him last year, has disappeared on him. And certainly, the track record doesn't inspire much confidence.
Forget 2021 — I'm not even sure what I think of Patrick Corbin's 2020 season. The ERA and WHIP aren't great, skewed by one awful start in particular, yet he's been steady enough that benching him in Fantasy hasn't seriously been on the table. Still, it's not as simple as saying the sample size has made him look worse than he's been. He has lost a couple miles per hour off his fastball and a couple percentage points off his swinging-strike rate, leading a 3.96 xFIP that isn't so bad but a 5.26 xFIP that decidedly is. So is he still good or not?
You'd think Lance Lynn's 2020 would be clarifying after the 33-year-old caught us all by surprise with a fifth-place AL Cy Young finish in 2019, but it's not as simple as him picking up where he left off. Remember: He didn't figure it out until mid-May last year, compiling a 3.14 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 11.3 K/9 over his final 25 starts. The strikeout rate (and, with it, the whiff rate) are both down quite a bit from there, and the 4.22 xFIP suggests it could come back to bite him eventually. Statcast views him more favorably, giving him a 3.04 xERA.
And then there's the most complicated variable of all: Does his age work to his advantage by making him one of the few pitchers whose innings won't be so closely guarded in a year when big increases are inevitable?
He tore up his knee and was going to miss the start of the season, but then he didn't have to because the start of the season was delayed. But then he had trouble finding the strike zone when teams reported to camp again. Then he was able to find the strike zone, but his velocity was down. Then he lost the strike zone again, walking five in back-to-back starts. And then he got sent down for breaking team rules and became the face of coronavirus controversy in MLB. But then he came back, and the velocity was a little better. And then he got traded, and the velocity was a lot better.
Is there any more turmoil we could pile onto this mess of a season? My suspicion is that now that things have settled down, he has too, but given his 4.32 xFIP and 4.79 xERA, it's less than fully realized. And unless the Padres make a deep playoff run, we won't know for sure.
Here we go again, right? As full as Stephen Strasburg's injury history is, only one injury — his Tommy John surgery late in 2010 — sidelined him for as much of a season as this one has. That's a loaded way of phrasing it, of course, and I think we all recognize that his carpal tunnel surgery might not have been a season-ender if it came in a full-length season. But the fact is he has basically lost a year at a point in his career when he's entering his mid-30s and showing signs of diminished stuff. So how safe do we want to play it?
The step forward so many saw coming for Chris Paddack has instead been a step back, but not because of any change to his profile. It's just that the chickens have come home to roost for the one that was already there. His two-pitch arsenal has become more predictable to hitters, leading to harder contact, which has made him and his average ground-ball skills especially vulnerable to the long ball. The walk rate is still pristine and the swinging-strike rate a carbon copy, but he has been worse in a way that wasn't entirely unpredictable when you consider his 4.05 xFIP last year.
Of course ... it's a much-improved 3.57 this year. Confounding the matter further is Statcast's xERA, which is completely flip-flopped, going from 3.39 last year to 5.43 this year. Uh ...
Difficult though it may be to criticize a first-place team, the Rays didn't do us or their pitchers any favors leading up to the restart of the season, standing out as maybe the only organization that didn't have their best pitchers prepared to handle a full workload from the beginning. And for the 36-year-old Charlie Morton especially, you can't help but wonder how it might have contributed to both his decrease in velocity and the shoulder inflammation that landed him on the IL. He has looked better since returning, but there's still no telling if the late-blooming ace has simply gotten old or if he was derailed by the wacky season.
I love Framber Valdez and have every intention of buying into him fully, but investing in the oddball profile brings with it inherent risk. I believe he's an extreme enough ground-ball pitcher to neutralize the ubiquitous home run threat throughout the game today, and I believe he's a decent enough strikeout guy despite the lack of swinging strikes. I believe these things because his track record, both in the minors and majors, supports them. But it also supports him walking a bunch of hitters, and the fact he hasn't this year is largely responsible for his 3.33 xFIP. It's a delicate balance of skills that could be upended easily, and since he's lacking a top prospect profile, some skepticism is warranted.
Julio Urias got a pass for his 4.28 xFIP last year because he was a former elite prospect working his way back from shoulder issues whose actual results in a swingman role were pretty impressive. So does he get a pass for his 4.84 xFIP this year? Well, the strikeout rate is bad. The walk rate isn't so hot either. He puts the ball in the air more than is optimal in today's homer-happy environment. His swinging-strike rate is also down three points, putting him in the lower third of the league. It's a discouraging profile despite the encouraging results, but given that he's just now entering his mid-20s, his pedigree still counts for plenty.
Dustin May's stuff is the sort of filth GIFs were made for, each outing presenting a ready-made excuse for @PitchingNinja to spam everyone's Twitter timeline, and yet he doesn't get the whiffs, his swinging-strike rate ranking among the worst in all the league. Missing bats is kind of important for a pitcher in today's game, and the lack of strikeouts helps explain why May's expected stats, whether xFIP or xERA, are so underwhelming. Still, he's a former top prospect whose talent is evident and whose theoretical struggles have yet to manifest in parts of two seasons.
As profiles go, this is the weirdest of the weird, making Cristian Javier the poster child for this topic. It was weird how he had a 1.74 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 13.5 K/9 in the minors last year even though he barely registered as a prospect, and it's weird how effective he's been in the majors this year even though his 8 percent whiff rate would suggest he's not fooling anybody. It's weird that he's so difficult to square up while relying so heavily on what rates as an ordinary fastball and without much in the way of a secondary offering. It's weird that his 3.20 xERA totally supports what he's doing while his 5.12 xFIP suggests he's a disaster in waiting.