There have been no shortage of incredible pitching performances early this season, and while many have come from some of the highest-end starters in the game, plenty have come from seemingly out of nowhere. Unexpectedly, there have been a whole lot more difference makers at the position than expected.
Among the top 20 starters so far this season, you've got Gerrit Cole right there at the top and Jacob deGrom No. 3, but you've also got John Means right between them. And while there's no surprise that Jack Flaherty, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw are top-15 pitchers, it's pretty surprising that they are all behind Julio Urias so far. Or that Huascar Ynoa, Trevor Rogers, Freddy Peralta, and Wade Miley round out the top 20.
Some of this is because of the offensive environment we're dealing with -- offense is way down, and pitchers are dominating like we've rarely seen. But, that doesn't mean every hot start is just a fluke, and figuring out which ones are for real will have serious value moving forward. I've taken 10 of the top SP surprises in the early going, and I'm trying to figure out whether you should buy, sell, or hold their breakouts. Here they are:
Dodgers SP Julio Urias
One thing Urias has always been good about is limiting damage on contact. In 2020, he had the fifth-lowest wOBA and expected wOBA allowed on contact, and he sports a .335 mark on the latter compared to a league average of .362. That's helped him keep his ERA low even when some of his peripherals have suggested he might have gotten lucky. It's not luck if you're good at it. And, so far in 2021, he's upped his strikeout rate to a career-high 26.9% while lowering his walk rate to 3.6%. He still isn't giving up much loud contact, either -- he's in the 90th percentile in hard-hit rate allowed. He's focusing on his curveball and changeup more, and he's almost below a 50% fastball usage for the first time in his career. There are always innings concerns with Dodgers pitchers, especially Urias, but he's second in the league only to Jacob deGrom in pitchers per inning, and I buy him as a top-25 pitcher moving forward. Let's just hope he can avoid injuries.
Like Urias, Alcantara has often out-pitched his more traditional ERA estimators because he's just so dang hard to square up. He might give up more loud contact than Urias, but he keeps so many balls on the ground that it's just hard to make solid contact -- especially given his velocity. He's throwing as hard as ever and his .308 xwOBA on contact is well below each of the previous two seasons even accounting for the lower run-scoring environment in 2021. But the real key to the breakout is that he's continued to incrementally improve both his strikeout and walk rats, both of which sit at career-best marks. He's throwing his changeup 26.5% of the time so far, by far a career high, and it's been a great pitch for him -- as it has been in years past. Alcantara has sanded down the rough edges and made some tweaks to his arsenal, and he's a bonafide fringe ace -- especially because he might be among the 10 most likely pitchers to throw 200 innings this season.
Orioles SP John Means
Speaking of changeups, Means' is on the shortlist for best in baseball, and it continues to be the main engine driving him forward. I don't buy him as one of the handful of best pitchers in baseball like he's looked in the early going, but I think he took a real step forward last season and has carried it forward into 2021. I've got Means as a fringe No. 3 starting pitcher which is a long way from where he was coming into the season -- and I can easily see him moving up further in the coming weeks. For example, if Blake Snell continues to struggle with his efficiency, I could see Means moving ahead of him by the beginning of June. The only thing I'm really skeptical of with Means is the strikeout rate, currently sitting 28%, up from his previous career high of 23.9% last season. That's been fueled largely by huge increases in his changeup and slider whiff rates, and I'm not sure how sustainable that is. I think Means can still be a very good pitcher with something more like an average strikeout rate, but that's where I see the regression coming from.
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The thing that's always tough to figure out when a pitcher makes a drastic change to their arsenal that immediately leads to improved results is what will it look like when hitters adjust. Musgrove has always had a deep arsenal, but he's lowered his sinker/four-seam fastball usage to 19.8% combined, while throwing his cutter and slider a combined 52.5% of the time -- that was just 30.6% in 2020. He came out red hot to start the season, throwing a no-hitter in his second start and striking out 37 to just three walks with three runs allowed in his first four starts. In three starts since, he has 17 strikeouts and four walks in 13 innings with 10 earned runs allowed. Is this just a bump in the road, a hangover after such an incredible start? Or has the league adjusted to Musgrove's adjustments? It's hard to say for sure, but if it is the latter, the question then becomes, what can he do to adjust back? I think he's a better pitcher for these changes, but I'm less convinced of that now than I was a few weeks back.
White Sox SP Carlos Rodón
Rodón is starting to look like the guy we were hoping he would be back in 2014 when he was in consideration for the No. 1 overall pick coming out of college. It's been a bumpy road full of disappointment and injuries, but he's been one of the very best pitchers in the league so far, and what's interesting is, he hasn't made a ton of changes from the guy he used to be. He's throwing his four-seam fastball almost exclusively in lieu of his sinker and he's throwing his changeup more often, but for the most part, the pitch mix is the same. What isn't is his velocity, as his average fastball velocity is up to a career-high 95.0 mph. The slider is still the star here, and he hasn't allowed a hit on 28 at-bats ending with the pitch -- 20 of which have been strikeouts. I'm buying that Rodón has taken a step forward and will be a very good pitcher as long as he is on the mound this season, but I have real concerns about both injuries and innings with him. Even if Rodón does stay healthy, it's hard to see him throwing many innings -- and if he does throw many innings, it will probably be because of Tony La Russa's slow hook, which carries its own risks. I would be trying to trade Rodón because of those risks, but if you can't get back something really significant -- I'm talking about a player drafted in the first three or four rounds -- I would be fine hanging on to him, for sure.
Brewers SP Freddy Peralta
Speaking of innings concerns, Peralta has a ton of them. He's an excellent pitcher who does an excellent job missing bats and limiting damage on contact, but Peralta is still mostly just a two-pitch pitcher -- he throws his changeup and curveball a combined 10.4% of the time -- and I would be surprised if he even averaged 5.5 innings per start moving forward. He's at 5.3 in his seven starts, and that's with what is probably an unsustainable 39.4% strikeout rate and .194 BABIP. Still, he should be able to rack up a ton of strikeouts on a per-inning basis and it's not out of the question he could get close to 200 if he manages to stay healthy.
Marlins SP Trevor Rogers
Like Rodon and Peralta, I have innings concerns for Rogers, who has been allowed to throw 90 pitches just twice in seven starts -- and didn't even make it past five innings in either of those. When you're struggling to go deep into games when you are pitching this well, that's going to be an issue when the regression comes. However, in Rogers' case, like with Rodón and Peralta, I think the regression is likely to land somewhere in the low-3.00s range. I think he's going to rack up a ton of strikeouts -- maybe not as many per inning as Peralta, though -- and he could get even more if he threw his slider more. There's a catch-22 there, however, as Rogers' slider has been his worst pitch in terms of results so far in his career and he doesn't seem to trust it as much as his changeup as a putaway pitch. Rogers is a very talented pitcher who I expect will continue to pitch very well, but he's also very much still figuring out how he wants to approach hitters. Like Rodón and Peralta, I would be looking to sell high if I could, but I might be even more hesitant to do it with Rogers, because there might be another level he could reach if he solves that slider.
I wouldn't be all that surprised if Wood continued to pitch well this season -- when he's right, he's always been good at suppressing hard contact and his home park in San Francisco only helps in that regard. This one is mostly about the injury history; Wood has not reached 160 innings in a season since 2015, and he threw just 48.1 innings in 2019 and 2020 combined. He's already dealt with a back injury this season in the spring, and it's just hard to see Wood making it through a full season at this point. I'm not sure Wood is such a great sell-high candidate because everyone surely knows about his injury history, and in a H2H points league his RP eligibility can make him especially valuable. Just don't go making roster moves with the expectation that you can rely on him.
Braves SP Huascar Ynoa
Ynoa has been excellent, and it's been incredibly fun watching him pitch so far this season. He's kind of been this year's version of Dinelson Lamet, a righty who throws nothing but high-90s fastballs and wipeout sliders. However, it's tough to have that kind of approach and thrive in the majors, and Ynoa has had plenty of good luck on his side so far. He's allowing an average exit velocity against of 91 mph and a hard-hit rate of 48.5%, both of which are in the bottom 20 percent of all pitchers. When batters know one of two pitches is coming, you might fool them if those pitches are good enough, but their chances of doing damage when they do make contact are higher. Ynoa has a .438 xwOBA on contact so far, which helps explain why he has a 4.33 xERA compared to a 2.23 ERA. I think Ynoa is likely to settle in as a low-end starter, someone you'll roll out against good matchups but someone you might also end up dropping in the next month or so. If you can get something for him -- Luis Castillo is my go-to buy low candidate at pitcher, but I would also move him for Kenta Maeda or Sonny Gray -- I would make that move.
If you had told me last spring Matthew Boyd would have a 1.94 ERA through his first seven starts of the 2021 season, I would have believed you -- he was a popular breakout pick and I was certainly riding the hype train. However, I definitely wouldn't have bet on Boyd thriving like this: with a 17.9% strikeout rate and elite quality of contact suppression. Boyd hasn't even really changed his pitch mix much at all, which makes it even tougher to believe in. He's managed this so far by inducing fewer swings on pitches in the strike zone and more on pitches out of it, which is a good sign, but I think there's an awfully thin margin for error here. And, the fact that Boyd is getting completely different results without much changes to his approach makes me think he'll come back to earth hard.