2021 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts

This article was originally submitted to Rotoballers as a writing sample. The article was written on 12/15/2020.

Being competitive in fantasy baseball requires a seemingly innate ability to minimize errors in player valuation and drafting. Successful fantasy owners will maximize their chances by recognizing potential sleepers and busts. In this article I will identify a sleeper and a bust at infielder, outfielder and pitcher with the rationales behind these thoughts. 

Sleeper infielder: Evan White, Seattle Mariners

On the surface, White’s rookie slash line .176/.252/.346. looks nothing short of atrocious. A deeper dive suggests there is serious bounce back potential in his bat. His 91.7 mph average exit velocity placed him in the top 13 percentile among qualified hitters. Additionally, he ranked in the top 10% in both hard hit and barrel rates. Additionally, White is also the fastest runner among all first basemen. His tools alone suggest the potential for massive year over year improvement. Recognizing his talent, the Mariners rewarded him to a long-term deal before he had ever taken a major league at bat. His six year $24 million contract will likely be seen as a coup by the time the young slugger reaches his free agency years. The time to buy low is now.

Sleeper outfielder: Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds

Winker is another statcast darling, ranking in the top 15% in nearly every offensive metric: (exit velocity, hard hit rate, expected slugging percentage, expected wOBA, and barrel percentage). Between 2019 and 2020 the outfielder’s average exit velocity saw a year over year increase of three miles per hour. Consider it icing on the cake that Winker plays his home games in the launching pad, Great American Ballpark. Current ratings see Winker around 60th among outfielders in dynasty formats. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see him smash this valuation. Entering his peak, Winker’s excellent offensive profile and likely improvement to his .283 BABIP should assist the outfielder in posting career numbers.

Sleeper pitcher: Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates

Although the 28-year-old hurler posted a lackluster 1-5 record and 3.86 ERA, he should be primed for a breakout season. Musgrove posted a stellar 12.48 K/9 in 2020. Although much of the contact he surrendered was weak, he fell victim to the BABIP monster. His (.318) BABIP allowed was the highest of his career. Once a key piece in the Astros trade for Gerrit Cole, it is obvious the Pirates recognized Musgrove’s potential. Look for it to come to the surface in 2021.

Bust infielder: Cavan Biggio, Toronto Blue Jays

Due to his power potential at the generally weak second base position, Biggio seems to have become an obsession in the fantasy baseball community. He did not hit the ball hard in 2020 placing in the bottom 26% in exit velocity and the bottom 13% in hard hit rate. His 23% K rate doesn’t suggest a likelihood for posting high batting averages. However, his elite walk rate will contribute in OBP leagues. I don’t hate Biggio for fantasy purposes, but his preseason rankings have seen him ranked above several better bets like Altuve, Marte, and Cronenworth.

Bust outfielder: Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox

Everybody wants to own shares of a player like Robert. He’s got the body of a Greek God and tools that elicit a Pavlovian response among prospect hounds. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a young player burst into the fantasy elite while being rostered on your squad. Robert’s displayed a dreadful plate approach with a 43.1% chase rate along with his 22.1% whiff rate. He also finished the season in the midst of a terrible slump, going 11-81 with one HR and 32 K during September. When he’s on, his ability to hit any pitch 450 feet coupled with the speed to post Billy Hamilton like times to first base makes him an extremely exciting player. Current dynasty rankings suggesting Robert is a top 10 player at his position will leave the owners that reach for him early reaching for antacid later. 

Bust pitcher: Brady Singer, Kansas City Royals

Early draft rankings have seen Singer’s stock rise above more predictable pitchers like Noah Syndergaard, Dallas Keuchel and Musgrove. Avoid making the mistake of over-drafting the ballyhooed youngster. Singer allowed runs in all but two of his 2020 starts. His overall stat line was enhanced by pitching 18 innings against the offensively challenged Tigers. In those frames he surrendered only three runs and ten hits. The ability to remove those outings from Singer’s overall stat line, would find his ERA ballooning nearly a full run from (4.06 to 5.05). His WHIP would also see a significant jump from (1.17 to 1.34). He’s a talented pitcher and will benefit from tossing home games in the offense suppressing environs of Royals stadium. However, the wise play would allow someone else to overdraft him while settling for a pitcher with less deviation. 

When analyzing sleepers and busts a successful owner should only consider fantasy performance, and return on investment. Avoid getting too enamored with what a player’s peak is going to look like. Otherwise you risk overpaying too early in the development arc. In a vacuum Luis Robert is infinitely more interesting than Jesse Winker, but that’s not what this is about. Being able to correlate potential over and under performances as they pertain to draft position or auction value frequently separates a winning player from an also-ran.