2020 Bold Pitcher League Leaders by Mike Podhorzer July 22, 2020 Yesterday, I unveiled my bold hitter league leaders, of which I expect to go 10 for 10. The pitching side of the ledger is a bit easier. Given that there is both more luck and factors outside the specific pitcher’s control that shapes his surface results, it’s more conceivable that a non-favorite leads the league in a category. This is even more so over a shortened season. Consider the following four pitchers that posted the highest ERA among qualified starters last year. Below are their season-long ERAs, followed by their best ERAs over a 10-game stretch. Small Sample ERAs Pitcher 2019 Season ERA 2019 Best 10-Game ERA Rick Porcello 5.52 3.20 Reynaldo Lopez 5.38 3.47 Jakob Junis 5.24 3.96 Martin Perez 5.12 3.15 Even the game’s worst pitchers last year had stretches of sub-4.00 ERA ball and sometimes even near 3.00 ERA ball! These guys are likely on free agency in your shallow mixed league or came super cheap in your mono league, and yet, have already posted ERAs over a small sample that would make them valuable fantasy league assets. So while this fact means it’s easier to get my bold choice right, it also means there’s way more competition to win ERA and WHIP than normal, as the smaller sample size means far more pitchers have a true shot than normal. There will be no bold wins league leader named, because wins are silly and unpredictable, and this season is going to be even tougher to forecast. American League ERA – Andrew Heaney Heaney hasn’t posted an ERA below 4.15 since 2015, and that has happened just once. He has also only pitched more than 106 innings once over his career. Injuries have been an issue and so has gopheritis. So why the optimism? The Angels will trot out a strong defense, which should help bring his BABIP back below .300. Home runs are an infrequent event, so over a small sample, HR/FB rates are going to be very volatile, and perhaps lady luck ends up on Heaney’s side over his 10-12 starts this year. Plus, he just posted a 28.8% strikeout rate, which was backed by a sterling 14.1% SwStk%. That SwStk% ranked 13th among all pitchers with at least 90 IP thrown last year (142 total). WHIP – Kenta Maeda The projection systems aren’t kind to Maeda now that he has moved to the American League. Of course, had he stayed in the National League, a similar adjustment would have been made. All the projections forecast his BABIP skyrocketing, well above his career mark, his strikeout rate plummeting to a career low, and his walk rate inching up. I’m projecting less decline in all those categories and his xBB% suggests better marks ahead. A mid-20% strikeout rate and improved walk rate will reduce baserunners and give him a much better chance at the WHIP title than it seems he has. SO – Josh James Yeah, yeah, odds are James isn’t going to be able to pitch enough innings to have a shot at the strikeout lead. But with reduced innings for most pitchers, the gap between him and the favorites here might narrow. While it came almost all in relief, James posted an elite 37.6% strikeout rate last year and has been a strikeout monster since the minors back in 2018. His fastball sits in the mid-to-high 90s, peaking at 101 MPH, and has generated double digit SwStk% marks. In addition, both his slider and changeup have been elite from a whiff perspective, which means he owns three elite pitches. That’s called an ace. Now if only he could get that control in order… Sv – Mychal Givens LOL all you want, but Givens was the same pitcher last year as he always was. His ERAs have bounced around, because that’s what happens over a small sample of innings that relievers pitch, but his SIERAs have remained remarkably consistent. The Orioles have few replacement options, as the sleeper favorite Hunter Harvey has thrown a whopping 6.1 MLB innings and is already dealing with arm fatigue, while no one else is any good. National League ERA – Joe Musgrove Musgrove has been a perennial sleeper, but he has yet to push his ERA below 4.00. Could this finally be the year? I’m projecting it, but just barely. They key here is that his velocity appears to be up, following an uptrend that happened last season. His career high strikeout rate sits at just 21.9% and has been relatively consistent each season. A jump in velocity could result in a strikeout rate spike, and combined with his elite control, could lead to a major ERA breakout. WHIP – Zac Gallen Gallen enjoyed a sparkling debut last year, striking out 28.7% of opposing batters. However, his control seriously regressed from his minor league days, as his walk rate more than doubled from his Triple-A mark before his promotion. He has proven that his 2019 Triple-A strikeout rate surge was real, which is important. That means that now he just needs to regain the control he has displayed throughout his entire minor league career, and suddenly he’d record an elite K%-BB%, which has a strong negative correlation (-0.74 over last five seasons) with WHIP. SO – Dinelson Lamet Lamet missed the entire 2018 season after undergoing TJ surgery, but came back strong last year, striking out 33.6% of opposing batters and actually seeing his fastball velocity jump from 2017. You really couldn’t have asked for a better return. With a shortened season, there won’t be any workload concerns, so getting enough innings to compete for the strikeout title shouldn’t be as much of an issue. Lamet could probably use a third pitch, as he barely threw his changeup last year, and although his slider is elite, his fastball was nothing special in the whiff department, despite its big velocity. But the foundation is there and he is already posting huge strikeout rates despite just having that slider. Sv – Nick Burdi With expected closer Keone Kela on the IL, having not arrived at summer camp, with no word of why or when he might return, Pirates saves are up in the air. With both Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez enduring poor results in recent summer camp play, that leaves Burdi as the last remaining potential option standing, though Michael Feliz is another option. Burdi has dealt with injury and hasn’t pitched a whole lot throughout his minor league career. However, he’s throwing hard again and has shown elite strikeout potential over the myriad of small sample minor league stints in his past. The key here will be earning the first shot at saves. Even if Kela eventually returns, if Burdi is succeeding, there would be little reason to make a switch.