Previewing 2021 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: A look at the first two rounds, which includes even more pitchers

1 A couple injury interruptions kept Ronald Acuna from getting into a groove with the batting average, but the power/speed comb was as advertised. I have zero doubts about his ability to sustain stud production moving forward. 2 He’s probably still the No. 1 pick in a points league, but for 5×5 categories leagues, it’s now back-to-back years that Mike Trout has fallen short of his stolen base expectations. That he ranks this high in spite of it is a testament to his bat. 3 As with Trout, you can slot Mookie Betts ahead of Acuna in points leagues because of his superior plate discipline, and if he’s going to run as consistently as he did in his first year the Dodgers , third might be too low in 5×5 leagues as well. 4 Fernando Tatis was making his case to be No. 1, at least in 5×5 leagues, before stumbling to the finish line, but his greatly reduced strikeout rate still says a lot about the player he’s becoming, especially now that his power/speed contributions are proven twice over. 5 The debate over whether Shane Bieber or Jacob deGrom should be No. 1 at starting pitcher figures to be a spirited one, but on average, Bieber tends to go a little deeper into his starts. Plus, the Mets keep figuring out ways to cost deGrom wins, and though I probably shouldn’t factor it in, it’s hard not to. 6 Both Bieber and deGrom will be top-five picks in points leagues — perhaps even third and fourth, leaving out Acuna and Tatis. This latest version of deGrom was actually the best we’ve ever seen, adding more than a mile per hour to his fastball and delivering other-worldly swinging-strike rates. 7 You keep wondering how much better the 21-year-old can get, and then he blows away your expectations all over again. The modest steals potential knocks Juan Soto down a couple spots in 5×5 leagues, but he’s a top-three hitter in points leagues now, particularly with the reduction in strikeouts. 8 Turns out Trevor Story wasn’t going to slow his steals pace but instead become one of the most prolific contributors in the category. Oh, and the strikeouts continued to drop, too, making him an easy first-round choice now. 9 Obviously, 2020 didn’t go as planned for Christian Yelich , but the quality of contact was actually just as good as the previous two seasons, making bad BABIP luck and an inflated strikeout rate more likely to blame. I suspect both would have sorted themselves out over a full-length season. 10 Gerrit Cole became a little more vulnerable to the long ball in a venue that’s particularly bad for it, but all the ways he fell short of his 2019 production are so slight that they’re practically meaningless in a two-month season. His numbers through two months in 2019 were worse, in fact. 11 The steals eventually came around for Trea Turner , and he also took a big step forward as a hitter, cutting down on his strikeouts while improving his power profile. Are we sure those weren’t products of a small sample size? We can’t be, but they’re also not fully priced in here. 12 As with Yelich, there isn’t enough in the underlying stats to suggest Cody Bellinger is a fundamentally worse player than the one who won NL MVP in 2019. In fact, the improved strikeout rate carried over. He didn’t hit the ball as hard or as well, but that’s more of a symptom than a cause and likely would have corrected over a full-length season. 13 The good version of Jose Ramirez was the only one to show up during the shortened season, confirming that his first-half struggles in 2019 really were the aberration. He doesn’t have quite the batting average potential of a Mookie Betts, but the power/speed production is similar. 14 Trailing only Juan Soto in Head-to-Head points per game, Freddie Freeman seems to be getting better with age and plays a position that’s suddenly lacking in high-end performers. I suspect his batting average would have come down to earth a little had the season gone the full length. 15 Aaron Nola got back on the ace path after last year’s detour, shoring up the control that had always been a given for him while refining his changeup to make it as dominant as his curveball. The result was a pitcher who was like Shane Bieber on his best days, albeit with a few more blips along the way. 16 All in all, Lucas Giolito validated his 2019 breakout, though it took some eye-popping stand-alone performances, like a no-hitter in which he struck out 13. Still, his swinging-strike rate ranked right in between deGrom and Bieber, and at 26, he’s one of the few stud arms still on the upswing. 17 Yu Darvish has brought enough frustrations over the years that it feels wrong to rank the 34-year-old this high, but his actual performance dating back to the second half last year suggests he should go even higher. Of course, his wide assortment of pitches gives him more opportunities to stray from what’s working. 18 Tinkering is Trevor Bauer’s inclination as well, and sure enough, it was a different pitch mix driving his success this year. Of course, a selection that promotes even more fly balls should spell trouble in these modern times, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Thing is we’ve also seen how bad it can get for Bauer, and there’s no telling if he’ll stick to the same approach. 19 Max Scherzer has been so bankable in Fantasy for so long that it seems unfair to downgrade him for a pint-sized season in which he was still good, but not great — especially since the stuff rated about the same as usual. But there have been more injuries popping up, and at 36, it’s possible more subtle signs of decline are manifesting. 20 Compared to some of the outsized stat lines made possible by the shortened season, Francisco Lindor’s doesn’t stand out, which makes it tempting to bury him. But the underlying data suggests he’s basically the same player he’s been for the past four seasons and that even this sort of drop might be an overreaction. 21 Manny Machado was darn near the best player in Fantasy this year, performing better than ever as a hitter (and with numbers right in line with his expected stats) while also getting back to stealing bases. His track record suggests you can’t count on the steals, though, and the out-of-character batted-ball profile is also deserving of scrutiny. 22 Bryce Harper’s expected stats, according to Statcast, are even better than during his MVP-winning 2015 season, and the marked reduction in strikeout rate gives him hope of hitting for batting average again. It also looks like his recent fondness for the stolen base only continues to grow. 23 I considered Alex Bregman a top-five hitter coming into this season, and his underachieving in around 150 at-bats shouldn’t really change that. But there’s the added complication of the Astros ‘ sign-stealing scandal and the simple fact that some hitters have to fall to make room for more pitchers. This is as late as I can justify him going. 24 Clayton Kershaw appears to have halted his decline and even regained some lost velocity this year. But the durability issues remain, even if they were limited to just a minimum IL stay during the shortened season, which puts him a half step behind other pitchers of his ilk.

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