Fantasy Baseball: Takeaways from 2021 we can use for 2022 drafts

From a fantasy baseball perspective, the 2021 season has been one of the most interesting I can remember. We entered the year with more uncertainty than ever before, having never experienced a campaign that followed a 60-game season. We spent most of March speculating on how teams would handle starting pitchers whose year-over-year innings totals were about to nearly triple. And we wondered how the injury rate would compare to previous seasons.

Six months later, some actionable takeaways dramatically impacted 2021 league standings and will factor into 2022 draft planning. Here they are:

Innings pitched continue to decline

This change was already underway before the shortened 2020 season. In 2015, 28 pitchers threw 200 innings. Four years later, the 2019 season included just 15 hurlers who reached the 200-inning barrier. This year, the number of 200-inning hurlers is going to drop all the way to four. The acceptable volume for a starter is remarkably low right now, with 160 innings being a reasonable target.

Teams were likely very careful with starters who threw less than 80 innings last year, but managers are also shying away from having their starters work through the opposing lineup a third time. With relievers not having experienced the same drop in their innings totals, they now weigh more heavily in a fantasy team’s ERA and WHIP.

Full-time closers are rare

Although fantasy managers routinely lament the lack of available save sources, the closers at the top of the pyramid continue to meet expectations. The days of having a handful of 40-save closers are long gone, but there hasn’t been an additional drop-off in 2021, as we will have roughly 10 stoppers with 30-plus saves. The problem for fantasy managers is that the dropoff is massive once we get past the full-time firemen.

Milwaukee Brewers' Josh Hader
Josh Hader has become an even more unique commodity in fantasy. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

Several teams didn’t even attempt to find a permanent closer this season, leaving fantasy managers with a dearth of options. Looking ahead to 2022, the few full-time closers will be worth significant investments during drafts, especially in leagues of 12 teams or more.

Pitchers’ teams matter

Fantasy managers often lament the existence of wins as a roto stat, but the category is not going anywhere in most leagues. Among the 19 pitchers with at least 13 wins, 18 play for teams that have winning records. If we expand our list to pitchers with at least 11 wins, 32 of 35 hurlers to reach that threshold play for teams with winning records. This is possibly a one-year blip, but we need to acknowledge that there is a definite list of “haves” and “have-nots” among MLB teams.

Of course, the challenge for 2022 drafters is to identify which teams are destined to win plenty of games and which teams are not. And perhaps the changes coming from the looming labor negotiations will even the playing field. But for now, identifying pitchers on the best teams in baseball may be a good path to accumulating plenty of wins.

Steals are gone, but so are the rabbits

For those who are unfamiliar, “Rabbits” is a term that refers to baseball players who provide plenty of steals but very few homers. These players cause a conundrum for fantasy managers, who need to use them for their base-stealing prowess but also must compensate for them at other positions. Fortunately, rabbits are a dying breed in baseball, as just two players (Myles Straw, Nicky Lopez) have more than 20 steals and fewer than 10 homers. Overall, the number of elite steals sources continue to decline, as just four players have 30 steals and only 13 have reached the 20-steal plateau. But nearly every top base stealer also contributes in other categories, making them all usable in mixed leagues.

Looking ahead to 2022, fantasy managers should plan to draft one great base stealer (someone who is projected for 25+ swipes), and a handful of players who will produce a double-digit total.

Homers are plentiful but dispersed

We entered the regular season wondering how a new baseball would impact home run totals before quickly finding out that balls continue to fly out of stadiums with regularity. That being said, the homer totals for baseball’s best sluggers are not on the rise. We are unlikely to have a 50-homer player this year and just five players have reached the 40-plateau. However, the list of players with at least 30 long balls is at 41 and counting. Moving forward, fantasy managers need to have a deep group of power hitters on their 2022 Opening Day rosters. This should include at least four players who are expected to hit more than 30 homers and another stable of hitters with 20-homer potential.

Your draft slot doesn’t matter

Although fantasy managers spend so much time in March debating their favorite draft slot, the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. Simply take a look at the 2021 first round, which has busts from the beginning (Ronald Acuna, Mookie Betts), middle (Jacob deGrom, Mike Trout), and end (Christian Yelich, Shane Bieber). The truth is that there are no safe picks in fantasy baseball. Some players help us sleep better at night, but everyone can get injured.

The best we can do is to chase certain skill sets, draft a balanced roster, work the waiver wire, and cross our fingers that injuries don’t pile up. In large high-stakes contests such as the NFBC Main Event, league and overall winners come from all draft spots, proving that the work done throughout the season is the biggest factor in securing championships.

Pausing on Prospects

This definitely wasn’t the best year for prospects. Jarred Kelenic fell flat on his face after being the most-hyped Minor Leaguer during draft season. Kelenic’s teammate Logan Gilbert was the first touted pitching arrival of 2021 and will finish with an ERA north of 4.50. Wander Franco was a terrific player for the Rays, but fantasy managers must have been underwhelmed with less than 10 combined homers and steals. Andrew Vaughn was a popular draft-day sleeper who wound up with a low batting average and unremarkable power numbers.

There were definitely some good options among the freshman class, such as Jonathan India, Alek Manoah, and Adolis Garcia. Overall, a better plan for prospects is to add many of them at low investment costs rather than selling the farm for one who has more hype than the others.