In this offseason column, I’ll be taking both sides of a classic dilemma facing fantasy owners every draft: do I go for broke with upside or take the safer bet? These internal debates often are some of the most challenging and most common in-draft, spur-of-the-moment occurrences for me, whether it’s my first draft of the offseason or my last. So hopefully, this exercise of comparing two players that you are likely to choose between in drafts to fill a similar role will be helpful for all of you throughout draft season.

For this, the first column of the offseason, I decided to dig into the top of the starting pitching market, looking at a pair of borderline SP1/SP2s in Sandy Alcantara and Lucas Giolito. Since December 1, fantasy managers have been drafting Alcantara (NFBC ADP 37) and Giolito (NFBC ADP 38) at almost identical spots as the 13th and 14th SPs off the board, respectively. In this column, I’ll briefly go into what makes each of them worth a pick in this lofty spot in drafts before comparing their floors and ceilings in an attempt to provide drafters with as much usable information as possible for when they inevitably face this choice at some point during the new few months.

On the Rise: Taking a Shot on the Less Proven Alcantara

The 26-year-old ace of the Marlins broke onto the scene in 2021, demonstrating that he could not only carry a heavy innings workload, even following the abridged 2020 season but also maintain the short season gains he made in K/9 and BB/9. Alcantara finished the 2021 campaign with a 3.19 ERA (backed by a 3.45 xFIP) and 201 punchouts over 205.2 innings. These strikeout numbers demonstrated significant growth from his 2019 season, where he threw 197.1 innings but only racked up 151 strikeouts. His K% jumped six points from 2019 to 2021 from 18% to 24%, while his walk rate fell from 9.7% in 2019 to a stellar 6% in 2021, improvements that began during the shortened 2020 season.

These changes helped Sandy cut his ERA and, perhaps more importantly, lowered all of his ERA indicators (FIP, xFIP, xERA) down below 4.00 in 2021, demonstrating that his low ERAs from the past two seasons have been no fluke. So what underlies these changes? What did the 6’5 hurler do differently in 2021 that vaulted him into the SP1/SP2 discussion?

One significant change is a changed pitch mix. Alcantara’s fastball and sinker had always been his bread and butter pitches; according to Baseball Savant (graph below), Alcantara threw these two pitches more than 60% of the time through the 2020 season. In his previous seasons, he had found success with this pitch mix, posting sub-4 ERAs in 2018, 2019, and 2020, the last of which saw him put up a glittering 3.00 ERA. But now focus on that green line, the changeup. That was the key to the flamethrower’s improvements in 2021.

The changeup usage increased from 10.3% in 2020 to 23.5% in 2021, a massive leap for someone who already boasted three primary pitches in his fastball, sinker, and slider. But how successful was this changeup, especially compared to his other pitches, and when did he use it?

Much of the increased usage came from his use of the changeup against left-handed hitters. Alcantara went from using the changeup 16.5% of the time against lefties to 31.4% of the time. In particular, it became his two-strike pitch, and not just against left-handed hitters. In 2021, Alcantara’s changeup eclipsed his fastball, sinker, and slider in two-strike counts, as the usage leaped up to 31.5% from 14.4% in the previous season. But again, did this usage change make his other pitches more effective, or was the changeup the actual put-away pitch that the data suggests it was?

This is a more complicated story. Alcantara seems to have had better success using the changeup with two strikes in 2020 compared to 2021. His Chase-Miss% and Swing-and-Miss% were higher for the two-strike changeup in 2020 than in 2021. The true beneficiary of this increased usage then seems to be the slider.

Alcantara’s slider became his most effective two-strike pitch in 2021, generating a 39.3% whiff rate and 61% Chase-Miss rate. In 2020, the slider garnered a .250 AVG and .600 SLG on two-strikes, leading to a modest 16.1% put-away rate. Compared to the changeup, which allowed just a .133 AVG and .333 SLG in 2020 with two-strikes, with a 33.3% put-away rate, the slider was essentially a put-on pitch instead of a put-away pitch. But in 2021, the slider, which had been a two-strike liability for Alcantara, was now a major strength, to go along with an already elite two-strike changeup, and a fastball was regularly hitting 97mph at the top of the zone. As a result, the slider had a 27.7% put-away rate last season, beating out the changeup (23.1%) as Alcantara’s best pitch with two strikes.

All of this helps explain how Alcantara’s chase rate went from the 54th percentile in 2020 to the 95th percentile in 2021 and demonstrates that the gains he has made were not flukish but instead were based on demonstrable pitch mix changes and an improved understanding of how to best use his arsenal to overmatch hitters.

One Step Forward, One Step Back?

But there’s another pitcher with an elite changeup we will talk about today, and that’s Lucas Giolito. Or at least, it used to be an elite changeup…

Despite being just one year older than Alcantara, the 27-year-old Giolito feels more and more like one of the most bankable starters in the game now. Giolito has thrown at least 170 innings in each of the last full seasons going back to 2018, with ace-level results in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The Southern California product finished 2021 with a 3.53 ERA, backed by a 3.30 xERA and 201 strikeouts across 178.2 innings of work. This was considered somewhat of a down year for the right-hander, though, as his 2019 and 2020 gains in K/9 were diminished in 2021, while his HR/9 increased.

Ultimately though, Giolito has shown himself to be a consistent pitcher, at least in terms of his full-season line. Over the last few years, he’s shown 170+ innings, 200+ strikeouts, and a 3.40-3.60 ERA are largely what you’ll get if you draft him. Pitching for the Chicago White Sox, he’s also liable to provide double-digit wins without much worry. Plus, despite concerns about his K/9 and HR/9 in 2021, he was able to cut his BB/9 by nearly a full walk from 2020, and his HR/FB remained stable from 2020 to 2021. All of this is to reiterate that Giolito is bankable mainly at this point, which is undoubtedly valuable for any SP in fantasy, but especially for an SP1/SP2.

Now, if you compare these numbers to Alcantara’s numbers from 2021 and even from the last few years, you’ll find them remarkably similar. They’re both workhorses coming into their prime age seasons with an already established floor of success. But why does Giolito feel so much less exciting than Alcantara heading into 2022?

I would argue it’s because Giolito seems to have plateaued. Unlike Alcantara, who appears to have unlocked an additional level of performance in 2021, Giolito appears to have taken both one step forward in terms of control, and one step back, in terms of his strikeout upside.

Let’s see if that bears out in the underlying data. Then, we’ll look specifically to see if any one of Giolito’s pitches faired worse than usual in 2021 compared to 2019 or 2020, and also at his success with what is primarily considered, at least by the nebulous entity that is ‘baseball twitter,’ to be his most marketable skill––his elite changeup.

In 2021, Giolito’s arsenal changed only slightly, and all of the change came entirely at the expense of the fastball in favor of his slider. Giolito’s fastball usage dipped under 50% for the first time since 2018, down to 43.9%, while his slider usage increased nearly 7%, from 14.7% to 21.5%. Now, his arsenal has been more or less established as being roughly 45% fastballs, 30% changeups, and 20% sliders, with the remainder going to his afterthought 12-6 curveball.

Was the slider more effective in 2021? And the fastball less so? And was the changeup affected at all by these changes? At first glance, looking at the season as a whole, all of his pitches were less effective in 2021 compared to 2020, essentially by every measure. So whether you look at the expected stats or the actual results, the whiff rate, or the barrel rate, Giolito’s arsenal took a hit across the board last season. The only glimmer of hope came from that seldom-seen curveball, a pitch used in 12 different plate appearances in 2021 instead of in only two in 2020, and which had the best Whiff% of all of his pitches at 40% (though the small sample size should be noted).

But digging deeper into when he throws these pitches, were any more significant changes apparent?

One notable change is that in two-strike counts, Giolito threw his fastball much less in 2021, dropping usage from 58.2% to 40.9% in such counts, with all three off-speed pitches picking up some of the slack. The fastball was also much less effective, but some of this change may have had to do with bad luck. Giolito’s fastball vastly outperformed the expected stats in 2020 while significantly underperforming them in 2021, specifically looking at two-strike counts. Overall, the expected stats in 2021 were largely borne out in the results. So, it seems the fastball may have been the culprit in his varied approach in 2021, but looking at the month-over-month usage data, he didn’t seem to mix up his arsenal much. But look again (at the graph below). There is a marked change––changeup usage from June to July.

Should we make anything of this, though? Looking at the results of his changeups in July, I’d argue not really. His changeup was hit hard in July, but despite the limited usage in August and September, the results did bounce back to where they’d been earlier in the season when usage was still high.

Despite looking for a cause behind Giolito’s diminished strikeout rate and results, it just seems that he was hit a bit harder by bad luck and that despite adjustments throughout the season, he never found any particularly helpful arsenal change that led to a successful stretch, unlike Alcantara. But this isn’t inherently good or bad. It simply means Giolito is relatively consistent, and when he runs into tough stretches, i.e., his changeup in July, he adjusts, a noteworthy characteristic for an SP1/SP2.

The Verdict: Take Either, and Adjust

Ultimately, choosing between these two pitchers will not make or break your draft. We’ve established that they are both safe bets for innings and strikeouts and that both should carry sub-3.50 solid ERAs. The difference comes down to the upside.

While Alcantara seems to be trending upward in essentially every meaningful metric, Giolito has seen some of the most visible indicators of success, namely his HR/9 and K/9, fade in 2021. This may come across to some owners as a reason to fade Giolito. Because he didn’t unlock more of his seemingly limitless potential and become a full-fledged ace in 2021, he shouldn’t be drafted as a true SP1, some may reason.

I want to push back against that. Giolito seems to have settled into his sweet spot at this point. He may certainly return to that 12 K/9 rates he found in seasons past, but he seems to have sacrificed some of this strikeout upside for limiting his walks, which should ultimately allow him to go deeper into starts and have fewer blowups starts in the future.

As for Alcantara, all I can say is that he looks a lot like a pitcher ready to unlock more strikeout upside. But like Giolito, he may find that sacrificing strikeouts for command and control may not be in the best interest of his ERA. And so, a year from now, owners may feel a bit burned by Sandy’s lack of strikeout growth and fade him to an extent.

I think you guys can see where I’m going with this.

Essentially, I’d take either one of these pitchers with the understanding that they will be bankable and should compile solid strikeout numbers for entire season roto teams without providing elite upside in that category in weekly leagues. If you end up taking Alcantara, I will look more into pairing him with some high upside strikeout options in the following rounds, potentially with Giolito’s teammate Dylan Cease in the pick 70-80 range or with Blake Snell around pick 100-120. For managers who opt to draft Giolito, I’d say looking for someone like Cease or Snell would still work, but strikeouts may be less critical than ERA, particularly in weekly scoring formats. A solid target to pair with Giolito could end up being another White Sox starter in Lance Lynn (NFBC ADP 62.33) or, to go with cheaper options, Pablo Lopez or Carlos Rodon between picks 110-130.

However you decide to construct your team, I would head into drafts considering Giolito has a bit less upside than Alcantara to go along with a bit less volatility, though neither are volatile. So it will just come down to who you decide to make your guy between these two in 2022, but either way, you should go ahead and target both.