Top fantasy baseball lessons from first half of 2021 MLB season

The first half has been a refresher course for many fantasy managers who had forgotten what it’s like to guide their roster through a full 162-game season. After flying through the wild sprint of 2020, we now remember what it is like to build depth through the waiver wire, show patience with slumping players and resist spending all our resources on the latest big name. And Major League Baseball has thrown us even more curves in 2021 by introducing a new baseball in April and preventing pitchers from using grip enhancers in June. Here are some of the biggest takeaways thus far.

Full-time closers are hard to find

The 40-save reliever is not yet a dying breed, as many closers are on pace to collect virtually all of their teams’ saves this season. However, these full-time stoppers have really separated from the pack in 2021, as many teams have permanently shifted to closer committees. Like many managers, I have often been guilty this year of believing that teams such as the Reds or Royals have found a ninth inning man when a reliever picks up a couple saves in a row, only to see that reliever shut out of the next few save chances. The hard reality is that there are fewer than 20 full-time closers in the Majors, and that number could go down when bullpens are shuffled at the trade deadline. Fantasy managers who find help in the saves category during the second half will have a major advantage.

Rob Manfred changed the game

When Major League Baseball cracked down on pitching substances, they impacted more than just those who populate MLB rosters. Fantasy managers have been forced to re-assess every pitcher in an effort to find out which ones have been adversely impacted by having to change the way they grip the baseball. While we will never know the full details on which pitchers have been forced to change this year, many fantasy leagues will be won by the managers who dance around second-half pitching disasters.

Leagues matter for pitchers

For years, wise fantasy managers trended towards the National League when tabbing starting pitchers in the draft or on the waiver wire. But all of those plans when out the window in 2020, when a universal DH leveled the playing field. In 2021, we are back where we started, with pitchers on the Senior Circuit holding a major advantage. Among the top-20 qualified pitchers in ERA, 16 ply their trade in the National League. Of course, there are still waiver wire gems to be found in the American League during the second half. But we need to give NL hurlers the benefit of the doubt more often.

Baseball has become a young man’s game

A new era has dawned in Major League Baseball, with young players taking over the primary spots on fantasy rosters. Among the top-4 position players thus far, three (Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr.) are under age 24. The fourth player is 27-year-old Shohei Ohtani. Additionally, all of the top-10 position players are 30 years old or younger.

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 5: Fernando Tatis Jr. #23 of the San Diego Padres plays during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Petco Park on July 5, 2021 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Fernando Tatis Jr. is among a group of young MLB stars delivering on their immense promise. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

Steals are still around

Overall, baseball players are stealing bases at a similar rate to recent seasons. The death of the stolen base has been slightly overstated, but that doesn’t mean that we are ever going back to the days of players swiping 70-plus bags. The good news is that you don’t need too many steals to compete in the category, and those who are providing swipes are helping out in other areas as well. Among the 20 players with at least a dozen steals, 18 are batting better than .248 and 17 are on pace for a double-digit homer total.

This is not a great year for prospects

I’m not going to be too hard on the group of 2021 prospects, as they were undoubtedly impacted by not having a Minor League season last year. But whether the reason is rust, or a lack of development, or a lack of overall skill, this year’s crop of rookies has been largely underwhelming. Jarred Kelenic has been a complete bust, Logan Gilbert needed several starts to find his footing, Alek Manoah has been inconsistent and Wander Franco has yet to make a major impact. Some of these prospects will turn things on in the second half, but this feels like a year where fantasy managers should have a measured approach to investing in those promoted to the big leagues.

Injuries are everywhere

For years, the party line in fantasy circles was that position players were safer than pitchers due to a decreased risk of injury. But unfortunately, every position, age and skill set seems prone to injuries this season. For example, seven of the top-10 players in March ADP have already spent time on the IL, with Acuna's season-ending injury being the latest brutal blow. And early round studs such as Adalberto Mondesi, Luis Robert and Anthony Rendon have missed so much time that they have returned virtually no fantasy value. Fantasy managers need to be constantly focused on building depth in this era, as those who can compile plate appearances and innings are going to finish near the top of their leagues.