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Champ or Chump: Year in Review

Now that the 2020 fantasy baseball season has come to a close, it is time to assess your performance. Did you ignore red flags that you wish you hadn't? Was a strong process foiled by unpredictable factors outside of anybody's control?

Both of these things are likely true to some extent. The key is to identify what worked well and any areas of opportunity for improvement next season.

With this in mind, let's go back and revisit each of the nine players that received in-season write-ups in this column over the 2020 season. We will review each player's name, publication date, and a brief synopsis of the argument made. We will also look at how a player actually performed to get a better sense of what we should look for in the future. Let's get started!

 

7/25 Nate Pearson (SP TOR)

Original Verdict: Champ

Hindsight: Chump

Pearson offered a lot to like heading into the season: he's a hard thrower who generates a ton of spin with a strong MiLB resume. Success seemed like a foregone conclusion, leading to easy (if lazy) Max Scherzer comps. Unfortunately, Pearson got off to a slow start before a flexor strain in his right elbow kept him out of action for over a month. He ended up with a 6.00 ERA and 3.7 K-BB% over 18 IP, numbers that didn't help fantasy gamers at all.

That said, Pearson struck out five over two scoreless relief innings in the playoffs and maintains the stuff and pedigree that made him a desirable add in fantasy. His 2020 may have been a dud, but he'll likely be a hot name during the 2021 draft season. Just save the Scherzer comps until he does something at the MLB level.

Miss

8/1 Isiah Kiner-Falefa (C/3B/SS, TEX)

Original Verdict: Champ

Hindsight: Champ

Isiah Kiner-Falefa was virtually unknown before the season began, and playing for the lowly Texas Rangers doesn't help you get your name out there. Still, this column suggested adding him for his catcher eligibility, everyday playing time, and his potential for "steals with a workable average." He delivered exactly that, slashing .280/.329/.370 with eight steals and three homers while working his way to the heart of the Rangers order. Considering how bad catchers performed as a whole, you got a free top-five catcher here.

Sadly, Kiner-Falefa didnt log a single game behind the plate in 2020, so he won't have catcher eligibility in 2021. He was also caught stealing five times, so his speed won't play as well at other positions. He was a great add in 2020, but your 2021 plans probably shouldn't include him.

Win

8/8 Jo Adell (OF, LAA)

Original Verdict: Chump

Hindsight: Chump

Adell's major league arrival was greeted with the enthusiasm expected for a top prospect, but his MiLB track record included a ton of swing-and-miss and a meager 35 HR over 1,004 PAs. His MiLB breakout also occured at Hank Aaron Field, a park notorious for inflating offense. This author recommended letting somebody else add him to their roster, prudent advice considering that Adell managed just a .161/.212/.266 line with three homers and a 41.7 K% over 132 PAs.

Adell's prospect pedigree may help him get drafted in 2021, but he appears to be too far away to justify doing so in redraft leagues. He might join his teammate Mike Trout in an All-Star Game someday, but likely not in the immediate future.

Win

8/15 Alec Bohm (3B, PHI)

Original Verdict: Champ

Hindsight: Champ

Every fantasy gamer has a type, and this author loves MiLB bats that combine strong plate discipline numbers with high FB% rates. Alec Bohm's MiLB resume included both, though he seemed to struggle to access his above-average raw power in games. As such, he was recommended to fantasy managers looking for BA, OBP, and Runs with the potential for homers if everything clicked.

Bohm only hit four homers over 180 PAs, so the big-power prospect didn't produce power numbers right away. Adding him to fantasy rosters was still a smart move, as he slashed an insane .338/.400/.481 in his first taste of big league action. He'll probably be a top-100 draft pick in 2021 and could well earn every penny it takes to sign him. Just be wary of his .410 BABIP coming down a little.

Win

8/22 Casey Mize (SP, DET)

Original Verdict: Champ

Hindsight: Chump

Not going to lie: this is the miss that bothers me the most on this list. The original analysis noted that pitch tracking systems like Pitch Info and Statcast detected no discernable difference between Mize's slider and cutter, suggesting that his pitches blur together and lack consistency. I also correctly predicted that the Tigers were a terrible team despite a hot start, leaving Mize with minimal offensive and bullpen support. Yet I still advised adding Mize because "pitch tracking systems aren't foolproof."

The piece was written after Mize's first start, after which he had an ugly 6.23 ERA. That jumped to 6.99 by the time the season concluded, a number completely supported by a 9.8 K-BB%. The lesson here is clear: if a young pitcher's offerings seem to blur together, avoid that arm in fantasy.

Miss

8/29 Jake Cronenworth (1B/2B/SS, SD)

Original Verdict: Champ

Hindsight: Chump

Cronenworth came out of nowhere in 2020, slashing a ridiculous .360/.415/.605 with three homers and a steal through August. His low FB% and middling exit velocity suggested that his power was a mirage, but the column recommended Cronenworth anyway because he was in the 100th percentile of xBA with a .394 mark. The 26-year-old combined a pristine batted ball profile with plus-speed and excellent contact skills, so why wouldn't he continue to hit for a high average?

Naturally, he hit .183 with no homers in September. His plate discipline metrics were still good with a 16.3 K% and 10 BB% that month, so pitchers didn't suddenly figure him out. Instead, his problem was a .224 BABIP that Cronenworth should have no problem besting in 2021. The result was a miss, but the process was sound: Cronenworth should be a good BA investment in 2021 and beyond.

Miss

9/5 Kevin Gausman (SP/RP, SF)

Original Verdict: Champ

Hindsight: Champ

Gausman's is an interesting profile: both his four-seam fastball and splitter are elite pitches, allowing him to pile up Ks like few arms can. However, Gausman also features only those two pitches, making him predictable and increasing his blowup potential. Gausman had a 4.43 ERA reflective of both his upside and downside at the time of his write-up, and he was recommended to managers looking to climb the standings as opposed to teams trying to maintain their ratios.

Gausman provided a significant boost down the stretch, generating a QS in each of his final three starts (2.00 ERA overall) while also notching 24 Ks in that time frame. He remains a high-risk, high-reward fantasy option, but should be able to help fantasy managers in 2021 as well.

Win

9/12 Deivi Garcia (SP, NYY)

Original Verdict: Champ

Hindsight: Variable

Deivi Garcia began his big league career with a bang, posting a 3.06 ERA as an SP. His write-up emphasized strong MiLB stats, stuff scouts rave about, and a solid prospect pedigree, recommending him to all fantasy gamers. His next start against the Blue Jays went well: 7 IP, 3 ER, 6 K. Unfortunately, he followed that up with a clunker against Boston: 3 IP, 6 ER, 2 K. His third start against the Marlins was kind of neutral: 6 2/3 IP, 4 ER, 7 K. He went 2-1 overall, so he helped gamers looking for Wins and Strikeouts but not ratios.

I thought he would be good for ratio help as well, so I'm counting this as a miss. There is some concern that his small frame will land him in a bullpen role, but he should be a worthwhile fantasy starter as long as the Yankees use him in the role.

Miss

9/19 Trent Grisham (OF, SD)

Original Verdict: Champ

Hindsight: Unknown

The Grisham piece noted that Grisham has batting average upside based on his MiLB history, potentially leading to a better 2021 season than his strong 2020. Since the piece is forward-looking by design, it's too soon to determine its accuracy.

Push

Conclusion

Overall, I have four wins, four misses, and a push. Of the misses, I earnestly believe that Pearson and Cronenworth were examples of good analysis belied by small sample sizes, and Garcia was usable in the right situation. Mize was a total miss caused by ignoring a data point that proved prophetic.

Moving forward, I should try to avoid top prospect pitchers, a type of player that I seem to overrate. Relying on plate discipline and HR numbers on the farm appears to be a great way to evaluate rookie bats, and you can never go wrong with proven strikeout stuff at the big league level. What about you?



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Champ or Chump: Trent Grisham

While it seems like the MLB season just started yesterday, the final full week is rapidly approaching. If you're looking for an extra edge for the stretch run, rostering players on teams with a bunch of games to make up could give you a quantity advantage. The Cardinals, Brewers, Rockies, and Nationals are all scheduled to play eight games next week, though balancing the fact that some of those games will only last seven innings makes roster decisions more complicated.

In contrast, the San Diego Padres and Minnesota Twins are only slated for five games next week, meaning that only elite players from those teams should be utilized in weekly leagues. Guys like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Nelson Cruz are obvious must-starts, but Trent Grisham is also worthy of that status.

Grisham began his professional career as a hyped prospect, being selected 15th overall in the 2015 First Year Player Draft. His star had since dimmed, however, and he did virtually nothing in his first taste of big-league action despite a sterling MiLB resume. It has all come together in this abbreviated campaign though, even if 2021 will likely be remembered as his breakout season due to this season's bizarre structure. Here is a closer look at one of the more intriguing player profiles in the game today.

 

A Stellar 2020

 

The Padres have been one of the 2020 season's best storylines, and Trent Grisham's .267/.350/.471 triple-slash line with nine long balls and seven steals is a big reason why. Some fantasy managers may be skeptical of his performance because his average exit velocity is only 88.1 mph, but this is a case where looking at the overall number can be deceptive. Grisham's fly balls and line drives are averaging 94 mph off of the bat, placing him in the top third of the league. His grounders aren't as impressive at 84 mph, but Grisham's elite 28.9 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed allows him to reach base on them regardless.

Furthermore, Grisham has had a knack for barrels this season. His 10.9% rate of Brls/BBE ranks 72nd among qualified batters, with names like Pete Alonso and J.D. Martinez in the same vicinity. This author has found Brls/BBE to be one of the most reliable predictors of fantasy success, and Grisham offers it. Baseball Savant's expected metrics also suggest that Grisham has been unfortunate this season, with an xBA of .285 against his actual .267 mark. Likewise, Grisham's .522 xSLG is significantly better than his .471 slugging percentage.

Some fantasy baseball players may be skeptical of Grisham's 33.8 FB% and 20.5% HR/FB, numbers that scream negative regression at the top of their lungs. However, Grisham is also running an inflated 26.9 LD%, and it says here that some of those line drives will turn into fly balls moving forward. It won't be a great change for Grisham's .328 BABIP, but the resulting power spike is likely to add to Grisham's overall fantasy value.

Likewise, Grisham has an outstanding eye that his basic plate discipline metrics are masking. Fantasy gamers in OBP formats will appreciate his 10.5 BB%, and standard roto gamers also welcome the walks as an opportunity to swipe a bag. His 25.1 K% is a little harder to swallow, but his 20.4% chase rate and 7.5 SwStr% are both better than league average. Grisham is likely to underperform his plate discipline peripherals to a degree because of his low 38.1 Swing%, but it's hard to not see at least some upside here.

 

Under-the-Radar Prior Production

 

Another common criticism of Grisham is that he has only performed well for a short period (219 PAs as of this writing), but he actually has much more history producing like this if you include his minor league numbers. In fact, his MiLB resume includes several trends that suggest the K% and FB% improvements forecasted above. Unfortunately, scouting reports weren't that high on him, and fantasy managers didn't pay much attention as a result. For an idea of what Grisham was fighting against, here are his FanGraphs scouting grades from 2019:

Scouts aren't foolproof, of course, and Grisham's numbers suggest that he is capable of becoming a major league force.

He first reached Double-A as a member of the Brewers organization, slashing .233/.356/.337 for Double-A (Biloxi) over 405 PAs. He hit seven homers and stole 11 bases, foreshadowing the type of production he would offer fantasy managers. Grisham also managed a 15.6 BB% while only striking out 21.5% of the time, suggesting strong plate discipline. His 9 SwStr% was also impressive for a 21-year-old in his first exposure to the High Minors. Grisham did a tremendous job elevating the baseball with a 46.2 FB% as well, though his 6.1 HR/FB prevented him from doing much with it.

Grisham returned to Biloxi to begin the 2019 season, and he clobbered his opponents to the tune of a .254/.371/.504 line with 13 HR and six steals over 283 PAs. His 46.5 FB% was virtually unchanged from his previous season, but a HR/FB spike to 15.1% helped him hit for a lot more power. He also walked at a 15.5% clip with a 17.7 K% and 7.5 SwStr%, suggesting his plate discipline got even better. A .269 BABIP (partially caused by all of the flies) limited his batting average, but the Brewers promoted him to Triple-A (San Antonio) anyway.

Every Triple-A ballpark was a hitter's haven last year, and San Antonio finished in the 84th percentile for HR and 60th for BABIP among all MiLB parks. Grisham took full advantage, slashing a ridiculous .381/.471/.776 with 13 HR and six steals over 158 PAs before earning an opportunity in the Show. His 14.6 BB% was higher than his 13.9 K%, his 44.6 FB% did a lot of damage with a 26 HR/FB, and he posted a .384 BABIP to boot. Some of this was definitely his environment, but we can't discount that there was some growth too.

Some experts were touting Grisham when the Brewers added him to their MLB roster, but it just didn't work out. He hit .231/.328/.410 with six homers over 183 PAs with sporadic playing time, stealing only one base. His 10.9 BB% was in line with his MiLB performance, but the combination of a 26.2 K% and .286 BABIP made his batting average a drag in fantasy. The Brewers decided to trade Grisham to San Diego in the Luis Urias deal, something they would probably like a mulligan on now.

 

Conclusion

 

If you judge Grisham only on his 2020 performance, you see a guy who may not continue to hit for power and strikes out too often. However, both his FB% and K% numbers were much better in the minors, and he figures to help fantasy managers with homers and steals for the foreseeable future. Additionally, the Padres generally hit Grisham leadoff, adding runs to an already-superlative fantasy profile.

This author has no idea why Grisham is only rostered in 75% of Yahoo! leagues even if the Padres have a light schedule the rest of the way, so checking if he's available is recommended. Grisham also makes for a great target if you're already thinking about 2021, as his draft day cost is likely to pale in comparison to the value he can provide.

Verdict: Champ (based on sustainable HR, SB, and R production with a good average)



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Champ or Chump: Deivi Garcia

Fantasy baseball frequently turns into an arms race, so you should always be scouring the waiver wire for pitching reinforcements to help you reach your innings cap. Young Deivi Garcia has turned heads in his MLB debut for the Yankees, going 1-1 with a 3.06 ERA and 4.20 xFIP in his first 17 2/3 IP at the MLB level. The prospect of a solid starter on a very strong club (recent struggles aside) makes for an intriguing add, especially considering that the 21-year-old is currently rostered in just 33% of Yahoo! leagues.

Garcia didn't get too much hype before the season because of his youth and inexperience, leading many prospect hounds to conclude that he was still a few years away. He also has a small frame by MLB standards, causing some scouts to project him as a high-leverage reliever rather than a front-end starter. His delivery is described as "high-effort," further reinforcing the notion that his future is in the bullpen.

Despite all of that, his electric stuff plays in any role. MLB Pipeline ranked Garcia as the third-best prospect in the Yankees system this season, indicating a consensus that he would be able to contribute at the big-league level. The Yankees have also allowed Garcia to pitch at least six innings in two of his three starts, so the reliever talk is unlikely to become a reality in 2020 even if it is his long-term future. Keep reading to find out more about how Garcia could help your fantasy roster in 2020.

 

Dazzling Scouting Reports

Scouts don't love Garcia's physical size, but they love the stuff he's able to generate. His repertoire begins with a high-spin fastball that has averaged 92.6 mph at the big league level, though he can dial it up to 97 when the situation warrants it. Its 2,200 RPM might not seem impressive at first glance, but its 95.8% active spin means that virtually all of those rotations are contributing to deceptive riding life. The pitch has performed exactly as you would expect it to in its brief MLB sample, generating a solid 9.3 SwStr% and inducing a lot of harmless pop-ups with a 53.6 FB% and 40 IFFB%.

Scouts say that Garcia's high-spin curve is his best pitch, noting that it offers "so much depth that [Garcia] sometimes has difficulty landing it for strikes." It has generated a solid 15.7 SwStr% and 45.1 Zone% at the MLB level thus far, but big-league hitters haven't really been chasing it out of the zone with a 32.1% chase rate. It also offers a 75 GB% when put into play, potentially reassuring fantasy managers who are concerned about rostering a fly ball pitcher at Yankee Stadium.

Garcia's changeup is usually described as his third pitch in scouting reports, but its results to date have been excellent. It's tough to argue with a 21.6 SwStr%, especially if the pitch in question has a 64.9 Zone%. Major league hitters haven't been chasing it at all with a 23.1% chase rate, but its 50 GB% and ability to be thrown for a strike mean that its chase rate isn't that important.

Garcia also throws an occasional slider, but it's more of a show-me pitch than a weapon to get hitters out. FanGraphs grades all four pitches with at least the potential to be major league-average, with a 70-grade on his curve standing out. His fastball is also plus with a 55 scouting grade, while his slider (50/55) and change (45/50) are expected to improve moving forward. The biggest negative is 40-grade command, though it is expected to reach 50-grade in the future.

MLB Pipeline largely agrees with that assessment, ranking his curve as a 65 but also grading his heater a 60. His change and control earned 50-grades in their 2019 scouting report. Overall, this is the kind of raw stuff fantasy gamers want to bet on.

 

Sterling MiLB Performance

 

Garcia began his professional career in 2016, but he didn't throw 100 innings in a single season until last year. He began the campaign at Advanced A (Tampa), posting a 3.06 ERA and 1.49 xFIP over 17 2/3 IP. It's a small sample, but his 45.2 K% and 11 BB% suggest total mastery of the level. He somehow allowed a .438 BABIP despite his overall success, but the Yankees promoted him to Double-A (Trenton) without hesitation.

Garcia was more than up to the challenge, posting a 3.86 ERA and 2.45 xFIP over 53 2/3 IP. His 37 K% remained elite, while his 11.1 BB% was virtually unchanged despite more advanced competition. His BABIP against was still high at .360, but he made up for it with an HR/FB of just 5%. Again, the Bronx Bombers had no choice but to promote him to Triple-A (Scranton-Wilkes-Barre).

Garcia's numbers took a bit of a hit at Triple-A, as his ERA and xFIP ballooned to 5.40 and 5.18, respectively, over 40 IP. He still got his strikeouts with a 25.3 K%, but the figure was more good than elite. His 11.2 BB% was comparable to his rates at prior levels, but doesn't work as well when paired with an 18.2% HR/FB.

Still, there is a good case that it wasn't actually Garcia's fault. Scranton-Wilkes-Barre finished in the 94th percentile for HR among all MiLB ballparks last season thanks in part to the rabbit ball. In contrast, Tampa ranked in the 42nd percentile, while Trenton was in the 28th. Likewise, Scranton-Wilkes-Barre finished 2019 in the 73rd percentile for BABIP against the 47th for Tampa and 13th for Trenton. Reaching Triple-A at all is impressive for a 20-year-old, and this author believes that Garcia deserves a mulligan for the statistics he posted there.

 

Parting Thoughts

 

Garcia's 25.7 K% over his first three starts is comparable to what he did at Triple-A last season, with his MiLB resume suggesting further upside. He has also cut his BB% to 2.9, indicating that he may have solved one of his biggest problems at the team's alternate training site. It's also possible that he will regress as the league gets more data on him, but walks are unlikely to be a problem if he maintains two pitches with zone rates over 60%.

Scouts believe that Garcia will need to refine the command of his curve to reach his ceiling, and its big-league results haven't measured up to its scouting report thus far. It is also risky to use a pitcher with a 46.9 FB% at Yankee Stadium, though high-spin fastballs tend to limit the damage on fly balls.

Garcia is worth adding to nearly every fantasy roster because he figures to provide strikeouts and wins without hurting a manager's ratios. Honestly, this author is surprised that he is freely available in about two thirds of leagues.

Verdict: Champ (based on excellent pedigree, strong MiLB performance, and initial MLB success)



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Champ or Chump: Kevin Gausman

Separating legitimate breakouts from fluke seasons is one of the biggest components of fantasy analysis, and the unique structure of the 2020 campaign is making it more challenging than ever. Can you imagine making your final keeper decisions on June 1 in a normal year? That's going to be all of the information we have going into 2021.

It'll be an inexact science, but we can try to spot trends to point us in the right direction. For instance, Kevin Gausman of the San Francisco Giants has been an average starting pitcher since his MLB debut in 2013. He has a 22.1 career K% and a career ERA of 4.30. This year, he's sporting a 31 K% and 3.07 xFIP to go with a middling 4.43 ERA and 2-2 record. Has the 29-year-old former top prospect turned a corner, or is his 2020 success a mirage?

The answer is likely somewhere in between. Gausman is better than his 4.43 ERA might suggest, but still has a significant problem that will likely prevent him from living up to his sterling xFIP. He is currently rostered in 29% of Yahoo! leagues, and at least one manager in every league could probably use his services. Of course, that manager isn't necessarily you. Here is a more detailed look at Gausman's profile.

 

What the Luck Metrics Say

 

The first step in evaluating any pitcher's performance is looking at his "luck metrics:" BABIP, strand rate, and HR/FB. Some pitchers can control these variables to an extent, while predictable factors such as a club's defense can influence them as well. Still, outlying marks in any of the three are likely to regress over time.

Gausman is allowing a .307 BABIP this season against a career mark of .314, a difference that probably isn't driving his success this season. He also has a 70.7% strand rate against a career mark of 73.9%, suggesting that he has been unfortunate considering his strikeout spike. His 20.5 HR/FB is a career-worst, significantly higher than his 13.8% career rate. Allowing more home runs doesn't make you an effective pitcher, so we can conclude that sheer dumb luck isn't behind Gausman's performance.

Interestingly, the Giants play in a pitcher's park but Gausman's 5.40 ERA at home is considerably higher than his 3.48 mark on the road. This is almost certainly small sample size noise and adds further credence to the notion that HR/FB isn't predictive of anything after about a month's worth of games.

That said, Gausman's .467 xSLG isn't that much lower than the .472 slugging percentage he has allowed thus far. His .262 xBA is also substantially higher than his .245 BA allowed, suggesting that his BABIP deserves to be a little higher than it is. In short, these metrics do not provide the answers we're searching for.

 

An Improving Fastball

 

The biggest driver of Gausman's success to date has been his four-seam fastball. It has ranked about average over his career, recording a 7.3 SwStr% and 58 Zone%. It was better than that in 2019 with a 10 SwStr% and 58.2 Zone%, but the time he spent as a reliever made one wonder if he could repeat it as a starter.

Gausman's 40 2/3 IP this season have come nearly exclusively as a starter (his one relief appearance lasted more than four innings), so he hasn't had the benefit of airing it out for a couple of batters. His heater has still been amazing: 11.8 SwStr% and 71.9 Zone%. Better yet, all of the offering's peripherals are trending in the right direction.

Gausman is throwing harder than he did a season ago, dialing it up to 95.6 mph against an average of 94.2 mph in 2019 and 93.6 in 2018. He's also generating a lot more spin, averaging 2,326 RPM in 2020 against 2,250 in 2019 and 2,168 in 2018. Gausman has always enjoyed a high active spin rate, with 92.3% of his fastball's RPM contributing to movement this year. His improved spin rate means that his active spin is making more of an impact, giving Gausman a dynamic weapon with which he can attack hitters.

 

Repertoire Changes?

 

Gausman has been perceived as a two-pitch arm who combines a mediocre fastball with a great splitter. Now that he also has a great fastball to pair with his splitter, his breakout must be real right? Not so fast. The table below highlights what Gausman has been throwing this year according to Pitch Info:

Gausman shelved his slider last year, but he's brought it back in a limited capacity. Unfortunately, it still isn't accomplishing that much. Its 8.5 SwStr% is fairly low for a breaking pitch, and batters are seldom chasing it out of the strike zone with an O-Swing% of just 17.9. Its 40.4 Zone% isn't stealing many called strikes either, and RHB (who have seen 40 of the 51 sliders Gausman has thrown this year) have an xwOBA of .553 against it. It's a complete waste of a pitch.

Gausman has never featured a changeup, and Statcast suggests he still doesn't despite the info above. The diagram below highlights Gausman's pitch usage on Baseball Savant:

Judging from those percentages, it's likely that what Pitch Info is registering as a changeup is actually a splitter that doesn't have the bite it's supposed to. Per Pitch Info, Gausman's split has a 23.2 SwStr%, 27.4 Zone%, and 37.7% chase rate this season. His change is inferior with a 13.2 SwStr%, 37.4 Zone%, and 14% chase rate. There's no reason to throw that changeup on purpose if you have Gausman's splitter.

Furthermore, Gausman's splitter has a career chase rate of 44.3%, roughly seven points higher than its current mark. This could suggest that even the pitches Pitch Info interprets as splitters don't have quite the same action they've had in the past. It's still a great strikeout pitch, but appears to be trending in the wrong direction.

 

Conclusion

 

Add it all together, and we have a guy with a great high-spin fastball and an excellent split when it's working. Two great weapons are all it takes to post high strikeout numbers, so Gausman is likely to continue racking up Ks moving forward.

However, high-spin fastballs are generally easier to lift, and a mistake can quickly wind up in the cheap seats. Furthermore, splitters that don't have the intended bite tend to get crushed. Gausman is also pretty predictable with just two viable offerings. This gives him more blowup potential than other arms.

The upside is intriguing, but there is enough volatility here that Gausman can't be recommended for fantasy gamers trying to maintain their ratios. Likewise, there's no reason to roll the dice with Gausman if you're currently in first place. However, Gausman is the perfect guy to sign if you need to make things happen this month. After all, you're not going to climb from sixth to first without taking some risks.

Verdict: Champ (assuming you're the GM of a middling team looking for a spark)



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Champ or Chump: Jake Cronenworth

It was widely known before the season that the shorter schedule would favor fringe contenders, and no team has taken better advantage of it than the San Diego Padres. They needed Fernando Tatis Jr. to continue producing like a star despite less-than-stellar peripherals in his rookie season, and he has. They needed Eric Hosmer to learn how to hit a fly ball, and he has. They also needed some surprise producers to emerge, and Jake Cronenworth has more than delivered the goods.

Cronenworth doesn't have the prospect pedigree of most players who explode on to the fantasy radar, being the 208th selection by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2015 Amateur Draft and ranking 19th in the Padres system per MLB Pipeline before the season began. He was an auxiliary piece in the Tommy Pham trade, but wasn't considered a prime get for the Padres. At age 26, he's also older than many fantasy owners realize.

That said, it's tough to ignore a .360/.415/.605 batting line with three homers and a steal over 94 PAs, especially considering that it comes with eligibility at three different positions in Yahoo! leagues (1B, 2B, SS). He's still widely available with a 60% ownership rate as of this writing, and he makes for a great pickup as long as you have realistic expectations. What are realistic expectations? Keep reading to find out!

 

A Statcast Darling

If you use Baseball Savant for your fantasy baseball research (and you absolutely should), you're probably aware that Statcast loves Cronenworth. Here is a snapshot of how Cronenworth ranks in several key metrics:

This author finds Cronenworth's .395 xBA and .724 xSLG particularly amusing, but it's important to remember that we are working with less than 100 PAs of data here. Cronenworth is unlikely to sustain his current BABIP of .412 because nobody sustains a BABIP that high. Statcast gives Cronenworth full credit for his 32.4 LD%, but nobody hits that many liners over a full campaign either. The numbers above also make no distinction between airborne and ground ball contact, which is particularly important in a case like Cronenworth.

Cronenworth's grounders have an average exit velocity of 90.1 mph this season, ranking 30th among qualified batters. That's really good! His airborne batted balls average 92.8 mph, ranking 140th in the same subset of players. That's above average, but it isn't elite. These two metrics suggest that Cronenworth is best as a high-average hitter specializing in ground ball base hits, especially considering that he seldom strikes out with a 16 K%. Cronenworth's 28.4 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed also allows him to wreak havoc on the bases, potentially helping his BA play up in fantasy.

 

What the Scouts Say

 

Scouts generally agree that Cronenworth is a high-average hitter with minimal power upside, matching the conclusion above. Here are his 2020 scouting grades per FanGraphs:

We see an above-average hit tool with further room to grow, below-average power, and plus speed. Cronenworth didn't rate highly enough as a prospect to receive scouting grades on Baseball Savant, but his scouting report notes that he has been "long able to hit for average" while "managing the strike zone well." It also notes that he added muscle and adopted a more aggressive approach at the plate in 2019, but his minor league numbers don't bear that out. The rest of the report focuses on the novelty of Cronenworth as a two-way player at Triple-A, serving as an effective opener with a strong curve.

 

Cronenworth's Minor League Resume

Scouts see Cronenworth as a batting average play, and this author's interpretation of his Statcast metrics leads to the same conclusion. His MiLB performance clinches the argument. Cronenworth first reached the High Minors in 2017, slashing .285/.363/.342 with a homer and a steal over 180 PAs for Double-A (Montgomery). His 22.1 FB% and 3.3% HR/FB suggested that there's virtually zero power potential here, but finishing the trial with identical 10.6 K% and BB% rates is great news for a guy who can run. His 22.1 LD% was also above-average, suggesting that he might be able to hit more liners than most.

The Rays asked Cronenworth to repeat the level in 2018, and he took a step backward with a .254/.323/.344 line with four homers and 21 steals over 470 PAs. His FB% increased somewhat to 27%, but the accompanying 20.4 IFFB% suggests that he just added a bunch of useless pop-ups that drove his BABIP down to .291. His 9.1 BB% and 14.7 K% were both still strong, and his 24.6% line drive rate actually improved. He was also caught stealing a paltry three times, leading to an outstanding success rate of 88%.

The Rays saw that Cronenworth's peripherals were stronger than his surface stats and gave him a brief taste of Triple-A (Durham) in 2018 before starting him there in 2019. He raked to the tune of a .334/.429/.520 line with 10 homers and 12 steals over 406 PAs, again demonstrating mastery of the strike zone (12.1 BB%, 15.3 K%) while cutting his IFFB% to 9.8%. Cronenworth's BABIP overcorrected to .382, suggesting that his average was a little inflated. His 29 FB% was still a little low to project him for much power, and his 12.2% HR/FB was very low considering the environment he played in.

According to Baseball America's 2019 MiLB park factors, Durham's 1.051 HR factor ranked in the 91st percentile among all minor league parks, while its 0.991 BABIP factor ranked in the 75th. The combination of a nitro-charged baseball and minor league pitchers allowed batters to post stupid numbers at the level, but Cronenworth's were merely good. In all probability, he was still the high-average, low-power guy we saw at Montgomery.

 

Conclusions

Cronenworth's .605 slugging percentage might be tricking fantasy owners into thinking that he has power potential, but his 28.2 FB% at the MLB level suggests that he hasn't added any additional loft since his days on the farm. His liners are also going to decline the first time he slumps, and his MiLB rates only suggest a slightly above-average rate moving forward. If you're looking for pop on the waiver wire, Cronenworth may not be the add for you.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Cronenworth should be avoided like the plague. His low fly ball rate and excellent ground ball exit velocity should allow him to post plus BABIPs for the foreseeable future, while his low strikeout rate should allow him to make the most of his BABIP. He's also fast enough to be a factor on the basepaths, though you should probably expect a 20 SB pace over a full season as opposed to 40+ based simply on how often he ran in the minors.

The Padres generally hit their surprise contributor sixth, a role that doesn't offer the counting stats fantasy owners might like. That said, you have to think that he could be promoted if he keeps getting hits to drop in. Cronenworth is a great target for owners looking for batting average, OBP, and/or steals, with the potential for runs if he improves his lineup slot. Just don't target him for HR.

Verdict: Champ (based on strong batting average/OBP indicators and speed even if his power is largely a mirage)



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Champ or Chump: Casey Mize

One of the secrets to perfect in-season fantasy management is to look at your league's transaction list every single day. You may not have been the first to scoop up that hyped prospect or breakout veteran, but you can still benefit from most of their stats if their current owner abandons them after a subpar performance or two.

Casey Mize is one such name you should be on the lookout for. Mize was must-see TV when he made his highly-anticipated debut for the Tigers against the White Sox, but he failed to complete five innings and exited the game with an ERA of 6.23. Owners were likely expecting more from the first overall selection in the 2018 Amateur Draft, potentially inspiring them to throw him back to the waiver pool. Mize is only 55% owned in Yahoo! leagues as of this writing.

Cutting him after one start would be a mistake. The 23-year-old Mize showcased the excellent stuff that helped him become MLB Pipeline's eighth-ranked prospect before the season, and his seven strikeouts against zero walks were impressive despite the inflated ERA. Continue reading to find out more about what makes this kid so special.

 

A Scout's Total Package

 

As you might expect from a guy who was drafted first overall, scouts like everything about Casey Mize. Check out these scouting grades from FanGraphs as an example:

We see an above-average fastball that has been clocked as high as 97 mph. We see an above-average split that is projected to become a plus pitch in the future. We see a slider that is already a plus pitch in the Show. Best of all, we see a cutter that already ranks as a plus-plus pitch. Prospects with stuff like this generally have no idea where it's going, but Mize already has above-average MLB command with room to improve it further. It's strange for a prospect not to throw any kind of changeup, but Mize already features four plus pitches with the control to utilize them effectively.

MLB.com also loves Mize's stuff, but they grade it out a little differently. Take a look:

Mize's heater is already regarded as a plus pitch here, likely because his cutter is factored into it as opposed to receiving its own grade. Mize's 2019 scouting report notes that he can turn his mid-80s slider into an upper-80s cutter at will, which is the only time his cutter is referenced specifically. Mize's split gets a 70 grade instead, with scouts noting that it provides "outstanding late tumbling action generating both whiffs and weak contact." Strong 60-grades on his slider and control complete the analysis.

Initially, this author was concerned that scouts saw Mize's cutter as a variation of his slider, as many young pitchers struggle to maintain consistency when their offerings blur together. Pitch Info was able to detect five distinct pitches in Mize's first start: 27% cutters, 26% splitters, 18% sinkers, 16% fastballs, and 12% curves, meaning that his sliders were likely classified as cutters. Statcast saw four distinct offerings: a four-seamer (34.2%), slider (27.4%), split (26%), and curve (12.3%). Again, his slider and cutter were apparently indistinguishable.

This is something to watch moving forward, but we also have to remember that pitch-tracking technology is not foolproof. A quick look at Mize's 2019 MiLB performance reveals that he rarely if ever struggled with his consistency.

 

2019 in Review

 

Mize hurled a handful of innings in his draft year of 2018, but 2019 was his first real exposure to the rigors of professional baseball. He began the campaign at Hi-A (Lakeland), where he absolutely dominated to the tune of an 0.88 ERA and 2.60 xFIP over 30 2/3 IP. He struck out 28% of the batters who faced him against a walk rate of just 4.7%, suggesting total mastery of the level. He also held opposing batters to a likely-unsustainable BABIP of .155, though the combination of a 40.6 FB% and 32.1 IFFB% suggested some level of contact management ability.

The performance earned Mize a callup to Double-A (Erie), where he threw a no-hitter in his first start. Unfortunately, he missed about a month with right shoulder discomfort and scouts thought it affected both his stuff and command upon his return, leading to an August shutdown. His 3.20 ERA and 3.13 xFIP over 78 2/3 IP were still solid, and the fact that his K% declined to 23.5 was mitigated by a 14.1 SwStr% that was only slightly lower than the 14.6% figure he put up in Lakeland. His 5.6 BB% was very good for a young pitcher in his first exposure to Double-A, though his BABIP climbed to .294.

It's also worth noting that Mize went from an extreme pitcher's park to a hitter's paradise upon his callup. Lakeland's 0.900 HR factor ranked in the 19th percentile of all MiLB stadiums per Baseball Prospectus, while Erie's 1.378 HR factor ranked in the 77th despite the power explosion at Triple-A. Likewise, Lakeland suppressed BABIP with a 0.979 park factor that ranked in the 13th percentile, while Erie was fairer at 1.003 (29th percentile). Such a dramatic change in environment could explain why Mize didn't quite live up to his performance at Lakeland right away.

 

Conclusion

 

This author remains skeptical of Detroit's status as a contending team, even if the club is clearly going for it by calling up top prospects like Mize. As such, Mize may not get the offensive, defensive, or bullpen support of pitchers on other teams. That said, it's rare for a pitcher to have both command and a full repertoire right out of the box, and Mize needs to be owned in a lot more than half of leagues. If a rival discarded Mize after an unsatisfactory line in his first start, scoop him up and thank your fellow owner for the gift.

Verdict: Champ (based on strong stuff, plus command, and widespread availability)



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Champ or Chump: Alec Bohm

In this strange season where the Miami Marlins and Detroit Tigers look like plausible contenders, the teams that thought they should contend before the world turned upside down don't have the time to dilly dally. The Philadelphia Phillies have responded to this sense of urgency by summoning top prospect Alec Bohm from their alternate training site, hoping to spark a team that hasn't performed up to expectations thus far.

The 24-year-old Bohm carries a substantial prospect pedigree into his big league debut, being taken third overall in the 2018 Amateur Draft and ranking as the 30th best prospect in the game according to MLB Pipeline. He got his first hit out of the way early on as well, notching a double against the Orioles on Thursday evening. Fantasy owners have to be wondering what he might be able to do the rest of the way.

A closer look at Bohm's scouting reports and MiLB resume reveals that he will probably be able to help fantasy teams this year, but not in the way that many owners might expect. Keep reading to find out exactly what that means.

 

What Scouts See

 

Bohm's scouting reports include a lot of the platitudes that you see for well-regarded prospects, including the ones posted on Baseball Savant. He has "strength" and "excellent bat speed," allowing him to "hit the ball with authority to all fields." He also possesses "excellent strike zone control" with a "strong work ethic," and impressively hit his way to Double-A in 2019 after starting in A-ball.

The important thing to remember is that those platitudes are concerned primarily with Bohm's future, not his immediate impact in 2020. For that, it is best to turn to scouting grades. Here is what FanGraphs says about him in their most recent prospects report:

Many fantasy circles speak of Bohm as a big power prospect, but these grades don't reflect that. His hit tool is already MLB-average with room for growth in the future, but his above-average raw power is masked by an inability to fully access it in games. The low fielding grade also suggests that Bohm may not stick at third base long-term, and he already has MiLB reps at 1B that could give him positional flexibility in our game.

It's best to consult multiple sources of scouting information to eliminate any bias, so here are Baseball Savant's 2019 grades:

These grades are more optimistic with above-average hit and power tools, but don't quite match the ceiling that the FanGraphs grades suggest. This author is inclined to favor the FanGraphs grades because they align well with the Bohm's performance on the farm last season.

 

Bohm's 2019 in Review

 

While Bohm made his professional debut in 2018, a left shin contusion caused by a HBP prevented him from getting things going until last year. He began the campaign at Single-A (Lakewood), slashing .367/.441/.595 with three homers and three steals across 93 PAs. It's admittedly a tiny sample with a .406 BABIP, but it is encouraging that he commanded the zone with a 12.9 BB% against a 15.1 K%. His 7.6 SwStr% was also encouragingly low for a bat capable of plus raw power. The Phillies agreed, quickly promoting him to Hi-A (Clearwater).

Bohm was more than up to the task, slashing an impressive .329/.395/.506 with four homers and a steal over 177 PAs. Again, his 9.6 BB% nearly equaled his 11.9 K%, suggesting an advanced approach at the plate. His 8.2 SwStr% represented a slight uptick from his work at his previous level but was still excellent. Interestingly, Bohm's 26.9 LD% at Lakewood was more than cut in half to 13.4% at Clearwater, but that's probably just small sample noise.

The performance earned Bohm a shot at Double-A (Reading), where he hit .269/.344/.500 with 14 long balls and two steals in 270 PAs. The lower average was the result of a .265 BABIP that likely isn't reflective of his true talent level, and both his 10.4 BB% and 14.1 K% were still impressive. His LD% rebounded somewhat to 18.1%, while his SwStr% improved to 7.3%. Bohm displayed strong batting average and OBP skills at all three levels he visited last season.

His 17.3% HR/FB was also considerably higher than his work at Lakewood (11.5%) or Clearwater (7.5%), but that's likely more a product of his environment than anything else. Reading is one of the most power-friendly environments in professional baseball, with a 1.365 HR factor that ranked in the 77th percentile of the entire MiLB landscape even though baseballs flew out of Triple-A parks like never before. The park's 0.996 park factor for BABIP ranked in the 17th percentile league-wide, potentially explaining Bohm's lower average as well.

In contrast, Clearwater's 1.044 HR factor only ranked in the 57th percentile, making it much fairer. Lakewood is where offense goes to die, as both its 0.735 HR factor and 0.962 BABIP factor ranked in the 4th percentile MiLB-wide. Bohm's FB% hovered around 40% at all three levels, so it looks like his power spike had more to do with Reading being a bandbox than any newfound ability to access raw power in games.

 

Parting Thoughts

 

Bohm's excellent plate discipline skills should prevent him from being overwhelmed in his first exposure to big-league pitching, allowing him to post a strong BA and OBP right out of the box. He should also post a reasonable FB% and has the raw power to do something with it, but he appears to be an adjustment away from realizing his full potential. Citizens Bank Park is power-friendly in its own right with a 107 HR factor for RHB last season per Baseball Prospectus, but nothing compares to Reading. This author expects something like a 20 HR full-season pace this year: not terrible, but not special.

Bohm's six steals last year came with four CS, a success rate that probably means he won't receive a green light in Philadelphia. He also hit sixth in his MLB debut, a lineup role that fantasy owners would love to see improve before investing too heavily. Unfortunately, there are whispers that Bohm may not even get to play every day at first because the club still wants Scott Kingery to figure out what ails him.

Still, it'll be far too late to add Bohm on waivers once his role is solidified. The prudent play is to add him while his Yahoo! ownership rate is just 17% and hope that he earns a lineup slot where his BA or OBP can make a meaningful contribution to your team's performance. If the big power breakout comes this year, that's just gravy.

Verdict: Champ (based on advanced plate discipline and hit tools with power potential)



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Champ or Chump: Jo Adell

For as different as the 2020 fantasy season has been, one thing hasn't changed: fantasy owners love top prospects. Nate Pearson generated significant intrigue when Toronto (Buffalo?) summoned him to the MLB club, especially with so many scrambling for pitching. Now, the Angels have summoned their top prospect and the sixth-ranked prospect in the entire game per MLB Pipeline: outfielder Jo Adell

Adell was drafted in 2017 as a toolsy outfielder who would need to overcome significant swing-and-miss to access his raw power in games. His detractors in the scouting world didn't think he would, but his supporters believed that his elite bat speed would make up for it. The Angels fell into the latter camp, selecting Adell with the 10th overall pick.

Adell has had successful stretches in the minors, but the totality of his work suggests that he might be more of a project at the big-league level than a finished product ready to contribute in fantasy right away. He's currently owned in 55% of Yahoo! leagues, and his owners may wish to trade his prospect pedigree for a premium before his star begins to fade. Here's why:

 

What Scouts Like

 

Fantasy owners have free access to two reliable sources of scouting grades: FanGraphs and MLB.com. Here are Adell's grades on the 20-80 scouting scale per FanGraphs:

Fantasy owners love the combination of speed and power, but a 35-grade hit is really hard to work with. The fact that it isn't projected to hit the league-average of 50 in the future is worrisome as well. His speed is also expected to drop off as he fills out his frame.

MLB.com sees Adell more favorably, as evidenced by the grades below:

It would be nice if Adell offered a 55-grade hit tool to go with his power and speed, but this author just can't get there. Adell has over 1,000 minor league PAs, and they don't support anything near an MLB-average hit tool.

 

Adell in the High Minors

 

Adell first reached Double-A (Mobile) at the tender age of 19 in 2018. Unfortunately, he looked completely overwhelmed in his brief 71 PA sample. He didn't hit that well, slashing .238/.324/.429 with two homers and two steals. He struck out at an alarming 31% clip, including an atrocious 18.4 SwStr% that suggests his swing-and-miss issues as a high schooler were still intact. His 9.5% HR/FB was also lacking for a prospect hyped in part for his raw power. It's impressive just to reach Double-A at such a young age, but it's tough to conclude that he was ready at the time.

Adell returned to Mobile in 2019 and fared much better: .308/.390/.553 with eight homers and six steals over 182 PAs. He cut his K% to 22.5% while increasing his walk rate from 8.5% to 10.4%, suggesting significant plate discipline gains. Likewise, his HR/FB nearly doubled to 18.6, suggesting that he learned to access his power. He also cut his SwStr% to 12.6, appearing to solve his greatest bugaboo.

The line looks great, but Hank Aaron Field likely had a lot to do it. Mobile ranked as the best ballpark for BABIP in the Southern League last season and in the 87th percentile of the overall MiLB landscape. It also ranked third in the Southern League with a 1.095 HR factor, though that only ranked in the 45th percentile in MiLB due to the power explosion at the Triple-A level. Adell slashed .343/.430/.687 at Mobile but just .283/.359/.457 on the road, suggesting he made great use of his favorable home environment. He was young for the level, but at least some of his progress was likely a mirage.

The Angels gave Adell a chance at the more neutral Triple-A (Salt Lake), and all of his previous problems returned. He hit .264/.321/.355 with no homers and one steal over 132 PAs. His 26 FB% was very low for a power prospect, and a HR/FB of zero is never what you want to see. He struck out at an alarming 32.6% rate fully supported by his 19 SwStr%. His BB% declined to 7.6%. Overall, it was a clear step backward that should have warranted a return to Triple-A in 2020 if such a thing was possible. Of course, it isn't and the Angels are the only way for Adell to participate in live game action.

Adell had a 36.4 FB% at Double-A and a whopping 55.3% mark there in 2018, so it's not like Adell has consistently struggled to hit the ball in the air. Still, the fact that a guy with 70-grade Raw Power has hit only 35 HR total over 1,004 MiLB PAs suggests that he's not a finished product yet.

 

Injury Concerns

 

Astute readers may have noticed that Adell logged only 314 PAs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019, roughly half of a full season. The reason why were hamstring and ankle injuries that cost him the first two months. According to his Baseball Savant scouting report, the injury made Adell reluctant to run even after he returned, compromising one of his fantasy assets.

Sadly, such issues are nothing new for the top prospect. He also had a shoulder issue that limited him to DH duties in 2017, leaving his defense as a question mark until last season. For the record, he is now considered a plus defender.

Adell's injury history is especially relevant considering that he missed the Angels games on August 6 and 7 due to "quadriceps tightness." You obviously hope the kid can get healthy and have an opportunity to contribute, but his track record has a lot of significant injuries for somebody so young.

 

Conclusion

 

Scouts love Adell, and the fact that his MiLB resume is a mixed bag doesn't mean that he has no value to the Angels or keeper league owners. However, his lack of production to date and limited exposure to advanced pitching means that he is very much a work-in-progress who is unlikely to do his best work in 2020 or even 2021. He also hit seventh in his first two games, a lineup role that adds zero fantasy value. If you're playing for the near-term, the prudent play may be to flip him at the peak of his prospect luster.

Verdict: Chump (based on raw skills that have yet to translate to fantasy-friendly production)



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Champ or Chump: Isiah Kiner-Falefa

Roughly a week into the season, no fewer than 20 percent of MLB teams are shelved due to coronavirus concerns. In all probability, your roster has a ton of players who are too good to drop yet aren't playing in the immediate future. Most of the affected players haven't been placed on the IL yet either, so you can't use it to alleviate the roster crunch even if your commissioner had the foresight to provide more slots.

This problem illustrates a key tenet of fantasy baseball: volume matters. If your league has no caps on IP or GP, whoever has the most is very likely to finish well. If you do have caps, any owners who fail to reach them will be at a significant disadvantage.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa of the Texas Rangers represents a great way to add volume to your roster. He is his club's everyday third baseman, but qualifies at C in all fantasy formats. Thus, you can get everyday PAs out of a position where frequent rest is the norm. Kiner-Falefa also brings steals to a position that rarely offers them, making him a great add if your roster needs speed. Best of all, he's only owned in 14% of Yahoo leagues so you can probably add him right now. Here is a closer look at his profile.

 

2019 in Review

You would be forgiven if you had never heard of Kiner-Falefa before this season as the 25-year-old doesn't have any skills that really stand out. He slashed a mediocre .238/.299/.322 with a single homer and three steals over 222 PAs with the Rangers last year, a line that doesn't move the needle at all. His contact quality was awful, with his 87.2 mph overall average exit velocity and 88.9 mph airborne exit velocity both ranking below league-average. Likewise, his rate of 1.3% Brls/BBE was in Billy Hamilton territory.

That said, there were some positives to consider. His 28 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed was above average overall and elite for a catcher, and he was a perfect three-for-three on SB attempts. His 87.2 mph average exit velocity on ground balls was also above-average, and it's reasonable to assume he'll best last season's .260 BABIP on them with his speed. Furthermore, he has a plus eye with a solid 27.1% chase rate a season ago. Most importantly, his 90.9 Z-Contact% suggests that he should be difficult to strikeout going forward, even if his actual 22.1 K% was about average.

Can Kiner-Falefa deliver the production (steals with a workable average) that we would expect from these peripheral statistics? His prior track record suggests he can.

 

Reasonable Production from 2016-18

Kiner-Falefa laid an egg last year, but he did all right in his previous three campaigns. He first reached Double-A (Frisco) in 2016, slashing .256/.341/.286 with zero homers and six steals over 457 PAs. His 9 BB% was very solid for a guy with no power, while his 11.2 K% suggested excellent bat-to-ball skills. He also seemed to realize that airborne batted balls are not his forte, with a 22.1 FB% that plays perfectly into his contact/speed profile. His six CS were too many, giving him something to work on in 2017.

Kiner-Falefa returned to Frisco in 2017 and performed much better: .261/.325/.357 with five long balls and 17 steals in 570 PAs. His plate discipline metrics were again excellent, with a 7.2 BB% and 12.6 K% that suggest mastery of the strike zone. He again avoided fly balls with a 29.8 FB% mark, helping him post a .325 BABIP. He even improved his success rate on the bases, repeating his six CS from the year before with 11 additional successes.

Kiner-Falefa played briefly at the Triple-A level, but largely skipped it in favor of MLB playing time in 2018. He fared well, hitting .261/.325/.357 with four homers and seven steals in 396 PAs. He struck out more often against the best pitchers in the world, but his 15.7 K% was far from bad. He also worked his fair share of walks with a 7.1 BB% and avoided fly balls with a 23.5% mark.

What changed between 2018 and 2019? The biggest difference is his LD%, which was a very high 25.3% in 2018 but a very low 16.9% last season. He was around average on the farm, so it seems logical to split the difference. He also hit more fly balls last season, but his 33.1 FB% was still below average. Most bizarrely, his contact quality was worse in 2018: 84.9 mph overall average exit velocity, 86.1 in the air, and 85.4 on grounders. The weaker contact actually helped him, as the extra slow-rollers gave him an xBA of .258 against just a .232 mark last season.

 

Opportunity in 2020

Kiner-Falefa was a backup catcher and utility guy in both 2018 and 2019, so 2020 will be his first consistent look at big-league pitching. Moreover, the club's new ballpark seems poised to adjust the team's overall strategy in their third-baseman's favor. Globe Life Park was a notorious hitter's haven, consistently ranking as one of the best parks for offense, no matter what park factors you consulted. As a result, the Rangers traditionally stacked their lineup with power bats and hoped to outslug mediocre pitching. Stealing wasn't really in the game plan.

It's only been a handful of games, but Globe Life Field seemed to play as an extreme pitcher's park to this author's eyes. We'll probably need to wait for at least one full season (and probably more) for reliable park factors to confirm, but it's likely more pitcher-friendly than Globe Life Park if nothing else. The Rangers also have a solid rotation backed by a mediocre offense, a formula that should produce plenty of low-scoring, close games where Kiner-Falefa may be asked to steal. He swiped two bags in one game on July 28, for example.

Kiner-Falefa could also see his role in the lineup improve in the coming weeks. He started the season batting ninth, but moved up to seventh for that July 28 game. The Rangers offense doesn't have any stars outside of Joey Gallo, so Kiner-Falefa should be able to move up as long as he's hitting.

 

Conclusion

Kiner-Falefa projects to hit in the .250-.260 range with zero power and some steals, a line that wouldn't work in fantasy at any position save catcher. Luckily for us, he is a catcher who should leverage his everyday PAs into decent R+RBI totals and stolen bases. If you're not satisfied with your catching tandem (who is?) or you're scrambling to replace a catcher from one of the teams that aren't playing right now, Kiner-Falefa is likely the best option available to you.

Verdict: Champ (based on everyday playing time and steals from a "free" C)



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Champ or Chump: Nate Pearson

The MLB season is finally underway, and a lot of what fantasy owners "knew" before the first pitch has already fallen apart. Juan Soto has tested positive for COVID-19, leaving both the Nationals and a lot of fantasy rosters without a superstar talent for the foreseeable future. Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Day start, while both Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer were credited with rain-aided complete games while Mike Soroka started his season with a QS. So much for pitchers not being ready!

That said, the most interesting developments to this author have been the Toronto Blue Jays and their quest to play anywhere but Buffalo. All of their plans fell apart though, so most of their home games will reportedly take place in their Triple-A affiliate's home park. Buffalo's Sahlen Field does not have major-league amenities, so it's easy to understand why Toronto's players might be bummed out. The park also has a very pitcher-friendly reputation, hurting players like Bo Bichette and Vladito in fantasy.

Of course, those same pitcher-friendly tendencies make Blue Jay pitching more attractive for our purposes. Both Hyun Jin Ryu and Tanner Roark now project as plus fantasy arms, while Trent Thornton and Matt Shoemaker offer intriguing upside. The show-stealer, however, looks to be Nate Pearson. The soon-to-be 24-year-old has been clocked as high as 104 mph, with excellent strikeout rates and low ERAs in the minors. He also ranks as the eighth-ranked prospect in the game per MLB Pipeline, giving him the type of prospect pedigree fantasy owners love. Is he worth a significant FAAB bid?

 

An Outstanding 2019

Let's start by examining how Pearson fared in the High Minors last season. He pitched primarily for Double-A (New Hampshire), posting a 2.59 ERA and 3.12 xFIP in 62 2/3 IP with a 28.3 K% and 8.6 BB%. He was definitely a fly ball pitcher with a FB% of 44.4%, but his 6% HR/FB meant that the long ball was not a problem. He also induced a ton of pop-ups (26.9 IFFB%), helping him post a BABIP of .250.

The Blue Jays were impressed enough to give him a shot at Triple-A (Buffalo), where he posted a 3.00 ERA and 4.45 xFIP over 18 IP. His K% declined precipitously to 21.7%, but he cut his BB% to 4.3% to make up for it. His FB% also declined to 36%, though he maintained most of his pop-ups with a 22.2 IFFB% and improved his BABIP allowed to .208. His 11.1% HR/FB was significantly higher than his Double-A mark, but was still better than average considering what the MLB ball did to minor league statistics last season.

It's worth noting that Pearson benefited from pitcher-friendly home parks in both of the stops above. Double-A (New Hampshire) ranked in the 37th percentile for homers and 14th percentile for BABIP in 2019, relative to all MiLB parks. Triple-A (Buffalo) finished in the 38th percentile for BABIP and 88th percentile for HR, but that latter number is deceiving. Since only Triple-A had a nitro-charged ball, all Triple-A parks looked power-friendly compared to the rest of MiLB.

MiLB.com updated its three-year park factors after 2019, and Buffalo had a 94 HR factor (six percent below the Triple-A average) from 2017-19. It appears as though Pearson benefited from his home parks last year, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't contribute to his contact suppression.

 

Tantalizing Skills

If you're going to be a fly ball guy, you want a high-spin fastball that can both generate whiffs and induce weak airborne contact when batters put it in play. It also helps to have plus secondary offerings so that you can pile up strikeouts to make up for the occasional home run you'll inevitably allow. Both Scherzer and Justin Verlander follow this general game plan, and Pearson appears poised to follow in their footsteps.

Scouts love Pearson. Here are his scouting grades according to FanGraphs:

All of these are on the 20-80 scouting scale, which means that his heater gets the highest grade possible while both his slider and change are already above-average by MLB standards. His curve is also a significant weapon, generally being used to steal a strike early in counts per scouting reports. You'd like to see more control, but this is the kind of arsenal that fantasy owners find scintillating.

Lest you think that the FanGraphs grades aren't representative of the industry consensus, here is what MLB.com thought of Pearson in 2019:

They reverse the roles of his curve and change, but we're still looking at a ridiculously-plus fastball that sits 98-101 most starts and two above-average secondary pitches, with an average fourth pitch. The one thing we can't get from scouting reports or grades is Statcast data. Does Pearson's heater spin like those of Verlander and Scherzer?

Luckily for us, Pearson is a Driveline guy who is just as interested in the analytics of his pitching as we are. According to this article, Pearson's heater averages 2,400 RPM, a number that would have ranked 20th in MLB last year among starters with at least 2,000 pitches thrown. That's high enough to generate both the whiffs and pop-ups we would expect from Pearson's fastball, while also limiting his HR/FB.

The Rogers Centre would have made drafting Pearson risky, as it posted a 109 HR factor for RHB and a whopping 122 for LHB in 2019 according to Baseball Prospectus. Every mistake could have left the yard! We aren't sure how Buffalo plays by MLB standards, but it's safe to assume that it'll be pitcher-friendly and even safer to assume that it won't inflate power numbers like the Rogers Centre. Between Pearson's natural contact-suppression skills and a friendly home park, he could be a league-winning add in the 56 percent of Yahoo! leagues where he is currently available.

 

Parting Thoughts

With his eye-popping velocity and elite prospect pedigree, Pearson is going to ignite a bidding war in every fantasy league where he is available once he's called up. Industry speculation is that the Blue Jays are only holding him down to get the extra year of service time, something that should only take about a week in a shortened season. As such, the time to put in a claim for Pearson is right now: before the Blue Jays make the announcement that puts him at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Pearson has the physical tools and mental acumen to be an immediate force, so betting on him is almost certainly the right play. Why not jump the gun by a week and save some FAAB for future moves?

Verdict: Champ (based on strong MiLB resume and outstanding stuff)



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ADP Champ or Chump: Jon Berti

Ever since the shortened season's rules were announced, it seems like fantasy owners obsessed over what it would mean for their pitching staff. Will my pitchers throw enough to get wins? Will teams use openers regularly? These are all valid questions, but owners would be wise to remember that pitching is only one-half of standard roto leagues. The advent of a COVID IL with no minimum number of games missed will encourage teams to IL anybody who needs a test, forcing fantasy owners to turn to their bench frequently.

The solution to this problem is to roster bench bats who can fill in at multiple positions and provide fantasy-friendly production. Jon Berti of the Miami Marlins is one example of the type of guy you should be looking at. He slashed a respectable .273/.348/.406 with six homers and 17 steals over 287 PAs last year, but owners are leery of his 25.4 K% and .360 BABIP. He's also 30 years old and was drafted 559th overall in the 2011 amateur draft, two factors that almost certainly played a role in his current 276.4 ADP on FantasyPros. Furthermore, Berti doesn't have a defined role heading into the season.

That last problem is the easiest to solve. According to Joe Frisario of MLB.com, Berti could play "5-6 times per week as the Marlins super-utility player during the compacted schedule." That's pretty much everyday reps even if they don't come at a set position. Berti's peripheral stats and MiLB resume also suggest that he'll be a viable speed play in fantasy with the potential to help in batting average, OBP, and runs as well.

 

An Extensive MiLB Career

Berti had a brief taste of the big leagues with Toronto in 2018, but we only have 302 total PAs at the MLB level to evaluate him on. As you might expect from a 30-year-old, that number increases considerably if you look at minor league stats. The sheer volume of data affords us the luxury of considering only stops with at least 100 PAs.

Berti stole an impressive 56 bases with a 75% success rate at the High-A level in 2013, forcing the Blue Jays to give their non-prospect a shot with Double-A (New Hampshire) the next year. It went well, with Berti slashing .270/323/.373 with seven homers and 40 SB in 594 PAs. He was thrown out on the bases 15 times for a solid success rate of 73% after rounding, suggesting that he knows how to steal a base. His 13.8 K% was also excellent, allowing Berti to make the most of his .305 BABIP.

Berti returned to New Hampshire to begin 2015, slashing .262/.345/.336 with a homer and 19 steals over 297 PAs. He was only caught stealing four times for a success rate of 83%. Berti also demonstrated an increased willingness to walk, as his 8.8 BB% improved his prior mark of 5.9% by nearly three full percentage points. His K% also fell to 12.8% while his BABIP held steady at an even .300.

The Jays decided to reward Berti with a taste of Triple-A (Buffalo) in 2015. Berti's BABIP cratered to .262 at the higher level, leading to a disappointing slash line of .228/.307/.302 with two homers and four steals over 166 PAs. His 15.1 K% and 8.4 BB% both suggested that Berti was adjusting to more advanced pitching, and 166 PAs is way too small of a sample to trust BABIP. Still, the Blue Jays sent him back down to New Hampshire to begin 2016.

Berti was good again for New Hampshire, hitting .254/.358/.364 with two homers and 29 steals in just 319 PAs. He was only caught nine times on the bases, posting a strong success rate of 76%. His BB% also increased to 11.3% at the cost of a slight uptick in his 17.6 K%. Perhaps most importantly, his BABIP rebounded to .312.

Unfortunately, Berti only managed a .256 BABIP over 237 PAs for Buffalo in 2017, producing a substandard .205/.271/.321 line with three homers and 23 steals. His K% also jumped to a career-worst 22.4%, though he still walked (8.4 BB%) and posted an 85% success rate on the bases (four CS). The Blue Jays again decided to try to let Berti figure out his BABIP issues in New Hampshire in 2018.

If Berti was good at Double-A before, he was great in 2018. He slashed .314/.399/.498 with eight homers and 21 steals over 316 PAs, increasing his BB% to 9.2 while simultaneously getting his K% down to 14.6. His 70% success rate on the bases wasn't the best, but his .354 BABIP suggested that he didn't have a BABIP problem. The Blue Jays decided to sell high to the Indians, who promptly traded him back to Toronto after just 73 PAs in their system. Toronto called him up for a handful of PAs before designating him for assignment, allowing him to sign with Miami as a minor league free agent.

Berti finally hit at Triple-A last season, slashing .290/.430/.500 with four homers and five steals in 79 PAs for Triple-A (New Orleans) before heading to the Show. His .292 BABIP was still a hair below-average, but it's an easy problem to overlook when your 19 BB% is greater than your 13.9 K%.

 

Berti's 2019 in Review

So, what does all of that mean? Berti hasn't had a strikeout problem at any point in his career, with a 22.4 K% at Triple-A in 2017 his worst mark by far. He's great on the bases, and can work a walk even though opposing pitchers have every incentive in the world not to let him. Berti's fantasy-friendly 2019 line seemed to come out of nowhere, and owners generally don't get excited about players on teams projected to be as bad as the Marlins. That said, he did a lot of good things in MiLB that fantasy owners would be remiss to overlook.

Many of his major league peripherals also support his performance. Berti's 25.4 K% masked a solid 8.4 BB%, further supporting the notion that he has a plus eye. The sample size is admittedly small, but Berti also posted a very good 25% chase rate with the Marlins last season. Berti's primary job in fantasy is to steal bases, so a walk is nearly as good for his owners as a single.

Similarly, Berti's 9.5 SwStr% was considerably better than his 25.4 K% might suggest. His 41.6 Swing% was on the low side, so he can get too patient at times and strikeout more often than we would otherwise expect him to. Still, nobody with an 85.7 Z-Contact% and 25% chase rate should be expected to K a quarter of the time, to say nothing of the contact skills Beri demonstrated on the farm. Shave his K% down to 20% or so, and Berti's average can probably withstand some BABIP regression.

Berti won't post a BABIP of .360 again, but he legitimately profiles as a plus-BABIP guy. Speedsters can beat out base hits that other players can't, so it makes sense for them to post favorable BABIPs on ground balls. Berti hit .278 on his ground balls last year, a mark he should sustain as long as he maintains his elite 29.8 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed. His 20.8 FB% was also very low, giving him a batted ball profile designed to make the most of his legs.

Berti's 26.2 LD% would be great for his BABIP if he could sustain it, but he didn't possess any line drive skill on the farm. LD% is a notoriously fickle stat, so it's probably best to project Berti for a league-average mark around 21 percent. That's going to hurt considering that Berti enjoyed a .729 BABIP on liners last year, but his ground ball tendency and a lower strikeout rate should still give him a workable average.

For the record, Berti doesn't offer any power potential at all. His 3.8% rate of Brls/BBE and 2.4% Brls/PA were both well below-average, as was his overall average exit velocity of 86.6 mph. His 92.1 mph average airborne exit Velo wasn't terrible, but the fact that his xSLG was only .378 tells you all you need to know about Berti's nonexistent power.

 

Final Thoughts

Berti made at least 20 appearances at SS, 3B, and OF last season, giving him eligibility at all three in most formats. The Blue Jays used him exclusively at 2B during his brief 2018 callup, suggesting that he could expand his eligibility in 2020 and beyond. The Marlins also used Berti to leadoff in 44 of his 72 games last season, suggesting that he'll have an important lineup role whenever his name appears.

His K% should improve as his BABIP regresses, giving Berti all the opportunity he needs to wreak havoc on the bases. In fantasy, Berti is like Mallex Smith except that he won't cost as much and qualifies at more positions. Who wouldn't want that for free on draft day?

Verdict: Champ (based on strong SB potential at a very cheap price)

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ADP Champ or Chump: Kenta Maeda

Generally speaking, ADP makes sense even if you don't agree with it. For example, this author believes that Kevin Cron would break out in a Pete Alonso manner if Arizona gave him everyday reps, but his path to playing time is questionable even with the recent announcement that NL clubs will have a DH this season. As such, it's understandable why his ADP stands at 581.5 on FantasyPros.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. If you learned that Pitcher X posted a 10-8 record with identical 4.04 ERA and xFIP marks and a 27.1 K% over 153 2/3 IP last year, you would probably assume that he was a fantasy-relevant starter. If you further discovered that he played for a projected division winner and figures to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the league's geography-based schedule, you might be eager to snap him up for some elusive wins.

Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins is Pitcher X, but his ADP of 172.4 in no way represents his talent level. He strikes out a ton of opposing batters on the strength of two great pitches, has not sustained a significant injury since coming to the United States, and figures to terrorize the weak lineups in both the AL and NL Central divisions. Let's take a deeper look at the value Maeda can provide to fantasy owners in 2020.

 

Ace-Like Stuff

You need to have great stuff to perform in fantasy, and Maeda has it in his four-pitch mix. His fastball isn't special, clocking in at an average of 92.2 mph in 2019 and generating a solid but not spectacular 7.5 SwStr%. Maeda has excellent command of it though, putting it in the zone 57.5% of the time a season ago. That makes it perfect for setting-up Maeda's twin put-away pitches.

Maeda's slider is one of the best pitches in the game. Its 21.8 SwStr% was nothing short of elite, and batters chased it out of the zone a whopping 41.8% of the time. Maeda can also use it in the zone if need be (44.4 Zone%), and batters slashed just .155/.203/.288 when they managed to put it in play. Notably, the pitch's 47.1 FB% and 38.5 IFFB% produced a ton of harmless pop-ups.

Maeda's change was nearly as good. Its 19.3 SwStr% was slightly lower than his slider and its 30.9 Zone% depends on opposing hitters to chase, but its 47.6% chase rate makes that a perfectly viable strategy. Opposing batters hit .185/.239/.315 against his change in 2019, so it's far from the end of the world if it ends up in play too.

Having two pitches like this is obviously great, but it's even better considering that they complement each other well. Maeda's slider is primarily served to RHB, with a 52.5% usage rate versus just 11.1% against LHB. The reason why is clear: righties posted an xwOBA of just .196 last year against it, while lefties fared much better with a .313 xwOBA. If Maeda's only out pitch was his slider, he would be vulnerable against left-handed batters.

Thankfully, his change has almost the opposite split. It's thrown 40.9% of the time to LHB but only 5.9% against RHB, holding the former to a .262 xwOBA while the latter produced a .330 wOBA in the small sample. Thus, Maeda has a top-tier weapon with which to go after all batters.

Maeda realized that his breaking pitches were better than his heater last year, throwing more changeups (14.6% in 2018, 23.9% last year) and sliders (22.6% to 31.5%) at the expense of his fastball (41.8% to 34%) and cutter (7.3% to 0%). His curve gives hitters a different look, completing an arsenal that should have no problem pitching deep into games as Minnesota's ace.

 

Strong Peripherals

Some fantasy owners might feel that Maeda's .243 BABIP (.280 career) means that his 4.04 ERA won't repeat in 2020, but his Statcast contact quality metrics suggest that he was actually unlucky last season. His .216 xBA against was slightly higher than his actual mark of .202, but he more than gave it back with his .345 xSLG against an actual mark of .371. The result was an expected ERA of 3.26 based on his strikeouts, walks, and contact quality allowed per Baseball Savant's version of the statistic.

"Is that good?" you might be wondering. Yes, it is. The diagram below illustrates the top 10 starters in terms of xERA in 2019, minimum of 500 PAs:

That's a list of the very best pitchers in baseball, the promising young Chris Paddack, and Kenta Maeda. Does it make sense for anyone on this list to be seen as an afterthought in fantasy?

 

Boundless Opportunity

Some owners might look at Maeda's low innings totals and see a guy who can't work deep into games, but that's actually more on the Dodgers than Maeda. Maeda's contract pays him incentives for meeting innings thresholds, providing the Dodgers will a financial incentive for phantom IL stints or bullpen banishments that Maeda's performance never warranted. Since the Dodgers generally had the division won by August and boasted limitless pitching depth, they could afford to play these types of games.

The Twins are a win-now team whose greatest weakness is likely pitching, so they won't play the same games the Dodgers did. Every game will have a DH, so there's no reason to remove Maeda early for a pinch hitter either. In short, Maeda should finally get the opportunity to be a workhorse that the Dodgers never gave him.

The recently revealed schedule also calls for teams to play all of their games in their specific geographic region to minimize travel. The Twins will play 40 of their 60 contests against their AL Central foes, of which only Cleveland represents a significant challenge to earning a W for Maeda. Meanwhile, the Royals and Tigers both project to be complete disasters. The NL Central consists of four good-not-great teams plus another disaster in Pittsburgh. Twins pitchers have the easiest schedule this year, and Maeda is the best of the bunch.

 

Conclusion

Maeda's value becomes even clearer when you look at the other starters taken in the same price range. Sean Manaea (165.4 ADP) has a substantial injury history that figures to limit how many IP he throws this year, and he can't match Maeda's strikeouts even at his best. Carlos Martinez (168.6) has even more injury questions to the point that he may not start at all. Jake Odorizzi (174.6) lacks Maeda's physical talent, and German Marquez (178) is hurt by calling Coors Field home.

Maeda has great strikeout stuff, effectively controls contact against him, and pitches for a strong team in what is easily the weakest of the three geographic regions. How in the world is he outside the top 100, let alone the top 170?

Verdict: Champ (based on clear SP2 potential despite an SP5 price tag)

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ADP Champ or Chump: Mike Minor

How will the shortened MLB season impact the fantasy game? This question is foremost on many owners' minds, and one of the most common responses has been to value workhorse pitchers who rack up decisions more highly. Owners are encouraged to draft studs like Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, but realistically you won't be able to finish your entire staff with those guys and still compete offensively.

Pundits generally recommend pivoting to pitch-to-contact types after the top guys are off the board, with Marcus Stroman the most common example in this author's estimation. The problem with this is that you don't just want innings in most fantasy formats, but good innings. A guy like Stroman doesn't offer the strikeouts you're trying to collect, and he needs help from his infield defense to boost your ratios.

Finding workhorses who contribute more than raw innings is challenging but not impossible. Mike Minor is coming off a 2019 season that saw him go 14-10 with a 3.59 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 208 1/3 IP for the Texas Rangers. His 4.60 xFIP wasn't as good, surely contributing to his 157.8 ADP on FantasyPros. That said, many of his peripherals suggest that 2020 will be similar to his 2019. Here are three reasons why Minor can help stabilize your fantasy rotation at an affordable price:

 

Minor's Arsenal Is Better Than You Think

As a 32-year-old with a fastball that doesn't sit 95, Minor probably isn't the first name you think of when discussing raw stuff. Of course, velocity isn't everything. Fantasy owners love high-spin fastballs because they lend themselves well to both strikeouts and harmless pop-ups. If you sort all MLB pitchers with a minimum of 1500 pitches thrown by 4-seam fastball spin rates on Baseball Savant, you get the leaderboard below:

Many of the best pitchers in the game are listed in that top-10, and Minor is at the top of the heap. In fact, Minor has been near the top of this list every season since Statcast data went public.

Minor's fastball also has the results expected of a high-spin offering. Its 9.4 SwStr% in 2019 was well above-average for a straight heater, while its 57 Zone% ensured that Minor could throw a strike whenever he needed to. Opposing batters also popped it up frequently, with a 41.5 FB% and 28.9 IFFB% that held them to a .249 batting average against the pitch last year.

As good as his fastball was, it could be even better. Minor's fastball only had an Active Spin of 67.8% last season, a number that's well short of the 80+% marks many big league pitchers enjoy. It's not clear if Minor or the Rangers know how to get more movement out of those RPM, but there could be a ton of upside here if they figure something out.

Minor also throws an excellent changeup that generated a 15.8 SwStr% despite a 51 Zone% last season. Batters didn't do much with it either, slashing a paltry .178/.246/.265 against Minor's change. This fastball-change combo allows Minor to effectively control the contact quality against him in ways that few others can, suggesting that xFIP (which doesn't include contact management) may not be the most predictive metric in this case. Baseball Savant says that Minor deserved an ERA of 3.91 based on the exit velocities and launch angles he allowed, more than good enough to be a fantasy asset in today's game.

 

Room for Improvement in Pitch Mix

Minor rounds out his repertoire with two breaking pitches: a slider and a curve. Neither is great by traditional metrics. His slider brings a decent 11.3 SwStr% to the table, but its 44.9 Zone% and 35.2% chase rate leave a lot to be desired. His curve had an identical 11.3 SwStr% last year, but its 44.1 Zone% and 26.8% chase rate were even worse.

However, his curve looks to have more potential than his slider. Minor threw his slider 30.7% of the time against lefties, but only 15.9% against righties. This would suggest that it's more effective against lefties than righties, but its .365 xwOBA vs. LHB was considerably higher than its .317 mark against RHB. His curve was used 10.8% of the time vs. RHB and 13.5% vs. LHB, but its .286 xwOBA against lefties suggests that it should take the slider's place. Minor only used his great change 6.7% of the time against lefties, but its .126 xwOBA allowed in that small sample likely warrants more use as well.

In short, Minor used his slider in an inefficient way last season. If he goes after left-handed bats with more curves and changeups instead, he could be poised to have an even better season than he did last year.

 

A Pitcher-Friendly Environment

In an era where managers actively look for excuses to turn the game over to their bullpen, Mike Minor's 208 1/3 IP in 2019 tied for seventh in the league. This proves that Minor has the stamina to pitch deep into games, but also suggests that his team is willing to let him do so. Furthermore, the fact that Minor tied with teammate Lance Lynn at that innings threshold proves that the Rangers have no problem with starters pitching deep into games even if they don't have Clayton Kershaw's track record. If you want innings, it makes sense to go with an organization that lets their starters throw.

Some fantasy owners may not have received the full benefit of Minor's IP last season because they were concerned about his home park. Indeed, Globe Life Park had a Baseball Prospectus runs factor of 105 for right-handed batters and 113 for left-handed batters in 2019, playing very hitter-friendly regardless of handedness. Luckily for Minor, Globe Life Park will be replaced by Globe Life Field in 2020.

We don't know exactly how the new park will play yet, but early reports suggest that it may favor pitchers. When slugger Joey Gallo took BP there, he said that "it's playing big as hell" and that "it's a little deep in center." The new stadium has a retractable roof, and multiple players have said that the ball doesn't fly as far when it's closed. Considering the Dallas heat, it's going to be closed more often than not. All of this is anecdotal, but even a neutral home field would offer upside considering where Minor has pitched the last few years.

 

Conclusion

If Minor merely repeats his 2019 season over however many innings the 2020 schedule allows him to throw, he will return value based on the wins and strikeouts he generates. This becomes especially valuable when you consider the other starters in his price range, as Matthew Boyd (157.6 ADP) may not win a game all season pitching for dreadful Detroit, Sean Manaea (165.21) can't be counted on to absorb innings considering his health history, and Carlos Martinez (169.2) may not be able to start at all.

Minor offers two routes to improvement as well. If he can increase his fastball's Active Spin rate, he should be able to best last season's career-high 23.2 K%. Alternatively, a more efficient pitch mix involving fewer sliders to left-handed batters could help him manage contact even more effectively. Either way, you're getting a top-100 fantasy asset outside of the top-150 picks. Value!

Verdict: Champ (based on strong repertoire, safe floor, and affordable draft day cost)

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ADP Champ or Chump: Seth Lugo

Using a reliever to improve your fantasy squad's ratios has become a trendy strategy, but this author doesn't really get the hype. Sure, it's great if you correctly identify which middle reliever will suddenly morph into a strikeout stud with a microscopic ERA, but it seems like the kind of strategy that requires hindsight to work properly. Worse still, vulture wins contribute a lot of a reliever's value, and those are completely unpredictable even if you target the right arm.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and Seth Lugo of the New York Mets looks like a reliever worth targeting. Part of that is that he's nice and cheap (ADP of 252.8 on FantasyPros), and part of it is that he led the National League in multi-inning relief appearances last year. If you throw multiple high-leverage innings per appearance, you're probably going to wind up with more wins than a stereotypical eighth-inning guy.

Lugo also offers the tremendous upside that fantasy owners look for once 200+ players have left the board. While you probably didn't wake up this morning expecting to read an entire article on a reliever like Lugo, this author believes the experience will be worth your while.

 

Season In Review

Lugo was fantastic last season, posting a 2.70 ERA and 3.24 xFIP in 80 IP out of the bullpen. You might think that those numbers look lucky, but Baseball Savant disagrees with that assessment. Per the Statcast-driven xERA metric (which assigns an ERA to a pitcher according to the exit velocities and launch angles he allowed), Lugo deserved a 2.37 ERA last year.

Lugo also set a new career-high with a 33.1 K%, contributing a comparable number of strikeouts to a low-end starter. His usage pattern lent itself well to decisions as well, and Lugo compiled a 7-4 record to go along with his ratios and strikeouts. If you had him last year, you were likely thrilled.

A look under the hood reveals that Lugo's production was slightly over his head in the strikeout department but otherwise appears sustainable. Lugo's five-pitch repertoire revolves around his fastball, which gained half a tick of velocity to 94.8 mph in 2019. Its 56.8 Zone% consistently put Lugo ahead in the count, and a 13% SwStr% was more than capable of putting a hitter away. Lugo threw his heater nearly 10% more often last year than he had in 2018, so he seems to have realized it was his money pitch.

Lugo also threw a plus sinker and while it's 61.2 Zone% was even better than his fastball at getting Lugo ahead in the count, its 8.7 SwStr% was considerably worse. However, there is a big performance gap in his splits with the pitch:

Split Usage wOBA wOBAcon Brl% Weak GB% SwStr% K% BB%
RHB 22% 0.225 0.243 0.0 78.8 54.5 5.6 25.5 7.8
LHB 22% 0.219 0.369 20.0 50.0 30.0 12.5 45.0 5.0

Right-handers don't usually miss the sinker but also have a lot of trouble squaring the pitch up and making solid contact. On the other hand, left-handed batters had much better results but only when they could manage to make contact; Lugo's sinker had the highest swinging-strike and strikeout rate among all his pitches against lefties.

Lugo compliments his fastballs with three secondary offerings: a curve, slider, and changeup. Lugo is famous for his high-spin curve in Statcast circles, with its 3,285 RPM finishing second among all qualified pitchers in 2019. The offering also had an 89.5% Active Spin rate, meaning that the vast majority of that RPM contributed to the pitch's movement. It isn't a fantastic strikeout pitch, with a 10.3 SwStr% and 34.8% chase rate, but it kept hitter off-balance to the tune of a .214/.214/.300 triple-slash line in 2019.

Lugo's slider is the closest thing to a wipeout pitch in his arsenal, but its 51.2 Zone% was too high to call it a put-away offering in the traditional sense. With a 15.2% SwStr%, it's still a nice weapon to have but Lugo also had just a 15.2% K-rate with the pitch. And Lugo's change is more of a show-me pitch, being thrown just 7% in 2019, but does give hitters a different look and rounds out a pretty impressive collection of pitches.

 

Still Room For More?

Considering that Lugo is generally taken outside of the top 250, getting a reliever who contributes better-than-average wins, strikeouts, and ratios is already a nice value. However, there is a lot of potential for more if his role changes.

Most analysts believe that Edwin Diaz will turn it around in 2020, but the fact remains that he was a total dumpster fire last year. If Diaz loses the closing job due to injury or ineffectiveness, his immediate replacement would be Dellin Betancesa guy who lost nearly all of 2019 due to injury. Lugo is third on the Mets depth chart, so he could end up getting saves even if he doesn't have the clearest path to them.

However, the prospect of Seth Lugo as a starter is more intriguing in this author's estimation. Lugo has repeatedly expressed an interest in starting, so player buy-in wouldn't be a problem. Furthermore, the five-pitch mix he uses as a reliever likely wouldn't need any new wrinkles to work for longer stretches. He might lose a little velocity, but his fastball is elite enough that it could take that hit and still be effective.

The Mets also lack good rotation options. Jacob deGrom is obviously amazing, but Noah Syndergaard will miss the entire 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Marcus Stroman's ERA jumped by 81 points when he joined the Mets, while his FIP climbed by 64 points. And like Stroman, Steven Matz, Michael Wacha, and Rick Porcello also are pitch-to-contact pitchers. That might not be the best strategy when your team defense was worth -11 Outs Above Average in 2019 and made no noteworthy personnel changes for 2020.

Lugo can miss bats, which may help him succeed with a mediocre defense behind him. The Mets are also likely to ask him to throw more innings if there is a DH in the NL this year, as they won't need to remove him for a pinch-hitter. If he's already stretched out, it becomes easier to move him into the rotation mid-season once one of the other arms on the team falters. You can't draft Lugo as an SP because there is no guarantee he gets the opportunity, but he'll run with it if he gets a chance.

 

Parting Thoughts

At age 30, Lugo isn't what most owners think of when they think of upside in the latter portion of their drafts. That said, he's almost certain to beat that price as a reliever who gobbles up high-leverage innings. He could become New York's closer and add saves to his line, or he could slot in as the club's number-two starter. Either way, Lugo offers a deep arsenal that figures to provide fantasy owners with strikeouts, ratio help, and wins. There's no way he's not a top-250 player this draft season.

Verdict: Champ (based on quality repertoire and a flexible role that should generate plenty of fantasy value)

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Four Things I Wish I Knew Before My First "Only" Draft

If you're looking to liven up your fantasy experience, trying your hand at an Only league could be a great way to bring a fresh perspective to one of your favorite pastimes. While standard mixed leagues are largely a race to accumulate as many elite performers as possible, Only leagues allow owners to demonstrate their knowledge of the entire player pool. You can take pet players that wouldn't be viable in standard formats and still have a shot at the glory. Better yet, you can take a bow when your pet player finishes the season firmly on the fantasy radar. Believe me: it's a great feeling.

Some people balk at the idea of an Only league because they like players in both the AL and NL. "Why would I want to limit the choices available to me?" they might ask. Personally, I find the best way to combat this is to participate in both an AL and NL Only concurrently. You're still working with the entire player pool between the two leagues while having a reason to care about that nondescript prospect who started getting reps in San Francisco.

Other owners claim that Only leagues are too much work, and I concede that a lot more research goes into them. Ironically, that makes right now the best possible time to give it a shot. A lot of people don't have much to do in the age of social distancing, so why not dive into the rabbit hole of learning a new fantasy format? This article is intended to jump-start a novice owner's Only draft prep with four tips I personally learned after a few Only leagues. Let's get started!

 

1. Playing Time Is Key

If you take nothing else from this article, you must understand that the team that records the most PA and IP is very likely to finish in the money. Owners in standard leagues usually look for upside when one of their core players land on the IL, but your waiver wire will be a barren wasteland in an Only format. You'll be ecstatic to find a .240 hitter with little power or speed who qualifies at your position of need.

Thankfully, you can prepare for this eventuality on draft day. I typically burn late-round picks in mixed leagues on speculative saves, hoping to find a closer without paying for one. When I tried the same strategy in an Only league, I fell so far behind in PA and IP that the team was a total dumpster fire (even though I did end up with a "free" closer). Don't repeat that mistake in your first deep league. Invest in bench bats that cover every position, and prioritize multipositional guys to give you some versatility when you're scouring the waiver wire.

 

2. Outfield Is A Scarce Position

Outfield is one of the deepest positions in fantasy, ranging from perennial All-Stars like Mike Trout to exciting prospects like Luis Robert. Owners in standard leagues never need to consider a player's outfield eligibility as a positive when assessing his value, but some basic arithmetic shows that it's different in an Only league.

Assuming a 10-team league with standard deep rosters (2 C, 5 OF, CI, MI, U), your league wants to roster 50 outfielders (10 teams times five per team). However, each of the 15 real MLB clubs only has three outfielders. That works out to 45 starters (15 teams times three per team) before we even consider platoons and teams that don't really have an everyday option at the position. Considering that outfielders are the glue that hold fantasy rosters together, coming up short at the position is a great way to finish in the bottom half of your league.

The math isn't as bad for infielders. Your 10-team league wants to roster 15 third basemen (10 teams with a 3B slot plus half of the CI slots), which is the exact number the 15-team AL and NL provide. Catchers are also scarce, but they play less often and put up poor numbers anyway. Therefore, you must treat outfielders as a scarce commodity and take pains to ensure that you leave your draft with at least five everyday players at the position (six would be better). Otherwise, you'll spend the entire season trying to correct your OF deficiency. I speak from experience.

 

3. You Can Wait On Pitching

Again assuming the roster construction above, your league wants to roster 90 pitchers (10 teams times nine pitcher slots). All 15 of the guys currently earning saves should be owned in an Only league, and some owners may roster an additional reliever to improve their ERA and WHIP. If we say that an average of 20 relievers will be rostered at any one point, we need 70 starters to meet our league's demand.

Each MLB club has a five-man rotation, meaning that 75 starters have jobs in the league at a time. That's actually more than we need to fill out all of the starting rosters: the only position with surplus in the entire format. The starters you find on waivers won't be good, but they will start. That's more than you can say for all of the offensive positions, so you don't need to invest in as much SP depth. Remember: even terrible pitchers can be worthwhile fantasy plays with the right matchup, especially in an Only.

Closers are a challenging commodity to manage in Only leagues. Your fifth-ranked and tenth-ranked closers don't differ by enough to offset the loss of an everyday position player, but you also need to compete in the saves category. The ideal strategy is to take the last two closers on the board, setting you up to finish in the top half of your league in saves for as little draft-day capital as possible. You should also do everything in your power to make sure that any unexpected closers land on your roster as opposed to a rival's. Be diligent!

 

4. Adopt One of Two Waiver Strategies

You will have two golden chances to add free talent to your team once the season starts: early-season breakouts and any stars that shift leagues at the trade deadline. You can do both if your league uses FAAB, just make sure to hold enough in reserve in case a dominant pitcher or cleanup hitter suddenly becomes available. However, you'll probably only have one shot if your format uses waiver priority instead.

The best use of waiver wire priority is to grab a surprise breakout that delivers value for the entire season. For instance, Bryan Reynolds went from no-name to elite performer in 2019. However, a hot first month doesn't necessarily mean that the player is for real. You have to do your research to figure out if your breakout is a future star or lucky waiver wire fodder. Most leagues that use waiver priority have a free agency period where you can add to your roster without burning it, so you can and should churn while waiting for the right match.

If you don't use waiver priority, save it for the trading deadline. Big names are moved at the deadline almost every year, giving you a great chance to add a free impact piece with minimal research. I'm proud to say that I added J.D. Martinez to my NL-Only roster when he was traded to Arizona in 2017.

 

Conclusion

Playing in an Only league is a different experience than many owners are used to, but it can actually be more engaging if you're looking to add more strategy to the hobby. Rotoballer offers a variety of resources to help novice and experienced owners alike with all of the research that goes into it, so why not try an Only league this season?

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Making Sense of ADP

ADP, or Average Draft Position, is one of the most commonly cited statistics in fantasy baseball discourse. It allows owners to look at a single number and quickly determine a player's market value, making it easier to identify potential value picks in a draft. Furthermore, fantasy analysts can use it to determine how a particular player is perceived in the industry, helping them identify both breakouts and busts.

We've all grown so accustomed to working with ADP that we don't think about it anymore. In truth, we probably should. One of the most common traps for novice fantasy owners is to draft based on ADP, leaving them unable to respond to the nuance of a specific draft. There is also no universal ADP, so everybody who uses it has to choose which source to draw from. It's relatively rare for the sources to diverge substantially, but it does happen and can generate an advantage for the perceptive owner.

Let's take a closer look at what ADP means and how it's used.

 

A Brief Overview of ADP

ADP may be defined as the average pick number with which a player is taken in a standard redraft league. If a particular platform hosts fantasy drafts, it likely publishes ADP data based on the behavior of owners on the site. For example, ESPN, CBS Sports, Yahoo!, Fantrax, RT Sports, and the NFBC all have distinct ADP data. FantasyPros is also worth a mention here, as it aggregates all six ADP sources above to produce a single composite number.

Most sites also show you ADP in the draft room, creating the temptation to pick whoever has the earliest ADP remaining as opposed to the best fit for your roster. This can help you early on in a draft but turns into a problem later on.

For instance, most fantasy analysts agree that there is a clear top three in 2020: Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna Jr, and Christian Yelich. All three combine power, speed, and average, reliably contributing above-average numbers across the board. If you're lucky enough to have a top-three pick this season, you probably shouldn't deviate from this trio of excellence.

Everybody agonizes over who should go first, so ADP is quite uniform at the beginning. Both Trout and Acuna have a composite ADP of 1.6 on FantasyPros, with Yelich's 3.0 suggesting very little deviation at the top. It's much more of an inexact science as the draft goes on though, and you can probably stop looking at ADP completely once 150 or so selections are made.

For example, Bryan Reynolds of the Pittsburgh Pirates slashed .314/.377/.503 with 16 HR last season. Fantasy owners are generally skeptical of his performance, taking him around 180th overall per FantasyPros. ADP may say that you can wait on him, but Reynolds could be selected much earlier if he has another believer in your league. He was selected 113th in one NFBC league, dashing the hopes of anyone banking on his availability later on. If you feel that Reynolds is the best available option for your roster, you should take him regardless of ADP. You don't want to miss your guys.

 

What Differentiates ADP Sources From One Another?

There are two significant factors that can change a player's value from platform to platform: a site's default format and a player's default ranking and projection on the site. Some people assume that all sites have the same default format because it says "5x5 roto," but roster construction matters. For example, standard CBS leagues include two catchers, while ESPN and Yahoo! only use one catcher. Catchers are generally drafted earlier on CBS as a result.

Likewise, the NFBC (or National Fantasy Baseball Championship) structures most of its leagues differently. While most other platforms focus on individual leagues that have no bearing on each other, NFBC leagues frequently have a large overall prize for the best team regardless of league. This encourages owners to select risky, high-variance players earlier, as you need to spike a few lottery tickets to get the 100th percentile outcome and win the top prize. Finishing in the 80th percentile in every category is generally enough to dominate a single fantasy league, reducing the need for variance plays.

Similarly, rankings can affect when players are selected on a site. For example, here is the FantasyPros ADP data for Joey Gallo:

ESPN drafters see Gallo as a top-50 fantasy asset, while he's outside of the top 100 on RT Sports. Both are clearly outliers relative to the other sites, so let's examine why.

RT Sports is the easier of the two. Every other site ranks Gallo in the 60-80 range by default, meaning that he pops up on the draft screen in the fifth or sixth round of most drafts. RT Sports has Gallo at 106, a full two rounds later. It sounds lame (and you shouldn't do this), but owners are more likely to select players who are displayed by default as opposed to searching for other options, especially in the first half of a draft. Maybe drafters assume that he's already been taken?

ESPN ranks Gallo 74th, so showing up earlier isn't the reason he's so popular. His ESPN projections (.222/.344/.527 with 39 HR in 482 ABs) are slightly more pessimistic than his FanGraphs Depth Charts projections (.227/.354/.554 with 44 HR in 482 ABs), so that's not it either. Honestly, it likely comes down to his player caption.

Most sites have player captions or outlooks that provide owners with a brief snapshot of a player's profile for emergency reference. The ESPN profile on Gallo is overwhelmingly positive:

"Three true outcomes" hitter: Thy name is Joey Gallo. No player in baseball history has seen a greater percentage of his plate appearances end in a home run, walk or strikeout than Gallo (59%). But while he's an all-or-nothing type, his flaws aren't nearly as damaging as many of the models who have come before him. While Gallo's 2019 season ended July 23 due to a broken hamate bone, until that point he had boosted his line-drive rate to 25% and posted top-six Statcast numbers with his 93.0 mph average exit velocity, 52.3% hard-contact rate and 11.4% barrel rate per trip to the plate, things that make him the most truly threatening power source in all of baseball. When healthy, Gallo stakes a legitimate claim to a 50-homer, 100-walk, albeit 200-strikeout, ceiling season, and his improving metrics make him less of a drain on your batting average than once feared. Check back on him during spring training to ensure no lingering injury effects, but if he's in the clear, he's a potential points-league monster (top 25-capable) who should also find himself in the season-ending Player Rater top 50."

ESPN is projecting Gallo to lose 30 points from his 2019 batting average and fall 10 long balls shy of 50, but that's not the impression you get from reading the above. In the heat of the moment, such a positive take appears to be pointing undecided ESPN drafters toward choosing Gallo nearly every time.

 

Which ADP Should I Use?

You should look at two different sources of ADP for most drafts: your platform's and a second one based on how competitive your league is. If you're drafting on CBS, you should have a rough sense of that site's ADP and rankings. Not only do they control who both you and your rivals see on your screen by default, but anybody who leaves the draft or disconnects may end up auto-selecting based on default rankings. Since everyone else can see your site's ADP too, you need another source to act as a differentiator.

Your other source depends on how competitive your league is. If it's full of owners who really know the player pool, this author recommends NFBC draft data. All NFBC leagues are high-stakes, so its player base tends to be better prepared than other platforms. If your league has owners who prioritize players from their home team or are more interested in the social aspects of fantasy baseball than hardcore analysis, FantasyPros is likely a better source than the cutthroat NFBC environment.

Ultimately, ADP is a tool you can use to predict a rival's behavior and inform your own decisions. You should never make a pick based on ADP alone, but instead utilize it as one factor among many in your decision-making process.

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Kyle Gibson (SP, TEX) - Fantasy Baseball Draft Sleepers

BALLER MOVE: Draft target ~310-325

CURRENT ADP: ~336 overall

ANALYSIS: During the 2019 season, Kyle Gibson posted a 13-7 record and 4.84 ERA over 160 innings, but his 3.80 xFIP was right in line with the 3.62 ERA and 3.91 xFIP that he posted in 2018. His 22.7 K% last year was also a career-best, though fairly modest by fantasy standards. The 32-year-old has a deep repertoire of secondary pitches and is moving to an organization that has had a knack for turning pitchers into fantasy assets in recent years.

Gibson's slider and changeup serve as excellent put-away pitches that are easily good enough to post a K% around 30, but Gibson has never reached those heights because his fastballs leave much to be desired. A 42.3% Zone% on a vanilla four-seamer is woeful, and his sinker's 52.7% rate isn't high enough to reliably set up his secondary offerings. Opposing batters hit .302 with a .460 slugging percentage against the sinker and .343 with a .598 SLG against the fastball, so it's not like they offer contact suppression either.

Thankfully, Mike Minor and Lance Lynn were once similar players, with standout offerings amidst a pool of mediocrity. The Rangers helped both develop into reliable fantasy assets. Furthermore, the Rangers were a much better defensive unit in 2019 (-2 Outs Above Average as a team) than the Twins (-20), suggesting that Gibson will benefit from superior defensive support.

If you get the Gibson from the last couple of years, you'll have a volume arm who should easily return a profit on a modest draft day investment. If the Rangers can help Gibson rack up the K's with his secondary pitches, you're talking about league-winning profit potential. Quite frankly, investments this good shouldn't be available once 200 -- let alone 300 -- players come off of the board.


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ADP Champ or Chump Spotlight: Bo Bichette

It's easy to joke that the 2020 Toronto Blue Jays will have the last names of a 1990's All-Star team, but the kids have a realistic shot at surpassing their fathers. This author isn't as high on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as most, but Cavan Biggio looks like an advanced hitter with the potential to blend speed and power in one fantasy-friendly package.

Of course, Bo Bichette may end up outproducing both of them. MLB Pipeline ranked Bichette as the top prospect in the organization after Vladito's callup and his ranking of eighth overall means that it wasn't because of a weak system. He generally hit in the minors but projected as more of a speed play than a power bat in the fantasy game.

Bichette put up the exact inverse of that projection in the Show, slugging an impressive 11 HR in 212 PAs to go along with a .311/.358/.571 line but stealing only four bases. So, who is the real Bo Bichette, and will he be worth his current 67.8 ADP on FantastyPros? Let's find out.

 

Farming with a Bichette

Bichette made his upper-level debut in 2018 at Double-A (New Hampshire), hitting .286/.343/.453 with 11 HR and 32 steals over 595 PAs. He was caught 11 times on the bases, leading to a solid success rate of about 74% that had fantasy owners drooling over what he might be able to accomplish in the majors. His plate-discipline metrics were also strong, with both his 17 K% and 8.1 BB% ranking as above average. His 6.3% HR/FB didn't suggest much power, but his 40.8 FB% suggested that he could still make a run at 20 HR through sheer volume of fly balls.

Those numbers spoke of future fantasy stardom by themselves but the campaign was even more impressive given that New Hampshire is an extreme pitcher's park, ranking in the 37th percentile for HR and 14th for BABIP in 2019. The fact that Bichette still posted a .331 BABIP with some power suggested that his raw skills could play anywhere; especially at the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre that he would eventually call home in the big leagues.

The Blue Jays evidently agreed, promoting Bichette to Triple-A (Buffalo) to begin the 2019 season. He delivered again, slashing .275/.333/.473 with eight homers in 244 PA. He also had 15 steals in 20 attempts, a 7.8 walk-rate, and 19.7% K-rate - all marks right in line with his previous results at Double-A. However, while Bichette improved to 17.4% HR/FB (with the nitro-charged ball Triple-A baseball likely helping), he cratered to a 26.7% FB% that was a career-low.

Buffalo is traditionally a pitcher's park, but that silly ball put it in the 88th percentile for home runs last season. It was only in the 38th percentile for BABIP though, so we can assume that there were some real skills behind Bichette's .317 BABIP. As it was apparent that Bichette had nothing left to learn in the minors, the Blue Jays summoned him to Toronto in late-July.

 

An Impressive Debut

Bichette began his big league tenure on a tear, slashing .325/.357/.617 in August while also setting a team record by hitting a double in nine straight games.  He then slipping to .254/.333/.444 in September, perhaps enticing some fantasy owners to think that the league caught up with him. However, the numbers seem to suggest otherwise.

His BABIP declined dramatically month-to-month (.405 vs. .283), and his true talent level is almost certainly in between them. Furthermore, his plate discipline metrics actually improved in September. His strikeout rate dropped from a 27% K% in August to a 20.8% K% in September, while his walk-rate doubled from 4.8% to 9.7%.  Bichette's 12.5 SwStr% was about average and his 38.6% chase-rate was a little high but Bichette had good plate discipline numbers on the farm, so growth seems logical as he gets more accustomed to big-league pitching.

Bichette's .368 BABIP may look fluky, but he seems to have the skills to consistently beat a .300 BABIP. He can run - as his 28.4 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed attests - and his 87.8 mph average exit velocity on grounders was above average, making it likely that he can outperform the .266 BABIP he had on groundballs last year. Bichette's  22.6 LD% is also within the realm of repeatability, even if his .818 BABIP  is likely to regress some. And while his .273 xBA doesn't look great, this metric may not always properly account for players with speed like Bichette's.

Bichette's 33.6 FB% at the big league level was also low enough to support higher BABIP marks, though it would be nice if he could cut down his 10.2 IFFB%. Unfortunately, Bichette's 22.4% HR/FB wasn't supported by his Statcast contact quality metrics. His 92.9 mph average airborne exit velocity was roughly average, as was his overall 89.6 mph EV, while his 8.8%  Brls/BBE and 6.1% rate of Brls/PA tell a similar story. Another mark against his power was a .472 xSLG that was nearly 100 points shy of his actual mark, suggesting that his power numbers could fall off considerably.

 

2020 Fantasy Outlook

Toronto is a great place to hit homers and Bichette's 22.4 Pull% on fly balls should help him make the most of his limited power, but owners should expect a 15-20 HR pace rather than the 30+ HR that his prorated 2019 statistics suggested. That's fine for fantasy purposes if Bichette goes back to stealing as he did in the minors, but may not be enough to justify his draft day cost otherwise.

After averaging about a 75% SB success rate on the farm, Bichette was caught in half of his steal attempts with the Blue Jays last year. We know that he understands how to steal a bag from his minor league statistics, and there's nothing wrong with his raw speed. The Depth Charts projections at Fangraphs seem to agree, pacing Bichette for 27 SB in a full season.

Roster Resource projects Bichette to bat leadoff in 2020, hitting in front of Cavan Biggio and Vladito, both of whom have patient approaches that should give Bichette plenty of time to figure out opposing batteries. The leadoff role should also allow him to pile up runs scored while contributing in average and power, making Bichette a solid fantasy asset in every category except RBI.

 

Conclusion

If you already have Trea Turner or Jonathan Villar on your roster, you probably don't need to select Bichette at his current price. However, if you emphasized power and pitching early,  you may find yourself lacking for many other choices for speed. Bichette's ADP is in the same range as one-dimensional sluggers like Matt Olson (61.6 ADP), Paul Goldschmidt (67.4), and Joey Gallo (72.6). The nearest speed guy is outfielder Victor Robles (77.4), so Bichette is will likely be one of your last chances to get steals without hurting yourself in other categories. To me, that makes him well worth his current price tag.

Verdict: Champ (based on likelihood steals come back and positive contributions everywhere else)

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Caleb Smith (SP, MIA) - Fantasy Baseball Draft Sleeper

BALLER MOVE: Draft target ~215-225

CURRENT ADP: ~247 overall

ANALYSIS: The Marlins aren't anybody's idea of a good team, and Caleb Smith's 4.52 ERA and 5.05 xFIP over 153 1/3 IP in 2019 aren't exciting. However, there is a lot of potential in this package. Smith's fastball combines an above-average spin rate (2,425 RPM) with elite 96.7% active spin, tying with Josh Hader for the sixth-best mark in baseball. The result is great for both strikeouts (10.3 SwStr%, 54.5 Zone%) and harmless pop-ups (60.5 FB%, 21.4 IFFB%).

While Smith's .251 BABIP allowed might look like a fluke, his high 52.5 FB% and propensity for pop-ups strongly suggest that it's a skill. He also brings two solid strikeout pitches to the table in the form of a slider (15.1 SwStr%, 43 Zone%, 37.2% chase) and changeup (16.4 SwStr%, 39.5 Zone%, 37.3% chase), so last year's 26 K% could have room to grow.

Smith did have injury woes last year, so he could rebound to his first-half performance (3.50 ERA, 31.1 K% in 72 IP), especially if a pre-2019 ball is used. If all goes well, he could deliver sizable fantasy value as a later-round pick in 2020, even playing on the Marlins.


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ADP Champ or Chump Spotlight: Gleyber Torres

When people think of Gleyber Torres, the first thing that springs to mind is the fact that he completely obliterated the Baltimore Orioles in 2019 to the tune of .394/.467/1.045 with 13 HR. His supporters claim that the Orioles are still terrible, so Torres will be able to fatten up his stat line again. His detractors argue that performing that well against a single team is a fluke and shouldn't be expected regardless of how terrible the Orioles may be. In truth, we should be analyzing Torres's performance, not the Orioles, in predicting his 2020 fantasy value.

Torres has about as much prospect pedigree as an owner could hope for, ranking as baseball's second-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline before 2018. He lost out to Shohei Ohtani, a player who already had a successful professional career in Japan at that point. The 23-year-old also has two strong big league seasons under his belt, first slashing .271/.340/.480 with 24 HR in 484 PAs in 2018 and then hitting .278/.337/.535 with 38 big flies in 2019.

Fantasy owners are expecting big things if his 29.4 ADP is any indication. Torres is definitely a good player, but can he live up to being a top-30 fantasy asset?

 

Gleyber Days on the Farm

It's tempting to look at any 23-year-old's MiLB performance to try and substantiate his big league numbers, but it doesn't work in the case of Torres. The Yankees promoted him aggressively after acquiring him from the Cubs, giving him 139 PAs at Double-A (Trenton) and 152 PAs split between two seasons at Triple-A (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre). That's not much of a sample size to work with.

Furthermore, his MiLB stat lines bear little resemblance to the player he's been in the Bronx. Torres hit .273/.367/.496 with five homers and five steals in 139 PAs at Double-A (Trenton), walking nearly as often as he struck out in the process. He hit .309/.406/.457 with two homers and two steals in 96 PAs at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre that season, but a sliding injury cut his season short. He briefly returned to Triple-A in 2018, hitting .347/.393/.510 with a homer and a steal in 56 PAs, but was soon summoned to the Show. There's little evidence for the power hitter Torres has become in these numbers.

 

Digging Deeper into Torres' Pop

With little MiLB data to work with, we'll have to use Statcast to try to estimate Torres's true talent. Torres posted an impressive 17.9% HR/FB in 2018 and improved it to 21.5% last season, but his Statcast power indicators weren't as strong in either campaign. His 91.2 mph average airborne exit velocity in 2018 was a smidgeon below-average that season, while an increase to 92.8 mph last season was only barely above. His overall exit velocity totals of 88.7 mph (2018) and 89 mph (2019) tell a similar story.

Likewise, both his 9.2% rate of Brls/BBE in 2018 and his 10.1% mark a season ago were more good than great. If you prefer Brls per plate appearance instead of batted ball event, Torres's 6% rate in 2018 was only average while his 7.1% rate in 2019 was above-average but not elite. Here are all of the players who finished with the same Brls/PA mark in 2019:

Muncy's a nice guy to see, but the rest of them are a little worrying to see for a guy taken inside the top-30.

Of course, this doesn't mean that Torres will suddenly turn pumpkin and give his owners nothing. Torres plays in a very hitter-friendly park, hits a lot of fly balls (41.9 FB% last season), and pulled a whopping 27.7% of his flies last season. The combination makes him what this author likes to call a compiler: a guy who only has league-average oomph but hits 25-30 HR anyway due to his sheer volume of fly balls.

Torres was also buried in a deep Yankees lineup last season, finishing with only 96 runs and 90 RBI despite nearly hitting 40 bombs. Roster Resource currently projects Torres to hit third in 2020, a slot that would likely allow him to pace for more R+RBI even if his HR totals decline. In short, Torres is likely to continue to produce homers for fantasy owners moving forward, but is unlikely to approach a 40 HR pace again.

 

Does Torres Bring Anything Else to the Table?

Much analysis about Torres talks about batting average or stolen base upside to go with his homer totals, but this author doesn't really see either. Some analysts see upside in Torres's .296 BABIP last year considering his .321 mark in 2018, but the latter mark was predicated on a 24.5 LD% that likely won't repeat. For reference, it was a league-average 20.9% last year. All of the fly balls that are good for his power numbers are bad for his average, and his 8.5 IFFB% suggests that he may have a little bit of a pop-up problem to sort out if he wants to be a batting average asset.

Similarly, Torres's 21.4 K% looks solid until you consider the 13.2 SwStr% and 35.1% chase rate that accompanied it last year. He struck out 25.2% of the time in 2018 with similar underlying metrics (34.4% chase, 14 SwStr%), and a rate between his 2018 and 2019 figures is likely the best projection for 2020. Notably, Baseball Savant's xBA suggests that Torres deserved to hit .262 last season and .257 the season before, so there is at least as much batting average downside as upside in his profile.

Quite frankly, this author has no idea why some owners see SB potential in Torres. He was never a huge base thief on the farm, and his Statcast Sprint Speed declined from 27.1 ft./sec in 2018 to just 26.5 ft./sec last season. That's below the MLB average! Considering his move to the heart of the Yankees order rather than the periphery of it, it wouldn't be surprising if manager Aaron Boone gave him a red light when the likes of Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton are up, either.

 

Conclusion

Torres looks like a good bet to reach 25-30 HR with a batting average that won't hurt you in 2020, and his prime slot in one of MLB's best lineups should help him punch above his weight in R+RBI. That's a valuable fantasy asset, but he may not justify his current draft day cost without repeating last year's homer totals or adding average and/or steals to his line. Considering where he is going in drafts, you might be better off taking Pete Alonso (26.2 ADP) if you want a 40-HR pace or Jose Altuve (31.8) if you want a middle infielder who contributes across the board.

Verdict: Chump (based on high draft day cost and subpar Statcast metrics)

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ADP Champ or Chump Spotlight: Pete Alonso

Peter Alonso was a hyped name heading into the 2019 MLB season. FanGraphs was optimistic, giving him a perfect 80 grade on raw power along with a 70 future grade for game power. He was ranked as the top first-base prospect (and 51st overall) by MLB Pipeline, with scouts noting an advanced ability to access his 60-grade power in games that could lead to a Rookie of the Year award.

That prediction proved correct, as Alonso beat out strong contenders like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Soroka for the award with a .260/.358/.583 line and 53 HR. The fantasy community has taken notice, taking Alonso at an ADP of 25.8 per FantasyPros. However, some analysts have expressed skepticism whether Alonso's 2020 will be as strong as his 2019 was.

It's tough to hit 50+ HR, so some regression in raw power numbers is likely. His critics are also quick to point out that Alonso was much better in the first half (.280, 30 HR) than the second (.235, 23 HR). That said, Alonso's MiLB track record and MLB peripherals suggest that New York's 25-year-old first baseman has room to grow in other aspects of his game. Will it be enough to earn his draft-day price?

 

An Impressive MiLB Resume

Alonso first reached the High Minors in 2017, logging an impressive .311/.340/.578 line over 47 PAs for Double-A (Binghamton). Alonso returned to Binghamton in 2018 and performed even better, hitting .314/.440/.573 with 15 HR over 273 PAs. Those numbers look great, but are actually even better than they appear. Binghamton is a strong pitcher's park, ranking in the 48th percentile for home runs and 22nd for BABIP in 2019. Putting up eye-catching numbers there is very impressive for any young hitter.

Likewise, Alonso's peripherals with Binghamton make his performance even more noteworthy. His 15.8 BB% was nearly equivalent to his 18.3 K%, suggesting an advanced plate approach at a young age. His 8.5 SwStr% was also elite for somebody with power as his calling card. His 44.2 FB% suggested that Alonso understood the value of airborne batted balls, helping him tap into his power. Of course, Alonso's raw power was on full display with a 20.5% HR/FB despite his pitcher-friendly home park.

The performance earned Alonso a crack at Triple-A (Las Vegas), where he hit .260/.355/.585 with 21 long balls in 301 PAs. Las Vegas is the biggest bandbox in a Pacific Coast League full of them, ranking in the 100th percentile for HR and 93rd for BABIP in 2019. Still, the combination of a 40.4 FB% and 28.4% HR/FB was impressive. His 25.9 K% was significantly higher than at Double-A (Binghamton), but his 11 BB% suggested that he still had a plus eye. Similarly, his 10.4 SwStr% wasn't bad at all for a slugger.

Alonso's BABIP declined dramatically at Triple-A (Las Vegas), going from .344 at Double-A (Binghamton) to just .284 at the higher level. He is not fast and posted below-average LD% marks of 18.8% and 17.5% on the farm, so he probably played over his head at Double-A. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that his Triple-A number is his true talent level either.

 

A Rookie of the Year Campaign

When you hit over 50 HR, any analysis of your season will begin with power numbers. This is just fine for Alonso, as his Statcast power metrics were all very strong. His 90.6 mph average exit velocity was solid, but his average airborne exit velocity of 96.5 mph ranked 20th among all qualified players last season. His 9.5% rate of Barrels per Plate Appearance was even better, ranking 11th. However, Alonso truly shines when you measure his contact quality by Brls/BBE. Check out the kind of company he's keeping in the table below:

Alonso ranks eighth, sandwiched between the AL HR champion and a guy who was on track to win another NL MVP before an injury derailed his season. Alonso's 32.4 Pull% on fly balls was also excellent, helping a few extra flies go over the fence. Between Alonso's Statcast numbers, pull tendency, and the scouting consensus on Alonso's power potential, there may be no better bet to produce at least a 40 HR pace this season.

Fantasy owners are probably willing to absorb a batting average hit for power like that, but you may not need to in this case. Alonso's BABIP was only .280 with the Mets last season, a number his critics cite with his Triple-A performance to paint him as a potential batting average liability. Alonso's 41.5% fly-ball rate was high enough to adversely affect his BABIP, as flies have the lowest BABIP of any batted ball type. His 13.3 IFFB% was also high, so Alonso might want to try to limit the number of pop-ups he hits.

Some of the other arguments against Alonso do not hold as much water. While his overall Pull% of 45.8% was a little higher than the 40.7% league-average mark, his 59.8 Pull% on ground balls wasn't substantially higher than the league's 58.2% rate. Alonso's overall Pull% masks the fact that more of his pulled batted balls are flies (32.4% vs. a league-average of 21%), something that the shift doesn't affect. As a result, Alonso was able to hit .304 in 173 PAs against the shift versus .263 in 191 PAs where it wasn't in play.

Considering that Alonso doesn't care about the shift and posted an average exit velocity on ground balls of 85.9 mph last year, he may have deserved better than his .237 BABIP on grounders a season ago. Likewise, his airborne contact quality would seem to support higher BABIPs on both flies (.100) and line drives (.667) in the future. Alonso's 18 LD% last season, fly-ball tendencies, and MiLB history of the same will likely keep his BABIP below .300, but he might be able to reach .290.

Alonso's plate discipline metrics tell a similar story. His 26.4 K% was a little high, but his 10.4 BB% suggests that he still had the strong eye he showcased in the minors. Alonso's 34.6% chase rate could also decline considering the elite walk rates Alonso put up on the farm. Furthermore, his 12.4 SwStr% was almost perfectly league-average despite an elite power performance. Alonso's reasonable 83.4 Z-Contact% echoes this sentiment, suggesting that Alonso could improve his average to the .270 range in 2020 just by cutting down the Ks.

 

Parting Thoughts

Baseball Savant's xStats suggest that Alonso deserved a .257 average and .542 slugging percentage last season, and both figures have room to grow if he strikes out less often. His power potential is elite, and he appears to be a fixture in the heart of the Mets lineup to rack up counting stats. Alonso won't steal bases, but he has the potential to be an asset in the remaining four roto categories.

Surprisingly, no other player offers the same profile at first base for a comparable price. Guys like Bryce Harper (21.6 ADP) and J.D. Martinez (22) might produce at a 40 HR pace, but 1B appears to be shallower than the outfield this year. Meanwhile, neither Freddie Freeman (16.8) or Anthony Rizzo (57.4) are close enough to Alonso in price to draw a fair comparison. If you need power in the second or third round, Alonso is very likely the best option on the board for you.

Verdict: Champ (based on elite power potential and batting average upside from a 1B)

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ADP Champ or Chump Spotlight: Keston Hiura

With the entire MLB world in a holding pattern due to Coronavirus concerns, now is a great time to delve more deeply into fantasy profiles than you ever have before. One player who warrants a closer look is Keston Hiura, the 23-year-old second baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers. Hiura was a regular on top prospect lists before his big league debut, peaking as the number-six prospect according to Baseball Prospectus last season. Scouts noted that he possessed a combination of “plus-plus hit tools” and plus-power that led to his being named a future All-Star before he even played a single inning.

Fantasy owners were expecting Hiura to hit the ground running in the Show, and he did. Hiura enjoyed a great rookie year, hitting .303/.368/.570 with 19 HR and nine steals in 348 MLB PAs. It's obvious why fantasy owners would be interested in a .300 hitter who approaches 40 HR and 20 SB over a full season, but there is no guarantee that Hiura's outstanding pedigree will translate to continued growth in 2020.

It can be exciting to own “breakout” players, but paying for a breakout before it happens can lead to a hemorrhage of value that it can be tough to make up for elsewhere. It's worth noting that Hiura was a completely different player in 2019 than he had been in earlier years, as he shifted from a speed and contact profile to a more power-focused hitter. Both versions of Hiura have red flags that may make it difficult for him to return value on his current FantasyPros ADP of 50.0.

 

Hiura on the Farm

Hiura earned his first taste of the High Minors after slashing .320/.382/.529 with seven homers and four steals (six CS) in 228 PAs at High-A in 2018, but his season line didn't jump off of the page for fantasy purposes. He hit .272/.339/.416 with six homers and 11 SB (five CS) over 307 PAs for Double-A Biloxi. The speed was exciting, but the combined success rate of about 58% is considerably lower than you'd like to see.

Likewise, Hiura didn't show any knack for lifting the baseball (19.6 LD%, 34.6 FB%) or raw power (8.1% HR/FB). The latter is particularly concerning given that Biloxi finished in the 64th percentile for HR in 2019, suggesting that his environment should have improved his power numbers. His plate discipline was fine (7.2 BB%, 18.2 K%), but his 10.8 SwStr% was a little bit high for someone who is relying on contact as their primary skill.

Nevertheless, the Brewers decided to start Hiura at Triple-A San Antonio to begin the 2019 campaign. He performed much better across the board, hitting .329/.407/.681 with 19 HR and seven steals (two CS) in 243 PAs. His SwStr% spiked to 13.9%, suggesting that he was swinging harder to add more power to his profile. It worked, as his HR/FB jumped to 36.5%. Unfortunately, he didn't add any more loft (18.1 LD%, 34.9 FB%) to make the most of his newfound power stroke.

It can be easy to think that Hiura's power spike was the growth that scouts always expected from him, but there's another possibility to consider. Triple-A adopted the same nitro-charged baseball used in the majors last season, and Triple-A San Antonio ranked in the 84th percentile for HR across the MiLB landscape last year. Amazingly, that was tied with Nashville for the lowest mark in the Pacific Coast League. Hiura played in an extremely hitter-friendly environment both home and away, a fact that may have masked the 45 Game Power scouting grade FanGraphs gave him before 2019.

 

Hiura's MLB Debut

The combination of a higher SwStr% and HR/FB on the farm suggests that Hiura sold out for power, an approach that he took with him to Milwaukee. His Statcast power indicators were good (95.1 mph average airborne exit velocity, 91.4 mph overall exit velocity, 13.9% Brls/BBE, 8.4 Brl%), allowing Hiura to post a HR/FB of 24.1%. His FB% also increased to 38%, though was still lower than you'd like to see from a slugger. He also pulled relatively few of his fly balls (12.7%), forcing him to work harder for his homers. Considering we know that there was a nitro-charged baseball at the MLB level as well, giving Hiura full credit for his power numbers seems ill-advised.

Opposing pitchers were also able to take full advantage of Hiura's increased willingness to swing and miss. His plate discipline at the big league level was terrible (30.7 K%, 7.2 BB%), and he struck out at roughly equivalent rates in the first (31.8 K%) and second (30.3%) halves. Particularly concerning is a 17.5 SwStr%. The chart below lists the top 12 highest SwStr% marks last season (minimum 300 PAs):

You'll note that the list is Javier Baez, Hiura, and fantasy busts. You can also see that Hiura misses pitches in the strike zone approximately 25 percent of the time, meaning you can beat him both inside and outside the zone. Quite frankly, it would be stunning for Hiura to hit .260 if these metrics repeat, to say nothing of the .303 he hit last season.

It worked last season because Hiura posted a .402 BABIP, but nobody's that good over a full year. His 24 LD% wasn't supported by his minor league history, so we can expect regression there. Furthermore, his .342 BABIP on ground balls was higher than most elite speedsters, a fact that seems particularly unsustainable considering Hiura's average Statcast Sprint Speed (26.9 ft./sec).

Baseball Savant's xStats say that Hiura deserved a BA of .266 last season, a number that falls further if his inflated LD% doesn't repeat. Similarly, his .530 xSLG was a full 40 points below his actual mark of .570 before any line drive regression is considered. That's a lot of potential downside for a player who is generally taken within the top 50.

 

Conclusion

Hiura's K% is atrocious, and there is a compelling case that his power last season had more to do with his environment than anything he can control. Even the steals are questionable considering his lack of elite speed and history of mediocre success rates on the farm. At a point in the draft where you could take more reliable middle infielders such as Whit Merrifield (47.4 ADP) for average or Jonathan Villar (51.2) for speed, selecting Hiura at his current cost makes little sense.

Verdict: Chump (based on the unsustainability of many of his 2019 numbers)

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ADP Champ or Chump Spotlight: Eloy Jimenez

Considering that the Coronavirus has delayed the season indefinitely, it's a great opportunity to try changing up the formatting of this column. We're going to take a deep look into one player, spending time on his MiLB numbers in addition to MLB peripheral stats in order to paint a truly complete picture of his prospects in 2020.

The first player to receive this spotlight will be Eloy Jimenez, outfielder for the Chicago White Sox. MLB Pipeline rated Jimenez as the number-three prospect in all of baseball behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. before last season, and the consensus seems to be that the combination of his pedigree and a strong rookie performance will lead to further growth in the upcoming 2020 campaign.

While that outcome is certainly plausible, this author feels that 2020 may not be the big breakout some owners are expecting. Here's why.

 

Eloy Jimenez (OF, CWS)

ADP: 60.2

Jimenez slugged an impressive 31 HR over 504 PAs in his debut season, producing a solid line of .267/.315/.513 in the process. His supporters believe that this was only the beginning, as he tore up the High Minors with batting average skills that could lead to great things in the future.

Jimenez first reached the High Minors by slashing .353/.397/.559 with three homers in 73 PAs for Double-A Birmingham in 2017. Considering the small sample and accompanying .429 BABIP, we probably shouldn't draw too many conclusions from this. Jimenez returned to Birmingham for the 2018 season, where he slashed an impressive .317/.368/.556 with 10 HR in 228 PAs. The performance earned him a midseason callup to Triple-A Charlotte, where he hit an even better .355/.399/.597 with 12 HR over 228 PAs to close out the season.

Those MiLB lines appear to offer substantial batting average upside. However, those lines may not be as good as they initially appear. Birmingham finished in the 70th percentile for BABIP among all MiLB stadiums last year, suggesting a hitter-friendly environment that may have contributed to Jimenez's .344 BABIP there.

Triple-A Charlotte grades out as the Coors Field of the International League, finishing in the 99th percentile for HR and 96th for BABIP. Jimenez's production spiked there, but you have to wonder if his .375 BABIP was more the park than him. Guaranteed Rate Field ranked as a slight negative for right-handed BABIP last season, so Jimenez won't receive the same support in the Show.

Jimenez's .308 BABIP last season is probably repeatable, but it is worth noting that he pulled 64.6% of his ground balls last season. That number isn't quite high enough to worry about the shift (he hit .313 in 150 PAs against it), but could become problematic if it gets any higher. His 18.2 LD% is also a potential red flag moving forward, but one season is far too small a sample to draw definitive conclusions about his line drive potential.

Likewise, Jimenez's peripherals suggest that his MiLB K% marks may have been a mirage. He struck out 17.1% of the time at Double-A in 2018, but his 12.4 SwStr% really wasn't that special. He looked even better with a 13.2% strikeout rate at Triple-A that season, but his 12.7 SwStr% didn't improve at all. Somebody with Jimenez's power and pedigree would also be expected to walk more often than he did (7.9% at Double-A, 6.1% at Triple-A), suggesting that he may have been chasing pitches he shouldn't have.

His MLB plate discipline metrics last season were ugly, striking out at a 26.6% clip against a 6 BB%. Worse, his eye was below-average (36.7% chase rate) while there was a ton of swing-and-miss in his game (15.3 SwStr%). His MiLB history suggests that both of these problems aren't new, meaning that Jimenez has some work to do to raise his average to his own standard on the farm.

Fantasy owners might not care about Jimenez's average if he provides elite power, but his batted ball distribution isn't well-suited to it. His 33.9 FB% a season ago is not where a slugger wants to live. Similarly, he never seemed to master the art of loft on the farm either. Here is Jimenez's MiLB batted ball distribution at every stop:

For reference, sluggers generally want at least 40% fly balls. Jimenez got there exactly once, in a 122 PA sample at High-A (he was close at Double-A last year). You may also notice that Jimenez "wastes" a lot of his flies on infield pop-ups. You have to halve MiLB IFFB% rates to get MLB equivalents, but that 31.7% mark at Triple-A last season is still alarming.

To be clear, Jimenez may be able to join the fly ball revolution. His Statcast power indicators were fantastic (96.6 mph average airborne exit velocity, 12.8% rate of Barrels per Batted Ball Event), so the tone of this analysis would change completely if he did. Unfortunately, any 2020 season will be complicated by coronavirus concerns that may make it difficult for Jimenez (or anyone else) to get the one-on-one coaching many players need to alter their approach.

Jimenez still hit 31 long balls last season on the strength of a 27.2% HR/FB, but a rate above 25% is sustainable only for the game's best sluggers. His 16.7% pull rate on fly balls is also shy of what you'd like to see, forcing Jimenez to work harder for his homers. The best avenue for a breakout here is to fit more fly balls to take advantage of his raw power, not an increased HR/FB.

Many may also be projecting a counting stat increase considering the improvements the White Sox made to their lineup, but RosterResource has moved Jimenez down to sixth in the order. While he could earn his way to a better spot, one has to think that the club signed veterans such as Edwin Encarnacion to take some of the pressure off young guys like Jimenez. Jimenez is likely to see fewer counting stat opportunities even if the White Sox improve as a whole as a result. The latter point is not a given either, as players like Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada may have enjoyed career years they can't repeat.

Jimenez is projected for a .281/.329/.526 line with a 35 HR pace per FanGraphs Depth Charts, but that doesn't mean that he will hit exactly that. It means that it's the median of all the outcomes projection systems see, many of which are significantly better or worse. Baseball Savant's xStats suggest that Jimenez deserved his production last season with a .268 xBA and .521 xSLG, meaning that you're betting on growth if you're projecting anything more.

Jimenez is taken in the same price range as frontline starters such as Yu Darvish (60.6 ADP) and Tyler Glasnow (65), reliable first-sackers such as Paul Goldschmidt (60.6) and Matt Olson (62.4), and the under-the-radar Max Muncy (68.6). With question marks on his power, plate discipline, and maybe even BABIP, why hope that Jimenez can reach his full potential this year when so many safer options with comparable numbers are still available?

Verdict: Chump (based on the growth required to build on his 2019 and current price tag)

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ADP Champ or Chump: Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

The Toronto Blue Jays are an intriguing team. Projections don't love them, but their lineup is filled with young guys who have the potential to exceed them. Their rotation also looks solid if healthy, something that may be more likely now that a full workload will be more like 120 IP than 200.

Needless to say, this upside translates well to the fantasy arena. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is likely the first name that comes to mind, but his underlying peripherals suggest that 2020 may not be his breakout year. Owners in redraft leagues may be better served by looking at some of the team's other players, such as Cavan Biggio.

Biggio's ADP is twice Vladito's at the time of writing, so it seems as though the fantasy community still prefers the latter. Here is why this author disagrees.

 

Cavan Biggio (2B, TOR)

ADP: 127

Biggio had a great under-the-radar 2019 season, slashing .234/.364/.429 with 16 HR and 14 SB (against zero CS) in 430 PAs. He added another six homers and five steals in 174 PAs at Triple-A last year, suggesting that a 20/20 pace is well within Biggio's reach this season.

Biggio put up loud numbers throughout his MiLB career, but he never got much traction on prospect lists because scouts didn't like him. Here are his scouting grades on the 20-80 scouting scale according to FanGraphs:

The league-average for each tool is 50, so Biggio is projected to offer league-average power and below-average everything else. Statcast suggests that scouts missed on his speed, as his 28.3 ft./sec Sprint Speed was already above-average. Another problem with the scouting consensus is that it completely overlooks Biggio's elite plate discipline.

Biggio walked at an astounding 16.5% rate a season ago, a number completely supported by a 15.8% chase rate that led all big leaguers with at least 400 PAs. His strikeout rate was ugly (28.6%), but that had more to do with passivity at the plate (35.9 Swing%) than a problem making contact (8.7 SwStr%). Biggio also walked (19.5 BB%) more often than he struck out (16.1 K%) at Triple-A. Passive batters tend to strikeout more often than their SwStr% suggests they should, but Biggio should still be able to dramatically improve his K% in 2020.

Biggio's power indicators weren't special last season, as his 91.8 mph average airborne exit velocity ranked below the league-average while his 9% rate of Brls/BBE was slightly above. However, Biggio makes up for a lack of raw oomph with an incredibly high FB% (47%). The Rogers Centre helps average power play up, as does Biggio's 28.4 Pull% on fly balls. Biggio has a good chance of producing at a 20-25 HR pace but minimal upside beyond that. Considering he should produce steals as well, that's more than enough to make him a worthwhile fantasy asset.

Biggio's high FB% hurts his BABIP potential, but he still posted a .307 mark last season thanks to a 27.6 LD%. Biggio is probably not a true-talent 27 LD% guy, so regression should be expected. That said, Biggio posted a very low 3.7 IFFB% that should mean his FB% doesn't hurt his average as much as a guy like Joey Gallo or Rhys Hoskins. Biggio pulls enough grounders (72.9% of them) for the shift to hurt his average as well, but his wheels should help in this regard (.308 in 186 PAs against the shift last year).

Biggio is slated to hit second in Toronto's lineup, so he should have plenty of opportunities to rack up counting stats. His 127 ADP puts him in a price range with question marks on the mound (Dinelson Lamet, Eduardo Rodriguez, Shohei Ohtani) and one-dimensional sluggers (Yuli Gurriel, Trey Mancini), making Biggio a great four-category producer at a price point where that can be tough to find.

Verdict: Champ (based on a blend of power, speed, and OBP outside the top 100)

 

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (3B, TOR)

ADP: 64

Vladito led MLB in hype last season, but his season (.272/.339/.433 with 15 HR in 514 PAs) will not be cited as an example of a minor leaguer who is ready for the bigs by the MLBPA. Toronto promoted their prized prospect aggressively, so much so that opposing pitchers never really had a chance to develop a book on him until he reached the Show. As a result, Vladito will likely need at least a couple of years to blossom into the guy scouts see.

To be clear, scouts love Vladito. Here are his FanGraphs scouting grades:

Unfortunately, his peripheral stats don't come anywhere close to living up to these excellent grades. His 93.2 mph average airborne exit velocity and 7.7% rate of Brls/BBE were only slightly above average last year. Both numbers also played down due to a low 33.1 FB% and high 14.5 IFFB%, suggesting that a swing change will be necessary to unlock Vladito's power potential.

Vladito also posted a low 17.3 LD% in 2019. While it's too soon to say that he is definitively a low-LD% guy, a low rate may prevent him from reaching the BABIP heights he achieved on the farm. Likewise, his plate discipline looked good (8.9 BB% against 17.7 K%) but was backed by only middling peripherals (31.6% chase rate, 10.6 SwStr%). Vladito only had an xBA of .263 in 2019, so batting average growth will not be automatic.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is currently being taken around aces like Yu Darvish (61 ADP) and Tyler Glasnow (68.4), slugging first basemen like Paul Goldschmidt (60) and Matt Olson (62), and unique talents like Max Muncy (68.4) and Joey Gallo (73). Vladito will need to hit more homers than he did last season to match these guys, but he doesn't have the batting average cushion to add flies to his profile without dragging down the category. He can't run at all (26.3 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed), so steals likely won't be a part of any breakout either.

He is slated to begin the year as Toronto's cleanup hitter, but they won't hesitate to make a switch if he struggles again. While you're better off taking Vlad over Biggio if they both reach their full potential this year, most scenarios involve Biggio outperforming his teammate in fantasy this year.

Verdict: Chump (based on the growth required just to break even on his current cost)

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ADP Champ or Chump: Kyle Gibson and Michael Brantley

Many fantasy owners fall into the trap of thinking that upside wins leagues -- it doesn't. Profit, or getting more production than you paid for, wins leagues. The upside of a top prospect can be one way of securing profit if they pan out right away, but there are other, more reliable forms of profit available on a typical draft board.

For example, Kyle Gibson posted a strong 2018 and a very similar '19 outside of luck metrics, yet he seems to be a forgotten man in most drafts. Owners seemingly collectively decided that they hate the Astros now, so several Houston players project to provide considerably more value than their draft-day cost. Michael Brantley is a good example of this.

While shiny prospects certainly have their place on fantasy rosters, the analysis below should show you the value of differentiating your portfolio to include other forms of profit.

 

Kyle Gibson (SP, TEX)

ADP: 341.3

Gibson posted a 13-7 record and 4.84 ERA over 160 IP last season, but his 3.80 xFIP was right in line with the 3.62 ERA and 3.91 xFIP that he posted in 2018. His 22.7 K% last year was also a career best, though fairly modest by fantasy standards. The reason for optimism for the 32-year-old is a deep repertoire of secondary pitches and a move to an organization that has had a knack for turning pitchers into fantasy assets in recent years.

The chart below highlights the performance of all of Gibson's offerings in 2019:

Both his slider and his changeup serve as excellent put-away pitches that are easily good enough to post a K% around 30, but Gibson has never reached those heights because his fastballs leave much to be desired. A 42.3% Zone% on a vanilla four-seamer is woeful, and his sinker's 52.7% rate isn't high enough to reliably set up his secondary offerings. Opposing batters hit .302 with a .460 slugging percentage against the sinker and .343 with a .598 SLG against the fastball, so it's not like they offer contact suppression either.

Mike Minor and Lance Lynn were similar in that they had a couple of standout offerings amidst a pool of mediocrity, and the Rangers helped both develop into reliable fantasy assets. Furthermore, the Rangers were a much better defensive unit in 2019 (-2 Outs Above Average as a team) than the Twins (-20), suggesting that Gibson will benefit from superior defensive support. Globe Life Field is a complete unknown in terms of ballpark factors, but it has to be better for pitchers than the old one.

If you get the Gibson from the last couple of years, you'll have a volume arm who should easily return a profit on a modest draft day investment. If the Rangers can help Gibson rack up the K's that his secondary pitches seem capable of, you're talking about league-winning profit potential. Quite frankly, investments this good shouldn't be available once 200 -- let alone 300 -- players come off of the board.

Verdict: Champ (based on superlative secondary stuff and low price tag)

 

Michael Brantley (OF, HOU)

ADP: 121.6

Brantley enjoyed a very strong debut in Houston, slashing .311/.372/.503 with 22 HR and three steals. His power spike may have had something to do with the home run proliferation last year, but his average, OBP, and role in Houston's lineup should make him a highly desirable fantasy asset even if he regresses to 15 HR or so.

The heart of Brantley's profile is outstanding plate discipline skills. He walked (8 BB%) nearly as often as he struck out (10.4 K%) last season, and both figures are in-line with his career norms (7.9% and 10.6%, respectively). His 4 SwStr% was microscopic, while his solid 25.9% chase rate was a career-worst. The 32-year-old should be expected to avoid strikeouts, take his fair share of walks, and prop up his fantasy team's BA and OBP.

Brantley also has a line-drive swing (23.9 LD% last year, 23.2% career) that helps him beat the league-average BABIP consistently (.320 last year, .315 career). He doesn't hit many fly balls (30.8% last year, 30% career) or popups (3.2 IFFB% last year, 5.8% career), further boosting his BABIP potential. While opposing teams shifted him in 319 of 491 opportunities last season, his 54.1 Pull% on ground balls and .340 batting average against the shift suggest that fantasy owners don't need to worry about it.

That said, Brantley's power numbers last year were likely a mirage. He paired his low FB% with league-average airborne exit velocity (92.5 mph) and a below-average rate of Brls/BBE (5.8%) last season. Worse, Brantley actually improved to those numbers, as he was below-average in both numbers in 2018 (91.9 mph, 3.7% Brls/BBE). Brantley pulls his flies (22.3% last season, 21% career) and Minute Maid Park can help marginal power play up, but you shouldn't expect more than a 15 HR pace this year.

Brantley had previously swiped at least 10 bases in every season of his big league career save 2009 (121 PAs) and 2016 (43), and this author sees the Astros running more to curtail all of the HBP other teams throw at them. He's also projected to hit third in Houston's potent lineup, a slot that is likely among the best in the league for counting stat opportunities.

Add it all together, and you get a player who figures to make a meaningful contribution in all five standard fantasy categories. Most of the players taken around Brantley either have success in very small sample sizes (Zac Gallen 120.6, Dinelson Lamet 125.6) or considerable downside risk (Edwin Diaz 121.2, Madison Bumgarner 120.21), making Brantley a great choice at his current ADP.

Verdict: Champ (based on premium contact skills, role, and affordable price tag)

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ADP Champ or Chump: Niko Goodrum and Jose Altuve

Auctions are an unpredictable draft format by nature, and these uncertain times make them all the more so. The present author participated in an auction this past weekend and was able to purchase two noteworthy players at significant discounts.

One of those players was a $1 flier on Niko Goodrum, a player who offers an intriguing skill set for fantasy and positional versatility that adds to his value in leagues with daily transactions. The other was a $26 winning bid on Astros superstar Jose Altuve, a cheaper price than $27 Marcell Ozuna or $31 Anthony Rizzo despite Altuve clearly being a better player than either.

Inspired by these draft results, I decided to look at ADP data to determine if these players are undervalued in other leagues. The answer is yes.

 

Niko Goodrum (1B/2B/SS/OF, DET)

ADP: 349.8

The 28-year-old Goodrum was the definition of an adequate fantasy player in 2019, slashing .248/.322/.421 with 12 HR and 12 SB (three CS) over 472 PAs. Goodrum has speed to burn (29 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed last season) and has swiped as many as 35 bags in a professional campaign, so it's pretty easy to see SB upside. His power indicators aren't as impressive, but he's not the total zero that Mallex Smith is either.

Perhaps drafters are ignoring Goodrum because he hit .248 despite a .338 BABIP last season, but he has the skills required to post an elevated mark again in 2020. He combines his foot speed with above-average exit velocity on ground balls (86.8 mph), suggesting that his .291 BABIP on worm killers last season was no fluke. While his 27.8 LD% is unlikely to repeat, his 22.8% mark from 2018 and MiLB history suggest that he could be better than league average in that area as well. Goodrum's FB% is also low enough (31.5% last season) to increase his BABIP projections.

Of course, that FB% also caps Goodrum's power output. His 13.3% HR/FB in 2019 wasn't special by any means, and both his 92.5 mph average airborne exit velocity and 6.3% rate of Brls/BBE were mediocre. That said, he pulls an above-average amount of fly balls (23.3%) and projects to hit second in Detroit's lineup, a position that could help him punch above his weight in terms of runs and RBI. Owners can probably expect a 15-HR pace to go along with above-average contributions in SB and counting stats.

Goodrum struck out 29.2% of the time in 2019, but he actually has a reasonable eye (32.4% chase rate) and only a slightly higher than average SwStr% (14.4%). His K% will probably be around 25-26% in 2020, creating a few more opportunities to cause havoc on the bases. He is the perfect bench bat to plug into your lineup in case of injury or light schedules in daily formats, providing a little bit of everything at a dirt-cheap price.

Verdict: Champ (based on role, positional flexibility, legitimate upside, and price).

 

Jose Altuve (2B, HOU)

ADP: 31.6

Altuve enjoyed one of the finer seasons in his storied career in 2019, slashing .298/.353/.550 with 31 HR and six steals (five CS). The decline in steals is concerning considering that fantasy owners are looking for them now more than ever, but it may have just been a fluke. Altuve has a career success rate of approximately 77%, and last season's 28.6 ft/sec Statcast Sprint Speed was a three-year high. He might also be inclined to steal as revenge for all of the HBP many envision the Astros getting in 2020.

Speed aside, Altuve's power spike appears partially legitimate. While his FB% increased only marginally (32.5 FB% vs. career 30.9%), he pulled a significantly higher percentage of his fly balls (28.6% vs. 21.1% career). His 8.1% rate of Brls/BBE was also Altuve's highest in the Statcast Era, while his 92.8 mph average airborne exit velocity was a smidgeon above league-average. Decent power plays up in Minute Maid Park, so Altuve can likely produce at a 25-HR pace even if 30 is unlikely.

Some analysts are noting Altuve's increased Pull% as the reason his batting average fell below .300, but that may not be the case. While Altuve pulled more grounders last season (65.7%) than he has over his career (57.5%), he still hit .298 in 144 PAs against the shift. It's more likely that his BABIP decline (.303 against a career mark of .337) was rooted in his LD% (17.6% last year, 21.5% career), a notoriously fickle stat that generally isn't predictive of anything. The 29-year-old is also too young for an age-related decline, so a rebound back over .300 should be expected.

Altuve also brings plus plate discipline to the table (7.5 BB%, 15 K%) even if he did swing a little bit harder last year (9 SwStr% vs. 6.3% career). He's also locked in as the No. 2 hitter in Houston's potent lineup, giving him plenty of opportunities to accumulate counting stats. In short, Altuve projects to hit .300+ with 25 HR, 20 SB, and a ton of R+RBI over a full season.

Quite frankly, you're not getting comparable production from the players taken around him. Here is where Altuve ranks according to FantasyPros ADP:

There are some good players there, but Rafael Devers' breakout wasn't supported by his peripherals, Charlie Blackmon shouldn't be started outside of Coors, Javier Baez has terrible plate discipline, and Clayton Kershaw has earned an injury-prone tag. There is zero evidence that the Astros cheating scandal significantly inflated Altuve's numbers or that it won't continue in a more effective form, so take Altuve and enjoy the first-round production in the third.

Verdict: Champ (based on the ability to get an absolute stud outside of the first round)

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ADP Champ or Chump: Freddy Peralta and Ken Giles

The conventional fantasy wisdom this season seems to be that you need to devote a lot of draft resources to pitching. The logic goes that ace starters are so much better than other arms that you need to have at least one before the end of the third round in standard 12-team leagues. Furthermore, experts are advising to grab at least one closer early since saves are so volatile. You've got to have some on your Opening Day roster, right?

Such a strategy is certainly viable, but this author doesn't believe that it is the only way to compete in 2020. There are plenty of enticing pitchers who could produce premium pitching stats without the premium price tag of a Jacob deGrom or Gerrit Cole. Similarly, you can grab a safe, reliable closer outside of the top 100 who has the upside for much more.

This column will take a closer look at two pitchers: one SP (Freddy Peralta) and one RP (Ken Giles). Let's get to it!

 

Freddy Peralta (SP/RP, MIL)

ADP: 361.8

Peralta had a solid 7-3 record at the MLB level, but his 5.29 ERA in 85 IP wasn't really what fantasy owners are looking for. His price tag suggests that a lot of owners are looking at that ERA and running away. However, his xFIP was a much more respectable 4.15, and his 30.1 K% was healthy enough to generate fantasy value even if his ERA is on the higher side.

Peralta's style is unconventional, but the strikeouts look real. He threw his four-seam fastball 78.4% of the time last year, and it's one of the best fastballs in the majors. Its velocity jumped relative to 2018 (91.4 mph vs. 94.1), helping it to post a 14 SwStr% and 57.7 Zone%. It also boasts a high spin rate (2,454 RPM), most of which contributes to significant rising action (80% Active Spin). As a result, it induces a lot of fly balls (40.9 FB%) and pop-ups (36.1 IFFB%).

Peralta allowed a .338 BABIP last season, but his signature pitch's propensity for pop-ups would seem to limit it moving forward. Likewise, his 64.8% strand rate is very low for a pitcher with such a high K rate. Metrics like these aren't always luck-based, but they certainly appear to be in Peralta's case.

Peralta's problem is that he really doesn't have a second pitch, much less a third. While he threw his curve 20.4% of the time, it was inferior to his heater in every way imaginable (10.1 SwStr%, 38.8 Zone%, 29.5% chase rate). The rest of his arsenal is thrown so infrequently that it effectively doesn't exist. If Peralta could find something for his fastball to work off of, he'd be an instant ace.

His role is also somewhat in the air at the time of writing, but there is one key piece of evidence that suggests it will be fantasy relevant. The Milwaukee Brewers have to be ranked as one of the smartest front offices in the game today, and they decided to lock up Peralta with a five-year, $15.5 million contract extension back in February. Whether they see him as a traditional closer who can free up Josh Hader to work more innings or as a rock in their rotation, Peralta is too cheap for the talent he possesses.

Verdict: Champ (based on one of the league's best fastballs and the team's confidence in him)

 

Ken Giles (RP, TOR)

ADP: 123.4

Giles was sensational in 2019, posting a 1.87 ERA and 2.73 xFIP with a 39.9 K% in 53 IP. Closers have three jobs in fantasy: Help with ratios, help with strikeouts, and compile saves. Giles is elite in all three categories.

It's tough to project any pitcher for a sub-2 ERA, but even Giles's xFIP would provide the ratio help fantasy owners want from an elite reliever. Similarly, his strikeouts are the result of roughly a 50/50 split between his fastball and slider. His fastball is everything you want from a heater: strong SwStr% (10.2% last year) and strong Zone% (55.6%). His slider is an excellent wipeout pitch (27.6 SwStr%, 36.3 Zone%, 46.9% chase rate) that allows Giles to put away batters at will. Together, they form a nasty one-two combination.

Perhaps most importantly, Giles may have the most job security in baseball. Here is the Toronto bullpen as projected by RosterResource:

That is not an impressive list of names. Both Anthony Bass and Shun Yamaguchi are over 30 years old and don't have anywhere near the track record to unseat Giles. Furthermore, Toronto has an above-average but not elite offense and a competent starting rotation. They figure to participate in a lot of close games that should provide Giles with plenty of save opportunities.

Few pitchers offer Giles's strikeouts and saves. Pitchers like Hader and Nick Anderson get the Ks, but their ability to work multiple innings discourages their use as traditional closers. Meanwhile, pitchers like Roberto Osuna and Aroldis Chapman either no longer have the same level of strikeout stuff or pitch in such great bullpens that their managers don't have to rely on them as much. Take Giles as your first reliever, and your bullpen won't miss a beat.

Verdict: Champ (based on draft cost and elite production)

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Rick Lucks's Bold Predictions for 2020

While the coronavirus has delayed the start of the MLB season, Bold Prediction season is in full-swing here at Rotoballer. Not knowing how many games will actually be played makes numerical positions difficult, as 30 HR are a lot more impressive over 100 games than 162. That said, I've tried to base the predictions below on either rate stats that don't care about the raw number of games or rankings that compare players over the time they were on the field.

I pride myself on being one of the bolder Rotoballer analysts, so some of the predictions below may have shock value. I also find myself attracted to a LOT of cheap pitching this year, so hopefully you're looking for some under-the-radar arms to fill out your fantasy staff. When you're done reading my brilliant predictions, check out the link at the bottom to see some of the head-scratchers my colleagues have come up with.

Without further ado, let the insanity begin!

 

Kyle Gibson will strikeout at least a batter per inning

The 32-year-old Gibson isn't anybody's idea of a sexy name, as neither last season's 22.7 K% or his career rate of 18% scream "DRAFT ME!". However, I've pegged him as a sleeper for two key reasons. First, he's joining the Texas Rangers: a franchise that has made players like Mike Minor and Lance Lynn fantasy-relevant after most people wrote them off for good.

Second, his pedestrian strikeout rates mask the fact that he brings two premium wipeout pitches to the table. His slider is simply one of the best in the game (26.7 SwStr%, 48% chase rate last season), while his changeup provides a worthy complement (20.2 SwStr%, 46% chase). Add in the fact that Gibson's 3.80 xFIP last season was more than a full run better than his 4.84 ERA, and you get a rare thirty-something upside play.

 

Patrick Sandoval is relevant in all fantasy formats

The 23-year-old Sandoval posted a 5.03 ERA in his 39 1/3 IP at the MLB level last season, but he has the potential for so much more. Sandoval's changeup looked like a legitimate strikeout pitch in his big league debut (25 SwStr%, 37% chase rate), helping him post a K% of 24.9% despite his big league struggles. He also struck out over a batter per inning at every MiLB stop, in case you think the strikeouts were a small-sample fluke. He also has a low-spin fastball (1,970 RPM) that suggests he could have some contact management ability in a larger sample.

Sandoval is also locked into a rotation spot on a team that figures to provide abundant offensive and defensive support, potentially allowing him to stockpile wins in an era where fantasy owners need all of the help they can get in that category. Considering that he's nearly free in most drafts (FantasyPros ADP of 499), why not take a shot?

 

Caleb Smith is relevant in all fantasy formats

The Marlins aren't anybody's idea of a good team, and Smith's 4.52 ERA and 5.05 xFIP over 153 1/3 IP aren't exciting. However, there is a lot of potential in this package. Smith's fastball combines an above-average spin rate (2,425 RPM) with elite 96.7% active spin, tying with Josh Hader and below only Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Jordan Hicks, Colin Poche, and whoever the heck Jonathan Hernandez is. The result is great for both strikeouts (10.3 SwStr%, 54.5 Zone%) and harmless pop-ups (60.5 FB%, 21.4 IFFB%).

While Smith's .251 BABIP allowed might look like a fluke, his high 52.5 FB% and propensity for pop-ups strongly suggest that it's a skill. He also brings two solid strikeout pitches to the table in the form of a slider (15.1 SwStr%, 43 Zone%, 37.2% chase) and changeup (16.4 SwStr%, 39.5 Zone%, 37.3% chase), so last year's 26 K% could have room to grow. Smith did have injury woes last year as well, so he could rebound to his first-half performance (3.50 ERA, 31.1 K% in 72 IP), especially if a pre-2019 ball is used.

 

Corbin Burnes has a breakout season in Milwaukee

Burnes was horrific in 49 big league IP last season (8.82 ERA), and his performance at Triple-A wasn't any better (8.46 ERA 22 1/3 IP). That said, his 3.37 xFIP suggests what he could do once his 38/6% HR/FB and .414 BABIP regress to something more believable. You have to like the fantasy prospects of an arm who posted a 29.8 K% at the MLB level, especially when it's backed by an elite slider (35.1 SwStr%, 55.9% chase) and strong changeup (19.4 SwStr%, 36.1 Zone%, 30.4% chase).

Burnes also posted the second-highest fastball spin rate among all MLB pitchers in 2019 (2,656 RPM), meaning that his fastball could play up if he can figure out how to harness it (only 59.8% active spin). Even if it doesn't, last year's 8 SwStr% is still good enough for Burnes to turn in a stellar fantasy season.

 

Ryan Pressly beats out Roberto Osuna as Houston's Closer

Fantasy owners seem very sure that Osuna will be one of the top fantasy closers in 2020, but he's not even the best arm in his own bullpen. Here are some comparisons with his set-up man Ryan Pressly:

Osuna: 28.8 K%, 4.7 BB%, 38.8 GB%, 2.63 ERA, 3.60 xFIP in 65 IP

Pressly: 34.1 K%, 5.7 BB%, 50.8 GB%, 2.32 ERA, 2.21 xFIP in 54 1/3 IP

Which one would you rather have with the game on the line? Osuna is also just one reason removed from a mediocre 21.3 K%, a rate that fantasy owners can beat with freely-available waiver arms. Why is Osuna taken in the top 100 again (82.8 FantasyPros ADP)?

 

Fernando Tatis Jr. finishes outside the top-15 SS

The 21-year-old Tatis enjoyed a scintillating debut in 2019, slashing .317/.379/.590 with 22 HR and 16 SB in 377 PAs. Unfortunately, his peripherals just aren't that good. He was caught stealing six times, barely eclipsing the 70% success rate benchmark most contenders look for. His .410 BABIP likely won't be repeated either, as Baseball Savant's xStats say that Tatis only deserved a .259 average last season. His 30.9 FB% also suggests significant power downside if his 31.9% HR/FB regresses to a normal level. With an xSLG 100 points lower than his actual slugging percentage, power loss seems likely.

Most concerningly, Tatis has a ton of swing and miss in his game. His 15.6 SwStr% last season was atrocious, especially considering that his Z-Contact% was only 81.5%. He also hovered around 13% on the farm, suggesting that this is a consistent problem that big league pitchers will be able to exploit. Tatis has all of the tools in the world, but 2020 could see a substantial sophomore slump.

 

Rafael Devers finishes outside the top-15 3B

Like Tatis, Devers was great in 2019: .311/.361/.555 with 32 HR and eight steals in 702 PA. Also like Tatis, his peripherals weren't nearly as good. His career-high 32 HR came despite a career-low 34.3 FB%. His 9.0% rate of Brls/BBE was also slightly lower than his 9.1% mark the year before. His plate discipline also improved on the surface (17 K% last year, 24.7% in 2018), but his 12 SwStr% was only slightly better than his career rate of 12.4% while his 40.5% chase rate was a career-worst.

Boston's lineup also isn't as strong as it looked last season, as Mookie Betts is gone while Xander Bogaerts is unlikely to repeat his career season. Devers isn't any better than he was when he hit .240/.298/.433 in 2018, yet fantasy owners are drafting him as if his 2019 is a baseline with upside potential. Stop that!

 

Victor Robles is the bust of the year

Robles looked good last season (.255/.326/.419 with 17 HR, 28 SB), but his contact quality metrics make him look like the second coming of Joey Gathright. His 88.6 mph average airborne exit velocity was three full ticks below league-average, suggesting that he won't maintain even his modest 11.8% HR/FB. His 4.8% rate of Brls/BBE was also bad, while his 73.7 exit velocity on ground balls was last in MLB among players with at least 100 batted balls. He also hits way too many pop-ups (15.3 IFFB%) for somebody with his wheels.

It all added up to an xBA of .233 and xSLG of .370, numbers that won't play in fantasy or reality. Buck Martinez announced that Robles would be hitting in the bottom of the team's order shortly before spring training was suspended, further hurting his counting stats. There is a real possibility that Robles finishes the season on the waiver wire in redraft leagues.

 

The Arizona Diamondbacks finish with a winning percentage of at least .556 (a 90-win pace)

Projection systems see Arizona as roughly a .500 team, but there are a ton of upside plays here. Kevin Cron has almost the same MiLB numbers as Pete Alonso. Josh Rojas looks like prime Ben Zobrist if he gets a chance. Christian Walker and Kole Calhoun should come close to repeating their strong 2019 campaigns, and Stephen Vogt offers a legitimate bat from the catcher position. Of course, star players like Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar are always nice to have around.

Their rotation is filled with promise (Robbie Ray, Zac Gallen, and Luke Weaver are all strong arms), and their bullpen offers intrigue as well. Outside of the Dodgers, the NL West is a weak division that should offer plenty of easy wins. Honestly, I'm getting a Tampa Rays vibe from this roster.

 

Yasiel Puig's big-league career is over

Puig was actually serviceable in fantasy last season (.267/.327/.458 with 24 HR and 19 SB), but the resulting 1.2 WAR didn't move the needle for either of the teams he played for. By all accounts, Puig is a massive negative in the clubhouse that led the analytically-inclined Dodgers to attempt to give him away for free on more than one occasion.

Why go through the hassle for a guy who isn't a difference-maker?

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ADP Champ or Chump: Michael Conforto and Mike Clevinger

In the wake of the coronavirus, Major League Baseball games won't be starting on schedule. While there are obviously more important things going on right now than fantasy baseball, we baseball junkies have to do something to distract ourselves from losing one of our favorite hobbies. One way to do this is to try and figure out what a shortened MLB season means in fantasy.

While there isn't much you can do if your league has already drafted and some leagues are pushing their drafts back, there are still drafts happening right now. A player who is injured and "expected to miss Opening Day" can be tough to take on draft day, but the current situation could turn those injuries into buying opportunities.

Two players who currently represent substantial bargains in this author's opinion are Michael Conforto and Mike Clevinger. Here is a closer look at their profiles.

 

Michael Conforto (OF, NYM)

ADP: 104.8

Conforto had a very strong 2019 season, slashing .257/.363/.494 with 33 HR and seven steals (and caught stealing twice). He suffered a Grade 1 oblique strain (the mildest type) shortly before the coronavirus suspended spring training, and the Mets have not announced a time table for his return. Since MLB doesn't have a time table to return either, Conforto represents a massive buying opportunity outside of the top 100.

First, Conforto has outstanding plate discipline skills. He walked an impressive 13 percent of the time last season, backed by a very strong 27.3% chase rate. His 11.2 SwStr% wasn't bad for a slugger at all, keeping his K% at a workable 23%. There are no red flags here, so Conforto should be able to at least match last season's OBP in 2020.

Second, Conforto's pop is legitimate. His 20.5% HR/FB last season was backed by a strong 11.9% rate of Brls/BBE, a significant uptick from his 9.5% mark in 2018. Conforto's FB% also climbed to 40% last season, a good number to see for any slugger. He also pulled more fly balls (26.1%) than he has over his career (21.5%), making it easier to reach the cheap seats.

Conforto's batting average offers some upside as well. He really didn't pull too many ground balls in 2019 (56.5% in fact), but opposing teams still shifted him in 275 of 372 opportunities. Predictably, it didn't work: Conforto hit an impressive .322 against it last season. Baseball Savant's xStats also say that Conforto was unlucky last season, giving him an xBA of .262 and xSLG of .504 that both best his actual marks. Throw above-average foot speed into the mix (27.5 ft./sec), and Conforto could best his career .294 BABIP this year.

Roster Resource currently projects Conforto to hit sixth in the Mets batting order, but this author has no idea why. He generally hit fourth (60 games), third (31), or second (21) in 2019, so the Mets are already in the habit of assigning him an important role. Furthermore, the site has J.D. Davis's unplayable defense, Robinson Cano's reanimated corpse, and Brandon Nimmo's empty OBP hitting in front of him. There's a real possibility that all three ends up on the bench before the season is through, creating plenty of opportunity for Conforto to move up.

Opportunity cost matters, and selecting Conforto generally means passing up on a bunch of "reliable" closers and players such as Sonny Gray (101.8 ADP), Mike Moustakas (99), Ramon Laureano (99), Luis Robert (96.2), and Nick Castellanos (94.2). Conforto is a good bet to outperform all of them, making him a great pick at his current price.

Verdict: Champ (based on strong peripherals, lineup opportunity, and track record)

 

Mike Clevinger (SP, CLE)

ADP: 42.4

Clevinger was nothing short of outstanding in 2019, posting a 2.71 ERA and 3.09 xFIP with a 33.9 K% over 126 IP. Unfortunately, enthusiasm for him dipped in fantasy circles after he underwent surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus on February 14. The procedure typically carries a 6-8 week recovery time table, which should have Clevinger ready to rock and roll comfortably before the now-delayed season begins.

If you were thinking that Clevinger's strikeout rate was a fluke, you should take another look at his arsenal. His fastball got a significant velocity spike last season (from 93.6 mph in 2018 to 95.5 mph last year), which likely contributed to a small spin rate bump as well (2,300 RPM in 2018, 2,341 last year. The result was an outstanding pitch with a 12.7 SwStr% despite a 57.3 Zone%.

Clevinger complements his fastball with a wipeout slider that posted a 20.8 SwStr%, 34.5 Zone%, and 38.6% chase rate in 2019, giving him the elite weapon that you need to maintain a K% above 30%. He also features a passable curve (13.6 SwStr%, but 33.6 Zone% and 33.7% chase rate) and change (15.2 SwStr%, but 38.8 Zone% and 33.8% chase) that could blossom into elite offerings in their own right.

You also have to love the idea of drafting a pitcher in the AL Central. The Royals and Tigers are both total dumpster fires, while the White Sox spent a fortune to make themselves merely bad. The Twins can hit, but Cleveland has elite pieces like Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez that can give them a run for their money. Clevinger should get plenty of favorable matchups and an inflated win total as a result.

Despite all of this, fantasy owners are taking pitchers like Jack Flaherty (23 ADP), Blake Snell (39.6), and Patrick Corbin (40.2) before Clevinger. Those guys are okay, but it says here that Clevinger will outperform them all by a wide margin. He's more than worthy of being your team's SP1 this season.

Verdict: Champ (based on outstanding peripherals, elite strikeouts, and soft competition)

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ADP Champ or Chump: Christian Walker and Luis Robert

Fantasy owners love prospects, especially shiny new toys that they've never had an opportunity to play with before. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was drafted very highly last season, but his fantasy production didn't really live up to his draft-day cost even after Toronto finished playing service time games with him. This year, Luis Robert is poised to provide the same lack of return on investment.

At the same time, fantasy owners can be skeptical of quality performances that weren't predicted by the prospect hounds. Christian Walker had a very good season last season, and his peripherals suggest that he could be even better in 2020. However, he's generally taken outside of the top 200 picks.

Here is a closer look at the numbers that have led the author to the conclusions above:

 

Christian Walker (1B, ARI)

ADP: 216

Walker slashed an impressive .259/.348/.476 with 29 HR and eight stolen bases (against one CS) in 603 PAs, but you wouldn't know it from the attention he's getting in fantasy circles. His MiLB career supports his status as a power-hitter, as Walker hit 18 HR in just 359 PAs at Triple-A in 2018 and 32 in 592 PAs there in 2017. The speed admittedly came out of nowhere, but his success rate suggests that there's no pressing reason to stop him.

Walker's detractors will likely point to his 25.7 K% as a reason he won't repeat 2019, but his plate discipline peripherals are better than that. First, Walker had an outstanding 25.2% chase rate last season that allowed him to walk an impressive 11.1 percent of the time. Despite this, he was not passive at the plate (48.7 Swing%) and his 12.7 SwStr% was effectively league-average. It says here that Walker will continue to work walks while trimming a couple of points off of his K%, creating BA and OBP upside.

Statcast also supports Walker's 2019 production. His airborne batted balls averaged 95.2 mph last season, an impressive amount of oomph that accompanied a well-above-average rate of Brls/BBE (13.1%). His .516 xSLG was considerably higher than his actual mark, suggesting that any regression would be in Walker's favor.

Similarly, Walker's xBA of .263 was virtually identical to his actual mark. His .312 BABIP might seem a little high for a slugger, but he has no significant pull tendency (59.6 Pull% on grounders) and hit a respectable .273 in 132 PAs against the shift last season. His 38.4 FB% also isn't high enough to damage his BABIP in the manner associated with players like Joey Gallo.

Walker is currently projected to hit 5th for a surprisingly deep Arizona offense, so he should get his fair share of counting stat opportunities. Add it all together, and the only real knock on the 29-year-old is that he's 29 and only just made a major league impact. Take the profit and hope Kevin Cron doesn't get an opportunity to showcase what he can do.

Verdict: Champ (based on solid peripherals and dirt-cheap cost)

 

Luis Robert (OF, CWS)

ADP: 96.6

In contrast, the 22-year-old Robert first faced advanced competition last year. A quick look at his numbers reveals why fantasy owners are enthralled with him: .314/.362/.518 with eight homers and 21 steals (six CS) in 244 PAs at Double-A, and then .297/.341/.634 with 16 HR and seven steals (three CS) in 223 PAs at Triple-A. Added together, you get a .300+ average and 20/20 counting stats with the upside for more.

Unfortunately, there are serious red flags in both of those small sample sizes. Robert's plate discipline wasn't great at Double-A (5.3 BB%, 22.1 K%), and he relied heavily on a .384 BABIP to put up the numbers he did. That's fine: maybe he's a high-BABIP guy. However, his 49.1 FB% and 31.3 IFFB% (roughly 15.5% on the MLB scale) both suggest a low-BABIP profile, and his 9.6% HR/FB isn't high enough to produce 20+ homers without a very high FB% mark. In short, Robert either needs to stop hitting so many flies to be a high-BABIP player or trade his average for power. He's can't do both yet.

Robert's plate discipline was even worse at Triple-A (4.9 BB%, 24.7 K%), suggesting that even more advanced pitchers might eat him alive. He upped his HR/FB (21.6%) to pair with his very high FB% (49.3%), but that may have had more to do with his environment than anything he did. Triple-A Charlotte had a HR Factor of 1.297 last season, ranking in the 99th percentile of the entire MiLB system. Considering that the introduction of the MLB ball turned Triple-A as a whole into a hitter's paradise, any stats put up in the 99th percentile for offense should be taken with several grains of salt.

Scouts seem to think that Robert will need an adjustment period as well. While FanGraphs gives Robert 65-grade raw power and 70-speed, his current hit tool is below average (40) while his game power is average (50). Those grades are expected to increase to 50 and 60 in the future, but that only matters in keeper and dynasty formats.

Furthermore, Baseball Savant's scouting report praises Robert for "electric bat speed, well-above-average raw power and speed, and the upside of solid tools across the board" but also expresses "swing-and-miss concerns" and notes that "he will need to improve his plate discipline to realize his offensive potential." It goes on to comp him to fellow White Sox farmhand Yoan Moncada, who notably disappointed fantasy owners for his first couple of seasons.

Roster Resource has Robert as Chicago's eight-hole hitter, a role that wouldn't lend itself very well to counting stats. Considering that reliable bats such as Yasmani Grandal (98.4 ADP), Carlos Correa (101.4), Michael Conforto (104.2), and Rhys Hoskins (105.4) are being taken in the same round as Robert, hoping for the latter's upside carries a significant opportunity cost. Let somebody else roll the dice on his 2019 MiLB numbers.

Verdict: Chump (based on poor plate discipline, extreme batted ball profile, and high cost)

More 2020 Fantasy Baseball Advice