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Maxing Out - Is 2019 Time for Max Kepler's Breakout?

The once prosperous Minnesota Twins have struggled to regain the dominance that they established at the beginning of this century. Penciled in as a division favorite every year, since the turn of this decade it’s been a much different narrative. With old faces in Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter long gone and enjoying life on the other side of baseball; there's been a new crop of young faces that are being embraced by the Twins.

One of these faces is 25-year old Max Kepler. Signed in 2009 as a 16-year old out of Germany, Kepler has been adapting to life on a new continent for nearly 10 years. After hitting his way through the minor league ranks, Kepler now has three big league seasons under his belt. It’s been a modest level of production in the majors so far for Kepler, but we’re far from seeing the peak in the youngster’s bat.

After an obscure 2018 where he batted .224 with 20 HR, 80 R and 58 RBI, Kepler is still refining his overall game. Displaying flashes of excellence and continuing improvements in his skillset, 2019 is shaping up to be the year where the European could breakout for a career season in the Twin Cities. Let’s take a look at everything that makes up the 6’4” German.

 

Plate Discipline

Possessing good plate discipline skills is not something that's easily taught. A keen eye and the split second instinctive skills to decide when to swing is hard-wired differently into every player's brain. The wiring checks out regarding Kepler, who posted a career 15.4% K% in the minors to go along with a 10.6% BB%.

Kepler didn’t transfer these commendable numbers to the majors immediately, but his rates were still above the major league average. Kepler posted a 20.4% K% and 8.8% BB% through the 2016-17 seasons. A decline in these categories, compared to his minor league numbers, came as a result of him chasing 27.9% of pitches out of the strike zone. A big part of this swing-and-miss in his game was his inability to hit the curveball as he whiffed on 37.5% of his swings.

The lefty swinger took a substantial leap in 2018 on these statistics which bodes well for his value moving forward. Cutting his Chase% to 21.0%, Kepler reduced his whiffs/swing on curves to 24.2% as well. The results of this contact saw his strikeouts drop to 15.7% and his walks elevate to 11.6%. The restoration of his excellent plate discipline put his 0.74 BB/K in the top 15 of all MLB. Although he excelled in this category, he had the lowest batting average (.224) of anyone in the top 40. A bizarre mark with his improved discipline, a few things will have to be looked at next.

 

Batted Balls

Before we get into Kepler’s 2018, his previous history must be acknowledged. A career .322 hitter in Double-A, he batted .282 in 30 games at Triple-A before getting his big league call up in 2016. He consistently maintained a BABIP of over .300 across every level before these numbers plummeted in the show.

Swatting a .235 AVG with a .261 BABIP in his rookie season, Kepler saw better results in 2017 with .243/.276 marks. He drove the ball into the ground 44.7% of the time during these two years which was a mark he hadn’t exceeded across all his minor league stops excluding Rookie ball. Perhaps Kepler saw some growing pains from facing more elite big league talent, but these numbers were still too far off his minor league figures.

Kepler’s reverse splits were odd to see in 2018. In the combined 2016-17 seasons, Kepler hit .177 against southpaws and .262 versus righties. Last season, he flip-flopped his splits and hit .245 against lefties and .216 facing right-handers. A puzzling feat, the success he saw versus left-handers came because he hit more line drives and harder hit balls than ever before off them. Other than an increased fly ball approach, there’s nothing in his numbers that scream a reason for this massive reduction against right-handers. Kepler’s BABIP against these pitchers was a putrid .219 in 2018, nearly .80 points down from his 2017 number (.296).

As a result of the puzzling inefficiency against righties, Kepler’s .224 AVG and .236 BABIP in 2018 were both career lows since he made the journey to North America. The BABIP mark is stunningly small, and it was third-lowest in the league last season. Chalk some of it up to bad luck, but as mentioned he also hit the ball in the air more which would have a small effect on the result. Down from his previous 44.7% GB% was a mark sitting at 37.8% in 2018 resulting in his FB% to hit a new high at 46.2%. This developmental approach resulted in him eclipsing the 20-HR plateau for the first time in his short career, and more metrics show the power is here to stay.

 

Power Metrics

Kepler doesn’t possess earth-shattering power numbers for a player as big as himself. His best power season in the farm system was his Double-A year in which he hit nine bombs in 112 games as he slugged .531. He’s shown a steady rate of improvement through his three big league seasons, bashing 17, 19, and 20 HR per year. Kepler's 2018 year end number wasn’t the only stat that enhanced for the tall lefty.

His 4.0 Barrel% in 2017 scooched up to 6.6% last season, and he also upped his launch angle from 8.3 in his rookie year to 16.1. Coupled with the new fly ball approach was a surge in Hard% which he established a new career high in as well at 37.1%, up from his previous rate of 33.0%. Shockingly, his HR/FB took a nosedive despite the more power-driven approach. Kepler’s previous career rate of 13.4% tumbled to 9.9% last year, possibly due to failure to pull the baseball.

Hitting the baseball to the pull side is the easiest way to knock it out of the park, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out. Kepler did a good job pulling his fly balls in his first two seasons at a 33.9% rate, but in 2018 it fell to 24.1%. Instead of hitting to the pull side, more of his batted balls flew to the deeper part of the park as he hit the ball to center field much more often. If Kepler can find the happy medium of pulling his fly balls while maintaining his 2018 FB%, his HR/FB should return to his career rate or possibly even higher.

 

Putting It All Together

In 2019 the Twins will strut out a pretty formidable lineup. Acquiring power bats in Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron, this adds to a batting order already featuring 2018 breakout Eddie Rosario and the potentially dangerous Byron Buxton. Whether or not Buxton can live up to his hype is another conversation altogether, but with the departure of Brian Dozier, the Twins lack options at leadoff. The only other players that can match Kepler’s on-base percentage are Jorge Polanco and Rosario, who will likely remain in the third spot. It’s a situation to monitor but having Kepler at the top of the order will undoubtedly boost his overall value.

Seeing the majority of his playing time in 2018 between the five through seven spots, he’ll remain in that range if the Twins decide to go a different route at the top of the order. With the continued plate discipline skills and the likely positive regression in BABIP, he should have the best hitting year of his career. Assuming a normalization in success against right-handers and his new gainful approach against left-handers further reiterates this point. Although he stole 18 bags in his Double-A year and he has good speed, he can only be counted on for a handful of thefts in 2019.

Staying locked in on hard contact and barrelling up the baseball, a new best in home runs is more than attainable. A maturation in strength entering his age 26 season will also help him push the ball out of the park, especially if he can return to his pull-happy ways. Currently a model of terrific health, you can expect him to play every day and watch his counting stats climb.

Currently being selected at an ADP of 258, he’s going around outfielders with some playing time concerns like Randal Grichuk, Ian Happ and Jay Bruce. At this point in the draft, Kepler is a safe option to provide you with your counting stats and to fill out your final outfield position(s). With a secure floor, he has a ceiling that has still yet to be determined. Aware of how it could all click for him this year; the return value on Kepler will be lucrative.

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Mike Soroka - 2019 Fantasy Baseball Sleeper

It’s an exciting time to be an Atlanta Braves fan. After a surprise division championship in 2018, the club also debuted 20-year-old phenom and Rookie of the Year winner Ronald Acuna Jr. However, there was another 20-year-old that debuted for the Braves last year, not in the batter's box, but on the pitching mound instead.

Although he only threw 25.2 big league innings last year, there’s a lot to love about Mike Soroka. The fact that he already received his major league call-up in May this past season says enough in itself that he’s a top-tier talent. Soroka’s season was cut short in 2018 due to an injury to his throwing shoulder, which has caused his draft stock to take a hit so far in early drafts. This fact gives him huge sleeper potential going into the 2019 season as a mere 21-year-old.

Let’s take a look at his minor league success and his short stint in the majors to get in on all the hype.

 

Minor League Sensation

Soroka has an impressive resume in the minor leagues, so it’s no wonder why he soared up to the majors at the ripe age of 20. What makes him so valuable is his pinpoint control. Across 361.1 innings pitched since his minor league career began in 2015, his BB/9 is an incredible 1.92. For some perspective, Corey Kluber’s career walk rate is 1.91, and the major league average in 2018 was 3.25 BB/9. At 6’4” he doesn’t overpower hitters with his fastball like you’d think he would with that kind of frame. His fastball clocks in at a modest 93 MPH on average, so he doesn’t have quite the strikeout potential like other pitching prospects, but he doesn't shy away from them either. A career minor league 8.0 K/9 hiked up to 10.3 K/9 in 27 IP during his brief time in Triple-A in 2018. It’s a small sample size but still encouraging nonetheless.

The Calgary, Alberta native has a four-pitch repertoire throwing the fastball and sinker mostly while mixing in a slider and a changeup for his off-speed pitches. Soroka doesn’t need to rely on the strikeout because he’s so fortunate with having a terrific groundball ability. His career minor league 1.67 GB/FB would be way above the major league average which sat at 1.22 in 2018. For the sake of another major league comparison, his 1.67 mark would have equaled Aaron Nola for seventh-best in 2018. With this collection of abilities, his big league potential is very exciting.

 

Major League Frustration

On May 1, Soroka took the mound for his major league debut against the New York Mets, outduelling Noah Syndergaard for the win. He spun six innings of one-run ball striking out five batters without issuing a single free pass. The right-hander made two more starts before landing on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. He returned a month later, and after two more starts, he was placed back on the DL with more inflammation. This injury disappointingly marked the end of his short season.

Although it was a short sample size in the majors, the tall hurler carried over a lot of qualities that made him successful in the minor leagues. He had satisfactory strikeout and walk numbers for a youngster. His K/9 finished at 7.36, and his BB/9 sat at 2.45, both a bit below his minor league norms, but he still proved big league players couldn't completely overpower him. His ground-ball rate, however, climbed up to a 1.85 GB/FB, a number worth salivating over in the fly ball-dominated league.

 

2019 Implication

The good news with Soroka is that he’s still so young, there is a lot of room for growth with his already above average skill set. The bad news is he’s so youthful that the Braves will be cautious with their top prospect. Whether it’s this year or the next, Soroka has a very prosperous future ahead of him as a major league pitcher. He undoubtedly carries some re-draft risk with a potential innings limit and past shoulder injury, but last season was the first year since 2015 where he failed to make it at least 143 IP. He has been durable before this past season, but we know the Braves have plenty of pitching depth so they can afford to limit his work.

Soroka is fully ready for spring training and received a clean bill of health in the offseason. It’s certainly a situation to monitor in March as to where he will begin the season, but it’s more likely that he’ll start in Triple-A rather than the majors. With an inevitable major league call-up, he’ll provide significant value to your team whenever he does take the hill. The elite walk and ground-ball rates should translate to the majors, and the strikeouts will presumably boost with more growth and with the league continuing in the direction of low-contact free swingers. At an ADP of 293, it's a high upside pick especially given the lack of promising ability this late in drafts.

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Francisco Mejia - 2019 Fantasy Baseball Sleeper

The catching position in fantasy baseball is slowly becoming the kicker position in fantasy football. With a lack of depth in the player pool and teams keeping their player's legs fresh by platooning them, drafters are taking catchers in the last few rounds just because they have to fill out the position. With more data to study on opposing batters and more knowledge on the increasing number of pitchers that are being used in a game, catchers don’t have enough time in the day to hone in on their hitting craft.

Once the first few elite backstops are off the board, the general mold of catchers are the same, low averages with decent pop. The major league batting average for catcher's in 2018 was a meager .232, the lowest total in 50 years. It’s just a matter of which player will sacrifice more average for more power.

In 2019, there is a new bat ready to make an impact at the catching position which breaks the mold of your prototypical backstop. Francisco Mejia of the San Diego Padres can hit. Not only can he hit, but he can flat out rake. The only thing standing in the 23-year-old's way is a possible platoon in 2019, but with Mejia’s hit tool and versatility, he should be on everyone’s sleeper list going into this season.

 

Minor League Masher

Mejia made minor league history in 2016. He tailored a 50-game hitting streak across two minor league levels, the longest hitting streak since 1963. Finishing his season with a combined .342 AVG, he also chipped in with 11 long balls in 102 games for good measure. At the beginning of last season, MLB named Mejia the number one catching prospect in baseball. Deservingly so, as he spanked 14 home runs and batted .297 in just 92 games at Double-A in 2017.

He was hitting .279 with seven big flies in Triple-A last season before the Padres acquired the switch-hitter from the Cleveland Indians at the trade deadline for their prized closer Brad Hand. The change in scenery suited him even better as he batted .328 and clubbed another seven bombs in just 31 games for El Paso. Mejia has shown excellent plate discipline numbers as a minor leaguer as well. With only a 15.4% K% since the start of 2016, he’s got outstanding hand-eye skills, and he can put the ball in play as good or better than anyone at his position.

 

Major League Cup of Coffee

Mejia was a September call up for the Padres last year, and he made an impact early. He walloped two home runs in his first career start for the Padres, and 10 days later he crushed a walk-off grand slam. Other than the home runs, Mejia then showed he wasn’t ready to be a Major Leaguer. He batted just .185 with a disastrous 32.8% K%. Keep in mind that he platooned after his call up, and had nine pinch-hit at-bats and struck out in seven of them. Facing tough bullpen arms cold off the bench is hardly reprimandable.

With Austin Hedges in town, the two players split time in September as Mejia started 10 games behind the dish compared to Hedges’ 12. Known for being a defensive-minded catcher, Hedges can hit the long ball, but so far he’s only put together a .210 career batting average. In the Indians organization, Mejia spent an entire Arizona Fall League at the hot corner and spent parts of Triple-A in the outfield. It remains to be seen what the exact plan is going forward with these two players, but we know Mejia is open to playing elsewhere if that means more playing time. Remember, Mejia just turned 23 and being such a stud hitter already, it will be hard for San Diego to keep him out of the lineup.

 

2019 Outlook

We haven’t seen a minor league catcher’s bat profile like this since Buster Posey came into the league in 2010. As far as switch-hitting catchers go, you’d have to go way back to Victor Martinez in the early 2000s, who was also a member of the Indians. Saying Mejia will be a Hall of Fame caliber player like these two gentlemen would be way too premature to speculate, but the fact remains that he’s a scarce commodity.

In the worst case scenario, Mejia is a platoon player next season. Considering there were only seven backstops with 120 games last year, he can still be among the top of all counting stats with his above-average skillset. Either splitting time at a different position or another Hedges injury (three DL trips in the last year in a half), consistent playing time could propel Mejia to a top-five backstop ranking. Currently, he’s the 11th catcher off the board at a 240 ADP. This selection is an extremely low price, and it could soar higher with more information on this situation that should come during spring training. Get your shares now and avoid that feeling of being obligated to fill out your roster in the late rounds.

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Madison Bumgarner - No Longer Among the Fantasy Elite?

The San Fransisco Giants have benefitted from the spoils that come with having, arguably, the best pitcher of this decade. Since Madison Bumgarner’s rookie season in 2010, the Giants were a dominant team for the majority of his first seven seasons. Backed by Bumgarner's clutch postseason play, the Giants won three World Series in 2010,’12, and ’14. These accomplishments put fear into the eyes of every other major league team whenever the calendar flipped to an even year.

Often called as one of the first few pitching names off the board during this span, Bumgarner supported his fantasy managers with magnificent results. He was elected to four straight All-Star games and had two top-four Cy Young Award finishes as he looked like a potential Hall of Famer accomplishing all of this at age-27.

Entering the 2017 season, MadBum was ready to build on an already decorated career when his infamous dirt bike accident occurred at the end of April. Missing over half of the season with bruised ribs and a sprained throwing shoulder, he also suffered a metacarpal injury that derailed the start of his 2018 season. After another partial season last year, Bumgarner’s 2017 and 2018 numbers haven’t resembled the elite ace that we've been accustomed to in the first half of this decade. It’s more than just the surface numbers that paint the picture of Bumgarner’s diminishing value. There is a lot to uncover to see if he will be able to return to his All-Star caliber seasons. Let’s take a look below.

 

2010-2016 Stardom

First, we should take a peek at Bumgarner’s stat line from his June 2010 debut to the end of the 2016 season.

Accumulating 100 wins in six and a half seasons, he pitched to a 3.00 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.89 K/9, and 2.07 BB/9. These are superior numbers, but remember these are only his averages. He took it to another level from 2013-16 illustrated in the chart below:

Wins ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9
2013 13 2.77 1.03 8.9 2.8
2014 18 2.98 1.09 9.1 1.8
2015 18 2.92 1.01 9.7 1.6
2016 15 2.74 1.02 10.0 2.1

If it weren’t for a man named Clayton Kershaw, Bumgarner would have led baseball in most of these categories during this stretch.

Since his call-up at age 20, Bumgarner was as durable of an arm you could find in baseball. He averaged over 212 innings pitched from 2011-16, and that’s not including the innings that he threw in three playoff years. This workload was a remarkable feat because in 2018 there were only five pitchers with more than 212 IP and in 2017 there was only one. A workhorse pitcher like Bumgarner was and still is hard to come by.

 

2017-2018 Postpartum

Bumgarner has only been able to throw just over 240 IP over the last two seasons. With the lack of innings, the lack of elite numbers has coat-tailed on this fact as well. Since his return from his shoulder injury in July of 2017, he has posted a 3.33 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.67 K/9, and 2.49 BB/9. These are still pretty decent numbers in the grand scheme of it all, and most major leaguers would be content putting up this kind of line during a season. For Bumgarner, however, these numbers are unsatisfying, and it’s his underlying stats that are more concerning.

MadBum had a FIP of 4.15 and an xFIP of 4.30 in these previous two years combined, suggesting his 3.33 ERA should be almost a full run higher than what it was. His .270 BABIP was somehow lower than his 2013-16 mark of .274 despite some weaker metrics. His LD/GB/FB is relatively close to his standard rate, but it’s still trending in the wrong direction as his 2018 LD% reached 22.4%, compared to his 2013-2016 average mark of 19.9%.

The southpaw’s Hard% is the most worrying stat. Since 2015 it has risen every year, starting at 25.8% in that season, it reached 35.0% in 2017 and 41.6% in 2018. This increase is partially due to batters getting the barrel on the baseball, as it’s no coincidence its also risen every year since 2015. Peaking at an 8.4% Barrel% last season, it's a significant climb from his 4.7% mark he established in 2015.

With the rise in hard-hit balls, an inevitable climb in home runs has also ensued. A pre-injury 0.89 HR/9 has catapulted to a 1.22 HR/9 post-injury. His HR/FB also seen a jump from 10.0% to 12.1% because of the hard contact, not a dramatic leap but there's still some cause for uneasiness.

 

Strikeout Boredom

Directly associated with the decline in batted ball metrics is Bumgarner’s lack of deception and swing-and-miss ability that he possessed before his dirt bike accident. He’s never been a flame-thrower, but he’s lost almost two MPH off his fastball since 2015. Clocking in at an average of 91.4 MPH in the combined 2017-18 seasons, this dip in velocity has resulted in a decline of his two best pitches: his fastball, and his curve.

FB Whiff Swing FB BAA   FB SLG Crv Whiff Swing Crv BAA  Crv SLG
2013-2016 24.7% .220 .371 39.2% .163 .236
2017-2018 14.5% .277 .527 31.0% .193 .296

Although he still gets batters out at a stable rate with his curveball, the whiffs have gone down substantially. His fastball wasn’t fooling anyone either as it got crushed in these last two shortened seasons. His 9.2% SwStr% and 7.57 K/9 in 2018 were both career lows, and his contact rates were the highest since his pre-All-Star days in 2012. Bumgarner also struggled with command as he failed to get more batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone resulting in a career-low 2.98 BB/9 in 2018.

 

Value Moving Forward

Whether it's fair to blame Bumgarner’s stats from the past two dwindling seasons solely on his shoulder and hand injuries remains to be seen. Perhaps his regression is the effect of all the accumulated innings years prior or the league's ability to adapt to his pitching habits. The fact remains that it’ll be difficult to see him return to his elite 2013-16 form.

We can’t help but compare him to a former Giants pitcher, Tim Lincecum, who fell out of all fantasy relevancy after having some dominating seasons. Bumgarner won’t see this same fate seeing how he's as big of a competitor as any player in the game. Baseball is a game of constant change and improvements, so it's unlikely that he'll let himself fizzle out and fall off the fantasy map completely.

The drop in velocity and inability to generate strikeouts like he once did is a massive hit to MadBum’s fantasy value moving forward. He has become more hittable than ever and will have to modify his method of approach to keep runners off the base paths. Still a good pitcher, he’s a shade of his former self and can no longer be trusted as an SP1 in the fantasy game.

Turning 30 on August 1, it appears that the player we have seen the past two seasons will be closer to the player we see moving forward. Bumgarner better fits in on a fantasy squad as at least an SP2 but more in the SP3 territory due to his lack of strikeouts. Wins will be hard for MadBum to find as well, given the current state of the Giants. Currently being selected at an ADP of 72.5, it would be advisable to take a pitcher at this price with more ability to throw the chair and who can put up similar ERA and WHIP numbers (e.g., Berrios, Foltynewicz).

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Jimmy Nelson - What's Brewing After a Year-Long Absence?

If you’re an advocate to abolish pitchers hitting in the National League, you might use Jimmy Nelson as a prime example. During a breakout season in 2017, Nelson slid into first base during his September 8 start, jamming his throwing shoulder. Diagnosed with a rotator cuff strain and partial anterior labrum tear, Nelson was put on the operating table to undergo surgery. It was a devastating blow to a Milwaukee Brewers team trying to win the NL Central division, which they ultimately lost, but it was a more significant blow to Nelson’s career.

Still recovering from surgery, Nelson was held out of the entire 2018 campaign as the team proceeded with caution with their prized hurler. For a player entering his prime years, this kind of injury derailment is not only frustrating, but it’s a big cease in momentum that Nelson was going to carry in as a 28-year-old for a contending team.

Posting a career year in 2017, the right-hander took massive steps forward in many areas to solidify himself as an ace for the Brewers. He ended the season going 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 199 strikeouts in 175.1 innings. Not only were these stellar numbers compared to his previous two full seasons, but there was also plenty under the surface that suggested Nelson got robbed of more than an abrupt end to his season. Almost a forgotten name in early fantasy drafts, let’s rewind to 2017 and remind ourselves of the impressive season that Nelson delivered to see if he can bring value in 2019.

 

Strikeout Surge

Entering his third full season, Nelson honed in on his craft and saw far superior results than ever before. Utilizing a four-pitch arsenal, he features the four-seam, sinker, slider and curve. He shattered his previous season’s work as a strikeout arm with his 27.3% K%, which was nearly 10% higher than his 2016 total. These stats might make you raise an eyebrow, so we must dig in to determine how this happened.

Nelson changed up his approach a little bit in 2017. Instead of relying on the sinker to get the majority of his outs, he went to the curveball more. He threw the sinker 46.8% of the time in 2016, dialing it down to a 34.9% mark in 2017, while his curveball percentage went up over 7% to 19.9%. He used this pitch to be effective against left-handers and it worked. Lefties only hit .183 off this pitch; his strikeout numbers against LHB skyrocketed from 16.2% to a whopping 30.2%.

A weapon Nelson carried over from 2016 was his slider, which was his best pitch regarding swing-and-miss ability. Generating a 34.2% Whiff/Swing, he used this more frequently against right-handers, especially as his punch-out machine, going to it 35% of the time when he was ahead in the count.

Nelson also increased his velocity on his four-seamer by half a percent up to 94.6 MPH. Not a dramatic increase but enough to get his WHIFF% to jump from 9.75% to 13.53%. This swing-and-miss ability likely went up due to keeping hitters off-balance with his two breaking pitches. Holding the slider and curve in his back pocket, it was easier for him to blow a fastball by a batter when they thought a breaking ball was coming. Having a complete arsenal like Nelson did in 2017 is a terrific recipe for strikeout success and it's imperative that he keeps up this method of attack for his impending fantasy value.

 

Batted Ball Beast

The Brewers ace had an unusually high BABIP in 2017. In 2016, his mark was .299, a league average number, but it shot up to an odd .340 despite having his lowest Barrel% (4.0%) and exit velocity (85.3%) of his career. His BABIP put him as the second-highest number next to the soft-throwing Clayton Richard. Nelson has always been a groundball machine, but in 2017 he stepped it up a notch. Utilizing his sinker to perfection, his career 1.67 GB/FB seen improvement in 2017 with a 1.84 mark, good enough for a top-seven finish. While it is true that groundball pitchers tend to have a higher BABIP than fly ball pitchers, the .340 hit against him was still way too high.

Given his top-five soft contact rate (22.3%), it was extremely unlucky that he gave up as many hits as he did two years ago. Statcast also agreed, putting his expected batting average at .236, over 20 points lower than his batting average against (.257). Going hand-in-hand with his inflated BAA was his ERA. Nelson had an xFIP of 3.15 and a FIP of 3.05, much lower than his 3.49 ERA. These low peripheral numbers are likely attributed to the Brewers defensive woes that season. The Brew Crew had the second-most errors in 2017 with only 22 defensive runs saved. It would have been interesting to see what Nelson could have done with Milwaukee’s much-improved defense in 2018, which had a mammoth 116 DRS.

Nelson’s soft contact and groundball tendencies also helped him improve on keeping the ball in the ballpark. Pitching in hitter-friendly Miller Park is no easy task, but he actually fared better at home in this regard. His 0.57 HR/9 was nearly twice as good as his 1.12 road split, and his combined 12.6% HR/FB was a slight improvement on his 14.5% mark in 2016.

 

What Looms In 2019?

After a year and a half since the shoulder procedure, Nelson is on track to be ready for spring training. The good news regarding his shoulder injury was that he hurt himself being a baserunner, not a pitcher. If he had gotten hurt on the mound, it would be much more concerning moving forward. Nelson has had a strong bill of health his entire career, the only other time he’s landed on the disabled list was when he took a line drive off his head in September of 2015.

It’s no guarantee that Nelson will return to his All-Star caliber production in 2017. It would be naive to think that there would be no rust to shake off after more than a full-year absence from the majors. The truth is we don't know what we're going to get out of the now 29-year old. What we do know is that Nelson has had success before and knows what it takes to get both strikeouts and batted ball outs. The most important thing to watch for in spring training is how good his breaking pitches are, as that's the key to his strikeout success and where a lot of his fantasy value will be. An elbow injury would have more of an effect on this ability, but seeing how it's his shoulder recovering, it should be less of an issue.

As of now, it's his rotation spot to lose, but keep in mind the Brewers will likely keep his innings in check. With Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee has a plethora of alternatives for Nelson in the rotation, so they can afford to take it slow with their former star pitcher. It is foreseeable that he’ll be skipped in the rotation every once in a while to keep him fully healthy, especially if the team is in line for another playoff run. If Nelson can channel his 2017 form, he’ll be a steal at his current ADP of 267 even with limited innings. It’s a low-risk gamble but one that can pay off handsomely in the late rounds of your draft.

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No Way, Jose? What To Expect After Jose Leclerc's Breakout

There are two schools of thought regarding what to do with the reliever position in fantasy baseball. The first mentality is to grab an elite arm early, guaranteeing you elite ratios and a safe save source. The other method of thinking, that’s becoming increasingly popular, is to wait until the later rounds or to find your save numbers on waivers. This trend is growing more popular for a number of reasons. Several teams have a revolving door of guys picking up saves for their squads, some pitchers get hurt, or some will underperform and lose their job mid-season. These factors lead to finding plenty of saves on the waiver wire, while it is a bit riskier, the reward can be just as gratifying as reaching for that elite level arm early.

If you were the manager in your league last year who streamed closers and scooped up Jose Leclerc mid-season, you looked like a genius. After the Texas Rangers traded Keone Kela to Pittsburgh, it opened the door for Leclerc to step in as the teams closer. After dominating the first half of the year as a set-up man, Leclerc became even more dominant in the second half as the ninth inning arm. Finishing the year with a minuscule 1.56 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and a skillful 13.27 K/9, he also had the elite metrics to support these numbers.

Let's look at some data to see what can be expected from Leclerc moving forward as the new ace in the Texas bullpen.

 

Strikeouts and Walks

Leclerc has always been at least a strikeout-per-inning guy since Single-A ball. Over his entire minor league career, he has a 9.9 K/9, and so far in his big league career, which started in 2016, that number sits at 12.2 K/9. His 13.27 K/9 from his age 24 season last year was by far his best number to date as a strikeout arm, so let’s see what factored into the new career high.

Primarily a two-pitch pitcher, Leclerc relies on his four-seamer and an excellent split-finger to get his outs. His fastball averaged 95.8 MPH, and his split was clocked in over 14 MPH slower at 81.7 MPH, a devastating combination. Generating an excellent 24.6% Whiff% on the split, batters only put this ball in play just over 8% of the time with only one extra-base hit, that being a double. Leclerc finished 2018 with the highest SwStr% (17.2%) and lowest Contact% (62.9%) of his short career. Not only were these career bests, but they were also among the best rates of relievers in baseball last season. He was tied for fifth-best with Craig Kimbrel in SwStr%, and he was second best in Contact% to Kimbrel's 62.7%, and slightly better than third place Josh Hader’s 63.4%, a couple of satisfying names to be drawn in comparison.

The free pass is something that Leclerc will need to improve on if he wants to remain associated with the elite bullpen arms. So far, Leclerc has a career 5.9 BB/9 in the majors, not a good number to say the least. He did manage to finish 2018 with a 3.9 BB/9, just slightly worse than the league average for a reliever. He did, however, keep improving his walk rate as the season progressed. From the beginning of the season until June 30, the right-hander’s mark sat at 5.16 BB/9. From that point on until the remainder of the campaign, it dropped significantly to a 2.57 BB/9, a remarkable transformation. A big part of this productive stride forward was throwing a first-pitch strike over 10% more often than what he did in the first half. If he keeps limiting the free pass, Leclerc will become even more of a threat on the mound.

 

Batted Balls

Leclerc excelled at generating soft contact. His 26.4% Soft% was fifth best in baseball, and his Hard% was an identical number finishing as 13th-best. These numbers helped him achieve an AVG/OBP/SLG line of .123/.237/.193 with the AVG and SLG being the best marks in baseball. Statcast also had Leclerc among the league leaders in limiting Barrels/PA (1.8%), and he was second in average exit velocity (83.7 MPH). Leclerc was league average in LD% (20.8%) but gave up more fly balls than most. A league-leading infield fly ball rate (28.0%) aided a 47.2% FB%. The amount of soft contact Leclerc generated kept him to amazingly serving up only one home run all season, which occurred at the end of July off the bat of Khris Davis.

Since he was given the reigns as the Rangers closer, Leclerc was lights out. Picking up 12 saves, he never allowed another run the rest of the season since that longball to Davis. Going 21.0 scoreless innings to finish off the year, Leclerc generated more soft contact over this span (28.6%) as well as improving his fly ball rate (45.7%) and line drive rate (17.1%). He kept his WHIP to a microscopic 0.52, and his 1.78 SIERA suggested that this outstanding finish wasn't a series of flukes that prevented runners from scoring.

 

2019 Value

Leclerc proved to be a legitimate bullpen arm in 2018 with the continued second-half success in all metrics. With no one else even close to Leclerc’s ability in the Rangers pen, his job as closer is as safe as it gets as long as he’s healthy. With only one career disabled list stint and a low arm stress pitching arsenal, the 25-year old should be able to remain on the diamond. It’s unlikely that he’ll continue this kind of torrid pace in the majors, because no matter how good or bad a player is, regression is destined for everyone. What Leclerc has in his favor though, is all the strong peripherals to limit this negative regression and keep him in the mix as a top relief arm in baseball.

If you decide to choose the path of selecting an elite relief arm early, Leclerc is a solid choice to build your bullpen around. The Rangers 2018 Pitcher of the Year is currently going off the board as the 12th reliever selected with an ADP of 115. At this price, it is a pretty good bargain as he can keep his ERA and WHIP numbers as good as a top-five relief option, especially if he continues his second-half walk rate from last season. His strikeout ability is also much better than some of the other relievers going before him, and you can expect him to keep missing the same amount of bats that he did in 2018. Don’t think that being on a below average team will hurt his amount of save chances either as the team with the league leader in saves the past two seasons both missed out on the playoffs. Say “yes way, Jose” to Leclerc in 2019.

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Ross Stripling - 2019 Fantasy Baseball Sleeper

As fantasy baseball managers, we all love the sleeper. There’s always that gratifying feeling at season's end where you can go back and say “I told you so!” Every year there are endless amounts of articles and debates on who will emerge as a top-tier player from out of the shadows and into the limelight. It's as broad of a spectrum as ever before in 2019 with the amount of up and coming talent and current players that are entering their alleged prime years. For this article, we will look at a player of the latter.

Entering his age-29 season, Ross Stripling will begin the year locked into a rotation spot for the first time in his career. Stripling showed us an excellent first half in 2018 that led to his first ever All-Star selection. An injury-riddled second half put a damper on his season as a whole, but he still ended his year going 8-6 with a 3.02 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 6.18 K/BB in 122 IP.

Stripling's disappointing finish has caused many people to jump off the right-hander’s bandwagon, but here’s why we should stay on board.

 

Brief History

At age 29, it may not sound that appealing for a player at this age to have his first ever rotation spot going into spring training. There's good reason, however. A tear of his UCL in his first spring game of 2014 forced Stripling to go under the knife. Recovering from Tommy-John surgery kept him out of the entire 2014 season as well as half of 2015. In 2016, he made the Los Angeles Dodgers' opening day roster and nearly threw a no-hitter in his first major league start.

Keeping his innings capped, Stripling only started 14 games as he split the rest of his time between the bullpen and Triple-A. Pitching exclusively out of the bullpen in 2017, Stripling found his way back into the rotation last year and showed us some promising skills.

 

Up and Down 2018

Stripling began the year in the Dodgers bullpen, but due to injuries in the pitching staff, he was put back in the rotation at the beginning of May. From May 6 to the All-Star break, he threw 76.1 IP with a 2.01 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 10.54 K/9, and 0.83 BB/9. It’s no fluke he was elected an All-Star as his underlying metrics support these numbers. His 2.63 SIERA and 2.44 xFIP suggest he never pitched that far out of his ERA. Stripling still managed to give up a high BABIP (.311) despite having a stellar 51.8% GB% and a low 29.4% Hard%.

Shortly after the All-Star break, Stripling was placed on the disabled list with right toe inflammation. He returned for one start on August 9 before getting put back on the DL right before his next start, this time it was lower back inflammation. Returning a month later, Stripling wasn’t nearly as effective. Tossing just 12 innings, he had a disastrous 50.0% HR/FB and 40.5 LD% which led to a 6.75 ERA, but it did have the silver lining of a 3.01 xFIP. With such a small sample size we can’t honestly take these numbers too seriously, but we need to understand that this awful month inflated his overall stats.

By seasons end, Stripling still finished with career-highs in K/9 (10.03) and BB/9 (1.62). His yearly upward trending Chase% and Whiff% also reached a new peak due to his increased use of his curveball, which generated the highest Whiff% (16.4%) of all his pitches. His Statcast numbers also showed he still should have gotten better results than what he did. His expected .223 AVG, .266 wOBA, and .355 SLG slash line were all under his actual slash line (.257/.309/.431), so it's arguable that the best is still to come.

 

2019 Projection

The 2018 first-half Ross Stripling will be closer to what we will see in 2019 rather than the second-half Ross Stripling. His elite walk rate from last season should remain in the same neighborhood, and his elevated BABIP is likely to go down due to his above average ground ball and soft contact skills. These factors should see him achieve another WHIP below 1.20 and an ERA in the low threes. There’s likely to be some regression in his 2018 strand rate (86.1%), but the fact that he is generating more strikeouts than previous years implies that it’s not going to fall off a cliff. More than a strikeout per inning is almost guaranteed and with the Dodgers gearing up for another shot at the World Series, wins will be there for the taking.

With a current ADP of 220, Stripling isn’t seeing a ton of love by early drafters, mostly because his 122 IP last year was the most he’s thrown in a season since the TJ surgery. It may appear like he’s injury prone, but his two stints last season were his first trips to the DL since May of 2016. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Dodgers starters, so Stripling should be a lock to keep his job throughout the year. With a full year in the rotation awaiting, Stripling is ready to emerge as your “I told you so” player.

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Merrill Kelly - The 30-Year-Old Rookie Sleeper

It’s almost becoming a trend for players to travel overseas to play baseball after struggling to make it in the MLB, only to end up back in the Majors better than before. In 2017 it was Eric Thames and last year it was Miles Mikolas. You can now add Merrill Kelly to the list. The Arizona Diamondbacks signed Kelly to a two-year $5.5M contract in hopes of him bringing his success back from Korea into their rotation.

Kelly spent the last four seasons in the KBO developing into one of the league's top pitchers. An offensively-dominated league, the right-hander still found plenty of success and has evolved into a much different pitcher than the last time he was on an American diamond.

A former Tampa Bay Rays prospect, Kelly has yet to step foot on a field in the big leagues. The last time we saw him on this side of the Pacific was in Triple-A in 2014 for the Durham Bulls. From 2015-2018 Kelly seen improvement every year in Korea finishing up with a 3.86 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and a 7.9 K/9. Not jaw-dropping figures, but keep in mind the KBO is like playing in Yankee Stadium with the altitude of Coors Field. After landing a deal with his hometown Diamondbacks, what should we expect from the 30-year old?

 

KBO Career

Heres a quick rundown on Kelly’s KBO stats with the SK Wyverns.

IP / W-L / ERA / WHIP / K/9

2015: 181 / 11-10 / 4.13 / 1.34 / 6.91
2016: 200.1 / 9-8 / 3.68 / 1.32 / 6.83
2017: 190 / 16-7 / 3.60 / 1.31 / 8.95
2018: 158.1 / 12-7 / 4.09 / 1.26 / 9.15

Despite a down 2018 regarding ERA, Kelly improved on his WHIP every season and saw a dramatic rise in strikeouts over his last two years. In the Rays system, Kelly’s fastball was only clocked in the high-80s, probably a reason why he never got a big league call-up. Now, Kelly features a fastball in the 92-93 MPH range, and it has reached up to 97 MPH on the gun. He has a five-pitch arsenal that is good at keeping hitters off-balance. Kelly features the fastball, sharp cutter that jams lefties, knee-buckling curve, slider, and a deceptive changeup.

He will have to remain crafty with his pitches to get big league batters out, and with this kind of repertoire, it is indeed achievable. Kelly also displayed excellent control, another skill that should carry over to the majors. A career 2.54 BB/9 in the KBO, he saw his best yearly rate in 2017 with a 2.13 BB/9.

In 2018, Kelly helped the SK Wyverns win their first KBO championship since 2010. He threw seven innings of two-run ball getting the win in game three, and then toed the rubber for the clincher in game six. He tossed 5.1 no-hit innings as the Wyverns went on to win the game in 13 innings. Crowds in Korea are known to be quite loud and have intimidating settings, so the fact that Kelly pitched so well on this stage will benefit him for the atmospheres that will come on a Major League field.

 

Drawing a Comparison

There haven’t been many pitchers that have shifted from the KBO to the MLB, so trying to draw a direct comparison to see how his numbers will translate is difficult. The most recent was Seung-hwan Oh coming over in 2016, but he spent his last season in the KBO in 2013 before playing two years in Japan. The most comparable would have to be Miles Mikolas of the St. Louis Cardinals who had excellent years in Japan before making an impact in 2018.

Mikolas is only two months older than Kelly, so their baseball timeline is nearly identical. They both started in Single-A and moved up the ranks to Triple-A before fleeing the American baseball scene in 2014. Mikolas did, however, squeeze in just over 90 IP in the MLB before he ventured off to his three seasons with the Yomiuri Giants. Unlike the KBO, the NPB is known less for its power hitters; it’s more of a game revolved around contact and small ball. Mikolas had impressive success in Japan finishing his NPB career with a 2.18 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 8.0 K/9.

Mikolas had a very productive return to the majors where he tossed 200.2 IP and went 18-4, with a 2.68 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and a 6.55 K/9. A large part of his success was due to elite command and an above average ability to generate ground balls. A 1.30 BB/9 was the best mark in baseball, and his 1.73 GB/FB was good enough for fifth best. He did lack in strikeout numbers though, as his contact and swinging strike peripherals were all under the league average. Mikolas also has a five-pitch arsenal and is effective with all his pitches, so their style and pitching mentality appears to be in sync.

Kelly’s control may not be as elite as Mikolas’, but it will still be above average if he keeps it in the neighborhood of his career BB/9 in the KBO. Where he lacks in walk rate in respect to Mikolas, he makes up for with strikeout upside. Kelly’s had a steady rate of improvement ever since his minor league days, and with Major League hitters setting new strikeout records every year, this will bode well for him. He also had a mere 0.80 HR/9 in his KBO career, a remarkable number for the power-driven league. While there is no groundball data to use, this low HR total suggests that he can keep the ball in the infield and out of the air.

 

2019 Outlook

The D’backs made it clear they signed Kelly to use him as a starter. With Taijuan Walker recovering from Tommy-John surgery, and the trade rumors around Zack Greinke, it will take a disastrous spring training for this not to materialize. The humidor that was added at Chase Field last season changed the park from hitter-friendly to more of a neutral stadium. It dropped from third to 11th in Park Factors for runs and fourth to 19th in HR. Whether this drop in hitting production is in direct correlation with the humidor remains to be seen as this is only a one-year sample, but it may be no coincidence since it’s the lowest total since 2013.

Kelly has a current ADP of 535, so he’s virtually free at this price, and he doesn’t need to earn remarkably high numbers in his rookie season for you to get value out of him. It’s extremely low risk with a high reward. With his pitching repertoire, he’ll continue to keep hitters off-balance and generate soft contact and ground balls, a good recipe for success. Pair that with his current walk rate capability he should be able to limit any damage.

Except for strikeout numbers, expecting a result like Mikolas’ 2018 with the Cardinals would be aiming high for him. Wins will be hard to find with the team in rebuild mode, but projecting something like his personal bests in the KBO (3.60 ERA/1.26 WHIP/9.15 K/9) would be well in range for the right-hander. Get your shares of Kelly now before the preseason hype builds and his ADP soars.

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Mallex Smith - 2019 Fantasy Baseball Sleeper

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a safe speed option on your fantasy roster that doesn’t completely drain all your other roto categories. With the sport changing to selling out for power instead of hitting for average and playing small ball, stolen bases have been a lost art. Not counting the strike-shortened 1981 and 1994 seasons, Major League Baseball seen it’s lowest stolen base total in 2018 since the DH began in the 1973 season.

A new set of legs emerged in 2018 to counter the league’s current mentality. After debuting in the bigs back in 2016, Mallex Smith played his first full year in the Majors and finally lived up to the hype revolving around his speed. Spending over half of his bats at the bottom of the order with the Tampa Bay Rays, Smith stole 40 bags last year. He accomplished it without sacrificing the AVG category as he swatted a .296 and he had pretty decent RBI and Run numbers (40 and 65 respectively).

Smith carries tremendous value heading into 2019 and this might be the last year you’ll be able to draft him outside the top-100. Find out why below.

 

Minor League Legs

Check out Smith’s eye-popping minor league SB numbers by year.
2013 - 64 (Single-A)
2014 - 88 (Single-A/High-A)
2015 - 57 (Double-A/Triple-A)

For those of you counting at home, that's an average of 69.7 SB a year. Not only does he offer speed, but a high batting average to go with it as well. Good plate discipline numbers helped a career .294 minor league average, including a high .347 in Double-A. Career minor league rates of 10.5% BB% and 0.60 BB/K aren’t typically this high of numbers seen by these types of stolen base threats. Caution must be taken with the lack of power, in which he severely lacks, only 16 total HR from 2012 to 2016. The good news is he’s accepted the fact that he’s not a power guy and drove the ball on the ground over 55% of the time, smart mentality for a speedster.

 

Major League Transition

Smith saw a big developmental jump in 2018. Besides HR, he set new career-highs across the board in all the other roto categories as well as a new high in OBP (.367). Much of his success was due to career-highs in LD% (24.9%), Hard% (27.1%), and SwStr% (11.5%). Smith needs to put the ball in play and let his legs get him on base. He hits the ball 33.3% of the time to the opposite field, third-most in baseball.

This understanding is ideal for a left-handed hitter as it’s harder for an infielder on the left side of the diamond to throw out a runner. The ability to spray the ball all over the field also makes him unable to shift against, so there’s no defensive advantage there. Pitchers also don’t have an advantage against him either as he hits lefties better than righties. His .337 AVG against southpaws is tied with Christian Yelich for the league lead by a left-handed swinger.

His 40 SB last season with the Rays put Smith third in baseball behind Whit Merrifield (45) and Trea Turner (43). He managed to do this with over 150 fewer at-bats. Statcast also had him third in sprint speed, of runners with 200 opportunities his 29.8 ft/sec trailed only Turner and continuing SB threat Billy Hamilton who both sat at 30.1. An improvement in success rate would cement him as a top speed option as his career success rate is just 74.2%.

 

2019 Expectations

Dealt this offseason to the Seattle Mariners for Mike Zunino, Smith is going to be the M’s everyday center fielder. It’ll be worth monitoring in spring training as to who will bat leadoff. Dee Gordon will turn 31 this April, and his speed numbers have had a slow decline with age over the last couple of seasons. Gordon also had an abysmal .288 OBP in his first year in Seattle, terrible for a leadoff hitter. If Smith doesn’t begin the year in the leadoff spot, he’ll be sure to take it over at some point.

The Mariners still have solid run producers in Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager and Edwin Encarnacion, so the run numbers should pile up even with the departures of Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. There’s nothing in his swing to suggest he will deter from hitting the ball hard and on the ground or as a line drive, so the 25-year-old has an excellent chance to repeat in the AVG category.

The higher the spot in the order the more opportunities for SB there will be. A 50-theft season is in all likelihood even with the sub-par success rate, and he has the potential to lead the MLB. Be cautious that with speed the HR output is next to nothing, as he’ll only provide a handful. Do not let the power numbers discourage you, finding HR bats in your draft will be much easier to get than SB. There were 27 players with 30 HR in 2018 compared to only 11 players with 30 SB. Over the last few years, Billy Hamilton was getting selected in the 40-50 range, he carried a little bit better SB potential, but his AVG was a roster drain. This fact makes Smith’s 100.4 ADP look even more satisfying and will save you from searching for elite speed in the late rounds.

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Willy Adames - The Breakout Is Coming

Major League Baseball is becoming dominated by young talent. Every year a new crop of players come into the league and show off their mouth-watering skill set. Just take a look at RotoBaller’s positional rankings, and you see players that are in their mid-20s or younger are among the top of every position.

The youth movement continued in 2018 with superstars like Ronald Acuna Jr. and teenage phenom Juan Soto turning heads. While all the rookie conversations across the MLB were mostly about these stud NL bats, there was another rookie quietly putting up a strong debut season of his own in the AL. A youngster who showed us exactly why he was a top-15 MLB prospect. Just another addition to the already over-crowded, young, elite shortstop position.

It seems like every year the money-deficient Tampa Bay Rays are in a rebuild mentality, but every year they outperform everyone’s expectations. A lot of the team’s success has to do with their knack to develop their young talent, and with Willy Adames, the case hasn’t been any different. If we dive into the 23-year old’s 2018 debut and his minor league track record, a breakout is primed and ready to occur. Let’s take a look below.

 

Minor League History

Acquired from the Detroit Tigers in the summer of 2014 in the deal that sent David Price to the Motor City, Adames took the conventional path to the Major Leagues. He started in Rookie ball and made a stop at every level getting the call in May from Triple-A to the bigs. He has shown the tools at every level to be a five-category contributor for fantasy purposes. Accumulating over 600 games in the minors, Adames finished his career minor league slash line at .270/.363/.410. These numbers started small in Rookie ball and Single-A, and as he went up through the ranks, his numbers did as well. For the sake of recency, let’s focus more specifically on Double-A and Triple-A.

A positive trait uncommonly possessed by young players is the ability to draw a walk. A 10.8% BB% mark in Triple-A followed a 13.0% in Double-A, the Major League average in 2018 was 8.5%. His BABIP numbers gradually rose throughout every level with it peaking at .367 in his final half year in Triple-A. While the mark is undoubtedly high, it’s proved to be sustainable in that range due to the year to year consistency. A big part of BABIP goes hand in hand with line drive rates where Adames excelled as well. A 22.8% LD% in Triple-A chased a 24.1% in Double-A. If all these early-career metrics translate, or better yet expand to the Majors, we’re looking at a .300 bat in the future.

While Adames doesn’t possess the most power or speed of his class, he’s no slouch at these skills either. His ISO mark dropped from Double-A (.156) to Triple-A (.134), but these below-average marks shouldn’t be discouraging. Jose Altuve, for example, has a career ISO of .135 and his Cleveland Indians counterpart Fransisco Lindor never had an ISO eclipse .120 in the minors, but a bit more on him later. It’s common for most young bats to find their true power stroke once they reach the majors, and Adames has the fly ball repertoire to suggest that he will as well. Climbing to 1.04 GB/FB in his 2018 Triple-A half season from 1.19 GB/FB in Double-A, it is an encouraging leap as he’s starting to join the fly ball revolution. If the mark stayed somewhere between the two, it would provide reliable power numbers while still keeping the batting average at a high rate. Adames has also stolen double-digit bags in his last three full minor league seasons, but a 73.9% success rate in these years will need to be improved upon if he ever wants to attain 20 thefts.

 

Major League Debut

Adames was called up on May 22, and he popped a home run in his very first game against the Red Sox. But he only played the three-game series and was sent back down before getting another call up on June 11. He batted just .224 until July 12 when he was sent down yet again over the All-Star break. Returning on July 22, the Dominican was back to stay, and it was no secret why. He slashed .305/.383/.435 the rest of the way, and his OBP was the best in baseball among shortstops in that span. Adames achieved this slash line despite driving the ball into the ground more than he ever has before. His 56.8% ground-ball rate was also highest among shortstops, but his 39.7% Hard% guided these balls through the infield. His 11.0% BB% was beautiful, but we’d like to see an improvement on his high 26.8% K%.

The right-hander also hit seven long balls and stole five bases in this second half span, finishing the year with 10 and six respectively. He got caught an ugly five times, but with a bit more experience and recognition of pitchers in the league, his rates are guaranteed to increase. Statcast measured Adames’ sprint speed at 28.5 ft/sec right between Lorenzo Cain (28.6) and Fransisco Lindor (28.4). The Rays as a team led the bigs in stolen base attempts per game in 2018, so the opportunities will also come. As for the power, his .130 second-half ISO mark was respectable, especially given the high ground-ball rate. His 19.4 HR/FB buoyed his HR production a bit, but he was hitting the baseball at only a 14.9% Soft%, so anything in the air had an excellent chance to fly far.

 

2019 Projected Value

Adames spent the majority of his rookie campaign in the six spot, and if he wasn’t batting in that spot, it was between seventh and ninth. He has the profile as a top three bat in the order but fixated at two of these spots are Tommy Pham and the injury-plagued Kevin Kiermaier. It will be a situation to monitor in spring training as to who will be joining them at the top of the lineup. With Joey Wendle being Adames’ primary competition, it’s wise to think the Rays would go with the bat of their future rather than a player who came out of nowhere to debut in the majors at age 28.

At the top of the order, Adames’ Run and RBI counting stats will come into fruition. The solid walk numbers, and the above average line drive and hard hit rates will have him flirting in the .300 range, especially if he can cut down the strikeout rate. Positive regression in the GB/FB category will balance out the inflated HR/FB rate from last year, so 15 HR is a safe floor, but 20 or more certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility. The free-wheeling Rays will also be looking for unique ways to score runs with the losses of a couple run producing bats from last season. Expect the stolen base opportunities to come, and with a certain improvement in the success rate, a total equal to his HR output is feasible. Lindor, as mentioned above, has a similar track record that resembles Adames’ minor league numbers and his debut season. Matching the MVP candidate's first full year output of .301/15/99/78/19 is in the cards. With an ADP of 204, Adames is someone worth targeting if you miss out on those elite shortstops that get selected in the first few rounds.

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Orlando Arcia - 2019 Fantasy Baseball Sleeper

Orlando Arcia was pegged by numerous fantasy baseball experts a year ago as a sleeper for the 2018 season. After polishing off his first full year in the majors in 2017 where he batted .277 with 15 home runs, 56 R, 53 RBI, and 14 stolen bases, Arcia took a significant step backward in 2018.

The Milwaukee Brewers shortstop struggled mightily and was optioned down twice during the season to Triple-A. Finishing the year with an anemic .236/3/32/30/7 line, he burned the experts that believed in him as a 2018 breakout performer.

Lost in his end numbers was an inspiring second half as well as undeveloped minor league skills, which has given Arcia a second chance as a fantasy sleeper. Let's see why he might be a great value given his depressed ADP ahead of the 2019 season.

 

Second-Half Resurgence

It would be unreasonable to call Arcia’s first half of 2018 anything other than a disaster. After a brief Triple-A stint in May, Arcia was sent back down on July 1 with only three SB and a ghastly .197/.231/.251 slash line. Most of Arcia’s fantasy value was expected to come in the AVG and SB categories, so these numbers weren’t anything short of disappointing. It was in Colorado Springs, however, where he began to turn around his lost year as he batted .357 in the minors and the Brewers recalled him on July 26.

Arcia came back to the bigs in the second half nearly doubling his LD% from 13.9% to 25.9%, resulting in a much more respectable .290/.320/.386 line. Although we would have liked to have seen more than four SB on six attempts to go along with the improved stroke, it was still very encouraging to see. Arcia kept his strong regular season going into the postseason where he got a hit in all nine games he started, chipping in with three big flys, equaling his regular season total. It’s redundant to state that postseason stats are irrelevant for fantasy purposes, but it is still reassuring nonetheless.

 

Minor League Skills

Drawing a free pass was also something Arcia struggled to do last season. His 0.17 BB/K would have put him among the league worst, but his 0.27 BB/K in September was encouraging as it plays a lot closer to the 0.42 career mark across his entire Triple-A career. His minor league fly ball rates are yet to translate to the majors as well. He has a major league career 1.93 GB/FB, and his 2.18 mark in 2018 would have been the highest mark among qualified shortstops, not a good recipe for power numbers. It’s safe to say we’ve seen the bottom floor of his fly ball inability and a number closer to the 1.45 career mark he posted in Triple-A should be expected moving forward.

Arcia is still waiting to truly develop at the big league level. Even with the satisfying stat line he put up in 2017; there’s still more to be had if he can regain his fly ball and walk numbers from his minor league days. Playing in hitter-friendly Miller Park will help out his power, but a return to 15 HR might be a bit optimistic as we’re yet to see the minor league peripherals translate. A rebound in the SB column seems imminent with the fact that the Brew Crew have finished every season since 2015 in the top three in stolen base attempts per game. If Arcia keeps up the second half stroke, he’ll also see more opportunities on the bases, therefore more opportunities to steal.

With a current ADP of 339, Arcia costs next to nothing. He’s a terrific bargain in the last couple rounds, as he has proven the 15/15 skill set with upside for more SB to go along with a decent batting average. If everything starts coming together for the 24-year old, he’ll get you numbers comparable to Andrelton Simmons, a player going 120 picks ahead of him.

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Javier Baez - Don’t Overpay for Last Season's Stats

A common mistake by fantasy managers on draft day is taking a player based on his previous year's statistics and thinking it will be repeated the following season. A player’s draft day price can become heavily inflated after one breakout year. It's easy to fall victim to the belief that a one-year sample size is now the new standard that we should expect moving forward. You can't win championships in the first few rounds of a draft, but you can lose them by getting a bad return on an early investment.

Javier Baez is a superstar Major League talent. He was a deserving MVP candidate and All-Star last season, and the future is still bright for the 26-year old. He also might have the best glove of his generation, as his defensive metrics look just as sharp as his fielding. After being selected outside the top 100 in fantasy drafts last season, Baez has soared way up to a 12.88 ADP. A massive jump, but is it fully deserved?

Baez finished his breakout year batting .290 with 34 home runs, 101 R, 111 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. All of these numbers were not only career-highs, but they also blew his previous bests out of the water (.273/23/75/75/12). His 2018 numbers are first-round worthy, but the question you need to ask yourself on draft day is whether that's what we’ll see again in 2019. Let's look at some advanced metrics to decide whether he is worth his current draft stock.

 

Plate Discipline

A lot of factors play into what dictates a player's batting average and on-base percentage. Plate discipline is the most important because if you are unable to put the ball in play, you are unable to get on base, it’s that simple. Baez was among the league-worst in doing that. Let’s compare his 2018 numbers to the Major League averages.

O-Swing% O-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
League Average 30.90% 62.80% 76.90% 10.70%
Javier Baez 45.50% 54.90% 68.50% 17.90%

Not only does he chase close to 15% more pitches out of the strike zone, in which he ranks second-worst across baseball, but he also makes contact on those would-be balls well below the average. His SwStr% is also second-worst in baseball, and he’s fourth-worst in Contact%. To put these numbers in a bit more perspective, there have been 57 players since 2009 with a Contact% of 70.0% or below. ZERO of these players hit .290. Baez’ poor plate discipline numbers aren’t a one-season wonder either as all of these metrics are right on par with his career averages.

After being so weak in these categories, it begs the question of how did he hit .290 last season? His BABIP (.347) and Hard% (35.8%) were career-bests. He also had a .358 AVG on fly balls, which is bound to see negative regression as the big league average was .230 and Baez’ career-average is .274. History suggests that Baez won’t duplicate the hitting success he had in 2018 and according to Statcast, his expected AVG last season was .257. Unless he starts taking a different approach at the plate, expect him to hit closer to his career .267 AVG.

 

Counting Stats

If you selected Baez last year, the 34 HR, 101 R and 111 RBI he provided were drool-worthy. A career-best .260 ISO, 24.3% HR/FB, and .326 OBP attribute to providing him these roto measures. All these metrics have been trending upwards every year, so it’s not much of a surprise that he set a new personal record in these counting stats.

He did, however, set a new low in GB/FB (1.41), a number that has been declining every season. The fact that this digression is inverse to the other power metrics raises a question to if his 2018 HR number is truly repeatable. It seems unlikely, as 32.4% of his big flys last season were rated as Just Enough, compared to his 0.15% mark in his previous seasons. This number is a gigantic leap and quite unexplainable because his average distance on batted balls in 2018 was 174’, right on his career-average 174.75’.

Due to Kris Bryant suffering an injury last season, Baez also spent over 42% of his at-bats batting second or third. This position put him right ahead of Anthony Rizzo, a perennial run producer and a bat who offers the most protection in the lineup. Hitting in this spot of the order is a gold mine for Run and RBI counting stats. Barring another injury to Rizzo or Bryant, Baez will likely bat fourth, limiting his number of ABs, therefore limiting the number of opportunities to hit the long ball and to score or drive in runs.

 

Speed

Baez’s 21 stolen bases in 2018 was an impressive mark, but his track record on the basepaths isn’t as inspiring. He's eclipsed 21 SB just once, back in 2012 when he swiped 24 in a split season between Single-A and High-A. In his only other full years in the bigs, his combined total is 22.

After stealing 18 bags in 20 attempts in the first half of last season, he was disastrous in the second half, getting caught seven times with only three successful attempts. At a gaudy 73.1% career success rate, it will be risky for manager Joe Maddon to give him the green light as often as he did last season.

 

Conclusion

Despite some inherent flaws, Baez has proven he can be an elite producer over the course of a full MLB season. He undoubtedly carries a lot of value heading into 2019. His multi-position eligibility is a unique asset to find at his market value, but taking him as early as his current ADP dictates is a mistake. To think that everything will come together again for him this year and replicate his 2018 numbers is unsound logic.

It’s a high-risk move, and the reward isn’t any higher than selecting Jose Altuve or Manny Machado, players who come with a much safer floor. Baez is just one example of a player being drafted much higher based on his previous year's stats. The message here, as should always be the case, is to draft based off what is projected to come this year, not what happened the season before.

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Nick Pivetta - Ace In The Making

In 2018 there was a breakout pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies who took the league by storm. After garnering league-wide attention, he’s pegged by many fantasy experts as a top-tier starting pitcher for the upcoming year. I'm talking about Aaron Nola, of course. But after this season it very well could be Nick Pivetta. He had a breakout of sorts last year as well, but the best is yet to come from the 25-year-old Victoria, BC native.

After Pivetta was traded straight up for established closer Johnathan Papelbon in 2015 from the Washington Nationals, he has flourished in the Phillies organization. Making his major league debut in 2017, Pivetta has never looked back after his promotion. An up-and-down rookie season, with flashes of brilliance, was followed by a more dominant sophomore season in which he started putting all of his talents together. He finished the campaign with a 7-14 record, 4.77 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 188 strikeouts across 164.0 innings pitched.

A few of these numbers might seem underwhelming, but as we dive into the metrics and skills that Pivetta possesses, we can unmask a future ace. Let’s break down every standard Roto category and see what all the fuss is about, shall we?

 

Pivetta's Impending Value

Wins

As we all know, there is no other stat as unpredictable as the win. There are, however, a few things to take into account for the sake of this argument. The Phillies provided the right-hander with an abysmal 3.62 RS/9, bad enough for fourth-worst among qualifiers. This number is only slightly better than that of Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom’s 3.57 RS/9, and if you followed the New York Mets at all last year, you know how frustrating this was to witness. Another factor for his low win total last season has to do with the Phillies as a whole. After playing the first half of the year in a tight battle for the NL East division lead, his final win of the year came on August 7, due in large part to the team's second-half struggle. The team's struggles were not a product of Pivetta’s by any means, as his second half was actually better than his first, but we’ll get into that a bit later.

ERA

On the surface, Pivetta’s 4.77 ERA in 2018 looks quite weak. The sugarcoating here is his 3.51 SIERA, 3.80 FIP, and 3.42 xFIP. All these numbers are suggesting that he pitched much better than what his result depicts. His ERA-FIP differential of 0.98 was the second highest mark in baseball next to Jon Gray’s 1.03. What contributed to his high ERA was his low Strand Rate (69.0% LOB%) and below average HR/9 (1.32). The LOB% is sure to see positive regression as pitchers with high strikeout numbers, like Pivetta’s (see below), aren’t typically this low. The HR/9 will decrease with his ability to generate the groundball. His 46.7% GB% was ranked 15th-best, right between Carlos Carrasco (46.8%) and Degrom (46.4%). His groundball ability also improved 2.8% from the first half to the second half suggesting it can still improve in 2019.

WHIP

An improvement in WHIP is also on the horizon for the Canuck. Hits occur more often due to line drives and hard-hit balls. Pivetta had a league-worst BABIP of .326, so he must have a high LD% and Hard%, right? Wrong. His 18.5% LD% was good enough for seventh-best in baseball, sandwiched between Mike Foltynewicz and Cy Young winner Blake Snell. Let’s compare the three on some key measures.

LD%

Hard%

BABIP

Foltynewicz

18.5%

35.1%

.251

Pivetta

18.5%

31.9%

.326

Snell

18.8%

35.8%

.241

It is almost nonsensical that Pivetta’s BABIP was .075-.085 points higher with about a 4.0% lower Hard%. His second half in these categories was even more impressive, trickling down to a 17.8% LD% and 28.8% Hard%.

K

It’s no secret that Pivetta can pile up the strikeouts, as a 9.47 K/9 in 2017 was bested in 2018 with a 10.32 K/9. Pivetta averaged 95.4 MPH on his fastball last season and paired it with a devastating 80.4 MPH curveball. He threw his curve 7.0% more in 2018 than 2017, causing his Swinging Strike% to jump from 8.7% to 12.0%. He also forced more batters to chase pitches out of the zone (31.0%) and his Contact% also improved by over 6% to 74.9%. All these factors led him to have a higher K% (27.1%) than teammate Aaron Nola (27.0%) and two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber (26.4%).

Conclusion

Pivetta doesn’t necessarily need to improve on any one thing, in particular, to see better results in 2019. His metrics are already on pace with former and current Cy Young winners, but we’ve already seen year to year and first/second half improvement, so further development seems inevitable. A bit more batted ball luck, better run support, and his upward-trending strikeout numbers will make this man a draft-day steal at his current ADP of 157.

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